The table linen was always spotless and he was always careful not to get any drops of tea, or even crumbs onto it. Reaching for the butter he scowled across at his brother. Still in his pyjamas, and his hair tousled, those intent, pale eyes were following the movement of a trail of honey, as he dripped it from the pot, to his bread and onto the table. They had seen a computer in mummy's department generating fractals, and here his brother was endeavouring to recreate that effect on the clean white tablecloth.
He glanced across at his mother A mathematics textbook was in one hand, a slide rule in the other and her tea was on the table in front of her, neglected. She paid no heed to the goings on at the table. His sister was watching him inscrutably from her high chair. Her sippy-cup of milk was on its side and the milk was pooling in the tray. Her hand was splashing in it. He turned back to his plate with a sigh of frustration, and from the corner of his eye he thought he saw her smirk.
Father swept into the room. He always, swept everywhere. If he were a cartoon, he would always have swirly lines around him. His impossibly long arms swept down to his wife's plate and snatched up a piece of toast. He bit into it as he gave her an affectionate kiss on the head, leaving a few crumbs on the auburn hair. He threw the unfinished slice down and announced. He seemed to always announce everything, even when asking a question.
"Ready to go, my boy? The car is waiting outside and you know how the plebs get when one blocks the road." He said with a laugh.
Mycroft knew that the ancient London streets had not been designed with anything other than pedestrians, hand carts, a few horses, carts and carriages in mind. If he were in charge he would have designed them differently. Anticipated such eventualities. He stood up and silently went to the entrance hall. He did not bother to bid farewell to his mother or brother. When they were engrossed in something it was as if the world did not exist to them and his sister rarely spoke. The stained-glass light danced over the black and white tiles of the entrance hall. Even though it was a warm day in July, he still took his coat and buttoned it all the way. His father raised an eyebrow at that but Mycroft pretended not to notice and pulled open the heavy front door and stepped out of the London townhouse down on to the pavement. The glossy black car was parked in the road and already two cars were queuing up behind it. The man in the white van called out.
"Come on mate, some of us have jobs to do!"
The uniformed driver silently opened the door and they both slid in, immediately cocooned in the smell of leather and polish. They sat in companionable silence for several minutes as they joined in the stop-start crawl that was driving in central London.
"Tom Brown Outfitters is where we Holmes have bought our Eton uniforms for the last hundred and sixty years, my boy. Today is a proud day." And he beamed as if he really meant it.
As the car purred though the slow-moving traffic, Mycroft could feel a heat rising up his neck and onto his face. He looked down at his father's long pinstriped legs and the shiny black leather of his shoes. "Father," he mumbled. "What if the uniform doesn't fit?" His shoulders slumped and he exhaled softly. His pudgy legs would never be that long and elegant, and he accepted that, but the ultimate humiliation would be not finding a uniform in his size. He imagined a scenario were the shop girls were bent over double in laughter, tears streaming down their faces, and beckoning to other shop girls to come and look at the fat boy who had had the audacity to try and buy a uniform. He felt the hot prick of tears at the corner of his eyes, and squeezed them shut.
His father's hand patted his knee gently. "Not to worry, my boy. We've plenty of time before term starts for any alterations to be made, and bespoke is also an option. It will fit like a glove."
Mycroft sighed and sank back into his seat. An absurd image of a glove, with fat sausage fingers, straining to burst, caused him to swallow down a hysterical laugh. The car stopped and he did not wait for the driver, but scrambled out of the car and into the dark interior of 'Tom Brown Outfitters. His eyes adjusted and as he walked across the thick carpeting his eyes took in the mahogany stands with silk ties, on display, and dark, heavy looking coats. Towards the back of the shop were the straw boaters and stripped jackets that made up the uniform section. As his face started to fall, taking in the tiny sizes of the blazers, a grey-haired man strode confidently towards them. Mycroft could see the man saying to himself "unfortunate boy."
"Mr Holmes, Master Holmes, this way please."
His father gave an almost imperceptible nod at the tape measure around the man's neck and Mycroft could see his father had discussed this with the man previously.
An hour later, they emerged and two shop girls carried the assorted bags of cricket caps, rugby socks, and cummerbunds. One of the girls was new, he could tell. Her uniform was still stiff with the starch of newness and the manager had cast an appraising glance over her every action as she had wrapped his purchases. She vibrated with nervousness even though she looked placid. All he held was the mahogany-handled umbrella his father had added to the pile. The waiting driver efficiently loaded everything into the boot. The housekeeper at the London townhouse would ensure that all his other essentials were purchased and packed. His uniforms would be collected in two weeks.
Because of the day's shopping excursion, the tutor had been given the day off. Dr Presbury was studying mathematics and it was obvious to Mycroft that he had only taken on the role in order to have access to mother, and discuss his research with her. A tutor was unnecessary as he did not need to be 'herded' towards education. He already was competent in French, Greek, Latin and mathematics and everything else was easy to grasp. He knew the academic side of Eton would not be a problem for him. People were more complicated.
Mycroft trudged heavily up the red carpeted stairs, kicking gently at the brass stair rods as he went up. The fittings had not been as embarrassing as he feared and on the way back Father had told him a funny story about when he first went to Eton and did not know how to play cricket. Mycroft of course knew all the rules but was still uncertain about whether he would manage the practical aspects of the game.
The curly head was waiting for him at the top of the stairs. His eyes were shining. "I knew it was you because I heard 'tink, tink, tink' and only you kick the stairs Mycroft!" He took a running leap and launched himself into Mycroft's arms.
"Sherlock! You mustn't do that!" Mycroft huffed as he caught the small cannon ball with both hands. "One day I might not be able to catch you and then you would get hurt."
Sherlock laughed. "Of course you will. You always look after me." He patted Mycroft's face affectionately with both small hands. "Can we play the guessing game?"
"Only for a little while – I have to finish Marcus Aurelius."
The small hand clasped him and pulled him towards the nursery. On one side was the old wooden cot, which generations of Holmes had cut their teeth on. A rag doll which had had the eyes plucked out was discarded in the corner. Sherlock led him to his own low bed and Mycroft sat beside him.
"First guess… what colour I'm thinking of."
"Red" said Mycroft instantly and Sherlock laughed again, that high sweet sound.
"That was too easy. You saw my looking at my Captain Redbeard book."
"You do one," Mycroft said. "I've taught you how. Tell me what will nursery lunch be today? Think out loud and I will help you."
"Um. You had a sad face when you left in the morning. Cook likes you best and doesn't like to see you sad. Sausages are your favourite and we had some left from breakfast because you had to leave in a hurry. So, it will be something sausage."
"Good," said Mycroft "and after?"
"Nanny has tea with us and nanny has a sore throat so she will want jelly. So, something wobbly jelly."
"You are learning very well Sherlock. Now I have to do my work. You can come with me to the schoolroom. You will have to sit very still for a long time though and not disturb me. Can you do that today?" Some days he was a tornado of activity and others he could patiently watch a moth fluttering around a light for an hour.
Though he was only three, sometimes Sherlock would sit in on his lessons, in imitation of his big brother. When they were at Musgrave, Sherlock usually played with their neighbour, Victor Trevor, but when they had to be at the London townhouse the boy was Mycroft's shadow.
He did not mind when the boy sat still at the desk next to him. His father had found it amusing to have made a miniature desk and chair for the schoolroom. It was wooden and had the same hinged desk as Mycroft's and was identical except it was built to the dimensions of a three-year-old. He knew the child was not ordinary. He acted as if he was not listening to the tutor and did not answer the questions directed at Mycroft, but sometimes, something about the way his eyes darkened made Mycroft was sure he was taking it all in. The boy seemed to be running on a parallel track, different from others. His sister had been a silent baby. Never crying, simply sitting and observing. She had still not learned to walk at two years old, almost as if the task were beneath her and nanny carried her everywhere. Nanny adored her and called her 'little poppet' and was happy to walk around with her all day. He was sure she could have walked if she wanted to. She just did not want to.
As Mycroft looked over his exercise book, Sherlock stood up and placed himself behind Mycroft's shoulder as he sat. He could feel the child's soft breath on the back of his neck. He remembered how resentful he had been at this interloper into the world which for seven years had been 'Mycroft, Mummy and Daddy'. She was HIS mummy, not anybody else's. But the child had been a constant shadow, first overshadowing his happiness but later as someone who followed Mycroft everywhere. When they wandered round the Musgrave estate. Sherlock's chubby little legs would follow Mycroft and Mycroft would find himself calling out the names of the trees and flowers and birds. The little voice would repeat after him. 'Oak', 'Ash', 'Chestnut', 'Common Grey Squirrel' and wait for Mycroft's nod that he had repeated correctly. And the little face would scrunch up in pride. As he now stood, and looked over his shoulder he said.
"I'm not going to need to know Latin because me and Redbeard are going to be pirates when we grow up! Pirates don't need Latin."
"It's 'Redbeard and I'," Mycroft corrected.
"No!" cried the little voice hotly, "It's not Redbeard and YOU! It's Redbeard and me who are going to be pirates. You said you want to wear a suit like daddy and Uncle Rudy."
"Even if you do become a pirate, you will need many skills. Latin may be useful to you one day. It helps organise the mind. I was just correcting your grammar"
"Grandma lives in France!"
Mycroft quirked his head. The child was making a joke. He smiled indulgently, and as the little arms wrapped around his neck the smile became a real one. He did not force Sherlock to let go and they were still like that when Nanny came in. She was not his nanny, obviously. He was ten and too sensible for a nanny, but Sherlock and Eurus needed attention. Eurus was in Nanny's arms and frowned as she looked at Mycroft and Sherlock. She turned her face and pressed it into Nanny's neck. It did not look like she wanted a cuddle, rather to look away as far as she could from the display of brotherly affection.
"It's your favourite, master Holmes, Toad in the Hole, then jelly and custard for afters."
The next few days passed in their usual rhythm. Some evenings in the drawing room Mummy or Father would have visitors, and there would be wine glasses clinking, and laughter. Sometimes he would be brought downstairs, in his dressing gown and his father would proudly ruffle his hair as he showed off his son to the suited men who had come to the house. "One day you will be running the Holmes estates. It's important to make the right connections," Father had told him. Mycroft could see that as he said this his eyes did not have their usual jolly twinkle but were looking at him intently and reminded him of Sherlock's. He swallowed and nodded.
At breakfast, Father was sitting with a broadsheet newspaper spread open, and only the top of his head was visible. Mycroft could see the tiny movements of his father's head. Sometimes nodding slowly, other times a small movement of his hair, which meant he was gently frowning. The comfortable patent shoes were the ones he wore to make the walk to Westminster from Kensington and meant that today was a City day. Mother was spooning porridge into Eurus' mouth, which she was eating lazily. At one point mother looked down curiously at the child but then the expression left her face. The sun was streaming through the open window, but a shadow crossed it. As Mycroft stood up to go to the sideboard and help himself to more kippers and scrambled egg, something blew into the room through the window. For a moment, he thought it was a brown paper bag or rubbish from the street but when he turned his head to the table he could see a brown owl standing at his place-setting. It turned its neck as if it were looking at him. As if it knew who he was. Eurus stretched her hand out towards the bird, and it hopped backwards, even though it was far outside her reach. Father slowly put down his paper and looked first at the bird. Then held Sherlock who had stood up and was climbing onto the table to get to the bird. His black patent buckle-up shoes were already on the white tablecloth when Father reached around his waist to hold him back, at which he started crying. As his little legs kicked, he upset the milk jug. Mummy's face had become still and closed off. Her cheeks were so often pink, as she explained a theory to someone or worked at an equation on a napkin, but they were now as grey as the chalk that was often on her fingers. She stood up and approached the bird. Mycroft could see it had dropped a scroll onto the table. The paper reminded him of the Egyptian papyrus they had seen on their holiday. She snatched the scroll and shooed the bird out of the window, closing it firmly behind it. She breathed out shakily and slowly and deliberately tore the scroll in half. It took some effort, as it was still rolled up. Then, again very deliberately, she approached the empty fireplace, took some matches from the mantelpiece and set the torn parchment alight. It burst into bright white flames. Still facing the fireplace, she said firmly. "Mycroft. Go to your room."
He had never heard her voice sound like that, so cold, that he was frightened. He put his plate down and quickly walked across the room to the hall. His mother had already rung the bell for nanny, and he could hear her quick step as she came to gather up Sherlock and Eurus. He saw father's eyebrow quirk upwards as if to say, "So darling, can you tell me what this is all about?" then heard the door close firmly shut.
He stayed in his room all afternoon. Mycroft was on the top floor of the London house and the late summer sun was still streaming through his window. A small window was open to let in a breeze. From his desk, he could see down into the street. A curious figure caught his eye. A portly middle aged man was looking around and even from this distance he could read the wonderment and amusement as he looked up at a helicopter flying by. He walked backwards for a moment, looking up. Then took out a piece of paper from his pocket and turned and made the way up the stairs to their home. When Mycroft heard the heavy brass knocker, he ran down the stairs. He was not much given to physical exertion, but he could sense that this visitor was out of the ordinary. Mother sometimes had odd looking visitors. They were from the university where she taught and academia did often make people become odd. His mother's students often came to the house as did other academics but he could tell this man was neither.
Mycroft did not normally disobey but he felt compelled to come down the stairs and stood on the first-floor landing. The man was being admitted by Tessa, the cook cum-housekeeper.
"I'll see if they are at home," she said, exaggerating the 'h' she normally dropped. She quickly walked towards the sitting room.
The visitor looked up at Mycroft, gave a wink and instead of politely and patiently waiting for admittance, beckoned him to follow. Mycroft ran down the remaining stairs, just as the man flung open the sitting room doors Tessa had just gone through.
"Sorry, ma'am, I told 'I'm to wait!"
"Now who the ruddy hell do you think you are, barging in!" Mycroft held his father bellow as he took long strides towards the man. His mother sat transfixed in her chair.
"I do beg your pardon," he intoned as he bent down, swept his red velvet coat tails out of the way and sat in Father's comfortable chair.
"Call the police, Tessa" father said resolutely as he walked towards the interloper. Somehow the door seemed to close by itself and at the same time Mummy stood up and said,
"Darling, don't! Tessa, that will be all. Please leave."
Father's jaw hung open in a way Mycroft had never seen. It closed shut quickly and his brow twisted in the way a puppy's might if you started talking to it about internal combustion, rather than about 'sit', 'stay' or 'walkies'.
Mother did not look at him and remained looking down. The tension filled the room and Mycroft felt he had to say something. He turned to the man and tried to put as much authority in his voice as possible.
"Who are you, and why are you here?"
The man cleared his throat.
"Professor Slughorn at your service. We had a notice of the destruction of an unopened parchment at 8.27 this morning. As it does not relate to a muggleborn per se, a school representative was not initially assigned to make a personal visit, however as I am aware of the sensitive nature of the situation and the Vernet connection to Beauxbatons I was sent by the head to discuss this matter with you."
Mycroft understood the reference to Vernet. Those were his mother's relations. They sometimes visited Grandmère in France and by now Mycroft was fluent in French. She lived in the family estate in Avignon together with mother's three brothers and sisters, and their families. There had been some sort of family argument and she did not keep in touch with any of her aunts or uncles or cousins. Mother always was upset after visits from uncle Rudy, so they saw him less and less frequently. The man had also said something about school, but he did not look like he was from Eton. He was wearing a red velvet smoking jacket and a little black Fez hat. His fleshy face spoke of comfortable living, but there was an uncomfortable undertone to his expression as his eyes kept darting towards Father. Also, what kind of a name was Slughorn?
"As I said, my name is Professor Slughorn. I teach Potions at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I am head of Slytherin house, and though it is unusual for the sorting hat to place the child of a squib and a muggle into Slytherin, the Vernet family have played a prominent role in the Wizarding world and I understand the Holmes family is not uninfluential in the Muggle world, so it may be the best place for your advancement. I may be your Head of House. "
As Mycroft and Father looked at each other the man frowned. Perhaps they should disregard Mummy's instructions and call the police, or at least an ambulance, as the man was obviously unwell.
"Merlin's beard, woman! He spluttered. Don't tell me you have not spoken to them about it? Naturally, marrying a muggle is a path many squibs take, but surely you had noticed some accidental magic and realised what it meant?"
Mother now spoke for the first time. "Mycroft has never done anything he did not precisely mean to," she said in a low clear voice.
The man, 'Slughorn', opened the file he had and thumbed through the papers.
"Ah, well. The children of squibs especially, have been known not to produce accidental magic, however his name has appeared on the list, so there is no doubt he is a wizard. He'll soon fit in. It can be a bit of a shock to the system but he will be well cared for."
Suddenly an image of a long table loaded with grapes, and roast chicken on golden plates jumped into Mycroft's mind.
Slughorn startled. To himself he said 'A natural legilemens! He sent out quite a strong probe. That is very unusual but with the right training he will have a very powerful skill.' He cleared his throat, and continued, still to himself 'for legitimate purposes only, of course. Naturally. Quite.'
For the first time mummy spoke. "I always knew I would be a squib. The magic in our branch of the Vernet family had been weakening for generations. The girls on the Vernet side are always squibs. Out of all of us only Rudy got a Beauxbatons letter. Father was a muggle and died before Rudy got his letter and had never known about magic. Mother was also a squib so when I married a muggle I thought that would be the end of it. I just hoped that side of my history would become an irrelevance."
Father stood up and placed his forehead gently against mother's. "Darling, is this about the cult you were telling me your cousin had joined before she died? The one with trained animals like that owl? You don't have to be afraid." His voice was earnest and gentle. " I can call the police and rest assured I will do everything in my power to protect you."
A small hand had turned the door knob and Sherlock silently slid into the room. No one noticed. He was good at not being noticed when he did not want to be.
Professor Slughorn cleared his throat. "Where muggles are involved, a demonstration is often useful." From the inside of his coat he produced a stick, inlaid with silver markings. He moved his lips and made twitching movements with the stick and before Mycroft's eyes, the room began to grow dark. Stars began to appear all around them, and the ornate living room seemed to have faded out of view. The coffee table rose slowly then seemed to crumple in on itself and became a huge glowing ball in the middle of the room. The chair Mycroft was standing beside was suddenly a smaller blue ball and began to spin around what had been the table. There were other balls. Planets. It was the solar system. All the planets began to move around the sun.
Sherlock gave a whimper and ran back out of the room. Immediately the display was gone.
"We have two months before term starts, however if you wish to enrol him at Beauxbatons you may do so. It is however imperative that he embarks on a course of magical training, otherwise it will be very dangerous for those around him to have someone with uncontrolled magic. In any case, the Statute of Secrecy requires magical training for that very reason. I believe you have a lot to discuss with your husband and son." At this he paused and gave Mother a sympathetic look. "I will be back in two weeks to take him to Diagon Alley. You are free to come as well, but as you know a wand is necessary to gain access.
I'll take my leave now. Good day." Inclining his head towards Mycroft and stepped into the sitting room fireplace and disappeared in a burst of green flame.
In the end, it was Uncle Rudy who had introduced him to the magical world. Mycroft came back through the front door, his head still spinning. His mother was standing in the drawing room. Again, he was sent upstairs.
Mother thought he could not hear the whispering, but he could always hear what he wanted.
"It leapt into the boy's hand," said Rudy. English willow, (naturally). Phoenix feather which Ollivander had said meant loyalty. I do not want to think about what the bitter myrrh in the core means."
Now he could hear mother. 'Rudolph, since that Professor came I've been getting the Daily Prophet and I do know about this dark Lord business. It's too dangerous. I will not allow him to get involved in that world again."
"Our world." Rudy corrected, with an edge of firmness in his voice.
"Brother," she intoned formally. "My son is not a pure-blood, which makes him a target in these troubled times. He will go to Eton as planned."
Rudolph continued to look at her firmly and the concession could be heard in her silence.
She continued in a softer voice. "You can tutor him in magic during the holidays, just enough to keep it under control. At home where it is safe. And are you sure about Sherlock, isn't it too soon to tell?'
"I work for the Department of Mysteries, Sister. If I can't tell a wizard from a squib, I should just hang up my wand. Sherlock's a strange child, but it's not magic.'" A pause. "Keep an eye on the girl though"'
"We've not had a Vernet-line witch for generations."
"Maybe it's all been saved-up for this one."
There was silence for a while and Mycroft had started to go up the stairs.
"What about his wand? He can't take that to Eton."
"Hidden in an umbrella it should still work. The wood will simply act as an extension of the wand. It's not perfect but it is better than nothing. I'll pull some strings and arrange it."