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Surcease of Loneliness

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6 years ago

The dining hall was bathed in light. Lamps had been strategically placed to avoid shadow, but without directing the attention away from the graciously decorated Christmas tree. The dining table itself was covered by a snow-white tablecloth and dark red table runner. Silver cutlery and porcelain gleamed in the soft glow of the candles. There were shades of gold and silver everywhere, with spots of red mixed in between as a nod to the season. The room beneath the Christmas tree remained empty, as his family usually exchanged gifts in the parlour, the space too big for the small wrapped parcels and envelopes. It wasn’t an easy thing to pick suitable gifts when the receiver was rich and without needs. And the most expansive gifts, Mycroft had found, were delicate jewellery or papers of ownership over yet another property. Christmas trees were hardly suited for that kind of giving.

His steps, though muffled by the thick carpets beneath his feet seemed too loud to Mycroft’s ears. He halted at the head of the table, taking in the two neat rows of chairs, the two servants waiting at the kitchen entrance. The air smelled sweet, thickened by Christmas spices and molten sugar. His chest felt full and empty at once. Breathing had become a hardship.

Sherlock had already taken a seat at the table, legs crossed lazily beneath the tablecloth, clinging his silver spoon against his dining plate in boredom. He’d obeyed and dressed in his formal wear, but Mycroft could see the mismatched socks and unpolished shoes, a clear streak of rebellion. Nonetheless, Sherlock had always loved Christmas. It was the only festive dinner their family enjoyed in relative private.

Behind him, Mycroft could hear the voice of his father drifting down the hall, accompanied by the soft steps of his mother. He breathed in deep, then stepped forward to take his seat and waited. The urge to fidget was great, but the least Mycroft desired was mirroring Sherlock in his behaviour. He resisted, trying his best to ignore the way the soft material of his shirt itched on his skin, restricted by the cut of his vest. Although private, the dinner remained a formality and etiquette was a necessity.

Moments later, they were joined by their parents, closely followed by his two uncles who were accompanied by their spouses and children. Mycroft greeted them all with a polite smile, never quite meeting their eyes. Vulnerability prickled uneasily beneath his skin. He held little fondness for his younger cousins, with their smug mannerisms and superior tone, and was glad when Uncle Edward took the seat beside him. His relief must have shown on his face, for his mother gave him an amused glance. Sherlock wasn’t as lucky. He huffed in annoyance as Henry, eldest son of their father’s youngest brother Rudolph, sat down opposite him. He was a year older then Sherlock, just six years Mycroft’s junior, and his wife was already expecting their second child. Margret had stayed behind in Sussex, however, since she was in no state to travel. Mycroft thought it rather heartless to leave her behind, but he suspected Henry rather enjoyed the break from family duties. Charlotte seemed delighted to have at least one of her older brothers home, with the other tending to the family business at home. She had just turned eighteen and, Mycroft noted, managed to secure the affections of a rather well-off university friend of Henry’s. He doubted his cousin would be as thrilled at the news as Charlotte hoped.

Before Mycroft could contemplate that deduction, the door to the kitchens opened and a handful of servants entered the room. As head of the house, his father spoke the blessing, more out of tradition than religious belief, and the first course was served. It consisted of a turtle soup, which Mycroft did not touch, and was swiftly followed by the main course. Trays with food were placed upon the table and in seconds, the air had exploded with rich flavours. There were at least five types of meat, including a roasted turkey and goose, mince pies of different shapes and various bowls of vegetables and side dishes, all elegantly placed and decorated. It was a work of art; one Mycroft knew took days of preparation to accomplish. Multiple impatient hands reached out at once, heedless of the ensemble.

Mycroft’s stomach gave an unpleasant lurch. Silently, he reached for a bowl of mashed potatoes.

Dessert brought plates of Christmas pudding and cake, as well as bowls of various fruits and nuts, all just as artfully arranged. Sherlock perked up when he spotted the sugar plums and swiftly claimed the plate as his. Crystal glasses were filled with a steady stream of sweet mulled wine.

Slowly, dinner went by in cheerful, meaningless chatter, which Mycroft took great care to be as little involved in as possible. Outside, snow fell in thick flakes, barely illuminated by the lights of the dining room. It had been snowing for three days now. Mycroft numbly gazed at the evergreen and berries bound to ornate shapes and assorted in the window pane. His heart weighed heavy in his chest.

Yet again, his gaze flickered to the mantle clock, anxiously tracing its slow proceed.

“You seem distracted, Mycroft, and you have barely eaten a thing. Are you not feeling well?” His uncle’s voice pulled him out of his gloom.

“As if cutting back has ever done you any good,” Sherlock quipped, latching onto the familiar insult as a means to fight his ever-rising boredom. Charlotte snickered. Mycroft could feel Henry’s derisive stare burning into the side of his face. He swallowed down the sharp remark on his tongue, and instead took the opportunity for an excuse.

“I am afraid I feel somewhat under the weather, uncle.”

Plates had been long cleared and taken away. Mycroft’s wine glass still stood untouched before him. He twirled the slender stem absently between his fingers.

“I think it would be best if I retired early tonight.”

Charlotte snickered again. Uncle Rudolph muttered something to Henry which sounded like a very poorly disguised insult towards his stamina.

“But Mycroft,” his mother objected, disappointed. “We have not heard you play yet.”

The thought of sitting in the library and playing the piano under the scrutinizing gaze of his relatives really made Mycroft feel ill. He must have paled at the notion, for his mother conceded reluctantly.

“Very well, then. But I hope you shall not miss out tomorrow morning’s banquette.”

Mycroft nodded numbly and pulled back his chair. Sherlock shot daggers at him as he gingerly rounded the table, furious that Mycroft had so neatly escaped the traditional evening activities which would without doubt follow. Once safely out in the hallway, Mycroft breathed in deep, desperate to calm his raging heart. When the rushing in his ears had subsided, he hurried to the kitchens, nearly tripping down the dimly lit stairs in his attempt to take three steps at once.

“Mrs Johnson,” Mycroft whispered, careful not to draw the attention of the kitchen maids. Mrs Johnson didn’t look up from the potatoes she was peeling, but a slight nod conveyed that she’d heard him. Relieved, Mycroft retreated back into the servants’ hallway and waited until the door opened again.

“For the hundredth time, Sir, call me Eleanor.”

“Were you able to precure what I asked for?”

“Patience, Sir,” she chided him. In her hands was a white cloth loosely wrapped around a glass bowl. She carefully drew back a corner to reveal its contents.

“See? Took me a few tries but I’m sure they taste and look just as you described.”

She put the cloth back and handed Mycroft the bowl, who took it gratefully.

“Thank you, Eleanor.” His hands tightened around his prize. “Truly. You cannot imagine what this means to me.”

“It was my pleasure,” she brushed off with a wave of her hand. What the young Holmes wanted with this commoners’ dish was beyond her, but the rich did tend to have odd ideas now and again. And as long as it brought a smile to his face, especially one as tender as she was currently witness to, she would try her hand at whatever recipe he wished.

After collecting the two bags he’d packed previous to dinner from his room, Mycroft left the manor through the servants’ entrance, mindful of any unwanted witnesses.

The weather had not been kind this year, leaving many freezing in their homes. Snow piled high on the streets, dark from the dirt of the city. Most had retreated inside at this late hour and the streets lay silent and empty as Mycroft’s carriage meandered its way through the sluggish mess.

When he arrived at his destination, the house was dark except for a small window on the ground floor. Mycroft’s heart fell. It was over two hours past their agreed time and his absence could have very well been taken as a sign of abandonment. What if he’d already gone to bed, thinking Mycroft had not been willing to exchange the warm manor for a visit after all? Mycroft’s heart contracted painfully at that thought and before the driver could utter a word, he’d already descended from the carriage and disappeared into the alley towards the stairs.

The hallway lay in darkness, the street lights not strong enough to reach the courtyard windows. Mycroft hesitated at the familiar door, before knocking thrice. The wait felt like hours in the silence of the darkness. Then the lock was turned and the door opened to reveal Gregory, already in sleep wear and blinking at the darkness. He had taken the Christmas shift again, the lines on his face indicating a long and tiring day.

“Mycroft?” The disbelief and surprise was written plainly across his face. Mycroft wanted nothing more than to kiss it away. Instead, he controlled himself and just stepped passed Gregory into the flat.

“Apologies for my lateness. I am afraid dinner was not as swift as I had anticipated.”

Greg seemed to comprehend that for a moment, before his face erupted in a wide smile. All the tiredness disappeared from his expression. His hands reached up to lie flat on Mycroft’s chest, as if he needed to assure himself of his lover’s presence.

“I am glad,” Greg whispered, hands curling until he was clutching at Mycroft’s lapels.

Unable to resist any longer, Mycroft cupped his face and pressed their lips together. Immediately, his heart settled and the sorrow which had gripped it so tight throughout the day made room for a comfortable, familiar warmth. The two bags Mycroft had carried hit the floor with a dull thud.

“Oh…” Gregory drew back, surprised.

Mycroft blushed slightly, and motioned to the larger of the two bags. “I took the liberty to bring a few essentials which might enhance our Christmas together.”

The look of eager delight on Gregory’s face took Mycroft’s breath away. With childish glee, Gregory ushered Mycroft into the living room and then shifted through the contents, pulling out three thick lamb wool blankets, Christmas decoration and a handful of red candles. While he carefully arranged the evergreen above the fireplace and on the window sill, Mycroft got rid of his shoes, coat and dinner jacket and laid out the blankets before the fireplace, adding two of Greg’s pillows for good measure. He stacked them against the armchair, so they could sit comfortably.

“What’s that.” Grinning, Greg pulled his hand out of the bag again. “A mistletoe? How very presumptuous of you.”

Mycroft’s blushed deepened. But before he could stutter out a response, Greg had already leaned forward and kissed him again, his right hand holding the mistletoe above their heads.

“At least one tradition we can uphold,” Greg said breathlessly once they pulled apart. He deposited the twig on the mantel with a smug grin. “I wager we will make use of it many more times tonight, so might as well keep it at hand.”

They settled back against the armchair, feet entwined beneath the blanket. Greg sighed contently and bent his head to rest it against Mycroft’s shoulder.

“Thank you, My, this is wonderful.”

Mycroft turned and kissed Greg’s forehead. “I am glad you approve, but there is more, still…”

The disbelief on Greg’s face broke his heart in two. Carefully, Mycroft extracted the bowl from his personal bag.

“What is this?” Greg tried to sneak a peek into the ominous bundle, eyes growing wide as he caught a whiff of the scent it emitted. “No…”

“And what if I had?”

“This is…Mycroft!” Greg’s eyes shone, tears of delight threatening to fall. His voice was barely a whisper. The cloth was pulled back to reveal four baked apples, stuffed to the brim with apple crisp, raisins, oats and topped by a generous portion of crumble and sweet honey. They looked just like the ones his Mum had used to make for them every Christmas. The smell brought back the memory of her warm laughter and the fine wrinkles around her eyes as she smiled at him.

“Merry Christmas, Gregory.”

“I love you.”

The remaining tension bled out of Mycroft’s shoulders, like wax under the heat of a blazing fire. A laugh bubbled up in his chest and he let it free, clumsily seeking out his lover’s lips again. “And I you, my love.”

They ate the apples with their hands, relishing the exquisite taste and sharing quiet stories and sweet kisses in the fire light. The wine Mycroft had sneaked from the cellar was shared equally between them. Once both had eaten to their heart’s content, Greg disappeared into the kitchen. He came back with a small wooden box and ice-cold feet. Mycroft chided him fondly, but tugged them against his calves without complaint. With a wide smile, Greg held out the box.

“I thought we had agreed that gifts are not necessary to show our affection for each other?” Mycroft remarked with a raised eyebrow, but accepted the present nonetheless. He weighed it in his hand and inspected it from each side, determined to identify its content. When he finally opened the lid and saw what lay within, joy blossomed across his face, uninhibited and free like the sunrise on a winter morning. The room seemed to glow a bit brighter.

Greg watched him fetch his pocket watch from his discarded jacket and carefully attach the chain, the happiness in his chest threatening to spill over. He had been giddy with excitement when he’d spotted it on his way home in one of the shop windows. The cost had been slightly higher than what he deemed affordable, but after having already despaired over his inability to find a token suitable to show his deep affection, the small deviation had seemed diminishing.

“Thank you, truly,” Mycroft whispered against Greg’s brow, deeply moved. “I shall endeavour to carry it with me wherever I go and never cease thinking of you.”

They kissed again, lips moving against each other with aching tenderness. When they pulled apart, Mycroft grinned sheepishly and reached for his bag again.

“Mycroft…” Greg admonished him playfully. “What else could you possibly have in there?”

“You broke the agreement first, so I shall suffer no remorse if I follow swiftly.”

They were two parcels wrapped in delicate golden paper. Greg took the bigger one first and opened it with care, mindful to avoid tearing such an ornate packaging, and was met by the softest wool his fingers had ever felt. He caught a corner and let the garment unroll, revealing the full length of a beautiful, dark grey wool scarf. Greg’s eyes went wide. Without uttering a word, he turned his attention to the second parcel, only to find a pair of leather gloves lined with the same wool. Speechless, he pressed all three items to his chest. The wool was sinfully soft. Even in the warmth of the room, he could feel the heat radiating off the fleecy surface.

“Mycroft…” Greg’s throat felt dry. “This is…”

Mycroft’s hands laid over his, closing his fingers only tighter around the wool.

“The coldest days are yet to come. And I cannot bear seeing you freeze on those rugged streets.”

“They are beautiful.” Greg let his thumb glide over the seam. “What kind of wool is it? I have never seen anything this soft before.”

“I brought it from a merchant who deals in foreign fabrics. This specific wool had its origin in Spain.” He took the scarf from Greg and wrapped it around his lover’s neck. The contrast between his silver hair and the dark grey of the wool was mesmerising. “Only the very best for Scotland Yard’s finest.”

“Your brother would beg to differ,” Greg objected.

Mycroft’s eyes twinkled in the firelight. “Is it my brother’s or my assessment which you value more?”

Greg pretended to ponder this for a moment. “It was yours which observed that my winter attire was failing to keep me sufficiently warm.”

“Is that a statement or an answer to my enquiry?” Mycroft asked innocently.

“Well, I am not feeling cold right now, thanks to your attentive care,” Greg teased slightly. “Actually, it is rather warm.” He carefully unwound the scarf from around his neck and laid it safely aside.

“Is it?” Mycroft grinned. Something about their light banter set butterflies free beneath his ribcage. “Then I suppose you will have to take off your clothes.”

“Might you be so kind as to assist?”

“Anything for you, my love.”

Greg’s jumper was quickly discarded and Mycroft turned his attention to Greg’s undershirt and pyjamas. Once both had joined the jumper beside the armchair, Greg divested Mycroft of his vest, pulled down his suspenders and set to work on his shirt buttons. Mycroft sighed at the tender caress of his lover's fingers, relieved to be finally free of the restrictiveness of his clothes. Greg followed his fingers with his mouth, trailing feather-light kisses down Mycroft’s chest until he reached the hem of his suit trousers. The pile of clothes grew until only their socks remained. Greg’s argument to leave them on was quickly silenced by Mycroft’s lips and a hand sneaking its way under his legs, pulling him affectively onto his lab.

Cocooned by warmth, they made love in front of the fire, the blankets soft beneath their bare skin. Gentle fingers traced freckles and scars like the finest treasure, speaking love which could not be expressed in words and kept the darkness of the night at bay.

When the fire had dimmed down, both lay entangled beneath the safety of one of the blankets, a pillow placed beneath Mycroft’s head. Greg had his cheek pressed against his lover’s heart.

“Hm,” he hummed into Mycroft’s naked chest, eyes closed in bliss. “This is the best Christmas I have ever had.”

Long fingers gently caressed Greg’s scalp. A kiss was pressed to his forehead.

“I quite agree. One of many bests, I shall hope.”