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A Case Of Bad Diction

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A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter one

In all the wide and strange stories of London and the variety of crimes that have visited its ancient streets, there are few at present who are not familiar with that ghastliest of atrocities committed against the literate gentleman. The serial, an addictive creation that is both a bane to literature and its present focus, made up of wandering tales that both shock and titillate with little by way of actual skill existing within the writer. Or so Mycroft bitterly lamented in his silence. Even Charles Dickens, while admiral in his pursuit of the plight of those less fortunate was, sadly, guilty of meandering prose that often left the reader with a perplexed mixture of wonder at the core tale and frustration with the odd characters who appeared only to disappear throughout. Within the highly descriptive mess there existed a solid story, but it was often like digging for coal as one read passage after passage of some strange creature Dickens had met during his daily constitutionals, along with vivid descriptions of horrific poverty that shocked the upper echelons of London. It was unlikely such visions presented would have the same hold upon those who were depicted, for there would no doubt be exclamations of 'Oh, how now! There's Mrs. Gibson on page four hundred and ten!' or 'Dear me, that's a very unflattering way to talk about Mr. Cartwright. He's only a poor linen salesman, he's no ogre and my Sally's got decent work through him.' London is, and shall always be for its inhabitants, a ferociously personal place where one's street is one's universe and little will define a person otherwise.

Along the definition of the strange are those who daily toil beside it, their days spent in a contrast of busy apprehension of suspects to the quiet contemplation of the murderer's crimes. The former belong, as they should, to those brave souls who patrol the streets of London's seedier backdrop, their shrill whistles screeching that harm against one's fellow man has most egregiously been committed. From Whitechapel to Whapping, there are few who do not tremble with a sense of macabre curiosity at the appearance of their fellows, crowded in a semi-circle around an unfortunate victim spewed out by the Thames. That miserable river was already overrun with unsettled spirits.

Mycroft will offer no criticism for among their number is a man we know well, his robust health a betrayal of his odd station in life, as used to physical exertion as he is to careful observation and study. This collection of virtues is the very first that one notices of Inspector Gregory Lestrade, for the next is his easy, cheerful disposition, his dazzling smile infectious no matter if he is tipping his bowler hat good-morning to the flower seller who peddles her wares outside of Scotland Yard or the dour faced Dr. Ziegler who'd been toiling over the cause of death of a waterlogged corpse for several hours at the city morgue. Inspector Lestrade, though now rounding out the early tip of forty years, is as handsome a version of an Englishman as one could fathom without resorting to the paint and pomp of the theatre. That he is intelligent as well is without doubt, for any subject that might pop into a person's head has already taken root and been examined in triplicate in Lestrade's own, every scientific breakthrough investigated at length, every new concept on biology and chemistry, every leaf of botany discerned. Professors and scientists alike had dismissed him due to his profession at their peril, for Lestrade was a keen student and as is the habit of such obsessive learners he quickly outranked the skill of his teachers. More than once Lestrade had walked into the middle of a crime scene and deducted, as a scientist in his lab would, the method used and the guilty party who committed it.

One might wonder how it is that a man of such shocking intelligence could end up as enforcer of the law, brushing elbows with East End whores and gamblers and all manner of London's Underworld, some of whom were too shocking to admit into Mayhew's detailed sociological books. But Lestrade, with all the bustling energy of an enterprising American, had made his home amongst this rabble and took great pleasure in the puzzles presented by his troubled version of London, enough for it to become as dedicated a vocation for himself as any man of the cloth.

But though Inspector Gregory Lestrade is a fascinating man, and an oddity in his bodily and mindful perfection amid the London rot, it is not he who is set to take our attention at present. Right now we are to observe the strangest of creatures, a pale and spindly man with a hawk's nose and small but doleful blue eyes who is now seated in a leather chair before a lovely fire with copious papers in a thick stack in his bony lap. Various newsprint and chapbooks from the London region are collected there, the London Gazette, a scattering of society papers filled with pointless gossip and sensationalized crime cases, a French newspaper of indeterminate title and age, a copy of that odd German's work, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint by Franz Bentano. The latter had been pressed upon him by Inspector Lestrade who insisted the theories within held true merit when it came to the study of the human mind, but this reader was not so moved by advanced learning in this subject as his friend. For as we know the man in question is his Honour, Judge Mycroft Holmes, and he is currently in the quiet room of The Diogenes Club and he is reading, with great displeasure, the latest issue of The Strand.

If one were to study a comparison and contrast of people, one would look upon Mycroft and Lestrade with an acknowledged nod to the obvious differences between them. Where Lestrade could boast of ruddy health and strong bones and muscle, there was little of either in Mycroft's construction. He was as pale as bleached paper, his dark hair and sharp features giving him the appearance of a sketch drawing more than a human being. He had a long nose that hooked slightly above thin lips that moved along with the words he read in his copy of The Strand, his frown a quaint 'w' between his eyes. His breathing was laboured, each intake difficult and slightly wheezing, an affliction that clearly left him exhausted. Even sipping his tea took effort, the slice of lemon doing little to ease the discomfort welling from within his chest. A cane lay propped beside the large chair, the handle turned towards him should he need it at a moment's notice.

His breath was audible in the otherwise silence of the room, and he knew he was earning the baleful stares of his fellow judges who gathered in this room to be rid of the usual mindless chatter that tended to float around men of their type with perpetually barbed intentions. The ale house attached to the corner of the building housing The Diogenes Club was already packed with lawyers, judges and clients, all of varying degrees of propriety, though the law of averages suggested folk much lower in social standing than the norm. He'd been pulled into that seedier corner against his will by Lestrade himself more than once, and he hated having to imbibe with his fellow judges who always had to comment on his poor health and slapped his back too hard and surrounded him with their meaty, sweaty complexions, mired in their own self importance. Here, he could at least be a part of their number and remain aloof from them at the same time. It was like he wasn't truly there, and they were content to see his ghost had made an appearance.

But he was more corporeal now, especially with this confounded wheezing, made all the worse the more words he read. His breathing whistled through the room like an intrusive mouse, and he forced himself to close his copy of The Strand and drink his tea and hope he could find his way back home without resorting to the handkerchief stuffed with eucalyptus leaves Mrs. Hudson had surreptitiously tucked into the side pocket of his waistcoat as he left that morning. Between the camphor treatments and this he reeked of a Delhi expatriate who hadn't quite lost their grip on patchouli. The smells weren't unpleasant, but he was getting tired of misplaced Englishmen bemoaning how much they missed the rainy season and the scent of jasmine in the arid air. He was often mistaken for a colony man, and thus suffered many a long winded tale of open air mansions built outside of Ranpur and the genteel, exquisite manners of their servants. How they missed the sweetness of ladoo and the rich spices of biryani! Has he tried the Savoy's new Indian inspired mulligatawny soup? Don't bother, it will only make you weep for tall grass and silk!

He really was feeling poorly, and with the stack of papers shoved into a leather case he had brought with him, Mycroft decided he could endure the silent judgement of The Diogenes Club no more. He glanced longingly at the entrance to the club, half expecting Lestrade to come bounding through it, the sunlight following him as the doors swung open. Such was how he had met the man ten years ago, both of them established already in their careers, with Mycroft serving the Quarter Sessions while Lestrade had taken on the newly formed Inspector role within the Scotland Yard.

It was Mycroft's brother, Sherlock, who had facilitated that meeting. Lestrade had sought him out after seeking the troubled young man's guardian and was more than a little surprised to discover he was a judge. Mycroft wet his lips at the memory, at the way Lestrade had bounded into the room, with his wide shoulders and quick gait, his sparkling smile holding every ray of sun upon his tongue. "Here, then, a right judge and all? And here I thought the little rotter was just plain mad and making up stories! Mycroft Holmes, your brother's in the nick!"

He'd nearly been banned for violating the silence rule, but Lestrade talked his way out of the sentence, as golden tongued as any lawyer and with logic on his side. How could a lowly commoner such as himself know such an obscure rule? Besides, it wasn't so awful having a police inspector dipping in once in a while to give new information about a case. Now that he knew where they were hiding, he could slip in and give the judges a heads up now and then on what to expect when they were handed evidence. Being prepared for some of the grislier murders and photographs of corpses made for better decorum in the courtroom. Vomiting judges often missed the more important details of a case, and a judge with a strong stomach had a better standing in the community.

Gregory could be a convincing flim-flam man when he wanted to be.

Sherlock had been found stripped to his underwear and muttering against the black shore of the Thames, his body shivering under the shadow of London Bridge. At first it was believed he was robbed, the thieves making off with his fine clothing for Lestrade noted his linen boxers were of good quality. Clothing was still bartered by the desperately poor who lived off the very putrid crumbs of London. But once Lestrade had him wrapped in a wool blanket and sipping hot tea, the lad's ramblings were as incoherent as any asylum escapee. "He kept going on about the world telling him its secrets. That there are snakes that can be trained to kill, nonsense like that." Lestrade had not been without empathy. "He were a right mess when he was picked up and it was only after we got him calmed down and listened to him banter for a bit that he happened to mention you. The chief thought it was another one of his crazy ramblings, but I had an itch that said this had the nag of truth in it. Mostly because it was so ordinary, the way he said your name, without any of the delusional embellishments he put on everything else. You're like a post in the dark to him, I think. Can't be an easy thing, managing a mad brother."

Lestrade had pulled Mycroft out of the quiet room and into an equally quiet private office to give him this news, and Mycroft appreciated his delicacy. He loved his brother dearly, but he was quite a burden at times, and he explained to Lestrade that he and his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, did their best to keep him under control. The last thing he wanted to do was have him committed to one of those mediaeval asylums, where all manner of cruel tortures would be visited up on him. "They are foul places, Inspector, worse than any prison. The walls are covered in feces and the stench of urine is enough to make one's eyes burn. And the screaming! I could not suffer a rat to be in such a place as a human being!"

He had given Mycroft a grim nod at this, and, wholly unexpected and pleasant, he dared to take Mycroft's slender, pale hand in his tanned, strong one and give it a gentle squeeze of reassurance. Mycroft's heart had hammered at the contact, his gasp audible. He locked eyes with Lestrade in that moment and had thought he was destined for the gaol himself, off to share the fate of Wilde for allowing the faintest blush to rush to his cheeks and his fingers to dare to return the caress. He was frightened in that moment, with little by way of relief when Lestrade gave him a crooked smile, one so infuriatingly charming it sent electrified jolts throughout his limbs, the feeling settling uncomfortably in his groin.

"We're all madmen, really," Lestrade had said. He leaned closer, his crooked smile nearly touching Mycroft's ear. "You're as pale as a geisha. You're trembling, like a lotus leaf in the breeze. You're bringing up oriental thoughts in me, your Honour, I wonder why? I think it must be the camphor, reminds me of the East."

Mycroft's brow furrowed. "You've been to China?"

"Japan, when I was a young lad of seventeen and working on a trading ship. I went back and forth to Tokyo long enough to witness the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate. I picked up a bit of the language and went back a few times. Made nice with some samurai of the Shinsengumi back in '67. They got a hell of a way of thinking over there. Living by codes that the average coddled English gentleman wouldn't have the imagination to withstand. You screw up in the Shinsengumi you don't get a pounding by your mates, you go on your knees and disembowel yourself with your own damned sword."

"You jest."

"I don't. They call it seppuku." He smiled again into Mycroft's ear. "They wear silk kimonos, these get ups that are like silk coats belted at the waist with wide sleeves, kind of like a dressing gown. You'll never meet a more fearless group of men in all your life, and they shimmer like dragonfly wings. I got one of those kimonos at my lodging, packed away in my trunk. You could try it on some time. I'm betting against that pale skin...Well...It's a robe of a different sort, isn't it?"

He had been incorrigible, taking vast risks with a man dedicated to the process of the law and who could ruin him in an instant for his bold seduction. Mycroft didn't push him away, leaning towards him instead and offering up a small smile of understanding. "Thank you for taking care of my brother," was all he said.

Well, all he said *that* time.

Inspector Gregory Lestrade quickly became a regular visitor at The Diogenes Club, the friendship between himself and Judge Mycroft Holmes looked upon as one of those eccentric oddities that sometimes happen to sickly English gentlemen such as Mycroft. Lacking family save for the stressful care of a mad brother, Mycroft Holmes was in much need of a friend, and though his fellow judges often chided him for his ill health, there was a certain relief that someone out there was at least making sure his corpse would one day be discovered.

Thus, the surface of their acquaintance was easily explained away, for it was common for Lestrade to talk to judges about cases and doubly so for Mycroft as they had built between them a very friendly association that went beyond the professional. And when Mycroft's health took a turn and Lestrade moved into 221B Baker Street to assist in caring for the overly delicate judge no one questioned his motives. There was an easy explanation for this, one that Lestrade had given Mycroft across the expanse of a shared goose down pillow, the warmth of the fire waning and Lestrade's taut, choleric flesh providing a more satisfying comfort. "They think you're an invalid. Judges are all about the surface of information, My, they want it all handed to them with a bow so they don't have to think. They can make their judgements and pass their sentences and be home in time for broil and puddings, not a thought in their heads. They look at you, at your cane and your pale skin and your struggling breaths and think that exempts you from desire." He'd pulled Mycroft close, the heat of his bare skin intoxicating enough to make his subject shiver. "There's nothing wrong with you that some fresh, clean air free of the Thames's poison can't fix. These louts love their meat and wine and are terrified of some healthy exercise. You'll outlive all of them."

So far, that prediction had proved true. Each year, like an awaited annual event, a fellow judge would suddenly expire, placing mortality among their fellows in question. He knew there were betting pools about his longevity, for as each year crept past it was becoming more unlikely he would survive the next. And yet, here he was, a decade later, still wheezing his way through life. It was a perplexing mystery.

He stepped out of the club and into the din of London at noon, the busy streets filled with the stench of horse manure and human misery mixed with roasted chestnuts and the various smells of strange street foods that held all manner of rancid meat within it. The pork pies were always suspect, and Mycroft steered clear of them after having had a rather nasty case where a man had butchered his wife and children and sold their meat at the market. It was impossible to tell how much of the meat had been turned into little pies and fed to the massive amounts of people now littering the street in so thick a jumble it was difficult to walk without stepping on the hem of a woman's skirt. He had to wonder how many would have even cared that they had taken a human offering rather than a porcine one. For some of the scrawnier urchins, he doubted it would matter at all.

He caught the eye of one such orphan and waved him over. "Young Jack," he said to the small lad, who was no more than ten years old and had a mop of stringy, black hair that might be red underneath save for the crust of filth over him. The boy moonlighted as a chimney sweep, and the coal dust clung to him like a second skin. Mrs. Hudson would periodically pull him into 221B by the ear and direct him into the larder where she would force him to bathe in a copper tub filled with hot water and thick flakes of carbolic soap. He would emerge clean and unrecognizable, his clothes likewise sterilized and pressed and put back on him with much consternation and complaining. "It ain't right for a runt like me to be putting on airs and stinking of soap! What will the other fellas say?"

"They'll say 'Look at Young Jack, he's got a fine station in life, one befitting the messenger for a judge of the assize courts! Stand up straight and mind your manners, you'd best not be sticking that tongue out at me when my back is turned or it'll be tasting soap! Keep clear of the gutters, boy, there's all manner of diseases you can trudge in with your boots and you know how sensitive his Honour's health is! Walking in, proud as you please, with all the filth and pestilence of London all over you! If you so much as drop a flea in this house, I'll tan your hide!"

He was looking particularly crusty today, and Mycroft was sure the lad was set to have a good scrubbing, one that would have him gleaming like one of Mrs. Hudson's pots and pans. He handed a small folded note to the boy. "Please send this message to Inspector Lestrade, it states that I am returning home to Baker Street. I am feeling rather poorly, especially after reading The Strand."

Young Jack scrunched up his face and looked up at Mycroft as though he'd smelled something foul wafting off of him. "You been reading his silly stories again! Can't say I blame you, though, I'd be right mad if sommit like that was said about me. Calling you queer and lazy, that ain't right. And you get plenty of exercise, you walk farther than the Club and to the coach, I know you has to get to the Old Bailey every now and then I seen you walking it even though it pains you. And calling you fat, as if your bones have ever seen so much as gristle! Nasty lies, all of it!"

He wanted to ruffle the lad's hair, for he felt genuine affection for the bright if not messy child, but the gesture was ghosted above him with a questioning hand as Young Jack was in no state for such gentle contact. Mycroft reluctantly let his hand fall to his side instead, with Young Jack looking quizzically up at him. "I do believe Mrs. Hudson may have some sweets in the parlour for your hard work."

"Bother that! She'll haul me into the larder again and make me smell like the washing!"

"I wouldn't be so against the idea. She might give you two sweets if you are agreeable."

Young Jack gave him a shake of his head, but he could see the promise of sweets had already taken root into his mind, the thick pastries filled with jam and cream a delicacy few could resist, no matter the indignity that came first. Jack sprinted off on spindly legs as Mycroft watched him, knowing he would be at Scotland Yard in record time, well before Mycroft would make his way back to Baker St. by coach. He flagged one down and was happy to find a familiar face looking down at him, the brim of Mr. Pinter's stovetop hat tipped to him. "Good afternoon, your honour. Back to the courts, is it?"

"Afraid not, Mr. Pinter, I'm heading back home, to Baker St."

"Taking a turn, are you? You don't sound the usual wheezy like when you are in a bad way. Your nurse will be waiting at the doorstep, I'm sure, so if you get weak you let me know and I'll help you up those stairs to your room."

It irked him how much he relied on the charity of others, the weakness of his lungs creating a likewise malady within his entire body, where often taking a single step felt like an impossible task. He leaned heavily on his cane as he approached the coach, and he did not have the strength to shake off the help of Mr. Pinter, who had climbed down from his perch to place a steady hand beneath Mycroft's elbow and gently pushed him up the small steps and into the cab, followed by his leather case which was placed on the seat opposite him. Mr. Pinter loudly sniffed before closing the door and Mycroft felt a pang of guilt.

"I'm afraid I had to be quite liberal with my usual medicinal treatments today."

"Never you mind that, your Honour, the smell of camphor is as good as sea air to me. Having you in my cab disinfects the interior better than any brush, not a whiff of London remains! Lucky is the passenger who travels after you!"

Thus absolved, they were well on their way, the trotting of the lazy horse slow and even, a rhythm that Mycroft's breaths fought to follow. He closed the curtains of the cab and shut London out, his head resting against the frame of the window in a vain attempt to relax. The bland cruelty of Dr. Watson's words continued to annoy him, and he frowned against the way the man's selfishness had so meanly abused him. He did not avoid walking due to sloth, he had a cane because he needed one, each step at times an agony. He was not lazily indulging his genius in letters, he worked hard in the intellectual pursuit of the law, yes, but he could hardly sprint across London in his condition, his malady rendering him desk bound. To attack a man on those things he simply cannot change about himself seemed an especially nasty prank, one that Mycroft was not willing to forgive.

The coach pulled up in front of the large building just up the road from Regent's Park, the view of it only visible from the corner. Mycroft's lodging was behind a small sliver of a door which led to a series of spacious rooms, with the larder and kitchen as well as a separate bedroom for Mrs. Hudson on the ground floor and then up a set of narrow lacquered stairs which led to three rooms, one of which was a drawing room where Mycroft received his guests and where he breakfasted, dined and spent a great majority of his time when not at The Diogenes Club. It was furnished sparsely, but comfortably, with two large winged back chairs positioned in front of the hearth and a small settee near the tall window that overlooked Baker Street. Heavy gold velvet curtains hung from ceiling to floor and could easily obscure all form of light, the thick fabric shut closed at night to prevent any prying eyes from discerning shadows. Between his position in the assize and his unwelcome notoriety in Dr. Watson's stories, it was important for the inhabitants of 221B Baker Street to guard their privacy carefully.

If one stepped out of the drawing room, the next room would be a guest lodging wherein which Lestrade, in public company, was said to reside. An intelligent person with the most minimal of observational skill would quickly see that this could not be the case as the bed linens, while clean, had a neglected air about them, as did the room in general, a decided lack of humanity that the cold hearth did little to disprove. But the bedroom on the right side of the drawing room was alive with clutter, the floors stacked with books and papers, errant beakers and microscopes and stacked display cases of all manner of pinned insects within their glass confines, all carefully labelled. Bullets of varying size and composition were likewise on display, with careful annotations alongside each on a small white card that told of what calibre and gun they were fired from. There was a wardrobe on the other side of a large bed, the oak door open to reveal two judge's black robes and there, without a hint of irony, the law was hung beside them, the formal uniform of a policeman of Scotland Yard pressed and clean and ready for the donning should Inspector Lestrade require it for official functions.

The bed was the largest and most singular item in the room save for the wardrobe, adorned with a massive, ornate canopy in rich red brocade that brushed against the tall ceiling. It was this furnishing that had the most significant activity upon it, the sheets in disarray, a chaotic mix of large envelopes containing crime scenes and medical textbooks tucked behind pillows, with various teacups and a couple of brandy glasses perched messily on a nearby night table. This room was a place of life and delight for the intellect and senses, and it was, as one could guess, the favourite room of both his Honour Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Gregory Lestrade. In fact, it could be said that they spent so much time together in this particular room, that when it came to tuck themselves beneath the covers, exhausted from squeezing out the smallest grain of justice from the raucous ire of the quarter sessions, Mycroft and Gregory simply collapsed together on the large bed, sharing a pillow and a roaring, comforting hearth.

Inspector Lestrade is a practical man. He is well aware of Mycroft's poor health and agonized breathing, and this arrangement is a further point of charity in his favour, for to not share the bed could, of course, result in Mycroft suffocating in his sleep with no one to save him.

Such was the excuse if it needed to be made, but no one who came to Baker Street ever bothered to see the bedrooms, the one spare and abandoned and the other crowded with the musky scent of men. That they cohabited placed them in the realm of eccentrics, not inverts. Besides, the essential nature of Inspector Lestrade's work put him well above all manner of reproach--He had a success rate like no other in Scotland Yard, his keen intelligence and concentration on deduction both elements that Dr. Watson used in his silly stories but did not ascribe to their originator. Gregory was more than happy with this omission, he was sick enough as it was of the ribbing he earned at the Yard, where even his subordinates whispered behind his back that he had to have gypsy blood in him to know the things he did.

Mrs. Hudson opened the front door before Mycroft had a chance to offer the lock a key, and she stood stern on the front step, her arms crossed over her wide chest. She was a tall, muscular woman, in equal height to Mycroft who was as willowy as he was long. "You promised that little cretin a treat from my pantry?"

Mycroft sighed with effort, and Mrs. Hudson softened as she stepped aside, a hand firm beneath his arm as she helped him up the small step and into the tiny cloakroom of 221B. "I take it Young Jack is here, and he has delivered his daily message to the Yard?"

"He headed straight for the pantry, his grubby, filthy hands opening the far cupboard door and seeking promised treats. You know I can't abide his filth, Mr. Holmes, he is not to touch anything in my kitchen with all manner of disease crawling all over him, he knows the rules. Scrub first, eat later! I have to keep reminding him that this is a home that requires a strict cleanliness regime, one that is especially catered to in my kitchen."

He could hear the echo of splashing water. "I take it you have the issue under control at present?"

She was stoic as she caught his eye. "I do. As for you, I can hear the rattle in your lungs but it is nowhere near the usual detriment you suffer when you're in a bad way. You're wearing a pinched expression and you won't look me in the eye. There is only one thing that causes those symptoms--You've been reading The Strand!"

Mycroft sighed in defeat. "Dear Mrs. Hudson, you are becoming as expert at deduction as our Gregory. Nothing slips past you."

"I was a nurse for many years Mr. Holmes, and nurses are used to paying close attention to the sufferings of their patients. It is often up to us to ensure the doctor's cures actually work. But we are not here to quibble over who is influencing who this afternoon, for you are pale and clearly in need of a good, hot cup of mint tea which I shall bring up to you shortly. In the meantime, lean on my arm and we'll get you before the fire. You are clammy and ill. I don't know why you let that man vex you so!"

"If it's not so much trouble, Mrs. Hudson, could you steer me instead to my bed?"

"It's very much a bother, Mr. Holmes," she snapped, "as you well know that lying on that bed does nothing to aid your lungs. In the chair, before the fire, sitting upright to drain them properly. I'll not have you hiding in that messy cesspit, not until I've finished dusting it properly and I've yet to scrub the floors. I got rid of those stacks of papers by the door--Do not widen your eyes in alarm at me, Mr. Holmes! Not one word of protest from you! If it's all so important, I know you would have put them in the trunk beneath the window, otherwise it's all bedding material for rats!"

She plunked him rather roughly into his chair and tutted at him as was her custom as she busily made her way back down the stairs to put on a kettle of mint tea before finishing her disinfecting of poor Young Jack. Much as he understood that she took her role as his keeper very seriously, he was sometimes annoyed by her no-nonsense intrusion into his daily life and wished she would afford it at least some spontaneity.

Still, she was correct, which annoyed him further, for his lungs were clearing as he rested before his fire, the scent of dried eucalyptus leaves wafting up from beside the hearth, the little silver dollars that were its leaves cleansing the air around him and easing him into a sense of calm. When he was tightly wound his malady would flare up with unexpected force, and these calming measures did help. He reached for his leather case that contained the stack of papers he'd brought home with him and noted that Mrs. Hudson had snatched away the latest copy of The Strand. It was no doubt being used as kindling for her stove this very minute.

He tried to focus on other pursuits, the tome of Wilke Collins he had left on his mantle reached for and weighing heavy in his hands. As a storyteller, he preferred Collins's style compared to his friend Dickens, and The Woman In White was proving to be a fascinating study in madness, greed and legal manifestations that his own past work as a magistrate was mired in. The inheritance of property was often a messy business with various heirs and improperly penned wills putting claims into question, and always there was the outstanding matter of foolish patriarch debts that often wiped out all semblance of legacy. Not all gentlemen were good businessmen and his early years in law had shown him how a rich widow and her children could be left destitute. Though it was macabre to think so, Mycroft much preferred the straightforward nature of murder to the convoluted handling of money. At least in these matters, those who deserved to be punished, were.

Though the story of false identity held great fascination for him, Mycroft did drift off before the fire, his tea untouched as he fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, the sun had dipped far below the horizon and he realized he had slept until well into the evening, the clock ringing nine. He could hear the gentle rumble of Mrs. Hudson's voice, followed by a cheerful, more familiar one, and he relaxed as the dark shadows in his drawing room took on more friendly aspects, made all the more cozy by the bounding steps that heavily made their way upstairs to their room.

Inspector Gregory Lestrade stepped into the drawing room, a tired hand rubbing his cheek as he approached Mycroft. A soft kiss on his forehead sent Mycroft's heart spinning, and he instinctively held his hand against its frantic beat, quelling the excitement such a simple caress could cause.

"I got your message earlier, and much as I wanted to reply as I always do, there was a terrible business to deal with. Not the usual, if that's what you're thinking, this one's got a puzzle attached and you know what that means."

Mycroft grinned. "Murder. Nothing sets your intellect on fire more."

"You shouldn't look so gleeful when you say that word," Lestrade admonished him, but he was smiling back. "But first, I need to know what brought you home earlier. Mrs. Hudson told me you weren't in need of a doctor, just some rest thanks to some stressful reading. The Strand, again?"

"Have you seen it?"

"I'm glad to say, no, I have not. What folly has your brother's alter ego been up to now? I don't know why you get so upset, it is all the ramblings of a madman, you know this, penned and polished by his physician. Is your brother earning any profit at all from these stories created out of his delusions? Dr. John Watson has been gaining more than a little notoriety as of late, especially after that last one about the jewels tossed in the Thames."

"The Sign of Four," Mycroft muttered, but without disdain. "Not a bad story, really."

"It was your brother's story, he near drowned himself looking for those imaginary jewels. Ruined a good coat an all."

"To answer your question, Sherlock's extended stay at Holloway Sanatorium is no longer costing me, veiled of course as an act of charity on Dr. Watson's part, but he knows better than to steal from the purse of a man so intricately involved with the formation and expression of law."

Lestrade frowned at this. "When did this start happening?"

"A few months ago, after the success of 'The Sign of Four'. Lippincott's ran out of copies and they had to re-issue it in book form. The profits have been ample, enough to house Sherlock for years if need be, or so Dr. Watson assures me."

Lestrade sneered at this and sat in the winged back chair opposite Mycroft. "He knows his meal ticket when he sees it."

"It is much preferable to the arrangement we had before," Mycroft reminded him. "Things have been much quieter since Sherlock was settled there four years ago. I do not want to go back to those tumultuous days when he lived with us."

"No, we don't," Lestrade agreed, a shadow passing over his handsome features at the memory of it. The spare room that had once been Sherlock's abode was now near abandoned save for the occasional visit, which was fraught with tension and worry when they occurred. His brother's mental state had been manageable, but not easy, and though Lestrade proved to be a strong influence upon him, his unchecked madness expanded under their roof. He became volatile and at times even dangerous. There had been no place for his brother until the invention of Holloway and Sherlock became one of its first residents the minute it opened its doors. He was doing well in the carefully calm atmosphere that was a far cry from the usual dungeons masked as asylums, the stays Sherlock had been forced to endure in such places still giving him nightmares.

He felt Lestrade envelope his hand in his own, the warmth of it near singing his delicate, pale skin. "Just because he takes care of Sherlock doesn't mean he can do what he wants with your reputation. The lads at work told me about the story. Constable Harding in particular was quite incensed. But then, I did remind them all that it is fiction he's writing, and it's clear that the characters aren't who the reality represents. I mean, he called me rat faced and depicts me as some bumbling cockney idiot who always bows down to Sherlock's genius. I think nothing of it, for there's the source of it all. The bloody bastard makes a sick man's delusion entertaining. Not sure I want to know what to make of a man like that."

He pulled Mycroft's hand to his lips and kissed the blushing knuckles affectionately before rising from his seat. "I'm right knackered. I got to wash London off. An afternoon full of a falsely literate gobshite's corpse, makes me want to brush up on the Shakespeare to shake off the stink of his lyrics."

Mycroft's interest was piqued. "Falsely literate? How do you mean?"

"The man who was murdered. Advertised himself as some world renowned poet. You know these types, they wander into London, print up a bunch of colourful bills and pump up their reputation above their ability. His name was Ewan McGonagall and he was a bloody fraud."

The bill certainly was colourful, a mess of pinks and greens that splashed across the page with fat, eye-catching flowers and the sepia toned photo of a swooning actress held captive in a circle in the centre. Exclamations of positive reviews littered the front and back of the bill, extolling the virtues of the poet's literary merit. "'Not since Shakespeare does London find a bard worthy of her! Marvel in a night of passionate discourse, one so frank and open that many a lady has fainted upon mere rehearsal!' There's certainly no poetry in the advert. How was he murdered?"

"It happened at the Granger Theatre, the one that has that alehouse attached to the side and on Wednesday nights hosts burlesque shows. Not exactly a place of intellectual might, though I'm a sure a few Oxford boys were willing to give it a go. The murder happened just after an afternoon performance of 'Tiddlywinks of Death'. Yes, that's the title of his masterwork in case you were wondering. There's plenty of artistic types mulling about that area, and the ale house is already full of limericks about the fellow."

Mycroft raised a brow. "Such as?"

"There once was a poet, Who wanted to show it, Words leapt from mouth, Till they were cut out, And pasted on letters for now't."

"That's a terrible limerick."

"It's what I heard." Lestrade sighed. "We found him in his dressing room, bloodstained letter opener on the desk and his tongue had been cut clean out. I doubt that was done while he was alive, and it looks like the letter opener was what was used to stab him in the neck and he bled out. Can't say what cut out his tongue yet, obviously a short knife of some sort. Haven't found it. My suspicions will be confirmed by Dr. Ziegler tomorrow when I visit him at the city morgue."

"Have they any suspects?"

"Unfortunately, yes. A young girl, one of the East End trollops, and I sincerely doubt she's the guilty one. The constables honed in on her, as they do, not thinking at all. I don't know why these idiots become policemen if they don't even bother to pay attention to details. It was clear she couldn't have done it, she was shaking like a leaf, didn't have a drop of blood on her and I can't for the life of me find a motive as to why she would attack the man. I had her in the station all afternoon and she never wavered once from her story."

"Do tell it," Mycroft said, curious.

"Not much to it, really. She had gone into the dressing room because he owed her money for her upcoming performance of his poetry. That's her picture on the front of the bill. He was swindling her, there's no doubt of that, but she didn't know that at the time he was killed. She went in around noon today and knocked on his dressing room door and when he didn't answer she opened it and found him there in a pool of blood. She remembered hearing some gurgling sounds, but she ran from the scene to get help. The constables are saying she stabbed him and then left him to die, that she's a murderess as a result. Bloody idiots! She panicked is all. It's what people do."

Mycroft studied the slight girl, who looked no older than seventeen and yet with eyes that were as dark as the Thames at midnight and full of its murky understanding. "She's barely a woman. She wouldn't have the strength to cut out his tongue, let alone do it spotlessly. Where is she now?"

"In the gaol, waiting on a lawyer."

"Whatever for?"

"She's poor, she's a whore, she was at the scene of a crime and the Chief thinks quick justice in this case is good enough. Don't worry your head, I've turned his opinion a hundred times before, and I'll be doing so again in the morning. No innocent is hanging on my watch."

"Nor mine," Mycroft said, studying the young woman in the picture with a great mixture of sympathy and outrage. "Perhaps I should interview her first. Having a judge of the assize pleading her case would go a long way to dismissing the charges your Chief so foolishly wishes to pursue."

Lestrade nodded. He ran a tired hand across the back of his neck, massaging knots from his tired muscles. "I'm ready to pack it in. I'll be in bed in a short while, I just have to wash up in the bathing room first, I need to get the crust of London off of me. Do you need any help?"

"I'm not a complete invalid, Gregory," Mycroft complained, but he did not shake off the arm that slid beneath his and assisted him to his feet. Once standing he was able to open the adjoining door that led into their mutual bedroom, its spotless array instantly sending Lestrade into a shocked state.

"Where's my papers? I put them by this door!"

"Mrs. Hudson has been cleaning," Mycroft explained.

"Blasted woman! She knows I have a specific method of arrangement for everything in that room! I'll be forced to re-organize it all! Must she be so meddlesome!"

There was a loud clank of a tea kettle that echoed up the stairs and Lestrade was instantly cowed. He went to say more but Mycroft wisely held his fingers to his lips, preventing further damage. He kept his voice a low whisper. "If you want a good breakfast as you'll need one, you'll keep your temper addled mouth shut. It will be nothing but stale toast and weak tea, and she will be sure to tell you why."

"We are her prisoners," Lestrade complained.

"She is our benefactor in many ways. Do not complain of her rough kindness."

"We're not all patients in her ward. She may have ruled the Royal Brompton Hospital with an iron fist and terrified the doctors she worked under, but I'll have her know that wilfully tossing out my stacks of papers was out line."

"Politely and with great deference to her efforts, of course."

"Of course."

The bathing room had been a fairly new installation since 221B Baker Street was proud to sport indoor plumbing, and a large copper tub complete with shower and a flushing toilet had been installed. The washbasin was still in use, however, along with the ceramic jug which Lestrade filled with cold water out of habit and used to bathe himself with a clean cloth and soap. He kept his nightclothes in the cupboard above the towels, his uniform later draped over the stair railing for Mrs. Hudson to brush clean in the early morning before they roused. His steps were heavy as he made his way back to the bedroom the door gently creaking open and then carefully shut behind him, along with a quick inspection that the curtains were fully drawn before he slid beneath the thick bed covers and shed his nightclothes. Mycroft shivered at the contrast of Lestrade's hot tan skin against his own pale, cool offering, and he nestled comfortably into the taut, muscular arms that encircled him.

There is nothing here, dear reader, that is not uncommon among those of any married union, and it would be gauche to expand upon the passions that continue, a decade on, between the two men who share this bed. Though erotica of the female form is in abundance, there is ample imagination to fill in what cannot be expressed here, and the reader must be assured that what is believed and seen within the mind is far more complex and strange than anything expounded upon in clinical detail. The reality of this moment between his Honour, Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Gregory Lestrade is this: They are tired men, who find great affection and love for one another, and after fifteen minutes of protracted sighs that have become a matter of conjugal routine, they collapse onto their pillows and sleep. There are no perverse oddities invading their bedchamber, no protracted moans caused by strange manipulations of their sex, no hour long marathons of Marquis DeSade inspired pleasures that would make the populace of Sodom blush. What happens is private and simple, for this is what great love does, it becomes attuned to the other to the point of no questions, the heart flutters for company and seeks to cement it into permanence. It is beautiful in its calm. It seeks only to enhance, not bully.

With Lestrade snoring loudly beside him, Mycroft kept his light on, the flicker within the lamp sending long shadows across the red brocade canopy of their shared bed. He held the murdered poet's bill in his hand and he could not help but feel a deep pang of worry for the young girl depicted in its centre, her dark eyes filled with a pain he had too often seen in others of her kind. Those above her in station would find it easy to judge her. He most definitely could not.

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter two

Newgate Prison is insufferable in its foul bleakness enough, but it is especially so for the young and old women who litter its confines, some with faces pockmarked with the tell-tale scars of syphilis. It is perhaps not as fetid a place as the damp, dark streets of London where they ply their trade, diseased flesh brushing against the coats of immoral Englishmen. the glut of their availability tempting many a stoic man's resolve. His life with his prim and proper wife was one of prescribed intimacy that was pursued, as per the code of societal mores, with great restraint. Mycroft was conservative himself, but the rigidity of these formal relationships often made him wonder how any of the middle classes in London managed to have children at all. Marrying for money was a long standing arrangement among many of the upper classes, but it was an increasing malady within the middle classes as well, where one's station could be elevated with the smallest of titles. The clink of coins was what dictated the matters of the heart, and in this environment one couldn't help but wonder how many of these upstanding, moral citizens lazily existing in dull marriages with virtual strangers coped with the natural human need for companionship. He supposed the whores of London served that latter purpose well, at least on the physical level.

The cost was obvious. The madness of syphilis was evident in several of the shivering forms huddled and muttering against the algae strewn stones of a crowded cell, the filth of their ragged skirts giving off a stench that made Mycroft's lungs seize in horror. Though Elizabeth Fry's efforts at prison reform had been exemplary in the early part of the century, he had to wonder at the foul nature of the prison when those women had been held, the small comforts afforded here of bread and water a seeming luxury. He held a handkerchief folded over eucalyptus against his mouth and nose, keeping the foul rot filtered from his senses. There was talk of tearing down Newgate Prison by the end of next year and rebuilding the central court in its place. There could be no fouler brick to crumble.

He was ushered by one of the jailers to a room not far from the cells, the noise of the women's curses echoing across the darkened narrow hall that contained them. Men and women were kept separate, the delineation not a superficial one as alternating floors measured out both gender and the gravity of one's offence. Still, murderers, thieves and whores were all of the same cloth by the estimation of the public, and the fallen woman was the worst of them all. A man could reinvent himself after being a thief, but a whore wore the mark of her independence through her body forever, and it was unlikely she would ever find a gentleman willing to take her burden of sensual history on. Mycroft understood the unfairness of it, for many of these unfortunate women had come into London due to the newly formed factories that had stolen labour from the farms, the country life traded for the meat grinder that was the big city, their innocent life experiences too ignorant of the dangers lurking within the filthy pools of London's streets. Poverty was wicked and unkind here, and those who came to escape it only found further prisons upon their bodies and souls, where often the only recourse from starvation was the workhouse. Such places were so abominable that many souls resorted to crime to avoid it, and in the case of young, ignorant country women tossed into the muck of London's underworld, they resorted to the one commodity they carried with them everywhere--Their very bodies.

The young woman who was to be his focus was already waiting for him, the tiny figure no larger than his left leg, with scrubbed red tinged cheeks and large brown eyes that took in her surroundings with a keen intelligence that the shrewdest of her kind possessed. Starvation often made the poor stupid, but she was tiny due to her breeding, no doubt of historical milkmaid stock and well versed in the art of personal grooming. This was no simple East End whore, Mycroft instantly realized, for she was dressed in clean finery, the silk and taffeta of her dress draped over her in quality tailoring that accented her slight frame. A small, carefully placed row of dark curls framed her face in Renaissance cherub pique and she pursed her lips in question as he entered the room, his leather case placed on the small oak table between them.

She clasped her tiny doll's hands in her lap and regarded Mycroft with the air of a lady, an unexpected pose that made his brow rise in question. According to the arresting report she was seventeen years old, but she seemed younger, like a small child imitating the matron of a fine house, putting on childish airs that she did not have the maturity or station to command.

When she spoke, however, the illusion was instantly shattered.

"So they're sending me the fancy man, are they? Not much hope of me getting one over on you with a promise of a rub out. 'Course, I could always boy it up for you, make it easy on you, I don't mind the trousers meself, find 'em right comfortable, actually. But you're the Molly house type, I gather. And not the usual punter, neither, you'd be more the kind they'd hire."

Vicious as her intimation was, Mycroft steeled himself into a mask of dispassionate stone, a method that had served him well as a judge when delivering his sentences. Separation of emotion from cases was key to enforcing justice, and he was set to do so here, no matter how much her inane, cockney chatter offended him. "It says here your name is Mary Oakes. Is this correct?"

"It's what I goes by."

"So you were born with another name and are using an alias?"

She scoffed at this, her prim posture traded for one of more of a slovenly slouch that betrayed her truer nature. "What whore around here isn't? It's a nice enough name, good and solid and not one to overly advertise. Easy to remember, isn't it? There's a million Marys around here, but Mary Oakes makes it easy."

Mycroft was confused. "How so?"

She rolled her eyes as though he was the dimmest person she'd ever met. "It's obvious isn't it? Mary Oakes makes you think of 'Merry Oaks'."

Mycroft was still confused.

"Merry oaks, a play on the bloody whiskey casks, you daft man! I hope you aren't my lawyer, you'll have me hung and all if you can't even figure out something so simple as that!"

Her dark brown eyes were wide and flashing an unexpected inner fire at him that jolted him to his core. The insolent little brat! Youth and hard living had made her as incorrigible as any self made businessman, and he had to admit, from the look of her frock and the mannerisms she was able to imitate at will, the girl probably had a solid customer base of half a dozen gentleman who found her company entertaining and amply filled her purse for it. Mycroft steeled himself and placed the information about her crime upon the table between them, her face paling at the image of the murdered poet in the photograph of the crime scene.

"Cor, that's so awful! You got a body to go and take pictures of something like that? There's something wrong with the lot of you, wanting to put that in permanence."

Mycroft's lean fingers pushed the black and white photograph towards her. "Photographers are only used on our extreme cases, of which this is one. Inspector Lestrade does not like to rely on memory alone of such scenes, he believes the human mind has a habit of eradicating unpleasantness, and as a result important details of crime scenes can be missed." He pushed the photograph towards her and watched as she cringed away from it, the image of the dead poet in its centre a gory splash of black ink.

Her voice trembled, losing much of its bravado. "Is that...Is all of that black stuff....Is that blood?"

"I'm afraid so, Miss Oakes."

"Oh, I'm ill!"

She put her hands to her mouth and retched, her eyes shut tight against the photograph. This was no act, Mycroft saw, for the genuine distress and pallor of her skin was evident to anyone who looked upon her. She swooned in her seat, and to Mycroft's alarm she looked about ready to faint.

Against his better judgement he leapt from his seat and procured his handkerchief of eucalyptus and placed it beneath her nose. She scrunched up her face at the odd scent, only to take the handkerchief from him and breathe it deeply in. "Cor, that's lovely. Like mint in a way, but more cleansing. Makes me feel right better, that does, opens up the lungs like. Is it some kind of cocaine? One of the matrons up in the East End swears by the stuff."

"No," Mycroft sharply replied, taking the cloth and his medicines from her. "It is a simple plant from the Australian colony. It aids my lungs."

She frowned at this as she looked on him, her dark eyes assessing him further. "I heard that rattle in you and figured you was sick. But it's not the consumption, more like an asthma. My brother had that, it killed him when he was ten. Throat closed up tight and he suffocated, right in my bloody arms. It's a horrible thing to have weak lungs." She sighed in sympathy and crossed her tiny, thin arms across her doll's chest. "I don't know why you needed to show me them awful pictures, it were enough I was there."

"I didn't mean to make you ill. I simply want to know the details of what happened from your perspective."

"I don't know why you all keep going on and on, I told that copper what I saw, he took notes and all, they're right there!"

Mycroft sighed at her reticence. "I will first say to you, Mary, that I do not believe you were the perpetrator of this act and there is no court of any sound mind that would believe you capable. You do not have the brute strength nor the mental fortitude for such a crime."

She frowned at this. "You saying I'm weak? That's hardly complimentary, is it?"

He gave her insulted pout a warm smile. "I am saying you have a great aversion to blood and thus would not be a person capable of wallowing in it, as the murderer must have. What was your relationship with Mr. McGonagall?"

"He promised me the stage."

"Ah, did he?"

"Well it's not like I can be doing the whoring forever, is it?" Mary pouted long at the thought. "I mean, a girl's got to keep up her skill sets and all. I can sing a bit, and he was wanting to put his poetry to music and seeing as how I have some small talent I figured I could jump in on the action. He'd sold out that first show, people like having something to talk about, and with my picture on them bills it was like I was heading for something more than skirt lifting." She shifted in her seat and gave Mycroft a narrowed eye. "And don't go giving me that judgemental look, I've seen that enou'. Even that Sarah Bernhardt's got her tart side, we're all in the entertainment business in one way or another. Just wanted some quick money, is all, and the fellows I got on my string like a girl with a bit of culture attached. Seemed like a good deal to me, even if the whole thing fell flat."

Mycroft's interest was piqued. "How so? Was the poet in financial difficulty?"

"He was poor as a bloody church mouse, the sod. Promised me a brilliant career and travel and all, the usual con these types use. He got money at some point and he was pocketing the profits from that first night and wasn't about to give me my cut, and he hadn't paid a one he'd hired. Not the piano teacher he'd gotten to put his crappy poetry to music and not the designer and printer for his flyers, not a soul has seen a dime from his words. And don't go giving me that sympathy look, I can read and all, I knew his stuff was crap, the worst lyrics one could ever dream of singing out, but I was hoping my warble might cure some of it and I wouldn't be judged too harsh. But not getting paid for services rendered, that's a right crime to me. I went round to his dressing room looking for my money that I earned that opening night, and that's when I found him."

She visibly shuddered, the shock of the memory enough to make her bottom lip quiver. "I saw all that blood and I got sick and I just ran, screaming for help. I don't suppose I should have bothered since that put me in here. I should have just rifled through his pockets and stole what I could."

Another glance at the photograph of the crime scene made as her pale as starched linen, and she snatched it to turn it over so she could no longer see it. Mycroft, for his part, had seen enough.

"I'm curious on how you got to know this man. I trust he was first a customer?"

"Nah, he was just some bloke looking for a girl who could sing a little. Had auditions off the docks, and he picked me out of a dozen other waifs, probably because me dress was clean and I could read and write, not like them other low life cunts. Don't be looking shocked at my choice of words, Sir, not when it's the plain truth, that is what they are, you want to look for a murderess there's plenty of them what have no care for taking out a soul. I've seen how some of them live, with five kids in a room and a dead baby in the corner. Rats have better mores, it's true."

She shuddered at a memory she refused to expand upon and Mycroft dared to take her small hand in his. "You will not have such a fate, Mary Oakes. This poet, you said he hired others that he hadn't paid? A piano teacher?"

"She were one of them proper ones, what live up Nelson Street. Used to be the governess of a wealthy family and they set her up in her own place, and she does quite well teaching the piano as well as tutoring in other subjects. English, I think. He laid it on thick with her, I mean it couldn't have an easy task composing music for his pathetic lines, that would have taken time. And the music was quite good. He knew how to get what he wanted, and he courted a talented spinster for it, the bastard. He didn't have a lick of talent himself save for conning people. Even the illustrator for his bill was a young lass, some upper class girl of maybe fifteen years old, he'd found her at some flower gallery doing sketches. Promised her he'd make her art famous, he did. I suppose what's happened made that true, but not the way she would have wanted, I'm sure. Infamy ain't quite the same thing."

A protracted slew of curses echoed through the stone hall outside of their small room, and Mary cast a hooded glance towards the thick door that separated them from the jail's populace. They were alone in the room, Mycroft seeing little in the accused woman that was a threat, but the shadow of a pacing police officer's steps were visible beneath the door, as was his booming voice shouting to the screaming harpy in the distance to calm herself. He felt a pang of empathy for Mary, for though she was one of those 'fallen women' who church charities helped out of spite more than faith, she was not a girl lacking in spirit, her quick mind working well past mere survival and holding hope for a more solid future. The poet had made an especially cruel choice in involving her in his scheme, robbing her of talent as he had those other women and using their abilities to prop up his lack. He knew none of them would have recourse to complain, that his efforts would become an embarrassment rather than a source of pride.

"It's a shame he didn't find success, no matter how bad a scribbler he was. I was latching onto it, I admit it, got a bit of the starlight in my eyes thinking on it, wondering if this was my ticket out of London and onto better things. I like being me own woman, I don't have to answer to no one. But singing, that kind of work, that could have given me an honest sort of living. I could shed the lot of those punters and be truly free." A tear slid down her pale cheek and she wiped it away with hasty, splayed fingers that didn't quite capture it. Mycroft wondered if she was used to weeping.

"It ain't bloody fair, you know, the way we gets treated. Girls like me, I mean. I'm a tart, it's true, one of them the churchies all warn you about, but it's bloody hypocritical of them to treat me like I'm some kind of low thing, with no hope for me. I knows a bit of the Bible, and weren't Rahab a prozzie? She went and saved Israel, she did, that's what me Gran said, and she would have known, the Good Book was the only one she ever read, and she taught me how to read with it. Wore a cross around her neck every day, like a noose. Jesus had dinners with whores like me. Can't see any of them churchies doing the same."

He contemplated this for a long moment, the windowless room a place of flickering darkness thanks to the oil lamp between them. Newgate Prison hadn't converted every room to electricity yet, the process slow to reach this punishing portion of the law. He sighed and hoped he could get Mary out of her terrible imprisonment soon, for he doubted her spirit would survive intact in a protracted stay. He turned one of the papers with Lestrade's neat notes on the crime scene over and handed her a pen from his leather case. "I need you to write down the names of the other women associated with Mr. McGonagall. If you know their addresses, that would also be convenient."

Mary placed the pen in her hand and wrote with a childish scrawl across the back of the paper. The ink smudged, but the names were legible. He realized Mary was literate, but barely, the street names grossly misspelled. He gave her a wan smile as he took the pen back and placed it in his leather case, snapped back into the box he'd procured it from. As a man of letters he was careful not allow spilled ink to ruin important, irreplaceable documents.

There was a knock at the door, and Mycroft bid the officer outside of it to enter. Constable Harding tipped his hat to both Mycroft and Mary before speaking. "Your Honour, there's a lad outside the front step who says he has a message for you."

"Ah yes, that will be Young Jack, no doubt with a note from Inspector Lestrade. Constable Harding, if you could be so kind as to ensure that Miss Oakes has a cell that is as far removed from the rabble as possible? Her stay here is set to be a short one as I have reviewed her case and see little of merit to keep her here."

"As you wish, Your Honour. I must say, if I may be plain, I was the one who made a complaint to the Chief that her incarceration was not in the interest of the case and we needed to pursue other suspects. There was ample blood throughout the scene, an ocean of carnage that was splayed upon the walls and soaked the oriental carpet beneath his head, where it poured out into a large aura of congealing, souring life force. I couldn't find his tongue, Your Honour, and I was very thorough in my search. I dug through some of the deeper puddles of his expiration and that was how I found the letter opener he'd been stabbed in the neck with, but nothing from his oral orifice." Officer Harding gave Mycroft a wide grin, one that cut across his face like a macabre clown, accented by his shock of red hair and thin beard, his youthful exuberance for the crime scene unsettling. He was a keen officer, Lestrade had warned Mycroft, one with a decided lack of decorum when discussing the details of death.

"As for that gurgling Miss Oakes reported, that was simply the death gasp of his lungs, as I'm sure Dr. Ziegler will confirm. Sometimes there's air left in a dead body and it expires with a small amount of pressure. His corpse continued to make those sounds as I moved him during my search for his severed tongue."

"Good to know, Officer Harding, thank you."

"If you find the tongue, Your Honour, it would be a great pleasure for me to see it. Here, let me help you up and I'll get your cane."

With a firm grip under his arm, Officer Harding eased Mycroft to standing, all while Mary Oakes stared at them both with a stricken expression. "Your Honour?"

"This here is His Honour, Judge Mycroft Holmes," Officer Harding proudly announced, not giving Mycroft himself time to explain. He still had a tight grip under Mycroft's arm, enough to bruise though he doubted the young man knew of his strength. Harding chatted with Mary with eager joy over the subject. "You got a judge of the assize courts on your side, you lucky girl. Tell me, when you arrived on the scene, did you know then that his tongue was gone? It's bothering me that we couldn't find it, I'm hoping it wasn't taken off by some dog or cat, that happens sometimes. We once had a man with a severed leg from a coach accident and it was quite the mystery because we couldn't find it anywhere at the scene. Turned up two streets over, a pack of stray dogs going at it like scraps from the butcher's."

Mary pressed her small hands to her mouth and made retching noises, and Mycroft himself found he'd had enough. "Thank you, Officer Harding," he said, firmly. "That will be all."

He took his offered cane and leaned heavily on it as he left. He heard Mary Oakes whisper to Constable Harding, "Is that really a judge of the assize?"

"Best one there is," Officer Harding proudly proclaimed. "If you're found guilty in his court there's no question you committed the crime."

~*~

Young Jack was scrubbed and shining when Mycroft found him sitting on the front steps of the Old Bailey (he would never have the child lurk near one pebble of the nearby Newgate Prison), the heels of the new loafers Mrs. Hudson had bought him tapped together in an unsteady rhythm. He glanced up at Mycroft's approach and gave him a wide, freckled grin. This time Mycroft didn't hesitate to ruffle his mop of thick auburn hair that stuck out in every direction like the fur of a terrier. "I hear you have a message for me."

Young Jack handed Mycroft the usual card, along with a verbal command. "You're to go to the morgue. Inspector Lestrade is there."

"I take it Dr. Ziegler is in attendance."

"I dunno. Do you mean that German bloke, the one with the tinny laugh?" Young Jack made a face. "Kind of weird that Officer Harding ain't going in for it, he loves hanging out in the morgue."

"Unfortunately, Officer Harding is very busy managing the occupants of Newgate Prison. It was a busy night for the criminal element. Half of London's underworld is being entertained by the prison's hospitality at present. I do, however, have another job for you." He took out a card from his side pocket and scribbled the names of the two women Mary Oakes had given him in pencil, along with their addresses. He handed it to Young Jack, who stared at the names with a scrunched up nose, his freckles equally compressed. "I need you find out all you can about these two women and report back to me by tomorrow evening. There's treats in the pantry for you, and fresh scones, as well as two shillings. Keep your threads and face clean, my boy, ladies of this type like to associate with proper gentlemen."

"You can count on me, Mr. Holmes. They ain't gonna be able to hide much, I'll find out everything!"

He hadn't meant for the lad to do what he could to suss out graphic secrets--he'd only wanted that which would be related to the poet's murder--but Jack was already sprinting off and Lestrade would have said thoroughness would bring about revelation. "We'll sift through it as a prospector does," he could hear Lestrade say. "We keep that which is relevant and toss the rest."

With this echo of Lestrade's voice in his mind, Mycroft sought out and found the coach belonging to Mr. Pinter, who tipped the brim of his cap to him as he always did and then hopped down from his perch to aid Mycroft up the small steps and into the cab. "Wicked night, your Honour, if I do say so. I'm glad to see daylight and a calmer afternoon. Nothing but drunken rabble everywhere on account of a group of Social Democrats aching to cause a riot. It were no Bloody Sunday, but The Yard was in full form last night, constables prowling the streets in droves. From the way things happened during that go at Westminster, I'd say we got off lucky. I was glad to see Inspector Lestrade weren't hurt. He told me he was coming back from a crime scene, that weird poetry fellow got garrotted." He whistled lowly. "Ugly business. I hear they arrested some young tart for the deed? Don't seem like something one them would do, they're more thieves than murderesses. A punter can forgive a stolen watch, but not a stolen life."

It occurred to Mycroft that Mr. Pinter, who drove his coach throughout the long hours of evening, would have a clearer understanding of those who frequented the darkness of London streets. "You've heard of this poet?"

"He's just some word peddler, had him in the cab, once. Lots of bother and bluster, full of hot air and it showed too, he looked like a pink pig. He rolled into the back seat and handed me a bill and told me to never mind the Shakespeare, he was set to correct the Bard. I'm not a learned man like you, Mr. Holmes, but I know blasphemy when I sees it."

Mycroft thought on this as he settled into his seat in the cab, his cane still in his grip. "I have to wonder...He had a sold out show the night before. I imagine there were quite a few complaints."

"Were there ever! I got a right instruction from one fellow who was absolutely livid over the whole thing! Called him a charlatan against the English language, and that the only service that 'poet' could give to the Bard would be to cut out his tongue and serve it up to him in offering."

He tried to close the door of the cab but Mycroft prevented him, the hook of his cane pressing it open. "Are you quite sure this passenger of yours said this?"

"You don't forget that kind of venom, your Honour. Like I said, that poet made loads of people angry that night. Con men like that often come to a bitter end."

"This person who complained of him, what did he look like?"

"Tall, skinny fellow, with little round glasses and thinning grey hair. Wore a pleasant suit but not an overly expensive variety and he didn't wear a hat. He had the air of a learned man about him, and he wore an Oxford scarf. You get to know the type, and from the way he was muttering I could tell he was a professor of the classics. Lots of muttering about Aristotle and how he was going to tan his students for their trickery."

Mycroft numbly nodded his thanks and sat back in his seat, pondering this information as the coach made its way to St. Bartholomew's Hospital which currently housed Mr. McGonagall's body in one of its underground labs. He had concentrated on the idea of the con man being done in by one of the women whose talents he swindled, but now he had a new suspect, one who was born of learned pride. He pulled out a small card from his inside pocket, and quickly scribbled out the information Mr. Pinter had told him. This didn't absolve the other two women who were still suspects pending the information Young Jack relayed, but this new suspect's words did suggest an intimate knowledge of the crime.

The pulled up in front of St. Bart's, the coach stopping just shy of the back entrance where Mycroft would limp his way into the caverns that comprised the morgue. Mr. Pinter was, as usual, kind enough to assist him in getting out of the cab, and it was while he had his arm held in the coachman's grip that he asked where the assumed professor had been transported.

"To Oxford, of course. Dropped him off at the main entrance and he marched his way in from the street, still spewing curses in Latin. Didn't offer me so much as a good evening, just paid his fare and spewed ire all the way. If you'll excuse my candour, Mr. Holmes, they must have been some damnable bad poems for him to be as worked up as all that."

"Yes, I imagine so." Frowning and distracted by this information, Mycroft paid him and bid him a good afternoon, though he was well aware that Mr. Pinter would lurk near St. Bart's and would come up the street and park before them the moment he saw that Mycroft and Lestrade were leaving the building. They used his services so often he had practically become their private coachman, even going so far as to accompany Mycroft and Lestrade to the country estate of Mycroft's late parents and staying with them for the duration of the visit. Mycroft and Lestrade would travel by train and Mr. Pinter and his coach would leave a few days earlier, giving his mare ample time to rest along the way and to bring their excessive luggage with him to be set up by the manor's now spare and aged servants. They spent many summer months there, with Mycroft travelling by train back to London for his quarter session duties and upsetting Mrs. Hudson's protracted privacy. Lestrade was always worried about leaving Baker Street for too long a time, for these summer excursions often meant a deep cleaning regime imposed upon their rooms, which would be unrecognizable in their spotless arrangement on their return.

He sighed at the memory of fresh, clean sea air and longed for June, which was still a month away. Spring was not fond of his lungs, pollens and dirt mingling within their spongy construct and leaving him gasping. By the time June arrived he would have suffered his annual succumbing, heralded by either fainting in court or in the street, an embarrassing symptom that once Mrs. Hudson received word of would mean more than half of their belongings would be packed up and the train ticket already purchased before he would be released from hospital. Though Mycroft felt that she was taking liberties with his malady and affording herself a vacation from their care, Lestrade never once complained of this particular efficiency.

He was feeling quite weak, his symptoms always flaring up in damp weather which was a trademark of a London spring and, arguably, any other time of year. He found himself leaning heavily on his cane as he made his way into the hospital morgue, the dank interior about as inviting as a tomb. Since it served this unpleasant purpose in many ways, with Egyptian overtones of prepared corpses minus the mummification, he could not help the involuntary shiver that coursed through him that was not at all caused by the damp stone walls.

He heard Dr. Ziegler before he saw him, with Lestrade's taller and wider shadow overtaking the far section of the morgue as he moved around the body on the gurney before him. The tiny German surgeon flitted around the gurney like a fly buzzing around a stale carcass, his hands rubbed together in macabre glee. "Excellent, excellent, a fascinating specimen. This one was a poet, ja? Tch, all the good ones get poisoned or drown, this one is too well fed to be a poet. Look at how fat his jowls are! And pink skin, like a little piggie. He likes his red meat, you can tell by the size of his heart!"

He lifted the organ in question out of the body with two hands, and dropped it into a butcher's weight. Mycroft held back, his hand at his gaping mouth, holding back bile. Lestrade stepped into the amber light of the bare bulb hanging from the centre of the ceiling and caught Mycroft's disgusted expression with a sense of amusement.

"Good to see you made it. We're nearly done here, is Pinter still waiting?"

"He always does," Mycroft said, stepping back rather than forward. But Dr. Ziegler wasn't going to let him off so easily, and the tiny man who was as tightly wired as a bumblebee and just as graceful quickly ambled up to him and snatched him by the elbow to show Mycroft his discoveries.

"Killing this man was very silly. He would have been dead of heart failure within a month anyway. But oh, what a fascinating thing we have here! You see this?" He pointed with a bloody scalpel at the large hole in the side of the dead poet's neck. "The shape of the letter opener fits it perfectly. But that is not what is amazing. Whoever killed him knew to cut into a main artery, and thus, our poet's lifeblood pouring from him." Dr. Ziegler looked up at Mycroft from his pince nez glasses, nearly obscured by his bushy grew brows. "And then, we have *this*!"

He pressed down on the victim's chin, opening his mouth. Bile threatened to rise once again at the evidence of the removed tongue, the strange empty cavern within the man's mouth a sickly white hue. "I am well aware of that amputation, Constable Harding was detailed in his analysis of it."

"Ah, my favourite student! How I wish he was here, I could have explained to him how wrong he was." Dr. Ziegler pointed with the tip of his scalpel at the jagged line where the root the poet's tongue had been severed. "You note the colour, ja? So very pale, nearly white. This is due to excessive ensanguination, the cut in his neck poured his lifeblood from him like water leaving a bladder bag. This was taken after his death, and for the blood to have seeped out of him to this level, well...The killer had to have waited a while, fifteen minutes to an hour at least, before he took his prize."

"That long?" Mycroft said, frowning. He stared into the pale mouth with more curiosity than disgust. "That certainly clears Mary Oakes, her arrival at the scene and the subsequent call to alarm only took ten minutes, according to witnesses at The Granger."

"If we take into account the timeline Dr. Ziegler gives us, that means our victim was well and dead for at the very least half an hour before her arrival. I'm sure Harding already explained the gurgling she'd heard, just the last expiration of blood from the central cavity, pushed out by the body's spent gases."

Dr. Ziegler eagerly nodded at this. "This is important. For those gases to build, the body would be dead for quite some time, much longer than an hour. Possibly an entire day. Your jailed girl did not find a freshly dead man."

"The last gasps of a corpse," Mycroft said, and Dr. Ziegler chuckled as though this were a witticism. "I must say, however, that it may be premature just let to set Miss Oakes free. Innocent though she is, there appears to be a conspiracy around Mr. McGonagall, one that is rife with the manipulation of gullible, young and talented women. Mary was under the impression she was to be his soprano, while another woman by the name of Harriet Turner was the composer for the score. A fifteen year old girl who is quite talented in sketch work designed his bill, and Miss Oakes only knew her as Alice. I was able to procure addresses for both of them and have sent Young Jack on the hunt for information."

Lestrade gave him a dazzling grin at this. "You're well ahead of the game, well done! No one can so much as clap dust from one's hands and Young Jack will know about it, he's better than any of the bloodhounds in my department!" He approached a reluctant Mycroft, his hand reaching out to gently squeeze his shoulder only for it to be batted away with the crook of Mycroft's cane.

"For God's sake, Gregory, don't touch me without washing your hands first!"

"I wore cloth gloves!" Lestrade protested, only to give Mycroft's continued glare a roll of his eyes and a tired sigh. "Mrs. Hudson is making you paranoid. I'd be scrubbing the very skin off of my hands if she had her way. In case you weren't aware, death is hardly catching."

"I wouldn't say that's true. They've got the Mortality Race up and running at the D's Tavern again, and guess who is at the top of the list?"

Lestrade stared at him, blank.

"Me, you fool! I'm at the top!"

"You always are, every year at about this time. Except for last year when you were number one on the list all through January and February when you had that mild bout with bronchitis and were bedridden for a week. But here you still are, and it was Judge Cox who collapsed during a hanging, as I recall. Dropped dead of a heart attack right in front of the prisoner, who was so shocked by the spectacle he quickly joined suit. No waste of rope that day."

"You dare to jest of such a thing."

"I'm merely stating facts as they occurred."

Lestrade grinned at him as he carefully washed his hands in the steel basin perched on the body's abdomen, lathering up with soap before rinsing them off into the dirty water. He dried his hands with the towel provided and with a genuine thanks to Dr. Ziegler he followed Mycroft's proud, if not unsteady, steps out of the morgue and into the only slightly fresher London air.

"So you want to keep Mary Oakes in jail."

Mycroft's cane echoed down the long corridor that led out of the Bart's morgue. "You disapprove."

"On the contrary, I think it's the smartest tactic I've heard yet. She's given us our only leads, and I'll be damned if she's going to do a runner the second she gets free. She'll be on a boat to America by daybreak to chance her luck there. Worse still, she'd be successful, she's a girl who knows how hustle an idea, and there's nothing Americans like to peddle more."

"She isn't our only lead." Mycroft gave Lestrade's raised brows a cautious smile. "Mr. Pinter had an interesting passenger last night, one who was not too pleased with the performance of Mr. McGonagall's sonnets. According to Mr. Pinter this man threatened to cut out McGonagall's tongue, a rather graphic premonition, I think you do agree."

"I do. Where is this man?"

"I have nothing more but a description of an Oxford professor that is identical to all others. He was dropped off at the university late last light, and Mr. Pinter was of the opinion he was a professor of the classics."

"Mr. Pinter is known for such knowledge and experience, then?" Lestrade gave Mycroft a cheeky grin, of a type that often set his pale cheeks ablaze. "How did our coachman come to this conclusion?"

"He overheard him muttering about Aristotle."

"Ah, yes, and who doesn't feel fury at the Greeks? But the real question is, what was he doing at a poetry reading by a man like McGonagall? Learned men of a certain speciality rarely go beyond their own libraries and they certainly don't entertain the foppish productions that this one provided. No, I would say this is not a man who is dedicated to the classics, but one of more narrow scope." That crooked grin grew wider. "Did he mention Shakespeare?"

Mycroft started. "How did you know?"

"It's logic that states it not me. A professor, seeing a bill proclaiming insult to the great Bard, feels impassioned by the narrowest focus of his intellect to investigate this travesty. He is an English professor, and I deign to say that his students hate him, for he is unforgiving and inflexible in his grammatical tyranny. We shall visit Oxford in the morning and go through the roster of teaching staff, though I think one or two interviews with students will tell us all we need to know."

Mr. Pinter was waiting for them, as per his usual, and it was Lestrade this time who aided Mycroft into the cab and closed the door shut. A quick knock from the curl of Mycroft's cane had them heading back home to Baker Street. Lestrade, feeling especially mischievous, closed the curtains of the cab's windows, and, without warning, captured Mycroft's lips in a searching kiss.

He could feel his cheeks burning as Lestrade broke free of the caress, his heart fluttering like a trapped sparrow in his chest. "Whatever was that for?"

"Because the morgue makes me randy."

"Vile thing!" Mycroft pushed him off. "I must say, Gregory, your propensity to inappropriate timing is unwelcome at present. To even joke of it, it belies your daily exposure to such vice, and as I am absolved for the most part from such gory presentations I am not able to join in your mirth."

"It's got nothing to do with the dead," Lestrade said, offended. "I just like the tender way the exposure makes you blush."

"The choler is from horror, Gregory."

"It doesn't matter where it's from. I love the burn of you."

He could feel it rushing along the back of his neck and really tainting his skin now, the heat near unbearable as Gregory nuzzled into his neck and whispered the sweetest of endearments into his ear, promising passion for a later time and earning a tickling giggle as his response. But all hope of such pleasantries was dashed the moment they arrived at 221B and found Mrs. Hudson wringing her hands on the front step, an expression of helpless agony on her usually stoic face.

"Mr. Lestrade! Mr. Holmes! I am so glad you're home! He's been an impossible child since his arrival and no matter of my redirection is helping! I have to warn you, he is in a terrible state of distress and is now up in his room, destroying what little is in there, seeking out matches to burn the place down! What am I to do?"

Lestrade bid Mr. Pinter goodbye, and an extra shilling to remain in close proximity in case they needed his services yet again within the hour. Lestrade followed Mycroft into the apartment and up the lacquered stairs, the echo of a violent din taking over every space. Young Jack poked his head out of the entrance to Mrs. Hudson's kitchen, and Mrs. Hudson bade him to go back into the larder and shut the door behind him until things were settled. He remained where he stood for a long moment, wide blue eyes staring with fear up the flight of stairs and meeting Mycroft's with a need for reassurance. Mycroft nodded at him, and said, loud enough for Young Jack to hear. "You heed Mrs. Hudson now, lad. This will not take long."

Lestrade hung back on the stairs and though the door to the guest room shivered on its hinges from the projectiles thrown at it, he nodded at Mycroft's bid for him to remain downstairs and keep both Mrs. Hudson and Young Jack calmed in the face of this explosion. He steeled himself as he approached the battered door, his cane tapping against the floorboards in punctuated readiness. He curled his fist and gently knocked on the door.

"Sherlock? May I come in?"

There was a ghastly silence at this, and Mycroft was left frowning on the other side of the wood, wondering if perhaps his brother had made his escape through the window and onto the street below, a challenge he had taken up once before when he lived at Baker Street and that had resulted in a broken leg and arm. But the din instantly subsided at his voice, and there was gentle click of a lock and the door slid open, allowing Mycroft entry.

It is a pitiable thing, no matter his actions, to see a man immersed in madness to the point of forgetting himself. Sherlock, dressed in a pair of flannel pants and a cotton shirt with his long, wool deerstalker coat covering his lack of decorum, sat on the edge of his bed, the poker and implements from the hearth embedded in the bedroom door, and various decorative plates and cups and saucers broken around his feet in a ceramic halo. He wouldn't look at Mycroft as he came in, his dark eyes wild with an inner fire that refused to be doused, his body just as thin but stronger than Mycroft's, his hair stubbornly plastered tight against his skull with ample amounts of hair oil. He held a pipe in his hand that he smoked opium from, the poppy doing its usual damage when it came to fostering his wild delusions.

"I won't go back. They don't understand what I am trying to do, they don't want to deduce my reasoning, they are all mad, they are all conspirators against my well being. You are my brother, and it is cruel, I say, very cruel, for you to put me in a such a place when the very gutters of London would suffice me better!"

Mycroft sighed and with careful steps he approached his younger brother and sat at the edge of the bed beside him. Sherlock made no protest, his shivering form wrapped tightly in his wool coat as he puffed from the pipe in his grip. Mycroft gently took the pipe from him, and tossed its contents into the cold hearth. "You know this stuff does you in. Why you harm yourself with it, I will never understand. Dr. Watson has explicitly said such opiods are not conducive to your mental state and yet you continue to escape and seek them out."

"I will not go back to that monstrous hellhole!"

"Holloway Sanatorium is a lovely place, with ample green space and kind nurses and gentle activities, all of which you enjoy immensely. You have a comfortable room, and Dr. Watson takes very good care of you." Mycroft couldn't help the need to reassure his troubled younger brother, and he smoothed down an errant lock of Sherlock's hair that sprung from its plastered prison against his skull. The small touch seemed to soothe him, much to Mycroft's relief. "Shall I have Mrs. Hudson make some tea?"

"The damned dogs!" Sherlock exclaimed, his voice booming through the small room, enough to make anyone who wasn't Mycroft jump. "They invade the grounds, they alight in the dark with their phosphorous purpose!" Sherlock violently shook his head. "I won't go back! Throw me into the Thames first!"

Mycroft sighed. "Are you really serious about that threat?"

Sherlock's eyes twitched and a flared spark from them caught Mycroft's own.

"No. Don't be stupid. You are stupid, you know. This is about the *dogs*. The dogs are everywhere, and they are monstrous and...Yes! Yes I will throw myself into the Thames, you can't stop me!"

Mycroft gave him a warning look at this. "I'm not so sure that's a wise decision Sherlock, seeing as how it would be our Gregory who would have to fish you out. You can imagine, of course, what that would do to him to have to pull you out of the muck. He would be quite hurt to have identify your body, not to mention the investigation into your death. It would hurt him a great deal, Sherlock, and I know you like Gregory. You wouldn't want to do that to him, would you?"

Sherlock raised his thumb to his lips and chewed it in contemplation. He was still shivering at the end of the bed, and Mycroft had the uneasy feeling his brother had already tried this stunt and had dried off in the spring air, his effort to drown himself proving futile. Worried and fearful for him, he wrapped a thin arm around Sherlock's shoulders and pulled his brother close, his chin pressing against Sherlock's forehead in the way a mother soothed a babe. "Are you planning on doing such a thing, my brother?"

"No." A lie, but it was good that Sherlock told it. "But...The dogs! And John won't do anything!"

"I'm sure we can find a solution. We'll have him stop by and he can tell you how best to deal with them."

"But they are massive, Mycroft! They can eat a man with one bite!"

"They aren't here," Mycroft reminded him, which calmed Sherlock further. He pressed his forehead against his brother's and bid him to take his hand and stand with him. "Come on. No point wrecking an empty room. If you want to stay the night here, you may, we can get the fire alit, but the standard rules apply. What are they, Sherlock?"

Sherlock's eyes had trouble focusing on his brother, but he did his best. "No opium."

"You've already broken that one. The other rules?"

"No defecating in the hall."

"We settled that problem a long time ago, I should think."

"No interrupting your lovemaking with Inspector Gregory Lestrade in the wee hours of night."

"A rumour at best and I don't recall that being one of the rules seeing as how you would have to know something like that is happening when it certainly isn't."

"You do lie sometimes, Mycroft."

"As do you. Why do you want to leave Holloway?"

"It's boring."

"Ah, the crux of all ills. Downstairs, Sherlock, Mrs. Hudson will put on some tea and she's already made some of those raisin scones you are so fond of. We shall invite Dr. Watson to join us and perhaps we can find a solution to your ennui that does not involve throwing yourself into the Thames and wrecking nearly empty rooms."

"I didn't go into yours. That would have been impolite."

"That was thoughtful of you."

"Your breaths are very wheezy. Is this the year you're going to die?"

He leaned on his brother's stronger frame as they made their way down into the kitchen, where an anxious Mrs. Hudson and tired Lestrade waited their arrival. He really was suddenly exhausted, Sherlock's frank speech one that held all manner of selfish concern within it. He must have heard about the Mortality Race and how Mycroft's name was at the top of the list. Though it was touching that his brother cared for him in such metaphorical terms, the destruction that such care came with was difficult to manage.

"Mrs. Hudson, please put on some tea, my brother would like to partake with us. Ah, Young Jack. I'm afraid I'm in need of your swift feet again. Please, get Mr. Pinter to take you by coach to Holloway Sanatorium and tell Dr. Watson to come here post haste. He's missing his prized patient. Again."

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter three

Lestrade was still in the kitchen, hovering over a pot of tea that Mrs. Hudson was in the process of preparing, her strong shoulders pushed back as her formidable presence pushed him out of the way. "I do believe I'm an expert in this function, Mr. Lestrade, no touching the pot until it's properly brewed!"

"It's been a long day and I'm dying for a cuppa."

"Then you'll die a little longer. I've yet to set up the tray properly, and Young Jack will be hungry for more than sweets this time, that child needs a proper meal, as do you and Mr. Holmes." She straightened up when Sherlock and Mycroft entered, her strong hands smoothing down her apron which was tied tight around her solid waist. "Well, Sherlock, it's good to see you've decided to be reasonable. Sit at the table, I know you prefer coffee and it's ready for you, but don't think this is any manner of special treatment, if anything I am singling you out. You mind your manners at this table, young man."

"The dogs are..."

"No talk of that! Obviously, you are in good company here or you otherwise would not be at this table in such a mollified state. Here is your coffee, two sugars and black the way you like it. You'd better not have made a mess of that room upstairs or I'll be having Dr. Watson himself up there with a hammer and nails to fix the furnishings, do we have an understanding?"

Sherlock gave her a miserable nod as he sat in his seat, the delicate, pink flowered teacup filled with coffee cradled in his palms with far more graceful content than the chilly spring evening, mired in mist and damp, could afford. Mycroft pulled out a chair and sat beside his troubled brother, his hand clasped around Sherlock's wrist in an attempt at reassurance. "You may stay the night," he repeated, and Sherlock's tense posture visibly relaxed.

Lestrade was not so keen, however, and he caught Mycroft's eye with a subtle hint of exasperation. "I'm sure your brother has made you aware of the superior lodgings at Holloway, and though the invitation is one that is kind on your brother's part, Dr. Watson is on his way to convince you to return to your far more comfortable surroundings." Lestrade gave Sherlock a strained smile, and doing what he could to ignore the barbed daggers Mycroft was sending his way, he continued to press his case. "You've got a lovely room there, with a nice view of the grounds, and it's all neat and trim the way you like it, and not like our dusty tip."

Mrs. Hudson slammed a teakettle on one of the burners on her cast iron stove. "I do what I can in this mess!"

"And that she does," Lestrade said, his face still plastered with that charming grin of his in the vain hope it would be enough to rescue him. "And seeing as how much of a burden both myself and Mycroft are to her, it would perhaps be best for you to accompany Dr. Watson back to Holloway to determine what it is that has brought you here."

Mycroft was tight lipped over his tea. "The invitation has already been accepted, Gregory. Sherlock stays."

Lestrade nodded at this, his grin so wide and his teeth so bared he looked like he was snarling rather than offering pleasantry. "Well, that settles it, doesn't it?"

"You smell like a dead dog," Sherlock said to Lestrade, frowning as he sniffed the air around him. "Why would you have such a strange aroma? Have you been hanging around kennels?" He narrowed his twitching eyes on Lestrade, the coffee cup poised at his lips. "Have you been dusting your hands with phosphorous?"

Lestrade gave Mycroft a quizzical look that could only be answered with a tired shrug. Mrs. Hudson was busily preparing an evening meal for them, the informal oak table in the centre of the kitchen set for them all, including one for Dr. Watson, who somehow always managed to get a full course out of them every time he visited. He was not looking forward to the gregarious man's visit any more than Gregory was, but he was not about to turn out his frightened brother, regardless of the fact his fears were purely imaginary in nature. Mrs. Hudson clattered pots and angrily peeled potatoes, her otherwise silence screaming her displeasure.

"I believe there's mutton in the cold room," Mycroft offered, and Mrs. Hudson bristled at the suggestion.

"Really, Mr. Holmes, one wouldn't dream of serving the great Dr. John Watson leftover mutton, no matter its convenience! One must deal with unexpected guests as a hostess should, and not to mention all their little needs, no matter how ridiculously fussy they are." She attacked the potatoes with fiercer vigour. "A roast chicken, boiled potatoes, cabbage greens and of course, one must make good use of cake!" She moved a pot, sending flames sneaking through the iron grates, where they licked its black bottom. "Cream and sugar and assorted pastries. I suppose I should put on another vegetable that will appease Dr. Watson's nutritional curiosities. An epergne of cauliflower, leeks and asparagus with olive branches drooping like grapes. A caramelized parsnip is too dull for him."

The three men sat at the small table and watched her fervent work with a sense of increasing unease. Mrs. Hudson's kitchen was a highly informal place and where Lestrade and Mycroft most often dined, enjoying its low ceiling and close darkness, the smells of her traditional cooking too tempting to endure in the rooms upstairs. It was usually a chatty, amicable space, where Mrs. Hudson would likewise join them, class and distinction perhaps inappropriately shed though it was difficult to define the true hierarchy within the house. Mrs. Hudson was the owner and thus it was her decision what happened beneath its roof, and as it was she enjoyed having the company at meal times. Young Jack had become a common nightly fixture, and after a scrubbing it was not a rare thing to find him sitting in one of the kitchen chairs during the middle of the day, his feet dangling back and forth beneath the wooden chair he sat in, a thick slice of fresh, buttered bread in his hands which he tore at with childish gusto.

In the privacy of their home at 221B Baker Street, Mycroft Holmes was very confident in his assessment that they enjoyed a happy family, one of their own making that was eccentric to outsiders but which was filled with a care and appreciation for one another that was rare to find in the most traditional of homes just a few streets over in the realms of London's prime elite, and certainly with far more empathy for one another than the crowded basements that housed the desperate south of them. For the most part, they lived within this bubble quite happily, the small petty annoyances they built up between them easily discarded with a kind a word. Even through the turmoil of Sherlock's stay at Baker St. early in their arrangement the conflicts his mad brother presented had not severed them but cemented their ties to one another further. Thus, supping in the kitchen with their landlady instead of having their meals brought up to them, and tea prepared by themselves rather than a frazzled Mrs. Hudson, and the smears of Young Jack's filthy blackened, chimney sweep paws on counters and walls and the complaints of Mrs. Hudson as she scrubbed them off had become a beloved routine.

Theirs was a home that had gradually become a place of trust and love, with sated bellies and unburdened hearts. It was not one that was easily understood by outsiders, who gawked upon its construct like ignorant masses viewing a freak show.

He didn't knock. He never did, not when he arrived at 221B, knowing he was expected and thus treating their home as though it was an extension of his office, their strange, small life at the house one that was as much a study as any of his patients at Holloway Sanatorium. Dr. John Watson clapped his hands as he walked into the kitchen, letting out a low guffaw at the gloomy trio at the small table, who were quickly joined by Young Jack, but not before the lad had run into the larder to steal a pastry first. This was a necessary thievery. Dr. John Watson had an insatiable appetite and was known to deplete them of sweets.

"And so we have the lot all gathered together again! This little barn of yours is quite the fascinating little manger, I have to say. It's been so long since I've been properly hosted here I dare say I've forgotten what your sitting room looks like! Ah, but is that a roast chicken I smell? Stuffed with orange, I take it, quite a pleasant aroma, though I daresay I would have preferred mutton. I always crave mutton on these grey, chilly, damp spring nights. Boiled potatoes as well, I see. Such culinary adventure, as usual, Mrs. Hudson, and here I am with a front row theatre view. Is that tea?"

Mycroft did not miss Lestrade's clenched fists, hidden beneath the cuffs of his jacket in an attempt at polite restraint. Dr. Watson twirled the tip of his handlebar moustache as he viewed the scene, taking in the low ceiling, the pauper's kitchen table and the chair Young Jack sat in, a wobbly leg always on the verge of sending the fidgeting waif toppling. Dr. Watson was a stout, rotund man, fond of dining and averse to exercise, though he always had words for Mycroft's pallor. He pushed his way into a spot at the table, snatching up a spare chair propped beside a broom and bucket and plunking it beside Lestrade, who stiffened in response to the man's proximity. Dr. Watson clasped his hands in front of him and gave Sherlock a stern look.

"I believe there are serious questions that must be asked."

Sherlock did not look up from his plate. "Yes, there are."

"I shall start with the most important one, shall I?" He leaned forward towards Sherlock, begging of his confidence. He had an intense, serious disposition, and kept glancing up at Mrs. Hudson who was purposefully keeping her back to him.

"How long will it be until dinner, Sherlock?"

"The potatoes have been boiling since before you arrived."

"Excellent!" Dr. Watson visibly relaxed, his mood near giddy as he took in his place setting and, without a word as to why, he picked up the cutlery and cleaned and polished it with a handkerchief he took from his side pocket. The faint scent of vinegar met them, and Mycroft braced himself for the usual argument.

"If you want a place with proper airs, you'd best visit a different house," Mrs. Hudson snapped at him. "Though I don't think they'd be keen on you cleaning the cutlery in front of them, either." She placed her fists on her hips and stared down at him. She was a tall woman, and the top of her head grazed the ceiling. "Sherlock has come here with a crisis and you are meant to manage it. Of course, that is if you don't deign his brother too lazy to deal with that which you have been assigned to do. Wouldn't want his Honour, Mr. Holmes, waddling out of his little seat and daring to broach the great outdoors of Holloway, would we? Not with his 'queer' way of things!"

Mycroft could feel a flush of embarrassment hit the back of his neck at this, but if Dr. Watson saw an open gauntlet to a fight before him, he did well to deflect it. The round man laughed and pushed an empty tea cup towards Lestrade, bidding the Inspector to pour him a cup. "Two sugars, please," he said to him, still chuckling.

"There is nothing amusing about marring a judge's reputation!" Mrs. Hudson shouted at him. She untied and threw down her apron and stormed out of the room, dinner left on its own while she went out the back door of the pantry and into the small yard, where she stood in the night air alone, composing herself. It was not an act of rudeness on her part, not with the way Dr. Watson inspired such needs in so many people. Lestrade himself looked like he longed to join her.

"I'm assuming that outburst was about my latest fiction in The Strand?" Dr. Watson was still amused, his fat cheeks ruddy little strawberries. Lestrade poured the tea and Dr. Watson took it from him with a formal nod, his chubby fingers reaching for the small plate of shortbreads placed on a pretty plate in the centre of the table. He took four of them, much to Young Jack's dismay, leaving behind a broken piece and several crumbs. "I truly do not understand why Mrs. Hudson would be upset about that! It's hardly a treatise on your reputation, Mycroft, for I have done what I can to make the characters as opposite in personality and construct as is possible without it flying into fantasy."

"It's not that we're described differently." Mycroft eyed Lestrade's careful wording with a deep, internal worry that he was set to let his fists speak instead. "It's that we're only referred to in negative terms."

"How so?" Dr. Watson eyed the pantry and the kitchen stove in turn, his hunger winning all argument. "I did say Mycroft was as brilliant as his brother, perhaps more so."

"'The queerest club in London and Mycroft Holmes the queerest man'."

"That's not an exact quote of what I wrote, but what's the harm in it? The Diogenes Club is an odd place, and pray tell me, what would be better? The sad reality of half dead judges splayed in silence in their chairs, courting the minutes of every breath. You are of their number, Mycroft, much as you hope to deny it. I've seen the Mortality Race results thus far, you are deservedly on the top of that list." He stared at his empty plate again, and a shadow of hope crossed Dr. Watson's features as Mrs. Hudson returned from her cooling off in the small yard to set about serving dinner. She snatched up her apron and tied it on too tight around her waist. "These long stays in London are highly detrimental to your health, especially in the spring and summer months. As a doctor, I have informed you more than once that your family estate home on the outskirts of that medicinal city would be far more suitable for your ailment, and a permanent move there is the best medical advice I can give you. Yet, you persist to remain in this barn. No offence, Mrs. Hudson, but one cannot escape the superior virtues of a country home in Bath."

"Mr. Holmes has ample responsibility here," Mrs. Hudson shot at him, preventing Mycroft from speaking. "There aren't enough judges for the quarter sessions, and as a judge of the assize he has complex cases that need intense attention to detail of the crimes. He cannot oversee the investigation of a foul murder from the misty confines of a Roman bath any more than you can treat your patients from the comforts of a colony estate. Though one must wonder, seeing as how your prized one keeps escaping."

Dr. Watson tucked a napkin under his chin as he regarded her stoic poise at the large iron oven. In truth, under pressure it would be the iron that would bend first. "I have said before, Sherlock is not a prisoner of Holloway. He is free to come and go as he pleases, and the choice to remain is his. Which brings me, of course, to my reason for this delightful, stimulating visit--Sherlock, is there a reason you left Holloway?"

"Yes. I was bored."

"Well, that is a serious problem, and one that shall have to be rectified."

"I imagine it might take more than making rag dolls," Lestrade quipped, earning him a huff from Dr. Watson.

"Our patients are given simple tasks which they can achieve and thus afford themselves a feeling of accomplishment. Keeping one's hands busy has proven to calm the mind. Rag doll making has proven to be therapeutic."

"Sherlock will be knitting us sweaters, next. We've got a bloody closet full of them creepy dolls. Do you known he makes most of them look like me?" Lestrade shook a warning finger at Sherlock. "Enough of that voodoo, you. You think I don't notice the way you always get brown buttons for the eyes and make a black burlap coat for the lot of them, with the proper number of buttons, but I do. I know you been trying to put some kind of evil eye on me with them, what with you stuffing them with chicken hearts and wren eggs. Mrs. Hudson has been burning them when they start rotting, and as you can see, I'm not at all scorched so that magic ain't working."

"Sherlock," his brother admonished him. "How unkind. You *like* Gregory."

"That he does," Dr. Watson interjected, "but there is a level of jealousy in play here, and though he may not consciously be able to express it, Sherlock has taken a healthy route by placing his frustrations with your divided attention between himself and Inspector Lestrade by creating effigies. Of course, he does also like you, Inspector, thus the chicken hearts and eggs, a metaphorical attempt to give you a heart and a life."

"Neither of which he seems to think I have much of," Lestrade said, narrowing his eyes on Sherlock, whose hands clasped tight together at the arrival of their dinner in the centre of the table. "Go on then, you're not a potted plant, Sherlock. What's your take on this whole ragged doll business?"

"They're boring. I had a dream once, I made and army of you. I decided I had to try and make it real. My experiments haven't worked yet, though." Sherlock reached over his plate and grabbed a boiled potato with his bare hand, cursing when it burned him. Mycroft tutted at him, and told him to mind his manners and wait for his plate. He made sure Sherlock was served first before their guest, as his impulsivity was difficult to manage.

The roasted chicken sizzled in the centre of the table, the various vegetables steaming in ceramic bowls around it in a mouth watering feast. Young Jack's mouth hung open in hungry anticipation, and he watched Dr. Watson carefully from the corner of his young eye, eager to snatch up a generous helping before their gourmand guest depleted it.

Lestrade helped himself to potatoes and roasted parsnips before taking some tender slices of chicken. Mycroft had small portions, the stress of the day doing little for his appetite, and he contented himself with slices of bread and cabbage, a small amount of stuffing and cranberry preserves. This small offering was enough to satisfy him. Mrs Hudson sat in a seat beside him, and the crowded table became a battle zone of elbows and rattling cutlery.

"Why on earth would you need an army of me?" Lestrade asked around a mouthful of potato.

"The chicken is a touch dry." This didn't stop Dr. Watson from taking another piece. "I've heard of soaking it in vermouth to bring out the juices, but I suspect any brining method would do."

Mrs. Hudson did not look up from her plate. "There's gravy at your elbow."

"Is there? Ah, yes, forgive me. I'd thought it was consomme, it's so delightfully pale and thin."

"I need a Lestrade army because it's bloody obvious to anyone who knows how to listen! I need them to fight off the phosphorous dogs!"

Dr. Watson hesitated at hearing this, and Mycroft did not miss the sudden concern in his bearing, enough to make his interest in the next mouthful of food take pause. Dr. Watson went so far as to settle his fork on the edge of his plate, suggesting the issue was a serious one, indeed.

"I'm afraid this may be about one our patients, whom Sherlock became quite close to. Elizabeth Collie. Obviously, her name has created certain connections within Sherlock's highly disorganized mind." He gave Sherlock's frown one of his own. "You liked Elizabeth a great deal, Sherlock. I know her death has been hard on you."

"The dogs..."

"You have been fixated on these imaginary dogs since she was found." Dr. Watson picked up his fork once again and returned to his meal. "It's unfortunate that suicide has marred our small history at Holloway, but there are many who are so determined at this unfortunate, devastating self erasure...I am deeply moved by her passing, as much as you are, Sherlock. Perhaps we should take some time to discuss the matter in a proper session, an extended one if you like. It is no easy thing for a doctor to lose a patient, nor is it to lose a friend." He glanced up guiltily at Mycroft. "She had a poodle, one of those yippy miniature varieties. I'm afraid when she decided to end her life she ended the small dog's as well. I'm sure the shock of that has affected your delusions, Sherlock. We will discuss the matter properly at Holloway."

"She was murdered," Sherlock said, and it was Lestrade he looked to with this revelation. Mrs. Hudson pushed her plate away, quite finished with the discomforting conversation.

"No murder at the table, you all know my rule."

"This wasn't murder," Dr. Watson gently assured her.

"It was murder!" Sherlock pounded his fist on the small wooden table, toppling slices of bread and sending plates and cutlery near flying. "The dogs were howling and then they stopped and they glowed in the dark and they were larger than a horse, with sharp, monstrous teeth, and she was torn apart! She was rendered by their curse!"

Young Jack went wide eyed at this outburst, and Mrs. Hudson was already on her feet, ushering the child from the room and into her own lodgings where she bid him to sit on her couch and mind his own for the time being. She quickly brought his plate of food to him, and set it on a small table, bidding Young Jack to finish his meal. When she came back, she was in a foul temper, one that pulled the reigns of Dr. Watson's lackadaisical approach to the problem at hand and forcing him to act. "Sherlock, I believe Dr. Watson shall be taking you home. You clearly have much to discuss with him, and as we have a child periodically staying under our roof it would not be wise to have him upset by your outbursts. Nor is this good for your brother, for I can hear his wheezing all the way into my own lodgings. You are going back to Holloway, now, with Dr. Watson, and you are going to do as he prescribes and we shall visit you there tomorrow. Is that understood?"

Sherlock worked his jaw around the words. "The dogs..."

Mrs. Hudson's voice became dark, the question now a statement. "Is that understood, Sherlock."

He wasn't happy about her insistence, but he nodded and managed to wolf down another potato before having his long, wool coat rearranged over his lanky, thin frame, one far thinner than his brother's bones, though he did have more muscle mass than Mycroft. Mrs. Hudson was already out the front door and heralding Mr. Pinter, the gentle clop of his horse's hooves echoing down the quiet street as he approached the house. Dr. Watson got out of his creaking wooden seat with a huff, Lestrade and Mycroft following him, with Sherlock hanging back.

Dr. Watson turned to his fellow men, but only when it was clear that Mrs. Hudson was out of earshot. "Once a woman has achieved some small measure of power it's impossible to take it out of her. Nurses. Bossy and cross, the lot of them, they believe they can bully the sickness out of you."

"She did get him into action where you couldn't," Lestrade reminded Dr. Watson. "He was planning on staying the night."

"That invitation still stands," Mycroft said, turning to his troubled brother.

But Sherlock was defeated. "No, it's not a good idea for me to stay here. I'll only keep seeing the dogs. Please try to breathe easier, Mycroft, your collapsing lungs irritate me and they echo into my waking day. So if you could, please stop breathing. That way I won't have to be annoyed by you."

"A lovely dinner, save for certain aspects," Dr. Watson cheerfully said to Mrs. Hudson, who looked about ready to strangle him. He glanced past them all into the small room with a settee and fireplace that Mrs. Hudson called home. Young Jack was busy poking the fire. "You've adopted another stray, I see. An unfortunate street urchin, I take it?"

"Are you objecting to that charity, Dr. Watson?" Mycroft asked.

"No, not at all. I just find it curious that you manage to layer so many curiosities under one roof. He seems a fine enough boy, though allowing him on your furnishings is a tad reckless. Nits are always a bother."

"Yes, they scurry about like words on a page," Lestrade observed. "While I'm happy you are treating Sherlock, Dr. Watson, I am not so foolish to ignore the fact that this talking session will result in yet another infestation of your lousey words."

"It's destined to be so!" Dr. Watson cheerfully said to him, his bowler hat donned and his coat draped around his ample frame, which took up most of the tiny cloakroom. "A whole book, I should think. Your brother has the most fascinating thought processes and the fiction it affords has equal allure among the masses. I have tried, you know, to do your bidding and kill my consulting detective off, and I still may. My adventures in Afghanistan have been woefully neglected due to my dictation of your brother's muse. But the outcry at the merest suggestion of it was shocking in its violence! I'm tethered to his madness as much as you are, I'm afraid." He tipped his hat to them both. "Good night, gentlemen. Despite your argument with my scribbling, rest assured, he shall be well looked after."

"I do not doubt it, Dr. Watson," Mycroft said. "Please forgive us if we have been less than optimal in our receiving of you. It has been a trying day."

"Yes, I heard about the murder of that poet. Good thing you caught the little murderess early, those harlots are quick with their knife!"

Lestrade couldn't let this fallacy seep into Watson's fiction as well. "Actually, no, she is quite innocent. The murderer is still at large."

"Really?" Dr. Watson was genuinely shocked. "Pity that. I was looking forward to writing a medical essay for the London Gazette expounding my experiences with homicide among the lowest of East End whores. Terrible creatures, they live as animals and survive as such, and will and do eat their own young. Come now, Sherlock! We have your room cleaned and ready as you like it, and we can have a pleasant serving of cocoa to cure the ails of this difficult night!"

A sense of relief overwhelmed Mycroft as they saw his brother and Dr. Watson off, and he leaned heavily on his cane as the carriage became a small black dot in the distance, the echo of the horse's hooves absorbed into the evening. It was early yet, just half past nine, but Mycroft was exhausted, and with stumbling steps he made his way to the stairs that led up to their rooms, his shoulder pressed against the wall.

Lestrade's warm, strong body sidled up next to his, urging him upwards with an arm around his waist. "I suppose we should be grateful his visit was a short one, and I mean Dr. Watson so do not give me daggers so! Those eyes of yours, My, how the guilty must shiver when you fix them in your icy sights! But they should refrain from such judgment on me, your Honour, for I am an honourable man who was simply hoping for you to get a proper rest. I understand your kindness towards your brother, but he is anathema to peace and you well know that when he stays under this roof you will not sleep, and you will fret and pace and wonder if he is harming himself and every creak of the floorboards will send you flying to his aid. Worse still, he feeds off of your attention, knowing that the smallest shout will bring you to his bedside to pamper him with soothing words."

Mycroft felt unbearably tired and he truly did not want this conversation (familiar as it was in its determination for the greater good of his health) to continue. He crooked his head and rested it on Lestrade's shoulder as he made his way into the narrow hallway at the top of the stairs, the door to their sitting room wide open and beckoning them in with its welcoming, thickly padded chairs and flickering fire. "He is my brother," Mycroft reminded Lestrade. "And in many ways, he is so much more than that. You know how we were raised, our parents aloof and hopeless, our father solely obsessed with money and debts, to the point he forgot he had children and a very ill wife. I am seven years older than Sherlock, and I took the responsibility for his care at that tender age. I was not unlike Young Jack in that respect, made far too independent by that lack of familial coddling, as you call it. Our father detested children and we were to never be in his sights. My mother was a weak willed, sick woman, who spent most of her time sipping tea by the courtyard window and staring into space in a trancelike fugue. As Sherlock's delusions manifested in his teens, I have to wonder at those long silences of our mother. I feel burdened by the knowledge they were filled with those same disordered thoughts and monsters, her world a daylight confusion she could find no expression for."

Mycroft did not like thinking about that history in Bath, his family's estate residing not far from the city but just enough to keep them isolated from its large population. Their home was a sprawling place, and he still enjoyed visiting it during his prescribed times of year. But the memories within its walls were heavy against his heart. He had no fond recollection of his father, who remained forever a shadow of a man locked in his study, growling on occasion should Sherlock or Mycroft become too boisterous outside of his closed door. Their nanny was a flighty young woman who was more concerned about her affair with the family's coachman, and by the time Sherlock was four years old, she had run off with him. The ensuing scandal had been a footnote of interest in an otherwise stifling family history. Their father died a year later, and their mother spent the rest of her days in carefully tailored dresses, sipping tea and staring out the courtyard window, watching a world that no one else could see.

He'd asked her, once, when he was just ten years old, what it was she saw every day in that courtyard, with its thick peonies and clumps of lavender.

"Fairies," she'd said, her voice wistful and trapped in dream. "They jump from petal to petal."

He'd understood then that she was mad, her prolonged muted way of life holding all manner of hallucinations within it. With their father dead, she was slightly freer in her animation, and periodically would point and exclaim at creatures outside of the courtyard window, beings only she could see. She would cry and howl in laughter and the spectacle of her sudden manic glee would frighten Mycroft, as well as the estate's servants. Their cook, Mrs, Healey, a stern woman with a firm grip on the reality of their mistress's needs, was the one who would force his mother into calm, and would settle her disquieted spirit with tea laced with brandy and accompanying sugar dipped biscuits.

"I've been managing your mother's fits for a long time, young sir," she confided in Mycroft after one of these unfortunate occurrences. He was a young man of seventeen, then, ready to embark on the intellectual journey that university afforded him, along with the career lying in wait. With thick hands dusted in flour, she took Mycroft's slender fingers in hers and gave them a gentle squeeze. "She never should have married. Your father...Well, best not much be said about him, I should think. You've become a good lad, and you're nothing like him, and of that you should be proud. Oh, the weight that's on you, boy! But you'll manage it, you got the intelligence for it." She'd placed a floured hand on his cheek, a sense of pride overcoming her. Out of all their servants, it was Mrs. Healey who he was closest to, who had stood in staid of his own mother and father and created a base from which to spring his own growth and maturity. "You were such a sickly little thing, and there was too many times we all here thought we'd lost you. But we all knew, the lot of us here, that if there's hope for this place it's you, and you've proven to be up to the task." She dabbed at the corner of her small, black eyes with the corner of her apron. "Off to be a magistrate, then, and I know they're priming you to be a judge on account of your father's position. Don't let London ruin you, and when it gets hard to breathe you scurry right back. We'll be waiting."

But there were stops and starts in the path of his career, especially when Sherlock started presenting with similar symptoms as their mother when he was in his sixteenth year. Even now he had to admit it wasn't the shock it should have been, for Sherlock had always been an odd child, prone to nightmares and strange ideas that collected within his mind like a mismatched collage. He would catch his brother locked in himself at the window of his bedroom, staring out into the evening sky with a sense not of wonder, but of blank incomprehension.

"The world is talking to me. It tells me all its secrets. It won't stop talking, Mycroft. Please, make it stop."

He shivered at the memory. Sherlock, frightened and trapped within his own mind, staring with baleful longing at his brother to help him and there was nothing, no medicine, no treatment, nothing but Mycroft's soft words of reassurance and the vain hope that this would be enough to keep his brother safe from himself.

"I raised my brother," Mycroft said, trapped more in his own thoughts and memories, with Lestrade their silent witness. "I am his parent, his father and mother both, more than I will ever be his sibling."

"And as every parent does, you have to let him grow up and live his life away from you." Lestrade embraced his waist, pulling him closer and planting a small kiss on his temple, the wonderful warmth of his touch soothing. "My job is to care for you, Mycroft, and I know the stress his outbursts put upon your health, not to mention the endurance of Dr. Watson at our table."

Mycroft sighed. "He shouldn't goad Mrs. Hudson so, he will regret it one day. She'll serve him up blackened potatoes and rancid curried rabbit purely out of revenge."

"I long for that day."

"He did take Sherlock back to Holloway. I do worry, however. This incident with that sad girl is quite upsetting, and I do think Sherlock must be heartbroken in his own way. What do you make of it?"

Lestrade shrugged. "I find it very strange that she killed her dog. Maybe Sherlock's onto something."

They walked into their bedroom, the tidiness of the day before now already descended into a comfortable mess, which Lestrade looked over with a sense of contented pride. Mycroft paused at the entrance, fixing Lestrade in a pointed, shocked stare. "He's a madman, Gregory. Surely there is no basis for his accusations of murder!"

"He's confused and muddled but that doesn't deter the actual facts. I'm just saying it's extremely unusual for a suicide to take their beloved pet with them. A person has no qualms against killing another human being, it's true, but a pampered pet, that's another matter." Lestrade bit the inside of his cheek. "This Mortality Race business is also affecting him, and I don't like the way these bastards are putting bets on your life. Much as you should ignore it and find the humour in it, there's the question of what it's doing to Sherlock. I'm having words with your fellows tomorrow, this needs to stop."

Mycroft leaned heavily on his cane as he walked to his side of the bed. "Oh dear, Gregory, please don't."

But Lestrade wouldn't let his ire at Mycroft's peers go. He stood behind Mycroft and aided him in shedding his jacket, much in the manner of a valet, but one who performed in a far more personal scope, especially with the way his forehead pressed so intimately at the back of Mycroft's neck, a soft kiss left there. Mycroft closed his eyes as the gentle touches against his neck sent him into a swooning relaxation, enough to make him lean back into Lestrade's firm frame.

"Insufferable gits, the lot of them. It's that Judge Quibly starting it up again this time, isn't it? There isn't an ale house in London that hasn't had to mop up his sorry arse. He's real fond of bosoms, that one. He's known for having a pint in both hands and his face immersed in tits."

Mycroft laughed despite the barbed nature of Lestrade's words, and halfheartedly offered caution. "He is a judge of the assize."

"He's an arse. If he weren't a judge he'd be spending the bulk of his life in the drunk tank. Nah, my bet's on him catching the death first, especially with his habits. He'll have the syph, or worse. That's what'll do him in."

Lestrade's kisses along his neck were becoming more urgent, his fingers deftly unbuttoning Mycroft's vest and cotton shirt, hands hungry for bared flesh. Mycroft could feel his arousal in kind, the mutual heat between them surging through his groin and ending in a soft moan. He felt Lestrade's fingers teasing against the waistband of his trousers and Mycroft clasped his hand over his lover's, bidding him to stop.

"Do you think Dr. Watson suspects our relationship?"

Lestrade snorted at this. "I think he knows damned well. You are the queerest man in his stories, after all."

Mycroft's arousal was tainted with a familiar fear. "Will he harm us with it?"

"He is an oaf, and possesses an insufferable ego, one that longs for public adoration and that soaks up every positive word about his chosen fiction. But he is also a scientist and a learned man, and the profession he has studied has proven, time and again, that the deviance perceived is a societal one and not the nature of human biology. He has no compunction against our union, Mycroft, I would not fear him." Lestrade kissed behind his ear and began his exploration anew, hands smoothing across the tweed that still covered Mycroft's bony hips. "He is a good doctor, and has done wonders for Sherlock. No more constantly digging him out of opium dens where he tried to give his spinning mind relief. No more delusional episodes that involve us fishing him out of the Thames, a near daily occurrence as you recall. If he gives Sherlock peace by stealing his crazy stories and making them his own, well, I cannot truly judge the man's methods even if I don't like them. Dr. Watson and Sherlock do compliment each other. Not as perfectly as you and I do, of course, but there is something to be said for patient understanding."

Mycroft turned in Lestrade's arms, facing him, his face flushed as he stared into the warm, brown eyes that held his gaze, unwavering in their support. A rush of feeling left Mycroft breathless and his arms trembled as he held onto Lestrade, lips so close to his they kissed as he spoke.

"Ten years. Ten years we have spent each night like this and still my heart flutters with every movement you make upon me. It terrifies me, Gregory, how much I love you."

Lestrade smiled into the tender kiss he placed upon those eager, blushed lips. "Men such as us feel more deeply than most. You know my heart, how I am consumed by the passion of every subject I encounter. Here you are, in my arms a likewise flame. I want to kiss every inch of you and leave cinder marks on the pale white coals of your skin."

Mycroft closed his eyes as Lestrade stroked him through his trousers, his body trembling at the bold contact. He could feel how his breath, gasping and needy, rattled in his lungs. A horrible thought, one that had often visited him at this time of year, wound its way into his consciousness and refused to let its barbed darkness leave him in peace. "I half wonder, Gregory, how you stand it. Remaining here with me, a near invalid, with all the worry I place upon your vigour. You are a strong and healthy man and I am a dried willow weed set to break." He pulled away from Lestrade's intensity, difficult as the action was, his head downcast. "If you should ever feel the need to seek a body that is more...Attuned to your health. My dearest Gregory, I would not fault you."

A strong hand wound into the short strands of Mycroft's dark hair and with a forceful thrust Lestrade pulled his head up, his dark brown eyes flashing with a ferocity that flames cowered from. "Do not ever suggest such a thing again!" Lestrade shouted, and Mycroft blinked in submission in agreement to the demand, the grip of his beloved on him so tight as to be bruising. "You honestly believe I give one toss about some silly game your shortsighted peers engage in, that I would worry as your brother does, or even Dr. Watson for that matter? I know what you are truly made of, Mycroft Holmes, and you will not play this fragile ruse with me. You have time and again proven to be strong enough to endure my passion. How dare you suggest otherwise!"

He did so very much enjoy this, the way Gregory tossed him onto his back on their bed, sending papers flying, the weight of his body overtop of his own a comforting crush. Hands slid off trousers, not stopping until all that was left was Mycroft's opened cotton shirt and his flesh the same white opacity. Lestrade pressed tight against him, his muscles tense and needful while his hands and mouth explored pliant flesh and tasted moans. He leaned back, settling on his knees as he straddled Mycroft on the bed, his own clothes shucked off with careless abandon, the threads left to clutter the floor beside the bed. He didn't stop until he was nude, and Mycroft gasped at the sight of his virile Gregory, his skin the olive complexion of the Mediterranean gods. He shifted beneath him, and Lestrade grasped his wrists, holding them above his head and pinning him in place. His sex was long and hot against his own, and Mycroft groaned against the familiar rhythm Lestrade put to pace, his body and mind entangling in a spinning mixture of desire and want.

"Oh God, you are beautiful." Lestrade growled against his ear, nipping the soft flesh and then kissing it as his teeth released it. He pulled Mycroft's wrists closer as he pressed harder against him, the steady, quickening friction making Mycroft's thighs quake. "My silken warrior, my delicate ceramic doll so prone to breaking. How sweet you taste, how very soft at your centre. Moan again like that, darling, how I love it when you arch your back. My pearl..."

Such endearments, heard only upon pillows, lulled Mycroft into the heady otherworldliness of their lovemaking, kisses stolen and languid, his body building in expectation until he was now here, at the edge of that great cliff face, shivering and tense beneath his lover and ready to ignite. The signs were clear as he was pressed so tight against Lestrade who released Mycroft's wrists so he could embrace him properly, their bodies folded against each other in a tense writhing that, ultimately, spilled Mycroft over the edge of that vast precipice and sent him hurtling in desperate, wanton pleasure within it. Lestrade followed him with a growling groan pressed tight against Mycroft's ear, the hot, sticky evidence of their union pasting them together on the surface of their cluttered bed.

He remained enveloped by Lestrade's body, the scent of sex musky and strong between them. Indulging kisses continue to caress him, and when their eyes met, there was no question of seeking out that which did not exist. For there is no other man who can compare to Mycroft Holmes as much as there is no other man who can compare to Gregory Lestrade, and in their singularity these two have become entwined as tightly as the threads of a tapestry, with ample story for deduction.

A kiss on his lover's sweating forehead first, that was always how these nights ended, with Lestrade giving this offering before leaning up and off of Mycroft to gather up a damp cloth from the wash basin at the vanity beside their wardrobe. The cold, water logged cloth sent goose pimples along Mycroft's bare flesh as Lestrade silently wiped clean the evidence that had smeared them both, the tickle of it making him laugh. Their nude bodies became reflective surfaces for the flames in the hearth, and with the lustful needs of the body sated, as well as the reassurance of the heart, there was no need to be ashamed of the continued pleasures of bared flesh.

Lestrade playfully nuzzled next to his sated lover and draped his arm over Mycroft's thin, pale chest, his breathlessness no longer wheezing in discomfort. He smiled against Mycroft's shoulder.

"You're lying on my junior officer's reports."

Mycroft grimaced. "Constable Harding? Ugh, get his descriptions off of me, he is far too macabre to sleep with."

He shifted over and Lestrade plucked the papers out from under him, along with the photographs from the poet's murder. Mycroft tutted over how careless he was with the crime file, but Lestrade insisted it was important for him to bring this work home, for he needed to view it all with a fresh perspective and not one tainted by Constable Harding's overly descriptive glee.

"Much as I appreciate that the lad is thorough, his gothic meandering is something I can do without. There's no room in crime reports for flowery language that would made Percy Blythe Shelley's head reel. I worry he marrs his otherwise informative reports with unnecessary and possibly harmful embellishment."

Mycroft raised a brow as he read Constable Harding's report. "'The sanguine poet lay in a bath of black blood that seeped through the very floorboards where they shall no doubt remain a stain, a curious imprint upon which the future generations shall remark on its odd shape and perhaps they shall shiver over its foul remembrance. Nevermore shall this place be a realm of entertaining dalliance. Nevermore.' Constable Harding has been reading Poe again. It is your fault, Gregory, you did lend him the book."

"I can't work with that sort of wandering thought when all I want or need is facts. He won't like it, but I'm restricting him to point form from now on." He sighed and sank back onto the pillow beside Mycroft, his fingers pinching his brow as Mycroft continued with the entertaining read. Harding had much to say about the ragged appearance of the severed tongue. Ugh. Now that was most certainly too much information, especially with the memory of its absence and the strange, pale consistency of flesh within the mouth. Like a suffocated grouper, Mycroft thought, and shuddered.

"What is our plan for the morning?" Mycroft asked. "I do want Mary kept for a small while longer while we ply her for information, but I do not want the stay to linger into cruelty. A couple of days at most and then she may have her freedom. Going over these reports again and filtering out the chaff of your youthful officers, it's clear that as a witness, she is not of much use, from what I can glean, for she saw no one and all we have are her first descriptions of the body as she found it. Young Jack has yet to inform us if he has discovered anything of merit since I sent him on his mission early this afternoon. Perhaps we could concentrate on our Oxford professor, the one Mr. Pinter drove home?"

"That would be wisest. I'm not liking how this is playing out, with all these players creeping in. If only I'd been there, none of this pointless scurrying would exist! If I'd been at the scene I could have easily deduced the guilty party, but the only information I was left with were contaminated scraps. I didn't get there until they'd already carted the body off to Dr. Ziegler and all that I had to work with was a mess of footprints from my clueless Constables. No matter how many times you tell them, they never seem to understand that you can't just march all over a crime scene."

"The missing tongue is a puzzle," Mycroft said, frowning. "I imagine whoever has taken it has pickled it in a jar, as a permanent memento. And that is the least macabre use I can think the murderer has made of it." He turned his head to face Lestrade who was looking back at him with a lazy, thoughtful expression. "You didn't make it to the scene on time? Where were you?"

"A bloody nuisance call," Lestrade groaned. "I was trapped on the other side of London, off Cromwell Road in Michael's Grove. A hysterical wife looking for her missing husband, only for him to turn up while I was writing out the report. Apparently, he'd been gone for two nights and no one knew where he'd went. I can guess, of course. A mistress. He's a wealthy barrister with a wife who has given him money through her inheritance but alas, no children. Biology beckons that type. He's a nervous, henpecked sort, with little save his station to be thankful for. Not a gambler, not a man prone to drink. So that leaves the most obvious vice--He has found a lover and his wife most definitely suspects him of this."

"That's quite a conclusion with no evidence." Mycroft gave Lestrade an amused smile, and tickled his rugged bare hip with the tips of his marching fingers.

"I searched his coat and found a hand drawn illustration on a scrap of paper, a rather profound ink in the likeness of the man and a young woman entwined in his arms. She was smaller and daintier than the unfortunate wife, who has a build that suggests she can lay bricks with ease. What was interesting was the letterhead on the top of the piece of paper, and you'll never guess where that came from."

Mycroft waited, and Lestrade raised his brows, urging him to try. "Don't be silly, Gregory, I've nothing to go on."

"Holloway Sanatorium. Now I ask you, what's a man like that doing going after a mad girl? There's a bigger puzzle there." Lestrade let out a puff of air. "But I am too tired to pursue it tonight. We have a murder to solve, not a dalliance, and I think I've suffered Dr. Watson's company enough for one night. Scoot over, I'm getting under the covers and you should, too. No point being chilly when I'm here to warm you. There, that's it...Bring that skinny, delightful little body of yours here and let me coddle it. Just like that. Ah, blimey, I love it when you purr like that you little minx!"

But where Lestrade was tired, and was soon asleep with his face buried in Mycroft's shoulder, Mycroft was wide awake and eager to review the case of the dead poet. The more he read of Mary's account, the more he understood that they would have to cast their net wider to obtain better evidence, for Mary was not a lonely girl plying the world's oldest trade. There was a network of like women behind her who would have to be tapped for further information, about Mary and her associations and, most importantly, if any of those overlapped with the dead poet.

His body was still tingling with the memory of Lestrade's erotic touch upon it, and at last giving up on being able to concentrate on blood, no matter how gloriously Constable Harding described it, Mycroft placed the file on the cluttered bedside table and turned out the lamp. He lay in satisfied near slumber for near half an hour beside his lover, listening to the strong intake and output of breath and the pleasant rise and fall of Gregory's bare chest. He dared to share a pillow with him, and clutched him close, enjoying the offered warmth.

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter four

If their evening dinners were informal affairs enjoyed in the sombre tones of Mrs. Hudson's kitchen, breakfast was a further study in eccentric whim. This was the only meal that their odd little family enjoyed separately, with Mycroft often waking later than Lestrade, the Inspector attired in his usual uniform and impeccable in appearance while Mycroft remained lazily draped in a dressing gown that was far too large for him. He wore cotton pants for the sake of modesty, but there was naught else beneath the heavy brocade robe, and he was content to yawn and stagger into the sitting room where breakfast awaited them. His bare feet hit the wooden floors with daily shock, a purposeful exercise that was meant to wake him. But as these appendages were of the same icy temperature as the floor, an issue that had Lestrade yelping in their mutual bed on more than one occasion, the effort at fulfilling wakefulness in this way was pointless.

Cream lathered scones and a large pot of fresh tea were placed in the centre of the small table just off to the side of the room towards the large window that overlooked Baker Street. The large, heavily flowered teapot competed with the various scientific bric-a-brac that Lestrade had stacked onto the table, namely a series of half a dozen test tubes with the dirt of London categorized and labelled according to geography, a collection of small pocket knives, blades out, and, much to Mycroft's shock and dismay, several rubber sheaths of a kind prostitutes used to prevent pregnancy and disease. They were all in various sizes, from small to ridiculously large, and, though he did *not* want to press the matter, he was quite sure some of the rubber sheaths had, in fact, been in use before.

"Good morning, Mycroft!" Lestrade grinned over his tea, bidding him to take the seat across from him. "You've got a late start today. Look at you, it's eight in the morning and you've still got pillow creases on your cheek. You have far too busy a day ahead to be wasting it in slumber, so I suggest you wolf down a scone and have a spot of tea after you get dressed. We have an Oxford man to hunt down, after all. Ah, wait, put a hold on that thought, Mycroft..." Lestrade used his teacup to gesture at the open door leading into their sitting room and Mycroft turned to see Young Jack sleepily standing in its frame, his never ending hungry eye seeking out a more pleasant breakfast spot than the one Mrs. Hudson was currently occupying. It was washing day, and that meant all cotton threads in the house were getting a good scouring. Mrs. Hudson's time was eaten away by the need for pressed and starched sheets which meant Young Jack would have to wait for his usual ample breakfast.

"Come in, lad!" Lestrade cheerfully boomed, and Young Jack obliged, skipping into the sitting room and snatching up Lestrade's legs in a warm hug before seeking out his own chair to join them. "Tea and scones, then, for a hardworking young man of London town, whose eyes and ears miss none of its salacious dramas. I heard Mycroft sent you on a mission yesterday afternoon, and we are both very eager to hear all about it."

Young Jack wiggled into his seat beside Mycroft, who inwardly remarked that the boy was growing again, his trousers now hugging up past his ankles and in need of letting out. Despite their best efforts he always had a dishevelled look about him, his thick plethora of freckles and his orange tinged wayward mop of hair making him younger in appearance than his ten years. He hoped he would stay close to Mrs. Hudson today and not stray as he often did. Mycroft worried about his little entrepreneurial efforts at chimney sweeping, offering his services on a freelance basis to the dark, suspect men who took him on. He'd heard stories that such work could be dangerous for the small children they used to get into the crannies of the chimney to clear them out of accumulated debris, and he'd already heard from Jack's mouth himself how two of his younger friends had fallen straight through the flue, suffering broken legs. Worse still were stories of children becoming hopelessly stuck and those who hired them abandoning them to their choked, charcoal fate. There were foul men in this world, indeed.

One would assume, as one would, that it was Mrs. Hudson who took on the maternal role in caring for Young Jack, and while much of his day was spent in aiding her in her endless daily tasks, it was Mycroft who he ran to when hurt, be it injury or slight. It was with no small amount of fondness that Mycroft recalled the skinned knee that had torn Jack's best trousers, his weeping more for the cloth than the pain. He wailed as an infant would, and refused all help from Mrs. Hudson and would only allow Mycroft to treat and dress the wound, with Mrs. Hudson hovering behind him to offer instruction. He'd curled helplessly in Mycroft's lap as they sat in the winged chair before the fire, the shadows absorbing Young Jack's miserable weeping, all semblance of cheeky independence gone. It was a scene that was repeated often in the last three years since he had joined them, when he had shown up on their doorstep near starved and dressed in black rags, soaked to the bone from the onslaught of a vicious evening downpour. There were thousands of such orphans littering the gutters of London, and though the common treatment was to run them off like rats and offer no sympathy, Mycroft could not find it in him to enact such cold cruelty. This child was not to blame for his orphan poverty, and perhaps with the constant influence of Dickens always at the back of his mind, Mycroft had brought the then sickly child in, and had played nursemaid under Mrs. Hudson's strict instructions. Mrs. Hudson had not been happy about this addition into their abode at the beginning, convinced the child was mired in plague or consumption or worse, destined to kill them all. But beneath the skeletal limbs and rags, there was a strong boy trying to get out, and with good meals, hygiene and genuine care for his well being, he blossomed into a highly intelligent, healthy boy whose young education under the combined knowledge of Lestrade, Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson could rival any Oxford scholar.

"What are these things?" Young Jack asked as he picked up one of the rubber sheaths and dangled it over the table. "It feels weird."

Mortified, a red faced Mycroft snatched it from his hand and hid both it and the other offensive examples under a cloth napkin. He shot Lestrade a furious glare, who looked back at him with blank, helpless incomprehension. "Do you care to explain to the *child*, Gregory? And mind you are to be careful in your descriptions!"

Lestrade's eyes widened in wide circles as this, his own face reddening as understanding dawned. He stammered and stopped, seeking his way out, and found it in the curve of Mycroft's cane, which he pointed at in relief. "They are cane protectors. Just new on the market, we're testing out their usefulness. They go on the bottom of Mr. Holmes's cane, see, the thick rubber keeps off all the London muck and he won't be tracking it into the cloakroom and making Mrs. Hudson fuss."

Mycroft narrowed his eyes at Lestrade, giving him an 'Oh really, that's the best you could do?' look, and Lestrade gave him a helpless shrug in response.

"Why haven't you put one on it, then?" Young Jack asked.

"Because they are frivolous, my boy. Not all things made are meant to be of real use. Two sugars for your tea, no more, you will make it a syrup if I let you. Now, Inspector Lestrade is eager to hear your report, Young Constable In Training Jack, so do tell us all you've discovered."

Young Jack puffed in pride at the thought of being elevated to Constable status, and he spoke around crumbs of sweet scones. "I saw the piano teacher first, the one named Miss Turner. I told her my mother sent me to get lessons on account of me being dim at numbers and she wanted to increase my mathematics. I heard she was a right good composer of music, and someone who does that has to be good at maths." Young Jack took another bite of scone before scoffing down a mouthful of tea, the two competing for his attention until he managed to swallow. "She's right pretty enough but I knows why she ain't got a husband. She's mousy, and wears drab colours and spends her whole days indoors doing naught but playing piano and teaching children. A right spinster, then, but not the mean kind you tend to meet, this one's just sad. She had me go in her house and taught me a lesson for now't, just to have the company. When I asked if she had a husband, she just looked out the window all wistful-like, and said poets don't have wives. Then she caught herself and gave me a biscuit before sending me off. I got her card. Pretty bold of a lady like that being her own boss and all, and she's real good at the piano playing. Do you think I could take lessons?"

Best to ensure she wasn't a murderess first, Mycroft thought, but he smiled at Jack and hinted it could be a possibility.

Buoyed by this news, Jack continued his report. "She doesn't even have servants at her house, so I'm thinking she's not got a lot of money, or what she does have goes into her little home. She used to be a governess for a wealthy family, and she was given the house when the children were grown. There's a picture of the father of her former students on the top of the piano, but there's no picture of his wife or kids. Come to thinks of it, there's no other pictures of anyone in the house, none of her own family or nothing, just him."

"You're a man of details, Jack!" Lestrade exclaimed, impressed. "I'm sure there's plenty in your mind about that, Mycroft, and I needn't ask you to know you are thinking my thoughts."

It was rather telling fact, Mycroft inwardly agreed, and one that explained the strange generosity of the family in securing her a pleasant home after her employ with them was finished. Affairs were common, and more so with governesses who possessed an air of culture that lowly servants did not. She did not seem to be a flighty woman, however, from Jack's descriptions, and Mycroft wondered if the patriarch that had settled her in her home was still alive. Perhaps she was a secretive widow, who had fallen upon the whims of a sham poet in the midst of her grief and loneliness. The picture she presented was more sad than gruesome, and from the positive way Jack talked about her, it was unlikely she was one to succumb to thoughts of homicide. Self erasure, perhaps, a common affliction among women of her type.

"Did she say anything more about this poet who doesn't marry?" Lestrade asked, his hands steepled over his cup of steaming tea.

Jack shook his head. "She seemed hopeful. Maybe she's thinking he will, and ask her."

Lestrade sighed at this. "Well, there's one lead gone. She's hardly a suspect if she believes she's jilted and he's off alive being a romanticist somewhere else. What of the other girl? The artist?"

Jack made a face, not at all pleased to talk about her. "Alice was miserable and potty!"

Lestrade raised a brow at this. "How so?"

"She's just a girl, really, she told me she was sixteen, but I think she's younger. I found her in the Royal Botanical Gardens, stuck in front of an easel with pencils and papers, sketching the flowers. She can draw real good and I told her so, and she answered me by saying I was just some stupid little street rat so what did I know about it? I told her lots and lots, that Leonardo DaVinci was a right sketchy one like her, and at that she near threw her pencils at me!"

"A rather odd response to a compliment," Mycroft agreed, ignoring Lestrade's bemused expression. "Did she mention anything about a poet?"

"That she did, Mr. Holmes, right after I made the comparison, she goes on a real crazy tangent about how she's gonna be famous and all due to her pencil scribbles and she's gonna be rich and not have to be shipped off to finishing school to learn manners like her parents want. She's a skinny runt, and don't act like no lady I've ever met, and I doubt she ever will. Kept bragging that people have seen her work and been all aflutter over it, paying her commissions for ads for soap already. I guess there's one that's peony scented coming out, she was drawing plenty of those."

Heavy steps intruded on their conversation and the flustered form of Mrs. Hudson burst into the sitting room, her stern gaze fixed on Jack who looked guiltily back at her. "There you are! Hanging about this place like its little lord and master and breakfasting with the men of the house! I have plenty of work for you to do, young man, so get back in the yard and help me roll those sheets through the wringer! Stuffing your face, as always! Go on, downstairs, and leave adults to their business!" She shook her head at both Mycroft and Lestrade for indulging the boy, her sharp eyes not missing the extra teacup and the evidence of crumbs. "No point getting him a proper breakfast full of eggs and bacon rashers now. If you have washing best to give it now or it will have to wait until next week. When will you be supping?"

"The usual time, Mrs. Hudson, we are planning to get an early start to the day."

"I won't stand for lateness from either of you, then. Also, Mr. Holmes, if it's not so much bother, is it possible you could wear a shirt beneath your dressing gown next time? Slippers would not be amiss, either, you do have quality, felted wool ones, I knit them for you myself. Bare feet and chest, courting pneumonia, and it's not even June!"

Young Jack miserably followed her, but not before Mycroft gave him a gentle hug of reassurance. "You have been very helpful, Jack."

"You're a proper Constable, you are," Lestrade agreed, and Jack beamed. "Better by far than those dim lumps I have to work with. I get more out of wooden posts than I do out of that lot. Mind Mrs. Hudson now, and be a good lad. And don't go veering off to earn your pennies, you stay out of the chimneys, I've warned you enough!"

"Yes, Sir," Young Jack said, but there was a mischievous twinkle in his bright blue eyes that suggested he would try to tempt fate and Mrs. Hudson's patience at least a few times today.

Lestrade was morose over his tea when the boy and Mrs. Hudson left. "And there goes lead number two. The spoiled brat of a girl has found herself a lucrative business venture thanks to all this, and thus it's also unlikely she killed him."

"She has a foul temper," Mycroft reminded him.

"Jack described her as a 'skinny runt'. I very much doubt she had the brute strength needed to gut a man in the neck and then lurk around long enough to chop out a tongue. She's also vain, as proven by her need to remain in clean spaces like the Gardens, and to refrain from using paints in public."

Mycroft frowned over his tea. "How is that indicative of vanity?"

"The paints would stain her dress and hands, of course. She sketches the flowers first and then uses what is presumably her art studio for actual painting. Which also tells us she has an artist's memory for shape and colour, which she can reproduce at will, and thus does not truly need to be studying flowers at the Royal Botanical Gardens, but she enjoys the attention her sketches of them bring her. Talented, annoying and selfish, yes, but a murderess, sadly, no."

"So are we to Oxford this morning, then?" Mycroft finished his tea and sighed over the long day that was stretching taut in front of him. He had yet to go over several cases that were coming up for his prescribed quarter sessions and he was never one to be neglectful.

"No," Lestrade said, folding up his napkin and releasing the rubber sheaths into the morning sunlight as he snatched up the cloth Mycroft had used to hide them with. "We are going to spend our morning with whores, Mycroft. Considering the places we will be going, perhaps it would be wise after all to sheath your cane."

~*~

The East End is filled with dark crannies and algae strewn holes, the streets immersed in shadow on even the brightest of days. It is not, as one would believe, a place that is unfrequented by gentlemen, for ale houses call to a wide variety of the masses, and there are expensive, well tailored threads and tattered suits alike in their confines, the promise of oblivion one that beckons the lost. There are many such people in London, and a spindly man leaning heavily on his cane and turning at intervals towards the helpful police inspector at his side sent a ripple of worry through the mixed populace. The Law has a distinctive aroma about them to such rabble, and Mycroft was not unaware of how they were regarded, with suspicion and curiosity. They were heralds of violent death, and everyone but the guilty were terrified of blame.

The more experienced of their kind understood the difference between bobbies on the prowl for an easy arrest and detectives seeking genuine answers. Inspector Lestrade had earned a reputation among the criminal elements as being tough, but fair, not arresting the downtrodden or half listening to the facts of a story only to disregard them when arresting a favoured suspect. He was a truth seeker, and as such those who benefited best from that actively sought him out.

A heavily bosomed woman in her late forties stood beside the entrance into The Alma Pub and whistled shrilly at him. "Oi! I knows you, Inspector. You was kind enough to warn us off when that Ripper business went down round Whitechapel. Are you here to catch the bastard?"

"I only wish," Lestrade said, tipping the rim of his top hat to her. Mycroft held back, observing her intently. "I'm afraid that problem may never be solved, for I suspect that butchering monster to be on the other side of the world, in an entirely new continent, where I doubt his actions will be as easy to conceal. Americans are far more nosy than the English. You are looking well, Agnes. Which is more than I can say for the scrawny young woman beside you. I do hope you are being fair in your commissions."

Agnes rolled her eyes. She was a large woman, one who could easily take down an average man and who presented an air of propriety upon the very air around her. The young woman beside her hid herself protectively between the black wall of the pub and behind the large woman's skirts, her wide, dark eyes staring at Mycroft as though he were an exotic animal.

"I takes care of my girls," Agnes proudly boomed. "I'm not like some of them wenches who keep them chained in debt and whips them when they don't get working. If a girl finds her way to a better means, I got no problem seeing her go. Happy for her, even. But when they're with me, they give me a third of what they earn and I makes sure the punters ain't rough handlers. This one, here," She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder at the quivering young waif at her skirts. "Broken right out of the country, got mistreated on the carriage into London and arrived ruined. I ain't putting her to work yet, got to fatten her up some, but it'll be a special sort what gets her. She's got the eyes to draw them in enough, but I'm not so sure she'll be best used to that advantage." She folded her meaty arms over her massive chest. "Now, we know each other well enough, Inspector, and I daresay we have an understanding. What you doing here, with a judge of the assize on your arm?"

Mycroft raised a brow at her knowledge of him, and Agnes gave him a wide smile, one that pinched her features into thin slits on her fat face. He cautiously narrowed his gaze at her before turning towards the frightened young woman behind her skirts, his tone soft as he spoke. "Are you in danger, young miss?"

The waif's eyes darkened into a devil's storm and she raked out at him with clawed hands, spitting on the ground and hitting the tips of his shoes. A spate of curses left her, hurled with such viciousness at him he took a step back as though they would bruise him.

"That's enough, get back now!" The young woman was pulled back, remaining behind Agnes's girth and given a stern warning before the large woman turned back to the two gentlemen before her. "She's feral this one. Never been raised by much, can't read nor write, no religion, no family, just the crust of the earth and you don't learn no manners out of dirt. But she's fierce and is better than any guard dog worth having and eats less. You mind yourself with this one, girl! That's a judge of the assize court you just maligned, and the only fair one, so stand down!"

To Mycroft's shock, the young woman actually *growled* at this, her dark eyes filled with the very embers of Hades, her fingers splayed in claws that ended in sharp nails cut to points, ready to render him into scrap meat. Her stained and overly large dress did little to ease the discomfort her continued glare at him inspired, and though Mycroft had stared down brutal murderers who were easily six times her size, he was cowed by the brutal honesty of her hatred, one that he was sure had ended more than one life and not always in self defence.

"I need some information on one of the girls who may have worked around here," Lestrade pressed Agnes, who rolled her eyes at him. "Her name is Mary Oakes and..."

"I don't know every whore and prozzie that stomps these streets, Inspector, for if I did they'd be hightailed off of my turf. As for her name, well, they're all Mary to someone, ain't they?" She bit her bottom lip, the thick flesh obscuring her stained teeth. "Mary Oakes. Like merry oaks, to remind of the whiskey cask!" Agnes howled in laughter, and Mycroft found himself shrinking from it in horror. "Good one, that!"

"I'm glad it's distinctive," Lestrade said, nodding. "Please send out the word, we're looking for associations with her, to see if they overlap with a recent murder. We don't believe she did the crime, but in order to free her from Newgate Prison we need more information."

"Ah, I gets it," Agnes said, tapping the side of her head with a finger the size of a thick sausage. "You're talking about *Mary*, the one what went down for the murder of that fancy man poet whatsit. You're all barking up the tree all wrong with her, I can tell you that, she's no innocent, but of that one thing she has to be!"

"How do you mean?" Mycroft asked.

Agnes loudly chuckled at this. Mycroft watched her young, vicious companion carefully, for she was still staring at him with her black demon's eyes, the fae look of her unsettling as she sat on the wet ground in her filthy cotton skirts, legs crossed beneath them like a djinn. "Mary Oakes ain't no murderess! She can't abide the sight of blood! We had a man stabbed not a week ago from this very morning, and Mary was set to come into the pub to meet one of her men only to swoon and stagger the second she got a glimpse of red! Threw up and all, and didn't meet her mark, which put her behind in rent, but there was plenty here what witnessed it. When I read of it in the paper it was clear she weren't the one. We all had a good laugh over that."

Mycroft raised a brow at this. "How so? I thought you did not know her."

"Well, I weren't sure it was *that* Mary, was I? Like I said, around here *everyone* is..."

"Everyone is Mary," Mycroft curtly finished for her. "But not everyone is Mary Oakes, and not everyone is up for charges of murder, her story spread across the front page of The London Gazette. Which tells me, Agnes, if that is your name, that you knew of Mary Oakes's innocence and yet you did not immediately come forward." He fixed her in the icy stare that was used to great effect during his sentencing of devils, of which he was now sure Agnes was one. "Explain."

He had found a sore spot, one that Lestrade respectfully allowed him to poke at, the mangy cur growling at the massive woman's feet no longer an effective deterrent. Agnes was uncomfortable, shifting foot to foot as she glared at them both, her large mouth now twisted in an ugly snarl. "She were puttin' on airs, that one. Always thought she was better than us, with her fancy dresses and her Lord and Lady manners, like she were some royal estate bitch. She weren't better than any of us, she's just a prozzie, one more on the pile of skirts. A whore. She got no right coming around here and playing at lady airs like that when she was down a punter or two. Word is she was after a rich gentleman to marry, thinking she was good enough for it and if that didn't work she had the gall to have ambition. She can sing pretty good, was thinking of going for the stage as a transition. Imagine, a little whore like that, singing for an audience! The damned cheek of it, that fake little hoity-toity slut!"

"Jealousy is not an adequate reason to put a person in the gallows," Mycroft snapped at her. He made a move to leave and her demon familiar swiped at his leg, but he shook her off, unmoved. He glared at Agnes. "Mind your dog."

Mycroft left them behind, but Lestrade offered his thanks to Agnes, his association with her more complicated than a judge of the assize courts needed to be. Foul woman! It was bad luck enough for a young woman to be reduced to chattel for men's unspoken, base needs, but to be forced under that monolith's servitude made it all the worse.

Lestrade caught up with him, and hailed Mr. Pinter, who was waiting on the outside of the alley in a far brighter section of street, a geography Mycroft was grateful for. "I'm sorry you had to endure that. But at least we know for sure of the impossibility that Mary had been involved in this crime. We'll go to the Yard next and secure her release from Newgate Prison, no point leaving the poor girl to fester in prison when she can be back out here, festering in the one in the streets."

"Mary Oakes is not of that sort," Mycroft said, shuddering at the exchange they had endured in front of The Alma Pub. "I hope that she does find her freedom and does escape London, this city has no heart for such desperate people."

"I couldn't agree more. But we do have a battle ahead of us. The Chief is going to be hard to convince, he's got his narrow blinders on in this case and the back up of delusional Constables who are feeding him misinformation about the crime scene and what they witnessed. Every one of those intellectual rocks has a different story, and I've managed to pluck the similar truths out of each one to present to him as the actual facts. I'm going to need your strong support for this one, Mycroft, the Chief won't be so bullheaded with a judge in my corner."

"I'm not so sure about that," Mycroft sighed. "He's one of the top betters in the Mortality Race."

"It's not always the brightest man who climbs to the top," Lestrade bitterly complained. "He's good friends with Judge Quibly, so it shouldn't come as a surprise. The two of them are fat oafs who frequent that very pub we left on their off days, and I do believe the Chief and Judge Quibly need reminders of the law that this sort of gambling is illegal, and no claim of parody is going to cure that fact!"

The climbed into the cab, the hook of Mycroft's cane tapping the ceiling and spurring Mr. Pinter into action. It was still early morning and Mycroft enjoyed the rare sunny view of the streets and its occupants, the spring air bringing a sense of peace with it. Flowering trees dotted the small roadways leading into private homes, while the main street they road on was crowded with every sort of peddler, their billboards cluttering up the landscape with cure alls and haberdashery, bright letters competing with the delicate outlines of flower sellers. Gangs of children dashed in front of the carriage, making the seasoned horse pause and sending Mr. Pinter into a cursing frenzy as he shooed the wayward boys off. Mycroft watched the gang of boys as they darted into an alley behind a barbershop, hopeful that Young Jack was not of their number. With all of the work she had to do today with the weekly washing, Young Jack could easily slip away from Mrs. Hudson's otherwise careful watch.

They arrived at the Yard, and Mr. Pinter was asked to wait, for they still had their Oxford suspect to visit. Mycroft wasn't used to spending so much time running across London, that was usually Gregory's expertise, and the constant stopping and starting was set to grate on his energy. He was already feeling depleted after the confrontation with Agnes and her strange feral bodyguard. This further confrontation with the Chief was one which he braced himself for, Lestrade already marching in a direct line to the man's desk, the lesser officers milling about the station looking on with a gossiper's curiosity. You would never meet a more chatty, nosy bunch than those who worked at Scotland Yard, for their very professions made them so, though they too often turned their attention to detail and ability to make connections on each other far more than they ever did to crime scenes--A fault that Lestrade found himself in constant battle with.

"Good afternoon, your Honour!" Constable Harding darted in front of him, obscuring his view of Gregory who stood before the Chief's desk with arms crossed and furious ire pressed across his brow. Harding was fresh faced and smelled of formaldehyde, a clear sign he'd been spending time in the morgue with Dr. Ziegler again. One would wonder at that odd, close friendship, but it was purely professional in nature, the passions solely for corpses. It was no shock that Harding was perpetually destined for bachelorhood and this seemed a more natural course of events. Overly eager and fascinated by death, it would take a woman with a strong stomach to deal with him on a daily basis. Through the extensive network of gossip at the Yard, Mycroft was told Harding's last attempt at courtship--of a young woman of surprisingly good means, being the daughter of a wealthy linen manufacturer--had ended in her being sick in the public square and then slapping him hard across the face. "I don't want to hear about mangled hands!" she'd exclaimed before running away from him, the jar of fingers he'd offered as a curious gift smashed on the ground between them.

"We have found the tongue!" Harding exclaimed, his grin wide. "After visiting the body of Mr. McGonagall once again, I remarked to Dr. Ziegler that the throat seemed strangely swollen, and not from the usual decay. So we sliced open his neck to expose the esophagus and what do you think we discovered there!"

Mycroft felt green. "A tongue."

"Why yes, and how very odd it was to find it there! There's only one conclusion for that, and it's that the perpetrator must have cut the tongue from Mr. McGonagall's corpse and then shoved it down his throat. Since we can't find any instrument he may have used, our best guess is that he used his fist. It's not easy to push a human fist down a person's throat, Dr. Ziegler and I experimented on a spare corpse, and there's quite a bit of resistance due to the strength of the tendons surrounding it, and it's also quite a narrow passage, so the fist would have to actually tear through the muscle and tissue of the human throat. If you have ever had to tear raw chicken off of the bone with your bare hands and understood that struggle, imagine the difficulty of tearing at such a larger specimen of meat and the short amount of time needed. Factoring in rigour mortis, which also occurs within the hour of death, and we know the murderer waited at least half an hour to ensanguinate Mr. McGonagall fully, that becomes a further problem of resistance as all the muscles and tendons tense within the body into hard atrophy." Constable Harding made a fist, visually illustrating the struggle, and making Mycroft more than a tad sick. He punched and groaned into an imaginary corpse, making popping noises to represent the broken tendons. "Dr. Ziegler and I had a hell of a time shoving a marble down the throat of a corpse in this way, and I nearly strained my shoulder at the effort. Dr. Ziegler likened the experience to stuffing a turkey with its innards still intact. Very difficult."

Harding was thankfully called over the Chief's desk, and Mycroft was instantly relieved. Lestrade's demeanour was also more relaxed, he was happy to note, and no shouting match between peers had to be enacted. He did witness Lestrade's warning finger, however, and the Chief's raised brow at Mycroft's lurking presence in the Yard. The Chief was a thickset man with a perpetually red face and a bushy set of grey brows that met in the middle of his forehead. He was a twin of sorts of Judge Quibly whom he was known to frequent pubs with and whom he turned a blind eye towards the judge's many legal transgressions, especially when it came to gambling. Mycroft had to wonder if the Chief was set to tell Quibly about his pallor, wrongfully believing it was his health when in fact it was simply Harding's passionately detailed descriptions of their homicide's perverse nature. He took some happy solace in the fact that Quibly would be acting on such information and upping his bets in the vain hope that his fellow judge would simply stop breathing.

Mycroft was actually having a good day in that regard, his breaths wide and open, and he hadn't had to resort once to the eucalyptus folded in his handkerchief. The lack of wind and bright sunlight had much to do with this, the poisons of the Thames forced to remain within the confines of that great river and not blown throughout the streets of London.

At last, Lestrade broke free of the Chief and approached Mycroft in a significantly happier mood than the one he'd been in when he'd arrived at the Yard. He gently took Mycroft's elbow and escorted him out of the building, to where Mr. Pinter and his carriage were waiting. "Mary Oakes was released this morning," Lestrade said. "We'll never find her again now, and it's just as well as she has no bearing on this case. I trust you heard how it was she was exonerated?"

Mycroft felt that woozy green feeling overtake him again. "Yes, Constable Harding filled me in using great detail. Really, Gregory, is there something wrong with that young man? He participated in the desecration of a corpse for the purpose of experiment, that can't possibly be right."

"It proved without a doubt Mary Oakes's innocence. The fear of blood would have got her off in theory, but this is outright physical evidence. It would take a strong man to push a tongue down a stiff corpse's throat, enough to rip it apart the way it was. You feeling all right? You're all pale again. I thought you were breathing easy today."

"I am, Gregory, it is but the effect this has had on a sensitive stomach."

Lestrade smiled at him as they got back into the cab yet again, and this time before Mycroft had a chance to hit the roof of it with his cane to spur Mr. Pinter into action, he stole a small kiss from Mycroft's pale lips. "Your sensitive nature, you mean. You may be a man of steel when pronouncing judgement, but I know where all your delightful little soft spots are."

"Gregory, mind yourself, the curtains are open!"

"It was just a pickpocket of a kiss, Mycroft, and no one could see us from that angle, and I hardly think there are any spies on rooftops peering in. We're moving now, what a shame! I could have gone further into that lovely pouting mouth of yours."

Mycroft pretended to bristle at this, but the excitement and danger of it did send a little thrill through him, one he would never admit and one that Gregory, with his irascible grin, had already deduced. Mycroft jutted out his chin and put on a air of dismissal, "So we are off to Oxford?"

"No. We promised Sherlock a visit. We should get that out of the way first."

Of course.

Defeat overtook Mycroft at this, and the pleasant lull of a sunny morning was now a powerful, blasting spotlight upon the most stressful portion of his life. The carriage swayed as they travelled over the cobblestones, making Mycroft feel suddenly unbalanced. He watched the scenes of London outside his window with a protracted sense of unease welling within his gut. Sensing his silent discomfort, Lestrade dared to reach over and clasp Mycroft's hand, the gentle reminder of his care sending a rush of feeling through him, enough to threaten tears. Mr. Pinter drove a route that took them alongside the wretched Thames before veering off the miles from Charing Cross, reminding Mycroft of all the times Sherlock had been dragged out of it, and how he had possibly made yet another attempt the day before. He closed his curtain on the view, and Lestrade's grip on his hand became firmer.

"He'll be fine, Mycroft. He always is now that he's there."

"A girl ended her life at Holloway, and Sherlock was her friend. Who is to say he doesn't get it into his insane head that he should follow her?"

"He insists she's been murdered."

"Sherlock's cries for help are always bathed in strange metaphors, you know this. He is concerned he is the murderer set to do in himself. I worry for him, Gregory."

"You haven't stopped worrying for him since the day he was born. Come on, Mycroft, you have to put on a braver face than this, no tears when we walk up those steps, Sherlock will hone in on them and use them as weapons and before you know it you'll be taking him home and giving him tea and fussing over his creature comforts like you're his personal valet and housemaid in one. Don't sigh so, you know it's true."

He brought Mycroft's hand to his lips and lightly kissed his wrist, sending Mycroft's already uneasy heart into a tailspin from which he struggled to aright himself. Much as he appreciated Gregory's tender touches, he couldn't bear it at present, not with disaster looming in the shape of a pleasant Tudor villa situated inside of London, its doors imposing and austere despite the sentiments behind its construction. Holloway Sanatorium attempted to be majestic with its admirable tower and bright red brickwork, but the massive, cathedral size of it was overpowering on the simple street it squatted on. He braced himself as the carriage slowed at the main entrance, and Mr. Pinter hopped down from his perch to assist Mycroft out of the cab. Mycroft felt shaken as the door was opened, the outline of Holloway now a crushing, looming monstrosity that held all manner of madness within it, including the hidden corridors within himself.

"Mind yourself there, your Honour, your cane slipped on the corner of the step."

"Thank you, Mr. Pinter. You may wait for us. We appreciate this sojourn here and I do understand how much we are taxing on your horse."

"Betty Blue don't mind the marathons, your Honour. But I will stop and give her a bit of a rest when I head back to Baker Street and give her flanks a good massaging. She's strong and able and could cross back and forth across the entire country if I needed her to, I'm sure on that." He gave his beloved mare a pat on the neck which made her whinny in appreciation. "Inspector Lestrade has told me you are taking the afternoon train into Oxford, a wise choice but one that will make your arrival back in London well past your supper. I'll inform Mrs. Hudson of your plans, your Honour, I wouldn't want her fretting and pacing in front of the door like she does when either of you don't show up at the appointed time to dine. She's a determined clock watcher, Mrs. Hudson is. She measures everything by minutes."

"I appreciate that, Mr. Pinter. Thank you."

He watched as Pinter patted his mare's neck again, in the genuine symbiosis of affection that often happened between working man and beast in full display. With his plodding manner and regal manners, Mr. Pinter and his horse were one and the same, so intricately linked it was as though they had become a singular being. An odd thought, and Mycroft fought to shrug it off. He wasn't even in the halls of Holloway yet, and he was becoming infected with its madness.

He was still stumbling when he made his way out of the carriage and then up the large steps to the oak door that bid them entry, Lestrade walking a few steps behind him and affording him the personal space he needed to compose himself. He was right, of course, it wouldn't do to express his worry in front of his brother, and if there were to be tears they were to be indulged in secret, with Lestrade's strong, dark hands wiping them away as much as his warm embrace allowed them to exist.

The main lobby of Holloway was another example of institutionalized excess, with the vaulted ceilings arching as though one were in a place of intense worship, the corridors echoing with footfalls and whispered prayers. Patients in casual garb milled about the large space, some of them clutching the ever present, ridiculous dolls. A haunted young woman who looked very much like the one who growled at him from the feet of the indomitable Agnes, so much she could have been her sister, fixed him in her sights, and he involuntarily shuddered at the way she turned her head, to the left and then the right, and even over her shoulder, keeping him under constant watch, her movements jerking and eerily unnatural.

He was so busy watching her watching him that he didn't notice the gentleman rushing out of the administration room and was near toppled by him as their shoulders collided. Mycroft glanced his way as though in a daze, and the man stammered a fractured apology, his dishevelled appearance heightened by the flash of both fright and despair evident upon him. Lestrade frowned at the gentleman, who bent his head and rushed out of Holloway past him, not giving him time to answer his question of "Aren't you that fellow?"

Lestrade turned to Mycroft, utterly confused. "I know that man. He's the one that went missing only to turn up, the one with the mad mistress who was, or is, staying here."

"Perhaps he was visiting her," Mycroft dully said.

"Yeah, more than likely I suppose. He seemed terribly upset, though. I wonder why."

A loud clap broke into the silence, making them both start. Dr. Watson journeyed into the vast space upon notice that they had arrived, his rotund form framed by the starched white coat he sported when working at the sanatorium, a uniform which gave him an air of scientific certainty. Mycroft wasn't sure why he insisted on such a get up, as a psychiatrist he was meant to study the mind not the body, but Dr. Watson was thorough in his rounds when visiting his patients and sought to ensure they had an impression of both cleanliness and competence.

Of course, there were aspects to his role that required he take on former surgical cases. He had explained to Mycroft that often what seemed to be a mental incapacitation ended up having a physical component that no amount of therapy could hope to cure. "If a man shows up after a massive brain injury, enough to have bits of that grey matter cut out thanks to skull fracture and the impact of an axe, well, what's set to cure that? My good fellow, people look upon Holloway as though it is a miracle, and while we have had much success for many who come through its doors, of all walks of life, we cannot treat a mind that is outright missing!" He'd tutted over this, and twirled the ends of his large moustache. "But then, these people do afford interesting study for the effect of that missing matter upon what's left. Through a process of elimination, such survivors have proved invaluable. We are close on a breakthrough to discover the portions of the brain responsible for epileptic seizures, for example, though I do believe the method to cure it will take a few decades of careful study. There is the thought that careful administrations of electricity to damaged areas of the brain can affect wondrous cures for a wide variety of mental affliction that begins solely in neurological pathways. For now, we must content ourselves with encouraging words and redirection. Are you going to eat that scone?"

Dr. Watson was no less boisterous now as he greeted them, his arms open and hands wide in a familiarity Mycroft bristled at. "Ah, he has been expecting you! Do come on, both of you, it always lightens his mood to have family around him, and especially after last night's terrors it does well to ease him into calm. He is in the entertainment room, over by the window, and I am happy to report his appetite has not waned in the least, and he had an excellent night's rest after a grand talk with me throughout the wee hours of morning."

He directed them through a sunny atrium, where various patients were engaged in simple activities, some of them putting puzzles together, others working on the ever present rag dolls, a small group huddled in a corner with a nurse, playing with a shared xylophone. The atmosphere was one of spa-like relaxation, shrouded in positive light and ample potted ferns that dotted the room and added an organic component to healing that was in keeping with Holloway's philosophy of care. There were no cruel pens here, no gawking public to watch the spectacle of the mad, the areas clean and precise. A shout echoed from somewhere in the far confines of the sanatorium, but it was quickly quelled by two nurses who flanked the distressed individual and hurried him off to his room to find his peace.

The shuffling gaits and empty eyes of the current inmates within the entertainment room gave Mycroft his first clue as to what to expect, but it was always a shock to be faced with it.

Sherlock was sitting by a large window, bathed in sunlight so bright it near cancelled him out. Mycroft approached Sherlock with wary steps, his hand resting on his brother's thin shoulder. He was dressed in a white housecoat and clean, pressed cotton pyjamas, the slippers Mrs. Hudson had knit for Mycroft now warming his brother's feet instead. "Sherlock?" he dared to ask, but Sherlock was slow to respond, his eyes blankly staring out the large window and onto the Holloway green space, where some of the other patients were engaged in a confused game of what looked to be soccer, but was devoid of any actual rules.

"Hello. Mycroft." He didn't stop staring out the window, his words slurring. He'd been heavily medicated of course, the usual dose of laudanum that he would receive after his wild episodes. Mycroft crouched beside him so Sherlock could get a better look at him, but Sherlock's focus was still slowed to the point of fugue and he frowned slightly at Mycroft's odd posture.

"How are you, Sherlock?"

His brother frowned deeper, as though not fully understanding the question. "I think...I'm...I'm fine...I think." Sherlock closed his eyes. "I'm. Tired. Mycroft."

A young nurse bearing a tray walked up to them both, her long skirts and starched white apron grazing the floor as she set a cup of tea on the table beside Sherlock. She had to bid him to take it before she left, and Sherlock held the saucer and cup in his hands, still staring blankly out the window into the brilliant sunny view and not seeing the small ball being kicked back and forth, and not seeing the happy laughter of the nurses as they joined their patients, and not seeing the ease of life that was possible. Sherlock's still form so resembled their mother's frozen stare into worlds that didn't exist, where the hours slipped past her unnoticed, that Mycroft near reeled from the flashback of it, his lungs seizing at the clarity of the memory. Mycroft reached up and affectionately caressed the hollow cheek of his brother's face with the back of his hand, a touch Sherlock did not respond to.

He tried to keep the catch out of his voice and kept his cadence strong. "It's good to see you are doing better."

Sherlock frowned again, the tea still clutched in his grip.

"Better."

From his crouched position, Mycroft looked up at him, and dared to rest his cheek on Sherlock's thigh. "It was good to see you, Sherlock. I have a number of things to do today, but I will return another time, when you are less tired, would you like that?"

Sherlock didn't look at his brother, his focus solely for the hidden world outside of the glass. "Tired."

"Goodbye, Sherlock."

Lestrade had remained a respectful distance from them, and he moved aside as Mycroft hurried out of the room, ignoring the prompts for discussion Dr. Watson attempted to make at his abrupt departure, one that was eased by Lestrade lingering behind and assuring the doctor that they would talk with him at length when they were less pressed for time. Mr. Pinter, in his grand kindness, had already set up the steps and propped open the carriage door, allowing Mycroft in without a word. Lestrade followed soon after, the carriage door slammed closed behind him and the curtains of it quickly shut.

Mycroft placed a hand over his mouth and openly wept.

Lestrade did not admonish him, rather he simply waited this torment out, Mycroft's worries and fears culminating in hot tears that coursed down his reddened cheeks and were caught in the twisted expression of his agony. He felt himself grow wheezy, and it was then that Lestrade pulled the small handkerchief folded over eucalyptus leaves out of Mycroft's side pocket and bid him to use it.

"That's not my brother!" Mycroft cried.

"I know, love. I know."

Mycroft closed his eyes, forcing long breaths into his damaged lungs in an effort to keep an attack at bay. The effect was a calming one, as was Lestrade's hand massaging his back, easing the tension he found there with pressing, circular strokes. It took near half an hour, but Mycroft found himself able to choke back the tears and bring himself back into a more stoic decorum.

"It's always a shock," he said, though he knew he needn't explain this to Lestrade.

"I know. It's the medication they give him. The dose is too high, but they want him knocked out when he gets too wild. He'll be all right the next time we visit, you'll see. He always is."

Mycroft kept his eyes closed as he braced himself, breathing deeply and finding that central spark of power within himself that had served him well in the judge's chair. He quickly wiped the last remnants of tears from his face and nodded to himself. "Oxford," he said to Lestrade, who made a motion to protest only to be halted by the Mycroft's determined spirit. "We have a murder to solve, and a suspect to interview. Priorities, Gregory." He hit the roof of the carriage with the curve of his cane, and leaned out of the opened passenger window to inform Mr. Pinter. "Paddington Station. We are running you quite a bit over town today, Mr. Pinter. Please, excuse our haste."

"Not a bother at all, Mr. Holmes," Mr. Pinter replied, tipping his hat in a gentleman's fashion as Mycroft sank back into the carriage, and closed the window and curtains shut.

~*~

The hallowed halls of Oxford, with its ancient learning and stubborn adherence to the classics, was no longer, in Mycroft's estimation, a place of relevant learning if it refused to engage in change. The train in to the station at Grandpont was uneventful and silent, London's extremities traded for sudden country hills and the occasional herd of sheep. He was not fond of the university, his days there studying civil law seeming trite compared to his daily education as a judge, his lofty classical education not serving him with the necessary tools to properly interpret the law. Those studies were long and hard and done independently as most judge's were, their levels of knowledge in a wide variance. There was talk of adding a medical program to their areas of study, a suggestion that was fiercely balked at by those professors who insisted that Oxford remain as it was, a place where the study of the Greeks and Latin and that which made a knowledgeable Englishman pure were to be its sole focus. But the sound argument was made that a place of learning is only so good as its willingness to expand upon that ethos, and Oxford in this time of vast change and increasing knowledge had best keep up with it lest it become irrelevant. They were sorely behind in their evolution, as Charles Darwin would put it. Thanks to the Medical Act of '76 that proclaimed no one could be denied a medical degree based on gender, The London Medical School for Women was born and was reputed to be on the forefront of quality education for the fairer sex. From what he himself had witnessed in its lecture halls it was bold in its ability to not shy from new concepts in medical discovery, not the least of which were those in psychiatry. Oxford refused to allow in women, clinging instead to the dull rote of tradition. He supposed there were benefits to both, but as a progressive man at his core, and with ill memories of university life where he was awkward and shy, Mycroft erred towards the shiny hope of the new.

Mr. Pinter's description of the man who had ridden with him that fateful night proved to be paramount. Lestrade walked into the sacred halls of Oxford with the air of a man well acquainted with much of its learning, though this was the first time he had set foot within the building. Merton College's Mob Quad and its centuries of history did little to mollify him, and he hadn't taken three steps before he'd determined how he would discover the errant professor's living quarters.

"So Mr. Pinter drove all the way to Oxford with a raging mad professor in his carriage. One has to wonder about his judgement." Lestrade shoved his hands in his pockets and gave the Quad and the small grounds within it a good once over. "The man lives on wheels and hooves. I have to wonder if he isn't permanently attached to both."

Mycroft did not let on he'd had similar thoughts. Instead, he watched as Lestrade nodded with a crooked smile at the group of young men at the other end of a long corridor, books tucked under their arms, their casual clothes and university jumpers indicating their affiliation with the place. "That's where we go to find him. No wasting time with the Dean, that one will only seek to protect, but these fellows, they'll have a bone to pick with this professor, of that I'm sure."

"From what I remember of my days studying to be a magistrate, my professors were all miserable men," Mycroft warned him. "He shall not be singular."

"I doubt that," Lestrade said, narrowing his eyes on the smallest young man in that group and marching towards him as though he were set to snatch him off to gaol. He had dark hair, parted to the side in a messy, greasy tumble that shone with macasser oil. The young man paled at the vision of Lestrade, and the good Inspector knew he'd found his informer. "You!" he shouted at the young man, the group of other, taller gents around him parting ways and looking warily on from a safer distance. "I know what you're up to! Inspector Gregory Lestrade of Scotland Yard! A word!"

Mycroft couldn't help but whisper to him. "What has he done?"

"Haven't a clue," Lestrade replied, grinning. "But he's guilty of it, whatever it is, and guilty men run off the mouth like water through a stream. Stand behind me and give him your bench glare."

"I didn't!" the young man stammered as Lestrade approached, and he pointed to one of his fellows who was now walking away, peering back at him nervously as he disappeared across the grounds. "It was Jonathan! He's the one you want!"

"Actually, he's not," Lestrade said. "Look, I know it's a bad thing, what you gone and did, but I'm willing to look the other way if you can give me some information."

"I didn't steal anything! Those galley proofs are still on Mr. Soames's desk! Just ask Mr. Bannister!"

"I'm asking you the questions, and I'm not wasting time hunting down answers from anyone else. So like I said, answer them and your little thievery will be forgotten."

This made the young man tense rather than relax. Mycroft idly wondered what else he had been up to that had made him so nervous. He kept an eye on the outed Jonathan, who even across the Mod Quad kept turning and looking over his shoulder at them, a coward's concern.

"Well you should be sweating, young man. This is about murder. I am Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard in London and I'm looking for information on a professor who works here, one who is abnormally attached to Shakespeare..."

That was as far as Lestrade got. The young man visibly relaxed and spat out the name before it was even asked for. "Professor Eugene Pottsdam. I'm barely making the grade in his class, and English literature is my forte. The man is a monster, he won't teach a thing save Shakespeare and won't even consider the relevance of more recent works, or ancient ones for that matter. No Swift here. Certainly no Poe, wouldn't want to taint our literate lives with the brilliance happening in the Americas. No Austen and no Thackery. No Morley's 'First Sketch' with him! As far as he's concerned, Shakespeare is the only English poet to exist and we are not to focus on anything else. It's stifling to the point of madness."

Mycroft found the young man's assessment strange. "Why not complain of this? Surely the Dean is aware of this issue."

The young man paled at this. "I don't dare hint of anything that madman does. None of us can." His voice dipped below a whisper, as though afraid the very wall he was leaning against would reveal his dark secret. "I hear he once murdered a man for misplacing a comma in one of his essays. I don't doubt he's capable, Inspector. It happened when he was in Africa, and a man like that can get away with all manner of things in that dark continent."

"Rumours, surely," Mycroft said, dismissing the young man's terror.

But blue eyes met his, widened in abject terror, his lips wet with panting panic. "Oh sir, please, you must hear me! He's not a normal man, not at all! I've seen him whip a fellow student, Freddie Carson, right across the knuckles with a metal ruler all on account of him reading along in his text instead of just listening to him, eyes front. He smacked Freddie's knuckles so hard he split them all open. There was blood everywhere and he *laughed*, Inspector Lestrade! He *laughed*!"

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter five

Sleep held no property for Mycroft Holmes. He left Lestrade snoring in their bed, a stack of folders containing his upcoming cases at the quarter sessions tucked under one arm as he leaned heavily on his cane and limped into the sitting room. The excessive journeying of the day had left him overtired and restless, a veritable miasma of information swirling within him and making him feel off kilter. He longed for a cup of tea, but he knew Mrs. Hudson slept lightly and would awaken at any clink of metal against the surface of her cast iron stove. He'd made this mistake only once, and she had flown out of her living quarters brandishing a thick broom handle, her nightdress barely holding in her modesty. With her long hair, untamed in thick ropes of greyish brunette like some vengeful Medusa, she screamed in bold attack on the unknown intruder. Lestrade had said she handled the broom handle like a samurai and there was no doubt in his mind that she was part banshee, ready to do serious damage. The fright Mycroft had given her was so absolute she chastised him for the act for near an hour, completely oblivious to the fact his own heart hammered enough to leap into his throat and prevent him from properly breathing. Impatiently administered smelling salts on Lestrade's insistence had brought him 'round, but he was never to forget the incident.

Mrs. Hudson was asleep. Therefore, no tea.

He supposed he could indulge himself with a drab of brandy by the newly stoked fire, but it was a rainy night, the dampness muting that allure. Besides, he had to remain alert to go over his various case notes for the upcoming trials, and with this hope in mind he parked himself in his winged chair before the fire and pulled the first stack of papers into his lap. He turned on the kerosene floor lamp he had recently acquired, a solid floor model that sent a spotlight onto his reading in a warm, golden glow that was easy on the eyes. It was ridiculously ornate, a double lamp with an intricately beaded shade on a stand of ironwork fashioned in the style of Paris, with intricate leaves scrolling along the equally opulent frame. The indulgence had been one that was Mycroft's doing, fascinated as he was by the newest gadgets and the pretty way they were often presented. Lestrade considered the lamp impractical due to its inability to swivel, while Mrs. Hudson was more forthright in her criticism, stating flat out that it looked as though it belonged in a harlot's boudoir and not a gentlemen's sitting room. Despite the disagreements over its aesthetics, the object did its job well. It was a good lamp.

Of course, it had been Sherlock who directed him to it first, seeing it in a shop window and exclaiming to Mycroft that he'd found their mother's fairy moon. "This is the sort of thing she must see, Mycroft," Sherlock had said, a lucid day that he had been grateful for. His eyes glittered like the beads in the strange lamp, mesmerized by its intricate pattern and bold pink, green and blue hues. "This lamp is made of mother's eyes."

Fine. He had bought it out of sentimentality and hope to keep that wistful positivity within his brother's voice when he visited. All for naught, for Sherlock never remarked in such a way on that lamp ever again. In fact, once it found a home in the sitting room, he complained it looked tacky in its place next to Mycroft's favoured chair by the fire. "It looks like a melted piece of cake," Sherlock said, and that was the last he ever talked about it.

Thoughts of Sherlock distracted him anew from his current task, and no manner of forcing the words into sense from page to mind would work, not with the heavy aura of his brother's suffering weighing hard against Mycroft's conscience. He understood his brother had to be subdued after one of his rages, but to witness the barest ghost of him that remained, with his soul locked deep within a laudanum stupor, unable to escape, this always left Mycroft shattered. Seeing his brother in such a state, drooling on himself and staring blankly through the large window, the superimposition of their mother upon him--Alas, the very memory of it harmed Mycroft anew and he pinched his brow in a vain attempt to stem the tears that threatened to flow. There was nothing else to be done and yet Mycroft felt as though he'd failed Sherlock. He had been put into Holloway to control his haphazard mind, not to eradicate it.

"Mr. Holmes? Are you feeling ill?"

He quickly wiped away the dampness that threatened his cheeks and peered around the edge of the winged chair to the entrance into the sitting room, where Young Jack was waiting an invitation in. Mycroft waved for him to join him, concerned at the late hour the child had remained awake. "I am perfectly fine, Jack, but I have to wonder what is keeping you away from slumber tonight. It was washing day yesterday, surely Mrs. Hudson has worked you to exhaustion as she does to herself. Your rest should be easy."

Young Jack shrugged and kicked at the floor with his heel. Thick, black socks that Mrs. Hudson had knit for him were sloppily bunched around his ankles. "I scampered off when she was hanging up the pillow cases. Weren't much to do after that, it wasn't like I abandoned her or nothing, not the way she's going to go on about it tomorrow morning."

"I take it this was to hang out with those chimney folk." Mycroft gave him a stern look and bid him to sit in the chair opposite him. "Both Inspector Lestrade and I have warned you before, this is not a safe game you are playing, you could be seriously hurt. The scoundrels hiring you are committing a crime, Jack, you are not a Master Sweep's apprentice and are thus not protected under the law. You are also too young for the work, the law states the apprentice must be twenty-one years of age. It is illegal, foul and dangerous work and not for you."

"Mrs. Hudson keeps saying I'm going to get the cancer, the one the climbing boys get. 'You won't be sitting easy, then,' she says." Jack's legs dangled as he sat and he kicked them gently back and forth beneath his chair. "I just want to be doing my part, Mr. Holmes. You've all been so kind to me and all, and it ain't right that I just take without offering something in return. The washing ain't a proper job, that's ladies' work. I'm set to be a man and I need to be doing that what a man does to help his family. Because that's what you are to me, you and Mr. Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, and even Mr. Sherlock when he's not too off his head."

A feeling of intense warmth coursed through Mycroft's breast at this, and he held his hand over his heart in a vain attempt to quell the happy sentiment that resided there. "We are your family, Jack, of that there is no question. And yes, family does watch out for one another, as I am doing for you, right now, in forbidding you to go in any chimneys. You contribute greatly to our little clan, Jack, for who else would be our most trusted messenger? Who else could possibly be our observant Constable In Training?" He smiled as Jack sat upright at this, his shoulders pushed back in pride. "I do understand that the streets were the place of your birth, but you have been elevated from that station, Jack, and you must continue to make that upward journey without slipping. Are we agreed, then? No more chimneys. Remember, now, you are making a promise to a judge of the assize court."

Mycroft fixed him with a stern look and Jack fervently nodded. To Mycroft's soft surprise, he leapt from his seat to embrace his benefactor in a firm hug. He had the sensation there was something deeper troubling Young Jack, but somehow Mycroft had affected a cure for it and its resolution was in this expression of affection, one that made Mycroft feel as though he had sired Young Jack himself, so close was the bond between them. He kissed the lad's tangled mop of red hair and framed his freckled face in his pale hands until Jack's cheeks were comically pushed forward. "It is late, child, and you know Mrs. Hudson won't care a whit about whether or not you were restless. We must find you something further to keep your mind busy so your sleep comes easily. Do you still hold a fascination for music? I shall send word to Miss Turner that you are interested in piano lessons. Considering the positive account of your meeting with her, I'm sure she would be delighted to teach such an eager, thoughtful pupil."

Jack's playfully squished face struggled to grin. "Thank you, Mr. Holmes! I'll be a proper Beethoven and all, you just watch!"

"I trust that will be true," Mycroft laughed as he let the boy go, Jack in far happier spirits than when he had walked into the room. He watched the child leave, a skip in his step as Jack headed back downstairs to Mrs. Hudson's lodging, where he slept on the settee in front of her low fire, a knitted wool blanket covering him and a silk cushion for his pillow. The memory of Dr. Watson's harsh judgement of their acquirement of 'strays' and fears of nits sent a shard of ice throughout his being, and Mycroft ground his teeth, pressing his lips tight together as he began opening up his case files once again. That was his child the doctor had maligned and there would definitely be words about it the next time they met.

The cases he was set to judge were ones of the usual variety, three gang styled murders among criminal elements (one with American connections which was no surprise, involving the import of stolen jewels). the guilty parties had an overwhelming collection of evidence against them, their involvement in the murder of a jewellery broker from Lancashire almost comically obvious. To be caught red handed is a turn of phrase Shakespearean in origin, a herald of Macbeth, and in this case it was quite literal. The trio had been caught washing their hands of the jeweller's blood with a farmer's water pump. Four milk maids had caught them, and as they are stronger women than they look--they have strong hands and arms, milk maids do, due to the nature of their heavy work--they easily caught and trussed up the gang members, holding them until the police arrived to arrest them. Further evidence was found down the river from the farm, where the jewels were hidden in a burlap sack within a pile of reeds. One diamond necklace had fallen out of the bag and it glinted unnaturally in the sun, calling the attention of the landowner out for his morning constitutional. Each of the men were being tried separately, honour among thieves discarded as they each attempted to dodge the rope. Though the argument was being made that each man had variances in their involvement in the crime, all of them claiming the other was the ringleader who actually committed the murder, Mycroft was confident they all held equal guilt in the unfortunate jewellery broker's demise.

The other two cases were far sadder, one a case of infanticide which he was confident he would throw out--the poor woman's neighbours were her accusers and there was little by way of actual medical evidence that suggested the sickly infant had any hope of longevity, the numerous deformities of his organs painstakingly outlined by the thorough Dr. Ziegler. From the sharp, emotional testimonies of her female neighbours, Mycroft detected a latent animosity among them over the young woman's lack of willingness to socialize, her quiet demeanour and love of privacy placing her in suspicion well before the tragedy took place. To be judged so by one's peers, over slights imagined and without basis, with no empathy offered to her mourning...Yes, this was a cruel case and Mycroft was eager to be rid of it.

The fifth, however, caught his interest to the point of waking him further, his heart hammering hard in his chest at the mention in the case notes of a now very familiar name. That Professor Eugene Pottsdam should occur, even as a bland witness mentioned only in passing in a constable's notes, was too shocking a coincidence for Mycroft to take lightly. The case was a simple one, a man had murdered his wife over apparent infidelity and cruelly did her in by pouring molten aluminium into her ear while she slept, the somnolence needed to commit the act no doubt aided by medicinal means, be it chloroform or ether. He had held her prisoner in their home for days in this drugged stupor, claiming to friends and family that she had taken gravely ill with a fever and he had no hope for her recovery. His grief was believable enough at the outset, but the evidence was overwhelming against him. He was the sole occupant in the house due to her illness, claiming he did not want their children or servants contracting her disease. He was a pharmacist, and had ample means to acquire that which killed her. He would have succeeded had Professor Pottsdam, a friend of their little family, had not noticed a small dot of soft metal embedded in the young woman's hair. A set of aluminium spoons from the youngest daughter's tea set had mysteriously gone missing, their discovery a macabre one as the metal was found during the autopsy, where Dr. Ziegler charted its deadly, heated path through the unfortunate mother's brain.

All evidence pointed towards the husband, who still claimed his innocence. Mycroft frowned over the case, puzzling it out. He wondered how it was a man with such a vicious reputation with Oxford students had come to be acquainted with the small family in the first place. He found the reason further in the constable's notes, and the facts made his heart freeze in cold understanding. He rubbed his hands together over the case papers in a vain attempt to warm the chill now present in his soul.

"I was assisting Mrs. Green in her attempts to publish her poetry," Pottsdam was quoted as saying. "She believed she had some talent. Vanity can be delusional. But they are a pleasant family, and my company was welcome in their home. This is a heartbreaking tragedy, I never would have thought Mr. Green capable of such a ghastly crime."

Considering Professor Pottsdam's reputation, Mycroft didn't think he should believe Mr. Green capable of it either.

By the time he finished pouring over the case and making notes of his own, the sun was creeping into wakefulness, sending the sitting room into a vibrant sepia that suggested a warm, pleasant day. He heard Lestrade rouse, the drawers and cupboards opened and closed as he dressed himself, the splash of water from the pitcher and basin at his wash stand signalling the attention to his toilet. By the time he emerged into the sitting room he was close shaven and clean, his uniform brushed as well as his hair, now damp from water and softening as it dried. He fixed his sleeves beneath his jacket, fiddling with cufflinks as he approached Mycroft, who was still sitting in his winged chair by the fire, the lamp still lit.
"The bed was cold on your side, you never went into it. You look flushed this morning rather than pale." He kissed the top of Mycroft's head, sending a blush through him that coursed across his neck and breast. "Your breathing ain't so wheezy but I can see you're uncomfortable. I'll put some camphor on your chest and back if you're feeling a rattle. No point in you collapsing in the street when it's only May, best you stay home and get some proper rest in that bed you avoided."

"I will do no such thing," Mycroft shot back, annoyed. "I have cases to study, especially this one." He shoved the case that had stolen his attention for the remainder of the night into Lestrade's hands. "There is a familiar name in there, one that you will find quite telling considering his association."

Lestrade's dark eyes widened as he read the reporting constable's notes. "I'll have a word with Harding about this, he was there. He didn't sign his name, which he's supposed to, but I know that flowery language anywhere, especially the description of the 'Scorched remnants of flesh that explode as a daffodil does around the cartilage of the ear where the vile molten death was poured.' Bloody menace. Point form, that's all he's allowed from now on!" Lestrade scratched the back of his head as he read on. "Looks like this was investigated by Inspector Hopkins. I'll be sure to have a chat with him about it."

"Really?" Mycroft said, forcing his voice to remain light. "How very fortuitous."

Lestrade bit his bottom lip at this little quip. "You're still on about that, then."

"No. No, I have no problem with Inspector Hopkins at all."

"He's as straight as an arrow and has been courting a lovely young woman who is currently working as a nurse at St. Bartholomew's. He has a keen mind for investigations and I'm always eager to mentor my methods. You know this, Mycroft."

The image of young Inspector Hopkins, with his strong, healthy body and quick wit and even quicker mind that often left Lestrade giddy with admiration, filled Mycroft with a further sense of unease. "He has much in common with your way of thinking and is excellent at detection. I have noticed how much he enjoys your company when you are both together, and is eager to spar with you on the finer points of your profession. I suppose it doesn't hurt that he has a lovely smile."

"Jealousy looks ugly on you, Mycroft."

"He is a sycophant," Mycroft spat. "The way he flits around, begging to impress you, it makes my skin crawl!"

He sank back into his chair, sulking. Lestrade sidled up cautiously beside him, and gently took the stack of casework out of Mycroft's lap. "So I don't get a kiss good morning, then?"

"My ugliness precludes it. You are freshly shaved and spotless while I remain grizzled and unkempt, full of sweaty wheezing. I have not yet attended to my toilet, and my rough cheeks will burn you."

"Rough cheeks?" Lestrade laughed, and stroked Mycroft's cheek. "You mean this little layer of peach fuzz, as soft as velvet? It takes an age for that to grow, and you've no idea how much I covet it." He leaned down and kissed Mycroft's lips, the passion of it quickly growing past simplicity and well into urgent need. When he pulled away, Mycroft was dizzy and breathless.

"I know I can't dissuade you from going to The Diogenes Club, but the least you can do is promise you will get in your bed the minute you are home. I can feel the tremor in you already, this will be a bad day." He hurriedly kissed Mycroft's forehead, his soft lips a balm against the onslaught of ill health he'd wisely deduced was brewing within Mycroft's chest. The heavy steps of Mrs. Hudson were making their way up the stairs and Lestrade stepped aside, leaving a longing for his touch behind. Mrs. Hudson held the breakfast laden tea tray in her strong grip, stunned.

"You are not leaving without breakfast first!" she exclaimed.

"I'm afraid so, Mrs. Hudson. Honing in on a murderer does not go well with breakfast, no matter how perfect the lavender scones and tea are. Do press it upon Mycroft, however, as he is stubbornly adhering to his own schedule despite the obvious detriment to his current health."

"It won't be only his health at risk this morning." Mrs. Hudson set the tea tray down on the cluttered table by their window with a loud clang. "Young Jack has gone and done a runner on me again. Mind my words, he'll be getting a sharp reprimand from me when he decides to come home!"

~*~

He didn't like admitting that Lestrade was right, as he so often was, his head overly light and the dizzy feeling never leaving him as he parked himself within his usual chair at The Diogenes Club. The sallow eyes of aged judges gave him a rheumy once over before settling back into their own crusty mental caverns, ones filled with idle gossip and political wrangling. Though the company was lacklustre, the peace was welcome and afforded Mycroft ample time to investigate the more pressing case and its strange connection to the murder of poet Mr. McGonogall.

After their discussion with the terrified student at Oxford, they had returned to Baker Street almost immediately, the train taking its convoluted route upwards and geographically left at hints of heading to Bath before abruptly swinging back south towards London. The train ride back was thus much longer than the one into Grandpont, giving them ample time to process the excitement of the day in the privacy of their coach. "That student's terror cannot solely be induced by rumour," Mycroft had concluded. "Had we met with Professor Pottsdam I'm sure we would have felt the same way."

"You are making assumptions, Mycroft, we can't go on heresay alone. He is a tough teacher, this is true, and clearly has a streak of cruelty if that description of splitting that student's knuckles open has any validity. But we are dealing with young men who have little understanding of the world outside their privileged realm within it, and every eccentricity takes on a shocking exaggeration. We must investigate Professor Pottsdam without prejudice, and to do that we at least need to meet the man first."

"It's a shame he was not at the school today," Mycroft had lamented. "Odd that no one knew his whereabouts."

"He's not a student and therefore does not require such strict observance. He probably has a mistress he's gone to visit."

"Now who is making assumptions? From his passionate reputation, it is more likely his 'mistress' is an artefact of Shakespeare's, a penned note slid between glass in some dusty tomb of history which he swoons over in enraptured glee."

Lestrade grinned. "You are cruel, Mycroft."

"And you give this man too much credit. I know his type, I was of their number long before I met you. Words and papers are his lovers. He has no whit for the corporeal."

"You changed your mind in that regard."

"It was an unknown variable, thrust upon me." Mycroft softly smiled back at Lestrade's cheeky grin. "You had logic and deduction on your side. How could I not be persuaded?"

The memory of that journey home brought a small smile to Mycroft's lips, an odd expression considering his lap was full of murder. Though there was no proof in his favour, Mycroft couldn't help but believe there was far more to this murder than first appeared, and the fervent declarations of the widower's innocence grated on his conscience. Larger factors were at play that required further investigation and Mycroft made copious notes as to his reasoning, and was determined to recommend the trial be postponed.

He checked his pocket watch. It was shortly after one o'clock and he was feeling peckish. Breakfast had been adequate, but rushed as he was eager to get to The Diogenes Club for most of his day, the tutting disapproval of Mrs. Hudson at his back as he left Baker Street. He couldn't understand her warnings for surely he was not such an invalid that sitting in a chair would do him in! He sighed and braced his arms on either side of his chair and pushed himself to standing, waiting the few moments for the feeling of vertigo to subside before snatching up his cane and leather case and daring to venture outside.

Though he detested the pub attached to The Diogenes, the early afternoon hour ensured it was mostly empty. The usual collection of lawyers, judges and clientele would arrive with noisy combativeness by three o'clock and would continue in their revelry well past midnight. At this hour of the afternoon, the pub was a refined place for simple dining and indulging a pint if one desired it, or better yet a fresh cup of coffee. Mycroft, being the singular man he is, opted for a brew of peppermint tea which he had brought with him, the fragrant aroma wafting up from the ornately flowered ceramic tea cup before him and curing some, but not all, of his respiratory distress.

His waiter, a massive, cliff faced cockney young man with Liverpool leanings, gave him his usual afternoon meal without prompting. A chicken soup rich with hints of curry spices and German noodles met his hunger, and though it was a warm day the dish did well to banish any lingering chill within it. He thanked the young man, who nodded at him in polite reverence before speaking.

"Begging your pardon, your Honour, but there's a right odd fellow been staring at you since your arrival and I have half a mind to clobber him out. It's disrespectful, that sort of thing, and I wants you know I don't agree with none of it."

Mycroft frowned, not knowing what the young man was talking about, only for his brows to rise in understanding as saw the Mortality Race chalkboard propped up beside the taps. He sighed and gave the young man a weary shake of his head. "The follies of the ignorant are not my concern. Nor should they be yours, Donald, for while I know you are a man well suited to use your fists it would be best for your freedom that you do not."

"Well I remember it, your Honour. It were you who gave me a second chance all those years ago when I was a heavy for the O'Connolly gang. You saw sommit' in me that no one else could and I'm right grateful for that. I turned my back on that life and made myself into a gentleman, and that was all on your urging. It's a poorer life and all, but a more honest one, and I'm happy to be a person who can sleep easy."

"You give me too much credit," Mycroft said, but he was flattered by the kindness offered by the words. He sipped at the sweet peppermint tea, enjoying the way it caressed the inside of his chest as it went down. Donald poured a fresh one for him, still concerned.

"You ain't doing well today, your Honour."

"I can't get any higher on the list," Mycroft reminded him, and the young man went red faced at this.

"The bloody cheek of them bastards! You should see Judge Quibly, lolling in here with whores on his arms, a sweaty lump of flesh throwing his money at the coffer! 'Another tenner on him gone by Sunday!' Bastard!" He crossed his massive arms as though wishing Judge Quibly's neck was between them. A little thrill went through Mycroft at the thought and he couldn't help but smile sweetly up at Donald for his chivalry.

"Then I shall be disappointing him, and you should encourage him to bet more. All the better to make his loss the greater."

"That's a sneaky revenge, if you don't mind my saying so, your Honour."

"And yet you are grinning at it."

"Really, how does that Inspector of yours stand your cheek? I know, that were common speech I just gave you, and I does apologize, but some things deserve to be said plain. Eat up that soup, I made it meself, and I'll be bringing you cake after."

"How delightful!"

"There, look, that cheered you right up."

The young man's large frame ducked back behind the bar and into the kitchen, presumably to prep for the dinner crowd and to properly plate Mycroft's delectable piece of cake. Donald had missed his calling as a quality patisserie, his skills in the kitchen even now would earn the glowing praise of any Escoffier influenced chef. As luck would have it, Donald was happy to offer his experiments upon Mycroft's eager palate, his afternoons punctuated with these pleasant treats.

He dug into his soup, ready to enjoy it, only for a thin shadow to overtake him as the spoon threatened to meet his mouth. His eyes rolled up to see a slender man in a worn tweed jacket and a blue Oxford scarf staring down at him, hands in his pockets in an arrogant stance. He was a man in his mid thirties, with a deeply tanned complexion, as though he had spent some time in the tropics. His blond hair was bleached near white, adding to this suspicion. Mycroft let his spoon fall back into his soup, annoyed at this intrusion of his lunch. "May I help you?"

The man smiled, but the effort held no warmth within it, and Mycroft found himself bracing his shoulders back, ready for a fight. The man dared to pull a chair back and sat down to join him, a teacup stolen from another place setting and set in front of him. He poured a draught of tea from the teapot in the centre of the table and sniffed the aroma as though it were a prized delicacy.

"A sweet tea, how very like you, your Honour. Unlike your pekoe brethren, you indulge in this pungent, yet soft herb. But that is after all to be expected, for you are Mycroft Holmes. A judge of the assize who spends his days and nights in the company of a robust Inspector Gregory Lestrade." The stranger took a long sip of the tea and smacked his lips over it. "Delightful. Clears the senses and sharpens the mind. It is no wonder the innocent flock to you."

"Who are you?" Mycroft demanded.

"Someone you have been looking for." He extended his hand across the table, but Mycroft refused to take it. His skin was dry and papery as though his hands had been excessively scrubbed, but he still hadn't managed to clean the black line of dirt from around his fingernails. Mycroft shrank from him. "Professor Eugene Pottsdam. I heard you were seeking me at Oxford yesterday afternoon."

"Yes." Mycroft continued to carefully watch the man, his audacity and arrogance heightened by the way he wouldn't look at Mycroft when he spoke. His eyes were grey and full of clouds.

"I should think that if you took the trouble to travel all that way, to have the object of your conversation in front of you should induce discourse. Or are all judges so mute when faced with their prey?"

Mycroft near scoffed at this, for if there was anything this man could be described as, 'prey' was not one of them! "I am merely being careful in how I form my words. I hear you are quite a vicious hound when it comes to proper diction."

Professor Pottsdam raised his head, amused. "A hound, you say?"

"One that bites hands and draws blood."

"Ah, the ruler business with that cur Freddie. He was failing anyway, a lazy student with little by way of self discipline. A teacher can only take so much stupidity in his classroom before he snaps. I am a learned man who refuses to suffer the relentless torture of our language by those too ignorant to appreciate it. My focus is pure."

"Your methods are suspect," Mycroft darkly reminded him. He steepled his fingers over his steaming mug of peppermint tea in much the way that Lestrade often did when musing over a puzzle. But his icy gaze was one employed for judgement and in Professor Pottsdam's case he was eager to be harsh. "Namely, the prime suspect, in a recent murder of the poet Mr. Ewan McGonogall. I assume you have read the papers."

"I assure you I haven't," the professor cheerfully said, and he dared to sip his tea in front of an angered Mycroft. His guileless attitude permeated the very air and Mycroft felt his lungs seize, the tell-tale wheeze winding its way through his wind pipe. Professor Pottsdam raised a highly amused brow at this. "You aren't well. Pity. I blame the soot in the air. It crawls out of chimneys and does all manner of damage. It was a shame they outlawed climbing boys, they did such a bang up job, far better than these older apprentices, save for the times when they got stuck and suffocated, of course. It was a terrible expense replacing the brickwork that was removed to get their putrefying bodies out." He grinned and Mycroft was surprised by the slight grey tinge to his small, even teeth.

Mycroft shrugged at this, annoyed. "Sir, I have no interest in your opinion on chimney sweeps, or your students or even how you find the tea you have stolen from me. I am, however, very interested in your furious conversation with yourself on the way home from the fated night in question, when Mr. McGonogall was bloodily murdered. The coachman heard you furiously railing about how the poet had committed a crime against the English language and you meant to make him suffer it by cutting out his tongue and shoving it down his throat. A strange proclamation since that is exactly what was done to Mr. McGonogall's corpse."

Professor Pottsdam was unconcerned, and he continued to sip his tea, his posture suggesting to any outsider that he and Mycroft were in fact old friends. "An angry man may say any number of incendiary things, but it's not often he acts on them. I do recall that drive home, and the lateness of the hour, but as for my words, well...A man can be misunderstood. I was simply quoting Shakespeare, specifically The Merchant of Venice, Act Four, Scene One:

'Tarry a little, there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are "a pound of flesh.'"

Mycroft pressed his fingertips tight against one another, his hands tented over his cup of tea. "You expect me to believe you quoted incendiary Shakespeare all the way back to Oxford after seeing Mr. McGonogall's performance?"

"As one cleanses the palate with sweet ices, so I cleansed my mind with the sweetness of the Bard. After that I used more inspiring sonnets, drawn from Othello. You know of it?"

"Of course I know of it, it's one of his most famous plays, I studied it where you now teach!"

"A now forbidden but tolerated love, mired in jealousy. A Moor and a fair maiden, not the kind of love story that exists in these times of carefully drawn lines between countries and continents and all their strange prejudices. How Othello loved his dear Desdemona, imprinting upon her his most passionate kiss when their love was at its most caustic. 'So sweet was ne'er so fatal'. I trust there are others with such rocky affairs, ones who kiss in carriage cabs, heedless of the open windows and the view from above, namely a nearby rooftop. Such clandestine kisses are sweet in delivery and long in meaning, I should think."

Mycroft paled at this, but it was more out of fury than fear. "I must have you know, I do not abide blackmailers. They are the most vile, base of creatures and I dare say when they are brought to justice the law doesn't do enough to cancel them out. Men such as you, who ride their riches on whispers and gossip and threaten harmless individuals with your disgusting vice. Do not threaten me, sir. You will regret it."

"I don't doubt I will, especially with two men of the law competing over how much they wish to harm me." The professor let out a low chuckle. "If they can catch me by my slimy skin, that is. 'Set honour in one eye and death i' the other And I will look on both indifferently; For let the gods so speed me as I love The name of honour more than I fear death.' I have grave doubts, however, that your efforts would be wholly successful."

"I wouldn't be so confident," Mycroft warned him. "I have your case, the one involving molten aluminium. You were good friends with the deceased and her family, and you were very quick to direct the investigation towards her husband, a man who had never raised his voice above a whisper and was, by all accounts, as mild mannered as a doe in winter. You became a part of their little family due to offering your services as an editor for the victim's poetry. She was a bad poet and she ended up dead. You claim to be an intelligent man, you can guess the connections I am making."

"Indeed I am, and it is quite entertaining. What a fascinating storyteller you are! But then, you are used to this sort of slander, the fiction that circles around you in increasing popularity a bane upon your reputation. A mad brother with wild tales that become honed and fashioned by a base word whittler who takes dictation of his delusion and shapes them into poorly constructed serials. I do understand the ire you must be mired in, my good fellow, for it is a twin one within my own breast. Dear Dr. Watson, how he ejaculates in wonder at his dear Sherlock Holmes, whose mysteries are solved with his supposed remarkable, logical mind and are explained to the masses through the dull lens of exposition. I believe he is a heavy user of cocaine, this would explain his jerking style and his meandering thoughts, a pacing, restless method that follows him onto paper. I'd thought his Tales of Afghanistan were bad, but these sad attempts at cleverness siphoned from a madman, good gracious, I do have sympathy for you, Mr. Holmes. The man's pen is a boil upon the worst example of pennydreadfuls. What do you think? Shall that pen find its way deep into the good doctor's neck?"

If there was doubt, it was eradicated in this instant. Mycroft pushed away his soup, the forced conversation with this foul murderer ruining his appetite. He had faced many such men before, in public and behind bars, and he was not one to shy away from bold assertions of might and oblique threats. What irked him most about Professor Pottsdam was the lack of desperation in him that most murderers he'd encountered were mired in. Guilt made the men and some women in the gallows sincere as they faced their fates. But this man felt no such emotion, if anything he was proud of what he believed was a worthy accomplishment.

It occurred to Mycroft that this man was not entirely human in construction, or at least his mind wasn't. it paced and scented the air like a hungry panther and equally as deadly.

Professor Eugene Pottsdam was exceptionally dangerous.

"It is rare I come to London these days, it is too overpopulated with rats, mostly of the human variety. They litter the streets as much as the dead pile up within the cemeteries, overcrowded and putrid. I propose a simple solution to this problem, one that is Swift in nature--Kill the illiterate! I suspect some of your fellow judges may suffer a similar fate should this plan be enacted, for their odd leniencies at times make me question their ability to read. Yes, we should purge ourselves of those ignorant souls blind to the printed word, so lacking in the ability to think they cannot be taught. We shall stuff hearths with them and set them alight. Kindling. Human coal." He grinned, his grey tinged teeth an even line between them. "There should be an anthem for it, and I know just the composer. She's very good with the piano, those lovely fingers on those ivory keys keeping time with a mathematical precision. We'll light her hearth first and add her to the smouldering number, for she fell in love with a man who could barely understand rhyme let alone the cadence of music."

"You're a man of threats," Mycroft accused him. He was fast losing patience. "So far you have verbally accosted myself and made blackmail threats towards both myself and Inspector Lestrade. You have not obliquely threatened Dr. Watson for his writing style, but you have even gone so far as to suggest you have been planning his murder. As for the remainder of London, I suspect you wish to burn down streets and all who live within them, all on some nebulous belief in the supremacy of literacy."

"Not all streets," Professor Pottsdam said, still grinning. He finished his tea and offered Mycroft a polite nod before standing. Mycroft was grateful to see that Donald was waiting, just hidden behind the door of the kitchen, a large wooden bat in his hand, readied for combat. But Pottsdam did not strike out and instead he stretched and yawned, as though the exchange had disappointed him. Long, strong steps took him out of the pub, his low whistling of a familiar tune following him. "It was pleasant to meet you, Mr. Mycroft Holmes," he said as he left. "Learned men such as ourselves need not avoid one another's company. I look forward to seeing you again. Soon."

The door chimed shut behind him and Donald slid out of the kitchen, visibly relieved. He turned towards Mycroft and hurried to his table, the judge's sudden pallor alarming him. "Your Honour! What is the matter?"

"Oh, what a...What a horror of a man!" With shaking fingers he pulled out a folded piece of paper, the one Mary Oakes had childishly scribbled the names of the two women who had been conned by Mr. McGonogall into offering their talents. He pressed the paper into Donald's massive paw with trembling urgency. "Harriette Turner. You must send a team of constables to her house at once, along with medical personnel. There is a tragedy about to happen, and it cannot wait, not one second more! Oh dear God...I hope we are not too late!"

Confused, but spurred by Mycroft's shaken visage and grim insistence, Donald ran into the street and flagged down a bobbie, who upon hearing this was the cry of foul by a judge of the assize immediately set his own crew into action. Whistles blew shrilly across the streets and Mycroft, snatching up his cane and leaving heavily on it as he hurried from the pub, frantically waved from its front step at the waiting Mr. Pinter. Mr. Pinter frowned at the staggering form of Mycroft and brought his carriage around to meet him.

He gave Pinter Harriette Turner's address. "We must hurry! Death awaits if we do not fly! Push your mare hard, Mr. Pinter! I beg of you!"

"Right away, your Honour. My Betty Blue has wings on her hooves."

The carriage ride was tortuous, and Mycroft pressed a fist hard against his lips, his breathing fractured and thin. Donald was left helpless in the middle of the street in front of the pub and the attached Diogenes Club, his large frame a point of reference that represented both before this tragedy and after Mycroft had deduced it. It was a strange limbo for a man to find himself in, and he knew Donald would worry. Whatever the news was, he would be sure that Donald would hear of it. What his brutal fists did with that information later, well, Mycroft would not be the judge who would convict him.

The carriage wobbled as Mr. Pinter sped around a tight corner, one that led to the quiet, mid-town street where Miss Turner resided. The horse whinnied and reared up as Mr. Pinter brought her to an abrupt halt, the carriage shivering on its frame and in serious danger of toppling. It remained upright through some miracle, as was the scene before Mycroft. There were already men on the roof of Miss Turner's little house, the chimney dismantled and left as a pile of bricks on the smooth roof. He left the carriage in haste, nearly falling out of it save for the quick arm of Mr. Pinter who bid him to mind himself, for his Honour was weak and it wouldn't do for him to walk when he could barely stand. But Mycroft shook his help off, his cane hitting the ground in sharp taps as he approached the terrible scene. A young woman, presumably Miss Turner, was standing in the middle of the quiet street and staring up at the roof, her blackened hands clasped over her mouth and smearing their filth over her pale cheeks as she loudly wept. Firemen and police alike frantically tossed bricks that fell to the ground and crumbled on impact. There was a feeling of gruesome expectation, and though he tried to brace himself, when two of the firemen dragged out a small body from the chimney's wreckage, he could not help his cry of terror, nor his swooning despair.

"Mycroft!"

Inspector Lestrade was among the ground crew, and Mycroft was sure he saw Dr. Ziegler, a further point of hollow terror gripping him for this couldn't be, he couldn't bear to witness the small body on the stretcher and the look of the strange man who would cut apart that little sacrificial offering. No! He would permit no such thing!

Lestrade grabbed him by the shoulders and forced Mycroft to face him. "You aren't well. You need to go back to Baker Street. Tell Mrs. Hudson what has happened." He frowned, taking in Mycroft's white skin and gasping, wheezing breaths. "How did you know to come here?"

"That man, that terrible man, he did this. He visited me at my lunch at the pub attached to The Diogenes Club. Gregory, I won't bear this, I can't!"

Lestrade was still confused. "What man?"

"Professor Pottsdam! The vile murderer!"

"He did this?"

"I'm more than certain, he so much as told me!" His chest felt heavy as he struggled to breathe, the stretcher with its occupant rushing past him. He reached out to touch the fingers blackened with coal, hands that should be eager to steal treats from Mrs. Hudson's pantry and not be these limp, lifeless samples of flesh. Dr. Ziegler hovered over the body, and Mycroft made a move to strike him with his cane, only for Lestrade to hold him back.

"What the devil are you doing?"

"He aims to cut up our Jack!"

"He's doing no such thing, Mycroft, he's a bloody surgeon and a damned good one! Jack is still alive, you mad fool, though he is badly injured." Lestrade gripped him by the shoulders, urging him back towards Mr. Pinter and the waiting carriage, his mare still panting from the exertion her speed had wrought. Chaos surrounded them, and Mycroft could barely hear the words of encouragement his Gregory offered him. "Meet us at St. Bart's. We'll go over everything that's happened there. You should have a doctor look you over as well. It's unnatural and dangerous, the way your heart is beating so. Mr. Pinter, help him, please. There now, do what you can to take deep breaths, there's the eucalyptus from your pocket. I'm afraid we will have to beg of Betty Blue to exert herself once more and get you quickly to hospital. I fully intend for everyone to remain intact and alive."

~*~

Mycroft listened to the assessment of Jack's injuries by the esteemed Dr. Ziegler from the realm of a protracted daze. He understood that Jack had nearly suffocated in the chimney, that if it hadn't been for Miss Turner's quick actions when she discovered he was in her flue that he would have died within minutes. Before running for help the fearless woman had climbed onto the roof herself and began chiselling out bricks, her actions spurring her neighbour to run for the police. She'd cleared four bricks away from Jack's face in less than a minute, soot falling away and allowing him to breathe.

Their Jack was cleaned and in a hospital bed now, though smudges of soot still marred his forehead and tainted his swath of freckles. Dr. Ziegler's thick German accent echoed in the hospital ward around them, the intonations grim. "He is lucky to have survived. There was another lad not so many years ago who suffered the same fate and died several days later. Jack will not be that boy, he will live, but there are consequences. He has a compound fracture of his left leg. I have set the broken bone as best I can and have treated the wound using the most sterile of methods. But there is always risk of infection and I fear that if this happens there will be no choice. The leg will need to be amputated."

A chair was pulled up alongside the bed, and a wheezing Mycroft sank into it, exhausted. He stroked Jack's forehead as he leaned forward on his cane, the worry festering within him and rattling around in his lungs. Foolish child! They had talked about this just that morning, they had a gentlemen's agreement that he was not to do such work ever again!

"When the chloroform wears off, he will be in much pain," Dr. Ziegler warned them. "No matter how upsetting, stay with him. A hurt child needs much care, and he will take his strength from those around him. I know that you will both be generous in giving it."

He respectfully left them alone with the patient, who was tiny in the large hospital bed, his smallness accentuated by the stack of pillows and wide mattress beneath him. Mycroft dared to place his palm on Jack's forehead in a bid to appear as though he was taking the child's temperature, but in truth it was to simply touch him and ensure that yes, indeed, he was still alive, the pulse of human energy still coursing strong within him. Lestrade pulled up a chair and sat beside Mycroft, no less concerned.

"So this Professor Pottsdam paid you a visit, and he told you what he'd done to Jack?"

"Not outright. He made oblique threats about outing our relationship, revealed he has plans to kill Dr. Watson and in between all of this was where he managed to hint at what he'd done to our Jack. He kept making references to chimneys and mentioned Miss Turner in metaphorical terms. I am disappointed in myself, however, for I'm sure you would have surmised what he had done from the outset. For me, I had to have constant hints that could have taken valuable time away from Jack's rescue." The small speech left him breathless and he pressed the handkerchief filled with eucalyptus to his mouth. "I will have that man hung for this, Gregory. He has declared war upon us, and this is how he begins it, in the most brutal fashion. A monster who thinks nothing of attacking a child."

"You're positive this was an overt act of aggression."

"His nails were scrubbed, but I could see the outline of black. He was involved directly in harming Jack, though in what capacity I cannot entertain."

"I can easily answer that, he was pretending to be a Master Sweep and he offered Jack an inordinate sum to work for him. Much as we love our Jack, he does have his greedy side, a leftover from his days of poverty and a difficult yoke to shake. Pottsdam had disguised himself, covering his body and clothes with soot and though he tried to meticulously scrub it off he wasn't successful. I am sure Jack will give us a full accounting of events when he awakes from his chloroform dreams. In the meantime, we must give our thanks to Miss Turner and her quick thinking, or else we would be sitting beside a far more sinister bed, one located in the basement of this hospital."

Mycroft shivered. "Do not remind me."

A young nurse with the blush of girlhood still upon her sweet face tiptoed close to them, her gentle smile a balm after the frantic events that had transpired. "I will be cleaning his dressing," she informed them, her soft hands smoothing down the starched white apron that was part of her uniform, covering her chest and the full length of her skirt. Mycroft marvelled at how busy nurses were able to do the tasks they did in such get ups, where spring and summer heat and the constant exercise of tending to patients was done under the yoke of pressed yards of cotton. She set a metal bowl and several instruments, along with treated strips of cotton, on the edge of the bed, and was about to do her work. Mycroft did not want to see the injury, but Lestrade raised a brow and looked over his shoulder, curious at what would be revealed.

"DO NOT TOUCH THAT CHILD!"

There was a clatter as a pair of metal pincers fell into the metal bowl, the young nurse leaping to her feet as the indomitable form of Mrs. Hudson marched towards her. Red faced and furious, their landlady glared down at them all from her great height, pulling them into her bossy orbit. "Did you sterilize this equipment?"

The young nurse stammered. "I...I got the new dressings and..."

"And you did not think to bring a bowl of water and carbolic soap with which to wash your hands? The metal pincers are cold, nurse, which tells me they have not been boiled, which is now a standard practise for those who are not lazy in their duties! Do you want this child to die of sepsis? Really, Mr. Holmes, Mr. Lestrade, did you think this was wise, sending him here to St. Bart's, where four out of ten people never manage to walk back out of its doors?" She snatched up the nurse's implements and the shy young woman ran from her, heading in the direction of the doctor's offices. "Off to tattle on me, the little runt. Good. I can educate these fools on the dangers of germs and that they are to enforce better vigilance. Oh, that Dr. Liston was still practising and hadn't succumbed to drowning! He was a master surgeon who practised next door, witnessed him amputating legs in less than thirty seconds, he was quite a marvel. He also understood the nature of disease and the ways by which it travels."

Without qualm she pulled back the sheet, revealing the mangled remains of Young Jack's leg. One glance at that mixture of blood and bone and leather strapped across metal rods holding all those mangled pieces in place had Mycroft gagging. Even Lestrade looked as though he was about to be sick, his skin an unhealthy green. But Mrs. Hudson was not moved in the least.

"Compound fracture, set well, open wound that will need vigilant cleansing and packing with sterile cloth, no muscle damage. Our Young Jack will mend perfectly well. Which is of great importance, for I plan on throttling him for his folly the second he is healed!"

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter six

They spent the remainder of the day in the children's ward of St. Bart's at Jack's bedside, watching the pinched expression of the lad as he slept. Mycroft placed cold cloths on his small forehead, while Lestrade lurked near the entrance of the room, in deep discussion with the nurses and doctors attending Jack. Mrs. Hudson was adamant that Jack be brought back to Baker Street the moment he regained consciousness and there was some argument as to whether or not the house would be appropriate for the child's recovery. Mycroft, who had spent an inordinate amount of time in hospitals himself, knew well the diseases and festering germs that lurked within its walls, not to mention the soulless chill, and he was in likewise sentiment with Mrs. Hudson. Jack would recover best at home.

The child stirred and Mycroft leaned closer, his hand clasped around Jack's as he winced and cried out in pain. Though he was a strapping lad in many respects, the ten year old was still small for his age, and the helplessness his tiny body represented in the large hospital bed made Mycroft's heart break. "There now, I know it hurts, but you have be strong for us, Young Jack. Deep breaths, no point in indulging tears."

A strong returning squeeze of Mycroft's hand threatened make the sorrowful emotion fall from his own eyes, but he forced himself into stronger fortitude. If his eyes were moist he could claim it was the antiseptic the hospital used, it was particularly caustic and smelled vaguely carbolic. Jack's eyes fluttered open and then widened, putting Mycroft in his sights, while Mycroft gave him a soft smile in return and urged him to remain in bed as he was.

"No shifting, your leg has just been set. What have I said about tears, Jack? A strong young man need not drown himself. Oh now, they're flowing free, even after I forbid it. You poor child, my dear Jack, I know it hurts...I know..."

"It ain't that Mr. Holmes," Jack said, gulping sobs. Mycroft took the cold cloth on the boy's brow away and used it to wipe away the tears that stained Jack's swath of freckles across his cheeks. "It's a rotten ache in my leg, for certain, but it ain't nothing I've not had to endure when I was but a gutter rat. What hurts me now is of my own bloody doing, and I'm so sorry Mr. Holmes, I'm sorry to the bottom of me toes!"

"What's important is that you are well, Jack."

"No, it's not! I'm just some gutter rat you picked up, of no use at all! Ain't got nothing to offer and now even less with a game leg!" Jack's cries brought over Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, along with a shy nurse who followed behind her. Jack tried to sit up but was gently pushed back down onto the bed by Mycroft, who was increasingly concerned by the boy's panic.

"Still yourself, Jack," Lestrade said, firm and commanding behind Mycroft's shoulder. "Take a few deep breaths first and compose yourself. That's an order, Constable."

Miserable, Jack complied. His head fell onto the back of his pillow with a low thump as his body uneasily relaxed. "I guess I'm fired from that position, seeing as how I've gone and broke the law and all."

"A constable is meant to be of a certain degree of law abiding superiority, yes," Lestrade said, his tone still firm. "But there may be circumstances that have occurred here that we aren't fully aware of, and thus we need significant information. So out with it, Jack. Just what in the devil were you doing in a piano teacher's chimney?"

"Gregory, please, have some patience with the boy. He's only just awoken and to a painful start. There's no need to be so draconian, he's clearly suffered for his actions."

Lestrade railed at the admonishment. "Are you serious? He damned near went and killed himself! A broken leg and all, and here you are coddling him instead of scolding him for disobeying you! You spoil him rotten, that's what's got him in this mess!"

Lestrade stood behind his chair at Mycroft's elbow and the good judge whipped around and fixed him angrily into his sights. "You blame *me* for this!"

"A high spirited child like that needs firm discipline and I know he hasn't been getting it from you. You are soft with him, indulgent and wistful. I see the way you mother him, it's the same pattern of behaviour you use with your brother. No matter what naughty behaviour he vexes Mrs. Hudson with he knows he can run to you and find a soothing balm to his deserved reprimands."

Mycroft couldn't believe what he was hearing, and yet Lestrade did not apologize for his outburst nor offer any further explanation, neither of which would have helped him anyway. To be placed under attack for what had been the act of a brutal killer was a frantic leap of logic. The utter shortsightedness of the inspector's judgement left Mycroft reeling. "You chastise me for being kind to a child!"

"Don't look at me so shocked, it's not like you haven't had warning about this by both Mrs. Hudson and myself. Every little scrape he has he runs to you first, knowing full well that you'll scoop him into your arms and hush him as though he's an infant!"

"I will not turn away a hurt child in need of comfort!"

"That's the near exact words you've used in the past, only replace 'child' with 'Sherlock' and there's the reason we suffered with him living with us for six years before you were forced to put him into Holloway--Where even now the suggestion of staying at Baker Street is still offered when he staggers his mad self into our home!"

Ah yes, Sherlock, here was the crux of their ills! The nerve of Lestrade to use what couldn't be helped against him! Mycroft was incensed, he was not the enemy here!

"He is my brother and there was nowhere else he could live!"

"He could have stayed in Bath! Your servants have known your family's ailments since its inception! You were the one who brought him to London!"

Infuriated, Mycroft stood from his chair, his sudden vertigo making him sway slightly as he stood nose to nose with Lestrade, whose ire instantly abated at the uneven confrontation. Though still physically weak, Mycroft stood his ground. "You are not to talk of my brother!"

"Stop! The two of you!" Mrs. Hudson placed herself between the two men, a wall of feminine might that was impossible to breach. Her voice boomed in the hospital wing, the shy nurse behind her flinching at every word she spoke. "You are upsetting the patient! If you must have your words, take them out of here, else lower your voices and take heed of your charge! Sit! Both of you!"

Begrudgingly, they were forced to listen to her, Lestrade sitting in a chair beside Mycroft, who was pale and breathless, the rattle in his lungs worsened. As if in spite of Lestrade's admonishment, Mycroft clasped Jack's hand once again in his own and gave the frightened child a forced smile. "Do not mind us, Jack. We are merely concerned for you."

"But Mr. Lestrade is right, Mr. Holmes," Jack tearfully implored him. "I'm a right bad sort. I know I don't have no right to any place with you at Baker Street. I shouldn't have no forgiveness, not when what I gone and did was the height of selfish."

Lestrade sighed in defeat at this, a win that Mycroft would force him to acknowledge later, and out of the prying ears of the child between them. "Come on, lad, it's not so bad as that. We're not set to turn you out, you're our Jack and you're not going nowhere."

But Jack was not convinced. "I really do wish that were true, Mr. Lestrade, but you're going to be chucking me out in the street soon enough when you find out why I did what I did!"

"It is extremely important that you tell us what happened, Jack." Mycroft wiped away the boy's tears with his handkerchief, the dried eucalyptus leaves spilling from it and littering the top sheet. The medicinal scent collected around Jack in a comforting aura. Jack sighed and nodded at Mycroft.

"I had that talk with you that night, Mr. Holmes, and I noticed you was getting pale and wheezing more than is usual and I know that means one thing--You'll be heading to your place in Bath soon, like you do every year. So, I been working with the sweeps to save up some pennies and all, on account of this really nice watch I saw in the jeweller's window on -- Street. Gorgeous gold and with a ring of foxes fashioned on it, I know you'd love it. It costs a pound and four shillings and that's a dear sum I know, but I been saving up for it. I have nearly a pound now, and I was hoping to bargain, but the jeweller wouldn't budge from his price. I was getting desperate and all, because you'll be leaving soon..."

Mycroft frowned at the boy's explanation, not fully understanding as Jack continued. "So this man, this Master Sweep, he heard me arguing with the jeweller and all, on account of me saying that ain't real gold anyhow and a near pound for a painted watch can't be so off the mark, and he pulls me aside and says to me, 'How would you like to make ten pounds?' I was right floored. I mean, ten pounds! That's a full years wages for some! I could buy a real proper gold watch for that and not one of painted pewter! So I'm thinking of that tenner and not wondering how it is he knows I'm a climbing boy when I got good threads on and am scrubbed clean and don't have no hint of soot on me. I were dazzled by the wage, it's true, and I'm sorry Mr. Lestrade, I wasn't being a right constable then, I should have questioned the man, especially such a strange, extravagant offer like that!

And it did get stranger, for he hailed a cart and we were taken to the home of that piano teacher, Miss Turner. And he didn't knock on her door or nothing, so I assumed he'd already been employed by her. I had to wonder how she came about that kind of money that a Master Sweep could pay a kid like me a whole tenner and at that point the whole fishy business of it caught up with me and I was ready to take off and do a runner. And just like that, he figured out what I was thinking like he was lurking right in my mind, and the second the cart and driver were gone he snatched me up and dragged me up a ladder he had waiting and onto the roof. I fought him best I could but I don't remember much more of it, for he put a foul smelling cloth over my mouth and I fell into a stupor. I could feel it, though, when he tossed me down the flue. My leg went the wrong way and the pain of it woke me up. I managed to get out a few cries and moans before the soot covered my mouth and I thought I was a goner, I really did, for I couldn't right breathe! I've a new respect for you, Mr. Holmes. That's a daily struggle for you."

Mycroft stroked the boy's tangled mop of hair. "Dear Jack, why on earth would you think I needed a gold watch?"

Jack's eyes welled with tears. "You go away every year around this time, and I'm stuck here in London, in Baker Street, and while Mrs. Hudson does what she can to keep me busy and is firm and kind in her way, I miss you something terrible. It's your birthday coming up in a few days and I thought if maybe I gave you a present like that it would make you more agreeable to the idea of me coming with you to Bath. I've seen how Mr. Lestrade is received after giving you a fancy trinket, how you are cheerful and smile more and say yes more than no. I figured a gift like that might give me an edge to my argument for it."

"You wished to bribe me?" Mycroft exclaimed, aghast. "Dear child, all you ever had to do was ask! I thought you would be bored in my family estate in Bath, it is an isolated and forlorn place and has none of the energy a child such as yourself seeks. But if you are so keen to join us that you would risk your little life to make that journey, rest assured that it is now a sentence that I shall enforce on you."

"I shouldn't," Jack said, choking on his sobs. "I should be punished for what I did, just as Mr. Lestrade said."

"This is no gift. I assure you, in the years that come you will dread going there, but it is now a term of life imprisonment you must endure. If you think Mrs. Hudson is a battle axe, you have not yet met my family's cook, --. No more easy summers for you, young man."

"I'll gladly suffer it! Thank you, Mr. Holmes!"

"He's not exaggerating," Lestrade said by way of warning, but he was hiding his smile at the boy's eager exuberance, the pain of his mangled leg forgotten as hope regained ground. "And as for discipline, I think a prison term at the Holmes Estate is a wise punishment. But I have a bit of quibble with your guilt, Jack, as you clearly did try to get away from the villain who did this to you as you were willing to forfeit the promise of ten pounds. Thus, in my mind, you did execute some measure of judgement, though it came too late."

"I should never have let myself be swayed at all," Jack lamented.

"Quite right, lad. But we are in our hearts human and often make mistakes, and the one you made was one you tried to correct and were harmed in the effort. Therefore, the guilt in my mind is on the man who tried to do you in, for he is a foul murderer if he proves to be the one both Mycroft and I suspect. You are lucky, Jack, that Miss Turner has sharp ears and detected your presence in her chimney before it was too late. Do you know she climbed onto the roof herself to remove the bricks from your face? She rescued you armed with nothing but her wits and an iron hearth poker which she used to break the bricks apart. I should think you owe her a certain recompense for that, and perhaps the money you have earned doing illegal jobs for chimney sweeps should go into a very fine gift for her instead of some silly painted watch."

"I couldn't agree more. Men in loose trousers fall from the roofs of London all the time, and this woman thought nothing of leaping up onto one in a heavy skirt while balancing iron. This story could have had a doubly tragic outcome, never forget that."

"I won't Mr. Holmes. I'll use the money I earned wisely and I'll offer to do anything she asks...Save cleaning out her chimney, that is."

"This man who hired you," Lestrade pressed. "Was there anything distinguishing about him? Did he have an odd accent, or any marks on him that you could identify?"

Jack morosely shook his head. "I'm sorry Mr. Lestrade, but he looked like a typical sweep to me, and with the way he was covered head to toe in soot I couldn't pick a washed version of him in front of me let alone in a crowd. I did find it odd that his jacket was so tattered, and it had a bit of mold on it, which is not expected on a chimney sweep. The coal kills everything living, and it's not the line of work where one finds damp."

"That is an excellent observation, Jack!" Lestrade exclaimed, and he gave the injured child a dazzling grin. "You are still proving to be a worthy Constable In Training, and once you are back on your feet I think it may be time to promote you to Inspector In Training. We'll expunge your record of having tried to bribe a judge."

"Thank you, Inspector Lestrade!"

"You're welcome, Constable Jack."

They left the children's ward in better spirits than when they arrived, though Mycroft couldn't help but see the rows of beds were beginning to fill with tiny patients, some too weak and close to death to dare to cry. A grey faced girl whose eyes rolled unnaturally back in her head had Mycroft clutch at Lestrade's elbow, his wavering breath leaving him in whispers. "We must get Jack out of here immediately. Consumption lurks in every fleck of dust and Mrs. Hudson is not wrong in her statistical assessment of St. Bart's mortality rates."

"I discussed the matter with Dr. Ziegler already and though he was reticent over the possibility of 221B not being adequate for recovery he has since relented after having faced Mrs. Hudson. The Chief of surgery was even called in to try and persuade her that Jack remain here, only for him to offer her a position as head nurse. She harshly told him she had no intention of becoming a morgue bearer."

"Our Mrs. Hudson is quite the Master General."

"Yes, and thank our stars for it. I can already see that there are several contagious cases in too advanced a stage and too close in proximity to our Jack, as you likewise have noticed, hence your insistence."

But it was Mrs. Hudson who had the final word, her height eclipsing her shadow as she marched into the ward, a stretcher brought up behind her by two harried looking nurses who looked as though they wished to stab her in the neck at first opportunity. "Jack, I am glad to see you are awake. You are coming home. No shouting and screaming because this jostling will hurt, and I will not abide a whining patient." She gave the young women behind her a frustrated sigh. "Come on, come on! I'm not leaving my charge in the Reaper's nursery one more second than is necessary!"

They hustled into action and Mycroft's heart broke anew at the wailing cries that issued from Jack as he was moved from the bed and onto the stretcher, a complicated journey awaiting him in the cab of Mr. Pinter's coach. Mrs. Hudson took in the boy's suffering with stoic poise, but her lips were taut and her words dark as they met Mycroft and Lestrade in the front entrance of St. Bart's, mindful that she kept out of earshot of Jack. "You best find the monster that did this to that poor boy before I do. If I get my grip on him first he'll beg for a hanging!"

~*~

Perturbed by the events that had transpired that day, Mycroft's health was still in question as both he and Lestrade made their way to Scotland Yard. They used a cart as Mr. Pinter was otherwise occupied taking the severely injured Jack home, with Mrs. Hudson perched beside his small stretcher within the cab. It was by a stroke of luck that it even fit into the small space, as there was some hushed talk that Jack would have to be lifted into it, held tightly as he wailed through the pain the odd angle would cause. But chloroform is miraculous and Mrs. Hudson used an additional smaller dose to keep him subdued and still, her strong arms hauling his small portable sling of a bed into the cab with no effort. Mycroft hoped she would think to use the spare room upstairs to give Jack a proper bed rest and would not deign to plunk him before his usual bedtime spot before the fire on the settee in her living quarters. He was their precious invalid and should be treated as such.

"You look and sound awful," Lestrade said. "It's like there's metal ball bearings in your lungs."

"This is very true, but I cannot return to my bed until the matter of Professor Pottsdam's arrest is settled."

The cart hit a bumpy spot of road and Mycroft held onto the splintering plank he sat upon with a weaker grip than he usually had. He knew was spiralling down, every expense of energy too dear to spend, but there was little aid for it, he had to complete his mission for the day. He had to see Pottsdam behind bars.

Lestrade growled in thought and crossed his arms across his chest. "I'm not so sure that's going to happen, Mycroft. You heard Jack, he can't be identified by sight alone, he'd obscured his face with soot and drugged the boy for most of his ordeal. The coat, though, there may be a way to discover the origins of that. Sounds like one of the threads of a Thames dweller."

"You mean one of the many who subsist on that river's rotted shore? They are a desperate lot, Gregory, their poverty such that they pilfer the suicides they fish out of the Thames and earn a shilling per discovery. It is rife with unsavoury men who are too immoral to be admitted into gangs. Promise me, Gregory, that though it is not part of your uniform, if you dare to broach that ugly shore you will pack your pistol."

"I will, of that you can be sure."

They arrived at Scotland Yard and Lestrade in his haste to meet the Chief leapt from the cart, heedless of Mycroft's weakness. The good judge did not take the slight personally, for Lestrade was in high gear, eager to take down the man who had brought harm to one of their own. He did not say much about Jack save for the bald facts of the case, but Mycroft noted the thinly controlled temper boiling within the Inspector, the way he swallowed it down, his fury sparking in his gaze at every hint of what was to transpire. Any observant person would recognize that Lestrade was holding himself in very tightly, ready to leap out with claws extended and jaws opened wide upon his overconfident prey.

The Chief of Scotland Yard's Detective Division, however, was not an overtly observant man, prone instead to wallow in political accolades that were handed to him through his rather unsavoury association with Judge Quibly. Quibly and the Chief were both rotund men of choleric disposition, fond of ale and women and secret gambling parties. Both their wives were exhausted women who enjoyed the protracted absence of their husbands, to the point that Mrs. Quibly would often invite the Chief's wife to accompany her to the small villa she had inherited on the coast of Nice in France. That the two women were childless and it was highly unlikely either did their wifely duties in regards to their husbands--whose lascivious appetites were sated aplenty on whores--it had occurred to Mycroft that perhaps those two women shared a similar arrangement as to the one he had with Lestrade. "Where one is, so is the other! Even when sleeping!" Quibly had once drunkenly pronounced as his companions jeered in lewd revelry at the pub attached to The Diogenes. For Mycroft, it did not take a master of deduction to conclude that his suspicions were likely correct. Such companionship among women was often ignored by men. Queen Victoria had deemed women 'incapable of such vice' and as such they were not breaking the law since they apparently didn't exist.

"I cannot arrest a man just on rumour, and if he threatened his Honour, Judge Holmes, there had better be a superior witness than a former gang runner! Arresting an Oxford professor on nothing more than a moldy coat and metaphors! Really, Lestrade, you have to do better than that! We might as well hang every gossip, and there goes all of London save the mute!"

"He has made direct threats against my family..." Lestrade pressed, but the Chief waved away his concerns and turned his wide, round back to him.

"It's bad enough I was forced to set that harlot free, you're filling up this room with supposition and panic. I'm not impressed with your work of late, Lestrade. Yo usually have it all wrapped up in a bow for me by now and this tip-toeing around suspects will not do."

The utter ignorance of this statement set Lestrade's jaw and he couldn't bite down on the words that spewed from it, no matter how incendiary they were. Detective Inspectors often sparred with one another, but it was a different thing to confront one's superior, as the Chief most certainly was. Though Lestrade had a near perfect record when it came to taking down the guilty, he was also a bit of rebel in policing circles, as the Chief was always quick to remind him. Lestrade was rarely thanked for his efforts, and he was never offered anything by way of a raise or position, which was just as well since neither of those thing mattered to him. All Inspector Lestrade ever focused on was the perfection of his work and how it made sure the guilty had their comeuppance. Deduction was his science experiment, as carefully monitored as any such professional hovered over their results in a lab.

"So you would have preferred an innocent person remained jailed for the crime rather than the actual murderer. I can assure you, I'm not 'tip-toeing' around any of the facts, as you seem so eager to do, I am investigating them with the thoroughness they require!"

The Yard descended into pure silence at this, and even Mycroft held his weak breath, his hand held to his chest at the tension that had pulled taut through the air like a overturned string about to pull back and snap. The Chief slowly turned around and from the way he glowered at Lestrade, with the purest measure of disdain upon his round, purple face it was clear he was in no mood to hear more of Lestrade's truths.

"Get out of here," the Chief growled at him. "And solve a bloody murder while you're at it!"

The snarling bowl of human flesh marched out of the room and down the hall of the Yard, his curses echoing across the dry stone corridor. Lestrade sighed and roughly rubbed the back of his neck. "The man is both a fool and a coward. He's worried about the publicity our suspect is going to bring about, not whether or not he's guilty. He's worried without enough to go on, if it goes to trial there's plenty of judges who would offer an Oxford professor leniency, regardless of the fact he tried to kill an innocent child. He knows damned well the jury has little use for the poor, and they will be harsh on our Jack."

"Jack is not to be a witness." Mycroft knew the circus such a trial would entail. The London Gazette would be the first to run the story, followed closely by editorials and questions in other periodicals, as closely as they had Mary Oakes and further still since Mycroft Holmes was a judge of the assize. The scrutiny would not be good for any of them for their best work was done in anonymity. Of course, there was the careful monitoring of the way their family was arranged, an eccentricity that would be cruelly, openly exploited and that would hurt them all quite severely, especially Jack. "Best we find Professor Pottsdam guilty of murder, either of the poet McGonogall or the young woman who fancied herself to be one, or both."

"The least the Chief could have done was allow us to bring him in for questioning but he's forbidden that too, citing not enough evidence. He's making me suffer for proving him wrong about Mary Oakes."

Much as Mycroft empathized, he could not give the Chief's ignorant assessment of Professor Pottsdam too much anger, for what he presented was a nagging point at best. It was true, they couldn't proceed in their arrest of the vile man without ample evidence and the case as it stood would fall apart like soaked tissue paper in a shallow puddle. The most damning testimony would be Mr. Pinter's account of the man's rambling during the long coach ride back to Oxford, but without any hint as to how he was connected to the dead poet McGonogall other than as an unwitting ticket holder, it wasn't enough to accuse him of murder.

"You're leaning on that cane of yours like it's a corpse stand."

"You flatter me, Gregory, I'm sure. The frantic pace of the last few days has not done me well, I admit, and the only running commentary in the back of my mind is the cool serenity of my bed. Perhaps I should take a cart back to Baker Street, I would like to check on Jack and ensure he is settled before I take my rest."

Bad timing is the bane of some men. With a degree of near supernatural impeccable routine they can swoop into an uncomfortable situation and multiply it tenfold. A broken engagement, only just occurred between young lovers, will be interrupted by an exclamation of 'Congratulations on your upcoming wedding!' A question of whether anyone has seen an old friend recently, only to be told they are attending his or her funeral that afternoon and didn't the person inquiring know, a happy exchange reduced to awkward sadness. There are people who, through no character fault, seem to be able to hone in on these sorts of miserable occurrences and walk blindly into them, heedless of the muck their cheerful steps leave in their wake.

"Inspector Lestrade!" Inspector Hopkins waved at him with grinning joy from the entrance into the melee of constables, inspectors and desks that littered the inside of Scotland Yard. "How good it is to see you!"

Such lies! There was nothing good about Lestrade meeting up with Hopkins, who with his springing step and rather dandy airs, dressed in a fine astrachan overcoat and sporting a haircut so closely cropped to his skull he was bald, he proved himself as tacky as any of the nouveau riche who had found profit within the last eighty years of history. Hopkins did, in fact, come from wealthy stock, his father a man who had patented the smaller inner workings of a watch that used a leather strap which was becoming all the rage in America. Worse still was his disposition, fiendishly cheerful and energetic, blooming with good health and shining white teeth, all of which completed a picture of a handsome, if not somewhat short in stature, young man of solid ambition. Mycroft wished he could complain that Hopkins was as much a buffoon as his outward appearance suggested, but he was in fact a very good inspector, passionate about his job and eager to take on the deductive lessons that Lestrade handed down to him. Lestrade often bragged of his star pupil. "He's the brightest of any of the other inspectors I've ever met, and he's wise enough to employ my deductive methods. If anyone could eclipse me in ability, it may be Hopkins, though he's still too quick footed in his field work. He hops around scenes like an excited puppy, a habit that will cure itself with the refinement of experience. He's one to watch, that is certain!"

Yes, he was. For Mycroft didn't miss the sparkle in the young man's eyes as they skated over the form of his mentor, nor the soft blush of his cheeks as he firmly shook Lestrade's hand. "I've heard you've been looking for a moldy coat..." he began, and Lestrade started in delighted surprise at this, his grin matching his protege's.

"And they dare to call me the gypsy! How did you deduce this was what I was seeking?"

"I heard the argument you were having with the Chief and I'd just got back from the docks where I was investigating the scene of a murder. Found the body of an as yet unidentified drunkard, a right hermit sort who lived in a coal shack near the -- docks (?). From what the dock workers around the area say he kept to himself and didn't cause no one any harm, he was more of a fixture, like a lamp or a post. They called him Old Cod on account of the pockmarks on his cheeks, like he's been burned bad when he was younger. But that's not what you need to know, what's important for you is that the old soak was missing his jacket. Men at the docks say he was never seen without it on, not even in the hottest days of summer."

"Well done!" Lestrade exclaimed and he clapped Hopkins with jovial cheer on his back. "Brace yourself, Mycroft, we may be bringing down Professor Pottsdam yet! No matter what station we find ourselves in life we all have someone who will miss us. Our interconnectivity is a great equivocator. This Old Cod as he was named is a stark reminder of how we must have care for what our very existence brings into the world, for we are machines of walking cause and effect and must always be aware of that responsibility."

Hopkins listened to Lestrade with a rapture befitting Aristotle's prized pupil, leaving Mycroft feeling hollow. The mystical influence of the Orient, namely Japan, upon his dear Gregory's outlook was a large part of what had created his deductive methods. It was also a secreted part of his history, one that Mycroft was only given glimpses of, in hints of red silk and stories of bloodthirsty samurai who were as honourable as they were passionate. There was little discussed between them of the objects he had brought home from that place of the rising sun, such as the sword that was tucked above the mantle in reverent prominence and which he caught Gregory sometimes caressing with longing fingers as he passed it, and the beautiful, embroidered red silk kimono he kept locked in a chest in their wardrobe. The kimono had very special significance, Mycroft knew, though it had never been explained in detail to him. That it held erotic components was clear, as it was occasionally brought out and silently left, neatly folded at the foot of Mycroft's side of their bed, both a request and a silent promise of a prolonged, special sort of lovemaking that would make the most lascivious of the Greek philosophers blush. Yet here he was, standing in front of Hopkins with that ridiculous, happy grin and offering up the sage advice of the Buddha as freely as though he held no mystery to himself at all. Infuriating!

"I couldn't agree more about setting Mary Oakes free, any moron could see she didn't have the physical strength for it, though she was harsh enough to envision the act, I'm sure. Word is, she's working down by Regent Park these couple of days since her release, but her pickings have been slim. No punter wants a whore that's been in the papers."

Lestrade scratched the back of his head in thought at this. "Odd that she's still in London. One would think she'd be eager to leave it behind her, especially with all that press."

"Sorts like here have all kinds of connections they can't easily escape from. She's an independent girl, but only to a point. Those fancy of threads of hers cost money and I don't think it was her punters who paid for them. Word is, she's taking some advantage of her notoriety and is aiming to sing ballads of her suffering in Newgate Prison. No one need know she only spent two nights there, but it's the novelty of the thing that's attracting attention. She'll be strutting the stage, that one, you watch."

Mycroft didn't doubt it. "Who is her composer?"

Hopkins' brows rose as he turned towards Mycroft, as though just realising he was standing there. "Dear me, your Honour, you look a dreadful sight if you don't mind me saying so. As pale as a corpse and twice as stiff! You ought to have a chair, you look ready to fall!"

Angered by the man's tactless observation, Mycroft leaned heavily on his cane as he braced his shoulders back, his voice a near whisper as his lungs scrabbled to catch up with his words. "I am here with Inspector Lestrade to investigate a man who I am sure is a monster of the worst kind and who through the short-sightedness of your Chief is still walking the streets of London. He has harmed a child, and is doubtless responsible for the deaths of two other people. Your Chief does not take the words of a dangerous man seriously, but perhaps you will--It is necessary for the welfare of Dr. John Watson to be attended to. His life has been threatened and he must be informed."

The speech left Mycroft dizzy and exhausted, two facts that Hopkins concentrated on rather than the content. Mycroft's hand shook as he gripped his cane, a problem that was not solved by the addition of his other, which was just as weak and ineffective.

"If it's as bad as that a constable or two on watch at Holloway can't hurt, and it won't be out of order considering the events there of late. You heard about that young woman who did herself in, of course." Hopkins continued to give Mycroft's swaying a frowning expression of concern. "Word is she had a lover, and he's been causing a bit of trouble around there, he's been skulking under her window and weeping in the halls, that sort of thing. He's been upsetting the patients some. He's a married man, too, so it's not just himself he's drawing into his scandal. Oh no, your Honour! You aren't well!"

There was little to be done for it. The body and mind when they are in such a state of disconnect cannot help but rebel against each other, and Mycroft became painfully aware of this as his grip on his cane slipped and he fell forward to the ground, his head hitting the corner of Hopkins's desk.

He groaned as he tried to right himself, but the vertigo that assailed him weakened him further and he couldn't get upright without help from both Lestrade and Hopkins. Humiliating as his condition was, the feeling was exacerbated by the booming voice of the Chief who shouted loud and boisterous into the Detective Division, drawing the full attention of those in the room to his unfortunate predicament. "Playing nursemaid again, Lestrade? If you were half as good at being a detective as you are at being Florence Nightingale, I'd say you'd earn your wages well enough then. Apologies to you, of course, your Honour, Mr. Holmes. I do hope you feel better."

There was a cruel twinkle in the Chief's eye that suggested he did not think this was going to happen, and bets were about to run wild on the Mortality Board tonight. Mycroft couldn't find the energy to even be mildly annoyed. Hopkins and Lestrade flanked either side of him as they guided him out of Scotland Yard and hailed down a cart to bring him to Baker Street. Lestrade bid Hopkins to send Constable Harding to Holloway and to have Dr. John Watson come to 221B to treat Mycroft's ailment properly.

"A head doctor for his lungs?" Hopkins asked, puzzled.

"He's familiar with Mr. Holmes's condition and is not just a 'head' doctor as you say, but also a licensed surgical physician. Which you would know if you ever bothered to check his credentials. Accuracy is important, Hopkins." Though it was childish Mycroft was happy to note the small irritation that Gregory had with the explanation. He was disappointed that Hopkins hadn't deduced the reason himself.

He tried to apologize for his current state, a weak intonation that Gregory instantly halted with a worried frown against it. "Just concentrate on taking deep breaths, if you can. Your chest is heaving in and out like a deflated balloon, I can see every rib through your cotton shirt. I'll loosen your tie, and undo your waistcoat. Is that any better? Don't try to tell me, just nod or shake your head. Better? Good."

The rattling cart noisily found its way to their home, and Lestrade left Mycroft draped across the plank seat as he leapt from it and banged on the front door with his fist. An alarmed Mrs. Hudson stormed out, her eyes widening upon the grey, prone form of Mycroft in the cart, and she made quick work of getting him out of it and was the stronger of the two as she dragged him upstairs to the narrow hallway that was part of Lestrade and Holmes's rooms. She propped Mycroft at the top of the stairs, where he collapsed to the floor, his back braced by the banister. Lestrade tended to him, while Mrs. Hudson shouted orders from the bathing room.

"Strip him off! I'm putting on a hot bath and getting the camphor ready. You're lucky this didn't occur earlier when I was getting Jack settled in, bad enough I have one demanding little patient now I have two! He begged of a treat the minute we were in the door, and wouldn't hear no mind of how it would make him sick after just being given chloroform. I gave him a plain biscuit, and it did make his stomach turn but luckily it stayed down. Come on, Mr. Holmes, up on your feet."

Thick arms as strong as steel wielded their way beneath his as he was pulled to standing, his steps weak and staggering as he made his way to the bathing room. He was chilled and shivering, the fact he was nude a further point of embarrassment, which Mrs. Hudson absolutely did not tolerate.

"I've seen you in worse condition, Mr. Holmes, and a bit of nudity is hardly a point to fuss about now. I've seen it all in triplicate, of all size and shape, and the only one that ever caused fascination for me was the poor fellow who had his penis blown off during his time in Afghanistan. A backfired rifling accident, apparently, was what did the deed. What a mess that poor man was, one testicle and nothing else to match with it. Had to use a glass catheter tube to help him urinate several times a day. No, Mr. Holmes, a healthy, flaccid penis is hardly going to daunt me!"

He was aided into the steaming brass tub, the relief of hot water across his aching, weakened limbs a heavenly respite. He sank into its camphor scented confines with a wheezing sigh of relief, the heat poured over his chest and back with the aid of a small jug used for the purpose. "Dr. Watson has been called," Lestrade said to Mrs. Hudson, and she grimly nodded.

"He's got terrible manners but he's saved you from the precipice more than once Mr. Holmes, and I'll tolerate him happily for this. Mind yourself and lean forward, Mr. Lestrade has your shoulders. Tell me if I'm pounding too hard, I don't want to bruise you."

The soothing hot water cascaded over him, the rattle in his lungs breaking apart as the medicated steam poured into him with every breath. Mrs. Hudson got to work pounding his back with the flat of her fist, forcing the fluid that had built up within his chest to shift. The action forced loud, crackling coughs out of him which periodically resulted in clearing his airway enough to take a deeper breath, which he greedily clamoured after.

There were fewer indignities in life than being both nude and ill, these twin embarrassments multiplied as Mycroft was bid to spit excess phlegm into a copper bowl that Mrs. Hudson kept for this exact purpose. She remarked positively on its clarity, stating the lack of yellow tinge assured her he did not yet have an infection. He caught Lestrade's eye, the strong hands on his shoulders near bruising him with their fierce grip, the worry etched on the inspector's face enough to give Mycroft pause.

"Where is Jack?" Mycroft managed to ask.

"Save your breaths. Just concentrate on coughing that nasty bit up and don't exert yourself with asking silly questions." He released Mycroft's shoulder and stroked the back of his head, his fingers digging into the short strands of near black hair. "He's in the spare room, as you wanted, and he's being tended to like he's the Lord of the Manor, even more than you will be."

"Gregory," Mycroft whispered, ignoring Lestrade's pleas that he remain silent. "We need to warn Dr. Watson. His life is in danger."

How warm his Gregory's hands were, how very soothing the way he caressed the back of his head and brought his hammering heart and splintered lungs into an easement that no amount of salves or fresh air could cure. "It is not his life that is in my hands at this moment. Lie back into the water and relax, Mycroft. Mrs. Hudson has loosened the worst of it, I think. There's still that nasty cough, but you don't sound like you're trying to breathe through a slit in a reed." His hands came out of the water and Mycroft noticed that Lestrade in his panic had not thought to roll up his sleeves. The cotton fabric clung to his arms, now dripping wet. Both hands now cradled Mycroft's head and eased him against a towel refashioned as a pillow.

"I must look a terrible sight, dear Gregory." The words were still pushed through a whisper. "You are looking at me as though you have found my grave."

"I believe I nearly did," Lestrade's thumbs stroked Mycroft's cheekbones with gentle precision. "We will not be tempting that possibility again. You are on bed rest for now and at first opportunity we are leaving for Bath."

Mycroft tried to lean up and Lestrade gently pushed him back. "I have quarter sessions next week, several cases that I'm to preside over. I cannot, Gregory, not when there is a murderer loose and there is work to finish first..."

"I will hear no argument from you," Lestrade gently said.

"No, you won't, because there isn't one to have," Mycroft stubbornly replied. "London will have to poison my lungs just a short time longer. My family is endangered. I will not abandon them due to some respiratory bone rattling!"

 

 

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter seven

By the time Dr. John Watson arrived at Baker Street, Mycroft had been lifted from the now tepid water of the bathing tub and was fully dried with help from Lestrade, his hair fluffed with a thick cloth and his skin now soft from aromatic salves. He'd been redressed into his night clothes by Lestrade, who balked at Mycroft's insistence he wear his brocade housecoat as well. "He's a doctor who treats the mad, I'm sure seeing someone as pristinely clean as yourself and not a person covered in excrement is a novelty. It's warm in this room, Mycroft, the heavy curtains don't dare allow in a breeze, and there's no point suffocating you further with layers of unnecessary cloth." A selection of pillows were propped behind him and Mycroft laid back on them in relative ease. Lestrade was satisfied with his handiwork, though he continued to fuss with the cotton blanket he tucked around him. "There. A bloody sultan couldn't look more comfortable. Mrs. Hudson is making up some peppermint tea, though I'm not so sure it will do much for you. That bath did a good job as did your coughing up. I can tell that phlegm plug is coming back, however, and I hope Dr. Watson will have on hand something to stave off a renewed attack. Stop trying to talk, Mycroft, save your breaths and just concentrate on taking deep ones. I know how much of a relief it is."

Though it was late afternoon, the sun still threatened to seep through the slit in the heavy curtains, a promise of cheer that Mycroft could not participate in. He did not want to be spending any length of time as an invalid, especially with the threats looming over all of them and with their Jack in the guest room, twiddling his energetic thumbs and having ample time to devise all manner of mischief as boys his age are wont to do. For himself, he had plenty of work, but the thought of not being able to attend his quarter sessions filled him with a sense of anticipatory dread. He was careful with his cases, and that one in particular which involved that monster Professor Pottsdam, of which he was certain the cretin was guilty!

Mycroft leaned back on his pillows, his throat exposed as his kept his head propped at an awkward angle ensuring the passageway to his lungs was kept clear. He dreaded the visit Dr. Watson would pay him, for he knew it meant the man would be pushing stramonium on him yet again, heedless of the torment the dreaded weed played upon his mind and senses. Other patients took it with no ill effect, but Mycroft experienced horrific stomach pains and rambling, nightmarish thoughts that wouldn't abate for hours. Worst of all, the dosage would leave him blind for several days, every small shard of light piercing his retinas as though the very thought of daylight was made of daggers. For obvious reasons, he avoided the treatment as often as he could, but there was little hope that he could do so now, especially after such a weakening attack.

"I know you have concerns, Mycroft, and I've heard you talking about how bad you react to the dosages of stramonium, I've witnessed its effects myself and I hate what it does to you as much as you do. Lie back. What did I tell you about trying to talk?" He pushed Mycroft's anxious shoulders back onto the wall of pillows behind him, and bid him to relax. "But you don't need to worry this time, I've informed Dr. Watson of newer remedies that are destined to be far superior to any he has procured for you in the past and like any scientist he is eager to try it."

Mycroft frowned, not at all as sure as his Gregory over how well these 'cures' would work, especially considering the last one was a tincture administered by eye drop and contained small traces of cocaine. He was reminded of Pottsdam's assessment of Dr. Watson, and his strange, twitchy aura on his rotund form, and he had to wonder if perhaps the man was in the throes of some as yet undiscovered addiction. It would explain the plethora of prose he was chucking into the Strand as of late, the public clamouring for copies every time there was a cry in the streets of 'Get the latest! Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective!'

But much to Mycroft's great relief, Dr. Watson arrived without fanfare, and was significantly more subdued than usual, in part due to his quick visit with their small lodger, Jack, whom he had brought a treat of cake. Both bedroom doors were open and Lestrade was so engrossed in his case notes beside the bed and tending to Mycroft that he didn't hear the small exchange that drifted in hushed tones across the scattered beakers on the table by the window and the gaudy lamp that comprised their sitting room.

"I've heard you've had quite the adventure." Dr. Watson sat beside the boy, the chair scraping the wooden slat floors with his bulk still in it. He was attempting to be quiet, but the man was made of booming vowels and overwrought consonants, his wide chest barrelling out the words as though they were held back only slightly from a horn. "Mrs. Hudson has told me all about it, as well as your reasons for it. I admit, I am a harsh man at unexpected intervals and if I am to truly be a person who can study the minds of others, I must be able to place myself within their predicaments. And what a sight that must be, eh? This rolling bulk being stuffed down a chimney like a pillow smothering bricks?"

He must have performed a pantomime of this, for Young Jack suddenly giggled, his mirth a balm of delight for Mycroft's worry and he pushed himself up so he could better listen, his finger to his lips as he bid a questioning Lestrade to remain silent.

"It weren't half as much fun as that, Dr. Watson, in fact I don't remember a thing of that part, which Mrs. Hudson tells me is just as well. I'm lucky that Miss Turner is something fearless when it comes to a crisis, going up on a roof in heavy skirts and all. Mr. Holmes and Inspector Lestrade, they say I ought to get her something nice out of my ill earned wages as recompense, and I gather that's the correct thing to do. What does a pretty but plain lady like that want out of life, do you think? She only seems interested in her piano and the few books scattered about her little house. She don't go for vanity, so a scarf or cameo broach is right out. I'm thinking a music box would be nice, but when her fingers dance on the ivory keys she can rival anything a plink-plonking bit of metal can do."

"This is a dilemma," Dr. Watson sagely agreed. The chair creaked in protest as he sat back in it. "As a man who has been all around the world and has had his share of the varieties of women within it, I venture to say that if a handsome young lad like yourself were to give any kind of offering it would be appreciated. But I agree, this is a very special sort of woman, and one who shall require the utmost care in bestowing a precious gift." He grumbled and huffed in thought, only to snap his thick fingers and jovially chuckle through the smoke of his pipe. "That's it, dear boy! The lady is a composer! Ink, and music sheets! There, you have it!"

"That's bloody brilliant!" Jack exclaimed, only to correct himself too late. "Sorry about that, need to mind me tongue sometimes Mrs. Hudson says. But it's a cracking good idea, Dr. Watson! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!"

"Ah, you are a bright boy! You remind me of myself at your age, full of energy and ideas bursting at the seams. Well, I do still burst at the seams these days, but not necessarily due to wit. No need to apologize to me when that trouble is mine. I harshly criticized you when we first met, and dismissed you outright without fully understanding the importance your living here has established beneath this roof."

"Ain't nothing important about me, I'm a bother, really."

"Nonsense, boy! Some families are formed out of the clay that society has molded them from and they thrive heartily from it, while others crack and crumble. I shall not judge the clay that makes a unique image for this one, for it's clear you are very much loved, and that is the most that anyone can hope for from those people whom we call home. It has been my experience, Young Jack, that there is great unkindness in this world and it attacks our children worst of all. I am glad to say, that the one who tried to rip apart your unusual little family has failed utterly in his attempt." Dr. Watson was suddenly thoughtful. "I do hope to meet him, for he would be an interesting study."

Jack sniffled. "Are you going to figure out why he'd do such a thing as harm a person for no good reason?"

"No, I'm afraid that is the job of an alienist and that is one profession I am loathe to wallow in. The abyss is an unpleasant place to look into too closely. No, I would prefer to have his brain after his hanging so I could weigh it against other criminal minds that Dr. Ziegler has currently placed in jars for the future purpose. A lack of compassion denotes a certain lack of development, and there should be corresponding similarities within the construction of the brain."

"That don't sound like science to me," a sceptical Jack said, and Mycroft bit down on his tongue lest he let out a choked chortle. "Inspector Lestrade would say you need only measure the man's skull to get the proper circumference. And even then, there are smart and stupid men who commit crimes, so you can't blame it on brains and missing bits. I think you should weigh their hearts. Mr. Holmes said that's how the Egyptians used to record a soul's guilt and I say those ancient wonders were onto something."

"Perhaps you are right, lad!" Dr. Watson cheerfully chuckled as he patted Jack's arm and left his seat with pendulum effort. "I can see why Mr. Holmes and Inspector Lestrade are so captivated by your company! You have a cunning mind, Jack. If you stay out of chimneys you will have considerable time to use it!"

Having finished with one patient, Dr. Watson now made his rounds across the sitting room towards the shared room of Lestrade and Mycroft, an abode which, if he noticed two men were cohabiting in it, he never spoke of it. Instead, Dr. Watson marched to Mycroft's bedside and took up his wrist in his thick hand, his thumb and forefinger pressing hard on the pounding pulse. He nodded over its erratic strength and then pressed his fingertips on either side of Mycroft's jaw, working down to investigate the tense muscles that were like taut ropes at his throat.

"Your heart rate is high, your skin clammy and your lungs are still rattling. This was a particularly bad spell. Even now you are struggling, and I'm reminded of that text by Dr. Salter, of the debilitating paroxysms that render the sufferer into a gasping near corpse, each breath an agony that those looking on cannot help but feel pain in empathy. It is a pitiable thing to be at the mercy of a disease that can attack at any moment, sometimes with warning and many times without, each day spent in anticipation of its arrival." He sighed and stood back, surveying the damage this particular bout has caused, and shook his head. "You will not take any of the belladonna extracts that have been recommended, and I don't fault you for it. The attack it makes on your vision is extraordinary." He turned towards Lestrade, who was now standing beside him, his arms crossed and an expectant expression on his face. "Yes, my good fellow, I was able to procure it, but it was not an easy prescription! A man of my stature is not well received in the Asian sections of London, and I had to journey to a very strange apothecary in that crowded sliver of a place. He had a large, pickled rattlesnake in a jar proudly displayed in his front window."

"It will be worth it, you'll see," Lestrade said, and he held out his hand eager to receive what Dr. Watson had been sent to hunt for him. Mycroft was confused by this, and he looked to Dr. Watson for a further explanation.

"Ma Huang," Lestrade said, grinning over the bulging cotton bag Dr. Watson handed to him. "Enough to get you through for a while, especially if it's the real thing. I've been hunting for this since we first met and it's a difficult herb to come by on English shores. This cost me a dear amount, and I won't alarm you by telling you how much, but let's just say we'll make it last."

Mycroft's throat was sore and breath was still precious, but he risked using some of them up. "What is Ma Huang?"

"A tea," Lestrade answered. "Originally from China, its medicinal properties in regards to your ailment has been known for over five thousand years. I've recently been in contact with a brilliant organic chemist by the name of Nagai Nagayoshi, who has pinpointed the exact chemical that is responsible for the bronchodialating properties of the plant. He's calling it ephedrine. A very pleasant fellow, there's no plant in the world he hasn't investigated and broken down into its chemical components, we spent many an hour discussing plants. We should visit the Tokyo Imperial University if we ever decide to go abroad, it's a simple box of a building lacking any outside adornment, built solely with function in mind. The outside does not reflect the vast complex of ideas lurking within it. This ordered simplicity in architecture is a hint to the organized, uncluttered thinking that pervades that culture, a clear virtue as they are ahead of us medicinally by supernatural leaps. It's a gap that is thankfully closing due to our more open trade, and an opening of the mind to foreign influence. Is there any ready, Dr. Watson?"

"I shall call up Mrs. Hudson. Do not look so alarmed, Mr. Holmes, I'm very interested in how this shall affect you, for it could be revolutionary in regards to how I treat respiratory distress in my patients at Holloway. As you well know yourself, stress is often a contributing factor to an attack."

Curious as Mycroft was, the effects of stramonium, the main ingredient in the dreaded Cigares Du Joy, had left him wary of new medicines. He swallowed with effort and took in a strained breath in hopes of giving a speech against the whole experiment, which could leave him delirious and wandering up and down Baker Street in nothing else but his housecoat. Stramonium often gave him blackouts.

He braced himself to argue against it, but the treatment would have to wait, for there were other pressing issues invading their little home. He could hear the thump and rumble of the man's arrival before he saw him, and all hope for gaining any rest and recuperation was dashed as an unwelcome guest bullied his way into the downstairs entrance of 221B.

"Really, woman, I am only here to see his Honour, Judge Mycroft Holmes. I wish to enquire after his health!"

"I know what you are up to, Judge Quibly, and it's a sad state of affairs when a man of the law such as yourself has so much at stake at gambling on another's life that he would come to see his bets make fruition! Who sent you? Was it Lestrade's Chief? The nerve of that man! I'll be talking to both of your wives about this!"

"Well you will have to shout very loud for them to hear you all the way in France! They are there for the season."

"How lucky for them both!"

A renewed sense of panic overtook Mycroft as he looked upon their room, and the open doors, their life on full, careless display. He was grateful that nothing needed to be said to Dr. Watson, who quickly marched down the stairs to hold off Judge Quibly, his loud voice booming over Quibly's equally aggressive tones in a competition that left the very foundations of the apartment block trembling. Dr. Watson was in agreement with Mrs. Hudson that their patient was not to be disturbed, but Quibly was a man well versed in argument and he was not about to be daunted in checking up on his prized investment.

"He must have a hefty sum on your head," Lestrade angrily stated.

"I have heard when he is drunk, Judge Quibly is especially reckless in his gambling habits."

"You just wasted a lot of breath talking about that slug. Come on, I'll help you up and lock the door behind us. We'll get you in that chair by the fire, the giant fool will be upon us at any moment."

He leaned heavily on Lestrade, still too weakened and dizzy to properly walk. The journey to the sitting room felt as long as a walk across the wall of China itself, and he collapsed into the winged chair with a sigh of uneasy relief. The bedroom door was shut and locked, a knit blanket tucked around Mycroft's legs. Lestrade stepped into the small corridor outside of the sitting room and discreetly shut Jack's door, minding the boy to remain quiet.

When it came to Quibly it was best to keep as much of their little family secreted as possible.

His body still reeling from the effort and the mucus plug threatening to grow and overtake him again, Mycroft reached for his copy of The Moonstone that he had left on the fireplace mantel and quickly propped it open in his lap just as Judge Quibly stormed into the sitting room.

He must have looked close to death indeed considering the happy way Judge Quibly greeted him. "Well, well, Mycroft! An eventful day all around for you, I'd say! Courting devils and death at every turn! Ah, but I see you are placed in good hands here, and have been made comfortable, though perhaps you should have been propped up in bed instead of before a fire. Some light reading, I see. Just as well you aren't concentrating on cases at present, considering how ill you are. I've come for your case notes. I'm taking over your quarter sessions while you recuperate."

Mycroft gently closed his copy of The Moonstone, noting that Quibly had not noticed it was upside down. "That will not be necessary."

"I'm afraid it is, you are in no condition to spend hours in the Old Bailey and as you are well aware, justice must prevail and as we *are* justice, we may be blind but we need to breathe. Besides, I think this protracted illness of yours has caused no end of problems in regards to your judgement, seeing as how you insisted on this bizarre arrest of an Oxford English professor." He turned his bloated form on Lestrade next, Quibly's purple face and shining, round nose wrinkling as though he'd caught a bad smell. "Your Chief is furious at your lack of investigative foresight and I'm warning you as an associate of his Honour, Mr. Holmes that you are at risk of tarnishing his already feeble reputation further. Professor Pottsdam is not a suspect in any case, but a witness in two, an unfortunate coincidence, but one that makes sense considering the man's profession. He tutors as a form of charity, you see." He paused, confused by the dumbfounded silence surrounding him. "Have none of you heard the news? We have an arrest, for the murder of that mad little trollop at Holloway, of course! Dr. Watson, is this not your understanding?"

"I'm pleading ignorance here," Dr. Watson said, "If the 'trollop' you are referring to is Miss Collie, she was a suicide."

"I'm afraid you have been misled yet again, and I'm starting to wonder if you should be taking on the ramblings of our Inspector Lestrade as fact seeing as how the evidence has stacked in favour of murder."

"What evidence would that be?" Lestrade tersely replied.

"That the person responsible for her death is the man she was having an affair with! We have the fellow in custody in Newgate Prison now, and we are very happy to report that there is now a full connection between him and the death of the poet Mr. McGonogall as well. Two murders solved!"

"I should think not," Lestrade replied. "How did you determine that Pottsdam is innocent and this man is guilty in his place?"

Quibly glanced to the open door of their sitting room, as though willing a tea set to be brought through it. It never arrived. Mrs. Hudson was busy banging large pots in her kitchen and grumbling over them, assuring all guests that she was far too busy to attend to them. Stoking coal fires was far more important than offering any hospitality to Judge Quibly. Mycroft was happy to have her loyalty.

"He was a witness. The unfortunate Miss Collie was embroiled in a torrid affair with a married man, as was revealed in her writings. She fancied herself a bit of a letter writer, you see, and as these writings were part of her therapy at Holloway, she noticed they could have some mass appeal and was hoping to publish them. The was no hope, of course, the girl's visions are mad, but a nurse who took pity on her has a cousin teaching anatomy at Oxford and word was sent to Professor Pottsdam about the girl needing some grammatical tutoring. An unusual arrangement, but Professor Pottsdam assured the Chief and I both that he is merely a man who is so fond of the English language he aids in its continued perfection among those who share in its passion."

"How very saintly of him," Lestrade snapped, "and yet you still have avoided telling me how this is evidence of his innocence."

"On the contrary, his kindness to Miss Collie has revealed much. He witnessed her lover, Mr. Green, leaving her room the day of her suicide. He had dropped by to deliver her an edited copy of a short story she had written, and it was there in the top drawer of her desk as he had said it would be. When he arrived she was weeping at her desk, and he noted the letter opener on its surface was not one he had ever seen before. He asked after it, and she told him that it had been a gift from Mr. Green. The whole sordid story of their affair spilled from her, then, and in his wisdom Pottsdam encouraged her to write to the man's wife a formal apology and to assure her the affair was quite over."

"Foolish advice," Dr. Watson interjected. "That is a sure way to incite negative feeling, and I daresay it put the poor girl in immediate danger of retaliation, not to mention a permanent smearing of her reputation. She made a mistake, as girls do, and his moral posturing was set to destroy her further. There was nothing good in that suggestion, Judge Quibly. I should have been informed of Professor Pottsdam's visits, and there is nothing in the register. The man snuck into Holloway to take advantage of a very sick young woman."

Quibly dismissed Dr. Watson's diagnosis with a wave of his fat, purple hand. "Whatever you believe, it's of no consequence now, the girl is dead and she didn't have opportunity to reveal the affair. But the fact she was going to gives us plenty of motive for Mr. Green. As for the connection to the poet, she had a bill for Mr. McGonogall's performance and informed Professor Pottsdam that a select few from the Sanatorium were going to attend. She had developed an unhealthy fixation on Mr. McGonogall and the upcoming performance, and her writings are indicative of a series of delusional thoughts on him as her new main romantic subject. The descriptions are graphic and I won't repeat them here. Needless to say, they are clear indicators of why she was a patient at Holloway." Quibly checked the open door again and frowned.

"I'm afraid Mrs. Hudson was not expecting to make us dinner, as Mr. Holmes is ill and I have a poor appetite at present. Tea is out of the question, for it will only make Mr. Holmes's condition worse." Lestrade clasped his hands behind his back and rolled back and forth on his heels. "You have currently told me this young woman has a connection to the poet McGonogall due to her maniacal writing about him. The written word can be interpreted in many ways, but I'm going to risk assuming that you believed the connection was obvious enough. I will still need to see the writings, of course. But you have not given me any true physical evidence of a connection between the two murders and Pottsdam's innocence in the matter, and that, I'm afraid to say, is trying my patience."

"You are a harsh man, Inspector Lestrade, I can see why some of the younger constables believe you a bit of a bully. Pushing me around, however, is not so easy. You and your deductive methods should have figured it out by now. Care to take a guess?"

"I will do more than that," Lestrade confidently replied. "I will tell you what the evidence you found was."

Quibly laughed at this. "You can try."

"I will not try, I know. The letter opener. It was used to murder Mr. McGonogall."

Quibly's bloodshot eyes widened at this. "How did you make such a leap?"

"Is it the murder weapon?"

"Yes. Yes it is."

"And Professor Pottsdam directed you to it. Don't bother telling me, I can already state that you found said letter opener in Miss Collie's room, and that you have found what looks to be blood embedded in its handle. You have other witnesses who state that the letter opener was indeed Mr. McGonogall's. You have established that there was clear evidence of an affair with Mr. Green and that she was, under the influence of Professor Pottsdam, preparing to reveal it to his wife. You have also stated that there is evidence she had transferred her amorous aspirations onto Mr. McGonogall, suggesting that Mr. Green was both incensed by her dramatic plans to end their affair and that her affections were now transferred to this poet. Thus, Mr. Green now has plenty of motive to kill both her and Mr. McGonogall."

"You have connected the puzzle pieces quite well, Inspector Lestrade." Quibly puffed with pride at Lestrade's seeming failure.

"And you have, of course, missed the entire point."

Quibly's face turned a ghastly shade of purple at this, and Mycroft wondered if the man was going to explode in a bloody mess right there in his sitting room. "Now look here, Lestrade..."

"You and the Chief are being taken in, and far too willingly. Professor Pottsdam knows damned well that neither of you want to deal with the political hot poker that charging an Oxford Professor of one of the most prestigious universities in all of England would entail. Have you not thought at all that this 'witness' is in fact the murderer himself? That he could have placed the evidence where you could so conveniently find it, and thus render false blame?"

"He was most convincing..."

"You did not think! As usual, your thoughts are lazy and unformed, and you dare to come in here and suggest my methods are not sound when they have always been before! This is a clever murderer, he is organized, a fervent planner. He has made you forget that he is now involved in *three* murders, citing his profession and seeming charity to blame for these gruesome coincidences. The fourth murder we're aware of him committing was of a man who had no earthly connection save the charity of tired dockworkers. There is no such thing as coincidence, Mr. Quibly, only lines of proof that have not been connected." Lestrade turned to Dr. Watson. "I will need all of Miss Collie's writings. A sample from before she went into Holloway and one after."

"Before and after?" Dr. Watson frowned in question.

"Yes. Because Professor Pottsdam is lying. She never wrote a word about that bastard lover of hers, nor did she have need of an editor. Elizabeth Collie was fond of ink but only used it to draw human figures, namely herself in the arms of her lover. That affair and its impossibility was her true illness. If there are foul paragraphs on paper, I can assure you--Professor Pottsdam was the one who wrote them!"

Quibly sighed at this, and gave Mycroft's grey pallor a good once over, as though taking some hidden pleasure out of it. The sum he'd bet was certainly considerable from the hungry way he looked at Mycroft's struggle, and Mycroft felt the phlegm tighten within his chest, his breathing resuming its usual wheeze.

"I will return at another time for the case files. In fact, hold onto them as long as you like, I have enough knowledge of them already to understand that the lot of them are guilty, especially that baby killer. The gaol is set to be busy."

"You shouldn't sound proud of that," Lestrade quipped.

"I'm a government man who understands frugality. We'll be re-using rope."

Judge Quibly left the room in a huff, and did not offer a goodbye to Mrs. Hudson nor anyone else, his purple bulk rolling out onto Baker St. with his usual pomp. Lestrade watched him from the window as he hailed himself a carriage and took up the entire front seat. Dr. Watson was not a small man, but Quibly was something else entirely, a man made of nothing but his own pleasures and little else. It was a wonder he'd fit through the narrow front door.

"I never want to see that man here again," Lestrade said. "He's foul and selfish and thinks only on his gain. The carriage is heading towards Chapel St. and I know where he goes from there. The Alma Pub will be entertaining him for the rest of the afternoon. To think that ignorant man is the final say in whether one is guilty or innocent and thus lives or dies!"

Their discussion on the matter was cut short by Mrs. Hudson, who stepped into the sitting room bearing a large teapot and cup on a woven wicker tray. "I've brewed it as per your instructions, Mr. Lestrade. It's got a strange aroma, kind of musty, like it's got mold. Are you sure this will help?"

Lestrade sank into the chair opposite Mycroft and miserably contemplated his lover's frail countenance. He sighed, and gave his companion a wan, smile that did little to hide the torment hiding within him. Lestrade impatiently bid her to pour it up. "At this point it's the only hope we have."

"That man is a judge?" Mrs. Hudson tutted as she poured the orange brew and then offered it to Mycroft who took it from her. He sniffed the contents and winced over the odd scents, like oranges and bitter leaves. "I've never met a body so rude, and Dr. Watson comes here regularly."

Dr. Watson raised a brow at this, but she continued on, ignoring him. "I was in the room with Young Jack for some of that stripping down that purple menace gave you, Mr. Lestrade, and it made the poor lad upset to hear you being treated that way. He's got some kind of nerve discounting your methods when you've been nothing but right in the past."

Lestrade merely nodded, but he was lost in his own thoughts, carefully going over what Quibly had told him. As he remained in tense silence, brooding in the chair across from him, Mycroft sipped at the severe, bitter tea. It was difficult to manage at first, but he forced himself to drink it, the strange concoction adding a layer of warmth to his chest that was unexpected. He felt his heart rate increase, but after a few moments he was shocked to discover his throat did not feel so constricted, and the mucus plug was no longer a threat to every breath.

"Gregory," he said, his eyes wide as he took in the returning calm, relieved look of his partner, "I am feeling marvellous. The effect is near instantaneous, how is this even possible?"

Lestrade sat back with ease, his hands slapping on the armrests of his matching winged chair. "Ma Huang has been used in the Orient to treat lung ailments for five thousand years. I witnessed firsthand its effectiveness during my time in Japan, where a young child with a condition similar to yours was given Ma Huang to treat him. He went from gasping for breath to running around playing and getting under my feet within minutes."

Mycroft's pleasure at feeling better was tempered by this mention of Japan, a place of mystery that was further embedded in shadow by Lestrade's odd history with its shore. There was a definitive glint in Lestrade's eye as he watched Mycroft's breaths even out. Heightened arousal. A promise, perhaps, of red silk...

Dr. Watson did not recognize this, of course, and was as surprised as Mycroft at the effectiveness of the cure. "I shall be sure to contact this Dr. Nagayoshi myself. His research into ephedrine must continue! I have many patients who I treat for similar maladies, for as I have mentioned Mr. Holmes, mental stress can also bring on such attacks." He lifted the lid from the teapot and gave the contents a good sniff. "My word, though, it is pungent. I can taste the bitterness just from the smell of it. But be warned, this is still a medicine and not the proper cure for you. Best of all would be to leave London and get some proper air! Nothing cleanses the lungs better, you are healed the entire time you are in Bath!" Dr. Watson shook his head, "Do not bother to tell me, I know you cannot leave your quarter sessions behind to that hanging judge any more than I can leave my patients."

"He's a mangler of facts," Lestrade agreed.

"Perhaps a few days in Hampstead? It is close enough and the air there is clear."

Mycroft sighed, and how wondrous it felt to be able to do so! "I have no intention of spending days counting sheep."

"In that case you'd best get used to this bitter brew," Mrs. Hudson interjected. She poured him another cup. "Double dose it to make sure you stay strong. I've consulted with Dr. Watson and we both agree that a daily drab of this along with emergency draughts should you feel an attack coming on will help keep your airways cleared, at least for the time being. He is right, Mr. Holmes, the air in London in summer is a poisonous fog for men such as you. Not to mention I'm a right bundle of nerves thinking that madman is out to get you, and has already nearly done in our Jack! I won't feel right until you're well out of London, you and Jack and Mr. Lestrade, tucked somewhere safe where that bloody monster can't reach you."

Though she was correct, Lestrade remained pensive. He frowned as he brought Dr. Watson into his confidence, his mood suddenly dark. "I have to wonder, Dr. Watson, what kind of man would go to these lengths to commit such crimes and how it is best to approach him. He has blatantly threatened you, as well, and his obsession with the English language as it presented in print is one that I'm having trouble understanding. If we take the words of Darwin's academic publication about evolution and dare to apply his methods to such things as language, we can see similar constructs within them, words borrowed and morphed at will, even invented in the case of the great Bard. One need only look at Shakespeare's inventiveness to see how our language has mutated over time. Professor Pottsdam has made the study of English his narrow focus, and surely he has a clear understanding of this." He frowned. "You have no recollection he visited Holloway?"

"I'm afraid not, though the nurses are sometimes too sympathetic and will allow people in without my knowledge. They don't always make guests sign the visitor's log, a problem that shall be immediately rectified. The younger ones are especially vulnerable to being pressed upon, they don't understand that it's best for patients to be kept from their families for a protracted period of time to best assess them outside of those often fracturing environments. What is claimed and what is true is often very different in reality. Yes, these hidden visitations must be addressed, especially after what happened to Miss Collie. Still, that seemed to be a clear case of suicide to me, I don't understand how murder is playing into it."

"I'm quite confident she was murdered," Lestrade said, almost as a flippant aside. "Though Pottsdam true motives are escaping me. He's an organized madman."

"He follows his own prescription of murder to the letter," Dr. Watson agreed.

"No, that is not entirely true. He has had ample chance to kill you, that is a given," Lestrade bluntly stated to Dr. Watson. "He made a point to tell Mycroft how he detests your prose, and the threat was made, and if he wanted to he could have dispatched of you in the morning and then Young Jack in the afternoon. And yet, he goes after a mad girl who apparently rambles in her writing instead. Then, he goes on to frame her lover for both her and the poet McGonogall's murder, all while he is still a witness for a third murder, which Mycroft suspects him guilty of. His motives are not at all clear."

"No madman's are. They have certain obsessive, singular visions but they approach them from uneven directions. I am reminded, sadly, that your brother has been asking after you Mycroft and it would do well to visit him. He's been very anxious, especially when the police showed up going through Miss Collie's room and Inspector Lestrade wasn't present. He was going about the dogs again, and he said that you, Mr. Lestrade, would understand what he was talking about."

Lestrade frowned. "What exactly did Sherlock say?"

"Nonsense, mostly. His exact words, as best I can remember them, were: 'The bloodhound traces the least obvious scent.' Then he started rambling about the phosphorous dogs again, and strange breeds of hounds. Interesting, however, he is right about the largeness of some of the German mastiff breeds, they easily outweigh a man."

An hour passed, and after some amicable discussion on the matter of German ingenuity in regards to canine breeding and Darwin's evidence plain in the face of every variety of dog, Dr. Watson cordially made his leave. "Much as it is part of your brother's current delusions, I find myself rather transfixed by the idea. But it is a tale that will have to wait, The Strand tells me that they prefer my shorter prose works at present. They earn a far better commission on sales without the overhead of paper and ink."

Another hour passed in quiet, with Lestrade remaining in his chair in brooding introspection, barely moving as his mind regurgitated the problem over and over until it was an unintelligible mass. Mycroft contented himself with his copy of The Moonstone and he enjoyed the rare sense of calm that had overtaken their usually frantic little home. No longer struggling to breathe gave Mycroft a renewed sense of health, and he looked out the open door of their sitting room to the corridor, longing to go and visit Jack. He'd heard the child whimper earlier, and he was sure Jack's shattered leg was paining him terribly. He was a tough patient, however, and Mrs. Hudson indulged him for his lack of tears with promises of cocoa and a dinner of cake.

Mycroft, however, was not immune to the problem of a monster being allowed his freedom while an innocent man took his stead. Though the intrigue of Wilke Collins's work held its usual fascination (the amusing relationship between Penelope and her father Gabriel was always a delight), there was the constant thread of Pottsdam's actions weighing heavily in the background, his motives as muddy as the water of the Thames. Artifice had been threaded throughout the entire case, as though Pottsdam had orchestrated every curve long in advance, a feat that the devil himself would find hard to enact. So many open variables could destroy Pottsdam's claims, and yet his reputation prevented them from being fully explored. He was sure Lestrade would eventually snap all these strings present in Pottsdam's web, but in the mean time they were forced to acquiesce defeat. The knots and strings could not be broken.

Or could they?

Lestrade suddenly leapt from his chair and Mycroft, alarmed, dropped his copy of The Moonstone to the floor where it landed with a loud clatter. Mrs. Hudson shouted upstairs, begging to know if everyone was all right. Lestrade's wide, winning grin lit up the small sitting room and he poked his head around the corner of the door leading in, his voice echoing down the stairwell: "Everything is more than all right, Mrs. Hudson! In fact, we are set to be right where we were at the beginning!"

He ducked back into the sitting room and paced in front of Mycroft, eagerly rubbing his hands together. "We've been fools, Mycroft! For at the heart of it, a story is still a story after all! And oh, how badly our Professor Pottsdam has told it! The Bard would chastise him!"

Confused, Mycroft raised a brow at Lestrade's happy agitation. "I don't understand. Why are we fools?"

"Because all along Professor Pottsdam's actions have been telling a story. A story of a madman who kills people due to their ineffective use of the English language, a monster of such incredible apathy that authors live in fear of being punished. The printed word is on trial, his judgement shall come swiftly upon those who dare to believe themselves literate!"

Lestrade howled in laughter and Mycroft wondered if his dear Gregory had gone mad. "Yes, that seems to be the case."

"How right you are! It 'seems to be'! But this is a story, a fairy tale told to us to ensure we don't look too closely behind it for the real meaning!" Lestrade crouched by Mycroft's arm, his touch bold on Mycroft's thigh as his warm brown eyes caught Mycroft's and made his hammering heart beat all the quicker. "Professor Pottsdam has no interest whatsoever in killing off those who torture the English language. His interest is far more mundane, his solution a convoluted one befitting a mediaeval bard's poetry. This whole thing is a ruse, Mycroft, set to put me off the scent of his real target."

His hand squeezed Mycroft's knee sending a paroxysm of feeling through Mycroft's groin. Damn, didn't the man know limits? They weren't beneath the sheets, in the privacy of a locked room, Mrs. Hudson could step through the door at any moment and discern the scandalous caress!

"You, Mycroft. You are the real target."

Mycroft blinked. Lestrade's dazzling grin didn't waver once.

"What?" Mycroft sat up, alarmed. "He means to murder me?"

"No, he means to distract you and he's done a wonderful job of it so far, ensuring you are too busy and upset to properly do your job, knowing well that your health is poor and the judge in line to take over your cases for your quarter session is a short sighted hanger who will barely look at the facts." Lestrade's hand massaged Mycroft's thigh.

"Gregory, mind yourself!" He glanced at the open door and tried to swat his hand away, only for Lestrade's grip to travel higher and tighter.

"You are a diligent judge who actually believes in the virtues your position is expected to hold. You wish to see justice done. You have already aimed to have the trial of a woman murdered by her husband postponed while a further investigation is enacted. But you were distracted, first by the murder of the poet McGonogall and then the escalating crimes since, culminating in the near murder of our Jack. Your health is in question. The Mortality Race is in full display and your name is at the top of the list, a practical advertisement as to your fragility. Pottsdam saw it and recognized his problem, for he is aware that though you are ill you are a very careful judge and do not approach your cases without fairness and thorough investigation."

Mycroft shook his head. "Why would he create this 'story'? Why wouldn't he just kill me outright?"

"You are a judge of the assize, and there is no way he could easily kill you without arousing my suspicions. I have a dogged reputation myself, as your brother reminded me. Either way, our involvement in his trial was too big a risk, we would catch him. Better to create a bigger problem, one that would keep us distracted with false leads for an imaginary monster of his own creation."

His hand slid to the underbelly of Mycroft's thigh, and he gasped at the suggested eroticism of the touch. "Gregory..."

"You must understand it by now. This is no mastermind, this is an amateur! He is rambling towards a complex conclusion, forgetting that a bloodhound is made for such puzzles. He is over thinking!"

Mycroft shifted in his seat, Lestrade's amorous advances not abating in the least. His thumb was dangerously close to Mycroft's sex, and he could feel that treacherous muscle twinge in interest, a fact that made Lestrade grin all the more. "My health seems to no longer be of a concern, and I will be presiding over his trial after all. This doesn't alleviate the fact Pottsdam has already convinced the Chief and Judge Quibly of his innocence and has placed a proxy in his place."

"A poorly executed series of lies that I will disprove one by one and he is aware of it. He was merely buying himself time, ensuring the trial you were meant to preside over was in the gullible Quibly's hands. He's a colony man, and I do believe he's planning a firm exit after this, but for an as yet unknown reason he has to remain in England, at least until the first trial is over. It's a game of careful notches of minutes for him, and as things currently are the clock ticks in favour of his freedom."

Lestrade's hand moved again, and oh, he was a terrible creature! The pressure of his palm, that knowing grin, the sparkle in his gaze that spoke of victory and Mycroft's body was to be its spoils...

"There is no need to correct him of this assumption. Neither he, nor anyone else, knows that your condition has much improved. We will bring Dr. Watson into our confidence. We continue to let Pottsdam believe you are holding the hand of the Reaper while we dismantle the lies he has fed both the Chief and Quibly."

"What will this achieve?"

"He will be forced to act and when he does the evidence will be too obvious to ignore. He has created a narrative that he has to follow, one that will involve our efforts to link him to the various murders and he will make us look as fools for trying while he escapes through a back door."

Mycroft thought on this. As best he could considering the distraction that Lestrade's palm was building within him. Fingers traced his tenting length through his cotton pyjamas and Mycroft closed his eyes, gasping at Lestrade's audacity. "We would be putting Dr. Watson in danger."

"Dr. Watson's prose, while annoying to us, is sadly sound. He has an excellent command of grammar, and is thus not the usual target for our monster. No, we need a new author, one that is both terrible and titillating, full of spelling errors and poorly constructed sentences, problems that the reading public is willing to overlook in order to enjoy the bulk of the story. It needs to be sensational. Prose of highly improper incendiary fuel."

Mycroft allowed himself to sink into Lestrade's touch, his sighs descending into an erotic pace that amused his tormenter a great deal. "Improper prose..." he murmured.

"Yes." Lestrade leaned up from his crouched position on the floor, his body draped over Mycroft's as he sat in the winged chair. He found his mouth and kissed him, his tongue stealing Mycroft's newfound breath. The perversity of the act send a blush of heated red throughout Mycroft's being, and he kept his eyes averted from Lestrade's hungry glare, both afraid and fascinated by what was about to come next.

"Wh-What kind of story would that be?" Mycroft asked.

Lestrade stole his mouth again, tongue lavishing attention with passionate abandon. Mycroft groaned into Lestrade's mouth, the twitch in his sex now a needful agony.

"A salacious one," Lestrade whispered into his ear, kisses lining Mycroft's reddened cheeks. "And you're going to write it."

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter eight

Though he was an invalid, it was a shock to Mycroft to see how easily Jack could manipulate any situation to his mischievous advantage. He had lain in bed a week and pressed upon Mrs. Hudson that his injured leg did not hurt at all and he could very easily leave his bed to sit in the sitting room, he was a child who healed easily and wasn't it lazy of him to sit around in bed all day when it was best he was up and about? Mrs. Hudson warned him to remain in bed, but Jack had found an ally in Lestrade, who picked him up in the morning as though he was a bag of feathers and deposited the child in the winged chair by the fire, his heavily bandaged and splintered leg propped on a richly embroidered stool Mycroft had brought with him to London from Bath. It was while Mycroft was finishing his second cup of morning tea and contemplating toast that Lestrade would make his leave, kissing both Jack and Mycroft on the forehead before bounding down the stairs and out into the London muck where murderers, thieves and mayhem awaited his arresting expertise.

Of course, Mycroft could not lift Jack as though he were weightless and Mrs. Hudson was of little help since she was more relieved her patient was occupied and thus not prone to make demands on her. In her dark, cozy little kitchen she prepared the day's meals and organized her cleaning chart, along with her tending to Jack and administering Mycroft's carefully monitored medicine (he'd come to accept the bitterness of Mu Huang tea). Her days were far busier than her usual strict regimen, and she always made a point to leave Jack in the winged chair as long as possible, and thus under the care of Mycroft.

Normally, he would not find the boy's presence a hindrance, in fact he loved Jack's company and longed to spoil him with treats and books and whether or not Mr. Wilke Collins truly had a good grasp of detection. But Mycroft had been handed a very difficult task to perform in front of a highly inquisitive child, the subject matter being one that was not the sort of thing a boy of Jack's age should be exposed to, nay perhaps his entire life if he were to call himself a gentleman.

Mycroft blushed over the effort, and while he may have had some highly pleasurable experiences under the tutelage of Lestrade as of late, those being certain midnight caresses that were encased in red silk, he found he was having a very difficult time putting such actions onto paper. Their private life was just that, and any risk of revelation even in hinted, vague paragraphs made his hand tremble as he poised his pen over onionskin and thought about the strong grip that held him down, the rough, sandpaper of Lestrade's stubbled cheeks chafing his inner thighs, the expert, hot velvet searching of his tongue...

"What are you writing, Mr. Holmes?"

Mycroft smeared the sentence he'd inked on purpose and let the pen fall. "Just something for court."

"Oh, a case! Is it an interesting one?"

"I suppose some may think so." Mycroft picked up the pen again and hovered it over the onionskin paper, all sense of erotic sensibility lost. "To me, it's a tad, well, routine, I suppose."

"A man and a woman and that sort of trouble then," Jack said.

Mycroft, shocked at the boy's frank speech, turned in his chair at the breakfast table and studied the serious little imp dwarfed in the centre of the large winged chair. Jack was dressed in cotton striped pyjamas and a small housecoat Mrs. Hudson had made for him out of a couple of old sheets, along with felted wool slippers that covered his feet. With his injured leg propped up on the embroidered stool and a cup of steaming tea in a delicate cup and saucer in hand, Jack looked like more ancient than child, a contented Buddha who nibbled on shortbread.

"What on earth do you know about that 'that sort of trouble'?" Mycroft dared to ask.

"You see it all the time out there in the world, some man and a pretty woman arguing it up on the corner. I sits in this window on occasion and watch it happen. It ain't never the same ones, which is odd, but they like that corner to argue, men and women do, and I think it ought to have something to do with that jewellery shop across the street from the junction. One time there was a right row, and this red haired girl who couldn't be more than fourteen slapped this old fellow hard right across the face and stormed off--You should give me wide eyes at that, Mr. Holmes, she did it right there on that corner in front of all of Baker Street to see. A fireball girl, I should think. He must have really disappointed her to earn that kind of discipline! He should have saved himself the embarrassment and just bought her the ring!"

He was curious how the boy had come to these conclusions which, when thinking on it, were no doubt correct. The jewellery store proudly displayed its rings in the front window along with other, dissimilar sets of jewels that caught the eye of the grieving more than a young couple. Cameo broaches and memento moris were the store's specialty, and it was odd to think of someone staring with longing into the window, past the clasps that would hold hair and pins made of the intricately braided locks to the small row of rings in the front centre.

He did not contemplate this puzzle for long, for there was the usual bustle occurring at the base of the stairs as Mrs. Hudson politely greeted and accepted a soft spoken guest. Mycroft had avoided going to the Diogenes on purpose, first to ensure that his fellow judges believed he was still sick and secondly to meet with this fair woman who had so bravely risked her own safety to rescue Jack. He had fully dressed that morning in a pale beige suit that was the new style in America and he stood up and away from the breakfast table as she made her way up the stairs, her light steps ghosting the creaking wooden planks.

Miss Turner was a pretty, if not plain, woman with mousy brown hair piled high on her head and a slight build that was dwarfed beneath the bustle of her cotton skirt. Mycroft noted there was a small tear in the sleeve of her dress, hidden beneath thin layers of lace that was not at all flattering against her skin. She looked to Mycroft to be a woman ill suited to the garb she was forced to wear, possessing a neglected air about herself that suggested she spent a considerable amount of time alone in contemplation and wasn't used to pursuing company.

"Miss Turner, this is a great pleasure," Mycroft said, and he bid to take a seat near Jack, whom she had promised in a note that she was set to visit. "Both Inspector Lestrade and I wish to give you our most sincere thanks in regards to your treatment of our dear Jack. Such quick thinking is a rarity amongst the populace and as you can see the fruits of it are clear. Jack has been eager to see you again."

But if Jack's current healing had given the household at 221B a great sigh of relief, it impacted Miss Turner quite differently. She held her hand at her mouth, a shaking leaf that trembled at her lips as she looked on the small boy in the winged chair, her other hand gently tapping the heavily bandaged leg he had propped on the stool. To Mycroft's surprise, she sank to her knees beside the boy, tears threatening to spill.

"You poor child," she wept. "I'm sure it hurts a great deal."

"Not so much now," Jack admitted. "It itches mostly. Mrs. Hudson says it's healing right and all, and I should be on my feet right in time to go to Bath with Mr. Holmes and Inspector Lestrade. Might need crutches for the summer, but I'll work hard on making sure I won't need 'em permanent."

Miss Turner pressed her fingertips beneath her eyes, heedless of using a handkerchief. To Mycroft's shock, she used the cuff of her sleeve in its place. With a hand firm on Jack's arm she gave him a wide smile that Jack returned. "You're a very strong boy, and I am very relieved to see you are doing well. I hear you wish to play piano. I will provide you with lessons, of course, free of charge. From our first visit I could tell you have a musical ear. How interesting a tale it will be, to say I rescued a talented pianist from my chimney!"

Mycroft wondered at this, for the woman seemed to him to be of the spinster type that rarely ventured out of the realm of her home and its tiny influence. It would be a rare thing, indeed, for her to have anyone to tell that story to. He frowned, feeling the clutch of that loneliness upon her, and from the way she held Young Jack's hand and looked at his bandaged leg with an empathic ache, he vowed that both he and Lestrade would from now on be regular visitors at Miss Turner's solitary home.

"I have a gift for you," Jack said, and Miss Turner shook her head, not wanting to accept it. Jack pressed the matter. "It's not something that I'd say a person who'd rescued your life should have, there's nothing in the world rich enough for that, not even any of them rings in that jeweller's window across the street. But you are a musical person and as such I figured I'd give you what would aid you best in that." He reached behind his back and pulled out a thick roll of beige papers held together with a thick, red ribbon. "Music sheets, on account of you liking composing. You can scribble all sorts of notes, now. And here, this one is special."

To Miss Turner's wide eyed joy, Jack proffered a swan fashioned from one of the music sheets using the complex folds of Japanese origami. Lestrade had helped him the night before, making dozens of the little paper birds until Jack had perfected the technique. He wanted to ensure that the one Miss Turner received was one he'd made himself, and from the way the woman beamed down at him, it was a heartfelt gesture that was wholly appreciated.

Miss Turner blinked back renewed tears, her brown eyes glassy. "You are a very special young man. The very thought that someone could harm you...Well, let's just say it's best I don't expand on that thought too much."

Jack balked at this. "There ain't a bit of meanness in a hair on your head, Miss Turner."

Miss Turner braced her shoulders, her voice suddenly firm. It was easy to see her in the governess role, loving, but strict when necessary. "I may be a soft woman at my heart, but there is nothing I wouldn't do to save a child. Most women become mothers to children they bear, but I have been the luckiest among them, for as a governess and a teacher I have had the privilege to be a mother to dozens of children. " She lightly pressed the folded swan close to her bosom. "This is a very special gift you have given me, Jack. It will have an honoured place in my home forever, beside the sheet music propped up on the piano so that all who come to learn about the beauty of ivory can remark on it."

Mrs. Hudson came into the room bearing a refreshed tea tray and Miss Turner took a seat near Jack. She could be a pretty woman, Mycroft thought as he looked on her, and he found it odd how she didn't seem to care as to her appearance the way most women of her type did. He wondered what ghastly romance had reduced her to bland spinsterhood like this, the memory of Jack telling him about her former employer taking root in his mind. She was also involved with the poet McGonogall, a curious imposition on her solitary nature that he desperately needed to discuss.

"You compose music as well as teach it," Mycroft said, more to himself than to Miss Turner, who held her cup of tea aloft at his musings. "You composed for the late poet Mr. McGonogall, a commission I understand you were not paid for."

"No, I wasn't," she replied, her voice tight. "He was a vain, stubborn, unpleasant man but as a matter of business I endured it. I didn't have to meet with him in person all that often, thankfully, and I composed his music around his program. Have you read his poetry? I'm afraid it was difficult to score without delving into comedy. With lines such as 'Tears fall upon the death throes of my beloved...Plop, plop, plop...' the real tragedy was that he found it fit to print at all!"

Mycroft chuckled. "Hardly worthy of Shakespeare as he so pointedly placed himself in competition with."

"Good Lord, he was hardly worthy of a charnel house limerick. But he'd promised me a good wage, which sadly never arrived. However, one musn't get too enamoured with bitterness, for I've found a new use for the music that is proving to be profitable. A new play, one that experiments with contemporary ideas. A bit suffragette in nature and sure to cause scandal enough for profit."

Mycroft raised a brow at this for he hadn't expected Miss Turner to have such a fierce entrepreneurial streak. But then, there were aspects to her nature that were fearless, not the least of which involved rushing onto a rooftop to tear apart a chimney with her bare hands. He reminded himself that though she seemed a bland ghost of a person there was a core of hidden strength within her that did not balk at a challenge. "I wonder, Miss Turner, as you are quite involved in the arts and many of its disciplines overlap, are you familiar with a man named Professor Pottsdam, of Oxford?"

She frowned. "I can't say that I am, no. However, I am familiar with you, Mr. Holmes."

Mycroft was taken aback by this. "Oh? How so?"

"Through a former student. Elizabeth Collie. The poor girl, I was her tutor for math when she was a child and was quite upset when I discovered she'd been interred in Holloway Sanatorium. I can't say I was surprised, she was never the same after her father died and I dare say she may have made some bad decisions when it came to finding a suitor. Any shred of male attention became obsessive, to the point of self destruction and unfortunately such intensity did not bring about princes so much as scoundrels. She was a girl of means, but also quite mad. Men often took advantage of her generosity, though they perhaps found it difficult to shake her off afterwards. The last rumour I heard before her death was that she was having a dalliance with a married man, a further symptom of her insanity."

"This is very interesting information," Mycroft said, nodding over it, "But it still doesn't explain how it is you know me."

"I visited Elizabeth a couple of times a month at Holloway. Your brother, Sherlock, was often present. He has a very vivid imagination and is a gregarious sort, he likes to be the centre of attention. He clearly liked Elizabeth's company, but she was too embroiled in her erotomania for a married man to truly pay Sherlock any mind. He talked about you, referring to you as his dying, judging brother who was too lazy to visit him. I understand that he was being unkind, it is Sherlock's way, and I knew the more negative things he said about you the more the opposite was true. He simply cares very deeply for you, and his bitterness is over how much he misses you."

Mycroft felt an unpleasant lump in his throat at this, for he had been remiss in visiting his brother, the chaos of Pottsdam's threats and the near death of both himself and Young Jack taking up too much of their time. He'd had to go in hiding to prevent anyone from witnessing his continued good health lest the murderer Pottsdam realize he was still at risk for the gallows thanks to Mycroft's involvement in his first case of murder. But Sherlock was suffering the effects, and he would have to make a clandestine visit soon with the aid of Dr. Watson.

The front door to 221B clanged open and Mycroft could hear the cheerful tones of Lestrade as he entered their home, but he was not alone as Mycroft had expected. Mrs. Hudson cast a pointed frown at the door leading into their sitting room, and marched as a soldier would towards an unseen threat out into the main corridor. Lestrade's deep tones echoed up the steps, accompanied by a rather shrill cockney that Mycroft was, to his shock, very familiar with.

Mary Oakes bounded into the sitting room, flushed and breathless, her eyes wide as she stared at Miss Turner, her gaze going from teacup to face as though she couldn't believe what she was seeing.

"What's all this? Here I was waiting for over an hour for you, fretting that something rotten must have happened and there you sit, with little cup of tea in hand, acting like nothing's amiss! It's a right sorry thing to expect someone and they don't show up, especially knowing some bloody murderer is about! You didn't tell me now't about this, and I've a right mind to box you one! I had to go to the Yard and yank out Inspector Lestrade, convinced you'd been done in! This won't do, not at all!"

Miss Turner placed her teacup and saucer onto the side table with enough force to make them clatter. "I told you I had errands to run!"

"A quick jaunt to the bloody store and back was what I thought and then you're gone for over an hour, of course I got right worried!"

"I didn't say I was going to the store, you assumed so."

"Well, it's bloody careless all around if you ask me, I was waiting on you at The Granger Theatre. It's opening night in a couple of days, we needs to rehearse!"

Mycroft felt Lestrade's hand on his shoulder, and he fought the urge to lean into it. Lestrade bent down and whispered into a very confused Mycroft's ear. "The production of Mary Oakes' opera about her brief time in Newgate Prison seems to involve some familiar faces. It may interest you to know that Alice, the miserable teen illustrator, has also designed the playbill and pamphlet, both of which are currently in heavy circulation around Regent Park."

He took said playbill out of his side pocket and handed it to Mycroft. The colours were muted earth tones while the illustration was significantly Mucha in influence, Mary Oakes' inked figure heavily bound by chains that were intertwined with flowering vines.

The title was no less overwrought. "'The Binding Of The Lotus'. A rather strange way to label it, but I suppose it's sensational enough. Have they sold many tickets?"

"Sold out the first and second night already!" Mary Oakes proudly exclaimed. "I made sure to leak a couple of copies of the script and the punters are all over it, looking for the naughty bits. They're hinted at but there won't be no nudes in this, so they'll be sore on that, but as Miss Turner and I figured, when word gets out it's more about the plight of women in prison we'll be getting the progressive spinsters coming to see us in droves. Might even last for a few weeks, never mind a couple of shows!"

Mrs. Hudson plucked the bill from Mycroft's hands and studied it. "I'm curious as to what you are achieving with this venture, other than capital. It's a rare thing to see a production made by women alone, and the subject matter is a rather delicate one for many. I do hope you are touching on the dangers of syphilis and the best methods for prevention among those working London's streets?"

"The entire second act is devoted to it," Mary Oakes proudly proclaimed.

Mrs. Hudson nodded her approval. "In that case, I may as well buy a ticket myself."

"Are we forgetting there is a child present?" Mycroft reminded them all.

All eyes were on Jack, who remained happy and innocent among the frank discussion, oblivious as to what the subject matter truly meant. Lestrade took the awkward moment to acknowledge Miss Turner and her pale countenance blushed at his lavish gratitude for her bravery in rescuing Jack. Then, as a way to ease the conscience of everyone in the room, Lestrade plunked the copy of The Moonstone in Jack's lap and informed him he would be quizzing him on the current chapter and he would be wise to study it. After some protests, Jack agreed, and he bid Miss Turner and Mary Oakes a disappointed goodbye, which was tempered by soft kisses on his forehead and a promise to visit him again before the week was out.

Their guests did not leave, however, for Lestrade in his wisdom had directed everyone to the kitchen instead, where the low ceilings and Mrs. Hudson's fussing over the stove prevented young ears from eavesdropping on their very adult conversation. Tea and biscuits were served, which Mary greedily partook of while Miss Turner continued to sip her tea with a cautious grace.

"So I got this whole costume laid out, a flesh coloured body suit with these silver chains fastened all over it and the lock in the usual place. I got a mask on what looks like sommit out of The Count of Monte Cristo, on account of it representing my locked mouth. The opening number has me scrambling to find the key and when I does I opens up the mask and starts singing. That was Alice's doing, all that, she's got a right macabre imagination that one."

"She also charged you for the idea," Miss Turner reminded her.

"Yeah, well, she's also got a mind for business, more than even I do. Scary little wench."

"I have to wonder how it is you've been advertising for this little number considering how you've got an association with the late Mr. McGonogall, who was no lyricist." Lestrade crossed his arms over his chest and gave Mary a lopsided grin. "How have you been ensuring the customers aren't being duped?"

"It's bloody obvious, really," Mary said, shrugging. "I stands on the corner and sings the first song. Ropes 'em right in."

Mycroft's interest was piqued at this. "Interesting. Do you mind giving us a sampling now?"

"The air in here is close and the sound won't be right like it is outdoors, but I'll set the tone to match it."

Mary cleared her throat as she pushed her chair back and stood to one side of it, near the stove. With shoulders pushed back, she seemed taller in the small space, her confidence never wavering as she took a deep breath and began to sing.

For all of his vile grifting, Mycroft had to admit that the late poet Mr. McGonogall had been astute in his pursuit of female talent that he could exploit, for it was clear as the notes floated through the dark space in feathered fragility that Mary Oakes was a talented singer. As he listened closely, the words themselves were unexpectedly brilliant, expressed in a loose poetic style that followed the notes rather than rhyme, the result one of intimate conversation. When she approached her stanza proclaiming the woes of shackles at her wrists, even Mrs. Hudson had to turn aside, blinking away tears from the moving musical oration that flowed like angel's honey from Mary Oakes's powerful lungs.

When she was finished, all eyes were damp, moving even Lestrade to his feet to give her a standing ovation. "To think you're giving that away for any and all to hear! Brilliant, just brilliant! You'll be selling out for months on that tune alone! The words, my dear, they are splendid, written like a true bard!"

"Catching that high 'C' is a right bugger," Mary admitted. "As for the words, well I got plenty of help from Miss Turner, for she's good with that sort of thing. I just told her the type of feeling I wanted to express and she rearranged all the vowels proper. We been a pretty good team as a result."

Mycroft was still riding high on the memory of her singing voice, a soprano of operatic skill should Mary so decide to pursue the perfection of her talent. He had meant to congratulate her on her continued success only to be interrupted by Lestrade's exuberant glee over the joint effort that had proved so successful for the two women sitting across from them.

"You really are a genius pair! I have to wonder, with your background Miss Oakes, and your skill with words, Miss Turner, if you wouldn't mind being some background help in a project Mr. Holmes is devising..."

"Oh, no." Mycroft shook his head, furious. "You will not. No, Gregory, please, do not involve them!"

But Lestrade was insistent. "Why not? Miss Oakes has plenty of that bawdy understanding that's needed and will help round out that prudish embarrassment you feel over the subject matter, and Miss Turner is apt at polishing the diction. I doubt it would be a difficult thing for either of them to fake it at atrocious writing aimed solely to titillate." He turned to the two women. "I have a proposal for you both. Mr. Holmes is set to write a highly erotically charged work which we hope to become a bit of a salacious scandal. The only problem is, he's having trouble getting the words to paper and needs some proper guidance. As consultants, you won't get official authorship in any way, but you will be given all the profits."

Miss Turner frowned at this while Mary Oakes looked on the two men as though they had grown extra limbs. "What's all this about?" Mary scrunched up her face as she looked on a very miserable Mycroft. "You not in some kind of disreputable trouble, are you? Men of your station hanging about in Molly houses is hardly sommit you should risk!"

"Nothing like that," Lestrade assured her. "We're setting a trap for a murderer."

Mary continued to frown as she sat back down in her chair at the table, a biscuit snatched up and chewed thoughtfully as she waited for Lestrade to further explain. Miss Turner looked increasingly uncomfortable, a feeling Mycroft was in full sympathy with.

"Professor Pottsdam is our murderer, one who has over thought his pattern to the point of ridiculous complexity. His first murder involved a young mother of two children and he dispatched of her by pouring molten aluminium into her ear. A grisly death, and one that he managed to pin on her husband. He was, however, a key witness in that murder and was well aware that both Mycroft and I would be investigating it. Our reputation for finding out the guilty superceded us and he thus devised a scheme in which he could deflect our attention. That is where your poet, Mr. McGonogall came in."

"This Pottsdam bastard went and murdered him?" Mary asked.

"Yes," Lestrade continued. "And he was the one who attacked our Jack and left him for dead in your chimney, Miss Turner. I also believe he murdered Miss Collie in an effort to further muddy the waters with various streams of carnage. He is an exceptionally dangerous man playing a very deadly game." Lestrade grinned. "And we aim to force him to reveal his hand."

"Professor Pottsdam has created a narrative," Mycroft further explained. "One where a monster who finds fault with popular local works of fiction and its poor grammar and execution is met with deadly repercussions. That he is forever on the periphery of this fiend and is an oblique witness is a fact that has absolved him of blame rather than made him a part of it."

"I don't understand," Miss Turner replied, frowning. "How does writing saucy stories ensure his capture?"

"Because he'll be forced to make his made up monster act!" Mary Oakes excitedly interjected, her dark eyes glittering with conspiratorial mischief. "If he's set to deflect blame and attention from himself, he'll have to keep up the ruse! Oh, this is a grand adventure, Mr. Holmes, I'm beyond pleased to be a part of it! Go on, where's your pages of naughty nips at? I want to give them a good read over and tell you what you got wrong, because I can guarantee anyone perusing it will be thinking you're of the Wilde variety rather than the Fanny Hill."

Mycroft felt the heated blush in his cheeks seep into his very marrow. "I'm afraid I haven't a thing," he confessed. "I write sentences and scratch them out immediately."

Lestrade was incensed. "What? I'd have thought you'd have a novella by now!"

"It's not an easy thing to express, Gregory..."

"I should think there was ample inspiration the other night," Lestrade harshly whispered to him, and Mycroft wished he could crawl under the very foundations of the apartment block.

"Give over, Gregory," Mycroft angrily replied. "I don't have the first clue on how to write such filth!"

Lestrade bit his bottom lip, amused. "Well, it's a good thing we've got an expert on hand, then. Miss Oakes, I believe you have your work cut out for you."

~*~

It was late at night when Mary Oakes and Miss Turner returned to 221B, well after their rehearsal and long after Jack had been tucked into his bed. London had descended into fog, the mist curling beneath moonlight that glittered across random pools of water in the street, the outline of Regent's Park a muted memory beneath grey fog. The opacity outside created a claustrophobic feeling inside, and Mycroft, still dressed in his American styled suit, was uncomfortable in the closeness of their sitting room. He sipped his Ma Huang tea and grimaced over the bitter brew. His breathing felt laboured, and without the tea he would have had yet another suffocating attack. Still, it was disappointing that his wheeze had returned, and while Lestrade tried to make light of it, he also understood the stress Mycroft was under was considerable.

"Just listen to the girl," Lestrade pressed him.

"I can't see what the whole fuss is about," Mary Oakes complained. She pushed the pen and paper at Mycroft with bossy pique. "Just switch the bits and turn throbbing members into quivering nubs and you'll do all right."

Mycroft grimaced in embarrassed disgust at this, earning the ire of Mrs. Hudson who tutted who over the whole affair. "Really, as if everyone in this room is ignorant of what's beneath a man's trousers and a woman's skirts. Miss Oakes has been quite forthright in the mechanics of how men and women forge a union, and I must say, Mary, I appreciate your attention to hygiene and birth control. Giving it by oral is a staid way to prevent unwanted pregnancy, not to mention just a shake of his penis."

Mary shrugged at this. "For most of the punters just that was enough. It was a rare thing for me to have to go straight to coitus, and it were usually on a cause of me fancying him and figuring if I got in the family way he'd take care of me. I was young and stupid, then, I know better enou'. I don't bother with any of that now, though, and I'm hoping the handiwork won't be needed, neither.

"I'm curious," Mrs. Hudson added, frowning. "Who paid you best? I imagine the mouth rather than the hand fetched a dearer price, or at least I would hope so."

Mary Oakes shrugged again. "Odd as it is, the ones what paid the most didn't touch me at all. They had me sit on their lap, sure, but nothing more than that, and sometimes they'd take me out and buy me presents and if I presented meself all proper ladylike they'd even have me go with them to respectable sorts of gatherings. Lonely men in need of a quick wit, was all. It were easy work, but they made me sad, that type of gentlemen. Their clouds were heavy and they felt as though they'd be catching."

Mrs. Hudson sighed. "I'm afraid the answer to that is not so easy. For various reasons, due to poor diet, disease, protracted illness or mental stress, a gentleman can succumb to the despair of impotence. It's a sad state for an unattached man, but I'm sure your company alleviated it."

Miss Turner was until this point quiet and thoughtful, her gaze wistful as she looked out onto Baker Street and the pin drop quiet that had descended upon the usually bustling sidewalks. Two carriages, one of them Mr. Pinter's, were waiting in the dark for stray passengers, lone sentries for a night filled with hidden vices that they were no doubt privy to. Mycroft took in Miss Turner's soft and natural features, the ruddy health of her skin and her strong poise and couldn't hope but compare it to Mary Oakes's slovenly posture, her skin pockmarked with blemishes thanks to an overuse of paint during her performances and an overall sense of sloppy ease. Mary's skirt was wrinkled, and there was a small stain on her blouse that looked like a dried spot of tea. He was well aware she could transform herself into a formal lady at any moment, using the correct wording and mannerisms, but there would always be that hint that she wasn't entirely what she seemed. Miss Turner, however, was exactly as she presented herself. A spinster filled with longing for a life that held more than the tiny house devoid of servants that had become her prison, her piano the only key to her escape. That Mary Oakes, a woman so different from her in station had facilitated this was not the surprise it should have been. They were both women aiming for independence, and through the efforts of Miss Turner this goal had become mutually attainable.

"All this frank talk of sex is not erotic in the least," Miss Turner said, her gaze still riveted on the misty street framed in the window. "If anything, I'm completely cured of any romantic feeling. It's all so clinical and boring, more of a chore than a hope for love. I should think, if you're going to capture the sordid imagination of London, Mr. Holmes, you're going to have to pen more than body parts meeting in haste. Feeling has to be injected into the text."

"I do wager she's right," Mary Oakes said with consternation. "I gave you the proper engineering of it all, but the facts are I never felt a thing for none of them punters and just as she said, for me it were all about the coins. Romance didn't come into it at all, it were all a bloody chore, like doing the washing or tidying up me room."

And it was in that moment that Mycroft Holmes truly understood the sadness that was Mary Oakes's life, for it was a lonely prospect to be in the physical realm with someone and yet be so distant in spirit. In that sitting room, with the glow of the fire from the hearth sending its occupants into shadowed contemplation, the contrasts between all of them was painfully evident.

Lestrade stirred behind him, his hand brushing across the expanse of Mycroft's shoulders in careless affection that was missed by the women in the room but which his body responded to with remarkable heat. With his pen in hand and the blank page before him, his mind swirled with images of red silk and pale flesh and the strong, tanned muscles that moved over him with expert manipulation. He felt dizzy at the memory, and he pressed his fingertips to his temple, his breathing laboured.

"I believe I have all the advice that will be necessary for this venture," he proclaimed, earning the raised brow of Mrs. Hudson, who was clearly not so convinced. "Miss Turner, it will be up to you to read over my construction of a licentious meeting and to ensure it holds the proper emotional impact. I, of course, will inject grammatical mistakes that though not obvious will be apparent to anyone who studiously obsesses over the written English word. I cannot stress how grateful I am to all of you for being kind enough to help me with this difficult tome, for I am well out of my element and have been stilted by personal embarrassment. Perhaps this frank talk of the matter has quelled such fears, and I only ask that you be kind in your assessment, Miss Turner, when you finally are given this scribbled filth."

She gave him a warm smile that had much more understanding in it than Mycroft was expecting. "I will be sure to do just that," she promised.

Much as they had enjoyed one another's company and the uncomfortable subject of sex had been picked to its death, it was a great relief to Mycroft to be finally left alone in his sitting room, with pen and paper before him. He began to scribble in earnest as Lestrade stepped back into the room, his steps cautious as he approached Mycroft, his hand on his shoulder light and yet full of that same electricity that always jolted Mycroft's heart into an unsteady, rapid beat.

"I hope you aren't too traumatized," Lestrade said. "I know this whole thing is very difficult for you. I mean...It took you a while to even get past kissing you when we were first courting and you were so scared of my touch you practically bolted out of the bedroom. Maybe this is too cruel a task for you to endure and I should rethink it, for we could always have Mary Oakes ghost write the silly thing and give her the profits as she'd earned them."

"No," Mycroft said, firm. "It is imperative that I be the one to pen it. Professor Pottsdam will instantly recognize a style that is Oxford in construction and he will have no interest in the inked scratching of a semi-literate whore. This is meant to pull out his fictional monster into reality, and as thus it must be done with a certain formality that neither Miss Turner nor Mary Oakes possess. I appreciate your concern, but I am not so delicate of constitution that a bawdy tale will destroy me."

He leaned back and rested his head on Lestrade's stomach, looking up at him from the odd angle, his hand clasped in his companion's and held tight against his heart. "You mean so much more to me than bits of flesh, Gregory. Those pleasures alone are a highlight but not the reason. Passion must have its measure of feeling, and you ignite it within me just from your presence alone."

Lestrade gave him one of his dazzling grins and leaned down to place a searching kiss on Mycroft's sighing lips. "You swoon like a virgin, no matter what we get up to. It does me in." He traced light kisses along the bridge of Mycroft's long nose and ended at the centre of his forehead before standing up and stretching, a tired yawn escaping him. "Don't stay up too late. It's a damp night, and the bed gets cold without you in it."

He smiled at Lestrade's departing figure, listening to the rustle of fabric behind the half closed bedroom door as he undressed and prepared for bed. The house had descended into a quiet that only the hours after midnight could afford, where even Mrs. Hudson's heavy steps were now silent, and all that remained was the patter of crows on the rooftop. Young Jack had long since fallen into slumber, his innocence of the night's discussions secured. All that was left now was Mycroft's pen and paper and the imagination that threatened to flow through them, his fingers trembling in anticipation of the effort.

But lust did not invade his thoughts at first, for he was distracted by Miss Turner's earlier confession that day, when she discussed the matter of his brother and Miss Elizabeth Collie. Mycroft frowned as he thought on the girl who had a small dog as her only true confessor, its murder and hers a strange combination that had played upon Sherlock's grief. Miss Turner had said that Sherlock was never seen without the girl, and he had to wonder, in all his madness, perhaps Sherlock had harboured deep feelings for Miss Collie, deeper than even Dr. Watson suspected.

This was troublesome on many counts, for he had never known his brother to have any amorous intentions towards either sex, his mind so confused in its muddled, disturbing universe that all thoughts of romantic leanings couldn't possibly exist within it. Yet Sherlock had taken such an interest in this confused young woman he had become her constant companion, forever in her periphery to the point that what scant few guests the girl received had noted his doting, amusing presence.

Sherlock had never mentioned Elizabeth Collie to him, only in oblique metaphor about phosphorous dogs, though it was clear her death had affected him a great deal. He had made a secreted attempt at suicide in the Thames in an effort to join her, of that Mycroft was certain, but he had inexplicably aborted that effort and instead made his way to his brother and Lestrade, plunking himself into 221B like a hurricane of scattered emotions.

Sherlock's attempts at suicide were, painfully, nothing new. But they were usually thwarted by shocked onlookers and constables walking their beat, for Sherlock always adored an audience for his performances. This time had been different. He was almost fully dried, though dirty, when he arrived at Baker Street, and it would have taken several hours for such a thing to pass. His wool coat was heavy and though the sun shone brightly that day, the air was still chill. Factoring in such evidence, Mycroft was left with the possibility that Sherlock had made his attempt to drown himself in the small hours of morning, when very few would witness his deadly effort.

The threading of these thoughts made Mycroft sick. His brother had fully intended to kill himself. He did not wish to have witnesses who could offer a rescue.

To think this could have been the end of his brother's life's saga made bile rise in Mycroft's throat and a wholly unpleasant miasma rise in his gut. Sherlock had made the attempt and then purposefully aborted it, for he had found some level of reason within himself that involved his brother and Lestrade, that reason taking precedence over his grief over the loss of a beloved young woman.

Mycroft frowned. The light from his gaudy, boudoir inspired lamp was harsh as he switched it on, bathing his winged chair in a white spotlight. He sat down with pen and paper in hand, a sturdy, long book bound in hard cloth balanced on his lap as a makeshift writing table. It was a fully illustrated Atlas of The Americas which Lestrade had ordered, and which he had used in explaining the route he had taken when he first ended up in Japan. As a youth he had been quite the adventurer, journeying to New York and then continuing onwards across the vast expanse of America, through its dangerous Midwest and central deserts and risk of murder by prospectors and Indians both before finally ending his journey at the Western shore of California. He'd joined a schooner heading to Japan from there, and had spent the next several years in that strange part of the world, learning the mores of the Orient and all of its mystical treasures. He knew that Lestrade occasionally visited the slivers of Asian streets that pocketed the Soho section of London, mired in a nostalgia very few Englishmen possessed. He would return to 221B with steamed pork buns wrapped in butcher's paper, the savoury-sweet oddity of the flavours a treat he fervently relished.

"I used to live on nikumin. They'd sell them on the streets of Tokyo the way they sell pork pies in Piccadilly. There's nothing what comes close to how good they are."

He knew Lestrade had a lover during his time in Japan. A secret affair that he never spoke of and yet there were hints throughout his cluttered space that haunted their bedroom. The samurai sword for one, its prominence on the fireplace mantel obvious amongst the framed shell casings and posed animal skeletons that surrounded it. And of course, that kimono, that strange red silken spectre that was occasionally placed at the base of their bed, on Mycroft's side, a silent bid for him to strip nude and wear nothing else, a concession he happily indulged. Lestrade was a very different sort of lover when that robe was donned, at turns tender and forceful, always remarking with wanton lust at the way Mycroft's pale skin contrasted with the deep red hue, skin and fabric of a similar consistency beneath his rough palms.

And how he would touch him! Attentive and slow towards all those tender places that were the very bane of Sodom, and the pleasure Lestrade managed to elicit from it was nothing short of devilish. He'd grin into the back of Mycroft's neck, amused by the way Mycroft clutched the bedpost, soft cries leaving him as Lestrade made claim. He wouldn't stop until Mycroft was a quivering mess, bruising kisses lining his back, his body heaving in exhaustion, leaving him wrecked.

Lestrade had secrets and Mycroft had only been allowed glimpses. Perhaps it was the same for Sherlock, too. His love took a different form, but it was there, in his attentive need to be near his object, in his obsession for her company, which she clearly obliged.

Mycroft placed the pen carefully across the paper and steepled his fingers at his lips, thinking on it. Sherlock would have stood vigil for this girl if he'd ever had the smallest inkling that she was in danger, from herself or anyone else. That was his nature. Obsessive, determined, compulsive in his need to be near. Through her, Holloway's perceived confinement felt bearable.

Mycroft felt a hollow well of horror wind its way through his gut. For it was obvious to him that Elizabeth Collie was murdered by Professor Pottsdam and thus, it was obvious that Sherlock had been an unseen witness. This was why he had not succumbed as he wished to the eternity of the black Thames. This was why he had made the journey to 221B, to the two people he knew would see through the ruse of her suicide and would do all they could to bring her murderer to justice.

Which led to the unfortunate question of whether or not Professor Pottsdam knew about Sherlock's involvement in his scheme and whether or not he would deign it important to kill Mycroft's brother off. Pottsdam had a habit of twisting facts to make mere witnesses appear guilty of his crimes. Even with Elizabeth Collie's paramour framed and in custody for her murder, Sherlock's safety was still in question. The facts could easily and perhaps more convincingly be turned on him, for what madman isn't capable of murder, in the public's estimation?

Capturing Pottsdam was paramount. Regardless of the residual embarrassment the entire ordeal was set to bring to his reputation, Mycroft could not delay a second longer. He picked up the pen and comfortably arranged the paper and atlas beneath it and began to write.

His mind was a whirl of red silk and sake and mentions of fearless samurai, red painted lips and masculine sighs that had to be morphed into more feminine tones. He wrote with a fever that hadn't gripped him since his youth, the hallucination it brought with it pouring onto the pages. By the time he was finished, the sun had risen, streaming red across the horizon like a swath of blood. His eyes felt sticky and his writing was reduced to a scrawl.

"Dear me, Mr. Holmes, aren't you a sight! You didn't stay up all night doing that terrible scribbling, did you? You never even undressed for bed!"

He felt disoriented, and he frowned at the weird presence of Mrs. Hudson in his sitting room, holding a tray of tea with confused expectation. His bed. Yes, perhaps it was time he retired to it.

The sun followed him into his bedroom, where Lestrade was only just waking. He heard as though from a vast distance a question as to whether he was feeling well. He felt himself remove his clothing as though it were other hands upon him, and he slipped into the bed in his underclothes, heedless of the questions still hovering in the air above him.

His head hit the pillow and he was instantly in dream, surrounded by lotus leaves and strong hands crushing him against flowering jasmine.

 

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter nine

**I crouched by the light of my small lamp, the rice paper walls placing me in silhouette. Draped in finery that befitted a woman of my stature, I remained at the edge of my mattress, listening to the hollow sounds of the reeds as the winds blew through them. Fireflies alit along the lapping, black water, and I peered into the darkness, searching for him. I had waited for days, but there was little hope that he would return, for he had joined those other brave warriors who fought for the Shogun, his blade gleaming as he headed with the other ronin to fight out of loyalty to the Tokugawa.

The water in the river that runs outside our minka is cold. I can reach up through the window and hold the moon, full as a polished pearl, in my hand.

The gentle friction of bamboo and the rustle of rice paper bids me to turn my head and I see him there, in the flesh, scarred and bleeding from battle but still standing proud. The red silk kimono I wear has slid from my shoulder, revealing far more bare flesh than I was intending to seduce him with. But he has no patience for that contrast, he marches towards me, his eyes like cold steel as they stare down at me, hungry but wanting to savour his meal.

He grabs me roughly by the chin, his thumb and forefinger digging into my flesh.

"Paint your lips," he orders me.

I fumble with my paints, a selection of rich reds in scandalous hues that match the shimmering blood of my kimono. I dare to find my brush and tried to dip it with great care into the rich, red liquid, made from safflower. A kind girl in likewise employment had given it to me, a girl far braver and bolder than I for I would never have selected such a colour for myself. I tried to keep my hand steady. He watched me carefully as I prepared, my hand shaking slightly as I held the mirror to my lips and began to trace them. He was close to me now, his knee on the edge of my futon, his breath hot on my neck, a sharp contrast to the cool air that had invaded the small space within the room, our cameos outlined against the white paper partitions.

I managed to make a small, perfectly formed half circle against my bottom lip only for him to grab my shoulders and turn me around to face him, my vibrant red paint spilling onto the tatami covered floor.

His armour had been shed, and his belt loosened. With steel eyes that refused to let in mercy I could sense the excitement of his member, my own nub responding in kind. There was no hiding that purple eagerness that erupted from beneath his robe, proud in the open air and bobbing with increased, hardened vigour as he regarded my trepidation.

"Spread your knees," he ordered me, and I blushed at his request, thighs tensed at the instruction. But I was in his power now, and to deny the warrior I had come to desire was not an option open to me. I did as he asked. I could feel the cool air pool between my legs and touch that sensitive part of me, exposed. Without warning, he slid his hand along that partition and dared to test its readiness with an intruding thumb, its stroke within me making me gasp in both fear and pleasure.

"I'm opening you like the petals of a flower," he reminded me, and I cried out as another finger sank into that damp space, impaling me onto his grasp. "A lotus in full bloom. There, that should do it."

Oh, and how it did, my skin stretched and readied for him as he pulled me into his lap, my entrance poised over that throbbing spike that he was set to defile me with. I hovered over it, my thighs so tense I could feel the burn throughout every muscle. I turned my head away from the fierce scrutiny of his gaze, the predator longing within it in brotherhood with the tiger.

"Have mercy," I begged of him.

He slid the red silk of my kimono further up my legs, bunching it at my waist as he fully exposed me. He locked his eyes with mine and I was lost, terrified in the lust I found there.

"I know not the meaning of the word," he growled.

The discomfort of his girth did not last long. Oh, how he unravelled me, tearing into my soul and stripping it into silk ribbons that tied my hands behind my back and left me helpless. How he brought me to the precipice of a crescendo and took me over it, only to do it again and then again, until I was shouting, incoherent in the madness he had incited in me through my flesh...**

Mrs. Hudson plonked her stockinged feet (which were in need of fresh darning) onto the kitchen chair in front of her and let out a slow whistle. She cooled herself with her copy of The Strand, wisps of her greying hair fanning around her head like errant chicken feathers. "Well, that's a bit of randy business to get the old rusty gears turning again! I like the bit about the prep for buggery, that'll appeal to the DeSade types."

Mycroft groaned and sank his face into his hands, his cage of fingers doing little to make facing his landlady and nurse any more bearable. "You are not helping my terminal illness."

Mrs. Hudson sucked her teeth in question at this. "You seem rosy cheeked and free of the usual rattle. You're the very picture of health save for that Thames inspired wheeze that never leaves you until you head for the country."

"You've misdiagnosed me."

"Unlikely, Mr. Holmes."

"You have. I'm dying of mortification."

"Oh pish, who cares about a bit of slap an tickle!" Mrs. Hudson giggled as she opened The Strand and read over another paragraph. "Save for all the thrusting and moaning! Really, Mr. Holmes, there's no need to bury your face in your hands, this is all for a good cause. It's about time the stage two of this little project of yours finally got rolling. I didn't expect quite this much attention to your little tale, however, that's a nice bonus for the pocketbook. You should have seen the trouble I had getting this copy, you've become quite the hit already among the perverts, of which London has a bumper crop. Sold out by mid morning, and they're thinking on doing an evening edition, that's what the lad who sold me this one told me." She opened the rag and began her perusal again. "I have to say, that's not quite what I had in mind when I suggested you use the sash on that robe for something. An accidental entangling is hardly as erotic as something deliberate."

Mycroft gave his landlady a look of dour warning. Yes, her medical expertise on female anatomy had been useful in the editing of his nasty little story, and yes, some of the passages were direct quotes from her additional editorial suggestions. He had to wonder at times just where Mr. Hudson was and what kind of strange relationship did the man have with Mrs. Hudson before he was tossed out of her home. That Mr. Hudson was a bit of a flirt who had morphed into outright adultery with a hired scullery maid was a history he was long familiar with. Mycroft was sure the result of that discovery was why the cast iron stove had a large chunk missing from the far right corner.

Lestrade, of course, was beside himself with amusement and joy, convinced this was the extra nudge needed to push Pottsdam into action. But Mycroft wasn't so certain, and now with this behind him and his days as an erotic literary smut master secured, Pottsdam remained oddly silent.

"So are you planning on an excursion today, Mr. Holmes?" Mrs. Hudson asked. She tossed her copy of The Strand towards him and it now lay in the centre of the oak table like a waiting threat. The pages were alight with controversy. It was not just his own lustful story lurking between its pages, but Dr. Watson had published a new work, one that thankfully did not mention either Mycroft or Lestrade. He supposed he should be grateful, for while Mycroft's story was titillating, it was mostly eclipsed by Watson's The Adventure Of The Yellow Face, its emancipating themes sending ignorant eugenics followers into a frantic, politically charged tizzy.

He decided, since he was feeling rather vigorous, to head to the Diogenes Club early. He was sure his presence there was set to cause a stir of its own not only thanks to the story he had published but also because of his decision in the infanticide case. His own investigation and discussion with Dr. Watson and the doctor from St. Bart's who had treated the infant had resulted in a complete dismissal of all charges against the distraught young mother. He did, however, recommend to the lady that she move from her current place of residence as it was clear the miserable pecking hens that surrounded her were people of the worst kind of apathy and to be as far from them as possible was best. The female neighbours had squawked at this retort, and even spat at him as he passed, but he knew they were an evil group and he made a point to make sure Lestrade knew their vindictive gossip held a criminal element within it that was best to be carefully observed.

Mycroft finished his tea and bid Mrs. Hudson a good day. Young Jack was outside in the back garden, and he opened the door that led out to it from the pantry, giving the still invalided child a wave. He was mending well and made good use of a pair of crutches, but Mrs. Hudson had made the observation that Jack's leg was still crooked, and it was unlikely it would ever be perfect. He would walk with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. As Mycroft leaned on his own cane as he left, he was haunted by the thought of willing it to the boy as a sort of unfortunate heirloom since he would get actual use from it.

"It's not so bad, Mr. Holmes," Mrs. Hudson had tried to tell him. "He'll be a cripple, sure, but he's alive and still has both his legs and that's something. Compound fractures killed people not so long ago. He's been free of infection and is healthy otherwise. He'll be all right, don't fret on it."

But as he stepped into the cab of Mr. Pinter's carriage, the clop of the horse's hooves on the cobblestone streets reminding him of steady, strong steps, he did worry. Jack was a strong willed boy who was a bundle of energy, who loved to go on message runs to Lestrade and back and could be counted on for any number of communications between them. That correspondence was now silenced.

He wondered if he should install one of those new devices in 221B that were said to make such communication easier. Lines were being strung all over London, and even the Yard had plans to sport two of them on opposing sides of its building under Lestrade's suggestion, one on the wall near the front entrance where the Detective Division was, and one near the jail cells. There was already a police box built in Glasgow that had come in handy for those constables witnessing crimes on the beat and needing back up. A scant few of the bourgeois class already had them, but he knew it would many years before enough people were connected for it to be of any real use. Still, one shouldn't be afraid of progress. Mrs. Hudson would balk at the expense, but she did the same thing over the flush toilet and the new interior plumbing which quickly became a necessity rather than an option. There was considerable time freed up in her day when she no longer had to boil gallons of water on the stove to drag up bucket by bucket into the steel tub he used and Lestrade used for bathing. The luxury of instant hot water was a shot of heaven for everyone who had that luxury in their power. Surely the telephone could work a similar magic? He would look into it.

The carriage swung past Shaftsbury Avenue, but Mycroft had a sudden change of heart, the thought of being in a room with the usual tired, nearly dead cronies staring at his entrance with rheumy pique filled him with impatience. He knocked on the roof of the cab and Mr. Pinter brought the horse to a slow trot and then a full stop. He pulled aside the sash and peered down at Mycroft from his lofty height.

"Is there a problem, Mr. Holmes?"

"I don't wish to go to the Diogenes," Mycroft said. He was impatient with himself, and he shrugged his shoulders at his own indecision. "Please, take me to Holloway Sanatorium. I wish to see my brother instead."

~*~

Sherlock was in a fantastic mood, much to Mycroft's relief. His tall, gangly form spilled out of the chair he had been sitting in, the other occupants of the recreational atrium giving him an odd look as he dove towards his brother and gave him a tight, suffocating embrace. "You are alive! The dogs have not torn you apart, and you are here, in healed flesh in front of me! I'm warning you, though, don't go near the windows in this place. There is a yellow faced demon that looks back and it giggles when it catches your eye, like a small child. But don't be fooled. It will only dart away and leave melancholy in its place."

"You look well, Sherlock," Mycroft said, his own spirits greatly lifted.

Sherlock snatched his hand and held it a bit too tightly. "Do not speak of it too loudly. You do as well. Keep such health hidden, and don't be a fool!"

Eager to be alone with his brother, and with Dr. Watson mysteriously absent, Sherlock kept his grip firm on Mycroft's hand and near dragged him out of the atrium and up a flight of stairs to where his room was located. At least, that was the journey Mycroft was expecting, so he was quite surprised when Sherlock made an abrupt left turn and went up another set of stairs, ones that led to the women's ward and where he was explicitly not permitted.

"Sherlock, this is not the way to your room."

"I have been anticipating your arrival for quite some time, and you have forced me to twiddle my thumbs for days. As a brother, you should be ashamed of your neglect, for there is much to tell about these hidden places where the monsters find their birth. The phosphorous dogs lurk here, and yet no one else can hear them bark. But I do, dear brother. I can hear them all night long, snarling and ripping apart the souls that were unfortunate enough to meet them."

Logic stated he should wave down a nurse and bid her to take Sherlock back to his ward, but he was also aware that this could result in a violent episode, one that would have Sherlock locked into the fugue of laudanum. He didn't seem to have disruption in mind, so Mycroft made the decision to merely play along until Sherlock's frantic mind was calm enough for him to ask questions about Elizabeth Collie.

"You wrote a very nasty, dirty sort of story," Sherlock said, and made a face as though Mycroft had passed wind. "John showed me the one *he* wrote, which doesn't get the facts right about the yellow faced demon at all, though I suppose it was a good story, it's hard to tell, the words like to crawl away when I try to read. But yours I was able to soak in every word and they are naughty words, Mycroft. It's unsettling to think of one's brother dressed up like an Oriental princess, but Lestrade likes that sort of thing, he does have that sword and he still drinks green tea and I know he partakes of rice rather than potatoes when he can. I don't think Lestrade is from London at all. He is similar to the Huns, but he has a more refined spirit, one made of extreme discipline and strict codes. I saw you recognized his warrior status, well done there, for now you know why it is so important I make my little rag doll army in his image. They are necessary, for I am always in danger here. You are breathing very easy, my brother, is this because you have had such strange sex with our battle scarred Inspector?"

Luckily Mycroft did not have to deny this truth, for the subject was dropped as a nurse came into view and Sherlock pressed his brother against a hidden corner that contained a closet, keeping them both out of her sight. She walked directly past them as she went on her rounds, her long cotton skirt sweeping the floor, its hem dusty while her white apron remained heavily starched and perfect. The ward was uncharacteristically quiet, and it was through an opened window that Mycroft finally understood why. The women's ward had been emptied to enjoy the greens that surrounded Holloway, and bubbles made of string and soap hovered and popped in the air like childish promises.

"Come on," Sherlock said, as the nurse left the ward, the large door closing shut behind her and left unlocked. There was no need to since none of the female patients were here. Still, the tense silence of the ward made them both creep as though they were thieves down its length, with one madman tall and spindly, a human spider amongst brightly lit rooms, while the other held back, a wheezing near cripple who leaned heavily on his cane for moral support.

"Sherlock, what are we doing here?"

"I should think it's obvious. We are visiting your sisters. You do not have the anatomy for this to be true, however, but if you feel the need for such accoutrements to make you as one of them, perhaps you should understand them better." Sherlock turned and grinned at his brother, his dark hair plastered close to his head, giving him the look of a startled skull. "I come to bring you to where it all began, the source of my vexations which no one here understands. You are my brother, of sound mind and confused body. Perhaps you can see what I do and will not judge me as these do."

Though it was refreshing to hear Sherlock speak in what seemed to be coherent sentences, and even attempt humour, Mycroft was disturbed by why they were here for Sherlock had a very definite goal in mind. He watched as his brother dove beneath the windows to avoid detection, Mycroft following in kind, until they were near the end of the corridor, where Sherlock studied the numbers and letters above each door with careful deliberation.

"This one," Sherlock said, and he grasped the door handle.

Mycroft put his hand over his brother's, stopping him. "This is the private room of a woman, Sherlock. As men, we are not permitted here."

"This is the room of the dead," Sherlock corrected him, and he shoved the door open, revealing a spare, but clean room, one that had an air of neglect about it due to being empty for a short period of time. No one resided here, there were no small hints of residence that one would find in any space a person lived, the bed linen dressing the small hospital bed in starched, clean linens with sharp, precise lines, the small dresser beside it empty. There were no pictures on the walls, which had an antiseptic cleanliness about them. The room had been scrubbed and smelled faintly of carbolic acid.

But there was a hint on the floor near the bed, a wide dark stain on the floorboards that suggested violence had, indeed, fallen upon this abandoned space and its memory was preventing further patients from visiting it.

"That's where the dog died," Sherlock whispered into his brother's ear.

Mycroft shivered.

"This is Elizabeth Collie's room."

Sherlock nodded. He bid Mycroft to come closer, and to Mycroft's shock his brother suddenly dropped to the ground and lay on his stomach as he inspected the wide patch of blood that had seeped into the floorboards and which no amount of scrubbing or bleaching agent could remove. "There's lots of stains like these in this place. People aren't happy here."

"They arrive very sick," Mycroft reminded him, but he dared not mention what he and his brother knew of the Thames. "This is not a place of miracles, Sherlock, but it is a calm environment, and one that has done you far more good than bad. You are happy here, whether you like admitting that or not, and I know you miss being at 221B, but that freedom had become increasingly dangerous for you. What's happened here is a tragedy but it is not of Holloway's doing."

"Of course not!" Sherlock suddenly exclaimed, and Mycroft was worried he had made a grave mistake in following his volatile brother here, his vulnerability in his brother's adrenaline fuelled state suddenly very apparent. Sherlock leapt from the floor like a cat on a spring and was at Mycroft in an instant, his body crowding against him. "It was a phosphorous dog who did this! A bitch whose snarling face glowed white, and I could hear her growling, furious torrent as she tore into Elizabeth's dog, her claws long and ripping, her mouth drooling in hunger for a taste of Elizabeth's fair, slender neck! But the rabid bitch was interrupted, I barked and it ran, but not before it had wrapped its putrid breath around Elizabeth's neck and left her hanging there! The vicious beast had feasted on her soul and growled over its drippings in hungry want!"

Mycroft frowned over Sherlock's nonsensical words for, mad as it was, he suddenly had a very good picture of what, exactly, had happened to Elizabeth Collie and who the perpetrator of her death was.

He felt a cold coil wind within him as he understood where he had to go to find the truth, for it was not Professor Pottsdam his brother had witnessed committing this act, though it was someone just as heinous.

He placed a cool palm alongside his brother's cheek and bid Sherlock to look him in the eye, an uncomfortable thing for his brother to do no matter the circumstance. Blinking furiously, he obliged, his shoulders quaking beneath Mycroft's gentling touch.

"I believe you," Mycroft said, and Sherlock let out a gasping sigh of relief. He sank into Mycroft's arms and allowed himself to be held in the firm embrace, as a frightened child would.

"The dogs, the dogs and I kept telling you and I kept telling John and none of you would listen!"

Mycroft petted Sherlock's dark hair. It was cut close to his scalp and parted on the side, much softer than the last time when he visited, when his brother, embroiled in his madness to the exclusion of hygiene was still greasy and unwashed. "I understand now what you were trying to tell me, Sherlock, so you don't have to worry about it any more. I'm sorry you lost your friend to this monster. It's all right now, you can rest easy and there's no need to lose sleep or obsess over this. I know exactly what to do to bring them to justice." He framed his brother's face in his hands and forced him once again to look at him. "You can leave this with me. Come on, take my hand and follow me. It's about time for tea in the music room. We can stop off at your room and pick up your violin along the way. You were always such a master of that craft when you were a child, at times I think that violin was the only thing that calmed all those storms welling within you. Will it help quell them now?"

Sherlock gave him a weak nod. Somewhere, on another ward, the echo of a man's howl coursed through the building and then was silent. It was an eerie lamentation that Mycroft was sure was the ghost of every occupant's madness, embedded deep within the walls of the sanatorium. He hoped the strings of Sherlock's violin would do what was needed to drown them out.

He remained at Holloway for another two hours before bidding his brother goodbye, a reluctant Sherlock clutching his arm with bruising fingers dug deep, not willing to let him go. Mycroft had to peel them off of him, and with a quick, rather tearful goodbye, he walked away from his brother's protests, the nurses who came running to restrain him from diving out of Holloway in his bathrobe keeping a firm grip on his arms and legs. He didn't dare look back to see his brother's distress lest he give in and beg for him to take up his residence back in the guest room of 221B, knowing full well of all the problems such a grant would impose on everyone's lives. Hard as it was, he had to keep focused on the carriage in front of him, where Mr. Pinter had kindly already opened the door in anticipation, his unsteady balance righted by the man's strong hand on Mycroft's elbow.

"It's never an easy thing to leave him behind, is it, Mr. Holmes? But he does well here, don't let that temper tantrum fool you. I've taken other patients to this address and I see Sherlock hovering there in the lobby, welcoming them in like some sort of ambassador. He's doing well, better than he ever has. I just thought you ought to know about that."

Mycroft nodded his head, the lump in his throat making it difficult to speak. "Thank you," he managed to murmur, and he closed the carriage door, embracing the privacy within the cab for a moment before ducking his head out the window to catch Mr. Pinter before he got back to his position at the top. "To the Alma Pub, Mr. Pinter. As quickly as you can."

Mr. Pinter frowned at this. "The Alma? You?" He scratched at the underside of his beard in confusion at Mycroft's request. "I don't mean any disrespect, but are you sure that's where you want to go, Mr. Holmes?"

"Yes," Mycroft said, his voice retaining a hard edge that surprised Mr. Pinter. "And please wait for me out of sight. The matter I wish to pursue is a highly delicate one."

~*~

It was late afternoon and the day was sunny, which did not deter customers for the dank cubby of The Alma Pub in the least. Mycroft made a reluctant Mr. Pinter wait a near block away from the nefarious bawdy house, his worry over Mycroft's fragile frame waved away. "I do not need your protection in this matter, Mr. Pinter. Please wait here, well out of sight and do not take any other passenger save myself. I may need a quick getaway."

"Understood, Mr. Holmes," Mr. Pinter replied and he tipped his tall beaver skin hat in deference to his employer's wishes.

He had been brave a block away from the area, but as he leaned on his cane and inched his way closer, it was clear to Mycroft that he was at a serious disadvantage. Filthy, hungry men huddled against wet, black bricks stared at his entry into their domain, his fine clothes and proud airs making him stand out amongst the rabble. That Judge Quibly was often seen here should have been more of a scandal than it was, but that bloated man was a coarse character who gambled and thus had his in with those who peddled their illegal wares and lived off of the misfortune of corpses. He could feel unseen eyes following his every move the closer he came to his goal, the tap of his cane signalling that an unwelcome stranger was in their midst.

The massive, wide shoulders of Agnes came into view, the white swathe of swine skin glistening with sweat. He headed towards her with renewed purpose and as she slowly turned he could see the upcurled snarl of her thick lips, and the up and down judgement she gave to his presence. "So, you're here to get yourself a girl, then? Doesn't take your sort long to figger on where to get a suck. Marlene, in the back corner, she'll do you all right, but mind you don't pay her extra on a cause of her needin' to make sure she gets her debt to me squared first! She likes skimmin' off my price, she does!"

Mycroft felt bile rise in his throat at the thought of what Agnes had hired the unfortunate Marlene to do. From what he had learned from Mary, girls who worked under her were often innocent former farm girls who came to London looking for factory work. The factory work was dirty and dangerous and not everyone could do it. It was easy for a girl alone to be down on her luck and to end up in Agnes's clutches. Once in, she kept them in her debt, citing expenses for everything from water to ale and all tiny necessities in between. It was rare for any who ended up in her 'employ' to escape her.

"I'm not here for your women," Mycroft coldly said. "I'm here to talk to your dog."

He fixed his steely gaze on the filthy woman crouched and snarling on the ground at Agnes's skirts, her clawed hands already aiming to rip into Mycroft. He knocked her hands away with a hard smack from his cane.

"Watch yourself! My dog bites back!" Agnes shouted at him.

"I should think not." Mycroft kept his eye on the crouched girl, her bared teeth blackened on purpose with coal soot, the filth she was covered in a carefully constructed ruse of mud and ash from a hearth. "You said she is hired for special purposes, and I do believe you. Only they are not for whoring, and the act she performs is not one for those of strange perversions." He watched as the feral woman cocked her head as though attempting an animal understanding.

She was very good at this subterfuge.

"I saw you at Holloway Sanatorium, only you were far more presentable than you are now, which leads me to believe that this act of yours is something you use to deflect attention. You were scrubbed and in simple garb, and you were there to ensure that the crime you committed could not be detected. You went back to retrieve evidence. What was it?"

The girl bared her teeth and Mycroft had lost the last of his patience. "Tell me! I know damned well that Professor Pottsdam hired you to murder Elizabeth Collie! Reveal what you know or I will alert Scotland Yard as to your real identity, one that I'm sure stretches wide across Europe! You are a hired assassin, and your stipends are significantly more than anything the pittance that Agnes herself earns through her enforced slavery. You are here at Agnes's side because it suits your invisibility."

"What you sayin'?" Agnes barked.

"I am saying this creature is not your dog but your employer."

The feral woman smiled at this, and it was fascinating to watch as she shed her act and became a sharp, intelligent creature who straightened to her full height and braced her shoulders back in a proud, almost noble, stance. When she spoke, she had a thick French accent, her elocution perfect.

"What a fascinating thing, to be such a smart man."

Agnes, worried about what this could mean for her own position within the ruse, was halted from interfering by the woman's now elegant, if not filthy, hand. "Agnes, you will go inside now. There is business I wish to discuss with this gentleman."

"But..." Agnes really was sweating now, in fear of losing her employment and also possibly her life. If the creature before him had any sense of decency, he hoped she would think of using her fatal ability on her accomplice. "My lady, this is a judge of the assize, you can't trust that he won't turn against you!"

"I fully expect him to." She grinned at him before harshly admonishing Agnes. "Get in with your stupid whores and leave us be! Or do you want to understand what my knife can do in the dark?"

Agnes, fully cowed by this and genuinely fearful, darted into the Alma Pub as though it were her saviour. Mycroft was left alone in the dark alley with the strange woman, who had a careless hand on her hip and a predator's gleam in her dark eyes. She is even more dangerous now, Mycroft thought. This was a person who delighted in murder, and she would think nothing of spilling his blood on the front steps of the pub.

"I know you killed Elizabeth Collie."

"Was that her name? I don't ask such questions."

"You were hired by a man named Professor Pottsdam."

"Again, I don't ask questions. But if you are describing a man who brags about his position at Oxford University, then maybe I know of him. He is a frazzled thing, not organized, not smart at all." She grinned, and he could see the devil lurking just behind her teeth. "He takes a long road when he should have took a short one. Yes, I went back to her room that day and I saw you there, visiting your very sad brother. I went to make sure that there was no witness, for that would be a problem, a serious one, oui? Mais, ton frere, he is so confused, so sick. I had nothing to concern myself with. Unlike your man...What is his name? Pottsdam? No, I do not kill when I don't need to and make big stories when a sentence will work. I think he likes to kill, too, and that is his real problem. He thinks he's fixing the one he regretted, but he's compelled to kill more and more." She laughed at Pottsdam's folly. "He needs an editor for his work. He needs to pare down his killing, and yet he rambles on and on."

"I believe you are correct," Mycroft replied. He took only a moment to allow himself to feel relief over Sherlock's confused and tired state thanks to the laudanum. He felt sick at the thought that his brother's madness had, in fact, saved Sherlock's life. "He isn't finished with your services. I am convinced Pottsdam will come to you again, this time to hire you to assassinate me."

"Interesting," she said, still grinning. She had sharp incisors. No wonder Sherlock believed her to be canine.

"I have a proposal to make." He leaned on his cane and ensured his stance was firm, quelling the fear that threatened to erupt within him, for she could have had the order to kill him already. "Whatever sum Pottsdam gives you to kill me, I will match it and add twenty percent for you *not* to kill me."

She shrugged. "I could give you a bonus. Slice his throat for you. He's a very tiresome man, very needy, tres imbecile. Like, how you say, a baker's dozen? I throw that in for you, I will kill him."

"That is not what I want. I am not a murderer. I need to bring him to justice for his crimes."

"You are coming to a strange person for that."

She sighed and gave him another once over, taking in his cane and the way he was now wheezing, his breaths coming with some difficulty. The dank, algae strewn enclave was a hazard for his fragile lungs, his bronchial tubes threatening to seize. "You look like you will fall over any second anyway, why should he bother me with this silly request? Stupid man. But I agree." She held out her hand and Mycroft hesitated slightly before taking it into his own. Her skin was as cold and smooth as a polished rock. "There. We shake on it, and it is done. You will know when he comes to me."

He fought the urge to wipe the agreement from his palm by drawing it across the fabric of his coat. He made a move to leave, only to be accosted from behind, the thick hands on his shoulders ready to do him harm. The assassin slunk into a darkened portion of the alley until she disappeared into its opaque crevice completely, like a spectre leaving a seance. The meaty hands on him were rough and pulled him towards the entrance of the Alma, where he was sure he was to be filleted on one of its many nefarious patrons, who found murder routine rather than a vice.

"To think I'd find you here! You are a mysterious soul, Mycroft!"

He was shocked when he was whipped around and forced to face the thick jowls of Judge Quibly, who was red faced and drunk, his tie undone as were the top few buttons of his shirt. In fact, he looked in a dishevelled state of redress, done in alcohol induced haste. Considering that gambling wasn't the only vice worshipped here, it was no surprise to Mycroft that the monolith had found himself other pleasures to while away his afternoon.

He slapped Mycroft's back, nearly toppling him over and then practically dragged him to the bar. "A pint for my good fellow! Something dark and heavy like his imagination! I dare say, Mycroft, that little tale of yours in The Strand is set to make more than heads swivel. And here I'd thought you were one of those Wilde followers, and I'm glad to see I was wrong on that account! Ha! You're as hot blooded for the slit as I am! I'm loathe to admit it, but I was seeking to capture you in the act of invert perversion to get some of your more prominent cases while you defended yourself, but no matter! Agnes! Bring us some pretty things to play with!"

The ales were plunked dripping in front of them, and Quibly heartily took up his pint while Mycroft simply stared at Quibly, dumbfounded at his horrible luck. That Quibly was this obvious an enemy had never taken root in his mind, and he wondered how precarious his relationship with Lestrade really was if this oaf was eager to destroy it. He felt sick at the thought of what could have happened, how this could have landed him and Gregory in prison and Mrs. Hudson and Young Jack left to fend for themselves. Sherlock would be left alone, believing himself abandoned. So many lives would be at stake, so many wonderful, positive things burned to ashes.

He had always disliked Judge Quibly but now...Now he truly hated the man with a ferocity that made the devil himself look up and take note.

"I see you're still wheezing, despite getting well enough to get back into your quarter sessions. I have to say that did disappoint me, as did your dismissal of that infanticide case. Quite a bad precedent there, in my opinion."

"I used the guidance of several medical professionals, one of whom was willing to testify as to the infant's chances of survival. The child was born with a heart defect as well as the misplacement of several internal organs. The fact he left the womb alive at all was a miracle. Consumption alone will kill more than half the children living in squalor in this area of London, shall we hang all those unfortunate mothers too?"

"Mycroft, you have far too much sympathy for rats!"

Mycroft longed to retort, but he was assailed on either side by two young slatterns, their faces painted with thick powder and overly red lipstick that stained their yellow and grey hued teeth. "We was wonderin' when you was gettin' in, Mr. Holmes," the one coquettish brunette crooned over his shoulder, her long nails combing through his hair, while her blonde companion pawed at his chest. "Been a right regular for a while and then you din't come in for near a week. Got us girls all worried, you did."

Quibly laughed loudly at this. "Ah, Mycroft, you are a worthy scoundrel!" He downed his dark ale with one solid gulp and made a motion to the harried barkeep to get him another.

It was slammed in front of him, but not without words. "You needs to pay your tab, Your Honour."

Quibly narrowed his eyes at Mycroft's laboured breathing. "Just one more week. I'll have enough to pay you into next year!"

"Come on, Mr. Holmes," the blonde whore said, her lips pouting at him in purring licentious flirting. "We've got the room all set up just the way you like it. Marlene and me, we knows what you like!"

"Oh ho! You have energy enough for two! Don't work him too hard, ladies, he may not make it out alive!" He downed his pint, again in one greedy go. He set the glass down and it wobbled, rolling onto its side across the table and was rescued from shattering by the pub's proprietor, who cut another angry glare at Quibly. "On second thought, make sure of it! I'll have my hefty payout then!"

He didn't want to follow them, but remaining in Quibly's company made him even more ill and he figured once they had him in their clutches he could easily get away from the young women if he threw money towards their silence. But they didn't take him upstairs, and instead moved him to the back of the pub and then out a very secretive back door where the barrels of ale were rolled in every morning.

"I don't understand," he said, as they shoved him out of the pub and into the abandoned alleyway, the damp, yeast strewn air doing havoc with his airways. "What was that performance for?"

The girl he now knew was Marlene gave him a sad look, her paint smudged and her skin beneath the thick paste a golden hue that betrayed a life spent under a country sun. "We knows what you did for Mary Oakes. You got her free, not many would bother to go to the lengths you did to help. And to see her now! She's gone respectable and she's still her own woman, with her own money, not giving it to no matron or man or nothing! There's hope for us if there's hope for her, and that's your doing, that is."

The blonde leaned out of the door and lightly kissed him on the cheek, leaving behind a kiss print. "We'll tell the bloated sack of piss that you was the best we ever had and we look for you special. If you ever need that kind of help, you don't even need to ask. We got long memories, and help those rare ones who really do care about us. Thank you, Mr. Holmes."

He wasn't sure why they offered that gratuity when he knew their plight was still awful, they were still under the yoke of the hideous Agnes and were unlikely to be freed from it. But the door was closed against his protests, and he was left alone in the alley to contemplate all that had happened within the pub, where justice didn't exist and people wilfully planned for your death in many forms.

With his chest tight and his breaths struggling, he leaned on his cane and made his way back across the block where Mr. Pinter and his carriage were waiting. If there were men there looking to find an easy mark, they were tempered in their efforts by Mycroft's dark mood, his scowl suggesting there was far too much to this man than their deep thieves' pockets could possibly carry.

He wordlessly entered the carriage, and he didn't speak until he noticed Mr. Pinter was looking at him expectantly, waiting for his instructions on where to go next. Mycroft had to think for a long moment, the constant torrent of information from the day a difficult navigation to process. He steadied his breath as best he could and with the barest whisper he managed to say, "The Yard." Mr. Pinter nodded without a word back, mindful that Mycroft was in the beginning of one of his attacks and thus needed to reserve his energy.

He felt dizzy as they journeyed back up through the streets of London, passing the Old Bailey before pulling up beside the Yard, a journey that was far too short to give Mycroft any sense of pause. He leaned heavily on his cane as he left the carriage, Mr. Pinter's hand firm at his elbow. If he continued to feel this poorly perhaps Judge Quibly would get what he wanted after all, a win that made the back of Mycroft's throat sour.

The Yard was in its usual bustle, and it was Constable Harding who approached him first, bidding him to sit in a chair he provided. Mycroft could see that Lestrade was in argument with the Chief, his face reddened from an enforced calm that would explode later when he was at 221B and its safe privacy. Lestrade paced in front of the Chief, his fists clenched, his expression one of serious confrontation. This was a serious row, one that could possibly cost Lestrade his job if he wasn't more careful with how he dealt with it.

The Chief ushered him into his private office, where Mycroft caught a glimpse of Dr. Watson.

A rather curious meeting, Mycroft mused.

"He's trying to get that man who supposedly murdered Elizabeth Collie off the hook, but the Chief is being stubborn about it. The facts are plain, it's the wife causing problems and not being willing to provide the alibi, claiming instead that he was gone the night of the girl's murder. But there's independent witnesses in his neighbourhood who claim they saw him on the front porch of his home, talking to the gardener the same hour the girl was believed to have been murdered. The wife won't admit her husband was home on account of believing him an adulterer, and that's where the story gets even weirder."

Mycroft swallowed with effort. How long was Lestrade going to be? Every breath felt an agony. "How so?"

"He claims he didn't have an affair with the girl at all. She kept sending him drawn pictures of himself and her, some of them a tad explicit if you get what I mean. She was an excellent artist if she'd put that talent to other uses, but she was obsessed and wouldn't leave the man alone. He hasn't got a clue how she managed to fixate on him, not when they'd never met. He'd gone round to Holloway a couple of times aiming to tell her to leave him alone, but he says it was like she was cemented to him more than ever. That last time was quite the shock for him, finding out she'd committed suicide, or so all of us thought before the facts won out. He says he ran out of Holloway like the devil was at his heels, and Inspector Lestrade himself can vouch for that." Constable Harding, ignoring Mycroft's pallor and obvious distress, leaned in to whisper in his ear. "It's Dr. Ziegler and I who calculated the time of death. Since it's spring there were plenty of fly eggs in the exposed cuts, some of which were in the early to mid larval stage. The fatness and number of the maggots measured out the timing perfectly. We took the eldest of them and counted backwards from there. A good twenty-three hours before the discovery of the body, which is the exact time the fellow was seen on his front porch."

"And his wife won't comply with this?"

"She's convinced he was having an affair with the girl. His wife had best change her tune lest she end up pleading her own case in court for trying to hinder a police investigation. As for the suspect's alibi, it's starting to pan out. Miss Collie's medical history has lots of examples of these sorts of histrionics, Dr. Watson himself was at risk of being one of her 'interests' and thus he passed her care along to a female colleague whom she didn't imprint on in the same way. Odd how people are. Do you want to see a sample of the maggot we took from the body? Dr. Ziegler and I preserved it!"

He took out a tiny vial from within his pocket and held it up to the gaslight, revealing the plump, round, white larvae that had gorged itself on death. Harding was sure to wax further poetic on his version of obsession, but Mycroft was relieved of that burden by the opening of the Chief's office door, through which both Lestrade and Dr. Watson made their leave. It was slammed behind them, which was a signal to Mycroft that Lestrade got his wish. The suspect in Miss Collie's case had been exonerated, and thus freed.

Lestrade rubbed his hands together as he brought Dr. Watson into his confidence. "It's all coming together now. The bastard will need to act, as I believe he knew he would, the fiction now forced to be real. You have those copies of her letters that I requested?"

Dr. Watson took a pale yellow envelope from out of his side pocket. "I do. And it is as you suspected, the essays we found do not match her handwriting. It's all a very strange business, Inspector, for why would this Pottsdam have involved himself in this way, there seems to be no reason to kill this girl at all."

"Because he has a complex ruse to enforce. He knows of my reputation and he knows of Mycroft's. We are men who will ensure the innocent are spared and the guilty are the ones who find the rope. How much better to muddy the waters of his own guilt with a monster of his own creation! That he was helping her with essays is a lie, but one he did not determine we were going to find out. He knew very well we would eventually find her paramour innocent, and thus he has a new suspect for us to waste time pursuing. A phantom who has a tireless need to destroy the unworthy illiterate. As he expects us to focus on this, he slips past us and away from that first case, the one where the unfortunate victim had molten metal poured into her ear, a gruesome death that suggests a personal vendetta."

Dr. Watson thought on this, his fingers absently stroking his chin. "I do believe you may be wandering into the gypsy territory of alienists, but there is something in this you are missing. You are yourself determined to find an alternate cause for his mischief, but perhaps it is far more simplistic and he is taking great pains to muddy your understanding."

Lestrade frowned. "How do you mean?"

"I mean, my good fellow, that it is the simple answer that explains the mad. He's enjoying his game because it is difficult to make sense of for both you and Mr. Holmes. You must be warned that all you believe of this man may be nothing but projection. His actions are what speaks. He likes to kill, and this ruse is simply a good excuse."

There was a pensive silence at this, one that Lestrade was enveloped in even as he approached Mycroft, the barest of nods acknowledging his company. Dr. Watson was the one who took in Mycroft's pallor with disappointed understanding, and he ushered them both out of the Yard, his girth sidling out of the front door and his arm waving madly for Mr. Pinter to bring the carriage around.

"He simply likes killing," Lestrade repeated, as though the words Dr. Watson had spoken belonged to Confucius himself.

"You'll need a very strong dose of that tea, my good man, and no exertion for the next few days, which should be easy enough a prescription to follow. Your notoriety is the talk of Holloway, the nurses think you should be tested for the syph." Dr. Watson helped Mycroft into the carriage, and bid both he and a still pensive Lestrade a good day. "It is my understanding that the Inspector is seeking to flush out Pottsdam thanks to your torrid tale, Mr. Holmes. But I feel it prudent to warn you that this does place you in danger, and as the time to the trial closes in, he now has his ready excuse to assassinate you. Be mindful of your environment and please keep a pistol handy. This is an unpredictable villain and though Inspector Lestrade believes he has found a motive, I am not so sure. The game is all around you, and the rules can change on a madman's whims." He placed a thick hand on Mycroft's shoulder,an alarming gesture that told of how genuinely worried the good doctor was. "Do not discount the significance of metaphor, Mr. Holmes. Symbolism is the language of the insane."

With this warning in mind, the carriage door was swung shut and a silent Lestrade remained with him for the rest of the journey to Baker Street. Mycroft's breathing was no better, his wheezes punctuating the small, dark space within, the curtains drawn and shutting all of London out. He longed to retreat to his bed, the bitter tea sipped as he went over the case that Pottsdam was working so hard for him to be distracted from. If anything, the opposite was now the result thanks to his carnage, and Mycroft had made extensive lists as to suppliers of aluminium and whether or not Pottsdam had purchased any. He didn't find anything of interest save for a gift of toy soldiers for the woman's eldest son which Pottsdam had purchased for the boy's birthday.

"Gregory," Mycroft whispered, for he didn't want to risk the effort speaking louder would tax on his lungs. "I don't mean to intrude on your deep thinking, but I have discovered some strange additional information in regards to the death of Elizabeth Collie. I was at the Alma Pub this afternoon and..."

Lestrade shot him a shocked look at this. "What in the devil were you doing there?"

Mycroft pressed his lips into a firm line, not liking the forcefulness of Lestrade's tone. "You have made it plain I am to be bait for your monster and yet the minute I seek any agency of my own in this investigation you seem to balk at it. Yes, I was at the Alma Pub, and I was there to talk to a very dangerous and cruel woman who has no name but who is clearly powerful enough to entice the full purse strings of the guilty. I had a meeting with a proud assassin, possibly of French origin."

Lestrade was alarmed further by this, and he turned away from Mycroft in anger. "You should never have gone there alone!"

"She has been hired by Pottsdam, not once, but twice," Mycroft coldly told him. "First, to kill Elizabeth Collie and second to enact the same result upon me." He frowned, realization coldly gripping his heart. "But you knew this..."

If he was hoping that Lestrade would be excited by this information, Mycroft was instead disappointed at the anger that only further brewed within the small cab of the carriage. "Foolish man! Of course I know of her, I knew who she was the second I saw her pretending to scrounge at the hem of Agnes's skirt! Irene Adler! The most fiendish assassin in all the world and both the bane and salvation of all its politics!" Lestrade sank back onto the leather cushion and buried his face in his hands, groaning at the added conundrum Mycroft had wrought. "This undoes everything!"

Mycroft was further confused. "I don't understand."

"As you weren't supposed to! *She* was his ghastly fiend, for his pattern is obvious to anyone who dares to really look! Think about it, Mycroft!"

But Mycroft remained as puzzled as ever, his difficult breathing making him dizzy as were the fragments Lestrade had left him with. The plan destroyed? What in the devil was he talking about?

"Dr. Watson has touched on a point that is only in the peripheral of our Professor Pottsdam's obsession. He believes the man enjoys killing people. While I agree with him, I'm afraid when it comes that being the sole goal, one has to create an addendum."

Mycroft let out a tortured whine of puzzlement, his wheezing whistling through his protests. "But you revealed none of this to me save to set me up as his prey! Really, Gregory, what are you on about? I half wonder if Sherlock's malady isn't affecting you as well!"

Lestrade braced himself, his face reddened with a fury that Mycroft could do little more against than back away from and remain quiet in its presence, hoping it wouldn't be directed at him. A few more moments passed and Lestrade was of a more human hue, his inner calm pulled out of that vast place of discipline where samurai lurked and geisha paint held sway.

"Pottsdam is addicted to making others suffer for his crimes. He is not a wordsmith, but a painter who frames his subjects in gaudy baroque. It's our release of his victims from jail that is forcing him to act. His next attempt was on Irene Adler, from whom I could have taken countless amounts of information on murders committed on English soil and well beyond. But it is now too late to hope for such a two-fold gift. He will find another victim to pin his deadly work on. He thus remains beyond our grasp."

 

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter ten

There are layers to the soul of Inspector Gregory Lestrade, deep trenches of thought that are wrapped tightly in both history and intellect, his mind a mechanism that is wound tightly and with as many complex gears as an eighteenth century animation. Biology, psychology, engineering, pharmacology, these and more are the springboards to his reasoning, working within him, making him conscious of the smallest details and ensuring his success when arresting those who are guilty. But these processes come at a cost, for while Lestrade fully understands most of the various workings of the universe and has categorized a significant amount of its mystery within the curious vastness of his mind, the human element is pushed aside. It is a failing that Lestrade periodically struggles with, and one that has created barriers between himself and his peers where at times that wall has been impossible to scale.

Especially, Mycroft mused, when it is built against someone of great worth who has an ingrained intimacy within Lestrade's life and yet he dares to take that necessary company for granted.

Their sitting room in their Baker Street home was thick with recrimination, Lestrade futile in his efforts to plead his case as Mycroft sat in his winged chair by the fire, pretending to ignore him. The seriousness of the argument was made all the more prominent by Mycroft's tight lipped pique, his silence enough to cloud the room with vicious judgement. Lestrade was unsettled by it, and he paced in front of the fire, his worried glances at Mycroft's quiet inner fury well justified. He wanted to be forgiven. Mycroft didn't want to offer it.

"I had no such plan in mind, and I resent you suggesting that this is so. I did not put you in grave danger, for I was well aware of all the strands of possibilities and had ensured that each one was accommodated with constables waiting on my very whisper and my own vigilance at full focus upon your plight. You agreed to be bait, do remember this, and while you believe that I have been flippant in this regard, please understand that it was only out of the most desperate hope that I even entertained the slightest thought of it as a way to capture both Irene Adler and Pottsdam in one go."

"This is not making me feel better, Gregory." Through the open door their cohabiting lay an open question, for though Mycroft was exhausted he refrained from entering the room and all of its tangled bits of life between them. He had gone so far as to secure a pillow and blanket for the settee, where he was fully planning on sleeping for the night, an exile that made Lestrade cry out in alarm and force an explanation from him.

"You can't sleep on a settee, don't be daft, you need a proper bed and pillows to lean up on to drain your lungs. What's that look for? Please, don't be angry with me over this, you are not seeing the larger plan involved...To take her down, the great Irene Adler--The Woman, as she's known--this would make my career!"

"So you play me for a fool and I am expected to congratulate you for it? How little you think of me!"

Their bedroom was made of ice, the washing stand with its twin towels and shaving gear now strangely solitary as Mycroft had already removed his toilet to the bathing room at the end of the hall. As for the bed, and its promise of red silk, well...It would be a long time before he would even consider such a union again.

"The facts are, you left me as a dangling worm, helpless and completely unaware of a larger scheme working behind me on a larger hook. You left me out of your plan on purpose, not truly because you believed my knowing of it would put me in danger, but because, in your unbearable arrogance, you thought me too dim to figure it out on my own!"

"There are nothing but positives to describe you, Mycroft, and you know damned well I don't believe you to be stupid. I wouldn't be able to tolerate your company if that were true." Lestrade sighed as he sank into the chair opposite Mycroft, who avoided looking at him, brooding instead upon the flames in the hearth and feeling as though his heart had been tossed onto the coals. Lestrade reached for Mycroft's hands, only for the judge to curl them into tight, white-knuckled fists, denying the gentle touch.

Noting that his companion was not about to bend to displays of affection, Lestrade sank back into his chair and clasped his hands between his knees, his head hung in apology. "Irene Adler," he began, "is an extremely dangerous woman, one whom I have been pursuing for quite some time. As villains go, there are few who surpass her in cunning and political whiles, for she is well used by those in the upper echelons of government offices and her murderous actions have shaped the history of many a nation. She is rumoured to have had a hand in Maclean's assassination attempt on Queen Victoria in '88, and it wouldn't be the first time she'd used another man's madness for her subterfuge. She is adept at disguise, but she does have her favourite roles, which Hopkins and I have studied carefully and when we met up with Agnes at The Alma Pub and I saw the cur at her feet I knew..."

Mycroft's eyes widened in further anger. "You confided in Hopkins? He is involved in this?"

Lestrade stammered. "I...I had to have someone working with me who was familiar with her crimes and I couldn't exactly involve Harding, he's a bloody sonnet writing corpse fiend!"

"So you make your fawning sycophant your confidante and not me!"

"What is this ridiculous row you have with Hopkins? I don't understand it, he's been nothing but kind to you!" Lestrade sighed in frustration as he continued to plead his case. "Getting upset isn't helping you, Mycroft. You must understand that your ignorance was pivotal and now that she knows you know who she is the whole plan is set to unravel. With the plan in place, I knew she would lead me to Pottsdam who would have turned on her in an instant for even the smallest hint of clemency, which would not have been given. Dear me, My, you're starting that wheeze again, and you need to have your tea..."

"Oh bugger off to hell, Gregory, I've had enough of your observations and suppositions! You dare to claim this was all for good? The utter arrogance of you!"

Mycroft shakily left his chair and stormed, as best he was able with the aid of his cane, into the bedroom. Lestrade tried to follow him, only for Mycroft to block the entrance, the promise of the bed denied.

"Come on, then, don't be so sore as this, you need to trust that this was the only way I knew to get that bigger fish. You to Pottsdam, Pottsdam to her, it was a good plan, a neat package...Mycroft, I'm tired, where am I going to sleep?"

Mycroft, his breaths wheezing, stood in the doorframe of their bedroom, his choler an unnatural pink hue that spread in blotches across his cheeks. His words were as icy as his gaze, which even Lestrade couldn't meet, the guilt so heavy upon his heart no amount of explanation could quell it. "You are a man of incredible powers of deduction. I think it's quite obvious. You won't be sleeping with me!"

He slammed the door shut in Lestrade's shocked, hurt face. He wanted to feel a sense of triumph but all that welled within him was a sudden, deep sorrow that ached in his chest, every breath choking on a sob. The combined ten years of their lives was strewn in haphazard layers within the room, on every shelf and on the surface of their mutual bed, a place of frantic, genius intellect and passion. He ignored the gentle, pleading knocks on the door, and Lestrade's begging to be let in. He pressed his cheek against the wood, tears staining it, the hurt of separation unbearable, but he did not give in. What had been done was too hurtful, too dismissive of his friendship and love. For them to be used as pawns was a cruel act indeed, and Lestrade had to learn that such things were not forgivable.

He undressed slowly, careful to fold his clothes over the back of a chair near the end of the bed, a collection of books on lung diseases stacked in a thick pile on the chair's cushion. His body felt cold as he slid into the lonely bed, between sheets of equal ice, the pain in his chest not ebbing. He suffered through the hurt, knowing it was no medical malady that harmed him now. There were no balms or teas or herbs that would ease the discomfort of the heart.

He pressed his face into the hollow of Lestrade's pillow and could only pretend to sleep.

~*~

The Diogenes Club was thankfully spare of the usual dusty antiques who sat with phlegmatic misery in the equally worn chairs that dotted the large sitting room. Mycroft, with his stack of notes on the trial of the young husband accused of murdering his wife with molten aluminium poured into her ear, went over the case with his usual meticulous concern, especially since he was convinced Pottsdam was the true murderer. But no matter how much he pondered over every minute detail, Pottsdam remained an enigmatic footnote alongside the case, his bland involvement with the young family barely registering in the minds of neighbours and cousins who frequently visited their home. "Bit of a snob, he is, but then all those Oxford types have that upper airs twang, don't they?" the unfortunate young woman's sister had been quoted. That was the most any who had met Pottsdam could say of him.

It occurred to Mycroft that while the notorious Irene Adler relied on strange disguises for her acts of evil, Pottsdam was the direct opposite, using a total lack of personality as a way to remain invisible. That he was a macabre, strange man to his students and was pompous and threatening was obvious to those who knew Pottsdam's dark side, but this bland, London version of him was what kept him secreted in public, a nonentity of tweed and Shakespearean quotes who was invited to homes out of habit rather than necessity.

Mycroft frowned at this, for even if this blandness was what was presented, it took a fair amount of energy and creative passion for Pottsdam to enact his vile deeds and pin the guilt upon the innocent. And he had let his veil slip in Mr. Pinter's cab, cursing out the poet McGonogall and wallowing in vitriol for a near two hour ride back to Oxford. The more Mycroft thought on this, the more he realized Pottsdam had a very personal stake in McGonogall's murder, though how it connected to the first murder, using molten aluminium poured in the ear(how very like the Bard in nature, plagiarism of Hamlet proportions!) was impossible to discern.

Of course, he could present all of this to Lestrade, who would meditate upon it, his silence in the winged chair across from him stretching into hours as the man contemplated all of the facts and pulled all the threads into tight knots of deduction. Mycroft was still furious with him, and had even gone so far as to hurry out of their home on Baker Street before Lestrade awoke from his slumber on the settee in front of their sitting room window, forgoing Mrs. Hudson's tea and rushing off to the Diogenes before even Mr. Pinter had a chance to enjoy a cup. He had merely glanced at the pitiable state of Lestrade's rumpled form, his head laying at a crooked angle that would put a kink in his neck. He slept in his clothes, and Mycroft wondered if the man would think to get changed into fresh threads. Lestrade was a strong, healthy and capable man and Mycroft knew that such thoughts on him were wasted, but he couldn't stop himself from seeing how uncomfortable Lestrade had looked, how like a transient curled in on himself and finding no solace.

Good. He deserved it.

Mycroft checked his pocket watch and was alarmed to discover it was already noon, his stomach rumbling in hunger and begging of sustenance. His last visit to the pub attached to the Diogenes had brought tragedy with it, and he wasn't so eager to have those feelings resurface with vengeful might, the image of Jack on the stretcher still invading his dreams which turned to nightmares of the child suffering and dying in his arms. Lestrade had no understanding of why he would be plagued by such imagery when it was obvious Young Jack was perfectly fine, Mycroft's subconscious was railing against logic. But Lestrade had made an assumption, yet another symbol of his arrogance that often made its appearance during matters of the heart and mind. Jack was not perfect, not like he had been before. His leg was healing, but he would always limp and it was still unknown how well he would be able to walk on that shattered limb. It was highly likely the boy would always need the aid of a cane. To go from such a headstrong, healthy child to one who was crippled was set to be a serious blow for Jack, and Mycroft knew he had to direct the boy's intense energy into some positive force, lest Young Jack succumb to feelings of hopelessness that were set to ruin his vibrant life.

He had seen it many times himself in his courtroom, the mangled bodies of the poor who had pressed upon his mercy, for there was little to be done for a man who wasn't able bodied and had no education save become a beggar. No, Jack was too sharp for such a terrible fate, and he would see to it that the boy channelled his energy into the intellect, where the only muscle one needed was between the ears.

Mycroft sighed and collected up his papers, his rustling causing several of the old cronies to look up at him with frowning displeasure. Fighting the urge to roll his eyes, he placed his papers in his leather case which he then snatched up as he headed towards the adjoining door that led to small corridor leading into the attached pub. Rain pelted the large windows and the tropical plants dotting the corridor's interior seemed to stretch with dark green longing towards the rush of water that slid across the curved glass. The air within the corridor was heavy and damp, though it strangely never affected Mycroft's lungs, instead the thick air seemed to fill them with a purity that he only ever felt when in the sun kissed afternoons of his country home in Bath.

Images of Lestrade assailed him, bare chested and tanned a deep chestnut brown, water from a nearby lake drying on his taut skin. Mycroft shook his head, trying to clear the picture from it, his heart longing to be held by that damp embrace offered with a winning, cheeky grin.

He shook the memory off and entered the empty pub, where Donald was busy wiping off the bar counter with a clean rag, his burly countenance lighting up upon Mycroft's entrance. "Your Honour!" he exclaimed, his thick arms with all the muscle of a racehorse extended towards him as he welcomed him in. "I was wonderin' when you was going to haunt my little cave here again! I has to say, you're looking real well as of late, rosy cheeked and all! Whatever had its grip on you, it's gone and let go, that's for certain. Here, I got your favourite spot all ready for you, like always. I never lets anyone sit here save for you, even if the place is hopping. I got it all laid out special, too, with that teacup you like and all."

The kindness of Donald shocked him, and Mycroft, feeling rather embarrassed by this outright pampering, settled into his favourite seat and sighed with contentment over the care that had been taken with it. Unlike the rest of the establishment, the utensils and glasses were clean and spotless, the napkin folded in the french style, heavily starched and without the hint of a wrinkle. He felt like an honoured guest and considering the torment he'd gone through over the last forty-eight hours it was a welcome treat. He couldn't help but smile up at Donald whose large, boxer's physique now stood over him in masculine might, arms crossed and a pleased look upon his scarred but handsome face. He may have once been a gang's heavy, breaking the bones of their enemies like twigs in his mighty grip, but he was now a respectable proprietor, his pub clean and decorated in a masculine fashion that relied heavily on clear glass and dark wood. He was also an excellent cook, as evidenced by the special menu he presented to Mycroft, one that was made custom for him alone and catered to both his delicate constitution and his refined palate.

"It's a damp day, I do believe your excellent chicken soup is in order," Mycroft said.

"I've got your peppermint tea in stock," Donald said, and Mycroft couldn't help but grin at this, the thoughtfulness of the effort sending a blush to his cheeks.

"Thank you, Donald, that would be lovely."

Strange how such simple pleasures could make a man content. He unfolded his napkin across his lap and cast the occasional glance towards the swinging door that led into the pub's kitchen. He wondered if Donald had that cake he liked, and he inwardly chastised himself, knowing that of course the man had it at the ready for him, determined as he was to please Mycroft at every opportunity. Perhaps a more vain person would find such attention to their needs suspect, but Mycroft was content to believe in altruism and when his soup was delivered piping hot and fresh to his table he had to remark on the clarity and rich flavour of the stock.

"I likes to think my soup is what gives that rosy glow to your cheeks and that spot of red on your lips. I got right worried when I didn't see you come round after the last time you were here, and you ran off with the coppers and all. I heard about what happened to your little fellow, and I have to say, I was right surprised to hear you took in an orphan and all and made yourself his guardian. Makes me heart glad to know you, it really does. I weren't no orphan but I wished I were some days when I was your lad's age. You're a good man, Mycroft Holmes. Nothing but the best for you."

He patted Mycroft's shoulder and though he felt a tad guilty for it, he couldn't help but lean into the touch just a little, and if Donald's grin slipped into something a little more crooked and perhaps even suspect, the small flirtation was lost on its object. What a truly lovely afternoon this day had turned into! He tucked into his soup with relaxed purpose, a sigh of happiness leaving him as he looked out the large windows at the wet bustle of London beneath a downpour.

The front door chimed, and Donald paused in his wiping of his bar counter, the rag held in a tight grip that had now morphed into a meaty fist. "Oi! You ain't welcome here! Get out!"

Frowning, Mycroft looked up from his pleasant lunch and his stomach lurched, all hope of enjoying the rest of the day erased. For there, standing in the entrance of the pub, was Professor Pottsdam. His mealy black eyes took Mycroft in, giving Pottsdam the demeanour of a spider testing its web.

"This will only take a moment."

"It's taken too long already, get the hell out of my pub!"

"Donald," Mycroft said, choosing his words very carefully, "It's all right. Clearly Mr. Pottsdam has something very important to tell me otherwise he wouldn't be here." He gave Donald a sidelong glance that told him to allow the man in but for Donald to remain where he was, watchful for any sign of violence. Donald reluctantly agreed, and he stood aside and in front of his bar, his massive arms crossed as Pottsdam approached Mycroft, knuckles cracked in a not so subtle hint of what could happen should Pottsdam decide words weren't enough.

"The trial is in two days," Mycroft reminded Pottsdam, who pulled up a chair and sat across from the judge. "Your presence here is highly irregular."

Pottsdam chuckled at this. "Can't see how, considering I'm not the one on trial, her husband is."

"All thanks to you."

Pottsdam's grin widened, his little black eyes becoming pinpoints. "Oh now, that's just reaching. I'm merely an innocent witness."

Mycroft's back stiffened. "There is nothing innocent about a man who is so base he hurts a child."

"Yes, climbing boys do have difficult lives, it's true. Ah, but isn't this the plight of so many here in London, in all its wonderful squalor? They come from all around the country, seeking their fortune and what do they find when they get here? Hunger and judgement and vice. 'There are pilgrims gong to Canterbury with rich offerings, and traders riding to London with fat purses '. It's always been this way, even in the times of Shakespeare, where they would gather into the central square and peddle fish cakes while acts of genius were performed onstage. There is little that this place can't ruin, be it language or hope."

Mycroft pushed his soup away from him, his appetite quashed. "Why are you here?"

Pottsdam gave him another crooked grin and glanced around the pub as though taking it in for the first time. "It's rather quaint here, reminds me of some of the cafes in France. They're popping up all over the place these days, full of artists and whores, the usual mix though you'll find more of the latter here. Being Englishmen, we aren't much for philosophizing, we leave that sort of the thing to the Germans. Ah, but we do love to travel and complain about not being home! Myself, I am partial to the call of the distant shores where no pampered gentleman would dare to roam. I do appreciate the candour of the savage. 'Beat him enough. After a little time I'll beat him too'. You'd be surprised at the amount of cannibalism there is out there in the world, even on these shores should a person be hungry enough. London truly does eat its young. I don't judge. A good fire and ample meat is a great temptation to even a vaguely hungry stomach. Toss them all onto the coals! There is a certain honesty when partaking of another human being's flesh. Dear me, you look pale all of a sudden, Mr. Holmes! I can't see why, you've dropped a whole four points on the Mortality Race. You're free of that carnage, at least."

Mycroft felt sick, the more Pottsdam remained standing beside his table the more he wanted to throttle the man regardless of his own frail attempt. He glared at the murderer so prim and smug across from him and fought the urge to toss his hot tea up into his face. "I am not fond of metaphoric meandering, Mr. Pottsdam, if you have something to say to me it's best you be plain about it."

"Are you fond of theatre, Mr. Holmes?"

"I rarely have the opportunity to enjoy it, as I am far too busy ensuring the safety of the populace from vile murderers."

"A pity, that, for as the Great One himself said, 'The play's the thing!'" He chuckled and snatched up a chair, joining Mycroft at his table. He sat with ease across from him, legs spread out wide before him as though he were enjoying a day at the beach and not in the civilized confines of a quality pub. "There's quite a few good plays about these days, nothing at all near the quality of the great Bard, of course, not a word can get near him--'Come, sit down, every mother's son, and rehearse your parts'--but I have decided, perhaps to my folly, that the more modern pieces do deserve some attention. There's a sermon for everyone these days and the theatre has become their pulpit. Adventurers talking of their exploits across distant lands (they always leave out the best bits, orgies and cannibalism can only be hinted at) merchants of health extolling upon the great healing powers of lettuce (they say starving can cure you!) Even the opera has become a soap box of great power these days, with songs about prisons and whores gaining the favour of public attention. 'Oh, that she were an open arse, and thou a poperin pear'. Myself, I find all of it rather base, for while the tunes may be worthy of a hum or two, the words that surround it are too colloquial to afford literary merit to it. Harpies aren't known for keeping their notes honed to perfection, and writing is a last resort, but a siren, ah...There's something! Sirens can and do lull the average gentleman to his death with their sweet song. How surprising it would be to those creatures to have that skill visited upon them instead. Of course, there is more than just a song at play here, there are ideas and stories that capture and titillate the soul, making the populace mad with it. You do agree, of course. You're a man caught in that siren web as well."

"How so?"

"You consort with them. Seek their advice on tales of salacious avarice. There's no reason to be coy with me, Mr. Holmes, I know very well that you have no knowledge of the realm beneath a woman's skirt."

The air in the pub was suddenly heavy, and Mycroft's lungs seized as he tried to breathe, every word he spoke an effort. "You wish to blackmail me."

Pottsdam laughed heartily at this, ignoring Mycroft's pallor. "You have nothing I want, save for time. The trial is in two days, and I have no quibble with it. I am set to be free of the whole business very soon, thanks to you. This call is a mere courtesy." He grinned and his grey teeth had all the hue of a slimy eel. He tipped the brim of his panama hat to Mycroft as he stood, hints of a dark continent pulling the murderous cur towards new atrocities the minute he was free from the upcoming trial. Mycroft measured his breaths carefully and forced his aching lungs into a less tortured wheeze.

"You will make a mistake," Mycroft whispered to him, and Pottsdam, hearing the small missive, turned and gave Mycroft a wide, shark's grin.

"Perhaps. But you have already made far too many to count and it's unlikely you will catch up in time. A good day to you, Mr. Holmes. Please, give my regards to Inspector Lestrade. He looks so tired as of late. 'You lack the season of all natures, sleep.' One wonders if he's getting the proper rest."

The front door shut behind Pottsdam but Mycroft was not about to breathe easy, not when the man had weirdly surmised that Lestrade and Mycroft were embroiled in conflict. How did he know? Surely their curtains were thick enough, the windows weren't open and even on his good days Mycroft couldn't bring his voice above a harsh whisper. Was there a spy in their home? Equally unlikely, for Jack was still immobile and Mr. Pinter was more concerned for his horse and buggy than the affairs going on beneath the roof of his best patron. As for Mrs. Hudson, she was not a gossip, if anything she hated idle talk almost as much as she hated having to cook for guests.

"Is everything all right, Mr. Holmes?" Donald stood in front of him, worrying the corner of his dishrag, his brow pinched in deep concern. "I was set to run the bastard out the second I saw him, and all you had to do was blink the right way and I would have had him on his arse in the middle of the damned street! I knows he's a bad sort, he got you all flustered last time and you had to go running off and then that poor lad of yours trapped in that chimbley...Did he have sommit to do with that? I'll snap his neck, I will!"

Much as he appreciated Donald's ire, he couldn't make use of it. He checked his pocket watch again and hoped that Lestrade hadn't yet left the Yard. "Thank you, Donald, for the lovely lunch, as always, but I'm afraid I have to leave."

"You've barely touched the soup, Mr. Holmes, and you look right pale. I knew I shouldn't have let that bastard in! Do you need any help?"

Mycroft gathered up his leather case and leaned heavily on his cane as he stood up from his chair, his eyes closed as the usual vertigo overtook him. With carefully laboured breaths he managed to bring it under control and then slowly made his way to the entrance of the pub. "If you could flag Mr. Pinter that would be much appreciated."

"Are you heading back to Baker Street? I can get an errand boy to send along a box of sweets for you, I know you don't feel like you've had lunch if you don't end it with cake."

Mycroft smiled at the burly man's kindness. "Thank you, Donald, but I'm afraid I won't have time for it. I have to go to the Yard, to meet with Inspector Lestrade. We need to purchase tickets, for a play."

~*~

Lestrade brooded heavily over what Mycroft told him. Inspector Hopkins fidgeted in his seat, unthinking and full of a tightly wound energy that would be far more comfortable wandering the length of the Thames and digging out criminals from under the docks. He was dressed in his usual overdone finery, his thickly pomaded hair parted in the middle which made him look younger and healthier than ever, until he was the very picture of Jack. A ten year old. Lestrade had a ten year old as his professional peer.

Hopkins was clearly not used to Lestrade's meditative states, and Mycroft watched as the man fiddled with pens and the corners of a piece of paper as he waited for an answer to the dilemma Mycroft had outlined. The threat had no oblique message, Pottsdam was planning on disrupting Mary Oakes's play, and it wasn't too far a stretch to believe he would make an attempt on the young woman's life. Both she and Harriette Turner were in grave danger, and they were both stubborn women who would never bend to homicidal threats. They had a sold out show, and both Mary and Miss Turner were keen to make a good profit and to reap a substantial amount of reputation from the performance. The Granger Theatre had already agreed to keep the play running for several more weeks.

Lestrade at last growled through his thoughts and nodded at Hopkins, who leapt from his seat, eager to spur the plans of his mentor into action. "We'll arrest him at once, sir!" Hopkins blurted, his limbs taut with adrenaline and his eyes wide and bright. "He can't be going around making threats, and once we have him in the interrogation room we can..."

But he was halted by Lestrade's tired sigh and the Inspector's fingers pressing hard between his eyes as though a fierce migraine was attacking him through every intonation of Hopkins' words. "Hopkins, can you leave me alone with Mr. Holmes."

"But...But sir, if Pottsdam is going to attack Mary Oakes we have to act right away!"

"Now, Hopkins. Leave us alone." He opened his large, dark eyes and placed Hopkins with exhausted annoyance within them. "Close the door behind you when you leave."

Hopkins gaped as though ready to protest, but he shook his head in frustration instead and marched out of the filing room and into the large, shared space of the Detective Division, where every desk was busy with the hum of criminality and how to deal with it. He didn't close the door as Lestrade asked, and the inspector groaned again as he got up from his seat and slowly marched to it, his palm gently pushing it shut and sealing them into a church's silence. Lestrade turned around, his back pressed against the door as he looked down at Mycroft, his arms crossed and his misery palpable.

"It's no good. I can't think if you won't let me back into bed with you."

Mycroft raised a shocked brow at this. "Gregory, we just sat here for almost two hours and you're telling me you've not formulated a plan?"

"You've been sitting pretty in that chair affording me nothing but distraction. You and your frail pallor and those delectable lips...Have you any idea how painful it is for me not to be near you, to not touch you or offer you any manner of affection? I'm in agony, Mycroft. Please..." He sank to his knees and reached for Mycroft's arm, his gaze imploring. "Please let me kiss you."

"Don't be ridiculous!" Mycroft eyed the door behind Lestrade with a sense of alarm. "Anyone could walk in! We're in the Yard!"

But Lestrade was emboldened by passion and he kept his grip tight on Mycroft's arm. To his great surprise, it was clear to Mycroft that Lestrade had been holding in his sorrow to a highly detrimental degree, his pleading a near wail as he futilely held onto the judge's arm, hoping to be allowed an embrace. "The settee is uncomfortable, but not near as uncomfortable as your hatred. Mycroft, please, I can't think without you, you are my greatest friend, my heart and my soul, please don't shut me out like this, please let me back into our bed and please, please, say 'good morning' and 'good night' and please let me have just one kiss, just one..."

"My dearest Gregory," Mycroft shook his head and dared to frame his damp cheeks in his palms, and then leaned down to press his forehead against the feverish width of Lestrade's. "You foolish man, you allow your intellect to be taken out of commission so easily! You may come back to bed tonight, but be warned that I am still angry with you, and though your declarations of love for me are well understood, you have not yet apologized to me."

Though the risk of discovery was great, the emotions coursing through Lestrade at Mycroft's tentative forgiveness were too intense to leave unchecked. He kissed Mycroft's lips with a relieved gentleness that left the good judge breathless, adding another before he quickly stood up and away from him, leaving an empty longing in his place.

Mycroft swallowed, his nerves finely attuned to the closed door that separated them both from the chaos in the Detective Division. "What are we to do about Mary Oakes and Miss Turner?"

Lestrade shrugged. "That problem has a simple solution. We surround the Granger Theatre with constables, both in uniform and out, with all exits and entrances covered. Hopkins is a good shot, he'll be waiting across the street in the second floor window of the ceramics warehouse. The window gives a good vantage point into the theatre, and as long as the Granger's windows are kept open he'll be able to take out any threat that may dare to march across the stage. I doubt this will be Pottsdam's method, he likes to pin his crimes on others and thus all manner of drink and food must be heavily inspected before Mary Oakes or Miss Turner imbibes any of it. It is highly likely he would enact the role of a poisoner, a woman's method of murder, in order to blame either Miss Turner or Mary Oakes for either of their murders."

Mycroft frowned at this, his heart unsettled at how easily Lestrade had found a solution, though it clearly still had its dangers. "And what are we to do?"

Lestrade shrugged. He pulled out a small envelope from his inside jacket pocket and handed it to Mycroft who took it in puzzled question. "We are to enjoy a delightful musical play. Complimentary front row seats for the gypsy Inspector and his invalid naughty scribbler. Or so Mary has described us. She's added a song during the intermission in our honour."

"How kind of her," Mycroft said, deadpan.

"Infamy looks good on us both," Lestrade assured him, smiling. "Just ask Dr. Watson. He's sold out The Strand again, this time with a simple tale of blackmail and secrets. The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton seems to have a fitting theme. I daresay we're part of his pen in spirit along with your brother."

~*~
Mired as he was in the influence of Dickens and Collins, their politics much in league with his own, Mycroft couldn't help but feel a certain kinship with Shakespeare as he looked past the curtain upon the wide variety of audience Mary Oakes and Miss Turner had procured. The set design was painted meticulously by the very talented, miserable and strange Alice, whose Mucha inspired swirls and vines crawled over shackles like so many tentacles clutching from the deeps. He raised a brow as he saw that each massive backdrop contained not only Alice's full name and the date in the far left corner, she had also given a contact address and a daintily painted request for commercial commissions. What she lacked in the obvious fairer social graces she certainly made up for in marketing genius.

Mary Oakes in full make-up was a ghoulish sight, as her opening act decried her incarceration for murder and implied an immediate plea upon the audience for her clemency. She looked starved and half dead beneath the glare of theatre's large gas lamps, a further creation of Alice who had traded her paints for powders and actor's grease and enacted a similar magic upon Mary Oakes's skin as she did on large panels of wood. Mary gave him a wide, grey hued grin that made her look skeletal and Mycroft fought the urge to shudder.

"We've sold out every seat in the house and it's a right miracle we was even able to give you any seat at all! I has to say, I thought them coppers coming around would cause us no amount of trouble, but they're drumming up the sympathy more than keeping the punters out!"

"They aren't punters, Mary," Miss Turner chastised her. As conductor she was dressed plainly, with a smart long black jacket in simple lines of brocade fabric hiding the beige poverty of her best dress beneath it. Her mousy hair was piled high on top of her head in the usual Gibson style, but there was a flushed pink to her cheeks and a spark in her eyes that suggested she was excited about their debut. "You must respect your audience, Mary, or they will not respect you."

"I respects their pockets enou', that's for certain! Sold out twice and we ain't even started yet! Got to be a record for us suffragettes, regardless of what the men folk are thinking. There's a nasty reporter hugging the back wall, he had choice words for your silly little romp, Mr. Holmes, but I thinks it's on account he don't like women at all, not even in the sense of friendship. The sort that don't even know the heart exists."

Mycroft peered over the edge of backdrop, a vast collage of intricate seaweed and swirling blue circles that gave an abstract interpretation of a heaving ocean. "The story received a bad review?"

"Called you a bloody harlot, he did, accused you of being ignorant of the female form and thus debased it in all its glory."

"I can't fault him there, that is true."

"Maybe, but I think you got it well enough. He's right upset you gone and made the maids and matriarchs all hot in unspeakable places, that's what it's about. He called for your dismissal as a judge over it and all. But if he were looking for public outcry it don't seem to be there for him. Like all things that are uncomfortable in London, the populace just turns and looks the other way and pretends it ain't there. Ah, there's the violin solo! Found a little eight year old virtuoso on the street, little Russian girl of a family of ten--a promise of bread was all it took to get her to perform for us! Go on, off the stage! Get in your seats and enjoy the show, I'm bloody starting aren't I!"

Mycroft and Lestrade were ushered off by a team of rough looking waifs, many of whom had been hired as backstage hands for the performance while others had bit parts throughout the play, with one particularly pale young orphan playing the part of Mary Oakes's dying brother. The whole thing had a layer of melancholy upon it that irked Mycroft, for Mary was a weirdly cheerful girl regardless of the horrors that life had stamped so cruelly upon her, and he wondered at how she was able to remain so dogged in her pursuit of survival. She didn't boast of companionship, nor did she have anyone to genuinely rely on save for Miss Turner, whose own involvement held a measure of self preservation. Perhaps this was the glue that held such people together, the endless creativity of the desperate. When one had nothing to lose, one had the whole world at one's disposal. Failure wasn't just an option, it was expected.

Thus, the success of the play was one that was a pleasant surprise and Mycroft wasn't about to waste his time thinking on the finer points of who deserved what. He allowed Lestrade to guide him to the front row seats, where he had a close up view of the small girl who played a sad violin, her tangled, dirty blonde hair encircling her ghostlike form in an angelic halo. She had a degree of talent, Mycroft mused, but not nearly as much as his own brother. The composition was complex enough though it had childish lilts among the notes, and he had to wonder if perhaps Sherlock could be called upon to open the play with one of his own dizzying concertos, a whirlwind of dancing strings that were made to keep the devil himself busy as he counted off the notes.

Both he and Lestrade glanced over their shoulders to get a good look at the crowd, and Mycroft caught a row of dour suffragettes, their pinched expressions and tight clutches on the playbills filled with an alien rage. There were the usual rabble of drunks who had staggered in from the pub down the street, along with curious gentlemen and political upstarts who were keen to use the subject of the play as a backdrop for their own agendas. There were a couple of rheumy eyed judges he recognized from The Diogenes Club and there, in the corner, the reporter Mary had complained about, his pencil already scribbling in a tattered notebook that would fit in the bedraggled man's front pocket.

So, the man had considered his licentious work immoral, did he? Such an odd stance considering he worked for W. H. Stead, who was not just a philanthropist but a staunch criticizer of society and its vile vices, doing what he could to rid the world of the abuse of children. To work for such a man and yet hold judgment of some silly words was ridiculous to Mycroft, and he had a mind to trap the man in some way and force him to listen to the argument that the creative muse must be allowed to be free to live, even if it does make the audience uncomfortable. Surely this play, and Mary Oakes herself, now walking onto the stage, her wrists red from the shackles she wore (they were made of balsa wood and itched her terribly) was made to do exactly what Stead himself would applaud. The infamous editor of The Pall Mall Gazette would be too busy rubbing shoulders with suffragettes, not hovering about Mycroft's silly scribbles and calling him a pervert!

"You look as though you've been sucking lemons, Mycroft. That's hardly an expression to make our Mary do well tonight! Relax, our constables are in full force, and I can see Harding right there on the right. He's dressed as a drunken beggar, complete with grey beard. He's marvellous at this sort of thing!"

Mycroft rolled his eyes at Lestrade's praise. "He's studied every manner of cadaver and has learned the shape of the human skull and all its subtleties. I overheard him talking to Dr. Watson a few weeks ago on the subject, how he can imitate the shape of malformed limbs to perfection thanks to his time in the autopsy room with Dr. Ziegler."

"A macabre hobby, I agree, but it's proven successful. Not many people can pull off that sort of authenticity. He even smells of urine and liquor!"

Where Mycroft felt disgust, Lestrade was only proud of his youngest officer. Resigned to his fate, Mycroft sank into his seat and waited as the curtains opened, a rolling collection of painted blue swirls and tentacles rising up from a clapboard sea, put into motion by orphans rolling the backdrop on small wheels that squeaked along the wooden floor of the stage. Mary Oakes, with her painted balsa wood shackles, emerged from the midst of the heaving, painted ocean, her smeared black cheeks and skeletal visage already sending a gasping shudder throughout her audience.

When she broke into song, the theatre fell into a shocked silence. She had been good in Mrs. Hudson's kitchen, but this was now with a violin virtuoso's accompaniment and the pleasant acoustics of the Granger Theatre. Mary's voice boomed into the space, at times tentative and fragile, at times seeking power over the waves that creaked behind her. By the time the second chorus was sung, even the dour suffragettes were weeping.

Curious, Mycroft turned in his seat to watch the reporter for the Pall Mall Gazette. Mary need not have worried about gaining a bad review, for the man furiously scribbled in his notebook, his eyes misted and wide with shock, the societal plight one in keeping with the Pall Mall Gazette's philosophies.

He hoped Mary understood that this meant she would be performing in places far more upscale than this lowly little theatre with its splintered seats and cracked facade, for her infamy was assured. From the heartfelt way she was now belting out notes, perhaps she already knew that triumph was hers to own.

"Cor, she's something, isn't she?" Lestrade said, and nudged his elbow. "At least one good thing has come out of this mess."

"If either she or Miss Turner remain free of Pottsdam's clutches, that is. Are you sure Hopkins has a good vantage point?"

"Both windows are open and there's a clear shot should it be needed. I've told him to maim the man first, but if it looks as though Pottsdam's aiming to do harm he's not to hesitate to make it fatal."

"The chief won't like that kind of recklessness."

"The chief hates the whole business and thinks we're mad, but I've got my constables on my side and the vote for this plan won out."

A harsh hiss for them to be quiet was cast over them by a black laced elderly woman who was otherwise riveted by Mary's performance. She held up a pair of pince nez glasses as she looked on the slight girl, tutting in sympathy and holding a handkerchief to her eyes, which were dry but she dabbed at them anyway. Mycroft turned back around to watch the stage, the ocean now wheeled away and the stone walls of the gaol now bathing the stage in cellar tones. A child dressed as a cruel guard and another in a smart suit and a ream of papers sat with Mary at a small table, and it took a few moments for it to fully sink in that this was a musical rendition of his original meeting with Mary.

Oh dear. The child was loud and foppish. He was not being portrayed in a flattering light.

"Oh rubbish! That's not how it was at all!" Mycroft harshly whispered to Lestrade, who was biting down on his grin at the colourful spectacle of the judge/child who was now tap dancing on the top of the table. "Look at those trousers, tailored too tight, and that flashy bouquet of flowers at his lapel, it's too much! I'm no dandy!"

"You are rather cheerful for a hanging judge," Lestrade agreed.

"I'm nothing of the sort! How can Mary do this to me? As though my reputation hasn't been sullied enough by that stupid story you made me write!"

"I think the term is 'surrealism' though I doubt Mary has done this on purpose. I think it's about injecting a bit of drama."

"She has turned me into a foot stomping, pompous monster!"

"Hush!"

The command, given by the elderly woman in black behind them, was sheepishly heeded by both Lestrade and Mycroft, who sank into their seats, hoping to become invisible. But the play tried Mycroft's patience, and much as he enjoyed the delicate tones of Mary's singing voice, seeing himself portrayed as a spoiled child stomping his feet when she wouldn't be hung was too much for him to bear. His breathing felt wheezy in the close confines of the theatre, and he was light headed and miserable. He rose from his seat and discreetly left it, motioning to Lestrade that he was simply getting some fresh air. Lestrade gave him a distracted nod, for he found no problem at all with the play, and in fact was as mesmerized as the rest of the audience who listened in open mouthed wonder at the drama that was the Old Bailey and the trial of Mary Oakes.

Which of course never happened, but why quibble with facts? There's a tap dancing judge onstage. Flowers and death sentences for all!

He passed a bobbie who tipped his hat to him as Mycroft left through a side door, which closed shut behind him, leaving the alley he found himself in both damp and silent. His lungs, aching as they were, welcomed the cooler air outside, and heedless of the Thames' poisons, he breathed the night air in deep.

The sound of horse's hooves puttering along the cobblestones of the street echoed into the alleyway. Mycroft tilted his head back and looked up between the sliver of buildings, the night sky obscured with smoke and grimy mist, with only the brightest stars shining through. There was something oddly philosophical in this, for he knew that though Mary was a talented girl, this alone would not seal her fate in the world beyond London's fickle curiosity. Society both here and abroad would never accept her as anything more than a lucky harlot. Mycroft frowned on that awful truth, the tip of his cane poking into the black puddles that had accumulated in the cracked stone floor of the alley. Perhaps he was taking too much liberty in what Mary was capable of withstanding, for she had no interest in what the world expected of her. But her companion, Miss Turner, was a different story and perhaps a more tragic one. Mycroft hoped Mary understood that her relationships both friendly and business would likely smear those around her. Miss Turner was a spinster, and as a result prone to invisibility--the place where desperate poverty dwelled.

Miss Turner lived an isolated life. Should Mary Oakes decide to take her act solo across the continent, Miss Turner would be adrift, indeed. Mary Oakes was used to taking care of herself, not others, and couldn't be faulted if she decided to take her earnings and run. But Miss Turner, who had so bravely saved their dear Jack...No, she would not suffer any rumour or unkindness under his own and Lestrade's watch. She had friends. No. Family. As far as he was concerned she was a thoughtful and intelligent sister.

He wondered if she had ever been to Bath.

Annoyed with the rambling of his own thoughts, Mycroft paced the alley until he came to its entrance. He chanced a glance upwards to the window where he knew Inspector Hopkins was poised, the barrel of his gun trained on an as yet absent foe. He cast nervous glances behind and ahead of him, and wondered if Pottsdam was already in the theatre, waiting his chance to strike. It seemed inevitable that he would.

Mycroft made his way back to the side door and pushed against it, only to discover it was locked. Frowning, he gently knocked, but there was no answer despite even more fervent fists and his curses echoed down the damp alleyway, his feet soaked as he traipsed through the black puddles towards the main entrance. But this, too, was barred, the constables all waiting within and not without, and he was thus left on the front steps of The Granger Theatre, orphaned from the play.

He circled the entire building twice trying to find a way in, but the place was in such a sturdy lockdown against mischief he had no choice but to wait for the intermission and hope that at least one door opened a crack and allowed him back in. He snatched his playbill out from his coat's pocket and was dismayed to learn that it would be a good hour before the audience was encouraged to stretch and discuss the art of whores and music and all the politics in play in between.

Well, at least he was going to avoid that. He got enough of that business in his quarter sessions.

Sighing, he made his away towards the nearby Regent Park, which was not a place one usually went to in the evening, but the night was gentle and the hour early and there were still gentlemen and ladies politely courting as they walked its paths. Mycroft found a bench and sat down in front of the Thames, his gaze empty as he stared into that vast, black river and wondered how many times his brother had been tempted to end his life here. There was a sad musical, if anyone cared to write it. It was a pity Sherlock's bard was one who twisted his brother's delusions into stories of adventurous mystery, the irony of making sense of that which was folly forever lost on Dr. Watson. He wondered what his brother was doing now, and he felt a pang of guilt that he hadn't secured a ticket for the performance for Sherlock, for this was the sort of thing he adored. Music and costumes and strange ideas, they all coalesced in his confused mind and if one chose the medium carefully they gave his dreams more positive influences to cling to.

Except for the tap dancing hanging judge, of course. It was best that Sherlock hadn't witnessed *that*.

He sat on the bench and stared out at the Thames and all of London and its ills began to dissipate, leaving in its stead the promise of soft country hills and scrubbed clean air and the outline of his family home in Bath. He longed to be there, his bones aching for it, his lungs screaming for the relief that the glorious respite of blue skies and factory free air provided. There would be extra baggage this time with Jack accompanying them, and Mycroft found he was eager to bring the boy into that secreted part of his universe, to truly make him a part of the Holmes history and his family. There were plenty of rooms in the manor for him to choose from, and Mycroft had a hidden hope that he would pick his own childhood abode, one that still had his initials etched into the white paint on the windowsill.

There were concessions. Sharing a bed with Lestrade was, of course, problematic thanks to the servants, but a small amount of discretion went a long way and there was an adjoining door which was conveniently connected to Lestrade's 'room', and if a rumple of the sheets on that unused bed every morning was enough to silence any gossiping whispers it was a ruse that had worked well for the past decade.

In forty-eight hours they would be free of Pottsdam, for good or ill, and Bath beckoned like a fairy castle in some distant land, full of easy days and sunshine that never abated. The idyll was not unlike Holloway Sanatorium in this respect, and he toyed with the idea of bringing Sherlock out there for a protracted visit, the country estate giving his brother's troubled mind the same medicinal cure as the air around it did for Mycroft's lungs. Sherlock was not cured, but his symptoms were significantly reduced, his outbursts fewer and his feverish rambling through his thoughts brought into clearer focus. Perhaps it would be wise to allow Dr. Watson to visit Bath as well to see the transformation for himself. Calm environments were best for Sherlock. London had done both of them nothing but ill.

He was thinking on the subject of Bath for quite a long time, well past the intermission which did not, as he had hoped, result in an opened door or window through which to crawl through, and no amount of knocking on doors gained him re-admittance. Giving up, he kept his bench at the edge of the river and stared into the water until his thoughts threatened to give way into dreams, his head lolling towards his chest and jerking upwards when he heard his name being shouted in the distance.

He sighed and rose from his seat, slowly making his way back to the nearby Granger Theatre which was finally letting its patrons out. From the way the crowd was milling about the front of the building it was clear the musical had been a smashing success and no hint of violence had been visited upon it. The expense of the police had been ill used, and Lestrade was set to be raked over the coals by the chief.

"Mycroft, for God's sake! Where the hell have you been? We've been searching for you for over an hour!" Lestrade marched across the damp green grass as Mycroft approached him, his face red and his eyes wide with excitement. "I was ready to send out a patrol!"

"I'm sorry, Gregory, I went outside to get some air and then I couldn't get back in..."

But Lestrade's manner was too hot for such explanations, his hands gesturing wildly that Mycroft follow him to the main street, and quickly. "We don't have time to waste! There's a fire brigade already there and I don't know how many casualties yet!"

"Casualties?" Mycroft shook his head, confused. Lestrade had a hand at the small of his back, urging him forward. "There was no gunfire and the play has gone on without a hint of violence. What the devil are you talking about?"

Lestrade braced himself and stood in front of Mycroft, his expression tense. "Holloway Sanatorium. There's been a fire on the second floor, where Sherlock resides. I don't know the details yet, but a nurse saw someone running from the scene..."

Mycroft felt all the colour drain from his face, his lungs seizing at the thought of Sherlock trapped in a fiery room, unable to breathe, unable to escape. He clutched his cane and leaned on it heavily as he quickened his pace, his heart hammering in panic. "That bastard! That bloody bastard, he went after my brother! That son of a ..."

"Mycroft, the witness." Lestrade forced Mycroft to stop and look at him, the panic rising to a crescendo at Lestrade's words. "They saw someone fleeing the scene. Someone wearing a red kimono."

Mycroft gaped at this. No, this was every level of not good, not good at all. He felt faint and Lestrade clutched his arm, guiding him towards the main street.

"I won't let that bastard frame you," Lestrade assured him. "This little game of his stops here."

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter eleven

Holloway Sanatorium was in a far less dire condition than what Mycroft had been led to believe, and it was with a profound sense of relief that he found his brother Sherlock, wrapped tightly in a wool blanket with nothing more wrong with him than a bruise at his temple and soot marks on his cheeks. Mycroft tenderly touched the purple welt that was swollen the size of a walnut on Sherlock's forehead and his brother bristled at his concern.

"This wouldn't have happened if you'd just taken care of the phosphorous dog, with its sharp teeth and its hunger for blood. It wanted to kill me, Mycroft! The same way it killed Elizabeth!"

Mycroft sighed and Sherlock refused to meet his brother's gaze. "Inspector Hopkins has gone over your room and it looks like a jar of lit paraffin was thrown through your window. You're very lucky the nurses were quick to act to put the fire out and that Dr. Watson is a light sleeper. He heard your window smash and he ran to your room to find your bed in flames." Mycroft shakily ran his thumb across his confused brother's cheek, smearing the soot onto his own skin. The horrific memory of Jack, near dead and broken assailed him, and he marvelled at the miracles that continued to keep his targeted family alive. "This is very important, Sherlock, and I need you to be extra vigilant." His brother stiffened beneath his touch, tense and afraid, making Mycroft hate himself for being forced to interrogate Sherlock about his trauma rather than comfort him. "This phosphorous dog...You're sure she's the one who was here tonight?"

"Am I sure, he asks--How stupid you are! Of course she was, with her fiery red flames spilling all about her! That bitch with her sharp teeth and blood in her eyes! Her claws clutched hellfire, her wicked grin cutting across her canines in a desperate, hungry wish to devour my very soul! Have you not been listening to me? She is their leader, the matriarch of the pack, the wretched demon..."

"I understand, Sherlock," Mycroft said, and he pulled his brother into a tight embrace, his chin tucked in thoughtful relief into the dark, soft part in his hair which still smelled faintly of smoke. It was in this pose that Lestrade found him, hands deep in the pockets of his coat, his concentration shifting through the fire brigade and constables as though ready to find a foe amongst them.

"Dr. Watson was the one who saw the figure fleeing the scene. You need to stay close to me and talk to no one. It's obvious the culprit wasn't you, I mean for God's sake any idiot can deduce you can't run, but the implications being made right now are pretty clear." He nodded at the reporter Mary Oakes had pointed out to Mycroft before her performance, the rat faced little man scribbling madly in his notebook and casting narrowed eyes on Mycroft and Lestrade. "That one there, his name is Frankie Callais and he has already had a chat with the Chief. He's got more in his craw against you personally than that saucy story of yours that was published in The Strand. He's been calling you an invert, citing passages from your tale and insisting the red kimono in it suggests a more dire perversion."

Mycroft paled at this and he moved to one side of Lestrade, putting a small distance between them. "It seems he's outed my metaphor."

"I wouldn't go that far, he's not the imaginative type. Mary told me Callais didn't read a word of it until the Gazette got a letter to the editor from a 'concerned Oxford professor' demanding your dismissal as a judge of the assize. You can guess where that came from."

"Pottsdam."

"Right. Pottsdam thinks he's still playing his game. He doesn't know that we're aware of his hiring of Irene Adler. As for this reporter, he's a sensationalist opportunist but he's lazy about it. The only stories he pursues are the ones that fall into his lap and now it seems yours has, though with an admittedly odd conclusion attached. Not sure how he made that mental leap to inversion, Pottsdam had made no mention of that in his written complaint."

Mycroft felt his mouth go dry. "Then we should be doing the opposite of what you suggest, we should be separated as much as possible lest he suspect our friendship to be something more."

Lestrade shrugged and closed the gap between them that Mycroft had tried to create. His voice was low and dark as he whispered into Mycroft's hot ear. "You are a fragile man who can barely walk across a room without running out of breath. I know the ma huang tea has been working wonders, but right now I need you to play up being a man knocking on coffins and looking for room." Lestrade scanned the crowd of officers who were surveying the damage on the outside of the building, the broken window surrounded by scorch marks. "Someone here knows more about us than is comfortable and has tipped Frankie off. Stead, his editor, is a progressive sort who is dedicated to the cause of the suffragettes and is a fervent crusader against the vile practise of child prostitution. But a judge of the assize painting his lips and dressing up in a kimono so his lover could have his way with him might steer his moral outrage in the wrong direction making him fight against something that is benign rather than harmful."

Mycroft blushed at the frank way Lestrade discussed their personal, intimate moments, and he glanced about nervously, convinced that act was on mental public display and all were watching. "Are you aware of who the culprit who attacked Sherlock is?"

"Of course I am, I'm hardly stupid," Lestrade snapped at him. "Irene Adler. She's the only one in my list of suspects who would have fit into such a kimono, all the males we know too tall and too wide in the shoulders to slip it over an arm let alone their frames. Even Pottsdam is too broad for it as he has ample musculature in his upper body, hidden beneath his Oxford tweeds. You are a slight man, Mycroft, thin as a reed with only a few pounds on Adler, whose feminine, small stature hides a significant collection of muscle and strength, neither of which you possess." Lestrade frowned at Mycroft's pouting silence and was clearly lost on how to fix it. "It's not an insult, my dear man..."

Mycroft leaned on his cane as he made an attempt to march away from him, angry. "You just called me pasty and skinny."

Lestrade grabbed his arm, stopping him, and earning several quizzical glances from the constables around them, along with a weird glare of triumph from the reporter Frankie Callais. "Translucent and lithe," Lestrade corrected, giving him a wide, charming grin that did little to ease Mycroft's insulted mood. "Now, be a dear and act faint, won't you? There was time enough in the Granger for you to get a proper tutelage from Mary. Come on, get in character, Mycroft. You're upset about nearly losing your beloved, mad brother, your weak heart unable to take the strain..."

"I don't have a weak heart, Gregory," Mycroft impatiently reminded him. "It's solely a malady of my lungs."

Lestrade grinned at him through gritted teeth. "Yes, my dear, dear Mycroft, but if you want these dolts to understand sickness you have to play the part of a weak constitution and that invariably in their minds means a sickened heart. We are playing on sympathy here, not fact, Mycroft, do keep up!"

Mycroft groaned and made a good show of walking into a staggering swoon, one that convinced Frankie enough to lower his triumphant gaze and scratch out a few words he'd scribbled in his damnable notebook. Dr. Watson walked across the green space, leaving Sherlock on a bench beneath a tree facing his bedroom window, two nurses tending to him and listening patiently to his animated rambling. Watson twirled his handlebar moustache as he took in Mycroft's act, clearly not at all convinced by it, but he was kind enough to play along. "I dare say, your Honour, you look ready to collapse! That's right Lestrade, hold him up on that side and I'll get on the other. We'll prop him up between us, and that should get you to your cab. Mr. Pinter has been enquiring if you are both heading to the Yard, but it is my..." He turned to the crowd of policemen, and was especially loud in the direction of their Chief, "My *expert* opinion that Mr. Holmes is in need of bed rest lest he succumb to his already fragile state. I suggest he go home to Baker Street and return to Holloway tomorrow if his health has improved."

The Chief was clearly incensed by Lestrade's quick getaway with his favoured suspect, reporter Frankie Callais scribbling enough in his notebook to rival the thickness of Thackery's Vanity Fair. They hurried into Mr. Pinter's cab, and Lestrade poked his head through the front curtain, his chin nearly coming into contact with Mr. Pinter's shins. "Make like we are going to Baker Street, but we are in actuality heading to the Alma. We can't have any of them following us."

Mr. Pinter tipped his cap to him and gave his horse a good bellow. "Come on then, off to Baker Street! We'll get you sorted, Mr. Holmes, don't you worry about a thing!"

The horse took off at a slow trot, with Lestrade's Chief shouting behind the carriage, his red faced choler near glowing in the gaslight that surrounded the entrance to Holloway Sanatorium. Dr. Watson regarded both Lestrade and Mycroft with practised concern, his pudgy fingertips still twirling the tip of his moustache.

"The Alma Pub is a strange gathering place for a couple of inverts," he said, and Mycroft felt his heart drop into his shoes as he shrank under Dr. Watson's scrutiny. "Please, Mycroft, I am a doctor of the mind and as such I operate in realms far away from the Neanderthal superstition of popular laws. Our founder, Dr. Freud himself, has not passed judgement upon the beds of men and in fact is hard pressed to find argument against it, for from Aristotle to DaVinci, many of the great minds that formed our society were of your type. What illness is there to cure in either of you? That you have committed the great crime of a stable family filled with affection? That you live your daily lives in the pursuit of justice for those who have been wronged? Ah yes, terrible men, you must be, to never raise a fist against a wife or child or force the employ of an unwilling East End whore!" Dr. Watson sat back in his seat with a huff, his puffy jowls hidden beneath several chins. "I have heard and witnessed the horrors of many who live in the perfect homes that we are meant to believe are above reproach. Ah, my dear fellows, if you knew of what went on in some of them, even you, Inspector, would beg of me to halt my tongue and call me a bloody liar!"

Mycroft remained quiet in his seat, the sounds of the horse's hooves on the wet cobblestones a metronome against the panic that threatened to rise within his breast. He had always been an intensely private man, happy in his little home on Baker Street, living an unassuming life with those he had chosen to be his family. And now public opinion was set to swoop in upon it, full of half truths and rumours that would be more of a trial against his character than any actual facts. For while it was true that he couldn't physically run away from a scene as Dr. Watson suggested, there would be the seed of doubt planted in the public's mind. They could be convinced he had pink fairy wings and flew away from his crime if the prejudices against him were levelled up in the headlines enough. He'd seen it happen even in the assize court, where reputation sometimes superceded facts and men were hung on whispers and opinions in lieu of hard evidence.

"This is clearly Pottsdam's doing, though I can't figure as to why. His taunts this afternoon had been to rattle you, and his trial is in two days. He was comfortable enough to sit across from you and make thinly veiled threats against the vulnerable, namely Mary and Miss Turner, and he knew damned well we'd take precautions. He believes you won't be presiding over the murder trial he is involved in because he thinks you will be dead. He has no idea of your new arrangement with The Woman. What's his game in hiring Irene Adler and framing you now?" Lestrade steepled his fingers and pressed them tight against his lips, his brow furrowed deep in thought. "I need to meditate on this. There is something I am not seeing."

"He knew details of us he shouldn't have," Mycroft said. "How could he have known we'd fought last night? No one could have known that unless they were in the very room! And the red kimono, yes, that was a part of my sordid published story, but why would its context be in question with Frankie Callais writing articles intimating that I am an unfit invert judge when that stupid tale clearly said otherwise?" Mycroft felt helpless. He kept thinking on Sherlock, on the smudge of soot on his cheek and his obvious rambling fear as he went on and on about the phosphorous dog that had attacked him. "I should have brought Sherlock home to Baker Street. He won't be able to sleep at Holloway tonight."

"We can arrange for it," Lestrade quietly said, the offer surprising Mycroft. Lestrade quickly deduced his feelings, and he placed his hand in Mycroft's, heedless of the fact Dr. Watson was sitting directly across from them both. "He is maddening and difficult to deal with, but he is also a part of us. It would be a cruelty to leave him at Holloway for the night when he is craving being spoiled by his worried elder brother. We can indulge him this once, I think a vague attempt on one's life warrants it."

"The attempted murder of my brother, the attempted desecration of my reputation and career, the hiring of a soulless assassin to kill me--Really, Gregory, Pottsdam cannot get away with this or any other crime he has already committed! His nebulous motives have constantly been putting us off balance, first we believe he is there to murder a poet due to his mangling of language, only for that to be a ruse. To spur him into murderous action, I wrote an embarrassing, naughty story of female licentiousness that made me retch that is now, through some bizarre infection of rumour, being used to prove I'm in league with Wilde! We finally learn his motives are to frame the innocent, of which I am most certainly one, all so he can waltz his way through a trial that he's still not a murder suspect in! This is pure madness!"

"It's all upsetting you a great deal, of course," Lestrade quietly said.

"Of course it is, my entire life is about to be ruined! So is yours!"

"I think you are too far ahead of this game of his. You're right, it's strange that he would bother putting added pressure on you when it's clear he is set to be free of the trial in two days. You're supposed to be dead before then, after all. The empty threat to Mary and Miss Turner were meant to unsettle us enough, it seems superfluous to add this further drama. His meeting with you this afternoon was for nothing more than posturing, his pride in getting away with so much murder given a garnish of teasing the very reluctant judge who will have no choice but to set him free by default. Quibly will take the case and hang the innocent husband and off Pottsdam goes to the darkest continent he can find to live a life free of the moral obligations this country provides. Perhaps murder is a sport in those places and he is a prized athlete."

Dr. Watson twirled his moustache, his attention on the scene plodding outside of his window, though Mycroft knew the man was thinking heavily on what Lestrade had said, along with his own thoughts on their revealed relationship. He hadn't protested Sherlock spending the night at Baker Street, and Mycroft couldn't stop the sick feeling within him that some secrets, though they may be accepted, still festered within those they had been told to. He had spent so much of his life keeping his desires hidden that allowing anyone into its path felt suspect. But he had to trust Dr. Watson, now, as much as he trusted Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade both. He closed his eyes and rested his chin on his cane as he let out a low sigh, wishing he could crawl into his cluttered comfortable bed, with Lestrade snoring wetly at his side, and when he awoke with the covers stolen and Lestrade complaining about Mycroft hogging his section of mattress he could rest easy in the fact it had all been a horrible dream.

But the nightmare was still continuing, for they were now a block away from the Alma. Lestrade gave Mr. Pinter strict instructions to park on the main street and remain where he was and wait for their quick return. Lestrade was out of the cab before Mycroft and Dr. Watson, the large man and the sickly one following behind the robust Inspector who stormed through the alley leading to the infamous pub with determined purpose.

The massive Agnes was there, with her swiney skin slick with evening dew and sweat, large stains curved beneath the bodice struggling to hold in her massive breasts. She crossed her mighty arms over her burgeoning chest as they approached her, her tiny eyes piggie slits that made Mycroft's skin crawl as she looked them over. "Oi! Ain't got nothing for you here! She's gone and won't be back, all on a thanks to you!"

Lestrade had no patience to argue. "No need to play victim here, Agnes, for I know Irene Adler is a fair employer. I know she pays those who aid her well, and I know, as is her strange habit, that you have a gift for me. It's the sort of thing she does before her disappearing acts, and since her meeting with Mr. Holmes I know she deems our altercation personal. I won't waste your time asking where she's gone, because she would have lied to you anyway. So. Where is it?"

Agnes smacked her lips and glared down at him. She gave Dr. Watson's disgusted face a twisted expression of her own. "Ah, I knows your type. All high and mighty until you get up a slut's skirt. Don't be giving me those dagger eyes, you fat fool. Two of your like were in here this morning, having it on with breakfast, so don't go telling *me* you've got morals above mine."

"You are seriously misjudging Dr. Watson, Agnes," Lestrade cautioned her. "As for these two bloated individuals you speak of, I take it you are referring to the Chief and Judge Quibly?"

Agnes laughed at this, her many chins quaking like the loose flap of skin on a turkey. Mycroft leaned on his cane and stood closer to Dr. Watson, not at all liking the way the dark morphed the Alma into a fetid den of shame, with black clad men sliding along the slick, algae strewn walls of the alley, heedless of how their drunken shoulders smeared with muck.

"Who else could they be! Came around here early when most of the girls were sleeping. Quibly was here before the place even opened, and was in deep in a chat with a couple of bobbies who do this beat, and no I don't care to know what they were on about but they all got real quiet when Henri went and opened up the front door and slunk off like they was caught stealing apples. Quibly didn't get much more than a pint as he hadn't paid his tab up in a week, and when the Chief rolled in an hour later, well, he ain't usually so serious when he's at this place, he's usually the one buying rounds and slapping whores' arses. But Quibly was booming already, going on about how he'd given some tasty gossip to a rat and he'd be paying his tab soon enough, along with what he owes the Chief. That's what Henri the barkeep told me."

"Who was Quibly talking about?" Mycroft asked.

Agnes sneered down at him. "Some reporter from the Gazette, if you can believe that. Like that bloody Stead would dare to show his face to me--Ain't my fault if the country spits 'em out young. I just does what I can for 'em, that's all I do. Them girls are grateful for the work."

Lestrade pressed his lips tight together at this information, his jaw working as though he was chewing it and liking the way it tasted. When he turned to both Mycroft and Dr. Watson, he was wearing his easy, charming grin, all semblance of worry wiped clean from his brow. "Well, then, that is interesting news, and quite welcome at that. I do thank you, Agnes, you've taken a weight off of us all, believe you me. But our business is not yet over, you have something that has been left for me by Irene Adler, and I am not leaving until you deliver it."

"Bugger off," Agnes spat. "I ain't in the habit of givin' no copper pressies!"

"You aren't." Lestrade stood nose to nose with her sweaty form, the stench of her foul skin so close it often make stronger men gag. "Not unless it's the syph, of course. But Irene Adler is on a very different level from you and I daresay she has a certain code of her own. She has made a habit of sending a trinket to the local law enforcement over the years. An envelope containing compromising photos with a Turkish prince to the British Consulate, for example. A letter outlining the plans of a battle to push Prussian expansion into the Baltics to Ottoman diplomat Sir Philip Currie . Vials of arsenic purchased by well to do Parisian ladies, complete with receipts of purchase have routinely been sent to Prefect Louis Lepine. So don't be stupid, Agnes. Do you really want to tempt the ire of a mistress of death such as the likes of The Woman?"

Agnes visibly shuddered at the mention of Irene Adler's nickname, the assassin's reach well known among high and low criminal elements alike. She snapped her sausage fingers and a painted young girl hopped out of the Alma, her green eyes as vibrant as Japanese teacups. "Celia! Get that package out from behind the bar."

The girl stammered at this, looking at Agnes with those big saucer eyes filled to bursting with disappointment. "But...But you said I could have it...So I could...So the punters could..."

A loud thwack echoed into the alley and Mycroft stood horrified in front of the monstrous Agnes, the young girl now sporting a nasty red welt across her cheek from where her slaver had slapped her. Celia scuttled into the Alma and when she returned she brought with her a perfectly folded red silk kimono, its belt tied around it so it was presented like a well wrapped package.

Lestrade snatched it from her trembling grasp. "Fire this one, Agnes. She's too young, she belongs in the Teacher's Orphanage in Sheffield, she can have a home there."

"You ain't got no right to tell me how to makes my living!"

"As an officer of law, I most certainly do. You forget that I'm not one of your slimy punters, Agnes. She's a child. If I see her here again I'll be the first one to shackle you and haul you into Newgate and I guarantee I'll make sure the assize will let you rot there before any hint of light ever finds you, you wicked, evil cow!"

"They come on their own accord!" Agnes shouted at him, but the trio were already well on their way out of the alley and back to the carriage where Mr. Pinter was patiently waiting. "I ain't no nanny, I gives them work!"

Mycroft shuddered. He liked to think even in his own line of work he was mostly shielded from the horrors that London could dredge up, but the foul Agnes proved him wrong. There were so many who lived worse than the rats that crowded the London Docks and sunned themselves on the sewage strewn shores that dotted The Jetty. A life of constant desperation fuelled by ignorance and apathy. It made his heart ache to think on it.

He was aided into the carriage by both Lestrade and Dr. Watson, the latter heaving himself in last, his rotund bulk sinking into the seat across from them once again. Lestrade was busy examining the red silk kimono which Mycroft already knew was the one he owned, for it brought with it such tender memories of those rare nights it came out that he could identify every stitch. The lotus flowers delicately woven into its shoulders that dripped down in pink petals down the rectangular sleeves nearly overlapped each other, and there was a small fray in the spot at the back of the neck, wayward red silk threads spilling like tiny feathers.

Heedless of the scandal associated with it, Lestrade undid the belt holding the kimono together and carefully went over it. He frowned over a small smudge of black on the hem of the garment, no doubt a leftover from when Irene Adler had thrown the bottle of lit paraffin into Sherlock's window, a flicker of soot staining the delicate fabric.

"How on earth did she get it?" Mycroft asked aloud.

Lestrade chuckled. "We will have the answer to that soon enough, dear Mycroft. Dr. Watson, will you stay on for a while tonight at Baker Street? Sherlock will be housed in his usual room, but there is a settee by the window you can sleep on. It's not especially comfortable, that I can attest to, but I will require your assistance while I ruminate over the matter of Mr. Pottsdam, his upcoming trial and his relationship with Irene Adler."

"If it would suit you I have no quibble. Though I do hope Mrs. Hudson has something more for a late repast than cold mutton."

"I'm sure we will find ample sustenance in the pantry," Lestrade said, his fingers tracing the outline of the lotus flowers that spilled large across the back of the kimono. Mycroft hung his head and blushed, his attention forcibly riveted to the scene of the Thames at night as they passed it, a swath of glittering black. Old Betty's hooves clicked on the stones like an expertly wound clock. He could recognize the outline of Regent's Park just ahead past the next street. They would be back at Baker Street soon.

But as the carriage wound its way up past Oxford and towards Regent's Park to settle along the main drag that led to 221B, it was clear that their home was not to have peace. Constable Harding stood in front of the door, with the Chief and Frankie Callais behind him. He was still in costume, dressed in his beggar's clothes, and if it wasn't for the two bobbies flanking him in deference one could easily mistake him for a vagrant. Mrs. Hudson stood resolute at the front door, refusing the Chief admittance. She shook her head at their arrival and cursed under her breath, saddened they had come home instead of relieved. Mycroft wondered with a sinking heart if their rooms had already been inspected and the obvious conclusions made.

He closed his eyes and braced himself for the end of all that was good, for he knew where this was to lead. The Gazette would be wild with his arrest for not only the surmised attempted murder of his brother but also for the crime of loving a man. The fact that Lestrade was also pulled into this trial by rumour shook him to his core, and he trembled as he got out of the carriage, his head downcast as he caught Constable Harding's gaze which was at turns confused and apologetic. Worst of all, he would not be able to say goodbye to his child, for how else could one describe Young Jack, whose life he favoured most of all.

"Mr. Holmes," Constable Harding said, nervous in the presence of Lestrade who stood behind Mycroft. Lestrade gave no hint of worry, and was instead cheerfully rolling back and forth on the balls of his feet, an action that put Harding at further unease. "I'm afraid I'm here to arrest you for the attempted murder of your brother, Sherlock Holmes."

"Ha!"

The Chief regarded Lestrade with shock at this, while Harding stopped mid-sentence, casting his superior looks which were begging for an explanation. Dr. Watson was also confused by Lestrade's lack of concern, and Mrs. Hudson, well, she was just about ready to chop everyone's head off and call it a day.

"This really is one of the jolliest evenings I've enjoyed in quite some time." Lestrade grinned at the Chief and Frankie Callais, the kimono still draped over his arm in blatant incrimination. He gestured to the front door. "Shall we go in? This is the sort of conversation that requires good brandy and a warm fire. Mrs. Hudson, if you could be so kind as to bring up some tea to our guests, we'll be gathering in the sitting room."

"Cancel that!" the Chief boomed and Mrs. Hudson glared at him, daring him to suggest to her she do anything she didn't wish to do. He backed down immediately and instead pushed Constable Harding forward. "We are arresting Mycroft Holmes, Lestrade, and while I am led to understand your...association...with him is considerably more than nursemaid, I'll be addressing that perversion later."

But Lestrade openly chuckled at this, and bid Constable Harding to not only enter 221B but to bring his arresting entourage with him. "Don't be ridiculous, Chief, I'm saving you time and the last dregs of your reputation. Mycroft is not being arrested because he is clearly innocent of the crime. Behold!" He held out the kimono with an outstretched arm. "The murderer's greatest cloak, a garment worn by the samurai, a braver, more reckless group of assassins you will ever meet in all of history. This particular one belonged to a fallen friend of mine, willed to me for the safekeeping his powerful legacy. It is not a common garment and I am pleased to have it back."

"Of course you have it!" the Chief shouted at him. "It belongs to the near murderer at your side!"

"Actually, it belonged to a tiny girl who was too young to be working the Alma. I mean, truly, she's ten years old if a day. Biggest set of green eyes you could ever see. She was kind enough to return it to me. Can't imagine what she'd be doing with it, dwarfed in all that silk, wearing pink rouge. What do you think, Chief? After all, you were there this morning, you saw her yourself."

The Chief's red choler instantly paled at this and he looked from Lestrade to Frankie Callais, who had now quickly decided this tidbit of salacious gossip was far superior to the tip he'd been given and he was now writing like mad. "You were just at the Alma?"

"Following a lead, and a good thing too, because yes, I do think the attempted murderer wore this kimono but there is no way it was Mycroft. I mean, running from the scene, really, look at the man, he looks about to drop dead on his feet this second. As for perversions, Chief, I'm not sure what you're suggesting." Frankie Callais muttered something only Lestrade could hear and the inspector grinned in reply. "Ah, Mr. Callais, yes, to answer your question, the girl's name is Celia. C-e-l-i-a. It would be good of you to talk to her, I know her predicament is well in line with your editor, Mr. Stead's valiant attempts to reform the Age of Consent."

"Indeed it is," Frankie Callais said, pocketing his notebook. "Thank you, gentlemen."

He made a motion to slink off, but Lestrade was not going to let him escape so easily. He grabbed the reporter's elbow and led him back into the small group gathered in front of 221B. "I have to wonder, however, where you are getting your strange ideas from. I mean, believing Mr. Holmes and I are inverts! I've read your recent articles and I can't imagine where you got that sort of conclusion when, if anything, Mr. Holmes is a red blooded enough man in his imagination to write a naughty story that's been the talk of church pulpits for the past week."

"It came from an outside source," Frankie Callais openly admitted. "An associate of Mr. Holmes."

"Really?" Lestrade was still grinning. "Which one?"

Frankie Callais pushed his pinc nez up his nose, his hands seeking out his pencil and notepad though he clearly had no interest in using either. A nervous habit, Mycroft observed. "I can't rightly say."

"Newspapermen. They are as steady as the confessional. I suppose there is some nobility in protecting your sources. However, I think I can hazard a guess for I'm quite good at this sort of thing, you know, reading people and all, and I can tell just by your reaction if I have described him properly."

"Really?" Frankie Callais raised a brow.

"Ah, yes, Judge Quibly! Of course it was!"

Frankie Callais' eyes widened and his pinc nez fell from his nose. His hawk's hands caught them before they hit the ground. He was an underfed, clucking sort of man, Mycroft observed. He had all the charm of a moulting chicken.

"Goodness me, how did you know!"

Lestrade sighed, suddenly tired of the game. "Dunno. Bloody gypsy magic, I guess."

"Now you best stand down, Lestrade, I ain't done with this yet!" The Chief grabbed Lestrade by the shoulder and roughly turned him around, his red hair and busy eyebrows like scorched brush upon his equally red face. "He can't run, it's true, but he was gone from The Granger Theatre for most of the performance and no one can account for his whereabouts! Even a brisk walk could have got the job done! And the evidence is right there in your hand that this was readily available to him!"

"Chief, you are asking for stretches of frantic geography that even a healthy man would find difficult to navigate. For one, the kimono was not in Mycroft's possession when we arrived at the theatre, and thus he would have had to go back to Baker Street to get it. He then went to Holloway, broke a window in a rather halfhearted attempt at vandalism rather than outright murder and then went all the way to the East End to the Alma to gift the kimono to a working girl. If you can't understand the ridiculousness of this story, I fear for your discernment. Why would he wear the kimono at all? Is lit paraffin only deadly when one is wearing silk?"

"It was obviously a disguise," the Chief said.

"A bad one, seeing as how he'd already described it in his story. And speaking of stories..." Lestrade brought Frankie Callais back into the fray, the reporter now scribbling again into his battered notebook, his hands near black from pencil lead. "I'm afraid that's all you've been hearing since this morning, Mr. Callais. I know your editor is not fond of fiction, and you've been hearing a whole tome of it. Judge Quibly frequents The Alma Pub, as well as the one attached to The Diogenes, where he had made bets on Mr. Holmes's ill health and subsequent survival in a rather cruel game called the Mortality Race. He put a considerable sum on Mycroft's imminent demise which is now not a threat since his health has, indeed, slightly improved. He thus has quite a motive to sully his Honour, Mr. Holmes's reputation, and I imagine it was in order to make sure his fragile health was spurred into a negative spiral. A very strange method of attempted murder, but as Judge Quibly is familiar with Mr. Holmes's ailment he is well aware that the stress could cause a relapse in his current recovery. I must say, his attempt to attack Mr. Holmes's proclivities is quite laughable! Just ask Marlene and Charlotte at the Alma!"

Lestrade bit the inside of his cheek and gave Callais a grimace as though he'd said too much. He gave Mycroft an exaggerated shrug.

"Mycroft Holmes was at the Alma?" the Chief interjected and Lestrade waved his question off, keeping his focus on the scribbling Mr. Callais instead.

"Look, this can't get into the Gazette, in any form, you must understand...Mr. Holmes is, well, he's *popular* with those two ladies, you see, and they are quite happy with his...Well, his *methods*." He bent low to Frankie Callais' ear, bringing him into confidence. "The thing is, I'm actually rather shocked by his habits, I mean that story of his only offers the barest highlights of what I've heard. He's a gentleman enough about it, and the ladies are very happily compensated and sing his praises, only...I haven't heard the same about Judge Quibly. I'm afraid you've been taken for a ride all over London for naught but the stories of a man of base habits and even less moral stature than a sickly man on his deathbed who will be dearly missed by his two exclusive feminine admirers."

He straightened up and whipped around, near knocking down the Chief who had not hidden the fact he was eavesdropping on the exchange. "As for where Mr. Holmes was for the duration of the play, why don't you ask those two?" He pointed at the bobbies flanking either side of Constable Harding, the young men visibly flinching at the accusation. "Quibly knows Mr. Holmes has trouble breathing in the dusty air of a place like The Granger Theatre. It's a crumbling moss strewn mess. He knew Mr. Holmes would need to step out for some fresh air, and he got these two to make sure he was locked out. They know damned well that Mr. Holmes was knocking on doors, trying to gain access back in, and these two sentries denied him."

The Chief's little eyes widened beneath his bushy red brows at this, and he railed on the two bobbies who were already backing away, ready to bolt. "You sons of whores!" the Chief shouted at them. "Is this true?"

"Sir, it was on orders from Judge Quibly," the bobbie on Harding's left stammered. "H-He said it was part of an investigation, and we were to keep mum no matter what happened. Sir, he said it was on your orders and..."

"And you didn't think to clear them with me?" The Chief rolled like a ball of thunderous fire towards them, his grimace the face of a lion. The bobbies visibly shook when he stood near and Harding wisely got out of his position between them, seeking out the safety of Mrs. Hudson's stoic presence at the door. "Our department is already wracked with scandal and we're constantly monitored for reform and here you two are, ruining those efforts thanks to your stupidity! Are we to go back to those awful days and start calling ourselves the bloody Bow Street Runners again? Dear God, don't blink at me like that, like I'd get better reasoning from a mannequin, you're both so dim you don't even realize that you've committed a crime!"

The other bobbie stammered in protest. "Sir...Sir...We just did what we were told."

"By a bloody drunken bastard who is NOT your superior! Your orders come from ME, from the Detective Department, no one else! The assize court has no right to supercede my authority and interfere in our investigations or to influence them! A crime is to be reported to you, you morons, not created by you! That's how the bloody law works, you stupid fools!" The Chief ran his palm over his red hot face and growled furiously into it. He turned towards Mycroft with a resigned fury that would run through him for the rest of the week. "I apologize, Mr. Holmes. Clearly, I need to have a few words with my men about the chain of command. Again. I am sorry for the attempt to sully your good name, it was certainly not personal on my part. That jackass, Quibly, making me look a bloody fool! I'm charging him with slander, that'll shut his big, fat, loud mouth up! Oi! Speccy! Write that in your bloody paper!"

"Can I quote you?" Frankie Callais blithely asked as he broke free from the group, his pinc nez now balanced on his nose as he added the final touches to his notes.

"Put it in bloody gold leaf for all I care, that bastard's paying for this!"

It was a relief to see that the Chief wished to make a quick exit, and he refused to let Constable Harding lurk longer to discuss with Lestrade a fascinating case of arsenic poisoning he and Ziegler had investigated that afternoon in St. Bart's morgue. "Over a hundred grains of the poison in his stomach, he must have gone near instant," he was saying as he was shoved into the police cab. "Never seen the like of it, a bit overkill if you ask me, but Dr. Ziegler believes the murderer was taking into account the victim's large size and adjusted accordingly. Certainly a bit of knowledge about poisons needed there!"

"Shut your gob, Harding!" the Chief snapped. "One more word from any of you dolts and you'll be wishing for a whole vat of poison to drown yourselves in!"

Baker Street descended into a protracted calm, the silence strange and unexpected. The lateness of the hour and the frantic activity that had preceded it suddenly hit Mycroft and he was unsteady on his feet as he silently approached the front door to his home. He had narrowly escaped losing it, and his fingers outlined the numbers 221B with a reverence afforded statues of saints.

The door opened before Mycroft could turn the handle and Young Jack stood in its frame, his shoulder leaning against it to keep him upright. A single crutch was held carelessly at his side. He was in his striped pyjamas, and his eyes were bleary with sleep. He blinked up at Mycroft with freckled confusion. "Heard a lot of shouting. Why is everyone just standing out here? Did someone die?"

Mycroft caressed his messy mop of hair and then clutched him close, the crutch clattering to the floor of the front foyer. How easily that could have proved true, for to be denied this, to be denied his child, his family, his life--It would have killed him outright. Quibly truly had enacted attempted murder. He felt Jack squirm in his grip, the lad's voice muffled against his stomach. "Miffer Holmthes, you're holding me too tight."

"Not tight enough, apparently," Mycroft said, his throat choked with emotion.

He released Jack enough to let the squished child breathe. Lestrade and Dr. Watson stepped in and past him, with Mrs. Hudson drawing up well behind them all. She closed and bolted the door behind her, her large, strong hands wrung in her apron as she headed for the kitchen off to the right of the foyer. "I'll put on some tea and bring it right up. I'll make your special brew, Mr. Holmes, you've got one hell of a rattle going on and mind your steps I've just waxed those stairs today."

"Actually, Mrs. Hudson, we'll take tea in the kitchen if you don't mind. Dr. Watson, do you have any objections?"

"Certainly not," Dr. Watson said, smiling. "One can hope for a little late night nibble if it's readily available. Best to make some for yet one more, Mrs. Hudson, I've sent Mr. Pinter back to Holloway to pick up Sherlock and bring him back here. Been a bit of a shake up at the Sanatorium, and I want to keep a more careful eye on him lest he get it into his head that monsters are all about trying to rip him apart."

Mycroft leaned on his cane and made the short distance to the kitchen with Jack hobbling alongside him with his crutch. They were a pair of cripples, it seemed. He couldn't stop himself from placing a hand on the back of the boy's neck, still unbelieving that he was still here at Baker Street, the safety of his family assured. Sherlock's usual paranoia was more justified than not, and he was still in awe of how Lestrade had wrenched them from the rabid dog jaws of sloppy journalism.

The red kimono was still in Lestrade's grip as he marched into the kitchen, walking past the little table that they often gathered around for meals and heading instead for the pantry at the back, and then to the coal chute just off to the side of it. He turned on the overhead gaslight, flooding the small room into sepia shadows. Mrs. Hudson frowned at the sounds of cans and boxes being shoved aside, the kettle ignored as she stormed into the pantry. In minutes, Lestrade had completely destroyed her careful arrangement of pickles and preserves, the flour bin shoved into the centre of the room, alongside a burlap bag of expensive, imported rice that mice had bitten into on the bottom right hand corner. Lestrade was on his hands and knees, inspecting the hole in the burlap with strange glee. The red kimono had been tossed onto a collection of gherkins on the second shelf, the pattern of lotus leaves on its sleeve draping over jars of red beets on the shelf below it.

"What in the devil are you doing?" Mrs. Hudson exclaimed. Her brows shot up in alarm as she watched him crawl along the floor, shoving empty preserve bottles to one side as he poked his nails into the seam between the wall and floor, dirt collecting on the knees of Lestrade's good trousers. Mrs. Hudson turned to Mycroft with punctuated alarm. "Has he finally gone mad? What was all that business on our front step with the Chief and them trying to arrest you for attempted murder? Has the entire world lost its logical shape?"

A cry of triumph erupted through the pantry, where a little crowd comprised of Mycroft, Jack, Mrs. Hudson and Dr. Watson all stood and witnessed what was, to them, the final break in Lestrade's reason. Dr. Watson cleared his throat and addressed Mycroft directly. "It seems our Inspector has had a bit of a nervous shock thanks to this evening and it may be well to trade him out with Sherlock for the night. A few nights in Holloway could works wonders for his nerves, of this I'm certain."

But the gentle nudge against Lestrade's sanity was quickly quashed when, with a shove from the inspector's strong shoulder, the wall beside the coal shute gave way. Lestrade pushed it in and then to one side, revealing what was a secreted door that led into a narrow tunnel that had been carved into the earth.

Mrs. Hudson placed her hand to her mouth in horror. "What sort of rat built a thing like *that*!"

"A smuggler from days of old, probably late eighteenth century in origin. This pantry is an extension onto the original building and whoever built it had covered up this old tunnel as it no longer served a purpose. You'd be shocked how many such veins run through the arteries of London, secreted little tributaries created by canals and royal folk looking for quick getaways or passages to connecting structures that are long gone." He stood up and patted the dust from his knees before snatching up the kimono and showing them all the small black smudge on its hem. "The evidence is plain. Here is a mark of coal dust on the hem, and the only way this got here was if someone stole this from our bedroom and used this tunnel for their thievery. We do have a spy, Mycroft, but it is not one among our little group. Irene Adler is an expert on these subterranean getaways, for the only other city with more such burrowing is Paris."

"She's been here!"

"Yes, The Woman has been here, and we have lived to tell about it. In truth, I've been suspecting she moves in this way for some time--Ever since you believed you saw her that afternoon in Holloway Sanatorium, in fact, where she arrived there before us after we left the Alma. She shed her feral ruse rather quickly, and I suspect she may have cleaned herself up in the Holloway laundry before making her appearance. An investigation into that area of the building should reveal a near direct route to the Alma. Rumours, mostly, claim it was built over a series of sixteenth century canals. Land surveys should answer that question."

"Irene Adler has been in our home!"

"Yes, Mycroft, I have already established this, I don't know why you have to keep repeating that fact. Though I am curious at her purpose."

"I think it should be obvious!" Mycroft exclaimed. "She wished to assassinate me as Pottsdam had hired her to do!"

"Unlikely, since you gave her a worthy counter offer. Irene Adler is a shrewd businesswoman above all else and she would not go back on her word. No, I believe she was employed by someone who has not yet paid her and thus she does not have faith in gaining recompense, hence her reluctance to follow through with her mission." Lestrade, the kimono still in his grip, bid them all to leave the pantry, with Mrs. Hudson still tutting over the mess he left behind in it. She marched to the stove and snatched up the kettle and lit a fire beneath it with agitated impatience while the rest of the gathering sat at the tiny table, Jack keeping close to Mycroft and sitting rigid in his seat like a sentry watching over his troops.

"Gregory, please, no more of this, will you just tell us all what's going on?" Mycroft implored him.

"I don't know what it is you don't understand," Lestrade replied, shrugging. "Quibly hired The Woman to assassinate you and she decided to hand you a warning instead."

"Quibly!" Mycroft exclaimed.

"Yes, that oaf whose gambling has not at all paid off, all thanks to some research into the chemical ephedrine and my dear friend Nagai Nagayoshi. You are alive and well, Mycroft. Surely you understand that some people are very put out by this."

"But why would she attack Sherlock?" Mycroft pleaded. "Gregory, what is this madness?"

"Sherlock knows what she looks like, in his metaphoric way, and she knew you would deduce it was her. No mind is better attuned to cause and effect than the sharp understanding of Irene Adler. She is a genius of ferreting out repercussions. I dare say, I'm rather glad of this development." The teapot and its corresponding teacups were roughly clanged onto a tray and brought with fierce agitation to the table by a very frazzled Mrs. Hudson.

"Are there any biscuits?" Dr. Watson asked her, and from the stone reaction she gave him it was clear if he opened his mouth and spoke one more word there most definitely would be murder that night.

"There is nothing at all to be glad about here, Inspector Gregory Lestrade!" she shouted. She waved a long, accusing finger in his face. "I heard what happened at Holloway! Sherlock could have been terribly injured!"

"And he wasn't," Lestrade said, picking up a teacup and delicately pouring himself a steaming cup of amber brew. "Which is proof in and of itself that The Woman, the greatest hired killer the world has ever known, is on our side."

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter twelve

Sherlock's arrival was met with a raised brow by Mrs. Hudson, who gave him a stern once over as she took in his pyjamas and burgundy dressing gown. His feet were clad in the felted wool slippers she had made for Mycroft, an added annoyance but one that she wasn't about to quibble at the moment. Her expression softened at how tired Sherlock looked, his tall shoulders stooped and his usually darting, frantic limbs hanging from him as though it were an effort to drag them with him. She placed an arm around Sherlock's shoulders and bid him inside, giving Mr. Pinter a good-night and a thank you for all of his trouble.

"Ain't never had a ride as quiet as this one with him tonight," Mr. Pinter said. He watched Sherlock's shamble into 221B with a sense of extended sympathy. "This night wore him right out, the nurses said they didn't even have to give him a drop of the laudanum. I doubt he'll be giving you trouble tonight."

"Mind your tongue, Mr. Pinter, there's no reason to tempt Fate. You know as well as I how a good rest can bring him back to his clock spring self and he'll be slamming doors and marching around Baker Street shouting at the street merchants before I dare to get breakfast ready. I'll have to keep him busy tomorrow morning, I've no idea when Dr. Watson is taking him back to Holloway. Sherlock is actually quite helpful in the kitchen, I'll get him to make scones."

Mr. Pinter was delighted at this. "Please do, Mrs. Hudson! He may be a nutter, but there's no question he's a master of that biscuit! Take it from me, who has taken his repast from here to Bath and back, there's no better baker of scones in London than Sherlock Holmes. Oh, my mouth is watering just thinking on it! Tell him to make that special buckwheat and corn one, what Betty likes."

The carriage horse whinnied at mention of her name and at this Mr. Pinter bid Mrs. Hudson goodnight once again and then dipped into the evening, his hand patting the flank of his shining black mare with affection. Sherlock did not follow Mrs. Hudson into the kitchen, but instead began his ascent up the stairs, presumably to his former room. Mycroft, himself tired and needing the aid of his cane, left the animated talk in the kitchen to watch him. With a resigned shrug he admitted defeat for he was also exhausted and the hour was late and despite Gregory's energized conversation with a nodding off Dr. Watson about Irene Adler's most notorious murders, he longed for rest himself. He was surprised by Jack, who scurried as best as he was able and followed alongside him, his crutch held careless in his grip as he leaned on Mycroft. The two of them were tired cripples making a grand struggle to get up the stairs together. But the weight was evenly distributed, and where Mycroft clutched the banister, Jack leaned heavily on his good leg, and the journey to their upstairs rooms was not impossible.

"Dr. Watson will be spending the night with us, Jack, as will Sherlock, who will be staying in his usual room. The armchair by the fire is comfortable and will make a suitable bed for you as you can prop up your legs on the stool. Just bring it flush to the chair and it will make a ready mattress, though I fear it may be a little short. The second chair can be placed against the stool in the middle, that should make it a proper bed."

Sherlock whirled around at this, glaring at his brother as though he'd just told Jack he was to sleep in a barn. "You rotten, heartless cur! You monster! You vile fiend!"

Mycroft reeled as though he'd been struck. "I've done nothing to offend you, Sherlock."

"You have! You monstrous villain! Monster!"

Mycroft sighed, bereft of the energy needed to deal with his brother's histrionics. "Sherlock, I don't understand, what is the problem?"

Sherlock's usually sharply parted hair was softened into thin, dark wisps, his eyes wide and his hooked hawk's expression, mirrored in kind on Mycroft, pierced his brother with an ire that bordered on frightening. "It's a cruel man who puts a broken child near a fire to roast! You can't do that, Mycroft, cooking a child with a whore's lamp looking on, all glitter and glass shining over his reddened flesh! Monster!"

Mycroft entered the sitting room with a tired sigh, and sank into the mentioned winged chair before the fire with a feeling of utter resignation. Jack sat in the chair across from him, his now dog eared copy of The Moonstone already opened in his small lap. "Sherlock, I am not enacting cruelty, I am merely finding space for everyone to sleep. Jack is small, he can fit between these chairs and the stool and have a comfortable bed as a result. You can sleep in your room..."

"That's not my room!"

Mycroft was instantly taken aback. Jack raised a brow and turned in his seat giving the younger Holmes a careful study and earning a small curl of Sherlock's lip in reply. "It's not my room," Sherlock said to the boy, with far less venom this time. "It belongs to you. You're a part of this family, you live here, it's only right that you have a space that is your own. I have my own room, one I'm allowed to be free in, and there's no reason why you shouldn't be free as well. You can do what you want in your room, you can stare out your window and watch for the monsters that creep along the ground and up the bricks of the building and you can make sure they can't get in by nailing the windows shut, and you can be safe there, you don't have to have to worry about being torn apart by their glowing talons and teeth, you don't have to worry about a thing. And that's good and right, I think. You have a home, and I have a home, and we are both very safe in both of them, as proven tonight, for the phosphorous dog tried and couldn't get me." Sherlock tied his dressing gown closer around himself, his arms crossed over his chest in too tight a self embrace. "So you see, even when they try, the monsters can't get you when you are in a place fortified by the attentiveness of those who care for you. My brother has a lot of experience raising difficult people, like me, but you aren't half as troublesome and as a son I think you are quite adequate. I see it, you know, how you ensure you are beside my brother when he's feeling ill. His rattle isn't so bad these days, but his soul has some scars on it that pinch with unexpected ferocity and I'm very glad, Jack, that you are here to stand by his side and fight those Things that leave their claw marks on him. Who needs an army of rag doll Lestrades when there is worthy warrior already on the case? So you must keep your room, Jack. For a warrior like you needs to keep his skills sharp and the best way to do that is in a secure place of solitude."

Mycroft was rendered speechless by Sherlock's observation, which was far more poignant than he'd ever expected his delusional brother to ever be capable of. He watched in silence as his brother prepared the settee by the window, pilfering a pillow from a nearby pink velvet chair and settling his lanky frame onto the long, narrow confines of his makeshift bed. By the time Mycroft regained his full composure the sitting room was reduced to low firelight and the glow of the boudoir lamp, with Sherlock's gentle snores invading the shadowed space.

Sherlock recognized Jack as family. This was no small feat for the man, for his mentally incapacitated brother was always fiercely attuned to his own selfish needs, never giving and always mired in his confused delusions that left every other soul out of his consciousness. Or so Mycroft had assumed, and it was a difficult understanding to have that his brother's layers of insight were not eradicated but mostly invisible, the delusions a thick mask that hid Sherlock's genuine love for his brother and those whom he considered his family.

A handkerchief was pressed into his palm, and Mycroft looked up to see that Jack had leaned over and placed the soft cloth there, his small smile tearing into Mycroft's heart anew. "Please don't cry, Mr. Holmes," Jack implored him. "Whatever I've done wrong, I didn't mean nothing by it. I can insist he take my room, seeing as how it's upsetting you this much."

Mycroft quickly wiped the tears that stained his pale cheeks and clasped Young Jack's hand in his. "You will do nothing of the sort. I am not upset, Jack, I am actually overcome with happiness, an unpredictable emotion that sometimes results in tears. Sherlock is right, that is your room from this moment on and no one is to take it from you. For though there is no paper or spot of blood to prove it, you are my child, Jack, you are a Holmes and..." Mycroft closed his eyes and braced himself. "And from this moment you will forever bear my name. Is that understood?"

Jack squished his face in the bright light of the gas lamp, his freckles collected dark beneath his blushing cheeks. "I...I guess so. Only...Well, the thing is..."

Mycroft opened his eyes and frowned at the perturbed expression marring Jack's innocent face. "What is it, Jack?"

Jack chewed his bottom lip, clearly reluctant to speak. He sat back in his chair and hung his head, his uninjured leg swinging back and forth beneath it. "The thing, Mr. Holmes, Mr. Lestrade had the same conversation with me not long after I were injured and he said I ought to take *his* name, seeing as how I'm the closest thing to an heir he'll ever have. He didn't get quite as bleary eyed about it as you did, but he were right emotional, like you are right now with all that happiness stuff, and I ended up agreeing that I'd do it, I'd take his name and he got right quiet after that, and then my patted my shoulder and said, in a real weird voice like he'd been swallowing pebbles, 'Thank you, son.' And oh, Mr. Holmes, I don't mean to be making you cry again! I'm thinking I can make it right for both of you on a cause of me only having ever had the one name, being solely Jack, mebbie I can do that thing like posh blokes do and have more than just two names. I mean, some of them royal sorts get right greedy and have near a dozen along with numbers after and Sirs before 'em, and I don't need nothing like that. But I'm thinking I could be Jack Lestrade Holmes, seeing as how the Inspector asked me first and then you after, so it goes in sequence, like. Have I upset you again? Mr. Holmes, please don't choke like that, it's a small fix, really, I can rearrange it, if that's better. I can make it Jack Holmes Lestrade."

Mycroft shook his head, the handkerchief now near soaked and words impossibly lodged in deep constriction within his throat. He forced air into his lungs and closed his eyes, equilibrium brought into focus as his shaky breaths rode over top of his pulsing blood, which was swirling in a haphazard glee within the quick beats of his heart. He swallowed and bit down on a sob before at last pocketing the handkerchief . He reached out for the confused, freckled boy who put aside The Moonstone, which was heavily pockmarked with slivers of scrap paper, bookmarks showing his keen study. Mycroft held Jack in a tight embrace, and moved over to one side, to allow the lad to share the winged chair with him. Jack rested his tousled red head on Mycroft's shoulder, the judge's arm draped around him, protective. Jack balanced his still healing leg on the stool they shared between the winged chairs, and Mycroft edged it closer to them so the child didn't have to reach too far for comfort.

"I should think that Jack Lestrade Holmes is more than acceptable," Mycroft stated, and fought to keep emotion from choking his words once again.

Lestrade and Dr. Watson found them in this pose when they finally made their way up into the sitting room, theories still threaded in the air between them. The two men were animated, eager to pounce on the decanter of brandy near the breakfast table and bring strong conversation into the mix before the lazy, sleepy fire that shrouded the room in a whispering hush. Mycroft gave a frowning nod to the snoring Sherlock on the settee, forcing the men to lower their tones. Jack was equally sleepy in his embrace, the boy's faint lashes fluttering shut no matter how hard he fought to keep his eyes open.

Lestrade and Dr. Watson flanked the dwindling fire, amber hued brandy swirling in their glasses. "I'm just trying to figure how Pottsdam's timeline is fitting into all of this." Lestrade took a large gulp of brandy, with Dr. Watson eagerly following suit. "That he has to be present for the trial is clear, he is a main witness, but he has enough worldwide connections to have made his escape before now. We would never find him in Africa, and he has no qualms with settling into the jungles of the Congo if his students are to be believed. It makes little sense for him to remain here in London, waiting to watch the innocent husband he has framed hang. In truth, nothing this man has done makes sense, and I find I am constantly coming back in my mind to his murder of McGonogall and all the subterfuge this involved. Was it really a distraction, as we'd thought? First the pathetic poetess with molten lead in her ear and then the foul limerick maker McGonogall. I can't see it. The way to the clarity between the two murders is cloudy, misted over with Pottsdam's vanity and constant intrusion upon them." Lestrade frowned over his brandy glass, his mood intense as he hugged the mantel. He cast a glance towards Mycroft and Jack, huddled together in the chair they shared, and his consternation deepened.

"For God's sake, Mycroft, what are you blubbering about now?"

Mycroft felt an inward sneer at Lestrade's typical ignorance when it came to the human heart.

"I'm not crying," Mycroft shot back.

"Not now, but you most certainly were, and in front of the boy, no less!" He held his brandy glass aloft, and Mycroft wondered if he was experiencing the brash aftereffects of that spirit. He wasn't partial to Lestrade when he was drunk and from the way he swayed in front of the fireplace it was clear he had been drinking more than tea in the kitchen for the past hour and a half. Dr. Watson was also looking particularly ruddy, making Mycroft seethe at the doctor's lack of better judgement. They had been celebrating while Mycroft continued to brood.

"Really, Mycroft, you'd think I was some sort of demonic torment the way you go on, all broken hearted and miserable and as fragile as one of those glass pearls on that ugly lamp. The threat has passed us, we are still a unit and are stronger than ever and no one dare make such a move against us in future. You are alive and well, and have somehow through your own intervention managed to gain the favour of one of the most notorious killers in all of Europe. Irene Adler does not suffer fools, she eliminates them. Thus, I don't imagine you let those foppish tears fall with *her* so I don't appreciate you throwing their nasty wet judgement at *me*!"

"I am doing no such thing!" Mycroft exclaimed. Jack stirred at his side, his sleep disturbed and Mycroft placed a protective arm around the boy's shoulders. "I am not miserable, Gregory!"

"On the contrary, you are upset with me."

"I am not upset!" exclaimed Mycroft, who was getting very much upset. The nerve of this man, railing at him for feeling shattered! "We were faced with the possible loss of our family, Gregory, is it really so awful for me to be overcome not with celebration but fainting relief that it has remained whole?"

Dr. Watson coughed, kindly transferring all ire onto his meddlesome self, which Mycroft wished would accept a cot to rest on, one procured by Mrs. Hudson and placed in the centre of the kitchen floor where he would prove unobtrusive on their small space. Dr. Watson had a habit of filling up a room, no matter its vast grandeur.

Dr. Watson cleared his throat again. "As an expert in the role of emotion I can concur with Mr. Holmes that its repression creates far more damage than its expulsion. Yes, emotionality is more the realm of women than men, but that is not to say it doesn't have its place within both sexes. Tears are not the only expression of feeling, Inspector Lestrade. Your doggedness and single minded pursuit of a problem can be considered a form of emotionality within you yourself, my good Inspector, for you take these cases very personally, to the point of detriment. Any doctor can see the signs of fatigue on your person, the dark circles beneath your eyes and the sallow complexion of the exhausted. You have taken to drink to settle your tightly wound nerves, but they are as taut as ever, ready to snap they are pulled so tight. Yet you continue to grin and push your physical limits until you near drop, and somehow do not equate this with an outburst of feeling. Do not judge your companion so harshly, Gregory, for he has found a way to ease his discomfort, guiding the way to rest and the reconstitution of the strength of his body and mind." Dr. Watson took a sip of his brandy and then balanced the base of his glass on his rotund stomach. "While you, unfortunately, have not."

Mycroft ruminated on Dr. Watson's diagnosis and felt a pang of guilt over having not recognized his inspector's distress himself. For it was true, Lestrade had been working long hours, distracted from all else save the case, his brilliant mind hyper focused on its resolution. He hadn't been eating regularly, nor sleeping well, and his work was becoming far more complex as each day passed, with a single killer taking on the skills of yet another far more experienced mentor, muddying motivation and leaving Lestrade's efforts to capture them both frustrated. Add to this their little tiff, and it was small wonder his dear Gregory was lashing out at every tiny pressure added to the weight he already had to bear.

"They were writing love poetry, that's what I think. Seems to me, that lady he done in and that other poet both couldn't string a good couple of words to make a sentence. Maybe they met up and made awful poetry together. Or maybe she was good at it and he weren't, and no man likes being one upped by a girl. I sees it all the time outside that window above Mr. Sherlock, where I looks out and watches what men and women do in front of that jeweller's shop. Girls really know how to unbalance a man." Jack loudly yawned, unaware of the sudden silence his ideas had formed within the sitting room, the white coals in the fire crackling the last of their heat. "I'm right knackered, Mr. Holmes. I needs to untuck me leg if you don't mind..."

Lestrade grinned, the shadows in the room making him appear more maniacal than inspired. "Of course! My boy, my lad, you are a genius!" He snapped Jack up into his arms from where he'd been tucked beside Mycroft, carrying the boy to his room and the comfort of his own bed. Jack protested this, insisting he had at least one good leg to walk on and could use his crutch, he weren't no invalid. Lestrade gave him a wet kiss on his freckled forehead and told him he needn't worry for there were sacks of potatoes he'd lifted in his time that were three times the size of his little burden. "I remember when you first came to us, you were so small and starved, no muscle or fat to shape you, looking more infant than child. How you've changed over the years! You're ten now, and it'll be less than a year and you'll have grown again, where you'll stop being a lad and be on your way to becoming a young man. So let me have my indulgence and let me remember that little waif on our doorstep who we were so fortunate to usher in! You've cracked the case, my boy! Yes, laugh, you little freckle faced Buddha!"

Through his opened bedroom door, Mycroft listened as Lestrade tucked Jack in for the night. Calling it night was a misnomer as the hour was late enough to warrant an early morning. Three a.m. crept closer to four, and Dr. Watson himself was huffing in his tiredness. He contented himself in the winged chair that Jack had left empty and before Mycroft could offer him a more comfortable spot which Sherlock currently occupied, the good doctor was snoring loudly, fast asleep, the tumbler of brandy loosened from his grip and left to roll, empty, beneath the winged chair.

"A fortuitous night!" Lestrade harshly whispered into Mycroft's ear as they retreated into their bedroom, being careful to close the door on their conversation behind him. Lestrade still wore his manic grin, his energy roused thanks to Jack's perception. "Of course they were lovers! How did I not see that possibility? A triad, one with Pottsdam at the furthest point! McGonogall was a womanizer of sorts, he pilfered female talent, it only goes without saying he'd use one for writing his poetry too. Only, he lost that particular hire early on, for he though he was talentless himself, McGonogall understood where to find it in abundance cheap. He flirted with your murdered gentlewoman for her words and an act of jealousy killed both he and her! How had I not seen it! It is an old and boring story, Mycroft! A fatal love triangle! How banal!"

Mycroft, his heart hammering with renewed excitement, did not hesitate to clutch Lestrade's cheek in his palms and roughly pull the inspector into a passionate embrace of lips and tongue that had the larger man melting against him. Mixed emotions battled within Mycroft, for he was still riding on the residual wave of panic that had nearly destroyed them all and he was determined to pull Lestrade into its spiralling sphere.

There was question in Lestrade's large eyes when Mycroft pulled away, breathless, his mouth still eager to taste the shock lingering on Lestrade's tongue. "Mycroft?"

"I am afflicted, Gregory."

Lestrade placed the back of his hand on Mycroft's forehead, his knuckles cool and pleasant. "You have a fever."

"I most certainly do."

He kissed Lestrade again with even more ferocity, nipping at his lips and licking the pulse of his neck in turns, an action that left his lover moaning. With his back pressed against the bedroom door, he was helpless in Mycroft's hands, a fact that left the judge burning with want for a taste of every inch of his Gregory's flesh.

How close he had come to losing this, Mycroft thought, his teeth catching on the buttons of Gregory's shirt as he descended down his strong body, Mycroft's pale hands massaging and exploring the collection of muscle and bone hidden beneath fabric. He slid down, onto his knees, his chin brushing against the evidence of his lover's desire straining taut within his trousers. Mycroft caught Lestrade's dark, pupil blown gaze and held it as he opened his mouth, lips brushing over fabric in a pantomime of what he was about to do to that engorged flesh ghosted over the dark wool.

"God help me, Mycroft....Oh God, do you have any idea what you are doing to me?"

Mycroft didn't waver from his mission, their eyes locked as he flicked the button on the top of Lestrade's trousers open. He felt a surge of heat flood through him at the way his Gregory's shoulders shook against the door, his palm covering his face and ending at his mouth, stifling the moan Mycroft's continued flicking of buttons elicited.

When Mycroft freed him and took Gregory into his mouth, hot and salty, he felt a surge of renewed, burning triumph erupt through his groin at how the inspector's knees buckled, his body shaking in want at Mycroft's eager suckling.

Mycroft felt the pace quicken, and he leaned back, the tip of Lestrade's member balanced on his bottom lip as he locked eyes up at the inspector once again. The look that was returned was one of intense warmth, a longing affection that bordered on desperation. "Oh, Mycroft, you bastard..." Lestrade growled, and it was then that his desire took violent hold, that teased, swollen spear fucking Mycroft's mouth with rough abandon, fingers curled tight in Mycroft's short, dark hair. When Lestrade's body tensed in rigid climax Mycroft had to force his head back, so he didn't choke on the salty liquid that poured into his mouth and that he swallowed with eager hunger.

A tendril strung across Mycroft's lips as they parted, and before Mycroft could get up from his knees Lestrade had picked him up by the shoulders and roughly tossed him onto the bed. Shaking hands dove beneath the waist of Mycroft's trousers, buttons popped off and fabric pulled to his knees as his own desire was revealed. Heat, molten and leaving him liquefied wrapped tight around him, pumping him furiously until his cried out his lover's name, the walls of their bedroom echoing with the syllables. "Gregory...Gregory..."

Every muscle in his body rippled with tension and it wasn't long before the sticky evidence of his own seed spilled onto his abdomen, staining his waistcoat and the tails of his cotton shirt. Forgetting it had likewise smeared his palm, Lestrade clutched the back of Mycroft's head, scenting him with his own carnality as he pressed firm, possessive kisses onto Mycroft's abused mouth.

He was spinning in latent desire, his body aching and his stomach trembling, so much that he didn't catch it at first, the shivering form of Lestrade over him, the kisses that became less lustful and more desperate. "Please, Mycroft," he heard Lestrade begging him, voice catching in weeping torment. "Please don't ever doubt my love for you, never again, please..."

The plea gave Mycroft pause. "My dearest Gregory, you must never believe I doubted that for a second."

They were a rumpled sight, so caught up in passions they hadn't bothered to take care of their dress, asses bared while the rest of their bodies were still locked in layers of wool and cotton. Somewhat abashedly they began to gently peel these layers away, folding them carefully and putting what needed to be scrubbed over the back of the chair near the wash basin in the corner. When there was nothing left but skin between them they slipped beneath the sheets of their bed, the coolness of linen a welcome respite against their mutual heat. Lestrade ran his cooled hand down Mycroft's nude flank, raising gooseflesh.

"I love you," he said across their pillows, and Mycroft drank the words in like they were brandy laced tea, eyes closing at the easy pleasure of them.

"As I do you," Mycroft assured him, and buried himself in Lestrade's arms before falling fast asleep.

***
He was well rested when he awoke the next morning, the day stretching out like a languid cat before him with Lestrade still snoring at his side. Mycroft chanced a kiss on Lestrade's warm lips and was rewarded with its return, the scent and pleasure of the inspector's eager, warm body draped over Mycroft's pale, fragile bones. Morning lovemaking was quiet and lazy, full of a gentle history between them that strengthened rather than muted its ardour.

"I guess this means I'm forgiven," Lestrade said, grinning into his nuzzling of Mycroft's neck and leaving a tiny nip onto his flesh, enough to make Mycroft shiver. "Much as I want to stay here, wallowing in the sweet as honey kindness of your heart, I'm afraid we have work to do. Hopkins is stopping round this morning, and we still have a house full of Sherlock and Dr. Watson."

"Hopkins?" Mycroft shoved Lestrade to one side, his mouth twisted as though he'd just eaten a lemon. "Why on Earth would you invite him here? You know I can't stand his simpering hero worship of you, and though he is a crack shot there is no threat to me, as you've made clear. The Woman is on 'our side', whatever the devil that means."

"In the early hours while you and the rest of this house was sleeping, I sent a message via one of Jack's little ragged friends--you know the one, the lice addled youth who sometimes gives me tips on the local pickpockets for a small fee. He was sleeping in the alley behind the jeweller's shop instead at his usual spot at the Jetty on account of the rain. He was eager to take a shilling for such simple work, and he sent my message to Hopkins with a sprint that would make a long distance runner proud. I have to wonder how that young man manages to keep himself so fit. Jack says he has a delivery job with a local butcher and he steals and fries up the scraps for himself. But I think it's more than that, he's been stealing the scraps and selling them, making enough money to buy better food. He's an entrepreneurial sort."

Mycroft let out a huff of annoyance at this, for he had no love for Jack's former street associates. "That youth had directed Jack to chimney work more than once and while you may have found something in his opportunistic character to admire, I certainly don't!"

"I gave him a shilling to send a message to Hopkins, that's it." Lestrade grinned at the sound of the front door being opened and Mrs. Hudson's voice greeting the aforementioned Hopkins with both surprise and pique. "He's here! He must have found something out and skipped breakfast to run here and tell me. Stay here, I'm rushing off to the bath to get a good, warm scrub up before he sees me, I'm covered in our...Well, there's no delicate way to say it, we're both covered in vice and fairly reek of it, I'm sure. I'll only be a moment, enough for a quick scrub, and then you can go in after me." Lestrade gave him a quick kiss, accompanied by a saucy grin. "Be sure to wash your hair. We were a tad...Careless. You're the one lathered in our activities the most." Lestrade grinned and gave him a playful peck on his cheek. "Saucy thing."

Suddenly self conscious, Mycroft reached behind his head and felt dried, papery flakes crush between his fingertips as he rubbed his fingers across the back of his head. Oh dear, this would require a full bath, not some simple splash down, and with Hopkins already ascending and the sound of Lestrade greeting him and assuring him he'd be there in a moment, and the sitting room full of Dr. Watson and Sherlock, and Jack would be staggering out, demanding breakfast, and oh, no...He was a bruised and flaking mess of whorish proportions and sneaking past that gauntlet to the bathing room without revealing what they had been up to was going to be impossible.

He found he was getting rather used to feelings of mortification as of late, the sensation accentuated by the sounds of the house rousing, Dr. Watson's cheerful, deep tones groaning as he left the chair he had fallen asleep in, and the higher pitch of Jack's excitement as he joined the rotund doctor at the breakfast table. Hopkins was welcomed by them all, save Sherlock, who remained silent, and Lestrade, already clear of all licentious evidence after a meeting with hot water and soap in the bathing room, returned to their bedroom and began to dress.

"I would have liked to debrief you on what Hopkins found out, but it seems you wish to sleep in," Lestrade said.

"Just tell me here and now!" Mycroft hissed through clenched teeth. "I can't go out there like...Like this..."

Lestrade sat at the edge of the bed, smelling of lavender scented soap and pomenade. "The contrast between us now is quite striking, I'll admit, and I'm fascinated by the chemicals at play here, human hormones as pungent as any fertile animal seeking a mate. It's a weirdly earthy and sour scent when it's allowed to ferment, and rather strong. Good thing it's laundry day."

Mycroft made a face and pulled the covers closer around his nude body. "That is not helping me, Gregory."

"No, I agree. But a wash would. The bathing room is empty, you can go in there at any time."

"They will know what we were up to! Hopkins..."

"Hopkins is downstairs, chatting with Mrs. Hudson and interfering with her morning breakfast ritual. The poor man is tempting an iron pan across the back of his skull if he offers his tips on fried egg making one more time. As for you, there's no one in that sitting room who isn't aware of our union and I am not ashamed of it."

"Gregory, this isn't so easy..."

"It is," Lestrade said, firm. "Go. Get on your dressing gown and bid good morning to all in the sitting room before you head for your morning bath. Do you not remember the trouble it took to have all those copper fittings put in? That bath is an extravagance we paid for and it should be put to its full use."

Thus chastised, Mycroft's dressing gown was tossed to him while Lestrade finished dressing, a fresh white cotton shirt, starched and ironed placed on his muscular frame, accompanied by the usual dark grey trousers and matching waistcoat, a striped silk scarf at his neck tied in the manner of a cravat with a diamond pin holding it in place. Mycroft closed his eyes and groaned before putting on the dressing gown and tying it tight around his waist, a pair of striped cotton pyjama pants the only other garment hiding his embarrassment.

He needn't have worried, however, for the sitting room was free of all visitors, the sounds of their voices echoing up from the communal kitchen, where even Mrs. Hudson was cheerful and rested, tea cups clattering and pots and pans clanging upon the large iron stove. Mycroft breathed a sigh of relief, and dared to pause at the empty sitting room breakfast table where a copy of The Pall Mall Gazette was waiting. 'Chief Of Police Admits Child Prostitution Rampant In London.' the headline read. Callais had been busy typing throughout the night.

"Bordellos have better perfumes," he heard Sherlock say behind him, and Mycroft felt his ears burn. "They are also quieter. You woke me up with your moaning. I am very happy that you are breathing now, Mycroft, for it would have been awful to experience the discovery of your corpse. Breathing suits you much better. But that moaning, and that repetition of 'Gregory, Gregory, Gregory...' It alarmed me, I thought the monsters from Holloway had followed us here, that phosphorous dog perhaps making her bitch teeth known, but then you sighed and Lestrade laughed and then you moaned, Mycroft. You moaned very loudly. Loud enough to wake the dead rather than be a part of them."

Rolling his eyes at his brother's judgement, Mycroft cast a guilty glance at the winged chair Dr. Watson had slept in. "Was Dr. Watson up early?"

"No, he is a sound sleeper, so much of one that I had to get up from the settee and check to see if he was still breathing for corpses have a way of sneaking up on a person. Luckily, he snores. I haven't known the dead to do that. Young Jack, however, thought you were ill. I reminded him that dreams have a habit of following us into waking moments and that such exclamations are indicative of night terrors. He needn't worry for, of course, Inspector Lestrade was there to aid you, and ah yes, you did call the Inspector's name as if on cue, so Jack was satisfied with my explanation."

Mycroft breathed a sigh of relief at this. He cleared his throat before gently patting his brother on the shoulder in heartfelt camaraderie. "Thank you, Sherlock."

"Of course, Jack is an exceptionally intelligent, perceptive child and was perfectly aware that the two of you were having sex. He made sure to inform me that was the case since I was clearly ignorant of it. Is Mrs. Hudson bringing up the tea?"

So much for feelings of relief. Mycroft shook his head and headed for the bathing room, Sherlock's selfish ire at not getting what he wanted, when he wanted it, quickly morphing into a small tantrum. "But she always brings up tea! All that moaning of yours, it's gone and scared her off downstairs! That'll give you an idea of how much you made the roof rattle, Mycroft! You gave that Golem pause! Halloo! Mrs. Hudson! Please bring up a tray of tea, they aren't wrapped in flesh now, the coast is clear!"

The shower, at least, was welcome, though the heat was perpetually uneven, the copper fittings clanging as the water was pumped through them. He scrubbed himself until he was pink, and only when he was sufficiently drenched in the perfume of his medicinal ointments lathered across his chest and his hair near fluffy from a good scrub of soap did he dare to step out of the bathing room and head back to his bedroom to finish his toilet. Mrs. Hudson had already been there and had boldly stripped the bed of its covers, making Mycroft blush furiously as he tried to put himself together in peace.

The sitting room was fully abandoned, and he braced himself as he headed downstairs to the kitchen, where all of the household was now gathered, Jack munching on a thick piece of jam slathered toast while Dr. Watson enjoyed a full breakfast of eggs, rashers and blood pudding. Hopkins and Lestrade were hunched over steaming cups of tea, and Sherlock, who had been fiendish in his need for a cuppa, had been sat in the corner by Mrs. Hudson and given a mince tart to go with his overly sweetened tea.

All eyes lifted towards Mycroft as he stepped into the kitchen, all conversation silenced.

He felt his breath quicken, and he longed for his wheeze which was absent this morning, along with his ready excuse to exit the room. "Good morning," he said, instead.

"I imagine it is," Mrs. Hudson said, without hesitation. She gave him a saucy, knowing wink that had him wanting to crawl into the tunnel that Irene Adler had used to spy on them and make good on a fast escape.

Lestrade gave him his out, the conversation in the room shifted to the far more preferable workings of murder. He nodded at the young Inspector Hopkins at his side, who had his tea poised at his lips, brows raised at Mycroft's tense stance in the doorway of the kitchen. "Hopkins here has been busy early this morning, asking around the The Granger Theatre if anyone knew of Pottsdam. He didn't get anywhere with the local shop owners in the area, but as it is with any investigation the best informants are those that are mostly invisible to the grander populace. Hopkins has a way with that sort, his work on the Jetty has brought him some unsavoury but useful contacts."

Hopkins eagerly nodded, his handsome features matching Lestrade's with a youthful vigour that Mycroft found annoying. "They call him Old Goat, on account of his beard, it grows in a wiry triangle at his chin. He used to be a lawyer back in '67, until he lost his savings to some poor investments and then his entire family to consumption. It's a sad story, really, and I can't rightly blame the poor man for becoming a soak. It's the sort of thing that happens to a man who has lost it all. A young wife and three children, all gone within a year and all his life's investments besides, it's a state any one of us could find ourselves in should Fate decide to destroy us. You and Inspector Lestrade have a lovely home, here Mr. Homes, I am honoured to be a visitor in it. The good Inspector has been nothing but a brilliant host, and I do appreciate the opportunity to be here and enjoy a lovely breakfast with all of you. Quite cozy here, I have to say. A man could get used to this sort of unusual informality, there's something comforting in it."

"Indeed," Mycroft said, leaning on his cane and wondering if Hopkins ever knew how to get straight to the point without his usual simpering to Lestrade's ego. "So what of this Old Goat fellow and Pottsdam?"

"Old Goat likes sleeping in the alley behind The Granger Theatre when it's dry. He might be a drunk but he's got good eyesight and when I described Pottsdam he gave me details on the man's dress that even Inspector Lestrade had missed. He'd seen him skulking about The Granger, all right, especially on those nights when the late Mr. McGonogall was entertaining a young lady, one who fits the description of the murdered woman whose husband's trial is set for tomorrow."

Mycroft shrugged, unimpressed. "Mr. McGonogall entertained many a young lady at The Granger Theatre. And you readily admit that your witness is a drunkard and thus his testimony would hardly withstand the examination of the assize court."

"But he places him there!" Lestrade exclaimed. "Pottsdam and McGonogall had a connection, just as Jack suggested!"

Hopkins was eager to pounce on Lestrade's enthusiasm. "Old Goat heard McGonogall and the young lady discussing poetry, and from what he could gather she weren't so bad at it. But she was threatening to pull out from McGonogall's plans, and taking all of her words with her. It weren't a romantic fling, not between those two, but it was clear to Old Goat that Pottsdam thought otherwise. He'd witnessed Pottsdam lurking near one of the back windows of the theatre, and when the professor heard her reciting her poems to McGonogall he got all red faced and pacing, and threw an empty bottle against the bricks of the theatre before storming off. Pottsdam never got the business end of those conversations, where the lady argued for her fair share of the profits McGonogall promised her was set to come to her, along with the recognition. The last time Old Goat saw her, she was storming off, all the poems clutched tight in her grip, with McGonogall shouting after her and begging she give him the edited proofs. She'd done this just before opening night, leaving him hanging with his own crap words, and we all know how that turned out."

"Interesting," Dr. Watson said, and his rotund form leaned back his chair, his fingers absently twirling at the tips of his grey moustache. "Love poems and essays filled with the overblown imagery that the fairer sex is quite fond of. I have to wonder...You do remember, Inspector, that you requested of me a sample of Elizabeth Collie's writing both from before she was admitted into Holloway, and the writing discovered, on Pottsdam's direction, after her death?"

"Of course," Lestrade impatiently answered him. "It was determined that Miss Collie had not written them, though our hopes to connect the words to Pottsdam fell short. They didn't match his writing, either. I originally believed he'd changed his writing style on purpose but there was no indication of such a forgery, the style was consistent throughout."

Dr. Watson chuckled at this. "I am a doctor of the mind, Inspector, and I am a detective of sorts in my own right, determining that which ails the invisible nature of the soul. I was spurred into curiosity by the contrast of feeling within the writing, which I determined to indeed be that of an impassioned woman and thus not a forgery by Pottsdam as was suspected. This confused me, and I was working to determine how it was that Pottsdam gained such words in his possession. The writing, of course, was nothing at all like Elizabeth Collie's careful calligraphy, as I did inform you, but it belied an education that spoke of an excellent grammar school. There is a certain sentiment within the words that suggest a feminine influence and it was this that gave me pause for it's highly unlikely a male mind would make such bold references to acts of childbirth and heartfelt pleas for the continued safety of their beloved who is travelling abroad."

"Dr. Watson, you are a valued treasure!" Lestrade exclaimed, his grin wide with genuine thankfulness and renewed victory. "Did you hear that, Hopkins? Well, that settles it, then, we've got Pottsdam by his bloody ankles and we can string him up whenever we wish!"

Hopkins' returning smile was faint. "I'm afraid I don't see the connection, Inspector."

Lestrade's faith in Hopkins was instantly shattered, his grin morphing into a grimace, much to Mycroft's delight. "Don't be a dolt, Hopkins! The poems are written in the hand of the murdered woman, the one whose trial Mycroft is presiding over tomorrow as judge. They were found at the scene of another murder, placed there as a way to frame a nebulous, imaginary killer of bad diction..." Lestrade frowned. "Or perhaps not. Dear me, there is another cause and effect to this that I had not anticipated. For our Mr. McGonogall was a man who had plenty of attention from that fairer sex, and I must say, if there was one of their type who was fiercely enamoured with the scoundrel it was the unfortunate, ill Elizabeth Collie and her romantic obsession."

"I'm still quite confused, sir," Hopkins pleaded but Lestrade was now sitting back in his chair, his fingers steepled at his lips in deep, meditative thought.

"Elizabeth Collie, with her romantic obsession, had been to see McGonogall, for there was a man if ever there was one to take advantage of whatever skill a women had to offer and steal it out from under them. In this case, it was poor Miss Collie's misguided, stalking affection which he would have encouraged. We know she did not relent when given some small amount in return of her ardour, and thus, we know she would not have been happy with Mr. McGonogall's interest in that murdered poetess." Lestrade's eyes opened wide and he leapt from his chair, near toppling the tea cup in Hopkins' lap. "How could I not have seen it! At every turn, I have been a fool!"

"Then that makes all of us," Mycroft stated. "So the murdered woman was known by Elizabeth Collie, what of it?"

"It is indeed a troubling conclusion," Dr. Watson answered, his fingers twirling the end of his moustache so tightly the tip was as thin as thread. "Elizabeth Collie was murdered because she was a witness to Pottsdam's murder of McGonogall. I have a photograph of her, taken when she was admitted into Holloway for our patient records. I daresay your Old Goat witness would easily identify her, she was a pretty girl with an intensity of spirit not often encountered. She would be memorable."

"Good Lord, we have him!" Hopkins exclaimed.

"I wouldn't be so sure," Mycroft cautioned. "Again, your witness may be construed as unreliable due to his drunkenness, and there is the issue of the letters themselves. We will need evidence that they were written by the murder victim, and even if they were, what of it? Her husband is still being tried for her murder and connecting her demise with both McGonogall and Elizabeth Collie due to Pottsdam is a stretch the assize may not be willing to make when they have a clearer suspect, namely her husband."

"But the evidence is plain, the connections are there!" Lestrade exclaimed.

"I don't doubt it, Gregory, but the facts are the assize will require more than one rheumy witness and some scribbles on paper to convict. Today, my sole goal is to go over the case yet again and effect by some miracle the freedom of a wrongly accused man who has every shred of evidence against him. That there are more logical motives attached to Pottsdam is a great relief, and I encourage you to find more such threads from this deduction with which to bind him. But there may not be much time, you and I have already discussed that Pottsdam has waited on this trial for some unknown purpose and he will escape the moment the outcome of it is known." Mycroft sighed in defeat. "Sadly, I am not Judge Quibly, eager to hang without solid evidence investigated thoroughly, for do believe me when I say I long to see Pottsdam swing from that macabre scaffold."

Hopkins sipped at his tea and gave Mycroft a soft smile over it. "I'm sure we'll find something to help you out, that's usually what happens when we're on the right tack. Have you heard from Judge Quibly recently?"

Mycroft was momentarily taken aback. There was certainly plenty of mention of him in The Pall Mall Gazette this morning, where he was accused of encouraging the vile corruption of minors. "No. Why do you ask?"

"He's been in a spot of trouble recently, I hear," Hopkins said. "Made a bad gambling bet that's left him penniless. His wife went and left him and is staying on with the Chief's, the two of them are prolonging their little trip to Nice while the divorce gets settled. No one's seen a hair of him since early yesterday afternoon. Bit odd, that."

"Yes," Mycroft said, an unpleasant feeling shifting within his gut, which he quickly dismissed. A headache was brewing and he had to get to the Old Bailey to go over the case before the trial, to see if there was any hope at all for the innocent man he would be forced to hang.

He doubted he would find it in time.

"We have him, Mycroft," Lestrade assured him as he left, and Mycroft gave him a small smile and nod of his head as he left, unconvinced by his dear Gregory's confidence.

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter thirteen

The Diogenes Club was as quiet as the morgue, and far less lively. Thanks to ample amounts of ma huang tea that morning, Mycroft was able to breathe easier, though his thoughts were a miasma of cause and effect that rambled through scenario after scenario until all the murders were lumped into a bloody, pulpy mass within his imagination. Even Sherlock's phosphorous dog made an appearance within his constant recalling of the facts, its canine teeth ripping apart every victim Pottsdam had put in its path.

Sherlock was at least one worry he no longer had to contemplate, he was now safely back at Holloway, in a new room and was being pampered night and day by helpful, kind nurses who lavished him with the attention usually given to an injured puppy. That he was a favourite at Holloway Sanatorium became quite clear to Mycroft as he escorted his brother back into the building, Sherlock's theatrical need to collapse in the front foyer drawing his much wanted attention and the staff affording him it by the barrel. Dr. Watson, standing behind Mycroft, was the only one unmoved.

"Had his mind been quieter, he would have owned the stage," Watson said. He gave Mycroft a warm squeeze on his shoulder and bid the judge a good day.

Mycroft took the opportunity to tell his brother he was leaving, but Sherlock was too busy relating his strange tale of glowing dogs and fire and teeth to all who listened, enraptured with his weirdly grotesque poetic ramblings. He didn't notice when Mycroft slipped away.

He had Mr. Pinter take him to the Diogenes Club, where he was now in his favourite chair, surrounded by case notes and the phlegmatic coughs of the nearly politically dead. His constant wheeze made him of their number, and the hope of escaping for the rest of the season to Bath was as distant a dream as if he'd decided to walk across the ocean to the shores of Canada. The case involving Pottsdam was all consuming and there was a very real risk of it not being resolved to anyone's satisfaction.

But there are advantages to living with an eccentric, brilliant man like Inspector Gregory Lestrade, and one of his most effective techniques in unravelling the complexity of a crime is to place it within the realm of an imaginary, but familiar, place, with all of the facts laid out and ready for careful inspection. This meditative technique was what often placed Lestrade brooding in a chair by the fire, barely moving for hours until, at last, he would leap from the cushions and exclaim with a loud shout that he had found the perfect solution.

Mycroft learned to employ this technique, similar to the mind palace memory games of his youth but with added animation within it. As he closed his eyes and envisioned the Old Bailey's confines, with its wooden pews and boxed off areas for witness, juries and the accused and the judge's seat a profound altar above it all, he could feel the dusty air, close and stale, the rustle of women's skirts and the scratch of pencils placing him deep within that building's confines. Slowly, connections to this imaginary realm were being made, the cloud cover of Pottsdam's motives hopefully lifting.

In Mycroft's mind, Lestrade's voice echoed across the galley of the Old Bailey, with Pottsdam sitting prim in the witness box while his four victims sat with dour, blank purpose in the jury section. Mycroft did not seat himself on high in his usual judge's seat, and instead his imagination put him in the position of defence while Lestrade was the prosecution. All the better to understand where the scoundrels lies will take him, defending him would force Mycroft to see holes in the case that he otherwise would have missed.

Pottsdam was dressed as Mycroft had often seen him, with his out of place panama hat and oddly tropical arrangement of clothes that were comprised of fabrics too lightweight for London's damp summers. His victims were arranged in the jury section by the timing of their demise, with the unfortunate young mother, her ear dripping molten aluminium that hardened across her fair cheek being the first in the row. Second was Mr. McGonogall, the terrible poet, who couldn't recite any of his rhymes thanks to his missing tongue. He was a messy corpse, however, blood spewing out of the artery in his neck and staining the jury members who were annoyed by this rudeness and passed handkerchiefs between them to mop his soured life force up. The third victim, Elizabeth Collie, gave McGonogall an impatient glare as she hastily wiped bloodstains from her brow. Her expression changed when she saw Lestrade, the prosecutor in Mycroft's imaginary world, and she began waving in earnest, eager to gain his attention. Lestrade walked by and plucked a piece of paper from her hand, his face reddening into a deep shade of crimson as he studied it. He dropped it in front of Mycroft, who was shocked by the erotic implications of the pen and ink image, wherein Elizabeth Collie was in a very compromising position with Lestrade pictured panting between her thighs. Mycroft folded the uncomfortable image in half and hid it away in the pocket of his waistcoat.

The fourth victim was a filthy grizzled, bearded man who stank of rotted fish, dressed in torn wool trousers and a cotton shirt that once had sleeves before they were worn away. He gave a thumbs up and a rotted smile to a row of fishermen who were in the public area of the courtroom, well behind Miss Turner and Mary Oakes who taken up the front section of public benches. Their silent, artistic companion, Alice, remained sullen and aloof, the sketchpad propped in her lap as she stubbornly traced the petals of peonies with grey charcoal.

The Old Bailey within his imagination was a far more orderly place than the one he would be entering that afternoon, and it would be sadly devoid of the deposition of the dead. He braced himself as Lestrade approached the bench, his white wig dusty with cobwebs and dirt that wasn't hidden by the addition of white powder to freshen it. Flecks of talc littered the shoulders of Lestrade's black robe.

"We are here today due to acts of murder," Lestrade said, and the judge, a rather overly scrubbed and competent looking Quibly with nary a smudge of dirt or mark upon him coughed in derision at this. Lestrade gave the foul man a dirty look before continuing. "Four murders, in fact..."

"Objection, we are here for one murder only, and that is of that fair young woman up there with molten aluminium pouring out of her ear. What is her name, again? I keep forgetting." Quibly fussed through his papers and sat his bulk back down in his chair, his stockinged feet propped upon the bench as though he was sitting at home before a fire in relaxed comfort. "I can't seem to find it."

"On the contrary," Lestrade impatiently continued, "these murders are in fact inextricably linked, to one man, that vile fiend now perched in the witness box, known to all of those present as Professor Henry Pottsdam of Oxford..."

Quibly outright dismissed him. "Objection, as I've stated before and the good prosecutor can't seem to remember this fact, Mr. Pottsdam is not accused of *any* murder, but is in fact a witness to *one*."

Mycroft sighed. It seemed the judge had forgotten his place in the proceedings. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to refrain from interjecting further, Judge Quibly, for I myself need to hear the accusations first before you can object to them ad nauseam. This trial is to determine the connectivity of guilt, not for sentencing, and you are muddying the process with your selfish quibbling."

Quibly let out a wet growl as this and leaned back on his chair, which squealed in protest against his massive bulk. He was losing his perfect appearance by the second, lines of sweat pouring out from beneath his white wig, flaps of red, flaccid skin collecting at his chin where droplets threatened to fall to the rounded mound of his chest. "Ah, yes, a judge. Too often I forget that is my office. As you wish. Continue."

Mycroft did not bother to correct Quibly that this was, in fact, his court, and an imaginary one at that and thus was wholly in his own influence despite what his subconscious thought of his most pushy bully. He made a motion for Lestrade to continue with his evidence.

"We shall start with McGonogall..." Lestrade said.

"Why aren't we starting with what's-her-name?" Quibly raised thick brows at Mycroft's glare of warning. "Right. Acting judge has to act like a judge. Buttoning up the bottom lip now."

"Mr. McGonogall, can you point to the man who murdered you?"

McGonogall obliged, his throat making helpless, choking sounds as he pointed at Pottsdam. The tongue shoved in his throat was getting in the way, Mycroft surmised, and the ridiculous man made wild emulations of how he was murdered, a gruesome pantomime that the bad poet managed to turn into a comedy. "It says here you were stuck in the neck with a letter opener and bled out, and afterwards your tongue was cut out and shoved down your throat. Accurate?" McGonogall nodded and tried to add some theatrical flourish to the notion by making wretched gagging noises. "That will be all, Mr. McGonogall, thank you." Mycroft frowned and patted the pocket of his waistcoat as he thought on the illustration Elizabeth Collie had handed to Lestrade. "Only, you did have a relationship of sorts with Miss Collie, did you not?"

McGonogall reddened at this, and gave Mycroft a curt nod. Beside him Elizabeth Collie squealed in delight, pen and ink drawings of Beardsley proportions tossed from her pockets to litter the floor of the courtroom. McGonogall looked as though he was about to die twice, this time from embarrassment.

"Yes, you were no doubt an unfortunate witness to the act of murder, as Old Goat will attest." He gestured to the sleeping, snoring mess of tattered cloth that lay on the ground in front of the jury box, the stench of urine wafting up from him in waves. "Unfortunately. Thus, Miss Collie, your connection to Pottsdam is now established, though your murder is not so clear cut seeing as how it was given to an outside party to enact." He glanced up at the ceiling of the courtroom, where a sky window peered back down at him and Irene Adler's smirking face was framed within it. With moonlight shining behind her, she gave him a little wave.

"Professor Pottsdam hired a trained assassin to take you out, and he planted evidence of your obsession with Mr. Green, a married man, in the form of poems written by the first victim. A strange addition since you are a far more talented illustrator than storyteller, and your obsessions were the reason for your institutionalization." Elizabeth Collie wasn't listening to him. She was doodling another naughty picture of Lestrade with a careful attention paid to a particular part of his anatomy. "There is also evidence that you were enamoured with McGonogall, as discovered by a nurse at Holloway Sanatorium. She was concerned, as you are...were...a scoundrel, Mr. McGonogall, and she did not wish to see Miss Collie's talents go to such a wastrel as you. She had already seen the poor girl throw away her misguided heart upon a married man, and Mr. Green had come very close to being accused of her murder."

Lestrade coughed and paced before the bench, his hands clasped behind his back. He had that familiar pinch to his expression which Mycroft long understood meant the man was deep in meditative thought.

"And which Mr. Green would that be?" Lestrade asked.

Mycroft frowned. He glanced at Pottsdam in the witness box, the murderer he was defending inspecting his nails and picking at the small wrinkles he'd found in the hem of his hemp suit jacket in distracted ennui. He was no longer alone in the box, the accused husband was now seated behind him, looking very distressed indeed.

"I didn't do it!" the husband pleaded. Fretting with his own handkerchief stained in blotches of molten aluminium, he turned to Elizabeth Collie. "Please, cousin, tell him the truth!"

Pottsdam chuckled, never once looking behind him to the stressed man he was set to send to the gallows for his own crime. "This should be over soon enough,good fellow. I'm looking forward to my adventurous travels again, this time I have my eye on the tropical delights of Papau New Guinea. I hear they have lovely delicacies, plump babies ripe for the roasting. Your own children are a bit too old to made a meal of, and you have that whole fatherly sentiment muddying up your head and ruining your palate. Bringing them gifts as a way to buy away the pain of your absence has made them too tough. Stringy, whiny things, always looking for a present from Father."

Mycroft frantically checked through his copious notes, the pale India ink smearing the name on the papers.

Cousin.

Blasted ink!

It's why he hadn't thought of it, why she'd remained obscured, a kind of mental block against the obvious in the face of Pottsdam's constant tipping of both Mycroft and Lestrade's mental balance. He picked up the paper and held it up to the skylight, where Irene Adler winked at the sudden clarity of the smudged name.

"Constance Willa Green," Mycroft said. His mouth agape, he turned to her, the drying aluminium on her cheek now suddenly molten again and dripping down the side of her face and onto the bunched flower printed fabric on her shoulder. "You are married to the cousin of Mr. Albert Green, the man your cousin Elizabeth Collie became enamoured with." Mycroft rifled through his notes, frantically trying to find the sliver of connection he had so foolishly missed. "Your husband's name is Alan Green."

How had he missed this? The names, obscured, had left the scrutiny of both himself and Lestrade to the point they held melted into Pottsdam's anarchy, the information lost among paperwork and endless streams of disconnected crime.

Until now.

For there were now solid connections to each and every one of the victims to Pottsdam, for the start had been with the Green family, both as direct victims and extended peripheral inclusion.

"Elizabeth Collie, it begins with you," Mycroft said, and he bid her to change seats with the unfortunate Constance Green. From this angle it was quite clear to see the strangle marks on Elizabeth's throat, the rope used thin and embedded deep in her fair flesh. Irene Adler was a woman of formidable strength. He cast his gaze briefly to the skylight window where she was still staring down at him, rapt at the proceedings.

He turned his attention back onto Elizabeth Collie. "You became aware of Mr. Pottsdam due to your association with Mr. McGonogall. As a relative of Constance Green, who fancied herself a poet of some talent and in need of a good editor, your insistence on Mr. McGonogall's prowess was pressed upon her. Constance, however, did not see him so much as a wondrous poet as well as she understood him to be a springboard for her own literary ambitions."

"I was worried for her," Constance Green told him from beyond her grave. "She had met McGonogall during a poetry reading at Holloway about a year before she met my husband's cousin, Albert Green. The schedule should be easy to procure from Dr. Watson, for if any talentless hack was to find a captive audience and test subjects for his ruse, McGonogall would do well to court the mad."

"I will be sure to look into it," Mycroft assured her. "I don't doubt that it will be true. In meeting with McGonogall and beginning her usual erotic upset, you hoped to press upon her the uselessness of the man's talents by bringing in an Oxford professor specializing in English to argue against Elizabeth's continued unreasonable obsession. You hoped an injection of harsh reality from a respected source could sway her. Pottsdam was charming and sympathetic to your plight with your overly romantic relative, who continued to pursue a potentially disastrous relationship with McGonogall. Pottsdam was indeed taken with your own abilities as a poetess, though I'm sure in the manner that is common for men he also did his best to quash your ambitions."

Constance Green was sad, droplets of aluminium staining the wooden rail before her. "Well educated Englishmen aren't fond of intelligent women. They steal from us and call us their 'muse'. Pottsdam was no exception. He has no love, for example, of Austen."

Pottsdam scoffed. "A woman of letters calls up imagery of spinsterhood and spiritual testimonials, not high literature. That is for the harlots."

"And a right good job of it we do, too!" Mary Oakes shouted from her seat. Judge Quibly lazily banged his gavel, bidding her to remain quiet.

"I do remind you, you are on the side of the defence," Lestrade said, strutting in front of Mycroft with a confident swagger that made his mouth go dry. His dazzling smile didn't help, and he could feel his resolve toppling. "As prosecutor, I say there is no simpler way to put it than this: Pottsdam was contacted by Constance Green to help her wayward relative Elizabeth Collie see the error of being in love with the ghastly poet Mr. McGonogall. Pottsdam then became enamoured himself with Constance Green and her own scribbling, while Elizabeth grew tired of her bad poet and went off seeking other paramours, namely Albert Green, Alan Green's cousin. Believing Constance Green to be falling in love with McGonogall, Pottsdam mistook her clandestine meetings with the bad poet to mean she was having an affair with him, effectively shutting him out from the possibility of returning his own affections. He murdered her to appease the bruise such a tryst gave to his ego. Pouring molten aluminium into her ear was a revised classical metaphor derived from the Bard himself. The first act of Hamlet, specifically."

Miss Turner stood up, her delicate voice holding all the passion and cadence of a quality headmistress:

'Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cured herbenon in a vial,
And in the porches of mine ear did pour
The leperous distillment;'

Lestrade sagely nodded at Miss Turner's recital. "This recalls the Ostander's Misandry Case of 1792, wherein a widow had murdered six husbands by pouring molten lead in their ears while they were passed out drunk. The seventh husband managed to escape, though just barely, and solely because he was only pretending drunkenness in an attempt to dispel rumours of her deadly character. A rather rude awakening for the poor fellow, I suspect."

"Elizabeth Collie knew Pottsdam." Mycroft turned to the accused professor, who was now checking the state of his nails in boredom. "The connections are as follows: Elizabeth Collie to Constance Green to Mr. McGonogall."

"Oi, what about me?" The grizzled man known as Old Soak with mossy teeth grimaced at Mycroft. "No one seems to 'member I gots a stake in all this. Bastard stole me coat. Right wrong no way you looks at it." He gave a nod to his fishermen lads in the back of the courtroom and they gave a grim one in return.

"You were murdered for a coat..." Mycroft said, frowning at the beggar who had spent the majority of his life eking out a sad existence along the shores of the London Docks.

"So the ties are all wrapped up very nicely in a bow, Mr. Holmes," Judge Quibly boomed from on high. "Your main trio of carnage has clear connections, all of which point to Pottsdam in the middle of them. It's a good thing you are usually in my seat, Mycroft, for you are a very poor excuse for a defence lawyer."

Alan Green rubbed his hands together in glee, his happiness crawling over Pottsdam's shoulder and towards Mycroft. "This is splendid! It means I'm innocent! I'm free!"

Mycroft sighed.

"I'm afraid not."

Albert Green's plain face fell. He was a blank sort of person, Mycroft thought, wholly forgettable amongst the masses, as much a copy of a typical Englishman as one could find. It was no wonder his significance slipped past him, an anonymous dolt who possessed little by way of personality. "Mr. Alan Green, you will hang. Though there are countless connections to Pottsdam to the main three of these victims, the witness tying him to McGonogall's murder is still unreliable, and you still are the one with the most obvious opportunity to murder your young wife. Motive on Pottsdam's part is impossible to prove, for there are no hints of his love for Constance Green in existence, nor is there any marked interest in his disruption of Elizabeth Collie's worship of that limerick luster Mr. McGonogall. The chambermaid is stated as saying there is a child's tea set missing and this is what was used to pour into the unfortunate Constance Green's ear. A tea set you, Mr. Green, gifted your six year old daughter."

"But this can't be!" His dark eyes were wide and imploring, the most amount of passion the poor man would ever express in his sad little life. "I can't have done that! Don't you understand? I brought home my children gifts! I always sent them ahead, so they could anticipate my arrival!"

Judge Quibly swung his gavel, the sound ricocheting through the Old Bailey like cannon fire. "Guilty! Hang him with the leftover rope from that last one, the jewel thief. It's frayed, but it ought to hold his light weight."

Pottsdam's face was one of churlish delight as he left the witness box and sauntered past the victims and the crowd gathered within the courtroom, some of them his frightened students at Oxford and others nameless faces from other dark countries where his brand of murder could play out with all the complex plotting his villainous heart desired.

"But it can't be! I didn't touch the tea set!"

Mr. Alan Green was set upon by two large men with black masks obscuring their faces, his spindly legs kicking out helplessly at the air as they dragged him off to the gallows.

"Might as well get this over with." Judge Quibly yawned. "I've got bills to pay down at the Alma and Agnes has promised me a youthful pick-me-up."

"Disgusting slug," Elizabeth Collie said, and Constance Green agreed.

Quibly pointed his gavel at the two women. "Watch your harpy tongues or I'll have you executed!"

"They're already dead," Mary Oakes reminded him with a sneer.

"Mind your tongue lest you lose it like that one, young lady." The gavel pointed at McGonogall. "If I want to deliver overkill, I will!"

"You need to help me!" Alan Green screamed as he was being delivered up to the scaffold outside of the courtroom. "It wasn't me!"

Mycroft sighed, impatient with the man. Lestrade was packing up his papers, finished with the case. "I've told you, there's nothing more I can do."

"The tea set!"

"Melted and poured into her ear."

"It was silver!"

Mycroft's eyes shot open and he took in a deep, wheezing breath. His hands, tight claws on the arms of his chair in the Diogenes Club, trembled from the protracted shock coursing over his understanding.

Lestrade's teaching in meditative technique had proven fruitful. He had to get to court!

Heedless of the derisive snort sent his way by one of the geriatric residents of the Quiet Room at the clumsy haste of his departure, Mycroft leaned heavily on his cane and stormed out of the club, avoiding the connected pub and Donald's frowning, silent question and veering instead out of the main entrance and onto the front marble steps. He waved down Mr. Pinter who brought his horse and carriage over at a solid trot.

Mr. Pinter tipped his tall, beaver skin hat at him. "It's a lovely afternoon, Mr. Holmes."

"It most certainly is!" Mycroft exclaimed and he couldn't fight the feeling of joy that had billowed up within his breast, a sense of victory overcoming his pessimism. "To the Old Bailey, Mr. Pinter. I have much work to do!"

***

The courtroom was crowded, as murder cases usually were, all manner of rabble and reporter (one of whom was the familiar face of the journalist Callais of the Pall Mall Gazette, his pencil already filling up a newly tattered notebook) eager to get a piece of the bloodlust. Weeping relatives were seated in the benches near the front of the court, while the jury, a collection of ten bored and distracted working class men, studied the mouse of a man they would proclaim guilty with a sense of dull irony. Even now, accused of a grisly murder, Alan Green was not a man who gave one pause but rather was made to be forgettable. Plain clothes in clean but outdated wool tailoring, a pair of small spectacles that hid his tiny eyes, he resembled a sick cat, the kind one isn't prone to pity but shove out the way with a booted kick. As Mycroft watched him sink weakly into the chair in the accused box, he wondered if Alan Green would let out a tiny mew of protest.

His defence attorney was a disaster, a magistrate named Barton Binks who Mycroft knew well and who had an incurable drinking problem that would lead him well down the path of the murdered Old Soak, only his haunts would be the alleys behind the courtroom. The man was swaying as he stood even now, the papers in his hands streaming from them and onto the floor in front of the bench. He was such a caricature Mycroft half wondered if his imagination was still playing with his sense of reality. Mycroft watched as the defence lawyer staggered forward to pick his spilled papers up, the pages out of order and jutting out sideways and upside down in his whiskey numbed fist.

The prosecutor was a trim, sleek man in his early thirties who Mycroft had met only once before. He knew him as Hamish Dimmock, and rumour had it he was as fierce a contender in the courtroom as one could find, where his words were quick to leave bruises on even the most solid alibi. His row of witnesses sat behind him, the most prominent being Pottsdam, who looked bored and tired, his head constantly swivelling to watch the back door of the courtroom as though he couldn't wait until this act was finally over and he could run free.

Which was what he was going to do if Mycroft didn't weave this into the exact, tight noose it needed to be.

The thick, white wool wig he wore itched his scalp, the powder it was drenched in wreaking havoc on his sensitive lungs. He could feel the chalk lining the back of his throat, his wheezing echoed into the courtroom as a hush fell over it. He caught the way members of the jury frowned and took in his pallor and the propped cane at his side. They were already thinking him weak, which meant both the prosecutor and the defence thought the same thing.

Underestimation is a dangerous thing, especially when it came to a judge of the assize.

There is a certain routine to court proceedings that is as rote as any church service, and it served its purpose in calming the crowd murmuring within the courtroom, stern, unwavering icy glares from Mycroft piercing into the mob that wanted nothing more than to be as disruptive as possible. He gave fierce warning that anyone interfering with the proceedings would not only suffer jail time but also a hefty fine. This quelled the murmurs somewhat, though Callais didn't stop his constant scribbling, the scratch of pencil on cheap paper disturbing the otherwise silence.

Preliminaries out of the way, Mycroft bid the defence to begin its case, and the staggering lawyer Binks presented a convoluted excuse that involved the impossibility of quickly smelting aluminium (untrue, it is easily manipulated and all one needs is a small crucible and an ample contained fire. A modified concrete crock pot would suffice) and an aversion to the stench of strong chemicals, which was probably true given Mr. Alan Green's dull person who considered vinegar a good substitute for cologne (and moot, since smelted aluminium was melted in a covered container and gave off next to no scent). Somewhere in his ramble was a plea for his surviving children who missed him dearly (again, doubtful, he was often overseas on accounting business and his children only saw him on average a month out of an entire year--it was a miracle he even made any) and hints that his wife, Constance Green, was not as attentive as one would expect from a lifelong companion, which was very true and hardly a character flaw considering the kind of lonely life he had given her.

The prosecution had a far stronger case, as Mycroft knew they would. Mr. Alan Green, absent for most of his marriage, acquired a mistress during his last Royal Tea Company visit to India and was hoping to return to Tranquepar to marry her. A sordid tale of lust that was mostly inferred but not exactly proven was wound about the drowned, sickly cat shiver of Mr. Green, and Mycroft was impressed with Dimmock's subtle manipulation.

He was not, however, about to give it a pass. Mycroft cleared his throat, his wheezing voice a harsh whisper across the court's respectful silence. "Are we given to believe, then, that Mr. Green is a misplaced Lothario, who can only work his wiles beneath the branches of juniper trees? Really, Mr. Dimmock, I'm afraid you're going to have to do better than that. This nervous, pasty little man hasn't seen the sun for more than five minutes in the entirety of his thirty-four years of life. It's hardly likely he's been singing Songs of Solomon beneath the honeyed stars of a Tamil eve. Any stranger, of which there are plenty here, can see he is a man of wool, starch and linen paper." Mycroft raised his chin and glared down at both barristers with obvious disdain. "Need I remind you both that this is a court of law, and this is a murder trial not a burlesque peep show into Mr. Green's unbearably simple life. Do keep focused, both of you, on the matter at hand, which happens to be the vile murder of a mother of two children."

"I apologize, your Honour," Dimmock said, though it was clear he was more peeved than sorry, as was the habit of prosecutors challenged by Mycroft's determined nature when it came to vigilance concerning facts. "I was merely thinking you would find such information interesting, as you yourself are known to be fascinated by that sort of romantic drama."

"If you are referring to my publication in The Strand, I suggest you wrench your mind from that gutter, Mr. Dimmock. Silly stories written on a dare are hardly places to hang one's case. Stay on topic. That is your first warning."

Dimmock flushed purple at his, but he bit down on his agitation. "Very well, your Honour, the court wishes to call to the stand our first witness, Mr. Pottsdam of Oxford..."

Pottsdam stood up, smoothing down his wide, striped tie across his flat belly, his beige suit a sharp contrast to the dreary dark gear of most of the court's inhabitants.

Mycroft held up his hand. "I will not hear this witness," he said. "Mr. Pottsdam, you may sit down."

Dimmock was flummoxed, his wig knocked askew as he hesitated, and then bravely approached the bench. "But...Your Honour, he is a key witness in this case, he was the one who found Constance Green dead and..."

"And I have made my myself clear. I will not hear your witness as I do not believe it will be helpful. As you know, Mr. Dimmock, I have, as is my habit, gone over the case evidence with as fine a detail as any quality seamstress, and I found a stray thread." He gave Pottsdam's blank smile a stern emptiness of his own, a cold facade of stone that had rendered many of the murderer's ilk in tears. Pottsdam was not of their number, a disappointment Mycroft would take to his grave.

"I wish to speak with Mr. Green's son, Jonathon."

Both Dimmock and Binks exchanged confused looks. They should have known better, they seemed to both emote, for Mycroft Holmes was notorious for these sorts of shenanigans, for he was not content with merely being presented the evidence as was increasingly the job of judges of the assize courts. All other judges had finally forgone the hands on approach to each case assigned to them, delegating the fight to the defence and prosecutor and acting as nothing more than their benign ringleader. But Mycroft was of that older breed who still felt it his duty to be aware of argument on all sides and make his judgements accordingly.

He gestured impatiently at the witness box. "Jonathan Green, if you'd please sit here."

A tiny lad of no more than eight years old meekly wandered out from his seat and pattered towards the massive witness box which, Mycroft assumed, looked very dire indeed to the lad. In an effort to ease his anxiety, Mycroft sent a gasp through the courtroom as he left his position behind the bench and approached the boy, the witness box made smaller by the gentle urging of a powerful judge. "You need not be afraid, you are not in any trouble," Mycroft gently assured him, and Jonathon stared up with huge emerald eyes that had to be part of his namesake and nodded his understanding. "This is simply a matter of clarification and that is very important in these sorts of trials. You would want all evidence to be examined very carefully, I'm sure, as the situation is quite serious. You have already lost your mother, young man. It would be a terrible thing to lose your father, too, due to some sloppy inference."

The boy began to sniffle, glassy tears threatening to fall. He was as tiny as a sparrow in the witness box, his distress capturing the empathy of all who were present in the courtroom. Mycroft had no doubt he was believed to be cruel for such a ploy, children had no business in the courtroom and especially not one of the assize, but this was a desperate truth that had to be revealed and unfortunately, the traumatizing of a small child was a necessary evil.

Callais of the Pall Mall Gazette snapped his pencil, and Mycroft breathed a long, relieved wheeze over the fact the hack had finally stopped scribbling.

His voice no more than a harsh whisper, Mycroft opened his folder containing his notes and all evidence that had been presented to his office. "I see here, young Jonathan, that your father enjoyed sending you gifts home from his travels back and forth to India."

"Yes," Jonathon said. He cast a terrified glance at his father's stricken face, clearly longing to be in the man's arms and not this horrible little box. "He sent me a set of toy soldiers at Christmas."

"I see." Mycroft checked his notes. "And this was several months before he arrived back from India, am I correct?"

"Yes, sir, I mean your Honour, sir. Father picked them because I could paint them myself, they were cast plain and I had a set of paints for the purpose. He got me a collection of the English soldiers and Cossacks. I know the right colours for each."

"I'm sure you do, Jonathan, I'm sure you're very good at painting." Mycroft gave him a warm smile and gave a reassuring squeeze to the boy's hand, which served to calm him. "Did your father ever see your work? I would imagine he'd be quite proud of how well you brought those colours together so expertly."

Jonathon frowned. "No. I hid them in a box under my bed."

"And why is that?"

Jonathan began to sniffle. "Because I ran out of white and just used red instead and got all the colours wrong. I was right ashamed, it's not something you should do to toy soldiers, they should be perfect and I knew Father would get angry seeing as how I'd switched out some of the coats by accident, and no one knew who was fighting for what."

Mr. Green stood up from his seat. "My dear boy, I would never!"

"Do sit down, Mr. Green," Mycroft firmly asserted. He turned his attention back on Jonathon. "So, you are saying your father never once saw those toy soldiers hidden away in your closet?"

"No, sir, your Honour, sir, he didn't." Jonathan bowed his head in shame.

"I must ask out of simple curiosity...Did your family friend Mr. Pottsdam see them?"

"Objection!" the defence countered and Mycroft gave the slurring lawyer an incredulous glare.

"Really, Binks, this is in your client's best interest, and you dare to object to the enquiry of a judge. I should think your dismissal from the court is imminent."

"Your Honour, at the risk of impertinence, I must ask what this is all about." Dimmock rounded on him now, and in a rare feat that happens only once in a millennia both prosecution and defence were in like mind over Mycroft's apparent folly. "Toy soldiers have nothing to do with this case!"

Jonathon's childish voice wavered across the courtroom. "Mr. Pottsdam was the one who told me that it's a terrible thing to paint soldiers the wrong colours. He got the box for me to put them away and I hid them in my closet. I didn't mean to make them wrong, sir, your Honour, sir, I just ran out of white paint!"

"You can't be blamed for such a simple error, it is one I'm sure many a boy of your age has committed and I daresay, it is better to dress your soldier in a suspect colour than it is to leave him naked. Tell me, Jonathan, are they lead and sawdust as is the usual forging or are they made of something else?"

"Aluminium, sir, your Honour, sir. Father had them specially commissioned out of that metal, there ain't any like it in the world, he said. A unique gift for a unique boy he said. He got the paints on account of them being made so unusual and left that part to me. I used oil paints on them."

"I see. Thank you very much, Jonathon, that is all."

He helped the small child out of the witness box though the effort clearly was too much for him. A juror kindly reached over and snatched up his cane, which was then given to him. Mycroft took it with grateful grace, and leaned heavily upon it as he addressed both the prosecution and the defence.

"Gentlemen, this is embarrassing. I'm afraid this trial is dismissed. I am making a verdict of no prosecution evidence and I apologize to you, Mr. Green, for this court's harsh treatment of you."

Dimmock's mouth hung open. "Your Honour, please!"

"I am not in the habit of hanging innocent men," Mycroft continued. "It is my understanding when reading through the evidence that it is believed Mr. Green's daughter's tea set was what was used to murder Constance Green. But the tea set was made of silver, not aluminium, as specified in the report by Dr. Ziegler."

"A simple mislabelling of metals," Dimmock insisted. "Dr. Ziegler cannot be assumed to understand metallurgy."

"No, but he does understand the importance of detail and in this I trust him implicitly. For not only was it aluminium that was poured into Constance Green's ear, the metal is described as having several small colourful flakes within it, mostly red and blue. Coloured flakes that could easily be construed as chips from an oil based paint."

Dimmock pressed his point. "But, your Honour, that is neither here nor there! The toy soldiers, the tea set, what does it matter what was poured into her ear, the facts are they were ample weapons ready for Alan Green to use!"

Mycroft sighed and gave Binks' stunned silence a slow shake of his head. "You are a terrible lawyer, Binks. Please do not do anyone the disservice of your presence here in my court again, for you stand there silent as stone while the prosecution makes a vain attempt to crush your client. A hindrance that is easily prevented if you were capable of higher reasoning, which the whiskey you imbibed before you entered this court has denied you." Mycroft leaned on his cane, his rasping whisper echoing across the walls of the Old Bailey. He watched as Callais strained to hear him, newly sharpened pencil in hand. "Mr. Green had no knowledge of the toy soldiers other than that had sent them to his son while he was overseas. He did not know where they were hidden, with all their coats of many wrong colours. Thus, he could not have used them as the murder weapon, which indeed they are. I suspect that an inventory of Jonathan Green's little aluminium army will show he has at least three foot soldiers missing. The person who does have knowledge of them, however, is sitting there in the witness section of the court, and is playing as dumb as a deaf mute. But this trial does not belong to Mr. Pottsdam, it is Mr. Green's case we are concentrating on, and it's become very clear that he is, in fact, innocent of the charge of murder."

Mycroft leaned on his cane as he hobbled his way back up behind the bench and took his time gathering up the gavel. He let it fall with an echoing finality. "Judge Mycroft Holmes, presiding, and it is my decision that all charges against Mr. Green be dismissed on account of no prosecution evidence. This court is no longer in session. Mr. Green..." He forced the scrawny, forgettable father of two to regard him. "You are free to go."

There was a great hub of activity after this, with wide eyed juries melding into the melee with the general populace who had come to ogle the bloodshed only to be disappointed. Mr. Green wept as his children ran into his arms, fervent kisses pressed into the scalp of his son Jonathon, who could now forever boast of saving his father's neck from the hangman's noose.

Pottsdam was in no hurry, and in fact he was quite amused by the entire spectacle, the serpent's smile he gave Mycroft one that suggested he was well aware of the strength of his own poison. He stood up from his seat and smoothed down the hem of his hemp suit, his tanned skin an alien contrast to the plethora of bleached Englishmen in his midst. He possessed a relieved confidence that Mycroft found difficult to bear. "He's going to escape," Mycroft thought. "He's going to hide in some abyss within the world and enact all matter of atrocity upon it and no one will stop him."

The back doors of the courtroom swung open wide, and Mycroft raised a delicate dark brow. Lestrade stood in the entrance, with Inspector Hopkins and Constable Harding flanking him on either side. They did not wait for Pottsdam to make his move, but instead marched up to the man, hands on hips in a swagger that was usually used when taking down East End toughs.

"Mr. Pottsdam, I think you and me have to have a bit of a chat."

Pottsdam actually chuckled at this, his nasty grin evoking a carnivore's grimace. "If you are talking about this case, I'm afraid it's over. You can't try me for it, Mr. Green is set free and I am immune to fresh charges. His Honour, Judge Mycroft Holmes himself has proven the evidence in the case is flimsy nonsense, not enough to hang a rat on. Such an interesting end, one that would leave the great Bard as frustrated, I'm sure, as you are now. Lady Macbeth, that bloodied whore, she had plenty to say on the subject: 'Infirm of purpose! Give me the dagger. The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures.' Is that what you are seeing in your mind now, your Honour? That I am as bloodthirsty as that great villainess who lay rotten in Denmark? I should think you know of another one who fits both the sex and the killer's instinct of that dark Lady."

Mycroft tried not to react to his inference to Irene Adler, for Pottsdam was up to his usual tricks, muddying the waters of his guilt and adding unnecessary components until the plot could not be deciphered. Lestrade gave Mycroft his reprieve, his dark eyes glittering despite the oppressive weight of the air in the Old Bailey.

"Seems to me you got a real way with words, Mr. Pottsdam, and I daresay you'd better get good and chatty with them back at the Yard. We're charging you for murder."

Pottsdam actually laughed at this. "I've told you already, I'm cleared before you even begin!"

"Not exactly," Hopkins interjected. For once, Mycroft was grateful to have the man's dandy presence among them, though his overly perfumed pomenade was sickly sweet and making Mycroft's throat seize. "This has nothing to do with the murder of Constance Willa Green, or Elizabeth Collie, or Mr. McGonogall."

Pottsdam shook his head, still grimacing at their folly. "Gentlemen you are wasting my time. I have a train to catch, and I will be late for boarding. I wouldn't want to waste my ticket."

"I suggest you rip it up, then," Lestrade said. "Constable Harding, arrest this man."

Pottsdam's annoying grin finally faltered. "On what charge?"

"Murder. You must be right deaf, I don't know why I have to keep repeating it to you. Just so we're clear, I'll say it a few more times. You're going in the nick for murder, murder, murder. Clear enough for you sensitive ears now, Professor?"

"Unhand me!" Pottsdam shouted at Harding, who now had a firm grip on the man's long arms. He was stronger than he looked and Hopkins had to come to his aid. "You can't do this!"

"Mr. Henry Pottsdam, I am arresting you for the murder of a man named Ernest Gale, otherwise known as Old Soak."

Pottsdam was confused. "Who?"

"Right, you probably didn't think much of him. He was a sad beggar of a man, and as low as one could get in terms of class in all of London. But you see that row of gents at the back, right there?" He pointed to a half dozen grizzled working class men who glared at Pottsdam with all the eager hope of a dogfight. "Hopkins here knows them well enough, they're fishermen who work the Jetty. They got a sharp eye for hooking one in, and they got their sights on you." Lestrade stood nose to nose with Pottsdam, liking the way the usually cool man was sweating, leaving large patches under the arms of his beige hemp suit. "They'll testify they all saw you that day when Old Soak was murdered."

"That ratty old piece of thread!" Pottsdam shouted at him. "As if it even matters. Those men are liars, they never saw me in that jacket!"

"He mattered to them," Lestrade said, nodding at the half dozen men who were now standing with their arms crossed, eyes flashing in fury at the near admission from Pottsdam. "As for that jacket, well, not as good a disguise as you thought since they were all able to state who it belonged to, it was like a second skin on that poor beggar. And the lot of them saw you put it on."

"Lies!" Pottsdam shouted. "There were no witnesses!"

Lestrade gave him a shrewd smile. "Now I have to wonder how it is you're so confident that's true when according to you, you weren't even there."

"You'll be dragging your little street rat into this! He'll be going to trial, to testify on his near murder and you'll be sorry what the jury will think of the strange arrangement in your perverse home!" Pottsdam laughed at Mycroft, who stood pale and attentive behind Lestrade, watching and listening carefully. "You want to accuse me of near killing that brat! I admit, it was a sloppy business, one needs to be more forceful when shoving a sweeping boy headfirst into a flue if one thinks to inflict the proper deadly damage!" Pottsdam laughed again, struggling against the strong bonds of Harding's grip on his arms behind his back. "Mr. Holmes, the pallor of you is now quite astounding! Shall you drop to your death before me, suffocating just as that chunk of dusty coal nearly did?"

Mycroft's words were careful. "Mr. Pottsdam, there has been no openly reported connection made between the murder of Ernest Gale, otherwise known as Old Soak, and the attempt on my adopted son's life. That is a thread that you yourself have just tied in a very neat little bow. I do believe you have admitted in front of dozens of people that you are guilty of not only the murder charge you are currently being arrested for, but also the attempted murder of a small child." Mycroft's icy glare was unforgiving. "But do not fear, I am sure I can find you adequate legal counsel while you await the next quarter session. Mr. Binks is the kind of barrister a man of your type deserves. I will ensure he is assigned to your defence."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

A CASE OF BAD DICTION
chapter fourteen

Chicken soup on an uncharacteristically sunny London summer afternoon was an odd choice for a repast, but Donald was proud of his recipe and he knew Mycroft was in a celebratory mood. He liked adding his own variant touches upon the broth, using threads of saffron and slivers of fresh ginger to great effect as well as the dark meat of a black chicken, acquired in the tiny Asian district of London. The soup, fragrant and light, was topped off with a poached egg and liberally dusted with salt and pepper. It was Mycroft's favourite.

Lestrade was busy at Scotland Yard and he promised the judge he would update him on Pottsdam's statement later that night. A cup of lemon infused mint tea in a flowered ceramic cup with saucer was placed at Mycroft's elbow, offered without request by Donald, who, in his usual brusque, flirtatious way, gave the respected judge the small treats that earned him a delicate smile. If Donald's thick, masculine cheeks blushed at the way Mycroft sighed in heady enjoyment over the special meal, his gaze lingering a little too long at the way the steam curled against Mycroft's upper lip, leaving a bead of moisture upon it, the good judge did not discern it.

Donald tossed his linen towel over his shoulder and crossed his burly, thick arms across the wide expanse of his chest. "It's good to seeing you doing well, your Honour. I kept telling those curs what come here in the evening that you aren't so weak as they think. You're right off the board, now, it was a dark horse that came in the other night and stole one of the names right out from under the lot of them. The bets on that one are going to be paying out well enough."

The mint tea was going down easy, his breathing no longer quite so wheezing now that he was out of the dusty, close air of the Old Bailey and its oppressive stench of desperation. Refreshed, he placed the cup back on its saucer with extra delicate poise, and contemplated the jasmine flowers that adorned the cup and saucer's surface in little dots of pale green and white. The nag that Donald was talking of a fellow judge's demise hovered in a peripheral cavern in Mycroft's mind, and though he was not fond of idle gossip he found he couldn't stop himself from asking, "Oh? Who was that?"

Donald paled slightly at this, and took a step back from Mycroft's table. "So, you haven't heard."

Odd, the way Donald was looking at him, as though he was about to deliver a painful gangster blow that would leave his own body shattered rather than a debtor's. "This information clearly troubles you, Donald, so it is best that you speak plain and tell me."

The sultry curved outline of Donald's mouth pressed tight, and with a quick check to ensure there were no other patrons eagerly eavesdropping on their conversation, he leaned over Mycroft's shoulder and whispered: "Judge Quibly got done in the other night. Word is he was poisoned at the Alma while taking down a dozen pints. That's what I'm hearing. A bucketful of arsenic, enough to take out a bloody bull. No one got any clue who done it, the prozzies there aren't exactly the murdering type, save for Agnes, and that fat bastard was her best customer."

Donald was a decent man, regardless of his past association with the O'Connolly Gang as their debt enforcer. It was no surprise to hear him talk poorly of a dead man like Quibly. "Son of a bitch went around doing evil to kiddies, didn't he? I read all about it in the Pall Mall Gazette, far as I'm concerned whoever did in that sweaty piece of rancid meat ought to be given a bloody life's pension as reward for it. I'm sorry I'm sounding harsh, Mr. Holmes, but he was not just a terrible person but a right wicked one. Hope he's down in hell, I do, in front of the devil's court and finding himself heavily prosecuted."

Donald marched back behind the bar, as there were several new customers now walking into his pub, a couple of middle class ladies in cotton summer dress and an Englishman with an American newspaper tucked under his arm.

Quibly was dead. Murdered.

Mycroft sipped his mint tea, which now left notes of bitterness on his tongue rather than refreshing comfort.

Four more customers entered the pub, two of them barristers that Mycroft knew well and who gave him a respectful nod upon entry and another man following them who had the fretful unease of the guilty. The fourth person was a woman, dressed in bright, cheerful pale pink linens, a pinstripe bodice hugging her small waist close, its tailored lines oddly masculine on the petite, feminine form. She moved with far more ease than the other two ladies who had come in earlier, and it took Mycroft only a moment to realize she wasn't wearing a corset beneath her dress, an omission that less observant men and women wouldn't notice nor remark on.

"Ah, Monsieur Holmes, how good it is to see you! Thank you for this kind meeting with me, c'est une plaisire, bon sur." She turned at the waist and gestured at Donald, who was serving the two barristers and their client at the bar. "Garcon, un tasse du te, s'il vous plait. Please, a Darjeeling, if you can, I am only able to get that lovely brew in this city, for Paris is too fond of wine to appreciate its virtue."

Donald gave her a wide smile which told Mycroft he had no clue whatsoever of the danger in his midst. He clutched his own teacup tightly, his fingers as bone white as the rest of him, for there was a good chance he was already a dead man and she was here to make sure his corpse dropped from whatever poison she had administered before he had taken his first sip.

She easily surmised his thoughts, and waited until Donald was out of earshot before clasping his cold hand in her equally chilly, supernaturally strong, grip.

"I'm not killing you," Irene Adler said, shaking her pretty little head at him as though he were foolish. Thick, loose chestnut brown curls were piled messily on the top of her head, making her appear slightly windswept. "Do not tremble so, we are friends, yes?" She gave Donald a glittering grin as he set down her tea. "Ah, magnifique!" She clasped her hands to her bosom in genuine delight. "And you have brought me these little biscuits, the little sugar breads! Mon cher, you are too kind!"

"You really are," Mycroft silently said to Donald, who still had no clue about the danger in his midst.

"I do my best to keep my tea well stocked," Donald proudly proclaimed. "Got a new blend just in the other day, a breakfast tea what Queen Victoria herself has proclaimed her favourite. You can't get more English than that."

"I shall be sure to try it when I am back in London, but alas! I am to travel once again, back to Paris and its warm streets and sunshine. It is such a lovely place in summer, so vibrant and clean, overflowing with flowers and joy, once you leave the baroque filth of its inner heart, that is. You must visit it!"

Donald assured her he would, for he was impressed with some of the dishes that he'd heard of that were being prepared at the Savoy Hotel by imported French chefs. "There's nothing I'd like better than to be part of that team of that legend Escoffier's at the Savoy Hotel. It was all over the papers how the chefs and kitchen staff stood in front of the Savoy armed to the teeth with knives, protesting him getting fired. The Star reported a whole crew of Metropolitan police had to drag them off. He must be one hell of a mentor to inspire that kind of loyalty. Dunno what the Savoy's thinking, getting rid of him. Heard he and that Cesar Ritz fellow have plans on going it on their own. Right on them, I say."

The pleasant conversation ended after what seemed to Mycroft an inordinate amount of time, the request for further pints by the two barristers plying their client with liquor, and hopefully the truth of the extent of his guilt, now taking Donald's full attention.

"I didn't think he would ever stop chattering. He likes to talk that one, but he is handsome, oui?" Irene Adler grinned at him, her small features as sleek as a snake and just as quick to strike. "He does like you very much, I do not think your Inspector Lestrade would be happy about that. I do not think this handsome garcon would be averse to abusing himself beneath his sheets in your honour, your Honour."

"Are you here to discuss Donald and make ridiculous assumptions about his character, or do you have a more pressing point to make?"

She smiled prettily over her cup of tea, her eyes too large and seemingly innocent for a cold killer. She could play any role well. Mary Oakes would give her a standing ovation. "I am sorry that you and I have met under circumstances that put us at odds with one another. I am telling you the truth, Mr. Holmes, when I say that I like you, and do not wish you harm. How relieved I was when that opportunity presented itself!"

Mycroft's soup was getting cold. He pushed it away, appetite gone. Donald would be heartbroken. "You mean poisoning Judge Quibly with arsenic."

She made a disgusted face. "Mon dieu, what a vile, sweaty pig that one was! Do not mourn such a monster, my dear friend..."

"We are not friends, Irene."

"Oh, but we are!" She laughed, her thin red lips pulled taught over perfect white teeth. "That man, that Judge Quibly, he was set to lose his bet on your death. You see, you aren't even on the board any more, a silly game, gambling on the statistics of a life. He lost and he had no money and it was all you and your strong heart's fault."

Mycroft wasn't moved. "You tried to kill my brother. You set fire to his room."

"A warning that enemies were closing in," Irene quipped. "Was I wrong?"

The residual fear of losing Jack, Lestrade, his home, his very life, assailed the bruise of that near miss still hurting his soul. He shook his head, not looking at her.

"Then you should be more grateful. That man wanted to ruin you in the worst possible way, he was hoping you would die from the stress of it, maybe even push you to kill yourself. Your insane brother has tried this many times, he told me all about that. He also said that this was perhaps a family trait I could exploit to my full advantage and gain a part of the profits he would earn from your self induced death."

Mycroft looked up. Irene's eyes had no sparkling humour within them now. She was as vicious and bloodthirsty as a great cat about to pounce upon a gazelle.

"I still don't understand why this would matter to you. This is not about your morality, which we can both agree does not exist, but about the fact the man couldn't pay you. This is not about exacting some strange perverse kindness upon me and my predicament."

Irene Adler's eyes did not blink as she stared at him. He felt like a sparrow, clutched in her thin but deadly claws.

"I am not that sort of monster," she claimed.

Mycroft wasn't moved. "Inspector Lestrade has a thick file on you that says otherwise."

"That is because he is staring at the naked outline of facts and has forgotten the heart." She smiled her cat's grin, and Mycroft felt as though she'd taken a bite out of him. "You want a monster, you take a look at Quibly and tell me he is not one of them. I do not like such men who take joy out of the pain of others. I am a killer, I make no argument against that, and I do enjoy it. It is not my vanity that states I am the most dangerous person any man could dare to meet. My reach is long, Mr. Holmes, I have not killed dozens of men, it is a much, much larger number than that, and I sleep easy and I do not fuss over the dramas that made such things happen."

She frowned, her predator soul suddenly flooded with...What? Was it pity Mycroft saw? Disappointment? He was no expert of the mind as Dr. Watson was, a man who would no doubt have much better insights than Mycroft could afford. Watson had called Irene Adler soulless, a person so mired in their acts of evil they no longer reacted with empathy to any outside suffering. Mycroft was locked into combat with Irene Adler's soul right now, and he had to wonder if perhaps Dr. Watson had slightly missed the mark in this case, for she certainly did have one, and it was confused.

"I don't understand," Mycroft admitted.

Irene sighed in abject sadness at this. "You are a kind man, genuine in your upholding of justice, open of heart enough to allow in the least of all people into your home and call him your son. You are devoted to your brother who has nothing but abuse for you, his madness devastating and yet tempered by your love for him. There are many, Monsieur Holmes, who would abandon such a relative, leaving them in the muck and torture of an asylum. But this is not you. You understand what it is to love. You struggle to breathe easy and it is not just your diseased lungs that make it difficult." She pursed her lips and cocked her head to one side, looking at him as though he was some rare specimen she'd found under a microscope. "No, I cannot kill you. So rare are these qualities in a man that I have never encountered them before. Do not fear me, Monsieur Holmes. You have sparked my curiosity and thus you shall live. I shall be watching you." A slow smile etched its way across her face, holding a malevolent mischievousness within it. "But perhaps not on those nights your dear Inspector Lestrade asks you to paint your lips. Such a strange man himself, and even there you coax gentleness out of his fiery dominance."

Mycroft's face reddened. "That's enough."

"Do you never wonder where he gets that spark from? I have travelled all the world, Mr. Holmes, and I know when one has fallen into the mysticism of the East, its strict lessons ones that recast the soul. Gregory Lestrade is no Englishman, he hasn't been for quite some time. Not since he lived amongst the complicated, silken folds of the Shinsengumi, and kissed the sharpened blade of his lover."

Mycroft could feel the bitter aftertaste of mint at the back of his throat. He swallowed it down.

Irene was not unsympathetic, and her voice was as warm as heated velvet. "When he talks of the samurai, listen carefully, for he has been in the bed of one of them and he appreciates the fond memory a sigh in silk can give him." Her cat's grin was back. "As he also enjoys the new ones your flesh creates."

"Stop speaking of this."

"Mon ami, il t'aime."

She finished her tea and left, her skirts sashaying in the rhythm of her slender hips as she waltzed out of the pub and into the bright sunlight which bleached her form into obscurity. Mycroft waited a good twenty minutes before he left the pub, picking at his soup so Donald's feelings weren't hurt by his sudden lack of appetite. By the time he left the pub was quickly filling up with hungry Londoners out for a day's constitutional thanks to the rare fair weather. He stepped out of the front door of the small restaurant half expecting to find her standing across the street, stock still as London swirled in its filthy morass around her, waiting for him, not as a threat but as a sentinel of warning against all ills that were yet to be hurled against him in future. He didn't understand why he was disappointed to find she wasn't there.

***

Sherlock , now tucked away at Holloway Sanatorium, had left Baker Street in peace. Dr. Watson lingered in the small abode, and had made himself at home in the kitchen of 221B. When Mycroft arrived he was busy wolfing down Sherlock's now day old scones, thick clumps of clotted cream smearing their surface. Surprisingly, Lestrade was seated at the worn oak table with him, a cup of tea in front of him, its murky tan surface flecked with crumbs. He'd been enjoying the scones too.

"Sherlock would have made an excellent baker," Dr. Watson pronounced. "He has the right understanding of chemistry to be a success at it. On his good days I will encourage the nurses to give him odd jobs in the kitchen, with the making of these scones being one of them. It is a beneficial past-time, one that is better suited for him than sewing together rag dolls. Utilizing his baking skills offers a larger benefit, namely an increase in his feelings of worth, a measure we all carefully monitor within our healthy selves from time to time. What do you think of that plan, Mycroft?"

Mycroft shrugged as he took his seat at the table, his cane propped at his side. "I should think anything that keeps Sherlock's fractured mind busy and focused is worthwhile. I wasn't expecting you home so soon, Gregory, how was your afternoon?"

If he was expecting good humour thanks to the arrest of Pottsdam, Mycroft was quickly disappointed. Lestrade growled over his teacup, and it was now that Mycroft took in the rumpled appearance of Lestrade's suit and the hollow mark of his eyes and the hungry, starved state of his soul that emitted a pronounced unhappiness. "The bastard confessed to all of it. He said he might as well, seeing as how he missed his train out of London. He aimed to escape to Paris, and then to board a steamship heading for New York, but our interference wrecked his tight schedule and his chance at freedom."

Mycroft shrugged. "This sounds like good news."

"Bugger it," Lestrade complained. "If I'd known snagging him were that simple I wouldn't have put a hair of anyone in danger and would have just brought him in to chat about nonsense for an hour or so." Lestrade's grim face glowered at the murky contents of his teacup, which he pushed away from him in much the same manner Mycroft had treated his soup at the pub. "Giving him false information did him in, he really did believe there were witnesses and the fisherman were more than happy to oblige. Old Soak was a fixture to them, like a lucky charm. Their haul has gone down to half since Pottsdam murdered him."

"You took advantage of fishermen superstions," Mycroft said.

"No harm done, and the Old Soak's mates feel they done right by him at last. As for Pottsdam, he made good on my theories, I was right when I said he was trying to make up a fictional killer, one meant to keep me too busy hunting to properly take a good look at him. But he kept changing the plot in his head, talking about how he loved seeing others take the blame, how he had to get his hands in the guts and start manipulating the bowels of their torment--His words, not mine."

Dr. Watson sagely nodded. "I have had such patients in my care, ones who committed petty crimes for attention, mostly, though I did have one fellow plainly admit to me that he would have killed without impunity if he meant it would be easier to pickpocket a wealthy man. When I asked him what thinking on such an act made him feel, he told me 'nothing'. 'It's the game of it', he said. 'The more difficult it becomes the better, it makes my blood pump and my sense of self soar. It's the rage in me that burns brightest, and I got to feed it'. Perhaps Pottsdam is as morally bereft as that bloodsucking soul."

"What happened to him?" Mycroft asked.

"He was released from my care against my wishes, and as he was only in his early teens he was remanded to his father's house. He was trampled by a carriage horse during an attempted robbery of the driver. My former patient climbed on the top of the carriage and tried to stab him, lost his footing and, well, the startled horse made sure that was the end of that."

"Pottsdam has pretty much done the same thing with his confession," Lestrade mused. He leaned back as Mrs. Hudson topped up the pot of tea with hot water she had boiled on the coal stove. She had a separate pot already prepared for Mycroft, the medicinal ma huang leaves leaving a slightly bitter, damp scent in the air.

Dr. Watson was equally pensive. "I have to wonder what affliction it is that makes a person kill for the sake of some petty entertainment. It's a controlled sort of madness, very difficult to unravel."

"I wouldn't say he had a clue himself," Lestrade said. "Even as he was telling it to me he meandered and wandered all the way through different scenarios, telling me of murders he'd committed in the Congo and then ricocheting back to ones he'd committed in France. I guess what he did here was just the barest tip of his crimes."

Dr. Watson raised a brow at this, and leaned back in his seat, the spokes creaking under his weight as his fingers automatically twisted the tip of his long moustache. "Did you ever find out why he lingered in London after that first murder instead of fleeing it outright? I wonder if his madness began to unravel within himself then, pushing him towards ever more complicated solutions until they were a near parody of sense."

Lestrade's face twisted into a snarl. Mycroft carefully poured his ma huang tea into his own flowered cup used expressly for the purpose, the dark blue and white pattern influenced by Asian design. He breathed in the mossy aroma which at this point was as much of a balm as drinking it.

"Money," Lestrade spat. "Of all the tawdry reasons a person could go and kill someone for. He had no real love for Constance Green, though I think he did want to possess her, much in the way one does a gaudy lamp or a piece of silk. He had to wait on the verdict in Constance Green's case before the will could be read and all relatives accounted for. He managed to ingratiate himself enough to make himself guardian of her children and the owner of her estate should she and her husband shake hands with death. Base, simplistic and boring, is there any pursuit in the life more pointless than money!"

"Some may say a lack of it can leave one feeling hollow," Mrs. Hudson said. She held up a basket, turning over the damp towel she had placed over it. "Scone?"

But Lestrade had found a passionate sticking point, and he near pouted in his seat over the simplicity of it. "Money. Is there anything more dishonourable to worship than currency? A true man has no real need of it, it is his honour that pulls him through, he need own nothing if he has a noble spirit. The samurai never talked of coins, they never held it in esteem, and it was a poor ronin indeed who had to beg for alms. A respectable man was taken care of, by his brethren and his code of conduct. A gentleman has similar goals, but I do believe this shore is full of souls who care for nothing more than to tread upon the broken backs of the discarded. Blasted villain! He tossed my brain like salad with his convoluted efforts!"

Young Jack limped into the kitchen, holding onto the wall as he crept closer to Mycroft and then hopped onto a stool beside Mycroft's chair.

"Where is your crutch, Jack?" Mycroft asked.

"I'm to be putting some weight on the broken limb now, Mr. Holmes, Mrs. Hudson says it'll help the bone heal stronger and faster. Just a little bit, not too much, the break is healed up well enough." He shoved his stool closer to the table and reached for one of Sherlock's scones, all of them full of strange ingredients. Jack's had a bit of leftover mutton within it, and he chewed it thoughtfully before determining yes, it was quite tasty. The infusion of Mrs. Hudson's preserved mint jelly complemented it nicely, making it like a sweetened pasty.

"He was a right bad storyteller," Jack said around crumbs. He brushed them off of his trousers, earning a stern look from Mrs. Hudson who would be stuck sweeping up his mess after dinner was over. "He didn't keep what was important in line, he wandered off on a tangent and couldn't get back. He's a bit like that Mr. Wilkie Collins, though The Moonstone had ripping good characters even if the solution to the mystery were confusing. I did try, Mr. Holmes, Mr. Lestrade, I really did, but blimey that bloke can meander all over, pages and pages of it, and then to put the blame on laudanum, well, I ain't falling for that nonsense, I'm a fellow of some science smarts thanks to you, Mr. Lestrade, and I know you can't do what that Franklin did in that state--And what kind of rotter is that Mr. Candy? Nah, I could care less about the stolen jewel, which was supposed to be the whole point of the book, but being a detective inspector in training and all, I figured out the culprit right quick. All that was left was to enjoy the different people what were in it, and that's all right, it's a good thing for studying personality I suppose. Still, the fat pages are full of wag that have far too much to say and I can't keep up with the lot of them."

Mycroft chuckled. "You are an astute student of literature, Jack."

"I daresay I is, I read some Shakespeare in the past and I knows he has a style like that, especially his weirder stuff, like The Tempest and A Midsummer's Night Dream. At least Mr. Collins can keep his characters grounded in a firmer realty than that! I'm thinking, Mr. Pottsdam, with the way he studies those sorts of older kinds of books and all and won't let in any new American or modern work in his studies, words that have a more direct way of talking, well, he's stuck in that sort of flowery learning, isn't he? He's trapped in a Shakespearean fantasy when he should be courting Henry James."

Mycroft was surprised at Jack's articulation, though he did remind himself that both he and Lestrade had been working hard to properly educate the boy, a tutelage that was set to last throughout the summer when they left for Bath. He wrapped his arm around the small boy's shoulders. "Mr. Wilkie Collins is a contemporary author, Jack. Though I do admit, both he and Dickens have bad habits with both meandering plots and characters. I'm sorry to hear the read was frustrating for you."

"It were the logistics of it, Mr. Holmes. That balking at science sticks right in my craw."

"Perhaps, but I found much to enjoy within it. I myself found his Sergeant Cuff and his love of roses a treat upon the page," Mycroft said, wistful, and Jack gave him an exasperated look.

"He ain't got now't on our Inspector Lestrade," Jack said.

"Bloody Pottsdam, he learned from the Bard himself," Lestrade said, as a tired aside. He pressed his palms against his cheeks, his elbows propping him up. "I do think Jack has a valid point, Mycroft, and thus his study of The Moonstone was not in vain. I think it is high time we shelved it, I'm sick of looking at its spine. Perhaps something a bit more linear, but at the same time more challenging."

Jack was instantly eager. "I've been reading A Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollenscraft Shelly! Sherlock had it in his room, and I've thumbed through it so much this week I've gone and near worn out the pages!"

"Dear me, lad, from murder to ungodly resurrection, we truly are an uncomfortable influence on you!" Lestrade's words were cheery, but Mycroft knew he was still perturbed by the case, that though he had a resolution, the motives were as murky as water dredged from the bottom of the Thames.

Dr. Watson topped off his tea, adding ample amounts of sugar and cream. "Though we can do our best to map the path and method of its illness, we can never truly understand the realm of another's diseased mind. Nor can we truly understand a healthy one. We can surmise, ask, hope that what is being told to us is true. But the facts are we are but individual universes, each with our own beginnings, our perceptions a constant distortion until, at last, we end."

"Pottsdam will be meeting his soon enough," Lestrade gruffly intoned. He downed his tea in two large gulps. "He's forgone a trial by admitting guilt. He'll be hanging from the scaffold within the month."

"And a fine day it is," Dr. Watson said, and reached across the table for another scone.

***

Evening descended upon their little abode with a quiet hush. Rain pelted the cobbled streets outside of their home, thick droplets banging against the large window in their sitting room like large pebbles thrown from an angry sea. Thunder rolled in the distance. Outside of their little enclave, the world was embroiled within a conflict that showed no mercy to those exposed to it. One's sorrows, amplified by water and drowning, seemed to many a solution rather than a risk. It was one Sherlock had thought was feasible on many a night like this, and Mycroft still watched the way the rain hit the windows like small slaps and couldn't stop worrying if his brother was warm and safe.

"Sherlock is fine," Lestrade said, reading Mycroft's thoughts. He stood above him at the mantel, his elbow carelessly resting on the dried eucalyptus leaves that Mrs. Hudson had artfully arranged there. "He is tucked into his bed by attentive nurses who fuss over him like an infant, especially after that fright over the fire in his room. He's taking full advantage of that, make no mistake, that's Sherlock's way. Better professionals than us, I say, for if he was here he'd be snoring on the settee by the window and insisting you sleep uncomfortable in that chair in case he awoke from a nightmare. You would then coddle him with tea and sweets from the pantry, and then Jack would awaken and then before you know it we'd all be having breakfast at two in the morning, bleary eyed and miserable while a storm raged on and destroyed sleep for everyone save Sherlock, who would casually return to bed and sleep until noon the next day."

Mycroft picked up the tea cup that was at his side. Light from the gaudy gaslight lamp bathed the book in his lap but he couldn't focus on it. Tonight, Dickens held no appeal. He closed the book, and set it on the tea cart beside him. "Should we take him to Bath with us when we travel there next week?"

Lestrade shrugged. "We have ample guests coming this time. Dr. Watson thinks the calm country air could do him a world of good, though I think the real reason is that he's trying to score a little holiday there of his own. I wouldn't begrudge him it, it's a big enough estate, and he can keep an eye on Sherlock. Wouldn't want the mad lad to go running through the marshes nude without proper footwear in case there are sharp twigs." He cast a long glance at Jack's closed bedroom door. "He'll have company, anyway. Sherlock and Jack seem to have forged some sort of bond between them. It was Sherlock who gave him that book by Shelly. You know Jack would never touch a thing in that guest room if he didn't have permission."

"He's an empathetic and respectful young man," Mycroft agreed. "Despite his beginnings, he has proven the theory that man is made by his circumstances. Though one must wonder, for he is overflowing in those virtues and I haven't a clue from where he managed to pluck them from."

"Oh really?" Lestrade gave him a raised a brow and then, much to Mycroft's blushing surprise, bent low and offered a sweet kiss on his lips. He playfully nuzzled Mycroft's nose with the tip of his own as he broke free of the embrace. "I can figure on at least one place he got it all from."

Lestrade's warm hand continued to lazily stroke Mycroft's neck, easing the tension he found there. Mycroft closed his eyes and sighed into the welcome respite. The inspector bit his bottom lip, glancing at every door in the room before speaking once again. "Judge Quibly is dead."

Mycroft slowly opened his eyes. Lestrade was fixed on him, his expression one of blithe disconcertion. "I heard a rumour earlier this afternoon but I did not wish to entertain it," Mycroft said.

"Murder. Poisoned with a massive amount of arsenic, enough to kill a city. Considering the size of the cretin, it's a wonder he didn't just walk it off. Constable Harding gave me the full report, they found almost two hundred seeds of the stuff in the bastard's stomach. He's figuring it's the work of a vigilante, someone who read the article Callais wrote that accused Quibly of using child prostitutes."

"Is that what you believe?" Mycroft asked. An unbidden image of Irene Adler coalesced in his imagination, her face beaming down at him through a skylight and offering a friendly wave. He forced it away.

"Don't matter what I think, the Chief has blocked me from the case stating my friendship with you and Quibly's professional association could be a conflict of interest for the assize courts. For once, I think he's right. He's given it to Harding to see what he can do with it, and hopefully the little morgue dweller doesn't bungle it up enough to ruin his chances at becoming a detective."

Mycroft sat up in his seat at this. "Harding is getting a promotion?"

"Blimey, don't remind me. He'll do fine, but I'm not looking forward to those long winded, overly descriptive reports, his files are going to be bloody romance novels." Lestrade laughed to himself. He traced his fingers along the oak mantel, his nails following a knot in the wood.

"You had a nice long soak before you came in here," he quietly said to Mycroft, who shrugged at the significance.

"I always feel the need to scrub off the Old Bailey after a session." Mycroft still felt languid, the hot water of the bath had eased his skin, muscles and lungs into a blissful relaxation that was accentuated all the more by the arrest and comeuppance of Pottsdam. For the first time in weeks he had truly been able to sink into a state of boneless calm. Now in his cotton striped pyjamas and brocade dressing gown, all freshly pressed and clean, there was little more that his tactile pleasures needed.

Lestrade cupped Mycroft's chin, forcing him to look up at him. "You smell delightful."

Mycroft felt the heat blush in a red swathe across his neck. "Mrs. Hudson purchased a new soap. It uses oil extracts from peonies and oddly enough I think the cardboard box it came in was designed by that Alice girl. Which reminds me, we have free tickets to 'The Binding Of The Lotus', Miss Turner dropped them off this morning and gave them to Mrs. Hudson. They've already sold out their show for the remainder of the summer and have added a Thursday matinee performance, which is the one we will be attending. Front row at the Granger Theatre, and not at all easy to slip out this time. We shall be an attentive, captured, audience."

Mycroft shivered as Lestrade's calloused fingertips, strong and with a hint of demand stroked his jaw line with affectionate interest. When he bent for another kiss it was far more forceful than the last, the taste of his tongue a bruising insistence that placed a familiar ache in Mycroft's groin.

Lestrade, the stubble on his cheeks rasping against Mycroft's sensitive, pale skin, growled into his lover's mouth.

"Come to bed, Mycroft,"

Do we dare expand upon this moment, discussing the blush of Mycroft's cheeks, the utter devotion he emotes that is reflected in kind by the man who stands above him and guides him from the winged chair by the fire, turning out the overly adorned gaslight lamp and leading him by the hand into a messy, but comfortable bedroom? It is voyeuristic to contemplate the vast meaning of the folded red silk kimono on the corner of the bed, as it is to remark on the sharp intake of Mycroft's breath as Lestrade slides his body against him, a plaintive whimper muffled near immediately with passionate kisses. The door to the bedroom closes, the hint of hands frantically diving across skin a flicker of interest to the lustfully curious. But one must remember, these are gentlemen, and as such it is perhaps best to value the privacy they cherish and the delighted moans it will eventually elicit. If by morning, Inspector Lestrade is washing off lipstick paint from his chest and belly and other extremities, his neck marred with purple blemishes that look like bite marks, that is not a point of discussion among his peers. If his Honour, Judge Mycroft Holmes, has strange bruises on the circumference of his fragile wrists and his lips have an overly pink hue, his voice cracked and hoarse as though he had been shouting, it is not something that the average person notices. For now, it is only the rain that we hear, pattering the outside of 221B, and baptizing it in steadfast, enduring comfort.

Chapter Text

This is the official link to the print copy of A CASE OF BAD DICTION --

 

http://www.lulu.com/shop/m-jones/a-case-of-bad-diction/paperback/product-23509307.html

 

Tell all your friends! I am working on  its sequel, A CASE OF DOUBLE VISION, the first chapters should appear here by early spring of this year :D.

 

Thank you so, so much to everyone who was dedicated enough to stick with this story and its experimental premise and who were open minded and cheerful enough to give it a go.  You helped my muse in  more ways than any of you can possibly imagine, for writing is a very lonely business and knowing there are people who do enjoy my stories (especially this one!) and connect with the characters so strongly has cemented my own belief in their universe.  I have lots of plans for these fellows, and it's all thanks to the wonderful encouragement of those who are kind enough to comment and leave kudos and in general chat with me about the nature of family and murder and happiness and crime.  

Thank you so, so much, from the very bottom of my being. And thank you, Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle, from whom none of our obsessions could be possible without your wondrous creation. Mr. Doyle was himself impressed with Wilde and did not believe his imprisonment was warranted or fair.  Being a social crusador himself, I like to think he would find the subjects within this work unobjectionable.  This book is a love letter for those who couldn't write them.  

 

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