Balancing three scripts, a shirt box, and a loaded Waterstones bag, Tom nevertheless managed to text briskly, his thumbs flying over the keyboard in time to his rapid pace.
Hey-ho, hey nonny nonny, see you tonight? Am I at yours or are you at mine?
He skidded to a stop and bestowed a grin upon Hamilton Hodell's lushly curvaceous receptionist, Lecia. "Yes, darling! Why are you here so late?"
She held up a stack of post in one scarlet-tipped hand. "Busy looking after your affairs, that's why. Here – random sample. Shall I hold on to the rest? Doesn't look as though you can carry all of it."
"Yes, please. I'm a bit burdened. Throw it in a box for me, okay?"
"Of course. Are we taking you home?"
"Stan's bringing the car round, yeah." Tom plunked his belongings on the sweep of polished-stone countertop and plucked the envelopes from her hand. Neatly sorted according to size and already slit open, they made a tidy pile. "Did you sort out the –"
"Oh, yeah, it's not really that random. A few, but all of the kind you asked for."
Tom smiled. "Thanks, Lecia." He tucked the stack in between two of the scripts. "You look gorgeous. Hot date with intriguing gentleman tonight?"
Lecia twinkled a return smile at him and smoothed the skirt of her dress, a crisp sheath of china-blue linen. "As it happens, yes. Do you want a carrier bag? You're going to lose all that."
"Aren't you sweet – no, love, I'm fine. I'm only going from here to the car. If I can't manage that I should probably have my inner ear checked. 'Bye, Lecia." He scooped up the rest of his belongings and headed for the unobtrusive side door.
A small gaggle of fans surged toward him – six or seven, totally manageable. He beamed and nodded genially. "Let me just put this stuff in the car, okay? Give me a second." The fans, four young women, one young man, and an older couple, smiled shyly back and gave him a wider berth.
Stan Godwin, driving a deep blue sedan, set the brake, leapt out of the car and hurried toward him, hands outstretched to receive Tom's packages. "Let me get those for you, Mr. Hiddleston." Stan refused to call company clients by their first name – it was an unaccustomed formality, but coming from Stan it was okay, even charming. Stan also refused to allow clients to be seen carrying their own parcels if at all possible, and his tailoring was so precise that Tom suspected that his own casual attire often earned discreetly disapproving glances.
"Thank you, Stan. I'll only be a moment." Tom turned to the fans and their camera phones and pens poised and ready. "Sorry." He posed for pictures, smiling and bantering, wrapping his arm around trembling shoulders, patient when the pictures didn't come out correctly. He signed autographs and fielded questions and compliments with ease.
"Loved you in Thor. Oh my God."
"You should get a Twitter account."
"When's War Horse coming out? I read it when I was little and saw it last year –"
"We remembered you from Othello. Lovely. And then Bertie here saw Wallander and he said –"
"Can't wait for Avengers. Are you all finished with that, then?"
"Have you got a lot of screen time as Captain Nicholls? I don't know how they'll be able to fit the whole book in –"
It was great. It was almost always fantastic. The excitement had amped up a lot over the last month or so – his Loki had received favourable reviews, and fans had been unfailingly gracious and sweet. He thought that one day, if his trajectory continued upward, he might get heartily sick of recognition and glowing admiration, but at the moment he was enjoying it more than he'd ever thought possible.
One of the younger girls proffered a round tin. "I made you some chocolates."
"Oh, bless you, darling, that's so kind." Tom opened the tin; a luscious fragrance of chocolate drifted upward. He plucked one from the paper lace beneath and popped it in his mouth. "Oh my God," he mumbled around a mouthful of caramel. "That's glorious."
"Fleur de sel caramels," she said softly, twisting the hem of her pink hoodie.
"You're a genius. Open a shop, I'll be your first customer. Do you mind if I share?" He offered the tin round at the girl's nod, and thanked her again. "I've got to run, but it was lovely talking with you. One more –? Okay." He posed obligingly, then climbed into the car and shut the door. "My goodness."
"If it ever bothers you, just let me know, Mr. Hiddleston."
"Oh, no, Stan, it's fine. Lovely." Tom opened the tin and looked longingly at the chocolates, wishing he had some water to wash them down. He was thirsty. Hell with it. He took another and chewed in a happy trance.
"Just for a minute, and then could you run me to Hampstead? If you can't, I completely –"
"Not a problem, Mr. Hiddleston."
"You can call me Tom, Stan."
Stan's eyes met his in the rear-view mirror.
"Well, don't feel as if you've got to," Tom said, and leant forward. "Want a chocolate? They're fantastic, I can't stop eating them."
"No, thank you, sir. Well, maybe one." Stan took one and popped it in his mouth.
Tom sat back comfortably. "There you go." He replaced the lid and began to sort through the pile of fan mail. There were about two dozen pieces, all flat envelopes, all slit open at the top and carefully checked for potentially harmful items. He rifled through them restlessly, looking for a particular style – innocuous, but unsettling all the same. Handwritten, typewritten, calligraphy, green ink, black ink, pink envelope, envelope with heart stickers, picture of him stuck to the back, drawing of Loki – good heavens – and there. There.
A plain white business envelope with his name and the agency's address. No return.
He stared at it uneasily, then opened it.
It's been a while since I've written. Bet you missed me.
I read one of your interviews online yesterday.
You're such a liar.
Let me tell you what I do to liars. First I --
Tom folded the letter and stuffed it back into the envelope. The chocolates had hardened into an uncomfortable knot in his stomach.
Of course there were going to be crackpots. Everyone knew that. Even Anthony Hopkins had regaled him with stories about the letters he'd got after Silence of the Lambs - creepy. But these letters – there had been five of them so far – none of them had been about Loki, or Magnus, or any of the characters he'd played. They rarely mentioned his film roles. They were all personal.
Frowning, Tom checked his mobile. No messages. He typed again.
Thought you were done shooting? Call or text. I'm as free as a bird.
He stuffed his phone into his pocket and gazed at the letter again.
The first one he'd read and no lie, it had worried him, but he chalked it up to random weirdness and had chucked it in the bin. He'd done the same with the second, but when the third one had arrived, he'd saved it. And the fourth, and now this one. And they seemed to get progressively more hostile. He hadn't told Luke, nor anyone at the agency, nor the police.
But maybe it was time to get them involved.
Right. Tomorrow, then.
Feeling a bit better, he opened the tin once more and plucked another chocolate free. One more wouldn't kill him.
The hospital staff insisted on keeping him in a wheelchair until a black Land Rover pulled up to the doors. The orderly patted him on the shoulder. "Here we are." It took all he had not to swat her hand away. It reeked of salad cream.
Sherlock jumped out of the chair as the door opened and the blonde woman popped her head out. "All set?"
"God," Sherlock muttered, and leapt into the back seat. He buckled himself in and leant back, closing his eyes.
"You gave us all a hell of a scare, you know."
Sherlock slitted one eye open, glanced at her, then clamped his mouth shut and let his sigh out through his nose. If this woman insisted on talking, the least she could do was talk about something besides the accident and let him think. He doubted she had anything constructive to say.
"Well, you're all right. That's the main thing."
"And it won't be an insurance liability."
"Wh—" The woman – Ms. Vertue – coloured visibly, even in the dimness of the vehicle. "Benedict, please. Our first concern is for your safety. That's all I'm worried about. Why would you even say that?"
"Just a guess." That and you had your phone on your lap, texting your solicitor about it. "It's true, though, isn't it?" He had to play things down a bit. He hadn't gleaned enough from the Wikipedia article to get a read on Benedict Cumberbatch's personality, and his nervous panic in their little anomaly probably – possibly – wasn't his usual demeanour. Friendly and stupid seemed to be doing the trick so far. "I expect it'd be quite worrisome."
"Well, yes, but that's not the immediate concern. You lie back, we'll be at the hotel in no time."
Sherlock sat up abruptly. "The hotel?"
"Well, yes. You need a good night's sleep."
"No, I need to get back to the set." Sherlock unbuckled his belt and heaved forward to tap the driver on the shoulder. "Back to the set."
"No!" Vertue tugged on Sherlock's jacket. "Darling, sit down. Come on, you've had a really rough evening. We'll get some food in you, glass of wine, maybe, and you can go to bed early."
Christ, no wonder Cumberbatch had such an enormous meltdown; he was obviously accustomed to being coddled twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Actors. "I need to get back to the set," Sherlock snapped. Not that he wasn't doing a superb job as Benedict Cumberbatch – clearly no-one had seen anything amiss – but this was becoming boring, and besides, John wasn't stupid – if he and Cumberbatch had switched places, John would almost certainly notice at once. "I left something there."
"All your personal belongings are right here," Vertue said, pointing to a large duffel bag on the floor. "And I've got your phone in my bag." She rummaged through the handbag (Louis Vuitton, deep green Epi leather, at least it wasn't one of those monogrammed horrors) and withdrew a mobile, handing it to him.
Sherlock snatched the phone from her hand. "Listen to me," he snapped, then heard John's voice in his head.
Calm down, Sherlock.
Oh, shut up, John.
But oddly enough, thinking of John did calm him a bit. And then he thought about John staring at Cumberbatch and maybe working out that something wasn't quite right. Damn it. "Listen," he said again, "I know it's a lot to ask, but I just need to go back. Just for ten minutes."
"You can't, darling. The set's closed down. And I do mean closed down – the fire and electrical inspectors are going to be there tomorrow. Good job you weren't needed again until Thursday, they tell us it'll be a few days at least until we can resume. Of course it's not your fault, but it can't be helped."
Damn it, damn it! Sherlock folded his hands together and pondered. It would be easy enough to break in, but….
While it wasn't true that lightning never struck the same place twice, it wasn't likely that he'd be able to duplicate the exact conditions under which he'd received the shock, if it was indeed the shock that had prompted it. Did he really want to try to electrocute himself again? Even under controlled conditions, there wasn't any certainty of success, and wouldn't Cumberbatch have to do the same thing at the same exact moment? God knew that wasn't reliable. Probably at this very second, Benedict Cumberbatch was running the length and breadth of London, smoking compulsively and destroying Sherlock's reputation.
What was left of it, anyhow.
About Cumberbatch. From his brief observation and the stupid Wikipedia article, he'd concluded that the man wasn't entirely without a sense of adventure – hands weren't petal-soft [looked as if he'd had recent friction burns, likely from rock climbing or a zip line, one of those pointless recreational activities], body was lean and athletic, and he wasn't completely stupid, but he'd practically gibbered at the sight of Sherlock, as if Sherlock had been a ghost. As if ghosts existed.
Surely if this peculiar little switch proved anything, it was that science trumped superstition. And it could possibly prove useful somewhere down the road – he had a handful of unsolved cases in his mind palace filed under Pseudo-supernatural Occurrences - in the attic, as a bit of a joke – and every once in a while, they niggled. Also, he happened to know that John kept a physical data file on his laptop, and it would be nice if he finally bloody erased it.
God, John and Benedict Cumberbatch. What on earth must John be thinking right now?
Well, if Sherlock were entirely honest with himself, it could be days before John noticed. He wasn't an utter dullard, but his forte wasn't observation, really. And Sherlock was a sphinx when it suited him.
So there was no guarantee that going back to the set would necessarily improve matters; there were too many unknown variables. And he couldn't know with exactitude what Benedict Cumberbatch was doing at that moment.
Still, he wasn't going to waste his time sitting round a hotel room in Cardiff. He'd have to sort out the Cumberbatch dilemma, work out his schedule, something.
"Train station," he said.
Vertue frowned. "What's that, darling?"
"You said you packed up my things. I've got to get…home." Assuming home was accessible by train. God almighty, unless Cumberbatch lived in somewhere appalling like Los Angeles.
"But it's only fifteen minutes until the last train leaves – surely you can stay the night."
Oh, good. London, then, or at least the vicinity. "Can't." He needed data. "I'd feel…safer at home. You understand." He gave Vertue a tight smile, then let his mouth broaden and his eyes crinkle up. Friendly and stupid. Don't forget.
Vertue shook her head. "It's so late –"
"Please." He patted her hand. God, he hated wheedling.
"All right." Vertue tapped the driver on the shoulder. "Rees, Cardiff Central, all right?" She heaved a breath and shook her head. "I don't know if it's a good idea. Maybe I should get someone to go with you."
Fantastic, a nanny. What's next, tying my shoes and wiping my bottom? "I'll be fine. Really."
She heaved the bag over to him. "Your wallet's on top. I assume you've got a return in there."
Sherlock opened the bag and scooped up the wallet, tucking it in his jacket pocket. He was still wearing makeup and the filming costume, he realised; oh well, too late now. He leant back, a bit more relaxed, and began to scroll through Cumberbatch's text messages (no password protection – pathetic) to begin discerning patterns.
C U next weekend for punishingly unhealthy food. James
Emily had pertinent books couriered to your house. Read at leisure, but not too much leisure. P
M&M and Neal's delivered. CHEESE PONGS OMG. Em
Berry Bros & Rudd also dl'vd. Did you want them to save you another Ch. Lynch Bages Pauillac they want to know. Em
PA most likely, clearly coddled him as much as the crew.
Hey-ho, hey nonny nonny, see you tonight? Am I at yours or are you at mine?
Tonight? Sherlock double-checked the date. Yes, tonight. Sender: TWH. Ah – Tom the secret boyfriend. And another:
Thought you were done shooting? Call or text. I'm as free as a bird.
Sherlock thought a moment. It was risky, but who better to pick up cues from than a significant other? He quickly texted a reply:
Heading for CC to London. You're at mine. Wait up for me.
The return text came almost immediately.
Trophy boyfriend with nothing else to do, obviously.
Sherlock scrolled through the other texts, gathering snatches of information here and there, but nothing useful yet. He had to be patient. Everything would work out eventually.
They arrived at the station with a few moments to spare. Sherlock alighted from the car, snatched his bag, and remembered to wave and smile at Vertue, who was peering at him curiously. He banged the door shut and, letting the smile fall away, sprinted toward the platform. A quick scan of the contents of Cumberbatch's wallet had revealed a driving licence (good), an open return ticket, Cardiff-London (better) and an MBNA Platinum card (best), along with sundry useless stuff. Hampstead address, good enough he supposed; easy to use as a base for working out how to get back to Baker Street.
Perhaps simply going back to Baker Street would work. Maybe.
He spun on his heel and saw John – John! – in a pair of narrow cuffless trousers, a closely cut Blackwatch-tartan blazer, and – curiouser and curiouser – a silk foulard scarf wrapped around his throat. He looked absolutely ludicrous.
"J –" Sherlock began, then bit down on his lip hard enough to bring involuntary tears to his eyes.
Because it wasn't John, was it? No, and not just because John Watson wouldn't have been caught dead in those clothes. It was another actor, an impostor, a John Watson look-alike who was now striding toward him, hitching one of those absurd carryalls, this one printed with the Union Jack, over his shoulder.
"What the fuck are you doing here? Sue said she was taking you back to the hotel. I didn't even think you'd be out yet. What were you thinking, grabbing hold of a live wire, you twat?"
Well, the vocabulary wasn't too far off. "It was an accident." Sherlock did his best not to glare, but for one of the first times in his life, he was flummoxed, and the sight of this fraud in his poncy clothes and shoulder bag, wearing John Watson's face and talking in John Watson's voice was nigh on unbearable.
Sherlock contained a sudden shiver. Somewhere in this universe of misrule was a clone of Lestrade, a clone of Molly Hooper, Mrs. Hudson, Jim Moriarty…oh, God! He had to meet Mycroft's double. What a treat that would be.
"Hey, you paying attention? I asked if you were feeling okay. We've got to board." Not-John frowned. "You've still got your makeup on. And your costume."
"What? Yeah. Yeah," Sherlock said. "Didn't want to miss the train." He hefted his duffel bag in one hand and gestured for Not-John to precede him. He stifled the urge to head in the opposite direction, but a peculiar fascination, not to mention the need for data mining, kept him near Not-John and his stupid wardrobe.
They found seats and stowed their luggage. "Christ, if I'm knackered, you must be halfway fucking dead," Not-John said.
Must find out his name. "Yeah. It was weird."
"Well, we've both got time for a nap, so –" Not-John shrugged, leant back in his seat, and closed his eyes.
Sherlock watched him for a few moments, then slipped Cumberbatch's phone from his pocket. Time to do a little research. He found some earbuds, popped them in, and started browsing the web. Data, data, data.
---Benedict Cumberbatch, London Theatre Guide, Q&A. Boring. Dull. Pushed a little girl offstage. Hm.
---Benedict Cumberbatch, USA Today, modernises Sherlock Holmes. What on earth? "Holmes spent a lifetime obsessing about who, what, why and when," he says. "For me, it's something to toy with. People's hands fascinate me. It's tempting to look at a businessman's left hand and see if there's an indentation from a missing wedding ring. Or maybe there's a tan line and the skin is pressed down where's he's worked a ring off his finger. Your mind's racing."
Gosh. Rings. Proper genius, this Cumberbatch fellow.
Father chose the stage name Carlton. "Sounded less like a fart in a bath."
---Benedict Cumberbatch, Sunday Times, The Fabulous Baker Street Boy. Oh, for God's sake! Oh, girlfriend, interesting. War Horse, bla bla bla, Tom Hiddleston, mm, TWH, there he is, fellow actor then – no wonder he was secret if Cumberbatch still had a girlfriend, South Africa, bla bla good heavens he banged on and on about that, Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock –
Sherlock blew a breath out. The poor sod was certainly trying, he supposed. Now to read up on this Arthur Conan Doyle….
An hour later, he was still reading, skimming through the fiction. Fiction, some of it oddly familiar. Just snatches here and there…so very odd. A Victorian predecessor in this universe, a work of fiction, layers and layers away. Sherlock set the phone on the seat beside him and gazed at Not-John, whose name was in fact Martin Freeman, fast asleep, his hands folded on his chest. Sherlock felt the oddest little pang looking at him, and wondered what John, his John, was doing at that moment. If Cumberbatch was as involved as he claimed to be, then possibly, just possibly he could hold it together long enough for another switch to take place.
Martin Freeman stirred and opened his eyes. "The fuck are you staring at, Ben?"
"What?" Sherlock took one earbud out.
"I said what the fuck are you staring at?"
"Your scarf," Sherlock answered with complete honesty, leaving off It's hideous.
"Yeah, nice one, huh? Amanda got it for me at Christmastime when we were in Ireland. Grafton Street, I think."
"Lovely." Oh, dear God, spare me tales of connubial bliss and gifted scarves. Though that did bear occasional resemblance to John. But apparently Freeman had been with one lady for a number of years, enough to have a couple of children. Not married – sensible, and yet, with two sprogs, they might as well have done. Boat anchors.
Freeman looked at Sherlock's phone. "Is that – are you looking at pictures of yourself, you vain fucking numpty?"
Sherlock blinked. "Research." Freeman was a bit quicker on the draw than he looked.
A muffled snort erupted from Freeman's vicinity. "Right, just stay away from tumblr if I'm not there to supervise. I'm going back to sleep. Wake me when we get there. Christ, I'm glad we've got a bit of a break." He closed his eyes again.
Sherlock stared for a moment longer.
He was nothing like John. Hardly at all.
A strange, tiny thorn of disappointment insinuated its way into Sherlock's belly. Well, why in God's name should he be disappointed? Sherlock wasn't in the least like Benedict Cumberbatch.
Sherlock stuck the earbud back in and returned to a YouTube video wherein Benedict Cumberbatch, in a truly horrifying moustache, was urging a criminally underaged girl to bite a chocolate bar.
They made it to London without further incident and made their way to a taxi rank. "Right," Freeman said, climbing into a cab, "let me know if you want to ride back together. Give me a call."
"Okay," Sherlock said, heartily sick of single syllable answers, but best to play the befuddled shock victim for a while. Cumberbatch certainly seemed verbose, but it was a flux-of-the-mouth sort of verbose, overindulged by star-struck journalists, meandering and too often pointless, and if Sherlock was anything, it was not pointless.
He hailed a cab, stunned and offended when several drove past without stopping. He was about to simply step into the road and stop traffic when one finally pulled up to the kerb. He got in, gave the Hampstead address, and sat back, flexing his mental and physical muscles to meet the secret boyfriend; also the biddable boyfriend, presumably awaiting Benedict Cumberbatch's arrival. The girlfriend had departed the scene a few months ago. Lucky TWH.
The car delivered him to the address on the licence and Sherlock stepped out. Not bad, not bad at all, even if it was in Hampstead. Top two floors….
He retrieved a set of keys from his bag and opened the door. There was an alarm system, unarmed, and a light on in the corridor. A locked post box sat just inside the door; he found a small key on the ring, fitted it in, and took a sizeable stack from the brass box. He moved through the corridor – nice, pretty wood, new paint and carpet. Top two floors, the news piece had said. He ascended the stairs, brushing his hand over the smooth polished oak, and fitted what looked like the correct key in the lock.
Sherlock swung the door open onto a darkish room – lots of gleaming mahogany and ebony, plum-coloured sofas, hand-painted wallpaper, heavy, fussy silk curtains, artfully scattered oversized books and magazines on low tables. Professionally decorated, Cumberbatch hadn't been living here long enough to really make it a home yet, and this was his first set of furniture that hadn't been purchased at IKEA, so he was still frightened to upset the balance the decorator had created and probably urged him not to disturb. He'd read the books and magazines, though, but had taken them into another room to read them and then came back to carefully replace them. Cumberbatch wasn't mad about this room, hardly used it at all.
Softly, Sherlock closed the door and moved from the dark front room into a corridor, and from there into an immaculate, well-appointed kitchen, sleek, lots of brushed metal and pale-grey tilework. Uninteresting. Tiny bathroom, library – this room used frequently, stuffed with books, new, scarcely used desk, laptop, another sofa, leather, long enough to sleep on.
Comforting sort of room, Sherlock mused, but lacking the personal touch except for a few framed photos on the shelves. No photos of girlfriend in evidence. Shelves dusted, so no incriminating marks, but – an irregularity here and there, a lack of symmetry in the placement of the photos. One missing there, one there, one there. On the furthest shelf, a photo of Cumberbatch in Great War costume – the moustache, like most moustaches, was terrifying – smiling at TWH in similar costume. Standing close to each other, but not too close, nothing conspicuous.
"Now, my good sweet honey lord."
Sherlock turned to see a shadowed figure in the doorway. Tall, a head of bumptious curls. The figure stepped into the light.
TWH himself, dressed in a pair of exceedingly brief black running shorts and nothing else. Well, the beginnings of a beard and a broad smile.