The Foreign Minister’s Clerk

(Author’s note: I struggled a bit with what to write this week.  Firstly, I finally broke down and bought the “Hamilton” soundtrack instead of just borrowing it from the Hoopla whenever the mood struck and now I’m taking full advantage of being able to listen to it on an endless loop.  Music about an 18th Century figure doesn’t jive well with trying to write a 19th Century character.  At least not in my brain.  Secondly, I spent last weekend elbows deep in edits for Book Two, so my Charlotte-muse was feeling a little burnt out.  However, the other Holmes’ sibling was quick to raise his hand, dance around, and all but scream “I volunteer as tribute!”  [I also finally watched part two of “Mockingjay,” hence the Hunger Games reference.]  Mycroft reminded me he’s got his hands on information he isn’t supposed to have, and we haven’t exactly seen how he get it.  He hadn’t even told me how he got it before now.

Don’t worry, no spoilers.  I’m not 100% sure what the info is, and I can’t spoil things I haven’t entirely figured out myself yet.)

 Five months into his new billet, Mycroft starts to wonder why he thought government work sounded so exciting.

If he’s honest, it’s less an error in his thinking and more the misinformation provided by his recruiter.  Bradley St. John, the minister’s right hand, made a grand pitch, after all.  Made the job sound glamorous and intriguing, full of travel and adventure.  “Join the foreign office and see the world,” that sort of thing.  Charlotte may think her brother is a lazy lout, but it’s more like Mycroft is saving his energy for something worthwhile, and there’s little more worthwhile than a true adventure.  She’s not the only one who needs a little of that in her life.  When Mycroft signed his employment contract, it was with the understanding he’d get just that.  So far, all he’s seen is the inside of an office.

“It just takes time,” St. John says over lunch at a restaurant that strains Mycroft’s meager stipend.  That, he’s also been assured, will increase in time.  He believes that promise more than the other.  For now, he’s just glad he’s not paying for the meal.  “Hard work and loyalty are always rewarded.”

“In a fair and just world.”  Mycroft sips at his tea while his friend enjoys a glass of wine.  “I don’t have much personal experience that shows we live in one.”

“One must have faith, Holmes.”  St. John reaches across the table and slaps Mycroft convivially on the arm.  “You were chosen for a reason. It may not seem so now, but you will serve a vital role in our department.”

“Beyond shuffling bits of paper from one desk to another?”  Mycroft snorts, but pushes the mood aside with a shake of his head that dislodges tufts of barely tamed hair.  “Don’t take my frustration personally, Sinjin.  It’s not your fault exactly.”

“No, you’re just too young and too smart to be patient,” he says.  “Now stop frowning at your soup and eat.  I want to stop by the tobacconist on the return and we may cut it close getting back in time for the afternoon briefing if we dawdle too long here.”

 

St. John means “I”, not “we;” his presence is required for the briefing, Mycroft’s is only required in the closet of an office where he sits and scans reports in order to summarize and highlight the salient points for his superiors.  Power and a proper salary come at the expense of time – they can’t find any to read the field reports and memoranda generated by their own department, so Mycroft does it for them.  He also remembers things for them so that their minds, so overstuffed with the minutiae of bureaucracy and politics, aren’t strained by the addition of more information.  His brain is a limitless commodity, a library whose shelves have only begun to be truly stocked.  He remembers things others forget.  Details stick to the walls of his memory like moths attached to the globes of gaslights.  Even the memories he doesn’t want to keep.

He may be the only person alive who remembers the miniscule difference in the smell of dew when it’s infused with the odor of a freshly burned house, or how different sobs sound when muffled by a child’s bathrobe versus an ill-fitting mourning jacket.  Those he wishes he could forget.

The Forrester file takes half the time expected and he finishes it before the briefing ends.  He considers waiting to return it until St. John is back in his office.  Then he remembers the replenished tobacco supply and his own dwindling stash and decides to go ahead with the delivery.  It’s not that St. John would object to sharing – he showed Mycroft where to find the key to the box, after all – but that his assistant is too impatient to wait for his friend to return.

Mycroft enters the office quietly, not for stealth but out of respect, and leaves the summary and the file on his friend’s blotter.  The key he needs hangs inside the drawer where files on current matters are stored, half of the contents of which he is nowhere near senior enough to know.  He snags the key with one hand as his eyes skim over familiar folders marked with things like “Adamson,” “Beaumont,” “Cleveland,” and “Edwards,” all written in St. John’s light, casual hand.  The slight empty space where “Forrester” would return makes a small gap in the line of otherwise exact and uniformly aligned folders.  As he goes to close the drawer, though, Mycroft notices something in his periphery that gives him pause.  Past “Granger,” just before “Morse,” a faded tab scribbled upon with a thicker, bolder hand awaits his notice.  The name on it?  Holmes comma C.

Comma C?  Why would Foreign Office have a file on Charlotte?  On himself, surely: they likely observed and researched him for some time before approaching him with the position.  That St. John would have a file with that information, or his current progress, makes sense.  But why…she hasn’t managed to draw attention this far up with her work, has she?  He frowns, thinking of Sir Robert and the potential stir he could have caused with his nonsense.  If this is because of that puffed up aristocratic…

It takes him far too long to remember Charlotte wasn’t always the only Holmes comma C someone could have a file on.  When the realization hits, he kicks himself.  Has his father been dead so long he could forget him that easily?

“You shouldn’t.  You really shouldn’t,” Mycroft tells himself even as his fingers pluck the folder from its place.  It’s obvious – he tells himself it’s obvious – that the file hasn’t been touched in some time.  Pushed down as it is, it’s not the sort of thing someone’s pulled out and reviewed recently, or even frequently.  Not something anyone is going to notice has been tampered with, he means, justifying to himself the thing he’s thinking of doing.  Words like “confidentiality” and “loyalty” and “expectations of honorable conduct” filter through his brain, first in St. John’s voice, then the minister’s, then his own; he repeated them back, a line at a time, when he took his oath five months ago.  Curiosity mutes them all.

He takes an empty folder from the back of the drawer and carefully pulls the contents of the file free.  As he hides them away in their new, temporary home, he scans the top document enough to find his father’s name prominently displayed at the top.  It’s almost enough to make him stop and read it now, but he glances at the clock on the corner of St. John’s desk.  No, no time for that.  He ensures none of the pages are identifiable or sticking out in anyway, then takes a breath.

“Calm yourself, Holmes.  Business as usual.  Don’t let on something’s amiss.”  Another breath, then he tucks the folder nonchalantly under his arm and makes a stride toward the door.

He nearly forgets the key; he remembers it with a hand on the doorknob.  After replacing it and closing things up again as if untouched, he makes his escape.

 

Mycroft doesn’t sleep that night.   He reads the file three times over, until every detail is painted vividly on the walls of his memory.  Until every aspect is recopied and filed away on a corresponding shelf.  Until each related memory of his own is pulled down and examined and compared to the new data, contrasted and weighed and used to fill in the holes he didn’t even realize existed in his own understanding.  When the sun starts to filter through his window, he is exhausted on more levels than he ever understood to exist.  He moves through the routine of getting ready for work, taking breakfast, catching the train to the office, and starting his day in a haze of confusion, fatigue, and a slow-boiling anger he is almost too tired to feel.

He sneaks the file back into St. John’s office without incident.  It’s so easy, in fact, that he is almost disappointed.  Getting caught would mean a chance at confrontation, and he’s denied that; he is desperate for that.

The problem, of course, is that no one in the office is who he wishes to confront.

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