Forward Operating Base Sangin, Helmand province
Sherlock is sitting at the card table in the shade of the open-sided tent, scrolling an almost endless list of names up the screen of his laptop. He’s squinting a little against the reflected sunlight and rubbing one fingertip absently on the pinked skin of his cheekbone, feeling the faint after-heat of another long morning spent patrolling in Musa Qala.
Abruptly the sound of voices intrudes on his already flagging attention. The tone is quite different from the laughter and whooping that drew him to the riverside two days previously; this is a sharper, darker sound. Sherlock takes his body armor and shoulder holster up from where they’re lying on the cot bed, but doesn’t bother with his camouflage shirt. He shrugs one side of his armor and the strap of his holster onto his left shoulder and follows the shouting across the compound to the side farthest from the river.
Two dozen soldiers are sitting on the ground in a large circle. John is standing slightly to one side; in the middle of the circle, two men – Sherlock sees that they’re Blackwood and Barr – are engaged in a graceless brawl of shoving and grappling and blunt punching. The onlookers urge them on with cries of get him and go on and yeah.
“Break,” John says, lifting his voice above the general din.
Blackwood shoves Barr aside, and the shouting falls away as suddenly as it began. Blackwood and Barr move to sit in the circle among the others, Barr being greeted with a certain amount of congratulations, while Blackwood shrugs off some jeering and laughter from his neighbors.
“What do you think?” John asks Sherlock.
“It’s – horrifying,” Sherlock says, his eyebrows quirked in delicate distaste.
“It’s not pretty, I grant you,” John says with a slight smile. “But - ”
“I want to see you do it,” Sherlock says.
“Sorry,” John says with a slight jerk of his head. “A British officer doesn’t strike a subordinate, ever, for any reason.”
“You struck me,” Sherlock says.
“You’re not my subordinate,” John says. “We’ve established that.”
“My point exactly,” Sherlock says, shrugging his holster and armor off his shoulder again and dropping them to the ground.
“Yeah, no, that’s not going to happen,” John grimaces.
“What’s the matter?” Sherlock goads. “Only willing to hit me if it’s a sucker punch I’m not expecting?”
Blackwood hisses his breath in noisily.
“Give Mister Holmes some gloves,” John says crisply.
Hinde taps Sherlock on the leg, and passes up a pair of black and red fingerless gloves, lightly padded across the knuckles and heavily strapped around the wrists. Blackwood hands his gloves to John; John steps into the center of the circle as he pulls them on.
“He’s got at least twenty pounds on you,” Hinde murmurs to Sherlock. “Don’t let him close on you. You’ve got the reach of him, make it count.”
Sherlock nods jerkily. He steps into the circle and lifts his fists, his right tucked just beneath his chin, his left a little lower and farther forward. John’s stance is less defensive, his left fist loosely furled at chest height and his right hand half-cupped at the level of his belly.
“Sergeant Blackwood, time, if you would,” John says.
“Begin,” Blackwood says, glancing at his chronometer.
John comes at Sherlock fast. Sherlock shifts back by a half step but then locks his position and snaps out a sharp, high right-handed jab that catches John on the side of the face. John twists aside, making no attempt to counterattack.
“Okay, now we’re even,” he says.
“Hit me,” Sherlock scowls.
“I’m not hitting you,” John says.
“Hit me,” Sherlock insists.
“I’m not hitting you,” John repeats.
“Fine, then I’ll hit you again,” Sherlock shrugs.
He lunges at John, fists up, and jabs a short left and another sharp, high right that connects hard enough to make John blink and shake his head. Sherlock backs a step; John tips his head from side to side on his neck.
“Sherlock,” he says warningly.
“Not listening,” Sherlock says with a short jerk of his head.
He lunges again, a short left that John mostly dodges, and a sharp right but this time John sweeps his open right hand up to deflect it and his left fist slams solidly across Sherlock’s face, the impact enough to turn him slightly.
“Ooh, ow,” Blackwood grimaces.
Sherlock shakes his head and centers himself, lifting his fists again. This time it’s John who attacks, moving in fast with a high right, low left combination. Sherlock blocks and backs smartly, but John bulls into him and punches low, and again.
“I said, don’t let him close,” Hinde says, throwing his hands up.
Sherlock wedges his forearm across John’s chest and shoves him off. John thrusts forwards again, but Sherlock fends him off with a sweeping left hook that catches John right across the face. Sherlock backs, and when John comes forwards he snaps out a sweetly stinging little right jab. John keeps coming; Sherlock goes for another jab but John blocks it and counters with a right hook that’s hard enough to win hisses of sympathy from around the circle. Sherlock staggers slightly, shaking his head and wiping the back of his glove across his mouth.
“Break,” Blackwood says.
There’s a flurry of clapping. Sherlock scowls, his angry gaze coming to rest on Blackwood. Blackwood shakes his head, grinning.
“You just went sixty seconds with a Royal Marine,” he says, “and you’re still on your feet. You’ve got nothing to be pissed about, man.”
“He wasn’t trying,” Sherlock says, glaring at John.
“Hey, I wasn’t not trying,” John protests.
“Time, Corporal Blackwood,” Sherlock says, raising his fists.
Blackwood lifts his eyebrows and looks dubiously at John. John keeps his gaze fixed on Sherlock, and settles into his stance again. There’s a murmur of interest among the onlookers.
“Begin,” Blackwood grins.
John surges forwards; Sherlock tries for a high left and right combination, but John blocks one and mostly blocks the other. He swings right and then left; Sherlock backs and blocks the right, but the left catches him pretty solidly across the face. He backs again. John lunges, catching him mid-chest with the broad of his shoulder and shoving him back hard. Sherlock’s gaze falls past John to Blackwood, who’s clasping his hands together and miming a downwards strike. Sherlock’s focus snaps back to John surging forwards. Sherlock clasps both fists together and swings them up inside John’s guard, knocking his rising fist aside and catching him hard on the underside of the chin, snapping his head up and throwing him back several feet before he regains his balance.
“Fuck yeah,” someone whoops.
John wipes his mouth against his bare forearm and grins. He lunges for Sherlock. Sherlock manages to jerk back by a single step, which buys him the split second it takes to uncoil a punch that half-catches John on the side of the head. John grunts, lets the impact spin him slightly, and wraps his arm around Sherlock waist to sweep him off his feet and dump him onto his back on the ground. Sherlock’s breath explodes out painfully, but he snaps one booted foot out and hits John square in the chest, throwing him back and down to land hard a few feet from Sherlock.
“Bollocks,” John coughs, rolling onto his knees and flinging himself down on Sherlock.
They grapple, John trying to get his hands on Sherlock and Sherlock trying to fend him off. John abruptly loops a forearm around Sherlock’s right wrist and pins it to his own chest, then grips Sherlock’s middle finger in his other fist and flexes it back until Sherlock freezes in alarm.
“Damn it,” Sherlock snaps as John eases the pressure off again.
John smiles as he lets go entirely, and gets to his feet. Sherlock stands too, shaking his hand out ruefully.
“Let me try again,” he says.
John thrusts forwards again. Sherlock twists aside slightly before John has a chance to grab him, giving him the space to twist farther and bring his elbow down on John’s shoulder. John grunts into the impact, though he doesn’t loosen his grip around Sherlock’s waist. When he tries to shove Sherlock back, Sherlock yields utterly, just folding, and both of them go down in an ungainly heap. Sherlock’s underneath, so he takes the worst of the impact, but he digs both boot-heels into the dirt and arches up, trying to throw John off. John’s got the strength and leverage to hang on, but Sherlock bucks so hard that John can’t risk pulling back enough to get a strike in. Sherlock untangles an arm from between them and shoves the heel of his hand under John’s chin, trying to lever him off. John wraps his forearm around Sherlock’s and presses his thumb below Sherlock’s brow bone, just above his eye socket. He applies just enough pressure to let Sherlock know how much trouble he would be in if this fight were for real. Sherlock’s hand snaps from John’s chin to his wrist, trying to fend him off.
“Break,” Blackwood says.
John jerks back off Sherlock, and Sherlock scrambles up.
“You did well,” John says.
“I didn’t win,” Sherlock says narrowly.
“No, but you didn’t quit either,” John says with a crooked smile as he strips his gloves off. “Corporal Hinde, would you so kind as to demonstrate for Mister Holmes how best to deploy his freakish height in a grapple?”
Half an hour later, John and Sherlock are making their way through the narrow, sandbagged passageways to Sherlock’s quarters. They’re both dirt-scuffed and flushed and laughing. A soldier intercepts them just as they reach the curtained doorway, and offers a folded slip of thin paper to John.
“Captain Watson, sir,” he says quickly. “Incoming intel – Major Burrows said you should see it right away.”
John accepts with paper and dismisses the soldier with a nod and a faint frown. He unfolds the paper as he follows Sherlock past the curtain and down the couple steps beyond.
“I hope you’re not planning on - ” Sherlock begins, but then the sudden shift in John’s expression, from diffuse interest to narrow attention, stops him. “John? What’s wrong?”
“William Murray’s missing,” John says, holding out the slip of paper.
“Missing in action?” Sherlock says, but the dawning realization in his eyes makes it not a question.
“No, grabbed from his vehicle in Kandahar city,” John says, letting his hand holding the paper fall to his side, “an hour ago.”
“They have him,” Sherlock says blankly.
“And he knows where you are,” John says.
“You think he’ll tell them?” Sherlock says doubtfully.
“He might,” John says tightly. “You can get most things out of most people; don’t let them tell you differently. And it doesn’t have to take very long, if you don’t care what you do.”
“Oh, God,” Sherlock murmurs.
“You have to get out,” John says, snatching Sherlock’s backpack from the corner of the room and tossing it onto the couch. “You’re leaving.”
“How?” Sherlock protests. “John, they have access to the entire American operation here. They control every way out.”
“That would be almost funny if it weren’t so untrue,” John says. “There’s a way, it’s just - ”
He glances around the room.
“You can’t take your laptop or phone, or your own boots – nothing that can be tracked,” he says. “You should take both rifles and the SIG – a week’s worth of MREs. We’ll load you up with water and ammunition, anything you don’t need you can for whatever you do. Stay in the uniform until we get other clothes for you. You’ll need your British passport and I’ll round up some cash for you – is there anything else here you can’t live without?”
“John,” Sherlock says softly.
“Pack your field medical kit,” John says. “And hurry up - we’re leaving in thirty minutes.”
“We?” Sherlock says, the tight, high line of his shoulders softening and falling.
“I can go a little of the way – a very little of the way with you,” John says.
“Get moving,” John says. “I’ll go and make the arrangements.”
He turns away.
“John - is the plan that I fight my way out?” Sherlock asks.
“I’m hoping it won’t come right down to that,” John says with the ghost of a smile.
Twenty-five minutes later Sherlock walks out to the helicopter waiting on the small concrete pad in the corner of the compound. He’s wearing his body armor, shoulder holster, and a faded blue canvas backpack with his sleeping bag rolled and tied on top; his assault rifle is slung on one shoulder, and the bag containing his sniper rifle on the other. John, Blackwood, Hinde and Henn are all arrayed in armor, weapons, and pale camouflage field packs, except for Hinde who’s carrying a scuffed gray-green canvas backpack instead of a field pack. The rest of the section is standing around in half-taped armor over tee-shirts or rolled shirt sleeves.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, day after at the outside,” John says to McMath as Sherlock approaches.
“Try not to fuck everything up entirely while I’m gone,” Blackwood says to McMath, clapping him on the arm as he passes.
Blackwood climbs aboard the helicopter, followed by Henn. Barr catches Hinde briefly in a one-armed half hug.
“Don’t fucking take a cruise on the way back, man,” Barr says. “Get your arse back here, pronto.”
Hinde nods, smiling. He pulls away and climbs aboard. John follows him.
“Holmes,” McMath says. “Keep practicing with the one fifteen; you’ve got a gift.”
Sherlock nods, frowning uncertainly.
“And send us a postcard when you get home,” Barr grins.
“Sherlock, let’s go,” John says. “We’re wasting daylight.”
Sherlock climbs into the bay of the helicopter and crouches down next to John. McMath lifts a hand in laconic parting; Cullen gives a double thumbs-up. The helicopter’s rotors begin to turn, sweep faster, double and drone into full gear. Dust churns in the air; the men on the ground lift their arms to shield their faces. The helicopter lurches upwards and Sherlock shifts slightly, riding the motion instinctively. The helicopter wheels, and he can see the three straight sandbagged walls of the compound, and the long curve of the river on the fourth side. He turns his head to look at John, who’s already looking him with soft eyes and a hard set to his mouth.
They fly north-east, obliquely towards the deepening blue of the coming evening. The low hills with their gray-green trees and fields give way to higher hillsides dotted only grudgingly with brown and gray growth. The air gets colder as the helicopter climbs to maintain altitude above the slopes. And then, off to the north, appears a great shining curtain of stone and snow, the jagged peaks above peaks of the Hindu Kush cutting up into the sky.
Directly ahead the mountains rise more modestly, though their stony slopes are steep and high enough to throw their valleys into darkness while the sun is still above the horizon in the west. The pale thread of a dirt road winds patiently around the lower portions of the slopes, and here and there the even fainter trace of a footway attempts the higher slopes before fading into nonexistence. The helicopter banks and wheels, following the contours of the hillsides in search of a place to land. The pilot spots a broad, almost level shoulder of ground, and the helicopter turns, sinks, and sets down. They all climb out, throwing the supplies and their packs out ahead of them. John gives the pilot a thumbs-up, and the helicopter lifts again. It circles overhead once and then sweeps away towards the west.
“Let’s move,” John says. “I’d like to get away from such an obvious drop point, but we don’t have much light left.”
They distribute the extra water and ammunition among them, heft their packs, and set off with Hinde and Henn in front, John and Sherlock behind them, and Blackwood following. Hinde and Henn set a punishing pace, and all five of them are soon breathing hard and sweating despite the chill wind that springs up as soon as the sun begins to sink behind the hilltops. As the sky streaks deep rose and red in the west, and darkens to violet in the east, they come to a halt on a steep slope about halfway between the road below and the peak above. The ground is dry and stony, with just a few plumes of dusty grass sprouting here and there, the thin strands swaying in the wind.
Before the sun is completely gone, they’re sitting on their sleeping bags, leaning against their packs, with the remnants of MRE packaging surrounding them. They’re arranged in a half-circle facing the panorama of the mountains to the east.
“So, Pakistan’s on the other side of that,” Sherlock says reflectively.
“Only a hundred and seventy miles as the crow flies,” Blackwood says.
“My kingdom for a crow,” Sherlock says. “How long will it take, on foot?”
“A week, with luck,” John says, not taking his eyes from the horizon.
Sherlock inhales, exhales softly, and nods. The first stars begin to wink into sight in the deepening purple of the sky above the mountains. Blackwood gets to his feet.
“Doc,” he says.
John looks up to see him wiggle his thumb from himself to John and back. John frowns a little, but nods and stands up too; Blackwood starts to walk away from the group.
“Stay put,” John says, and then follows Blackwood until they’re safety out of earshot of the others.
They stop, and John lifts his eyebrows questioningly.
“Permission to speak, sir,” Blackwood says abruptly.
John frowns more deeply but nods jerkily.
“With respect, sir,” Blackwood says with the air of a man walking into live fire, “I think you should take Mister Holmes up the hill a bit for a while.”
John frowns harder, purses his lips, and then presses them into a thin line.
“Sergeant, I hardly think - ” he begins.
“Doc,” Blackwood says more softly. “John. I’ve been watching your back for a while now, and I hope to do it for a good while yet, but you need to be realistic about where you’re going, and where he’s going. Don’t do something only one of you may live to regret.”
John’s eyes flicker darkly, but his frown softens. He nods, just a single upward tip of his chin. Blackwood turns and walks back across the slope to the others. John follows him. Sherlock looks questioningly at John; John stoops and gathers his sleeping bag. The question in Sherlock’s eyes sharpens, and John drops his eyelids in silent affirmation. Without meeting anyone else’s gaze, Sherlock stands and takes up his sleeping bag and shoulder holster. John starts walking up the hillside, and Sherlock lopes a few paces to draw even with him, and they go on up together.
About a hundred yards higher up the hillside there’s a place where a slant of jagged rock shelters a small cove of flat ground from the wind. They spread their sleeping bags there and kneel down. For a long moment they just stare at each other through the deepening dusk. It’s John who finally reaches out, places his hand on the front of Sherlock’s body armor. Sherlock closes his eyes, the skin between his brows and across the bridge of his nose furrowing intently. John drops his hand to the waist tape of Sherlock’s armor and peels it open. Sherlock’s frown deepens as he yields, rolling his shoulders when John untapes the top of his armor and takes it off him. John sets it down next to them, turning it so the still attached shoulder holster is uppermost.
“You need to look,” John says gently, “so you know where your weapon is.”
Sherlock’s eyes flicker open, his gaze already dropped. He stares at the SIG in its black cradle, and nods fractionally. There’s such silence in the small space, while the wind bluffs and buffets beyond the rock. At last Sherlock’s gaze lifts, so that he’s looking at John from the corners of his eyes. John brings both hands to the front of Sherlock’s shirt, and starts to unbutton it. Sherlock’s head turns unsteadily until he’s looking directly at John.
“I don’t want to go,” he whispers as he pulls his arms from his shirt sleeves.
John’s face wavers into a slight grimace.
“I don’t want you to go either,” he says quietly.
Sherlock’s mouth twists; he reaches out with both hands and pulls John’s armor open. John helps, stripping the shell off quickly. Sherlock splays a hand on John’s chest over his heartbeat. He stares at the dimming planes of John’s face, and tips his head in pained negation. John winces a little, and shifts forwards to wind his arms around Sherlock’s shoulders.
“It’s okay,” John says against the soft curl of Sherlock’s mouth. “It’s okay.”
They kiss, a gentle open-mouthed touch of lips to lips.
“I want to stay with you,” Sherlock murmurs when John moves to press his lips to the corner of Sherlock’s jaw.
“I want you to stay with me, too,” John says.
He pushes forwards, and Sherlock lies down under him. He parts the open fronts of Sherlock’s shirt, and pushes his tee shirt up on his chest. Then he pulls back, strips his own shirt off, and his tee shirt. When he leans over Sherlock again, his identity tags drop into the hollow between Sherlock’s collarbones. Sherlock shivers at the touch, and clasps his hands in the curve of John’s waist. John bends his head and kisses the corner of Sherlock’s mouth, as he tilts his hips against him. Sherlock wraps his arms more tightly around him, and sighs his breath out with each slow press of John’s weight on him. John places kisses on Sherlock’s cheekbone, on the pulse below his ear, in the curl of hair behind it. He bows his head and drags slowly back from Sherlock’s chest to kiss the place where his stomach caves away below his breastbone. Sherlock closes his eyes and turns his face aside as John undoes Sherlock’s belt and unbuttons his fly. When he feels John’s fingers close on the cloth, Sherlock lifts his hips and lets John strip him to the thighs. Sherlock’s cock is half hard, flesh filling fast and skin smoothing even as John looks down at him. John bends down to kiss each hipbone reverently. Sherlock tugs his lower lip in his teeth, and reaches to curve his hand over the top of John’s head.
John pulls up onto his knees, straddling Sherlock’s thighs, and undoes his own belt and buttons. His eyes are soft and dark; his expression is a hard, fragile mask. He pushes his clothing down a bit, and closes his fist around his erection. His mouth purses as he tugs at himself, provoking himself to full hardness. Sherlock takes long, shaky breath and his eyelids flicker heavily. He pushes his legs as far apart as he can with his pants around his knees; John lies down on him again, their cocks pressed between their bellies. They both shudder a slow exhalation at the contact.
John scoops his right forearm behind Sherlock’s shoulders so that he’s half-cradling the other man; his left hand moves in a slow, fumbling stroke up and down Sherlock’s side. Sherlock clasps a hand at the nape of John’s neck, and the other at the small of his back. They move together, a gentle push and press that’s hardly more than their breathing emphasized. Sherlock’s fingers tighten on John’s neck and back. The toes of John’s boots scuff in the dirt a little as he tenses, pushing a little harder. The skin of their bellies grows damp with sweat, and the first precious smear of secretion. John brings his left hand to his mouth and spits into the cup of his palm. He rolls his weight aside enough to insinuate his hand between them and wipe his palm over the head of Sherlock’s cock. When he centers his weight again, the contact between them is smoother, sweeter; their cocks slide more easily against each other. Sherlock winds a foot over the back of John’s heel to lock them more tightly together.
John coils against him, gripping his bare thigh tightly and working short, strong thrusts of his hips. Their breath drives out at each push, a mingled heat and humidity in the space between their open mouths. John’s shoulders round and his spine flexes as he moves above Sherlock. Their insistence on remaining pressed together from chest to thighs stifles the range and rhythm of their movements, but it doesn’t matter. The intensity builds between them, the sum motion of their bodies becoming a hard-edged struggle into pleasure.
“No, not yet,” Sherlock says, the words torn out of him as if in utter despair. “I don’t - not yet - not yet - ”
John slows the already deliberate pace of his thrusts, his breath shuddering out loudly as he fights to control himself. Sherlock arches hard enough to lift John’s weight from waist to shoulders, and then remains there, taut and quivering.
“I’m so close,” he breathes, as he finally eases back down onto the sleeping bag beneath them.
John holds himself perfectly still above Sherlock, staring down at him as he shivers and shudders along the razor-edge of his pleasure. Then John stirs his hips, just a shift of weight to slide the pressure of his belly and his cock along Sherlock’s, and the wisp of movement is enough to make Sherlock cry out in agonized pleasure. John rolls his hips slowly, and then abruptly thrusts again.
“Oh my God,” Sherlock gasps, his body bowing upwards again. “I’m – oh God Jesus John.”
His cock jerks between their bellies. He cries out more softly, more shakily as the tremors pass through him in weakening waves. His semen slides across the hollow of his belly and spills from the curve of his waist to trickle down his side. John slips a hand between them, dragging his fingers through Sherlock’s semen before closing his fist on himself and thrusting roughly. Sherlock is still shaking through the last pulses of his own orgasm, but he jerks his hips under John with whatever semblance of rhythm he can manage and clutches at him weakly. Half a dozen solid shoves and John’s hissing his broken breath out through clenched teeth as he comes.
“Jesus, oh fucking Jesus,” he rasps as his body unravels.
He drops his face into the curve of Sherlock’s neck, his breath surging hotly against Sherlock’s skin. Sherlock starts to tremble under him. John lifts his head again.
“It can’t end like this,” Sherlock says. “There has to be more, John. There has to.”
“Listen to me,” John says, his eyes squeezed shut and his forehead pressing hard against Sherlock’s. “There is, I swear. There’s my whole life, as long as I live, I swear - ”
Sherlock’s breath comes out sharply.
“Promise me again,” he says, his voice choked, almost inaudible. “Promise me we’ll both be all right.”
John pulls back enough to look into his eyes, though it’s dark enough now that all he can see is a pale gleam.
“Sherlock – even if I never see you again,” John says with a twisted exhalation that sounds almost like laughter, “you’ll still have been the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me.”
“No,” Sherlock snaps. “Don’t – don’t you dare – you promised – John, you promised.”
“I know,” John says, kissing the words contritely onto Sherlock’s eyelids so that he’s forced to close them. “I did – I do – I promise.”
“Don’t die,” Sherlock whispers fiercely. “You don’t die, and I won’t, either.”
“I won’t,” John whispers back. “I promise.”
Sherlock’s breath shudders, and gradually steadies. John eases against him, and for a while they lie listening to the wind.
Paktika province, near the border with Khost province
Dawn comes pale and chill, with a sharp wind blustering down from the high hillsides despite the clear sky and brilliant sunshine. Sherlock and John are sitting side by side, each wrapped in his sleeping bag, and staring out over the bleached and barren valley with the heavy eyes of men who’ve spent more of the night awake than asleep. The others are stirring, crawling out of their sleeping bags, coughing and stretching and murmuring low good mornings.
“There,” John says.
A faint plume of dust is rising from the road below. After a while, it’s possible to discern a dirt-colored truck traveling along the road. John and Sherlock get to their feet and start to gather their gear.
The truck eventually works its way up the narrow road until it’s as close as it can get to their camp. It stops and three Afghan men get out, drawing their rifles and some bundles with them. They start up the steep slope, moving fast and with great certainty. John starts down the slope towards them, and meets them some way down. They greet him with quick embraces and then all four come back up to the others.
The Afghans are tall, thin, hawk-faced men in their late twenties and early thirties. They’re dressed in simple, pale-colored tunics and pants, with swathes of thin dark cloth around their shoulders. Their dark hair is cut to their collars, and their beards are little more than heavy scruff.
“Sherlock, this is Farshad,” John says, “and Mahyar, and Houshmand.”
The Afghans nod in response to their names.
“Tell them this is the man,” John says to Hinde. “And that you’re going with him as his translator.”
Hinde says something in Dari. Farshad looks Sherlock up and down, and nods shortly. Hinde speaks again, gesturing from himself to Sherlock and back. Farshad looks somewhat displeased, but he nods again. The other two men offer the bundles of clothing they’re carrying; Hinde takes one, and Sherlock the other. They both begin to strip at once.
“Blackwood, Henn, get the extra water and ammunition down to the truck,” John says.
Blackwood nods, and he and Henn move away. Farshad jerks his chin at Mahyar and Houshmand, and they go to help Blackwood and Henn.
“Make sure he knows he can’t take you by the roads,” John says to Hinde, glancing at Farshad. “Make sure he knows you’re being looked for.”
When Hinde’s finished conveying this, Farshad speaks forcefully, keeping his gaze fixed on John’s face.
“He understands,” Hinde says. “We’re taking the truck as far as Khost, and then we’ll go by foot through the mountains - he says, not even on the footpaths - we’ll go by the slopes. He says only God can watch the whole of the mountains.”
Sherlock reclothes himself in the bundled garments - tapered pants of a heavy but soft gray cloth and a long white shirt of slightly lighter cloth. He puts his body armor on over that, and his shoulder holster, then dons the loose fitting jacket of faintly striped gray and blue-gray cloth. There’s also a length of thin dark blue cloth, which he winds around his neck. He shoulders his backpack, with his sleeping bag and the canvas bag containing his sniper rifle lashed to it, and slings his assault rifle on its strap across his chest.
Sherlock’s hair is shorter than Farshad’s, though the haste with which it was cut has left it rough and irrepressibly curling in a way that is less at odds with his dress than Hinde’s neat crop. Sherlock’s nominally clean-shaven, though two days of shaving using tepid muddy water have left him with a shadow of incipient growth around his jaw line. His height, however, like his slimness and the sharp lines of his face and - most of all - the striking paleness of his long almond-shaped eyes, make him a strangely congruent addition to the group of Afghans. Hinde lifts his gear too, and they’re ready to go.
“Good luck, man,” Henn says to Hinde. “And come straight back, okay? No fucking going round by Amsterdam.”
Hinde exhales a slight sound of amusement.
“Stay lucky,” Blackwood says, putting his hand on Hinde’s arm for a second. “Holmes – you too.”
Sherlock nods jerkily.
“Yeah, good luck,” Henn says.
“See you in a week or so,” John says gravely to Hinde.
“Yes sir,” Hinde says.
He glances at Sherlock, and then at Farshad, and says something in Dari. Farshad looks faintly surprised, but he and Hinde turn and start walking down the slope.
“Henn, why am I still looking at this fucking mess?” Blackwood says, striding back towards the remains of their night camp.
Henn smirks, but jogs after him, leaving John and Sherlock alone. Sherlock’s gaze skitters from ground to rocks to sky.
“Sherlock,” John says.
Sherlock glances away to Blackwood and Henn, then down the slope to Hinde and Farshad, and beyond them to Mahyar and Houshmand standing next to the truck.
“I love you,” John says, his voice low but steady.
Sherlock’s eyes fall to his. His lips waver apart, but he doesn’t speak. John holds his gaze, solemn and utterly unabashed.
“Yes,” Sherlock says at last. “I – I - ”
“Go on,” John says firmly. “I’ll see you after Christmas.”
He steps back, his mouth quirking into a small, deliberate smile.
“I love you too,” Sherlock says abruptly, his intonation thin and sharp.
John blinks, and then his smile widens and warms.
“I know,” he says.
Sherlock smiles back at him, with something of genuine surprise lightening his eyes. Then he hitches his backpack a little, turns away, and walks down the hill to the roadway. It is, to the hour, almost exactly a week since he first saw John.
End of Part 2