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Written in Skin

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"Love looks not with the eyes,

But with the mind,

And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind."

- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

 

“i do not know how to live tepidly.

i was never built to fit in.

i live by my soul and my soul is insane.”

- Ava, You Are Safe Here

 

It’s a lot like leafing through pages in a large picture book, or watching from the other side of a window. The glass is clear, but still a barrier. Objects are out of reach, though the acts that unfold can tug at your heart or spark a forest fire of rage. 

Or encourage a person to engender a certain numbness of feeling.

Mycroft Holmes sits on a bench in Hyde Park. His lunch balances on a linen napkin over his lap: roast beef on rye, an apple, and celery sticks. The days spent in the park on his lunch break are uneventful. Quiet but for the low hum of lives: voices, birdsong, vehicles in the distance. If it’s a chilly day, he sits in the sun, and lets the rays warm the fair skin of his face and hands. On warmer days, he can be found in the dappled shade of a London planetree with its mottled white, grey, and green bark. Some days, he removes his jacket, and rolls up his shirtsleeves. Wherever he sits, it’s at the far end of the park, away from the busy crowds that congregate around the popular statue of the Lovers. 

On days of mild, fair weather, people walk their dogs and throw frisbees. Couples stroll past, often hand in hand, sharing a quiet camaraderie and a seemingly smug joy in their good fortune. The Devout wear bracelets: red beads for those still searching, gold beads for the ones who have found and have been found. It doesn’t matter which sect of the church you tithe; the bracelet colors are uniform in meaning. 

Mycroft doesn’t wear a bracelet, but not because he’s declaring himself a secular person. Not yet, anyway. It’s difficult to break free of an old framework.

On this early summer day, a man with a white cane comes down the pathway. The cane slides side to side in front of him with a practiced flick of his wrist. He faces forward, his eyelids half-closed. The sun catches veins of brilliant silver among the salt and pepper of his hair. His face is young. Square jaw, a symmetry in features that reminds Mycroft of the splendid symmetry found in his beloved Lepidopteran species. 

The butterflies. Across the way from his little bench is a gorgeous garden that proves inviting to the scale-winged creatures with its array of nectar-giving flora. The Lepidopteran insects are his private fascination; butterflies, skippers, and moths alike, though he tends to study butterflies.

As the man passes before him, blocking his view of the garden for but a moment, Mycroft notices a lack of wedding ring, creased pants from sitting, and a coffee stain on the right thigh of his trousers - likely right-handed.

The same trousers that cling to his posterior and his thighs in a way that triggers interest in places Mycroft prefers to ignore. His cheeks flush as he recognizes the low burn of attraction. A strange, sharp cry rings in his chest. 

He can’t help but look again. The man has gone further down the path, his pace quick and his steps measured. He hasn’t seen him before, but the blind man moves as if he’s walked the path a thousand times. 

Which is fine, really. Bloody fine. 

After all, Mycroft was never destined to obtain a Devotee.

 


 

“Oh Mykie, you won’t believe it! Your cousin Hugh has found his Devotee!” Mummy exclaims so loudly that Mycroft yanks the phone away from his ear. His cousin Hugh isn’t really his cousin by blood, but Mummy has never noted the distinction. “She’s lovely, just lovely, fine breeding and…”

As his mother numbers all the reasons why Hugh’s newfound love is the pinnacle of perfection, his mind wanders. He got home from work late again, made himself a dinner of spaghetti bolognese, and ate it at the counter, staring into the reflective surface of the microwave. 

He moves to the living room so his eyes can take in the paintings on the wall above the cream-coloured sofa. Each wooden panel measures three inches by three inches, and is painted with a single butterfly: beauties such as the Old-World swallowtail, the holly blue and the marbled white. Subtler beauties such as the grizzled skipper, the common brimstone, and the speckled wood. So far, there are twenty-two. Each done by Mycroft with oil paints and the finest sable brushes for all the careful, miniscule details embedded on the wings.  

He supposes his little preoccupation is to be expected. Ever since his mother told him of the trials of the Soul, he's felt drawn to beautiful things. She’d had him sit beside her while his brother Sherlock lay in her arms, gnawing on a wooden rattle, swaddled in a white, crocheted blanket. 

“Psyche was a beautiful woman; so beautiful, that people began paying homage to her beauty rather than to the temple of Aphrodite. Inside these temples, the candles burned down, the ashes grew cool, and the food rotted. Unable to accept this, Aphrodite sent her son Eros, the god of love, to punish Psyche by causing her to fall in love with a vile creature. When Eros espied Psyche however, his own heart was pierced by his arrow, and he could not carry out his mother’s bidding. 

“Instead, when the oracle declared that Psyche was due to marry a monster, the gentlest of the winds, Zephyrus, carried the maiden to a house hidden away by Eros.”

Mycroft had asked, “How could her parents let her go to a monster?”

His mother explained that it was Fate, and Fate could not be averted. Which scared Mycroft more than anything he'd ever heard.

“Psyche never saw a monster. Instead, she was greeted by invisible servants who met her every need inside a beautiful house cradled within lush gardens. She had plentiful food and clothing, books, needlecrafts, and many other things to while away her time with. Her husband came to her at night, and she never saw his face, but he was gentle, and he was loving. He called her his Butterfly. She grew to trust, and then to love him. She called him her Heart.”

“Even though she never saw him?” The notion of Fate still tugged at him, worried him like a dog at a bone.

“Not then. But she did miss her sisters. Eventually, she asked him that the West Wind might carry her sisters to her for a visit, and he acquiesced, but being a god, and being a god of love, he knew the hearts of mortals. He warned Psyche against heeding her sister’s words, and asked Psyche to trust him and in their love. Psyche promised, and he gave word to Zephyrus to bring the sisters.

“And so the sisters visited, and jealous of their sister’s wealthy house and devoted servants, they inquired more and more about her husband. She admitted that she saw him only in the darkness of night, and therefore had never looked upon his face. They seized upon this opportunity to chisel away at Psyche’s confidence in her newfound love. They warned her that he must truly be a monster, if he’d never allowed Psyche to see him in the light. 

“Before long, Psyche found herself filled with doubt, and a bit of fear. The sisters departed, and Psyche wrung her hands over what she must do." His mother had frowned at this part, her light brown hair framing her face like a wreath of soft twigs. She was beautiful in the soft, white light of the nursery.

“That night, she waited for her husband. They went to bed. When she heard his breath settle into slumber, she rose from the bed and went to the lamp. She lit the candle inside, and held the lamp aloft.”

Mycroft can remember the inhale of breath he took, his chest alight with the fear and excitement of discovery, his skin tingling with the anticipation that Psyche herself must have felt while looking for the first time upon her beloved.

“What lay in the bed was no monster, but a beautiful youth with golden skin, the softest butter-yellow curls, and a finely formed body. What she saw was no monster, but the winged God of Love himself.”

Mycroft often wondered if Psyche had ever felt the wings while the two were in bed together. Wouldn’t she have mentioned that to her sisters?

“When Psyche bent forward, a bit of wax from the candle in the lamp dripped onto the smooth skin of the god, who awoke, and flew up from the bed. Seeing what Psyche had done, he was upset, more sad than angry. He told her that Love was Trust, and that Love could not live where Suspicion dwelled. Then he flew through the window and left Psyche to her grief.”

Mycroft, at this point, had been perplexed. What had the God of Love expected, when he’d never shown his face to the woman who became his wife? He would have called it a deception.

His mother was caught up in the telling, hugging Sherlock closer to her chest as he began to doze. “Upon realizing that she had married the God of Love, Psyche travelled to a temple for the goddess Aphrodite. She wept as she travelled, and when she came upon the temple, she lay prostrate before the goddess’ altar and begged Aphrodite to speak to her son on Psyche’s behalf. Aphrodite was still jealous of Psyche’s beauty, and angry over her son’s injury. Eros, you see, was in her house, nursing a burn and a broken heart. Aphrodite first threw Psyche to her servants Worry and Sadness, and had the girl whipped.

“Then, she promised to help so long as Psyche could complete the three tasks set before her.”

“Only three?” Mycroft hadn’t been sure Eros was exactly worth it.

The story goes on to describe three nearly insurmountable tasks: the first of which was to separate a small hill of seeds into their piles: millet, poppy, and so on. She had to separate the seeds by dawn, or never see her husband again. Ants took pity on Psyche, and helped her to divide the piles. The second task was to gather wool from the sheep of Helios. Psyche needed to cross a river to reach the pasture, and while there, the reeds sang to her, and told her of the violent, flesh-eating temperament of the sheep. It was safer to wait until the heat of the day, when the sheep slumbered on one side of the hill, and Psyche could freely collect the wool that was caught in the brush. The third task was to fill a crystal bottle from falls where the rivers Styx and Cocytus spewed black water. Dragons lived there and the rocks were slippery and sharp. An eagle aided Psyche in completing the task so that she would not need to battle the dragons or stand among the rocks.

This seemed like a lot to do just for a husband, but Mycroft sat listening dutifully to his mother’s story, not realizing he’d hear various versions of it for the rest of his life.  

“Then Aphrodite, exhausted, told Psyche she would see her love again at last, but only if she would help restore some of Aphrodite’s beauty - she claimed it had faded while playing nursemaid to her ailing son. She asked Psyche to help her by visiting the Queen of the Underworld, and bring back a box containing a little bit of the queen’s borrowed beauty. At this point, Psyche doesn’t understand how one would get into the Underworld without dying. She realizes that the goddess never intends Psyche to see her beloved again, and so Psyche prepares herself for her death, and climbs to the top of a very tall tower.”

At this point, Mycroft can remember leaning forward, wide-eyed and incredulous at the turn the story had taken. 

“The tower came to life and told the young woman where to find an entrance to the Underworld. The tower also advised her to bring honeyed barley cakes and coins. With the first coin, Psyche paid Charon the ferryman to carry her safely across the River Styx. She fed one of the cakes to the three-headed guardian of the gate, Cerberus, and managed to make her way to Persephone’s throne without injury. Queen Persephone was happy to share a little bit of her beauty with Aphrodite, and Psyche was sent on her way to give the box to Aphrodite, again with a cake and a coin to ensure her safe passage back to the Land of the Living.”

“So, she did it. Did Aphrodite let her see Eros?” Mycroft had asked.

“Hm. Well, Psyche was tired. She knew some of her own beauty had faded, and she thought she might take just a little of Persephone’s beauty for herself so she was captivating in the eyes of her beloved.”

“Oh. That probably didn’t go well,” Mycroft had said, disappointed. What was the point of this story anyway, he'd thought.

His mother smiled at him, her blue eyes softening around the edges. “Right you are. The doings of the gods are no business of mortals. Psyche opened the box and was sent into a dead sleep.”

“So, she never saw Eros again?”

“No. Eros’ wound had scarred into the shape of a heart. He left his mother’s house, and he saw his little wife laying there in the garden. He loved her still, you see, despite her errors. He had been told of her trials by another, and he was won over by her devotion to him. So he kissed her, and lifted the sleep from her eyes. He then carried her to Olympus, and begged Zeus to make her his wife before the gods, and his equal. Zeus had her drink ambrosia, the food of the gods, and Psyche became a goddess. The shape of butterfly wings appeared on her back. They held a wedding banquet for the couple, and even Aphrodite attended.”

“What is the point of this story?” Mycroft had asked, squirming in his chair.

“It’s our most significant story, my little son. It tells the trials of the Soul’s search for Love. When the Soul proves her devotion, Love heals her hurts, and they are united. When there is the union of the Soul and Love, there is Divine Ascension.

“And, importantly, it tells the story of the first couple to bear Devotionals. You see, Psyche referred to Eros as her heart, and this was depicted upon his skin in the heart-shaped scar. For Psyche, when Eros made her his proper wife before the gods and she became a goddess herself, the wings of a butterfly appeared on the skin of her back. As you may remember from the beginning of their story, Eros called her his butterfly.

“For us, finding your Devotee represents an ascension in divine union. It is the most important rite of passage in a person’s life, Mycroft.”

Mycroft held onto that memory as if it were from yesterday. As he watched the love grow between his stepfather and his mother, as he watched couples form around him, as he listened to the sermons of their priest speak of the ultimate salvation in finding one’s Devotee, Mycroft listened, and waited.

It would never come. Instead, he focuses on his work, and takes his walks, and paints his butterflies. After discovering his fate, it was no longer the beauty of the butterflies that drew him in, but the creature’s metamorphosis from plain and earthbound, to something lovely and ethereal.

He recalls the man in the park. He was beautiful. Unable to see his own exquisite symmetry. Mycroft knows what it’s like to live without something considered endemic to being human. His... defect ...just isn’t so obvious to others.

His mother is quiet on the other end of the line.

“Mummy?”

“You know, Mycroft. I blame myself.”

“Mummy,” he starts.

“Your father and I were very foolish. Believing we were above the laws of the gods. I know you’ve paid the price.” This is an old line. It wouldn’t surprise Mycroft if she spent every Sunday genuflecting before the altar, apologizing for her trespasses against Divinity.

Too late for apologies. I am alive, Father is dead, and the earth continues its orbit.

“I know,” he says. “It means nothing. Don’t worry yourself over it; I am content.”

 


 

Mycroft rolls into work a half hour before anyone else does, as usual. He passes through the glass door bearing the frosted white letters: “Mycroft Holmes, Chief Software Architect.” The door shuts behind him, a barrier against the inane chatter of his team as they come in to settle into their ergonomic rolling chairs placed in each of the cluttered grey cubicles. 

The first task up is to check the status of their servers and review the to-do list of the day. It’s quiet, methodical work suited to Mycroft’s analytical intellect. 

There’s movement on the other side of the glass, shadows of figures, muffled voices as the rest of the software engineers come in, no doubt swapping stories of their weekends. 

Mycroft ignores it as he scans the world headlines for any news that might impact their product - software security and assurance programs for clients in multiple countries. He delegates project to-dos to the appropriate members on his team, when he notices little red flags about the doings of one of his team members. 

The subsequent meeting with the errant engineer is just the start of his headache. 

“Mr Bailey, if you could keep your attention on the tasks in the leftmost column of the company task-tracker -”

“Mr Holmes, I apologise, I was excited about this new avenue -”

“I am speaking,” Mycroft raises his voice and clips his syllables, “- and I shall not be interrupted. If you’d like to continue your employment here, Mr Bailey, I suggest you keep your attention on the tasks given to you, rather than allowing shiny objects occupy your attention like some hedonistic magpie.”

Mr Bailey’s mouth flattens, though it’s almost hard to see beneath the furry animal on his face that passes for a beard. His shoulders bend in the slouch of someone who has spent too much time at a computer and not nearly enough time stretching himself upright.

Even this sallow-faced scatterbrain wears a gold bracelet.

“I’ll do better,” the man says in a quiet voice, though his eyes spark with defiance. 

“See that you do.” Mycroft lifts his hand to the door. “Go on, then.”

His heart is steady, and his palms are dry. But the pressure behind his right eye increases, as if someone were pressing a finger against his optic nerve.

It’s lunchtime that’s truly disappointing. Rain. Dreary, grey London rain that will keep him from enjoying an outing in the park. 

He passes the cubicles of engineers, typing away at their black keyboards. Colorful crayon drawings bearing crooked letters hang in almost half of them. Potted plants in a few. Frames of family. Silly stress relievers and Funkos and other strange toys and pop culture paraphernalia. No one lifts their head to watch him pass. He’d rather have little to do with them, aside from electronic messages. The whole point of the office task-manager software is so he would have little to do directly with his employees. It lists the necessary tasks. Every one of the engineers has access and can see what needs to be done, or who is working on what. As an efficiency tool, it’s allowed Mycroft to avoid too much contact.  

Not long after he’s sat at the white formica roundtable in the maroon plastic chair, Anthea enters, followed by Harry. Anthea is whip smart and motivated. She doesn’t put up with bullshit from the other engineers. She’s categorically attractive - big blue eyes and full lips, a headful of healthy, wavy brunette hair, an aesthetically curvy form. She yanks it back into a ponytail when focusing on a particularly tricky piece of programming, the lift of her breasts catching the eye of every straight guy in the office. As far as Mycroft’s seen, her diet consists of salads, grilled chicken, coffee, and Red Bull. As a programmer, she’s his best, so he has a great amount of respect for her. 

He’s known Harry since they both boasted a full head of hair. Uni students together. Harry was older, and already wearing a gold bracelet, the wedding planned for after graduation. Mycroft went. And when Harry started the company and asked Mycroft to come on board, Mycroft said yes. He respects Harry, who doesn’t play games with people or kiss arse. He’s everything Mycroft isn’t - relaxed, gregarious, and people-friendly. 

His Devotee, Maureen, attended his secondary school. They’ve had him over for dinner plenty of times. Maureen loves to talk about her prized orchids, her matching gold bracelet clicking against other bangles along her arm as she gesticulates and flourishes. Harry calls her a spitfire, his muse and his keeper. They’re no doubt a perfect match for one another. They even look alike, with sandy blond hair and soft blue eyes, easy smiles that come with having lived an easy life. They attend church on Sundays and even go to Wednesday Vespers. Harry admits Maureen is more Devout than he is - he never wore the bracelet until they realized they were each other’s Devotees. Straight from a naked wrist to a gold bracelet, no red beads in between. 

Once upon a time, Mycroft considered himself Devout. After all, his mother and his new stepfather were Devout, and everything seemed so lovely in their church, all these happy endings, and all these grand Divine Plans that were at once perfect and transcendent. Red bracelets turned to gold in time as church members found their Devotees. Until Uncle Rudy pointed out that there were smaller funerals for those who died without gold bracelets. That they were spoken about in piteous, pious tones, some more scolding, and others simply sad. Mycroft realized: those who died without having found their Devotee were believed to be suffering a punishment for a past life’s transgression.  

Most everyone keeps their Devotionals covered. Some flaunt them, particularly if it appears as an image. Words are commonplace, loving epithets written in skin - the epithet is what your Devotee would call you. The physical manifestation of your Divine Name, which seems ridiculous to Mycroft now, because this divine epithet could be something as inane as “Pooky” or “Barnacle Bottom.” The words were simply the sobriquet that clued you in to who your Devotee, your other half, could be. Images, however, were rare, and exalted on the account that the Divine Lovers wore images, and knew each other to be theirs. A person bearing an image as their Devotional would be more likely to show it off for the social collateral.

It isn’t polite to inquire as to what someone’s Devotional says, but Mycroft has seen Harry’s. Darling, inscribed in a handsome script on the inside of his left bicep. Devotionals are often shared between close friends and family members, but Mycroft saw Harry’s by accident. A little too much red wine at an office holiday party, the bump of someone dancing into Mycroft’s elbow, the spray of liquid across the front of Harry’s crisp white button-up, and Mycroft found himself in the gents, holding Harry’s jacket for him as he removed his shirt to give it a rinse under the silver faucet.  

It wasn’t exactly a secret - he’d heard Maureen refer to Harry as “Darling” many times, but the confirmation was like one of those little things that took him by surprise. The impulse to slap it like a whack-a-mole game at the fair took hold of him, and he’d held onto Harry’s jacket, white-knuckled and annoyed. 

He shakes the memory from his mind and focuses on his lunch - a Waldorf salad he picked up from the bistro down the road on his way in that morning. Harry heads for the coffee machine while Anthea retrieves her lunch cooler from the staff fridge. It’s flashy, new, silver. Nicer than the one Mycroft owns in his flat, and his isn’t cheap. 

Anthea drops into the chair next to his with a thump. “Christ, the Kiwis are killing me. It’s like Orrin has no idea what bloody time zones are.”

“Another early morning call, then?” Small talk is loathsome, but Anthea more often manages to slide under his skin and rest there, content to deflect his attempts at dislodging her with a gentle smile and a derisive comment about a person both of them despise. She knows how to stay on his good side, and she’s earned her place here in the company. 

“I won’t miss him if you decide to fire him, boss,” she says and winks as she opens the cooler and takes out a bowl much like his. No doubt it’s the same old mixed greens and grilled chicken salad she’s so fond of. Sometimes she has a yogurt of some Icelandic variety. 

“Mm. But then it means hiring another person willing to work with Gerald over in Sydney.” 

Harry snorts at this as he sits down with his coffee mug. The crumbs on his tie suggest he’s already had a bit of a lunch, likely a croissant at his desk. 

“Oh. No thank you. But I am going to eviscerate Orrin if he doesn’t learn not to call me in the middle of the bloody night.” She peels the lid from her salad container, and sure enough, it’s exactly as he predicted. Bland chicken with charred lines. Baby leaf lettuce mix. In some ways, he finds it comforting that she's so regimented. Another part of him however is enraged, furious that everything marches on in the same, relentless direction, the rhythm unchanging.

He swallows it down. “I shall advise him of appropriate times to make contact. It wasn’t even a serious issue.” He pushes a bit of apple over in his own salad. Certainly more exciting than the one she’s eating, what with its apple and celery and walnuts.  

“Just a blip in the software that caused some funny behavior on the front end. Easily fixable, but he doesn’t have the skills and he started panicking. I swear he has the emotional maturity of a twelve year old.” She stabs at the chicken with her fork. Her eyes are fixed on the morsel of chicken, but her mouth is twitching into a small smirk. “But, enough about him. I’ve got news, and I want to tell the two of you first.” 

Harry is just about to take a sip of his coffee, but he places it down on the table and looks at Anthea. “Yeah?”

“I’ve met him.” She claps a hand over her mouth. And giggles.

Mycroft’s heart pinches, but he gives her an imperiously lifted eyebrow. “Him?”

“My Devotee,” she says, her grin splitting her face. “He’s been my neighbor for a year, you guys! A year!”

Harry’s face opens with happiness, like the sun moving from behind the clouds. “Really? How magnificent!” 

Anthea laughs. “I know. I’m still in a sort of… state of disbelief.”

“That’s how it was for me and Maureen, too,” Harry says. His combover is threatening to reveal his shiny bald spot as he nods with enthusiasm. “And he’s your neighbor?”

“Downstairs. I’ve seen him on the lift and all, and we’ve said hi. I always thought he was cute, and it turns out he wanted to ask me out, but he was seeing someone. One of those, you know.”

Harry shakes his head. “Just a hookup, or were they trying to make a go of it?”

“They were trying to make a go of it,” Anthea says with a grimace. 

“She still in the picture?”

“They broke it off a couple weeks ago. Anyway, we were in the lift, and he asked me to coffee, and I said yes, and then we were at the cafe, and then we went to the bar -”

Mycroft places his fork on the table as quietly and carefully as he can. He’s been clenching his fingers around it to the point that his knuckles have paled. 

Neither of the others notice.

“- and then it just, sort of fell out of my mouth. Like, it was there in my head, maybe, and then I just said it. And his face. He looked at me, and then he says, ‘I think of you as the Posh Girl on floor four.’ So I showed him my wrist.” She laughs again, tinkly laughter like birds chittering in spring. “Oh my god, his face.”

Harry straightens up in his chair, his face glowing with his grin. “Maureen and I were making out in the back of her da’s car when we said ours at nearly the same time.”

“Stop it! I can’t believe you met so young. What luck.”

“We’re pretty lucky.” Harry’s eyes slide over to Mycroft’s. His smile slips a bit. “But you know, it’s not just being Devotees in name that’s important. There’s still hard work to be done in the relationship after.”

“Yeah. My mum talked my ear off this morning about it. She’s already planning the wedding, and I had to tell her to back off. I want to get to know him.” She glances at Mycroft, who tries to give her a smile, as upset as his stomach is. “Anyway, when it does come to that, I want to invite you both.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Mycroft says as calmly and politely as he can. He’s not sure it’s convincing because Anthea’s smile fades. 

“Well, good thing those two broke it off.” A new voice enters the conversation. “Ain’t nothing fun about falling in love with someone who isn’t your Devotee.”

Mycroft has been so absorbed in his reaction to Anthea’s announcement, he didn’t see Alicia enter the room. She leans against the counter, a mug in one hand, the other held across her chest. She’s a member of the sales team, and a good one at that. Somewhere in her fifties, she has silvery blonde hair she most often pulls into a bouffant with a tortoiseshell clip. Her blouses are stylish, today’s an emerald green over an A-line skirt in a shade of pewter. Black stockings and heels. A royal blue peacock brooch at her collar. It’s so unlike Anthea, who most often wears jeans and long-sleeved shirts that fit snug against her skin. Harry has never pushed a dress code, especially for the engineers. But Mycroft and Alicia are easily the best dressed on any day - he in his three piece suits with matching ties and pocket squares, she in her expensive double-breasted blazers and tasteful jewelry.

“Walter and I were married for twenty-one years when he left me for some woman half my age. I had his kids, put his career ahead of mine, and we swore to stay with each other no matter what. Bucking against the trend, I know.” She shakes her head, the wrinkles around her mouth drawn tight. “I know it wasn’t smart. I loved him. But we should have known better. I’m glad your young man and his ex-girlfriend broke it off. It doesn’t pay to engage in a romantic relationship with someone who’s going to leave you for their Devotee someday, anyway. Right, Mycroft?”

Mycroft looks down at his salad. A memory flits across his mind of Uncle Rudy in black, standing by his brother’s casket. His brother, Mycroft’s father. “He died of a broken heart.” Mycroft hadn’t understood the gravity of it, then. He remembers seeing his mother standing beneath a nearby cherry tree, her new husband holding her as she wept, shoulders shaking, black veil moving like a flag in the wind. Her belly was large, a new brother in the making. He’d turned back to Uncle Rudy to say, “But Mummy wasn’t his Devotee.” Rudy’s gaze settled on him like a heavy fog. “No. But he fell in love all the same.

He realizes everyone in the lunchroom is looking at him. They don’t know. They think it’s possible that Mycroft’s Devotee lives somewhere far away, or is likely dead. Or perhaps incarcerated or incapacitated - maybe he’s lying in a coma in hospital. 

They don’t know.

“I don’t carry a Devotional,” he says. 

All three sets of eyes bug.

Anthea looks concerned. Alicia scandalised. Harry sympathetic, as if he’s always suspected. 

He can picture their thoughts: Unloveable, Cursed, Punished, Unclean.

Insane.

Suicidal.

“It’s nothing, really. I live a very simple life. I have my work, and my interests. I am quite content.”

“How is it -” Alicia starts.

“Alicia, have you contacted the Krueger account?” Harry says.

Alicia blinks like the mouth of a goldfish. “Uh, not yet.”

“Please go do so. I don’t want to talk to Eddie Krueger ever again if I don’t have to.”

Mycroft pulls himself up in his seat. “No need to defend my honor, Harry. I know what Alicia wants to ask. How can I be so calm about what is seen as a major defect in the Divine plan? What sin must I have committed in a previous life that I am thus punished in this life?” Mycroft pops the lid back onto his salad. “I know what the Devout say about people like me. I can assure you; I am quite content as I am. I have no mental illness, I don’t spend my nights pining for what cannot be, and I haven’t committed suicide, as you can see.”

Alicia huffs, grips her mug with both hands, and stalks out the door.

Mycroft flinches at Anthea's sudden touch on his arm.

“Sorry,” she says as her blue eyes drill into his. “She wasn’t right. The Devout don’t have all the answers. They’ve just pieced together a pretty little story to make some sense of life, and they push it as the correct story, as the only way to live. But none of us can know the real truth.”

Mycroft gathers his druthers. “Anthea, it is the way of the world. A planet with six billion people, and only approximately twelve thousand are without Devotionals. That’s .0002% of the planet’s population. The prejudice was bound to happen.”

“Still, it isn’t right,” Harry says. “I’ll speak with her later.”

“Don’t bother. Not on my account.”

“I’ll call it company policy then,” he says as his eyes glint and one side of his mouth curves like the bow of a ship.

Anthea pokes at her salad. A shameful, creeping sensation covers his neck. He’s managed to make her happy announcement about him.  

“Anthea,” he says. “I am happy for you that you’ve found your Devotee.” 

She nods, her smile forced. “Thank you, Mycroft.”

“I best get back to it,” Harry says as he stands from his chair. “Anthea, congratulations. I’m so glad for you.”

“Thank you,” she says, an unusual shyness in her voice.

Mycroft stares at his salad bowl, still covered. His head is heavy, as if it were filling with water, building in pressure. As an adolescent, he’d been examined by a specialist in anticipation of his Devotional appearing. The sweet affectation that would help him determine his Devotee, and live a lifetime of happiness in the eyes of the Divine. He had grown in height, his voice was cracking, and hair had appeared in private places. All the signs of puberty, with the exception of his future beloved’s term of endearment for himself. The specialist couldn’t find any sign of a “hypocoristic,” as it was known in the scientific community. 

Devotional, it was called, by the Devout and by most of the more secular.

Soulmarks, by poets. 

“Love Bites,” in some incessant pop song that seems to creep into every retail store’s playlist. 

The specialist could only find large moles, overactive clusters of melanocytes that were responsible for his myriad freckles, and an embarrassing case of keratosis pilaris for which he was prescribed a lotion. 

Mycroft isn’t destined to find reunion with the other half of his soul, if the Devout were right. He’s flawed in some way; or sinned in a past life.

Well, Mycroft's not sure he wants that, anyway. Sherlock’s Devotional appeared at age twelve. He was a spindly set of limbs and caustic remarks. It seemed fitting to Mycroft that Sherlock’s Devotional, once they’d made it legible, was the word Cock.

Whenever Sherlock began to approach the apex of annoying, Mycroft would turn around, and say, “Now, Sherlock, don’t cock things up like you usually do.” Which angered Sherlock so much he’d scream to Mummy, red-faced and shaking.

With so much of pop culture centered on the finding of Devotees - movies, dating sites, music - Mycroft avoids most of it. Like an ascetic gone to the wilderness, he is an island unto himself.

 


 

On his lunch the next day, he sees, again, the beautiful blind man walk down the path. His hands tremble as the man disappears from view.

After all, Fate can't be averted.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that’s holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you will ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake.”

-Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

 

Most Saturdays, Mycroft ends up in a park, umbrella on hand for rain showers while he paints en plein air. He has a little umbrella of sky blue shade for his easel to make it easier to work in the rain. The benefit of oil paint is that the raindrops don’t cause the paint to run or smear. It keeps the lines crisp, the blocks of color neat, the shapes defined. The way he likes it.

On this day, however, the sun is out. He keeps an eye out for butterflies, flitting through the air like drunken feathers, but seeing only the species he’s seen before. They already hang on the wall over the sofa. 

He’s only somewhat aware of the people who gather behind him and peer at the easel, vying to get a glimpse of his painting. “The dapper gentleman who paints,” he’s heard one elderly woman say. Most of them move on pretty quickly as if they fear getting caught for being nosy. He’s learned to ignore them.

When a low murmur from a woman’s voice drifts through the air behind him, he thinks nothing of it. He’s painting the first blush of blooms in a small rosebush, the blue sky filled with ponderous white clouds, and the manicured lawn a lush green below the shrub’s shiny, dark leaves.

Her murmur is answered by the rough, bright voice of a man. “Tell me what he’s painting.”

The note of interest in the voice sends a shiver ricocheting through his spine.  

He turns. It’s the silver-haired man with the unseeing eyes. The white cane hangs from one arm, and his other arm links through a woman’s. She has smooth dark skin, and her hair hangs in tight waves around her shoulders. Her lips move, no doubt describing the painting to the blind man, but Mycroft doesn’t hear the words. He’s focused on the man’s face. His eyes are closed, and his head tilted, the sun golden on his skin. He appears like a demi-god, some sort of sun-filled seraphim or mischievous satyr. Mycroft imagines he’s full of wild indulgence and a mythical power, either Trickster or Healer. Painting him would be like what he projects the Renaissance painters felt when taking oil to canvas in hopes of capturing the ethereal allure of a nymph; or perhaps the palette would more correctly be one of Blake’s -

“Excuse me?” The woman says. “Are you hearin’ me?”

Mycroft startles at the harsh tone. “Beg your pardon?”

“If you’re done staring at ‘im - what, you never see a blind person before?”

Mycroft’s face flames at being caught out. “What? No! Oh no! Nothing so gauche!” He squeezes the paintbrush in his grip. “I merely...I’m an artist you see -“ she can see that you idiot  “- and the way his face caught the light - it caught my attention. It’s the golden hour, you see, and his skin in this light - “ Mycroft shuts his mouth, draws in a breath to fill his lungs, and tries again. “It wasn’t my intention to be rude. I was deciding how I might paint his face if I were to have the privilege.” 

Her face curves into one of amusement - mouth smirking and eyebrow arched like the talon on a bird of prey. She gives off the air of a caustic, whip-smart type with a chip on her shoulder.  

“It’s rude to talk about someone as if they aren’t there, y’know,” the man says, his eyes open now, facing Mycroft. They’re dark, like twin wells of ink. 

“You’re quite right,” Mycroft responds and draws himself up to his full height of six feet one inch. “I am Mycroft Holmes. Very pleased to make your acquaintance.” He holds his hand out for a handshake and very nearly draws it back when he realizes that the man can’t see it.

But the man steps forward and holds out his hand. “Greg Lestrade.”

Mycroft grabs the offered hand and gives it a light shake. Greg’s grasp is firm, warm, like a sure hug. Calluses along the tips of his fingers suggest he plays guitar. As soon as they let go, the woman steps forward. “And I’m Sally Donovan.” 

“A pleasure,” Mycroft says as he shakes her hand, although it’s not a particular pleasure. She has cat hair on her shorts, a calico.

Greg snorts. “Oh, yeah, she’s a peach.”

Sally digs him in the ribs with her elbow. “Put up with you, don’t I?”

Greg grins in her direction, and it makes Mycroft think oh gods what I would give to have that man smile at me. And squashes the feelings that arise with that thought immediately. Greg Lestrade is too attractive for his own good. Mycroft suddenly feels silly with his prominent nose and forehead, the smattering of freckles, and extra softness around his middle. He’s wearing tan, bespoke trousers, and a stuffy, button-up shirt. On a day like this, in June, in the park. 

Well, it’s not like the man can see you, is it?

Uncharitable thought, Mycroft Holmes.

“D’you come to the park to paint often?” Greg asks. He’s wearing a pale blue polo over grey shorts. His calves look strong, steady. The man must work out.

“I do. It’s my way of relaxing.” Mycroft cuts his eyes to Sally, who smirks at him.

“Intense job, then?”

“Yes. I am the Chief Software Engineer of an IT security company. We’ve recently gone international. It’s quite a lot to think about.” You’re blabbering.

“Wow, that does sound like a lot.” He says it without judgment. As if Mycroft’s slight case of oversharing was no matter. “Whereas painting, you just have to...feel, right? Not too much thinking.”

Feeling isn’t how Mycroft would describe it. But he nods his head until he realizes that Greg can’t actually see him. “Yes, I suppose.”

“How long have you been painting?” His eyes don’t actually focus on Mycroft’s, and the pupils seem a little large. But otherwise, you wouldn’t know aside from the white cane.

“Since I was a child.” 

“Did you ever think you’d do it professionally?”

“I prefer to paint as a form of stress release.” Mycroft hasn’t even spent much time talking about his art with anyone. He pauses. It’s a strange, awkward feeling, like he’s standing last in the line to be picked for a sport at recess. 

“Ah, parents thought you should do something that would make you money rather than risk becoming the stereotypical starving artist, eh?” Greg flashes him a smile. It’s brilliant.

Mycroft’s a bit gutted by both the smile and the content of his words. “You...well, yes.”

Greg chuckles. “I know the line. Been there, done that.” 

Sally’s eyes have been ping-ponging between the two of them. She squeezes Greg’s arm in a way that’s proprietary. “Well, I don’t wish to keep you from your painting, Mr Holmes.”

“Oh,” Mycroft says. 

Greg turns to her and then back to Mycroft. “Oh, yeah. I suppose we oughta continue our walk. Let you get back to your stress release.” He grins again, and then he winks, which takes Mycroft completely off guard as his stomach flips and his cheeks flush. 

“It was nice meeting you,” Sally says as she starts to guide Greg away.

“The pleasure was mine,” Mycroft says, his heart clamoring in his throat now. He turns away, stares blankly at his painting. After a moment, he looks up the path to see them walking. Sally looks over her shoulder at him, and her face darkens.

Mycroft turns away. He lifts his paintbrush and looks again at the scene before him, though he can barely concentrate. He drops the brush when he realizes his hand is shaking.

 


 

Mycroft stands at the counter and chews on a dinner of avocado toast while staring at the microwave. Laughter filters through the door to the hallway. His neighbours are a happy family of four. The parents with their gold beads and the elder daughter having finally been adorned with red. It’s part of Confirmation, a rite of passage for the young. It means her Devotional has appeared, and with it, the assurance that there is someone out there for her. She’s gawky, buck-toothed, and wears ripped jeans and shirts that never seem to cover her waistline. But she’d waved to Mycroft when she passed the other day, the red beads catching in the light of the overhead hallway lamp. He’d ignored her.  

The memory of his own embarrassment as he left the church that had nurtured his formative years was painful. He refused to speak to his mother for six months, and Sherlock for eight. He’d thought of his father’s last days, his melancholy that a six-year-old Mycroft couldn’t understand. The Mycroft of his early uni days would seethe with a white-hot rage on behalf of his father, a slow but consuming hatred for the unfairness of it all. His father loved, and he loved hard, and his place in his mother’s life was usurped by some interloper, someone who didn’t even know his mother well. Someone who’s only claim to Mummy was the random mark on his body, depicting the affectionate epithet his mother was destined to speak. That somehow, their love lead to his disfigurement.

He places his hands palms down, fingers splayed, onto the counter as he remembers his naiveté. Whirled about by the changes in his life, missing the presence of his father but distracted by the presence of a new father, he’d bought into the church, had bought into the dogma, had changed his last name from his father’s to that of his stepfather’s so that the four of them could appear as a happy and whole family to their congregation. He was so eager to learn their hymns and their precepts and he’d waited, eager to find someone who he could call his own. Eager to prevent a sad end. 

Years later, when he’d realized no Devotional was forthcoming, when he was tall in height and shaving and the specialist had handed his mother literature on suicide prevention and symptoms of mental illness, he’d left. He rented his own flat. He didn’t darken the church’s doors again. Or any church doors for that matter. The specialist had been a member at their church, and Mycroft couldn’t look inside a church without picturing the pamphlets in his mother’s hands, her mouth drawn tight in a grimace.

Most of all, Mycroft had been angry with himself. For wanting what he couldn't have. For thinking his father insane for loving what wasn’t his. For all his questions that just lead to more questions, that turned him about like a whirling dervish, and no insight to be found. 

It isn’t fair. Did not his father also deserve her love, when he had loved her in both thought and action?

But a pang of an old guilt settles in: sickly, green, pervasive. It settles in his stomach and twines about his heart. It smothers and chokes. The church had been good to him. Everyone tried their best. Mummy especially. 

He should be grateful, and he is. Oh gods, he has to be. There’s no room for these thoughts, and he only entertains them from time to time. For the most part, he accepts his lot in life. Somehow, he is deserving of this loneliness, and he’ll prove himself worthy. Maybe in the next life, if that’s a thing - and it might be - he’ll have someone.

I am worthy. I am.

He spits out the last bite of toast and scrapes if off of his plate into the bin.

 


 

On the following Tuesday, Mycroft is back in the park on his bench in the shade. Families are out and about with picnic blankets spread while a group of small children plays a ragtag game of football. A young woman in black leggings and a white tee plays frisbee with a shaggy, black dog. Birds sing. It’s one of those idyllic days where nothing should go wrong, and a person can feel like a link in a great chain of humanity - connected. Part of something.

He sees him. Coming down the pathway, the side to side sweep of his cane before him. He’ll pass the bench before long.

Should I say hello?

It’s not like he’ll see me.

Christ, Mycroft!

Mycroft rubs his temples. A flash of color darts past him. He lifts his head just in time to see two small kids chasing each other. The first one turns her blonde head to gauge the other’s distance, and before she faces forward again, Mycroft realizes: she’s going to run into Greg. 

He stands, upending his lunch onto the path. 

She crashes into Greg’s legs. Greg swears as he falls. He catches himself on the ground with a hand as the child tries to disentangle herself from the cane and his arm. The second child, a brown-haired little girl in short-alls, watches with her mouth covered by her hands.

The first girl starts crying. 

“Are you alright?” Greg asks, his hand stretched in her direction, the two of them still on the pavement.

Two adults, presumably the parents, run toward them. Mycroft reaches the pile first. His hands flutter in the air as he thinks about the fact that Greg can’t see him. “Hello. Can I help you back up?” His voice wavers with anxiety.

Greg’s head snaps to his direction. “Hello, yeah, please. Is she okay?”

“Her parents are here,” Mycroft says and grips Greg’s hand and pulls him to standing while the mother scoops up the child.

“I am so sorry,” her father says. He’s a tall man with ginger hair and a terrible, straggly mustache. His Adam’s apple protrudes from his thin neck, over a grey tee with some band logo on it. “She wasn’t watching where she was going, sir. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, how’s she?” Greg says. The little girl has buried her face into her mother’s shoulder. 

“She’s okay, I think she’s just a little stunned.” The woman’s smile is warm, though her eyes are tight with worry. She has a face of freckles and her shoulders are lightly pinked from the sun. 

“Good. I’m glad to hear it.” Greg’s been brushing his trousers with his hands and adjusting his checked blue and white shirt. 

“Again, our deepest apologies,” the father says.

“Yeah, yeah. I know what it’s like to not be able to see where you’re going.” Greg’s smile is a slice of dazzling white, and Mycroft can’t help but snort at his comment.

The two seeing-able parents seem scandalised, their eyes wide and their smiles stilted, like a terrible caricature of two people who suspect they’re the butt of a joke.

“Er, well, we’ll talk to her about being more aware of her surroundings.” The woman shifts the child on her hip. “Thank you for being so understanding.”

“Cheers,” Greg says. 

“C’mon dears,” the husband says as he puts an arm around his wife and they walk away. He glances back at them once, his expression still stunned and concerned.

Greg faces him. “Mycroft Holmes.”

Mycroft jerks, his heart thumping. “You - you remember.”

“I only met you three days ago.”

“Yes, but, I didn’t think you’d remember my voice.”

“Why not? It’s a lovely voice.”

Is he flirting with me?

Mycroft clears his throat and licks his lips. 

“Are you here painting? Wait, it’s the work week, ain’t it?”

“Well, yes, I come to the park on my lunch when the weather is fair.”

“Oh really? I come through here every day on my walk.”

Mycroft lets out a little laugh. “I know.”

“Oh?” Greg’s face is like an open book. He’s intrigued, excited...happy. “Never said hi, though?”

“I...I’m a bit of a recluse, if I’m honest,” Mycroft says, glad Greg can’t see the burning on his cheeks. “I don’t usually say hi to anyone in the park.”

“I should have known you’re an introvert.”

Mycroft almost shudders. “I expect you count yourself among the happy extroverted folk?”

“Am I failing at coming across as an extrovert here?”

Mycroft chuckles, the flare in his cheeks fading. “No. You’re most certainly not.”

“Hey, so I’m going to do something very extroverted, and feel free to tell me off.”

Mycroft’s stomach tumbles with anticipation. “I’m almost frightened. Dare I let you go on?”

Greg laughs, and it’s wonderful, gravelly and loud. “Yeah. Let me go on. I was just thinking. You must know the best spots for eating lunch around here. Mind if I join you from time to time? I’d love to eat out here, but it helps to have a guide to the choicest spots.”

Mycroft’s heart beats in a syncopated rhythm like it’s discovered a new dance. He swallows. “I’d be delighted.”

“Fantastic. Can I get your number?”

Is this a date?

No. Can’t be.

Mycroft has never bothered with dates, always giving off just enough of a disgruntled and cold air to repel people from him. 

“Uh, yes.”

It’s not a date. You’re just helping him out. Sharing your choicest lunch spots here in the park. 

Greg pulls out an ordinary-looking cell phone. He waits a second and Mycroft realizes he’s supposed to be giving him his number.

He recites his digits, spells his first name, and then Greg puts his phone away. He’s apparently memorised where all the buttons lay.

“Well, I’ll text you soon,” Greg says as he grabs the handle of his cane, which has been hanging from his arm this entire time. 

“Tomorrow is supposed to be lovely,” Mycroft says - then flinches at his own audacity. Will he think I’m too eager?

Greg lifts his eyebrows, the easygoing smile changing to one that seems both questioning and pleased, like what Mycroft’s said has sparked his curiosity, and he likes it. “Yeah. Tomorrow. That sounds lovely. Text me a time? Meet you here?”

“Excellent idea,” Mycroft says, trying to shake off the persisting sensation that this is a date. 

Greg nods. “See you tomorrow, Mycroft.”

“Tomorrow, Greg,” Mycroft says.

He turns, his chest rising like a buoy and his feet light as feathers. Until he sees his lunch spilled over the pavement, and several pigeons making a meal of his bacon sarnie. 

 


 

Lunches turn out to be easy. Greg might be short for ‘gregarious.’ He likes to talk, and he laughs a lot. Mycroft loves to hear him talk, and that laugh is like a Pied Piper to his heart - all pulse points pound with excitement to hear it. Greg has a guttural sort of voice, often husky. The words fall from his mouth in exuberant spills, and his smile - his smile undoes Mycroft’s defenses. 

Both of them own bento-style lunch boxes, and they share some of their goods. Greg makes a mouth-watering fruit salad and always brings chocolate truffles. Mycroft begins giving more attention to his lunches, coming up with wraps and salads and snack mixes for the two of them. They mostly discuss books and music. Greg is several years older, but he’s clued into pop culture more than Mycroft expects. Their tastes align in true crime novels, history, and a hard science fiction series that deals with a dystopian world where people don’t bear Devotionals - but they don’t talk too much about that aspect, instead focusing on the journey thrust upon the disabled protagonist - a wheelchair-bound musician.

 Greg, it turns out, is a studio musician who works from home.

“I moved back here about a month ago. It’s been wild, getting to know the neighbourhood and all. My sister likes to check in on me. Bit annoying, but I know she’s got her heart in the right place. ‘S good anyway. I see more clients living here.” 

“Your flat is near the park?”

“Near enough. I don’t mind walking. Keeps me fit.”

Mycroft’s eyes sweep the man’s figure. So it does.

“In fact, you should come over. I can make you dinner.”

Mycroft’s heart leaps. Calm yourself. Don’t get involved. “That does sound lovely -”

“Yeah! The only ones I’ve had over are my sister and Sally. It’d be nice to play host for a bit to someone new. Come over.”

“Oh, uh, yes.” Mycroft thumbs the tines of his fork. 

“Great! Let’s do Friday at say, seven?”

“Alright.” It’s not as if he’s doing anything else.

 


 

Mycroft stands in front of the door in a white button-up and pressed, slate-coloured trousers. He’s gelled his hair and trimmed his beard. He holds a bottle of good wine.

This is not a date. This wine is just a host gift.

As the door opens, the smell of rosemary wafts into the hallway. Greg appears around the door with a soft smile on his face. He looks good enough to eat - a navy and white striped polo over jeans. Bloody hell. Jeans.

“This is just a host gift,” Mycroft blurts.

Greg’s brow wrinkles. He holds out a hand.

Mycroft pushes the bottle toward him. “Château Pape Clément. A red blend. I hope it will go with dinner.” The bottle cost him plenty, but he hopes to impress. Even if they’re just friends.

“Excellent. Come in.” He opens the door wider and steps back.

The flat is small, but clean and furnished with a comfy looking brown sofa and a dark wood coffee table. There are shelves of books on either side of a flatscreen TV, and a surprisingly shocking pink fluffy blanket draped over the arm of the sofa. The floor is carpeted in beige.

Shoved into the back corner of the flat is a keyboard with a small stool, and a guitar and a bass resting on their stands. Stacks of paper sit in piles on a small desk. Carpentry pencils, the kind that are rectangular and flat in their sides, sit next to the piles. 

Mycroft follows Greg to a tiny kitchen and stands in the doorway.

“I’ve made steak with potatoes and green beans. And my sister dropped off an apple crumble, so we might as well have that for pudding.”

Greg’s arse is outlined by his jeans and they hug the shape of his legs and the man is sex on legs, Mycroft thinks. 

“Can I help somehow?” Mycroft says as he drags his attention from Greg’s posterior. He watches as Greg touches along the edge of the white counter, holding the bottle in one hand.

“I got it, thanks.” He places the bottle on the counter, then feels along the underside until his hand hits a handle on the drawer. He pulls it open, rifles inside, and holds up a wine opener. He points to a cabinet down at the end. “Wine glasses are in the end cabinet though. Mind grabbing them?”

Mycroft gets the glasses. They’re stemless.

“Here they are,” he says as he places them with a clink on the counter. Greg reaches out and touches one. He’s opened the wine, and Mycroft watches, fascinated, as Greg gently touches the lip of the wine bottle to the rim of the glass, and pours. 

He places the bottle down, his movement deliberate and slow. He takes up the glasses and holds one in Mycroft’s direction.

Mycroft accepts it. “Thank you.”

“Cheers to new connections.”

“Yes, cheers,” Mycroft says, and they both sip it. It’s a full-bodied wine that probably needs more time to soften, but the silky tannins and notes of fruit and smoke makes Mycroft think of sex. 

Which he pushes from his mind. 

“Sorry, I use my fingers a lot,” Greg says.

Sex.

No.  

“I’ve washed ‘em,” Greg is saying. “But to make sure the food is alright, I have to touch it.”

“No, please. I’m...I must say I’m impressed.” Mycroft stares at the smooth surface of a wood cabinet. 

“Didn’t know blind people could live alone?”

This pulls his gaze back to Greg. “I must admit -  I am ashamed to say that I didn’t think about it.”

“Hm. That’s honest, at least.” Greg leans against the counter. “I should get the steak going. Hopefully I get it right, and then you’ll be really impressed.”

“I’m sure.” Mycroft sees the bag of marinating steaks next to the stovetop. “Let me know if I can help in any way. It’s what I would offer to anyone, vision-impaired or not.”

“Thanks.”

Mycroft sweeps his eyes across the kitchen. There’s a magnetic strip holding various knives over the counter. Everything is clean and neat. He notices that the spice rack is labeled in braille. Greg has removed the steaks from the bag and is adding them to the griddle. They sizzle in the heat. 

“Can you...um…”

“See anything?” Greg asks. “It’s blurry. I can see shadows and lights, sometimes shapes. But it’s...like walking through a thick fog.”

“Mm. And -”

“No, I haven’t always been blind.” Greg throws the plastic bag into the bin. “It happened when I was at uni. I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa.” He shrugs a little, then feels along the counter until he gets to an oven mitt. “It...uh...it changed everything.”

Mycroft can’t imagine, and he can’t think of anything to say. Greg opens the oven door and inside is a pan of roasting rosemary potatoes. The kitchen warms a degree and the scent is heavenly.

“I thought maybe I could get a dog, but it was too much of a hassle,” Greg says. “And...it was like...life wasn’t worth living anymore. Not because of the dog, but...you know, going from your vision being just fine to having next to no vision at all...I was so angry. I was angry, and I was sad. The first thing I did was go out to clubs to get laid. But that got dangerous. And my sister found me, anyway. So then I just sat at home. I sat at home doing nothing for six months. I dropped out of uni. I was on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. It was a big deal. But then, I couldn’t deal. I didn’t touch an instrument.” He gives a little laugh. “I didn’t even listen to music.”

Mycroft works his throat. “So, you came to terms with it?” Bloody hell, Mycroft. Insensitive, much?

“Well, it was either that or kill myself.”

The air is sucked from the room. Mycroft gapes, gripping his wine glass.

“Sorry, that got dark.” Greg pauses. “But, I’d like to get this out of the way, since I’d like for us to be...close. Right?”

“I - I don’t wish to pry. It’s none of my business in the end.” Bugger all. “My question was impertinent. Besides, I quite enjoy the person you are now.”

“Well, you tell me if I’m oversharing.”

“I’m curious, of course, but my curiosity is not as important as your comfort.” He hardly knows what he’s saying. This is not his forté, but his brain is quick to think, weaving through pathways of a conjecture of how this conversation can go, identifying the responses less likely to anger or disgust or disappoint Greg. He feels a bit like he imagines a rat in a maze would feel, dodging around corners in hopes of finding the delectable morsel of cheese at the end.

He laughs. “I like that you’re honest. I don’t mind talking about it, with the right person. There came a point when I realised that no one was going to help me if I didn’t help myself. Well, my mum and my sister were there for me. My da left me alone mostly. Mom and sis - her name’s Claire by the way - were at me all the time to shower and eat. Friends wanted to stop by but I never saw them. Then one day my da comes into the room and says, ‘Greg, you got to decide if you’re going to live standing up, or die lying down.’ I told him I was fine with dying lying down.” Greg flips the two steaks with a surprising amount of accuracy. The odor of salt and cooking spices invades Mycroft’s nostrils. “Medium rare fine? Medium?”

“Medium rare,” Mycroft says. 

“So then I’m lying there in my bed, in the silence, just sort of thinking it would be fine to cease to exist, y’know? Just, go to sleep and never wake up.”

Mycroft knows all too well what that feels like, but to hear Greg put it into words about himself strikes something cold and panicky in his gut, like ice slithering below his diaphragm. He swallows hard, pushing the old feelings away. The ones that would have proved everyone right. Would have justified the specialist handing his mother that literature. “What changed your mind?”

“Nothing at first. No big epiphanies. Except that, I sorta figured, if I have to live this life, why not make it meaningful to me?”

“How do you mean?”

“I guess...not just what makes you happy, but what fills you. And I know the Devout have all these ideas on what fulfills you, but nothing is a guarantee. Not even sight. And of course, the Devout think that finding your Devotee is all there is for life fulfillment, but not everyone gets that.”

So he’s never found his Devotee.

“I realised that since I wasn’t going to actually kill myself, or at least, I wasn’t going to be the purposeful implement of my own death, I needed to just live. And live as well as I could. I couldn’t lie in bed for the rest of my life. So, I started doing little things. I got out of bed and went outside. Felt the sun on my skin. That helped. A little.” He takes two plates from the cupboard with soft clinks and clanks. “I asked my sister to take me on walks. I joined my family for dinner. I listened to them talk about their days. Sometimes I got jealous and angry. Sometimes I couldn’t stand to sit at the table. But, I kept coming out.

“Then one day I came home from one of our walks, and my parents told me that they had a number for a therapist. But only if I wanted to. And, I felt ready. So, I called the number. It was a woman who works with those struggling with vision loss. She was awesome, and connected me with a lot of resources. She got me connected with some people in the blind community who have lost their vision, like me. I’m still in contact with some of those people.” He frowns. “Some of them have passed. Couldn’t take life, so they took their own way out.

“But a lot of the therapies and the special equipment is expensive. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so it took a while to get to the point where I could live on my own. I didn’t move out until I was almost thirty. Lived on my own for a while, then I met someone. We tried to...well. Rather be on my own than trying to fit into another person’s skin,” he says with a huff of laughter. 

Maybe the other person had a Devotee, and this is the skin Greg speaks of. 

“So, that’s my story. How about you?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, who else is here?” Greg’s hand hovers above the steaks. His other hand holds a thermometer. He inserts it close enough to the middle of the steaks and presses a button. After a few seconds, the thermometer beeps, and a robotic voice drones: “Fifty-six degrees Celsius.” 

“Perfect,” Greg says. He pulls out the thermometer and feels the edge of the griddle for the power button.

Mycroft watches the whole process with his teeth clenched, fearful for Greg’s fingers as they fiddle close to the heat source. 

“So?” Greg prompts as he feels for the plates he’d placed on the counter beside the stove.

“I, uh, well. Mum- my mum was married twice. My father, and my brother Sherlock’s father. Sherlock’s father is her Devotee, you see.”

“Ah, your poor bastard of a father. Did he end up finding his own Devotee?” Greg touches one of the steaks as his other hand holds a set of tongs. Between the light touches of his fingers and some sliding around of the tongs, he’s able to grab the steaks off the griddle and place them on the plates.

“No,” Mycroft says, the grief like a cold stone lying heavy in his belly. He doesn’t elaborate.

Greg opens the oven door, and wearing mitts, he finds the potato pan on the first try. “Shitty.”

“Indeed,” Mycroft says, and his throat is so dry he takes a sip of his wine to recover. 

“And where’d you go to school?”

“Cambridge,” Mycroft says. “As you can likely guess, that’s where I met Harry, and he and I kept in touch.”

“And you guys started your own company,” Greg smiles. “Incredible.” He places the pan of potatoes on top of the stove. “Alright, this is where you serve yourself. It’s just easier. There’s green beans in the steamer.” 

Mycroft smiles. “Thank you. This all looks excellent.”

“Wait until you try the steak to decide. I hope I got the marinade right.”

Mycroft grabs a plate. The potatoes look perfectly roasted and the steak smells delicious. The green beans look a little bright and on the crunchy side, but that’s his preference.

“Do you compose your own music, too?” Mycroft asks as they sit at a small, round table just outside the kitchen door.

Greg smiles. “I do. I’ve sold a few pieces. Sold a piece for a commercial some years ago that I still get royalties from. It’s not bad money if you can get it.”

“Of course.” Would he play for me?

Or would that be too much like a date?

It happens without Mycroft even having to ask. After dinner, Greg offers to show him a song he’s working on. It’s soft, and then turns fast and playful. He’s classically trained, but he’s put something of himself into the songs. It’s got...soul. 

Mycroft notices a butterfly sticker near the bottom of the guitar, and again on the keyboard. It’s simple, black lines shaping the wings and the body, over the initials GL

“What do you think?”

Mycroft’s stomach tumbles with the images of butterflies on his walls, how he compared the symmetry of Greg’s face to that of a butterfly’s wings.

“They were good.” He says, forcing himself to sound cheerful. “Very good.” 

“You said you played piano, right?”

“I did, once. Not that well. Sherlock is the virtuoso.”

“Well, he ain’t here, is he? Join me on the keyboard. We’ll start out with something simple.”

Mycroft’s lips quiver but slowly, he lets the smile appear. “Okay.”

It takes a few minutes to situate himself, but like riding a bike, the muscle memory comes back, and Mycroft takes a moment to practice scales. They ease into playing old classical pieces that both of them know from their training. It seems effortless, this sliding together of friendship, this meeting of musical notes and easy smiles (even if Greg can’t see Mycroft’s), the auditory cues and the keeping time with the tapping of feet. They laugh over mistakes and encourage one another with bright notes. 

Mycroft’s never felt so in sync with a person. As he realizes that, he pauses.

Greg stops. “What is it?”

Mycroft stares at the sticker on the keyboard. A butterfly wrapped around Greg’s initials. The butterfly is an example of complete metamorphosis, the first stage being the egg, and the next stage the larvae or caterpillar. The chrysalis, and then the creature that’s captured so many imaginations. 

“Butterflies taste with their feet,” he says in a staggering display of a neurological misfire.

Greg guffaws, “What?” Then he laughs again, and looks up. “What made you think of that?”

“This is your business label, I suppose, on the sticker here on the keyboard?”

“Oh, that?” Greg acts sort of bashful, his head ducking and his smile soft and uncertain. “Old design from a friend of mine. Forgot it was there, to be honest.”

“Do you like butterflies?”

“Yeah. I mean, they’re beautiful, aren’t they? Religious connotations or not.”

“Is your family Devout?”

“Lapsed, mostly. Not really into it, myself.”

“No? Then, you’re not…”

“Sitting around waiting to meet my Devotee?” Greg grins. “Not really. Not everyone does, right? I mean, a lot of people make it work with people who aren’t their prescribed Devotee. I think it’s entirely possible to love more than one person in your lifetime. I think...I think Devotionals or hypocoristics or whatever you want to call them are pointing to one person you can certainly live your life with. But, I also think there are others you can live a life with just fine. Take my parents, for example.”

“They’re not Devoted?” The keys of the keyboard are like teeth at the tip of his fingers. In a strange flight of fancy, he imagines they might separate him from his digits if he isn’t careful.

The thing he doesn’t want to hear comes out of Greg’s mouth.

“Not for each other. And they love each other and they built a family, and the kids turned out alright. My sister met her Devotee, but she had a longtime boyfriend before him. Things didn’t work out in the end, but while they were good, they were really good. Things between her and her husband now are really good, but they still have their fights and such, just like she and her ex-boyfriend did.”

Mycroft doesn’t know why, but his heart is wildly beating. His own parents had tried to do what Greg’s parents succeeded in. He focuses on the sister. Claire, Greg had said. “But, does she somehow...feel more complete with her Devotee?”

Greg gives a single nod. “In a way, yes. But how much of that is cultural and internalised, and how much of that is just her feeling? I mean, she agreed to marry the guy because he bears the Devotional, but their relationship has its struggles like any other.”

She agreed to marry the guy because he bears the Devotional. 

When the last guy might have been just as good, if they worked it out? Is that how it goes?

But it didn’t work out.

Whereas for his parents it did. Didn’t it? Up until she’d met Sherlock’s father?

And how can he talk so casually, so practically about all this? As if the Devotionals didn’t have any meaning. As if they were as natural and as unimportant as the colour of someone’s hair or the way they picked food from their teeth. 

“So, your thought is that Devotionals are of no consequence?”

Greg shrugs his shoulders and plucks the guitar strings. “I think it depends. I know my parents love each other, and they’ve been together over forty years. That counts for something, doesn’t it?”

Disappointment. Anger. Resentment.

Fear.

It’s a churning mess inside Mycroft, like the levee gates opened and the floodwaters rushed in, sweeping aside the neat and careful boxes of his life, of his beliefs, of all the things he questioned at one time, and then put aside, determined to honour his upbringing. Determined to look past the tragedy of his father’s life, and instead look upon the joy securing one’s Devotee brings.

It should make him happy. Life is different from when he’d been that kid. Attitudes are changing. There are more people in the world less likely to shake their heads at him in sorrow. Less likely to fear him. 

How stupid he’s been.

The lies he’s swallowed.

That people are out there like Greg, with this laissez-faire attitude toward something sacred.

Because isn’t it supposed to be sacred? Isn’t it the ultimate salvation in life? Doesn’t it give life meaning?

Could his father, if he had lived, found another? His father, who had his own Devotional, and therefore, his own Devotee somewhere out there. 

Would Alicia’s husband have been happy if he stayed with Alicia?

“And of course, there are cases where a pair of Devotees don’t work out.” Greg’s unaware of Mycroft’s drowning turmoil. His voice is matter-of-fact. His fingers slide up the guitar.

Mycroft utters, “But they’re so rare.” The flickering beat of his heart is consumed in sucking waves of thought and feeling. Treacherous, slippery rocks and crashing billows of white foam.  

“They still happen. And when they separate, it’s immediate social stigma, innit? Who’d leave their Devotee if they had to face that?”

He focuses on breathing. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. “I suppose I haven’t given as much thought to all this as you have.” Because I’m a fool.

“Well, I had a lot to think about, and a lot of time in which to think, while I was adjusting to my new life. And my parents said a lot of that while we were growing up.”

Mycroft thinks again of Alicia. Of his father. Why do some people kill themselves while others live on? Alicia thanks her sons for keeping her going.

And somehow, Mycroft wasn’t enough to keep his father alive.

A hot spike of emotion thrusts through him, like a sword of truth splitting the floodwaters. He stands. The shadows in the room are closing in, leaping, jumping, crowding. “I have to go.”

Greg startles, nearly dropping the guitar.

“I didn’t realize the time.” His face is hot, and he tries to make his voice sound normal. “I get up early.”

“On a Saturday?”

“Thank you so much for dinner. I had a wonderful time.”

“Me too,” Greg says as he rises slowly from his seat, guitar still in hand.

“Please stay sitting. I’ll see myself out.” His legs, watery and weak, start to carry him toward the door.

“Um, would you like some apple crumble to go?”

“Oh, I’m on a diet, actually - “Good Eros. Way to tell the man you’ve got some weight to shed.

It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter!

Mycroft strides for the door and makes it outside before his face crumbles and tears bite at the back of his eyes. 

Let them bite . He won’t release them.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"The heart has its reasons, which reason knows not."

- Blaise Pascal, Pensées 

 

 “Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.”

- Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones

 

Anthea marks his mood on Monday.

“Bad weekend?” She says from his office doorway.

“Mm,” he says.

“Listen, you know no one who matters cares that much about you not having a mark, right?”

Mycroft lifts his face to look at hers. She comes in and drops into the chair across from him. His desk is clear aside from his array of computer monitors, a keyboard clean of dust, a brand new mouse, and a cold cup of tea. No plants. No crayon drawings. No Funkos.

Anthea continues, “It’s not a thing to most people now. The Devout have always been a pain in the arse about Devotionals. But the world’s changing.”

Blasphemer , Anthea would have been called by Mycroft’s priest. “I have no need for comfort, if this is what you’re trying to do.”

“Okay, then just let me bug you because I’m bored.”

Mycroft gestures to his computer as his eyebrows lift at her in askance.

“Yeah, I’m waiting on a test of the code I’m running. Instead of perusing the internet, I’m in here talking to you.”

“As if I don’t have tasks?”

She shrugs, casual, her lovely face giving away nothing. “I just thought you should know.”

Mycroft turns back to the screen. “Actually, I wonder if you might answer a question.” It’s been nagging at him now, all weekend, this idea of partners who work together despite not being each other’s Devotee. “Did you have a partner before you met your Devotee?”

Anthea’s eyes squint at him as if she’s trying to predict where he’s going with this. “I’ve had some dates, had some fun. No one special.” Then she presses her lips together as her eyes glaze over. “Well, no one at least since my best friend in college.” She smiles at Mycroft, but it’s sad. “We’d been friends since we were eleven. Had little boyfriend flings and such, but we were close. Slumber parties and trips with each other’s families. Her name was Marcy.”

She leans forward. “To tell you the truth, we wanted to be each other’s Devotee. We shared our Devotionals, and we called each other by them. We...kissed and hugged and such. Acted like girlfriends. But...her Devotional in my mouth never really felt right. It wasn’t like when I say George’s. That fell out of my mouth and I felt alive with all sorts of good feelings. But for Marcy...it was never like that, no matter how much I loved her, and no matter how much I tried to love her more.”

She leans back, her blue eyes serious. “Does that help to answer your question?”

Mycroft isn’t sure if he’s despairing or not. This piece of information confirms the beliefs he was taught, but some part of him, some small desperate part wanted to know that love was possible without a Devotee. Without a Devotional.

It’s wrenched something loose inside him - dangerous and freewheeling, like a truck missing its brakes, spinning out of control on the M25. Without knowing it, he’d come to the apogee of a search he hadn’t realised he’d implemented - but it was there all along in his paintings. His butterfly. He’s begun to think of Greg as Papillon , Schmetterling, Farfalla, Mariposa, Fluture, Paruparo . It’s a face he could paint again and again, a model he could roll into bed and whisper sweet-nothings until they both blush red, covered in kisses.  

It won’t happen. He’ll fall in love, or in some approximation of love, and no matter how much he wants it, he won’t be Greg’s Devotee. 

Because he’s one of .0002% of the population without a mark.

And he can’t, as his church detailed, be truly capable of love.






“Hey, I’m glad you called me,” Greg says over the line. “I was a little worried that my cooking didn’t settle with you or something.”

“Oh. No. It was delicious,” Mycroft says, gripping the phone hard. He opens his mouth to continue, but his thoughts have scattered. He's in his bedroom, standing over the bed. He doesn't let his thoughts wander to anything private. He just couldn't have this phone call in the rooms where he often spoke with his mother. 

“Was it...did I overshare? Something I did or said made you uncomfortable, and I’d rather just know what it is so that I can avoid doing it.”

This shatters the wall Mycroft has been busy trying to erect. “Goodness, you’re very direct.”

“It’s how I survive,” Mycroft can hear the smile in Greg’s voice, but it’s likely the center of truth in the man’s life. Somehow, he endured trials of the Soul, and has transformed into this person that’s comfortable in his own skin. Someone who’s gone through the dark days of the chrysalis, and came out the other side with brilliant wings held high.

“Well...I…” How much do I reveal? How do I let him know that this isn’t his fault?

Mycroft had made the decision to tell Greg. He figured he owed him that much, even if it wasn’t a date. If they were to be friends - is that even possible - Mycroft would shove down his attraction, and learn to be friends. But that meant coming clean. 

“As you know, my mother met her Devotee, who is her second husband.” He’s taken back, a young boy standing in a cemetery among black-clad mourners, like a murder of crows with bowed heads over the earth. “My father never got over it, and he killed himself.”

“Oh. Oh. And we were talking about…”

“Yes.”

“Is your...mother Devout?”

“Yes. Now. She wasn’t. Before.”

“And you?”

“Lapsed, I suppose, but, perhaps for different reasons than your family.”

“Because of your dad?”

Mycroft inhales even though it hurts. “No. I don’t have a Devotional.” He forces it out, splits the wound open, lets it bleed.

“You don’t -”

“I don’t,” he clips. 

“Huh. I’ve heard that it happens. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t have one.”

“No.” He breathes out through his teeth. “It’s a point of...contention within the church.”

“Your mother didn’t tell them, did she?”

“No. I think she’s ashamed.”

“Of you? ” He can hear the disbelief in Greg’s voice. It surprises Mycroft. But then, someone who didn’t grow up in the church...maybe it doesn’t matter as much.

“I think she blames herself for my lack. For loving my father and marrying him. For having me.” He licks his lips and sucks the lower one into his mouth before saying, “She’d never shame me purposely.”

Greg is quiet for a moment. “Well, I appreciate you sharing that with me.”

Mycroft wants to ask Greg about his. He aches to know what Greg’s Devotional is, for he must have one. He could say “ Oh I don’t have one either, Mycroft! ” And then Mycroft could stop keeping up this distance and this pretence and he could just reach for what he wanted. If Greg just said…

But Greg didn’t say.

“I’m sorry that happened. About your dad, I mean. That must have been hard.”

“Mm.” He can remember Uncle Rudy standing in the shade. The smell of cut grass in the air. 

“So, can we...continue being friends, then?” Mycroft can hear the tender sound of hope in his voice.

He’s hoping Mycroft will say yes.

So this can work. We can be friends.

“Yes,” he says, the relief in his chest so great he could fall to pieces. 

 


 

They don’t speak about it again at their next lunch. It’s a bright, sunny day. 

“Describe this park to me,” Greg says. 

Mycroft looks around. “The turf grass is green, and the pathways are grey pavers, and where there’s kerb, it’s painted white. The sky is blue. Some cumulus clouds today.” 

“More than that. Aren’t you an artist? Tell me what you’d do if you were painting it.”

“Well, I’d block in the colors first, I suppose. A neutral grey for the path, a light green for the grass, I’d leave details for last.”

“So clinical. So technical.” Greg turns his head in Mycroft’s direction. “What would you try to make the viewer feel?”

“My art...my art is about replicating what I see in front of me. Painting light and dark and depicting the details of the landscape.”

“But what does that make a viewer feel? Or, do they just look at it, and say, yes, that’s Hyde Park?”

Mycroft bristles like a cat rubbed the wrong way. “I don’t seek to make the viewer feel anything. It’s a painting. It’s how I relax. I don’t paint for other people.”

“Oh.” He fidgets with his napkin. “Not the provocateur, then?”

Mycroft snaps, “Would it impress you more if I were?”

Greg doesn’t rise to the bait. “I already find you pretty impressive. But don’t let that go to your head.” He grins, flashing bright on an already bright day.

Chastened, Mycroft looks around him. It really is a beautiful park and the man can’t see. The least I can do is make this enjoyable for him.

“The grass is green. A deep, kelly green in most places. Green makes me think of growth and vitality, but this grass is stunted, stilted, manicured within an inch of its life. The pavers are neat, like a moon-colored ribbon twisting its way through the lawn. The roses are in bloom. There is a variety of pinks, all the pinks you’d find in the sunrise over the Thames. The bees love the roses, and I can see heavy, pollen-laden bodies drunkenly buzzing from bloom to bloom. I never see as many butterflies as I do bees, but they prefer other flowers. When the wildflower meadow blooms, we’ll see more of the butterflies. From here, I can also see blue alliums, standing tall and in a row like soldiers. Nature likes it messy, and in this park, I see an ersatz nature. We humans like things to be neat and orderly, and we like to keep our chaos contained, keep our colors in planters, keep ourselves from being overwhelmed by sticking flowers in beds and casting grass seed and concrete everywhere else. We call it progress, when what it truly represents is protection from the wilderness we sense in ourselves. It’s a strange progress, for as we prune and edge and neaten, we’ve eliminated the spaces where real diversity can occur, where species can coevolve, and where we can experience a wilding of our spirits.”

He lowers his voice so only Greg can hear. “So when I paint a park, I paint it as it is. Safe. Pristine. Denuded.”

Greg is silent, if only for a moment. “If you feel that way about a park, why do you live in a city?”

Mycroft considers. “Because I fear what I could find in myself. Or, perhaps more accurately, what I won’t find.”

Greg, his butterfly, stares unseeing into the distance.

 


 

He’s applying gesso to a canvas with a rhythmic stroke of the wide brush. The lunch had ended a bit awkwardly, but they’d agreed to meet at Mycroft’s flat this weekend. 

His paintings have always seemed rigid. Realistic. No matter how he loosened his strokes or applied techniques of the masters, his composition was always stilted. Like how he described the park to Greg. Maybe his interpretation of the park is too accurately portrayed in his painting.

Or maybe he’s just a terrible painter.

 


 

“Okay, give me the deets.”

“What are you imagining?” Mycroft smirks as he guides Greg into his lounge.

“Well, I figure a guy like you probably is really into bean bag chairs. Giant stereo system leftover from the eighties. Blow up doll in the corner for conversations.”

“Cheeky.”

“Well, prove me wrong.” Greg looks good in his button up grey pin-striped shirt and black chinos. His hair is spiked up with a bit of product, and there’s a pleasant waft of cologne in the air around him that Mycroft can't get enough of. The top two buttons of his shirt are undone, and Mycroft can imagine burying his nose there, inhaling the man’s scent, rubbing his face into that skin.

His cheeks heat up, and he tries to focus on Greg’s question. “Well, the sofa is brown leather. Comfortable. Stylish. The furniture is wooden, mid-century modern.”

“I was practically a kid when I lost my sight. I have no idea what that means.”

“Sleek lines and organic shapes made from traditional materials. Futuristic, yet a hint of the past.”

“Uh, sure,” Greg barks a laugh, full of good humor.

“All the wood is a warm, honey brown. There is an adequate fireplace. The curtains are white. No fuss. There’s a coffee table before the sofa.”

“And your telly?”

“I don’t have one.”

“I thought every sighted person had a telly.”

“I have a projector. There’s a painting that hangs on the wall opposite the sofa. It’s quite easy to take down and use the projector on the wall.”

“What’s the painting?”

“It’s Van Gogh’s Willows at Sunset .”

“Huh. Don’t know that one. Wait, he didn’t have a soulmark either, did he?”

“He did not.” Mycroft’s stomach curls with the realization at how obvious it seems now, to someone who knows his defect. Van Gogh, upon learning of his brother’s sudden engagement to his newly found Devotee, had cut his ear off during a psychotic episode and sent it to a young maid in a brothel. In time, his life had ended by his own hand: a revolver to the chest.

“Describe it to me?” 

Mycroft doesn’t hesitate. This is how Greg gets to know Mycroft, in lieu of seeing things. Just as Mycroft can walk into a room and read the things and the people, Greg depends on others to help him do the same thing. It’s a courtesy, and he’s happy to do it.

“The painting is both bright and somber. The willows are leafless, painted with blues and browns and reds, standing dark against a burnt orange field of tall grass. There’s a brilliant blue lake in the distance behind them - it seems strange in this painting, almost out of place. But the sky is orange and yellow, and the sun is a gold coin.”

Quietly, Greg asks, “And when you look at this painting, how do you feel?”

Mycroft looks again. Considers. It’s an obvious answer, and he almost doesn’t share it. But Greg’s his friend, and he’s learning friendship involves a certain level of sharing. Of vulnerability. “Resigned to an end.”

Greg is leaning slightly on his cane, facing the wall, his chin tilted to the ceiling. His voice is even quieter when he asks, “When you see me, how do you feel?”

Mycroft’s mouth drops open. His heart thuds against its bony cage. Before he can prevent it, he answers, “As if there may be hope in this world, after all.”

Greg’s smile blooms like a sunrise. 

Mycroft clears his throat. “May I offer you some wine?”

“I’d love that,” Greg says.

Mycroft never mentions the twenty-two paintings of butterflies hanging over the sofa that are his own. It’s too intimate, and Mycroft has already given enough away.

Having never cooked for anyone else, Mycroft picked up Indian takeaway to be safe. A variety of dishes for them to sample, along with his personal favorite drink: mango lassi.

He sits them at the plain dining table he never uses except to divvy up and file his mail, and they fall into conversation.

Greg tells him about one time a date of his had tried to pass off takeaway as their own cooking.

“It’s like he forgot I have ears and could hear the crinkle of tin and plastic,” he chortles. 

“How awful,” Mycroft says, though he won’t admit aloud that the thought did cross his mind. He’s always wondered about the dating scene, but never thought it worth deep consideration. There are websites for those who have lost their Devotees, who are looking for new partners, but he’s never tried. After all, he is approaching forty and has never been in a relationship, or had sex. It puts him at a distinct disadvantage.

And he’s developed quite the dislike for people over time, a cultivated misanthropy he’s come to pride himself on.

Greg, on the other hand, has dated and quite probably has had sex. 

He gulps his wine.

“You know, one time I met a guy with a seeing eye pony,” Greg says.

“Pony?”

“Yeah. Stood shorter than my waist. But it was a cute thing. Had the softest fur. Sally tells me he was pearly white.”

Sally.  

Mycroft doesn’t allow the stray thought to settle. “Are there benefits to having a guide pony over a canine?”

“Well, they live longer, for one. But, you can walk around with one of them for only four hours instead of the usual six with dogs before you have to find a place they can go to the bathroom.”

“That is not something I had considered,” Mycroft says with a soft laugh.

“I like it when you laugh,” Greg whispers. 

Mycroft stills. The room is quiet. 

“My sister says my laugh is ridiculous. That it surprises her sometimes and startles her,” Greg says, as if he didn’t just throw Mycroft for a loop. “Must be nice to have a voice like yours, and a laugh to match.”

Mycroft digs the toes of his shoes into the carpet. “I don’t hear myself very often.”

“Well, your voice is wonderful. It’s how I knew it was you that day in the park.”

Mycroft’s fingers flutter around his wine glass. “Have you and Sally been friends long?” Oh bugger, guess that thought didn’t go far.

“Some...I don’t know, maybe over ten years? Her brother is blind. We met through one of the support groups. She’s got a crack sense of humour, and we just took to each other like two peas in a pod.” Greg leans back. “I’m stuffed. This was great, thank you.”

“I’ll just clean up. I also ordered gulab jamun.”

“Oh, I’m not ready for that yet. Let my stomach settle, first,” Greg pats his belly. “I think my wine could use a top off.”

“Allow me,” Mycroft says, and gives him the last of the wine. “I assume we’re calling a taxi for you when our evening is at an end.”

Greg lifts his eyebrows, as if he’s taken off guard. “Yeah, yeah, o’ course.” It sounds too bright. 

He’s misstepped. Not sure how, but certainly...Greg couldn’t have been expecting to stay, had he?

Mycroft ignores the jumble of nerves in his belly, rolling there like the rock tumbler he and Sherlock had shared as kids. He can still remember the hum of the gears turning, the rattle of rocks smacking the interior as they rolled and rolled, polishing off the hard edges and shining up their surfaces. 

When he’s finished the washing up, he helps guide Greg to the sofa, cherishing the warmth coming off the man’s body as he holds Mycroft’s arm. 

“Tomorrow I’ve got to go shopping for my youngest nephew’s birthday. The family meets up just about every Sunday for dinner, and this Sunday we’re celebrating the little pip’s birthday.”

“How old is he?”

“Just turned five.”

“How many nieces and nephews do you have?”

“Five. Three nieces, and two nephews.”

“My goodness, your sister and her husband must be very busy.”

“Oh gods, are they ever. That’s why I don’t always want her lookin’ in on me. She’s got plenty on her hands without having to look after her little brother all the time.”

As Greg goes on talking about his family, Mycroft finds he can’t help but burn a little with jealousy. Greg has a Devotional - or at least, he’s not said that he doesn’t - but even with not having found his Devotee, he seems happy with his lot. A large family, friends, a job with meaning. He’s entered the dark nights of the chrysalis and come out the other side ready to fly. 

Mycroft is stunted, like he’s the victim of a protozoan parasite or a virus that’s blackened his chrysalis. He’ll never get past the pupal stage, and even though this has been his lot in life for all his life, this is the first in a long time that he feels the real sting of it. He’s simply hanging there, on the precipice between damnation and salvation. Living a life alone, not even knowing he was lonely.

And that’s what this sharp feeling is in his gut. That’s what the weight in his chest is about. He’s lonely. He was given a box of darkness, and he crawled up inside of it and made it his home.

Greg, meanwhile, turned his box of darkness into a gift that illuminated his path. How could they be more different?

“What’s it like? Dating?” He blurts.

Greg’s head pricks up. “I, uh, well...it usually starts with lunch. And then moves to dinner…” 

“Oh.” Oh. Oh bloody buggering fuck -

He can’t mean -

Oh my gods.

Mycroft pitches forward, over his knees. 

“Mycroft?”

“Mm.” He opens his eyes to see the wood floor. One of the grain lines reminds him of the curving direction of the Thames.

“Are we...are you okay?”

“Mm.” He straightens. “I’m fine. I - uh, just. I -”

“Listen, maybe our wires got crossed - “

“No. I - I need time. I -” can’t think. 

And Mycroft Holmes thinks about everything.

“Maybe I should call that taxi,” Greg says.

Mycroft halts. Maybe that’s for the best.

“Um, I can call for you, if you’d like.”

Greg’s face darkens. “Oh, no. I have a company I like best. No worries. Just. Um, well, I’ll see myself out.”

“Oh, no! I’ll guide you to the kerb, of course.” Then he flinches at what he’s said, what it sounds like. Kicking him to the kerb. 

“Yeah.” Greg stands, still holding his wine glass. Mycroft hops up and takes it from him. While he’s in the kitchen he can hear Greg talking on the phone. He runs the tap over the glass so he can’t hear the words. 

By the time they get out to the pavement, Mycroft’s insides are churning and a sweat lingers over his shoulders and back. “I hope you enjoyed dinner,” he says.

“The food was good. Sorry we didn’t get to the gulab jamun.”

Mycroft frowns. “Seems we have a pattern of missing pudding.”

“Yeah. Thanks for the night. Talk to you later.” He pulls his arm from beneath Mycroft’s fingers and faces the other direction.

“Goodnight, Greg,” Mycroft says.

“Night.” The man’s reply is short, cutting. 

Mycroft bites his lip, reaches his arm out, thinking about touching the broad back of Greg Lestrade. Papillon , Schmetterling, Farfalla, Mariposa, Fluture, Paruparo.

Not really his.

He drops his hand and goes back to his flat.

 


 

On Tuesday, he hasn’t heard from Greg. No texts. No calls. Nothing. 

He stands in Hyde Park before the statues of Psyche and Eros. The Soul, marked by her cape like a butterfly’s wings folded behind her back, pointed to the Earth. Love’s wings lifted aloft toward the Heavens. In embrace.

What I must have done in a past life to have deserved this one.

Maybe he purposely separated two lovers intended for one another.

Maybe he spurned the Gods in some way, and earned their spite. 

Whatever it was, he’s suffering. His heart aches with an oppressive weight that makes it hard to breathe and his mind is weathered by a tenebrous fog. It’s impacting his work and he can’t make heads nor tails on how to eclipse the fog. Things were simpler when he had his job, and his painting, and his phone calls with his mother and his visits to his brother. It was simple. Crisp. 

Lonely. Oh buggering gods was he lonely. 

His fingernails dig into his palms as he remains staring at the statue. Somewhere in his mind he imagines that he could bust it down with just the strength of his flesh-and-blood arms. Even Pygmalion, who created his Galatea and chose her Devotional as if he were a god, he got his Devotee in his life. Sure, it was a tale of hope and of making your own destiny - though not so much for Galatea - but where the fuck did that get anyone in this life? The people who were real, whose hearts were made of atriums and valves and ventricles and pumped blood, real blood through it all, who existed on this plane among fauna and flora and had to somehow make it through this life in the hopes of it being worth it in the end. 

That’s all. Just hoping, that somehow, by the end, it would all be worth it.

And how much easier was that when you had your Devotee, your Soulmate, beside you?

He just wants some sign. Something that can tell him what to do.

But maybe that’s been the problem all along. 

He’s lingered so long on the line between Devout and secular that he’s lost context. 

At work, he’s heard Anthea chatter away on the phone about wedding plans. Alicia sits at a desk with her children in one framed photo, her cats in another. She’s fine. She’s actually happy in life, as bitter as she may be about Devotionals and Devotees. Harry, who he’s known for years and who has tried to be his friend, spoke just this morning of his son’s girlfriend, not a Devotee, but how the puppy love is heart-warming nonetheless.

His mother had tried to avert Fate by marrying her first love. And that had ended in a tragedy that fueled a burning rage all through Mycroft.

A rage at the Gods, a rage at the Devotionals, a rage at all those happy people with their smug smiles and hypocoristics written into their flesh. It had simmered there long beneath the bile, but he’d kept it at bay all these years, tempered by his milquetoast sense of etiquette and propriety. Kept tamed by the stories shared among the Devout of those who had been given their rewards and their punishments. 

What a laugh. He should have been fucking his way through life. Not even the Devotees were all faithful to their partners. Devotees have made mistakes. Have been tempted. Have divorced.

He should have reached for what he wanted from the very first youth he’d lusted for when he hit puberty. 

Instead, he’d kept himself distant. Timid. Caged. 

Pupating toward nothing but death.

 


 

Work doesn’t hold its usual appeal, so he decides to stop by his brother’s flat. The dangerous restlessness inside Mycroft could use a few scathing rounds with Sherlock, who might even still be abed at this hour. 

He unlocks the door to Sherlock’s flat only to be met inside by a short, blond man at the top of the low-lit stairs. The man wears a satchel over one shoulder. He’s ex-military, with a steel straight spine and shoulders thrust back, chin tipped upward. Mycroft stares.

“Can I help you?” the man asks, glaring.

“John, get back here. I’m not finished yet.” Sherlock’s voice echoes down the stairwell.

“I told you I’ve got to get to work! Also, there’s some bloke here who’s just let himself in.” John points to Mycroft as he tilts his face toward Sherlock.

“Ugh, that’ll be Mycroft. Well, Mycroft? Don’t just stand there like the spectre at the feast!”

Mycroft trots up the stairs and brushes past the little man who fixes him with a hard stare. Curiosity flickers across his features, but Mycroft’s in no hurry to fill him in. 

The flat is cluttered, as always. Bohemian in style, with a Victorian patterned wallpaper that steals the eye’s focus, two stuffed chairs before a fireplace, and piles of newspaper, manila folders, and crime scene photographs everywhere. Mycroft notices a pile of pulp detective books at the foot of one of the chairs, and James Bond DVDs on a shelf next to the wall. 

“John.” In the next room, Sherlock stands at a kitchen table over a Bunsen burner. The acrid smell of chemicals and burning saturates the room. “I found your charger. But I may have melted - “ He stops when he sees Mycroft cataloguing the changes in the room.

John comes back into the lounge. “Did you melt my charger?” His voice raises in disbelief.

“Er, only a part of it.” He rips his eyes away from Mycroft to meet John’s. “I shall purchase a new one for you, of course.” Mycroft nearly gasps. 

John smiles. “You cock.” It’s said without any heat; instead, there’s a suggestion of fondness in the name. 

Oh.

A flutter in his chest, and then a cold weight. 

Sherlock’s cheeks redden as he bows his head. “John. Please meet my brother, Mycroft.”

“John,” Mycroft says, with a little nod of his chin. His fists ball.

John stands to attention. “Doctor John Watson.”

“Former military, hm?” Mycroft says. John’s jaw drops in surprise.

“Yes, yes, yes. John, go away before my brother interrogates you. He’ll probably be checking out all of your internet habits later on as it is. Go.” Sherlock hustles John to the landing and shuts the door behind him. “Mycroft. Why are you here?” Aside from the carmine on his cheeks, his expression is one of practiced annoyance.

“You’ve met your Devotee,” Mycroft exhales, his mind still white with shock.

Sherlock sucks in his lips, presses them between his teeth. After a moment, he speaks. “He doesn’t know it yet.”

Mycroft wishes he were sitting. “Why not?”

“Well, at least...he’s not said. I might have implied that I don’t wear a Devotional. And, I haven’t called him anything but John.” Sherlock twiddles his fingers. “Nothing comes to mind but his name. It’s the only thing I wish to say, in every way I can say it.” Then he drops his head. “Go on. Insult me. Tease me.”

The rage that Mycroft has been feeding disappears. Fades away, just as the fog in his head dissipates. There’s only he and Sherlock here. Sherlock, who is embarrassed about having a Devotional, having a Devotee, and doing nothing to secure his Devotee’s affections aside from replacing his things he’s destroyed.

Which is so unlike Sherlock.

Van Gogh had a brother, and when the brother found his Devotee, the artist who bore no mark cut off his ear. 

It’s a story that belongs to another.

“I won’t,” Mycroft says.

Sherlock stares at him with suspicion marked on his face.

“I won’t. There is no one on this Earth I care more for than you, and if you have found your Devotee, then I wish you nothing but the best. You deserve to be happy, Sherlock.”

Sherlock’s jaw twitches, then turns from Mycroft. “You’re in shock. No more than I am, brother.”

“No. I’m just...seeing things in a new light.”

Sherlock scoffs a sharp, guttural sound like a vulture. 

“What else is bothering you?” Mycroft asks. 

“What if…” He pauses. His fingers curl into fists, and then uncurl. Without looking at Mycroft, he says: “What if I cock it up?” 

Mycroft winces. The damage he’s done becomes obvious. He’d seen a crack in Sherlock’s armour. He’d dripped water into it, flooded it, and pounded away at it until it was wider and Sherlock had done everything he could to dam it back up. 

“I was wrong to say those things to you,” he says. “I was jealous.”

Sherlock whirls to face him. His eyes flick across Mycroft’s face like insects across blades of grass. 

“It is...difficult to be so...defected. And a child of a Devout mother...and to see your father in love and then…” Mycroft lifts his hands. “I have wronged you.”

“But you’re not religious any longer.”

“I am shaped by it nonetheless.” And it has damaged him, pounded at his own cracks.

“It’s a strange aberration in our biology. And of course, there would be mutations, and defects. But it does not make you a mutant, nor a defect.” Sherlock murmurs this, almost as if to himself.

Mycroft sighs. “No. But it makes me alone.”

Sherlock grunts. “Surely only by choice. There are websites abound with people who have had their Devotees, and whether they are divorced or widowed, they’re looking for that second great love of their life.”

“Hm,” Mycroft says. “I have no great wish to be someone’s second.”

“No, you always did like to come in first,” Sherlock says with a slight smile.

“Naturally,” says Mycroft. 

The two of them stand there, awkwardly, worn out by their troublesome emotions, their quiet confessions to one another. It’s as if a new chapter in their lives might start here, depending on what one of them does next. 

Mycroft is determined to set the tone.

He bids Sherlock adieu, and goes into work. Half a day late, but no one asks where he’s been.

He opens up a window and begins searching through hospital records. It doesn’t take long for him to break through where he wants to go, and find the file he’s looking for. He texts Sherlock.

His hypocoristic is John.

He waits. His phone buzzes.

Thank you.  - SH

It’s fitting, since any sort of lovey-dovey epithet to fall from Sherlock’s lips would just sound false to anyone’s ears.

Mycroft smiles, and feels the weight in his chest lighten just a little.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“I am," he said. He was staring at me, and I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. "I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
- John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

 

 

Mycroft sits on his bed and clutches his phone. After a moment, he hits Greg’s number.

It connects after one ring.

“Hi. I wasn’t expecting your call,” Greg says. His voice is soft and gravelly, like the spring rush of water over river stones.

“Um. I want to apologise.”

“No need, Mycroft. I should apologise. I thought we were on the same page, and we weren’t.”

“I’ve never dated anyone,” Mycroft admits.

“Well, I figured that when you asked me what it was like.” 

“Yes, well, I’m not, er. Am I calling at an inconvenient time?”

“No. I’ve got time to talk.” 

Mycroft swallows and charges forward. “I have abstained all my life because I have seen what it can do to a person when they fall in love, and the object of their love is lost to the person bearing the right hypocoristic.”

Greg makes a throat clearing noise. “I must admit I can see your point. But, you know, there are people, plenty of people, who are able to withstand losing someone they love to another? And I’m not - please don’t think I’m speaking ill of your father, because I’m not. Clearly, he loved your mother very much, but often times, other things come into play when it comes to suicide, y’know?”

Mycroft bites his lip as he thinks of Uncle Rudy on that day, staring at his mother as if he could stab her with his stare. “It’s a story I have lived with all my life.”

“Hm. Yeah. Stories shape us.”

“Yes.”

“But, we can change those stories, y’know?”

“It…” He thinks of Alicia, and her framed photos. “Yes. I suppose.”

“You know.”

“Yes, I know.” He clutches the phone. “How - well, you had parents that helped you...but, did you ever have someone leave you for their Devotee?”

“Yeah. I did. And it hurt like hell,” Greg says in a hoarse voice. “But, I’m still here. Talking to you.”

“And, what if you find your person?”

“Hm. I’m not sure that’s going to happen. And anyway, I’m not keen to find that person just now. Not now that I’ve met you.” Mycroft can hear Greg shifting. He’s sitting, but the phone is pressed against his cheek, and then he’s moving - maybe curling up on his sofa? “I gotta ask you, though. Is there...is there anything that you’d call me?”

So many names. Papillon. Schmetterling. Farfalla. Mariposa. Fluture. Paruparo.

But it’s pointless because people don’t have multiple hypocoristics. A single word is etched in the epithelial layers and that’s it.

“No,” he says.

“Hm,” Greg breathes. “I do have to say I’m a little disappointed. I had hoped…”

Mycroft’s heart shrinks. “Right. Well, I don’t have one, so it’s pointless to hope with me.”

“I know, I just...I have a hard time not thinking about you. Being without you has been...hard.”

Mycroft licks his lips as a little flame of hope flickers above his diaphragm. “Then, it would not be unwelcome if I were to ask you to dinner?”

Greg huffs. “No. It would not be unwelcome.”

“Greg, would you join me for dinner?”

“Yeah. I’d like that.”

Mycroft smiles as his body thrills with joy. “Excellent. Would you...could we do it at my flat? And perhaps, this time, we’ll make it to pudding.”

Greg barks a laugh, and the answering chortle in Mycroft’s throat dispels all the gloom from the air. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

“Friday night? Seven pm?” He congratulates himself on holding his voice steady.

“Yeah. Friday night. It’s a date.”

 


 

On Friday morning, Alicia announces that she’s joined a dating website. Anthea helps her review her profile in the lunchroom on a laptop, which ends with the two of them visiting other profiles, giggling and snarking. Harry joins them, as do members of both the sales and engineering teams. The atmosphere is jovial. Relaxed. Most wear bracelets. Some don’t. 

“Oh! Alicia!” Anthea cries. “You’ve got a message!”

There’s excited murmuring and laughter as Alicia, blushing, checks the message. 

“Is it safe for work?” Someone quips.

Harry guffaws. “Yeah, that’s all I need, HR breathing down my neck for employees looking at inappropriate pictures on their lunch break.”

Alicia’s hand flutters at her neck as she sits down at the laptop. Her face forms a moue of pretended distaste. “My goodness, can we be professional about this for two seconds?” Mycroft can tell from the pull of her lips that she’s enjoying the attention.

“Nah, let’s see the goods!” Anthea crowds her, peering over her shoulder. “Aw, he ain’t half bad looking. And he can spell. That’s a plus. Want us to run a background check on him?”

“Is that even legal?” Alicia says over the answering chuckles.

“Oh wait.” Anthea looks over at Mycroft, bent over his lunch in the corner on account of it being a rainy day. “Mycroft’s the best at reading people. What d’you think?”

The eyes of the gathered crowd focus on him, their whites widening in surprise. For just a moment, Mycroft’s prepared to give a shrug, and return to his sandwich. 

But this. This is where he can change his story. Not continue a story of predicted lunacy and suicide and loneliness, like the church taught him. He could reach for things. He could allow others near.  

“Well, let me take a look,” he says, a smile on his face as he stands. His coworkers look almost afraid as he nears. Alicia’s face slackens with surprise. Anthea smiles, confident and joyful. She makes room for Mycroft behind Alicia.

Mycroft studies the photo: a middle-aged gentleman leaning against an expensive grey Lexus. He’s holding the viewfinder up in his right hand so you can see his smiling face, twinkling eyes, and part of the car and the dashboard, leaning back on his left hand as he perches on the bonnet. There’s a lovely field behind it. The caption says something about him enjoying the views at his country home. As Mycroft’s eyes note the details - salt and pepper hair, collared shirt, acne scars on the side of his face, a full mustache - he notices one detail the man’s left out of his profile.

“He’s married,” he says. 

“What?” Alicia twists around to face him. 

“His profile says single, but there’s a tan line on his left ring finger. He could be recently divorced or separated. But his collar is pressed, and I can see -” he leans forward and expands the size of the photo - “there, the hint of lipstick on the collar, which likely his wife tried to wipe away when seeing him off that morning.” He moves the photo around so they can see his car, and a close-up of his hand. “Look through the window of the car. There’s a woman’s pair of sunglasses on the dashboard. Probably didn’t think to move them when he took the photo.”

He focuses on Alicia. “For your sake, I hope he isn’t your Devotee. You could do better.”

Alicia’s expression shifts from one of perplexity to one of a pleasant satisfaction. She smiles at him. “Thank you, Mycroft. Would you mind if I have you look at the occasional suitor?”

Mycroft starts to say he doesn’t, but then he thinks. “Well, I suppose. But, what if one of them is your Devotee? I might prevent you from meeting the most important person in your life.”

Alicia shakes her head. “Eh, so are kids and parents and family and good friends. And I have those.”

All the air escapes Mycroft, as if someone’s punched him in the gut. He’s mistaken Alicia for something else, just because she’s one of the Devout. He’s expected damnation and pity. She’s not like that at all. 

“Right,” he says, unable to form a coherent thought. “Right.”

 


 

Seeing Greg in the frame of his doorway lights up his insides like a Christmas tree. Greg’s smile is his undoing - it’s like the little crook of his teeth are an inviting sashay of hips - and Mycroft’s never burned with lust like this. He’s unsure of what to do with it.

“Please, come in.” Thank the gods he can’t see my face.

Mycroft. The man is blind. Stop taking advantage.

“I’m quite nervous,” he admits.

Greg’s smile softens. “Me too. We’ll go slow, okay?”

Mycroft looks the man over from head to toe. He looks delicious, like he's a strong drink that’s been poured into his navy button down and jeans. He walks with his white cane, but that doesn’t prevent the slight confidence in his steps. His free hand holds a single-stemmed red rose.

You can look. You’re allowed to look. 

The jeans hug his thighs, and as Greg passes, Mycroft can appreciate how they outline his arse. He can’t stop his own trousers from getting tight. He adjusts himself as he shuts the door.

Greg faces him. “So, hey.” He holds up the rose. “To make my intentions clear.”

Mycroft’s cheeks flame as he accepts the flower. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Greg says. “Can I...or if it’s too fast, tell me. But, have you ever been kissed?”

Mycroft’s cheeks burn hotter. He wants this; it’s an ache below his ribs, a tight furl of longing he hasn’t let himself feel since he was a teenager. “I haven’t.”

“Seems unfortunate.” He takes a step closer, moving into Mycroft’s personal space, his cane hanging at his side. “Would you like to kiss me?”

Mycroft’s heart bangs against its cage and thunders in his ears. “Yes.” He licks his lips. Though his mouth and throat are dry, he somehow manages to summon just enough moisture to wet them slightly. He can smell Greg’s cologne - notes of vetiver and jasmine.

“Kiss me,” Greg whispers.

Mycroft tries to quell the raging rhythm of his heart. He places his hands on Greg’s shoulders. Leans in, tilts his head, and presses his lips to Greg’s. Greg moves into the kiss, tender and gentle. Their lips fit together, Mycroft’s lower lip on the seam of Greg’s mouth, and Greg tugs it just a bit with his teeth. Mycroft’s knees buckle.

“Can we sit on the sofa?” Greg breathes against his mouth.

“Yes,” Mycroft says. He guides Greg, sinks down beside him. Greg envelops him in his arms, and they kiss again, and again, and again. Mycroft’s not sure who introduces their tongue first, but Greg guides him through it all with a sweetness Mycroft has never experienced. It’s enough to make his chest cavity feel as if someone’s bust it open, exposed his heart to the world, and somehow, he feels safe with this man. His heart is aflame and Greg is the crucible.

All those years he’d simply ignored the urges of lust; it seems to consume him now like flames consuming straw. 

“Greg,” he says, breaking their kiss. “I - I want to be someone different. I’m tired of not reaching for what I want.”

“What do you want?” Greg gasps out as he holds Mycroft close.

You. I want you.

“I want to be t-touched,” he says. “I want to know what it is to go to bed with someone.” His fingers close tighter into Greg’s shirt. “I want that.”

“Now? So fast?” Greg says. “Not that I mind, because gods, it has been torture to hold back from just ravaging you, but I can wait, if you need to go slow. We have time.”

Mycroft shakes his head. “No. No more waiting. I’ve been an idiot all these years, following these beliefs blindly. Whether there are gods or no, I can feel in my heart that it is right to be here with you. It’s right. It feels right.” He’s never been one for feeling, but this, with his heart alight like a torch in the dark, he knows this is a beacon he wants to follow. “P-please. Take me to bed.”

“Oh gods,” Greg breathes. “This isn’t just sex, right? This won’t be just the one time? I really like you. I want you to be mine.”

“I want to be yours,” Mycroft says as he kisses Greg again. “I want to be yours, only you.”

“Show me the way to your bedroom.”

In his bedroom door, Greg pauses. “Describe it.”

Mycroft stands there, holding his hand, disbelieving. “Now?”

“Yes.” Greg turns his body to face Mycroft.

“It’s dark wood, mahogany. A four poster bed and a matching wardrobe. A full length mirror stands in the corner. The bedspread is a wine color, and there’s a Persian rug on the floor.” His hard-on presses against his zipper. 

“Everything is sumptuous, isn’t it? You’ve the best sheets, haven’t you?” Greg leans into his space, nosing his cheek. “What’s the carpet like?”

“Soft. Thick. More like a fluffy mattress than a rug,” he admits.

“You were made to be touched, Mycroft.”

Mycroft shivers and captures Greg’s lips in his. He manages to get them over to the bed and the two of them fall atop the bedspread. 

Greg stops the kissing just long enough to run his fingers over Mycroft’s face. He kisses the tip of Mycroft’s nose and brushes his fingertips over Mycroft’s lips. On instinct, Mycroft licks them, and Greg gasps. They kiss again.

Greg pushes Mycroft down, gently, and kisses his neck. It’s a luxurious feeling; wriggling against the comforter, a body above him, stubble scraping down the column of his neck. A litany of cries erupt from his lips as Greg murmurs sweet things against his skin and kisses him again and again. 

But then.

“Wait,” Mycroft pants. “Show me.” 

“Hm?” 

“I-I’m curious to see it.” His heart thuds with fear. But it’s now or never. He has to face it, see what it is that Greg wears that could one day be the cause of Mycroft’s grief - Greg finding his Devotee, and leaving Mycroft. What is the name that Greg’s perfect person will speak? “Please, show it to me.”

Greg frames his hips with his thighs. He pushes back, and begins to unbutton his shirt. “It’s unusual.”

“How so?”

“It’s not a word. It’s an image.” Greg pulls open his shirt to reveal the outline of -

Mycroft chokes on his next breath. 

“Mycroft?”

It’s a butterfly. The mark over Greg’s heart is the petal pink outline of a butterfly.

Papillon. Schmetterling. Farfalla. Mariposa. Fluture. Paruparo.

“Impossible,” Mycroft’s eyes fill with tears. “Impossible.”

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Oh my gods,” Mycroft covers his eyes with one hand. “I don’t understand.”

“Mycroft, talk to me.”

“Your...it’s a butterfly.”

“Yeah. Is that - ?”

“I paint butterflies,” Mycroft says. “I didn’t tell you. In my lounge are twenty-two paintings of butterflies. I - it’s like an obsession. I used to draw them as a kid, and then as an adult, I started painting them. Each time I found a new one outside. I painted it.”

He touches Greg’s face, Greg with his unseeing eyes. “The first time I saw you, your face reminded me of the symmetry of a butterfly’s wings. And I have wanted to call you mine, but the refrain which comes to mind when I let it is Papillon, Schmetterling, Farfalla, Mariposa, Fluture, and Paruparo.

Greg slides his hand down Mycroft’s arm and over his shoulder, up his neck, and to his cheeks. “You’re crying,” he says. 

“It’s just so bloody unfair.”

Papillon, Schmetterling, Fluture

There, lying upon Greg’s breast: Psyche’s emblem. 

“It’s as if you were made for me,” Mycroft says.

Greg gulps. He tilts his face to kiss Mycroft’s palm, and then the inside of his wrist. “Let’s forget all that. Maybe I am made for you, and something happened, something went wrong and it’s just not on your skin. And that’s okay, Mycroft. I have wanted to love you. I want you to be my love. Can we do that? Can we just throw all this - this myth away, and just love each other? Will you be my love? Can I call you that? Love?”

There’s a splitting of the psyche, of the soul, of Mycroft’s self image and the stories he’s told himself over the years. Here, he can try to fit the pieces of the story back together and go back to his soulless life, or he can step into the gap, into the liminal space that has opened, fall through into a life in living color and outside of the pages that have chaptered it. 

“Yes, yes, oh gods, yes,” he says and the two men clash together, lips and tongues tangled and teeth clacking, and limbs gripping and trapping each other, shoving hips together as if they could zip themselves into a single form. Fuck everything about soulmates, Devotionals, and Devotees. This is the story they’ve begun, and even if it’s only half affirmed by the will of gods, fuck them too. 

Mycroft will hold Greg to him for as long as he can, hypocoristic or no.

They shuck one another of their clothes, and even though Mycroft has never done anything like this, it feels right to rub against Greg, to let himself open up as Greg slots himself between his thighs and pushes their erections together. Greg runs his hands over Mycroft’s body, kisses him along his shoulders and collarbones, and slides down, peppering kisses over his chest and his belly. He smooths his hands along Mycroft’s flanks and nips along the crests of his hips. Sobs and gasps slip from his throat, and Greg holds him tighter, kisses him harder. 

Mycroft rocks his hips upward as Greg strokes his thighs.

Then stills.

“Wha - why did you stop?” Mycroft whines. 

Greg’s hand rubs over a part of his inner thigh, and Mycroft flushes with embarrassment. Greg is at a disadvantage - he doesn’t know that Mycroft is unattractive. He’s like Psyche fumbling in the dark before her sisters convince her she’s sleeping with a monster. Except Mycroft is no winged God of Love. 

Now Greg can feel the embarrassing evidence of the keratosis pilaris that has plagued Mycroft since his teen years, giving him a skin that’s near scaly-like on his thighs and upper arms. 

“Oh my fucking gods, I do not believe it,” Greg says. “Mycroft, it’s here. Right here.”

“Sorry?” Mycroft says, wondering if he needs to explain the overactive protein secretions that create the unsightly bumps on his thighs.

“It’s in braille. It’s in braille,” Greg says, and Mycroft’s brain thumps against a wall; not understanding what he’s hearing. 

“What?”

“It’s here, it’s been here all along.” Greg’s face drops to his thigh. A wetness forms against Mycroft’s skin. “Oh my god, it’s here.”

“What is it?” Mycroft’s voice is edged with panic.

“The word ‘love.’ It’s been here in your body all along, written in your skin. With your skin.” He reaches up and snatches one of Mycroft’s hands. “Touch this. Right here. This is the L.” Mycroft only feels a collection of raised bumps beneath the pads of his fingers. “And this is the O.” Greg directs his fingers to a set of bumps next to the L. “And this is the V.” His voice is climbing with excitement. “And this is the E. It’s right here, Mycroft! It’s right here!” His voice is choked with laughter, but there’s tears in it, too, and the bumps are real enough. 

Mycroft runs his fingers over the bumps again. The walls around him crumble, as if the chrysalis he’d thought he was suffocating in has suddenly split open, and he’s finally seen by the sun and the sky. He’s still wet and wrinkled and flailing, but he’s here, basking in the love of his -

Soulmate.

Water streams down his face, collects in the hair over his ears, drips along his jaw and down his neck. 

“Mycroft?” Greg reaches up to his face.

Mycroft sniffs. He’s choking back the urge to bawl like a baby. He’s newly born, newly emerged, and a first utterance is daunting. There’s a wide gap between being born and a first word.

Greg falls down against him, wrapping him in his arms. The tightness in Mycroft’s chest sluices into a body-wracking sob. Reborn, red-faced, wet. Clinging to a man he didn’t think he could have, and who has turned out to be his.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Greg whispers against his skin. 

Another round of sobs breaks free from his chest, and he shakes as he falls apart. 

But, in time, he will bask in the warm love of his Greg, and he will spread his wings and fly aloft in the golden sun.

 


 

The morning light creeps across the far wall. Mycroft’s head weighs heavy on the pillow. The blankets pool at his waist. Beside him is a myth, a dream, a treasure that Mycroft had no thought of ever finding. An impossibility. 

But he’s there, nonetheless. His breathing is soft, deep, even. His skin is marked by tanlines at his biceps and neck. Hair fuzzes over his chest and down his belly like a stretch of thin forest. He’s magnificent.

Emotions slide through Mycroft like tectonic plates, grinding, pushing and shoving. In one moment, he’s elated. The suffusement of happiness is profound, like he’s been wandering around in a fog and the air has finally cleared to reveal a gorgeous vista full of vibrant greenery and a crystal clear lake. And it’s not through a window or on a postcard. He’s there. He can touch it.

In the next, he’s confused. He’s in disbelief. His hand worries at the bumps on his thigh, tracing over and over, the letters L-O-V-E. His eyes sear into the mark on Greg’s chest, that pink-flesh stamp of a butterfly. He ran his hands over it multiple times in the night, afraid it might fade at any moment in some great cosmic joke. 

How did this happen? How could it happen? 

Since when did Devotionals etch themselves in skin with braille?

How have the Devout not known?

How could the specialist have not known?

And there, he knows it’s there. Slamming up from below, molten-hot and moving, pushing past plates of joy and relief and bewilderment. 

Anger.

“Mycroft?” Greg’s sleep-rough voice touches his ears. “You seem tense.”

Mycroft emits a puff of air. 

“What is it?” Greg sounds uncertain. Afraid? He’s fully awake now, shifting in the bed. 

Mycroft rolls over and buries his face into Greg’s chest. 

“What’s wrong?” Greg asks as he strokes one hand in Mycroft’s hair.

Mycroft draws up one shoulder and releases it. The plates have cooled, the anger sinking down now. “I’m happy to have found you.”

“But?”

“I am very angry with all the lies I’ve swallowed my entire life.”

Greg strokes his hair, breathes into the top of his head. “Yeah, I can imagine, Love.”

Mycroft’s breath catches. 

“I’ll help you however I can. I’m sort of shocked, myself.” His lips press against the crown of Mycroft’s head.

Mycroft slides his arms around him and hugs him tight. “I wanted it to be you.” Papillon. Schmetterling. Farfalla. Mariposa. Fluture. Paruparo.

“Yeah. Just remember that we chose each other before we even knew.” Greg holds him. They’re warm, musky. Wrapped up in each other and wreathed in bliss. Mycroft falls back asleep.

 


 

Greg sits on the dark leather sofa with his socked feet curled beside him. He fits, as if he was always meant to be there. They’d spent part of the morning taking down the butterfly paintings one by one so Greg could run a hand over them while Mycroft described them. They’re back on the wall, and Mycroft’s heart rate speeds up to see his Devotee - his - sitting below them.

“I, uh, I’d like to call my family. Tell them the news,” Greg says. He seems hopeful but uncertain.

Mycroft smiles. “Of course. I...will I get to meet them?”

Greg’s chin jerks up. “Yeah, of course! I want them to meet you!” He rubs the back of his neck. “And, uh, I want to meet your family, too.”

His stomach curdles like old milk. “Yes. You will. I suppose while you make your calls, I shall make mine.”

“Great.” Greg smiles, and pulls his phone from the pocket of his trousers. “I should call my mum first.” He presses the phone to his ear. After a moment, the call connects. “Hey. Mornin’.” He listens. “Yeah, well I got news to share. I’m sitting here with that guy I told you about - yeah, the painter from the park.”

His chest swoops and puffs up as he realizes Greg has already mentioned him to his mother. 

“Yeah, well, it turns out he’s my guy. My match.”

There’s a shrill shout from the other end.

Mycroft smiles as he pads into the kitchen and leans against the counter. How many conversations has he had in this room with his mother? Often stilted, mostly pleasant enough, not always forthcoming. But here he is. About to bombard her with something neither of them thought possible. 

He pushes her name on the contacts list under “Favourites.”

“Mycroft!” His mother’s voice rings through the phone. “What a pleasant surprise.”

“Mummy,” Mycroft says. 

“Did you get your invite to Hugh’s wedding?” This might have stung, once. But not now.

“I did.”

“Oh, good. Have you heard from Sherlock?” He can hear papers rustling, and then the clink of a glass vase. 

He didn’t expect Sherlock to tell her about John. Sherlock prefers to keep much about his life hidden. Mycroft has always been the go-between. “Yes. He’s well. Mummy, I have some questions.”

“Yes?” 

Here goes. “Did you love my father?”

Mummy is quiet a moment before she answers. She’s stopped moving. “Of course I did. I’ve told you that.”

“Did you love him like you love Sherlock’s father?”

“He’s your father, too.”

“In a way, yes.” Mycroft hasn’t seen the man except at holidays since he was a teenager. 

“Mycroft,” she admonishes. 

“If you hadn’t met him, would you still be with my father?”

“Mycroft, these questions - “

“There was a time before you joined the church. A time when you and my father were free of their dogma. Did you believe that you’d be together for the rest of your natural lives?”

“Dogma, what -” she breathes out hard. Mycroft clutches the phone. Waits.

“I loved your father. When I met my Devotee, it was...unexpected, of course. But your father and I were on the outs at the time. Just - silly couple arguments.” She draws in a breath, lets it go. “He wanted another child, and I wasn’t ready.”

Mycroft leans heavily against the counter, the edge digging into his hip. 

His silence seems to unnerve her, because she laughs a little, says things with a modicum of flippancy. “I met Stan - Mr Holmes then, to me - in the library. I was just...just needed a moment out, some time to myself. An afternoon. You and your father were at home. When we’d married, we’d agreed on two children. But, I changed my mind, and he was upset. Understandably, of course.”

“And Sherlock?” His tone is tight. Vicious. Like a noose.

“Unplanned.” He hears her swallow. “Don’t you ever tell him that. I was unfaithful to your father, and Sherlock was the result.”

Mycroft grips the edge of the counter with his hand. He runs his tongue over his teeth. “So, what I’m hearing is that you believe the child of your first marriage is Unmarked because you loved someone who wasn’t your Devotee. But the child who is the result of adultery is Marked because it was with your Devotee?”

“The church -”

Fuck the church.” His words rip through the room like a gunshot. Her gasp is audible. 

It echoes in his head. After a moment, she speaks. “Are you - are you feeling well?” He can hear a note of fear in her voice. She’s not afraid of him, but for him. That those pamphlets she held once in her hand might have been right. She thinks he’s losing it.

“I am well, Mummy. Especially now that I am free of a lifetime of lies.” He hears movement in the other room. No doubt Greg heard his angered outburst. “The church and your specialists were wrong. I’ve been Marked this entire time.”

“Mycroft?”

“The keratosis pilaris. The bumps on my skin? Turns out some of them spell a word in braille. My Devotee is a blind man.” It rubs him the wrong way to reduce Greg to that - Greg is so much more. But he’s trying to make his point. “Where in the scriptures does it say that? What hymns describe all manner of Devotionals? There is the Image and the Word, yes? But what else is there? What might be out there that the church doesn’t know about, or maybe does know about but hides because it’s convenient? I can’t be the first. But the church has always pushed their ways and controlled the narrative. I’m telling you they’re wrong, and we’ve all been fooled.”

Silence. Then a sniffle.

There’s a noise in the doorway. Mycroft looks up to see Greg standing there, one hand holding the door frame, his face wrinkled with worry. 

“You -” his mother’s broken voice. “You’ve found someone?”

“His name is Greg,” he says in a soft voice. “He’s wonderful. He’s everything I could have ever wanted.” Greg smiles, though he still seems concerned.

“Oh gods,” she says, wet and weepy. “Truly, Mycroft? This is real?”

“It’s real.” Greg moves closer to him and Mycroft reaches over and takes his hand. “He’s mine, and I’m his.”

“Then,” she says through tears, “oh gods!” She’s crying and he can hear a voice in the background, deep and resonant. Her Devotee. The man Mycroft has long called Father. After a moment of her crying, Mycroft hears a door shut. She’s somewhere closed in, a small room with a quiet echo. “I sometimes thought the gods were punishing me because I cheated on my marriage. I loved your father, Mycroft. What happened was inexcusable. When I realized Stan was my Devotee, I - I used it as an excuse to cheat on your father. I never would have, otherwise. And then when your father -”

Greg squeezes his hand as his mother chokes on her tears.

“When your father passed, I - I threw myself into the church. It was all I could do to try and make up for what I had done.” Another sob escapes her. 

“Father wore a Devotional,” Mycroft says after a moment. “Why didn’t he think he might meet his Devotee one day, and stay alive to meet her?”

She sighs, loud and drawn out. Steadies her breathing. “They did, long ago.” A catch in her breath as she tries to smother a hiccup. “There was an accident, and the last time he saw her, she was catatonic. Brain damage. It was very sad. We were all friends. I knew her. She passed some years ago. I attended the funeral.”

Mycroft covers his face with one hand, rubs at his temple. Secrets. So many secrets. “Did you ever find what you were looking for in the church?”

He can almost feel her frown through the phone. “No,” she admits quietly. “I’ve made friends. I’ve found a certain kind of peace. But, forgiveness? Salvation? I don’t know.”

He gets that. His mother made a mistake in committing adultery and she’ll always have that on her conscience. He knows she also feels guilt for his father’s suicide. He’s not interested in crucifying her for doing what she did. She’s always loved him. She’s always done her best to do right by him. 

But she didn’t know. She didn’t know.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he says. It’s an echo of their earlier conversations where she sought to comfort him. “People kill themselves for all sorts of reasons. Devotional or no.”

The silence is deafening.

“Shall we come by for Sunday brunch in a week?” he asks.

A hitch of her breath. “Please. I want to meet him.”

“Then we shall see you.”

The out-rush of air through the line is palpable with relief. “Thank you,” she says.

“All my love. And, do give Sherlock a call and ask him about John.”

“John?” 

“I think you’ll find the conversation very enlightening.”

When he hangs up, Greg gathers him into his arms. 

“I call you many names,” Mycroft murmurs. “Papillon. Schmetterling. Farfalla. Mariposa. Fluture. Paruparo.”

“Okay, I recognize a couple of those languages. Butterfly?”

“I know more, but these are my favourites.”

Greg kisses him.

 


 

Greg stays over another night. Neither of them wants to let the other out of sight - or for Greg, out of reach. After another session of slow, beautiful lovemaking, Greg falls asleep. He looks like a Greek god, resplendent in the sheets, lovely face slack in repose. Mycroft watches him for a moment before he gets out his laptop. 

His searches lead him to discover that he’s not the only one with this particular type of Devotional, or Mark, as he’s come to think of it in his head. In a small forum on the internet, there are several others with braille on their bodies. On this same forum is someone who’s partner experiences synesthesia. 

 

 

i was so close to ending it all when this man ran to me, talked ot me, asked me out, and i agreed. We got along so well and when he told me what that he saw over my head when he looked at me it sounded unbelievable at first. But i told him what i wanted to call him and it was written on his ribcage. He saved me. i’d been told allmy life that i was Unloveable and cursed. i thought it better to end it. 

 

He continues his search in other languages and finds more examples of persons who thought themselves Unmarked until a partner proved otherwise.

And nowhere in the teachings of the Devout is there room for these odd hypocoristics.

The person with the synesthete believes themself to be in danger from their local parish. Other people have been ostracised. Still more are accepted by family and friends, denied by their church. 

Some are free of the burden even before meeting their match, having not grown up in the church. Like Greg.

Many thought of ending their lives at some point. The church’s prejudices were pushing them right into the behavior the church described for the Unmarked.

It was fulfilling an agenda. Intentionally or out of ignorance? Why?

Mycroft calls out of work the next day. They spend it on the sofa, watching movies on the projector and eating takeaway. It’s indulgent. Simple. Hedonistic.  

It’s everything.

And in the back of Mycroft’s mind, a plan grows.

 


 

6 Months Later

 

“Okay, so the contract with Behringer is signed contingent on the new software performance,” Anthea sits in the chair across from him, fiddling with a pen in her lap as she gives her report. “Alicia’s on it.”

“I have the utmost faith that the software will deliver.” Mycroft leans back in his office chair. A vase of colorful flowers adorns his desk - sunset colors, like the Van Gogh painting that adorns his wall. The white envelope that came with them is perched between his fingers.

“It’s been a slog, but all the tests we’ve run have identified the weak points, and we’ve bucked them up, so we should be good.” Her smile turns conspiratory, a dive in the eyebrows and an upward pull at the corner of her lips. “They had an interesting question though, about this hacktivist collective on the rise.”

Mycroft twists his lips to hide his smile. “Hm. Would you be speaking about the covert group known as the Innominate?”

“Yeah. Wondered what we thought about it, and if we had countermeasures put in place should they turn their attention to corporate sites.”

“Mm. It’s interesting they’re concerned with being targeted. I wonder if they’ve tithed to church coffers from the corporate foundation. Perhaps their concern is due to a guilty conscience?”

“Hm.” Her smile turns wicked as her blue eyes flash with mischief. “Perhaps worth an investigation?”

“Perhaps.” The outcry around the world about the undue prejudice against people who were previously known as the Unmarked, the Cursed, the Soulless, and so on, had rocked the foundations of many countries. The Innominate’s message of freedom from the church was catching on with young people in particular. In countries where Unmarked, or believed-to-be-Unmarked people lived in fear for their lives, an underground railroad of sorts was developing, funneling them to safer countries more tolerant in attitudes. 

It had started with the hacking of websites throughout the world attached to the major branches of the Devout church. In the Innominate’s digging, it was discovered that churches had actively hid the knowledge of other hypocoristics aside from the Word and the Image. A damning internal memo of one particularly popular Devout leader was made public knowledge. It seems that by keeping the public ignorant of these other hypocoristics, the Devout leadership kept their hold on the masses while they amassed wealth for themselves.

As more of the leaders were exposed in their complicity, the churches which led the Devout were rapidly losing followers. 

“Remind Behringer that our firm is foremost in the world when it comes to software security, and we have their best interests in mind. Unless of course, they are funneling monetary donations to a religious institution. Doesn’t seem to be in anyone’s best interests, these days.” He fingers the white envelope and sees the the raised dots. Greg uses a slate and stylus to write in braille, and he’s taught Mycroft how to read it. He must have dropped the card off with the florist. Mycroft can imagine him there in the shop, asking the shopkeeper what blooms best matched a sunset. 

He rubs over the dots, reading the words with his fingertips. 

You are my light in the dark. 

It’s amazing how the world holds so many differing perspectives. He remembers telling Greg that butterflies taste with their feet. 

He slides it into the pocket of his jacket. “I have to meet my husband in the park.” The words are still new on his tongue - “my husband.” They taste delicious. 

Anthea smirks at him as she rises from her chair. “Will you ever tell the others?”

“About the mark? No. No need to raise suspicion. I’m already the head engineer of an international software security firm. We have military contracts. Eventually, someone’s going to think to look at me or at some other software genius. No need to arouse that suspicion early on by announcing that I was one of the Unmarked, but it turns out I carry a hypocoristic written in braille. Seems like the exact kind of person that might be behind a collective such as Innominate, and I would hate to put Harry’s company in potential trouble because of it.”

Anthea grins. “Yeah. Cuz you know Harry, he’s such a stickler for rules, and loves keeping the Old World Order.”

Mycroft bites down on his answering grin. “You and Harry have been the greatest friends and co-conspirators anyone could ever ask for. But we shouldn’t ever discuss this here.”

“I gotcha. See ya this weekend for Alicia’s holiday soiree?”

“Looking forward to it,” Mycroft says flatly as he stops himself from rolling his eyes.

Anthea gives him a look. “Just stay one hour.”

“People are so exhausting.”

“One hour is all I’m saying!”

“For you, one hour.”

“You’ll be fine, boss. Greg’ll look after you.”

A warm feeling flashes across his chest at the thought of Greg looking after him. “Good afternoon, Anthea.”

“I’m out, I’m out.”

Mycroft reaches for his overcoat to protect him from the biting cold of a December wind in Hyde Park. He touches the envelope in the pocket of his jacket, and smiles. 

 


 

They walk, gloved hand in gloved hand, down a well-salted path. Few other people have chosen to brave the weather. The sky is grey and the air is cold, but the heat between them is palpable. 

“I once read of an experiment where scientists exposed caterpillars to different stimuli and recorded their responses. The caterpillars then metamorphosed. In pupation, the larval butterfly becomes, essentially, a pod of goo. Its transformation requires a complete rewiring of the insect’s body and central nervous system.”

“Is goo a scientific term?” Greg asks as he bumps his shoulder to Mycroft’s.

“Very,” Mycroft says with a smile. “It’s in a scientific glossary somewhere. Anyway, the part that amazed the scientists is that when the butterflies emerged from this liquid form and were exposed to the same set of stimuli, the insects remembered.”

They walk for a moment in silence. Mycroft marvels over how ‘goo’ retains memory.

“Do you think they focus on holding onto those memories, or do they focus more on creating new ones?” Greg says.

Mycroft hums. “I wouldn’t know. But, I do know they see differently from caterpillars. They see colours we can only dream of. A purple flower to us is simply that - a purple flower. But to them, it’s a kaleidoscope of colour, complete with a landing pad that directs the insect to the center of its pollen and nectar.”

“Sounds magical.”

“I imagine it is.” Mycroft looks over at Greg. He still feels unsure, toddling, walking beside this man, knowing he is his, but still wondering.

But then, he does know. Papillon. Schmetterling. Farfalla. Mariposa. Fluture. Paruparo. A prayer and petition answered. Not by human interpretation of an outdated story. Not by unhelpful dogma or rigid tradition. The world is too vast and varied to hold only one kind of truth. 

And whether decreed by gods or not, they belong together: Love and Soul.