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Two Two One Bravo Baker

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July 08th, 2009
Helmand province, Afghanistan

It’s scarcely midmorning, but the sun is already a white hole high in the bleached blue of the sky, and the air shimmers hotly above the pale, parched earth. John squints against the glare, despite his tinted safety glasses and the shading rim of his combat helmet.

“Something’s wrong,” he says, glancing around the walled courtyard. “Where is everyone? Hinde, do you have anything on icom?”

“No, sir,” Hinde says, “and the last round of drone intel showed no Taliban activity in the area.”

“Right, we can all relax, then,” John mutters, winning a slight snort of amusement from Blackwood.

John takes his hand from under his assault rifle and touches the radio control clipped to the front of his body armor.

“McMath, any sign of life on your side?” he says into the microphone of the radio headset he’s wearing inside his helmet.

“No, sir,” McMath says through the headset's earpiece.

“This house was occupied when we came through here a week ago,” Blackwood says.

“Maybe they just packed up and left,” Henn says.

“Except they didn’t actually pack,” John says, jerking his chin towards a scatter of baskets and jars clustered against the wall of the house.

Blackwood clicks his breath in through his teeth discontentedly.

“Let’s take a look,” John says, lifting the stock of his assault rifle to his shoulder. “Keep your eyes and ears wide open.”

He moves forwards into the stark shadow of the house eaves, sets his back to the rough clay wall, and slides to the corner. He cranes his head to look, before stepping round and moving along the adjacent wall to the doorway. Blackwood, Hinde, and Henn take up position across the front of the house with their assault rifles raised. John looks over at Blackwood, nods deliberately once, twice, and then jerks himself forwards off the wall and around to slam the sole of his desert boot into the rickety wooden door. It crashes open in a shower of splinters and a screeching of rusty hinges. John swings his rifle up as he lunges across the threshold - and instantly gags at the heated stench of blood and decay.

“Christ,” Blackwood says from behind him.

The windowless room is dark after the dazzling daylight outside. All John can make out are nightmare shadows of deeper darkness splashed across the floor and walls, and ghost pale glimpses of dead faces lolling impossibly over gaping black throats. He stumbles backwards out of the doorway, twists aside, and bends to cough a mouthful of vomit onto the ground. He sucks saliva into his mouth, spits, and wipes the back of his hand across his lips.

“Jesus,” Henn says, his voice thinning. "Oh, Jesus, is that - ?”

“Stay steady,” John says, his voice raw from vomiting. “We’re not safe out here and I need you.”

Henn nods fiercely and flexes his grip on his assault rifle. John swings his own assault rifle aside on its strap and digs into the pouch behind his right hip. He pulls out a field dressing, unwraps it, uncaps his water bottle and douses the large square of thick wadding. He clasps the wet dressing over his nose and mouth and steps back into the house.

He stands for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness, and then picks his way among the bodies. Flies swirl away at his approach, drone dully among the rafters, and settle again behind him. He stoops and lifts an out-thrown hand slightly, then drops it again. He stands, blinking hard enough that the tears filling his eyes shatter and fall onto his cheeks. He makes his way back to the door and steps out into the sunlight again. Blackwood grimaces, already reading more in John’s expression than he wants to know.

“The women and children are in there,” John says, as he discards the water-soaked dressing and takes his assault rifle back into his hands. “They’ve been dead a couple of days.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Henn says. “The kids? Who fucking does that?”

John looks at him, lifting his eyebrows slightly.

"I'm fine," Henn says with a quick shake of his head and a frown.

"Let's check the outbuildings," John says. "See if we can find the men."

 

July 09th
Montague Street, London

“I’d invite you in, if I could be sure you wouldn’t accept,” Sherlock says without lifting his gaze from the papers spread in front of him.

“Then I’ll come in without an invitation,” Mycroft says, crossing the threshold.

“Oh. I rather thought you couldn’t,” Sherlock says. "Duped by the facile commercialization of an Eastern European horror-tale. How embarrassing."

Mycroft sits down in the wing chair next to Sherlock’s desk, and holds out the manila file folder he’s carrying.

“Not interested," Sherlock says, shaking his head. "In your case, or in whatever cheese-paring inducement you’re planning to offer me.”

“Anything,” Mycroft says quietly. “I will do or say or give you anything you want, if you find the perpetrators of this crime.”

Sherlock’s eyes widen and then narrow intently. He takes the folder from Mycroft’s hand, flipping it open. For a second, the uppermost photograph is just a vivid juxtaposition of pallid skin and black hair and darkly pulped flesh, but then he parses the sense of the image and his eyes flick closed for a split second. He opens them again and shuffles through the remaining photographs.

“Who were they?” he asks.

“We don’t know,” Mycroft says. “They were found just a few hours ago.”

“But they’ve been dead several days, judging by the discoloration and the disintegration of the more damaged areas,” Sherlock murmurs to himself.

Mycroft shifts uncomfortably and purses his lips.

“Four men ranging in age from - sixty? Down to early twenties?” Sherlock says, skimming back through the photographs. “There’s a distinct family resemblance between these two, and this one, and maybe even this one. They weren’t held for long before this was done, their fingernails and beards are well kept. A single family had four males go missing in the week, and no one reported it? Or you just haven’t looked for a report?”

“People file a missing persons report if they have confidence in the administration’s ability to act,” Mycroft says, “If they haven’t, then they don’t. And there’s the difficulty of actually locating the report, assuming it was ever made.”

Sherlock stares at him in surprise.

“They were found by an American patrol in Kandahar province,” Mycroft says. “In Afghanistan.”

“There have been twenty thousand deaths in Afghanistan,” Sherlock frowns. “What do you care about four more?”

“People die in wars, Sherlock,” Mycroft says bleakly, “but this isn’t war. This is - unacceptable.”

Sherlock looks down at the photographs again.

“Why him?” he mutters.

“What?” Mycroft asks, his gaze sharpening.

“The evidence of sexual abuse on the bodies is ostentatious,” Sherlock grimaces, “but the youngest one was abused the least, even though he must have been really quite beautiful when he was alive. Most of the perpetrators' energy seems to have been expended on this one, the only one who’s short-haired and clean-shaven. The words cut into the body - he’s the only one that was done to.”

He lifts one of the photographs, holds it at arm’s length, and considers it carefully.

“That’s really quite stunning,” he says.

“I was certainly stunned when I saw it,” Mycroft says.

Sherlock glances at him, and then back at the photograph.

“I don’t mean as a crime,” he says. “I mean as an image. Magnificent profile, the open eyes, the way the words cut into him are bracketed by his open hand - ‘we did this’.”

“I’m pleased to see that you haven’t completely smothered your artistic sensibilities,” Mycroft says. “You used to be so gifted in that way.”

Sherlock drops the photograph back into the folder.

“Of course the effect is striking,” he announces. “That's the whole point of the exercise, after all. Otherwise, why expend so much energy on the insensate in the first place?”

“Insensate?” Mycroft echoes.

“These men were already dead, or at least unconscious when the rest was done to them,” Sherlock says. “There are no marks from the wrist ligatures. A man conscious and enduring rape and torture of that ferocity would have practically torn his own hands off.”

“Thank God for small mercies,” Mycroft says quietly.

“Indeed,” Sherlock nods. “Simple sadism doesn’t narrow a field of suspects much, but this is something more complicated, which is always helpful.”

Mycroft’s mouth softens in faint dismay, and then in rueful affection.

“Four men, each killed with a single shot to the head and then sexually abused, mutilated, and a message in English carved into one body,” Sherlock says keenly. “This was carefully staged; the product was what mattered to the perpetrators, not the process - but who’s the message for? And who are ‘we’? All right, send me everything you’ve got, though you must realize there’s only so much I can do with secondhand data - ”

“There’s a plane ready to leave at RAF Northolt,” Mycroft says, “and the necessary clothes and papers are in the car that’s waiting to take you there.”

“You want me to go to Afghanistan?” Sherlock says, turning his head so that he’s looking at Mycroft from the corners of his eyes.

“I want you to ensure that this monstrosity does not occur again, in a country I - we are partially responsible for administering,” Mycroft answers.

“Well, I do applaud your concern for the proper conduct of the completely pointless invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation," Sherlock drawls, but it is rather outside my area of operations.”

“I realize your personal geography doesn’t extend beyond the M25,” Mycroft says, “but as I said: in return, anything that’s mine to give, and many things that aren’t.”

Sherlock lifts his chin sharply, considering Mycroft from under furrowed brows. Mycroft stares back, his eyes steady but his mouth twisting uncertainly.

“Very well,” Sherlock says at last. “I’ll need a few minutes.”

“Of course,” Mycroft says. “Though, I have taken the liberty of having a large dose of Tofisopam waiting for you in the car. I think you’ll find its aftereffects are less debilitating than your usual choice.”

"In that case, I'll get my coat,” Sherlock says with a small smile.

Mycroft's expression broadens into satisfaction, but then his eyes turn wary.

"I am relying on your professional discretion, Sherlock," he says. "You will find the guilty party, and I will deal with them. There's no reason to cause unnecessary distress to anyone else.”

"What's the matter, Mycroft?" Sherlock says. “Afraid the British public doesn’t have the artistic stomach to appreciate these pictures?”

Something turns to steel beneath Mycroft’s soft features.

"Don't worry,” Sherlock says lazily. “I’ll make sure no one makes a scandal out of your perfectly proper war."

A few hours later, Sherlock is slouched in his seat, his head tipped back and his eyes closed, with a small overhead light shining down onto him in the otherwise darkened plane. He lifts his head and opens his eyes as he extracts his phone from the inside pocket of his jacket. He contemplates the number displayed for the incoming call, but doesn’t answer. He peers out of the window. All that’s visible is the illuminated wing of the plane surrounded by deep blackness. His phone signals an incoming text. He sits up straighter and opens the message.

Answer your phone.

Where am I? he texts back.

Over Syria. Answer your phone. Possible lead on identities.

His phone displays the same number for an incoming call, and this time he answers.

“Yesterday a Royal Marine patrol reported an incident in Helmand province,” Mycroft says without waiting for Sherlock to greet him. “All the women and children from a single family were found murdered, and the men are missing. The officer leading the patrol reported seeing three men at the house on previous occasions - estimated ages sixty-five, forty-five, and twenty-five.”

“Excellent, I’ll start with the reporting officer. Who is he? Where is he?”

“Captain John Watson, Forty Commando, at Forward Operating Base Sangin,” Mycroft enunciates crisply.

“How do I get there?” Sherlock asks.

“You don’t,” Mycroft says. “I’m having you rerouted to Camp Bastion, and Captain Watson will be brought there by helicopter.”

“Acceptable,” Sherlock says.

“Sherlock? Do try to be careful, won’t you?” Mycroft says lightly.

Sherlock cuts the call, and tucks his phone back into his pocket. He stares out at the darkness, strumming the ball of his thumb repetitively across his lower lip.

 

July 10th
Camp Bastion, Helmand province

“Mister Holmes, sir, welcome to Camp Bastion,” the officer at the foot of the plane’s steps says crisply as Sherlock emerges blinking into the bright morning light.

Sherlock is wearing his coat, with a soft gray leather duffel bag slung over one shoulder and the manila file folder in his hand.

“Oh - wonderful,” he growls, looking around as he slouches down the steps.

The sky is vast, blankly blue from horizon to horizon, and utterly empty except for one plane coming in on a low approach and another slanting up into the air having just taken off. Acres and acres of pale gray concrete stretch out on all sides, and beyond them infinitely more acres of pale beige ground run out to low beige hills. Aircraft, from monstrous transports to arrowhead fighter jets, are dotted or ranked across the concrete; the helicopters are ranged across the open ground farther away. There’s a single gray road running off the airfield to a sprawling settlement of olive green tents and prefabricated buildings in the distance.

“I’m Captain Ormond, sir. I’ll be your escort during your stay,” Ormond says, shaking Sherlock’s hand briefly. “May I take your bag?”

Sherlock relinquishes his bag, and Ormond stows it in the back of the jeep that’s parked next to the plane.

“This is your security pass, sir,” Ormond says, offering a laminated identification card with a metal clip attached. “You’ll need to wear it clearly displayed at all times.”

Sherlock takes the card and puts it in his coat pocket. Ormond looks dubious but doesn’t protest.

“I see,” Ormond says dryly. “You’ve been assigned quarters in Accommodation Block Three. I can take you there now, if you’d like to get settled.”

“Is Captain Watson here yet?” Sherlock says.

“Yes, sir,” Ormond says at once. “He got in about an hour ago.”

“Take me to him,” Sherlock says, shrugging his coat off and throwing it over his bag.

The officers' common room in the Royal Marines' operational administration building is a Frankenstein construction of semi-permanent tenting, prefabricated floors, and furnishings suggestive of a particularly soulless hotel chain, albeit one where the guests wear pale camouflage combat clothing, and the usual scattering of luggage is transmuted to canvas packs and body armor in the corners, with helmets and assault rifles left lying on the couches. Men stare with undisguised curiosity at Sherlock as he stands beside Ormond, the folder in one hand and his other hand dipped into his hip pocket.

“McGuire,” Ormond says, attracting the attention of a lieutenant sprawling in a leatherette club chair. “Where’s Watson?”

“Mess, sir,” McGuire says, straightening up a bit.

Ormond leads Sherlock down a canvas-roofed hallway, through double doors into a large area filled with Formica tables each surrounded by metal chairs. Four men in tee shirts or shirtsleeves are sitting at one table; John, in full combat clothing, is sitting at another table with his pack, body armor, helmet, and assault rifle piled next to him. He’s deeply engrossed in eating ice cream from a waxed paper cup, but as soon as Sherlock and Ormond enter he sets it aside and gets to his feet.

“Wait here; I don’t need you hovering,” Sherlock says to Ormond.

Ormond raises his eyebrows but stays by the door while Sherlock crosses to John's table.

“Captain Watson,” Sherlock says, extending his hand. “I’m Sherlock Holmes.”

“Sir,” John says, grasping Sherlock’s hand.

Sherlock pulls out a chair and sits down, dropping the folder onto the table. John sits down again, too.

They make a strikingly unmatched pair on opposite sides of the table. John’s face and his cropped hair are respectively suntanned and sun-bleached to almost the same shade of dark gold, and his eyes look startlingly blue by contrast; his clothing is worn at the edges, sandblasted and sun-softened. Sherlock’s a thing of flawless, pale skin and dark, unruly hair, and in the half-dimness of the mess hall his eyes are practically colorless; the thin cloth of his suit jacket is a little crumpled across the chest, but otherwise everything about him is as pristine and polished as if it has never been worn before.

“I’ve read the report you made,” Sherlock says. “About the women and children found dead near Musa Qala.”

John tilts his head slightly in acknowledgement.

“You said they’d been dead at least a day, but less than three,” Sherlock says. “How did you know?”

“Incomplete rigor mortis,” John says, sliding his cup aimlessly on the tabletop. “The smell was too bad for them to have been there less than twelve hours, so that means the rigor was dissipating, not developing. Twenty-four hours is my lowest estimate for how long it would take to get to that degree of - yield. There were flies but no maggots, and that’s less than three days at this time of year.”

Sherlock lifts his chin, contemplating John carefully. John stares back, implacable except for the faintest creasing at the corners of his eyes.

“Had the women been raped?” Sherlock asks.

“I didn’t make post mortem examinations,” John says, and then when Sherlock shakes his head impatiently, “I don’t think so, their clothes weren’t … ”

He shrugs slightly.

“The men who are missing,” Sherlock says. “Would you recognize them if you saw them?”

“Yes, of course.”

“As distinct from other Afghan males of the same age and general appearance, I mean.”

Yes.”

Sherlock pulls a sheaf of photographs out of the folder and pushes them towards John. The original images have been enlarged and cropped to show only the grayish-white faces of the corpses. John leafs through the photographs, nodding wearily.

“Yes, these are the three from the house, but I haven’t seen this man before,” he says, skimming one photograph back to Sherlock. “Short hair and no beard means he’s probably one of ours, though.”

“Ours?”

“Um, us, law and order, the good guys - some of the good guys, maybe,” John says with a quick, humorless smile. “Afghan National Army, or police, or maybe just an interpreter.”

He frowns, leafing through the photographs again.

“The women and children had their throats cut,” he says, “but I see the men were shot. That’s neat work; it takes a bit of skill to shoot someone in the head at close range and not make a complete mess.”

“You learned that in the British army?” Sherlock asks.

“No,” John says shortly.

He drops the photographs onto the table and pushes them back towards Sherlock.

“It’s – pretty much what I expected,” John says.

Sherlock lifts his eyebrows, querying.

“Murder’s more or less the standard of political discourse in Helmand,” John shrugs. “You don’t like someone’s politics, kill them - or if you really want to make a point, kill them and their family.”

“It’s really that bad?” Sherlock frowns.

“This is a five-way war,” John says, his face turned slightly aside as he looks up at Sherlock from under his brows. “There’s us, the Taliban, the Afghans who hate us but think we’re the best chance of some kind of stable future for this country, the Afghans who hate the Taliban but think they’re the best chance, and the Afghans who hate all of us and just want everyone to get out of their country. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, there’re four other sides who want you dead. People end up like this - ” he gestures at the photographs, “ - all the time. A whole family, men and women and children? It’s unusual, but I’d love to be able say it’s never happened in Helmand before.”

“Why were you interested in this family at all?” Sherlock asks. “You said you’d been at the house on previous occasions, and you were there again yesterday. Why?”

“No reason,” John says. “Just the patrol route we happened to walk those days.”

Sherlock shakes his head, not understanding.

“That’s what we do,” John says. “We walk patrols; sometimes nothing happens but most days there’s some kind of a fight.”

“You - walk around until you’re attacked, and then you fight back,” Sherlock says doubtfully. “That’s the actual strategy?”

“Yes, pretty much,” John says, stifling a laugh.

“Going well, is it?” Sherlock smirks.

“Going great,” John says with a grin.

“What are you even doing in Sangin?” Sherlock demands, eyes vivid with amusement and curiosity.

“Helping the Afghan government secure a better future for this country,” John says, his expression smoothing into pleasant neutrality.

“Not you the British army," Sherlock says, “you John Watson.”

“With respect, sir, that’s hardly relevant to - whatever it is you’re doing here,” John says, his eyes darkening slightly.

“Hmm. You think I’m prying,” Sherlock says. “You think that’s too personal a question to ask when I don’t know you.”

John’s gaze slides aside and fixes on some point of nothing beyond Sherlock’s right shoulder.

“All right,” Sherlock says reasonably. “I know that you were a doctor, training to be a trauma surgeon, but something happened to you in Belfast that made you drop that, made you enlist in a capacity that requires a couple of O-levels and an inordinate appetite for danger. If I were prying, I’d ask what it was that happened.”

John’s eyes widen, his gaze falling back to Sherlock’s face.

“How - how could you know - any of that?” he says.

Sherlock presses his lips between his teeth for a moment, stifling a smile.

“I don’t know, I see. Your pack has an olive cross, so you’re carrying augmented medical supplies. But no Red Cross patch, so you’re not protected medical personnel; you’re a fighting soldier. In fact, you’re a commando stationed at the raw edge of this war: you’re about as fighting as it gets. That means the Royal Marines wouldn’t have trained you to do more than keep someone alive until real medical help arrives … yet you’re a nice judge of rigor mortis and gunshot wounds to the head, and you said you didn’t learn that in the army. Who else sees the results of that kind of violence often enough to learn something about it? A doctor, specializing in trauma medicine.

"The age limit for enlistment is twenty-six, so you couldn’t have been more than a couple of years into specialized training when you joined up. So where would a civilian doctor have to be, say ten years ago, to see a significant number of gunshot wounds in less than two years? Royal Victoria, Belfast.

"You’ve been in the army ten years, and the wear on your gear tells me you’ve been on active combat duty a lot, multiple tours certainly. Yet you’re still only a captain, so you began as a private soldier. As a doctor, as a surgeon, you could have been a medical officer with a starting rank of captain, but you deliberately chose not to do that.

"I know you well enough to ask a slightly personal question, don’t you think?”

“How could you possibly know I was a surgeon?” John protests, but his eyes are alight with interest.

“Bit of a reach,” Sherlock admits, “but you had a medical degree, strong nerves and small hands. If you weren’t a surgeon, plenty of people must have suggested that you should be.”

“That’s - amazing,” John laughs.

“You think so?” Sherlock frowns, drawing his chin in slightly.

“Incredible,” John grins.

Sherlock exhales a smile, his expression soft and almost uncertain for a moment, and then shakes his head a little. He gathers the photographs back into the folder and stands up. John rises, too.

“Well, thank you for your time, Captain Watson,” Sherlock says.

“It was very instructive,” John smiles.

Sherlock turns away and John sits down again, but then Sherlock turns back abruptly.

“You didn’t answer the question,” he says. “What are you doing in Sangin?”

John looks up at him, eyes sharp and speculative.

“Indulging myself,” he says.

“That’s a rather dangerous form of indulgence,” Sherlock says, his mouth quirked.

“Best kind,” John says gravely.

Sherlock’s gaze drops from John's face to his hands - deeply tanned and rough knuckled - and then lifts again. There’s a long beat when one or other man seems about to say something more, but neither one does. Finally Sherlock turns away again and walks back to where Ormond’s still waiting by the door.

Chapter Text

 

July 10th, continued
Camp Bastion, Helmand province

Accommodation Block Three is a long, low building with whitewashed walls, a flat roof, and an air conditioner droning in every window. Sherlock’s quarters consist of a room cluttered by a single bed, small table, folding chair, and narrow closet, and a bathroom with toilet, spit-sink, and a shower-head that drains directly into a metal grating set in the concrete floor.

He drops his duffel bag on the aggressively well-made bed, puts the folder on the table, and hangs his coat in the closet. He unzips his bag and starts taking out the contents one-handed, using his other hand to place a call and hold his phone to his ear.

“I need to see the men’s bodies, and the place they were found,” he says, shaking the folds out of a white chambray work shirt.

“The bodies were taken to Kandahar Air Base,” Mycroft says. “You’re closer to where they were found, near Khush-i-Nakhud. I’ll arrange for Captain Ormond to take you there first, and then to Kandahar.”

“Not Ormond,” Sherlock says as he surveys a pair of khaki cargo pants. “Give me John Watson.”

“They’re soldiers, not indentured servants, Sherlock,” Mycroft says wearily. “I can’t just give you one.”

“Don’t be modest, Mycroft,” Sherlock rumbles, “of course you can. Besides, I’m only borrowing him. You can have him back when I’m done.”

“What’s wrong with Ormond?” Mycroft asks.

“Oh, just the same thing that’s wrong with almost everyone,” Sherlock sighs. “I’ll work better with John.”

“I’ll have Captain Watson re-assigned as your escort,” Mycroft says after the very slightest pause.

“I’ll be genuinely sorry to solve this case,” Sherlock smirks, turning over a tan leather hiking boot and examining the rugged sole. “It’s making you so agreeable.”

He hears the little sipping inhalation that means Mycroft’s going to lecture; he cuts the call, tosses his phone onto the bed, and shrugs his suit jacket off.

Half an hour later, Sherlock is rolling his shirtsleeves up on his forearms and ruffling his fingers though his damp hair. The clothes Mycroft has provided are, of course, perfect. Not merely in function – a substantial white shirt, indestructible cargo pants, and hiking boots meant for actual hiking – but also in sensibility: everything’s finely made, streamlined and smooth. Sherlock has never outfitted himself for a war zone, but if he did, these are clearly the exact items he would have chosen for himself.

“Mister Holmes, sir; it’s Captain Watson,” John says from the other side of the door, with a rap of knuckles against hollow core wood.

Sherlock opens the door. John looks up at him, chin tucked and eyes rueful.

“Sherlock,” Sherlock corrects. “I certainly intend to call you John.”

He moves back to the bed, and starts gathering his discarded clothes into his bag. John comes in and closes the door behind him. He clasps his hands behind his back, squares his shoulders, and lifts his chin. Sherlock glances at him, querying.

“I'm just informing you that I’ve received my re-assignment orders,” John says. “And that my section is being choppered in from Sangin to provide security for you off-base.”

“Is that necessary?” Sherlock frowns.

John hesitates before answering, and when he does, his voice is clipped and flat.

“Our control on the ground in Maiwand district is patchy at best, and security allocation is always a balance between the likely risk and the value of the – person, in question. I’m sure this allocation was made appropriately, based on information that I don’t have access to.”

“You have questions,” Sherlock says, his frown dissolving into indulgent amusement.

“Absolutely not, sir,” John says coolly. “I have orders.”

“Oh, John, that’s no use to me,” Sherlock says, tossing his head. “I need you to ask questions – if I needed someone to just stare at me, I’d have kept Ormond.”

John’s bland expression fractures into surprise and then sharpens into outright curiosity.

“You’d – all right, then,” he challenges. “Who are you? What are you doing here? You’re important enough to warrant pulling a commando section off the front-line to be your security detail, yet you’re asking questions about women and children who weren’t considered worth the price of the bullets it would have taken to shoot them.”

“I’m a consulting detective,” Sherlock says, “or rather, the consulting detective; there aren’t any others. I’m here to solve a mystery.”

“I don’t understand,” John says.

“Don’t worry. It’s early days yet,” Sherlock says, looming close enough to win a wary flick of John's eyelids. “I have high hopes for you.”

John’s mouth curls slightly. Sherlock pulls away, takes up the folder from the table, and extracts out the photographs that Mycroft brought to him.

“The men weren’t just shot,” he says, handing the pictures to John.

“Christ,” John grimaces. “Oh, Christ.”

Sherlock watches intently as John gathers himself again.

“You’re – you’re looking for the people who did this?” John asks, lifting his gaze to meet Sherlock's. “That’s the mystery, right?”

“Finding out who is just a side-reaction,” Sherlock says, shaking his head. “Finding out how and why is the part that’s fun.”

“Yeah, that’s an interesting use of the word fun,” John murmurs. “So the mystery is – why someone would brutalize an enemy in wartime?”

“Everything you see in those pictures was done after the men were shot,” Sherlock says.

“That’s – y’know, I don’t actually know that makes it better or worse,” John scowls.

“The mystery is, why did the perpetrators want to produce the effect, but not actually indulge in the process?” Sherlock says. “The bodies were found by an American patrol in a house near Khush-i-Nakhud. The crime scene’s always a good place to start.”

“I’ll have a chopper ready to go when my section gets in,” John says. “We can be in the air in half an hour or so.”

Twenty-five minutes later, they're walking up to a helicopter standing on the concrete at the edge of the airfield. John dumps his pack, rifle, and helmet into the open bay door. He’s already wearing his body armor, but he’s carrying a second set.

“Put this on,” he says, holding it out to Sherlock.

Sherlock puts down his greenish-gray nubuck backpack, and takes the armor. He scowls, turning it around in his hands as if he can’t figure it out.

“It’s non-negotiable - just like when your mum used to tell you to put a hat on or you couldn’t go outside,” John says, taking the armor back from him and peeling the tapes apart.

“My mother never said any such thing to me,” Sherlock says with a slight smile.

John reaches up to swing the shell of the armor around Sherlock’s shoulders.

“It is really necessary for you to be quite so tall all the time?” John complains.

“I could kneel,” Sherlock says creamily.

John arches an eyebrow, one corner of his mouth lifts fractionally, and he jerks the armor’s tapes closed with rather more vigor than is strictly necessary. Sherlock's smile widens, even as he catches one side of his lower lip in his teeth. Another helicopter comes in and lands a short distance away. Seven soldiers in pale camouflage combat clothing, body armor, and helmets pile out and jog across the concrete towards Sherlock and John.

“Sherlock, this is Two Two One Bravo Baker section, Echo Company, Forty Commando,” John says, when the soldiers gather around them. “This is my second, Sergeant Blackwood. If I’m down, he’s in charge.”

Sherlock glances sharply at John, who smiles back placidly before returning his attention to his soldiers.

“Gentlemen,” he says, “this is Mister Sherlock Holmes. For the purposes of this operation, Mister Holmes is – and I know he’ll excuse me for saying this - the package. We’re going onto the ground outside of Khush-i-Nakhud; as of oh nine hundred hours today, drone surveillance showed no Taliban activity in the area – but if we have contact, our number one priority will be to get the package safely back in the air. Sherlock, you stay with me. You need to be close enough to touch me, every single second we’re on the ground. Do you understand?”

Sherlock nods emphatically.

“All right,” John says, turning away and waving a hand at the pilot sitting in the cockpit.

The helicopter's rotors start to turn and the air stirs, then the rotors kick into high gear and the air churns. Sherlock shoulders his backpack, but John touches his arm and gestures for him to wait. The others climb aboard to sit on the bay floor. John shrugs his pack on, tips his helmet onto his head, and slings his rifle across his chest.

“Henn, if you're riding out, take the other side,” he says when he sees the young man hanging back. “I’m taking Mister Holmes on this one.”

“Yes, sir,” Henn sings out, flashing a grin at Sherlock before jogging around to the other side of the helicopter.

“I take it I’m riding out too?” Sherlock says, as John steps up into the bay and unclips a pair of safety lines from the fuselage above the open doorway.

“Sit down,” John smiles, gesturing to edge of the bay floor.

Sherlock sits in the doorway, his feet dangling. He watches with interest as John clips one line to Sherlock's armor and the other to his own. John sits down next to him, yanks experimentally on both safety lines, and takes his tinted glasses out of the front pocket of his body armor.

“Let’s go,” he yells over the noise of engines and rotors and buffeting air, and as he slips his glasses on he says, “welcome to the most beautiful war in the world, Sherlock.”

The helicopter lifts, turns, and slides forwards. The rotor turbulence billows around them, tossing Sherlock’s hair and baffling their clothes against their limbs.

The ground below is parchment-colored, thickly covered with stones that have been combed into waving, curling patterns by sand storms: a place as barren and beautiful as the moon. They're traveling at a hundred and fifty miles an hour, but the empty, cloudless sky above and the flat, featureless ground below make it seem as if the helicopter is hanging motionless. The air smells of nothing but light and emptiness. Sherlock stares and stares, letting the brightness and the blankness and the great silence beyond the engines' droning and the rotors’ beating soak into him.

As they travel east, the ground gradually begins to form folds and furrows, with grayish green hazes of scrub growing in the low places. The encircling sky bleaches from blue to steel white as the sun climbs to the zenith, and the ground below is gilded and shimmering in the heat. The terrain rises, layers of rock shelving up out of the earth, with deep ravines shadowed by blue-green pines and sudden outbursts of yellow-green where rain water collects. They pass over Khush-i-Nakhud, a small town center and a loose knot of streets, with a broad scatter of surrounding house compounds. The helicopter follows the thread of road that leads east out of the township, towards a dozen or so compounds at the foot of a range of steep hills.

“There,” John says, pointing to a plateau on one of the hills. “There's the house where - ”

He and Sherlock both scowl. The house is clearly a ruin, blackened and broken by fire.

“Well that’s unhelpful, if intriguing,” Sherlock says. “Down – let’s go down.”

The helicopter swings downwards to land next to the ruin of the house. John unclips the safety lines and they step down, followed by the rest of the men.

“McMath, take your guys and get up on the hill a bit - see what you can see,” John says.

McMath gathers his three men with a turn of his chin and they lope off past the ruin of the house. The others move aside as the helicopter steps back into the air, tilting and then curving upwards again.

“A chopper on the ground’s too vulnerable to RPG attack,” John says to Sherlock. “He won’t go far; we can call him in again if we need him in a hurry.”

Sherlock nods, watching as the helicopter circles out of sight behind the crest of the hill. The five of them walk into the charred remains of the house, Blackwood and Henn on either side and slightly ahead of Sherlock, with John just behind and to the right of him, and Hinde following more distantly. Up close, the destruction is even more impressive; blackened roof timbers have fallen among the smoke-streaked walls, leaving the wreckage open to the sun and sky.

“What the hell happened?” Henn asks. “Lightning strike?”

“Maybe a drone attack,” Blackwood says. “Picture analysis is useless; I’ve seen them bomb a tree.”

“Bugger that, I’ve seen then bomb us,” Henn snorts.

“Accelerant fire,” Sherlock says. “You can smell it … well, I can smell it.”

“Accelerant?” John says. “You mean - ”

“Someone’s tried to destroy the evidence,” Sherlock says.

He takes a pair of blue nitrile gloves from his backpack, pulls them on, and crouches down to dig his fingers into the charred crust of the ground.

“The men’s bodies were found about fourteen hours ago,” he says. “So the fire must have happened after that. There’s no residual heat though. How cold does it get at night here?"

"Um, not very, not at this time of year," John says.

Sherlock frowns as he stands up again. He looks around discontentedly for a moment, before beginning to pick his way back out of the ruin. He stops abruptly and stoops to pick something small and brightly metallic off the ashes.

“It’s a uniform button,” John says, leaning in to look. “It’s American – you said it was an American patrol that found the men’s bodies.”

“Yes, but this was dropped here after the fire, not before,” Sherlock says. “Look, it’s clean, no fire deposit on it.”

“You think the Americans did this?” John says, his glance encompassing the blackened ruin of the house.

“I think someone wants me to think that,” Sherlock smiles crookedly.

He walks out of the ruin, John following close behind. Sherlock goes to where a slight tumble of rocks edges a steep cleft that runs from above the house to the plain below. Sherlock scrambles up onto the rocks, and then down into the cleft. John follows him; Blackwood and Henn climb up onto the rocks but don't come down into the cleft, while Hinde remains on the other side.

“Why here?” Sherlock says quietly, looking up and down the hillside. “John, is it even feasible to get a truck up this trail?”

“God, no,” John says, surveying the stone-embedded slope. “It’s not even really a trail; it’s mostly a flood-wash.”

“So, the only way up here is on foot or by helicopter,” Sherlock says. “This is hardly a convenient place to commit a quadruple murder.”

“So, then, why here?” John asks.

“Don’t know,” Sherlock says absently, “not yet, but accelerant. It took quite a bit to burn this house so thoroughly. It must have been brought in by helicopter.”

“Sherlock, the only people with choppers are us – I mean, military, police, government,” John says. “So it was the Americans who burned this place down?”

“Do try to stop fixating on the Americans,” Sherlock says mildly.

There’s a sudden sharp crack from farther up the hillside. John shoves Sherlock down and against the side of the cleft, shielding him with his body as he swings his rifle up to his shoulder. Blackwood and Henn jump down from the rocks and shoulder in on each side of Sherlock.

“That’s contact,” McMath says in John’s earpiece, over a further ragged scatter of shots.

“What have we got?” John says into his radio microphone.

“I don’t know - they’re in the turn of the rocks at the top of the cleft,” McMath says. “I can’t get a line of sight. The good news is, neither can they. They’re pretty much shooting blind.”

“All right,” John says. “Make them keep their heads down.”

There are several bursts of semi-automatic fire from farther up the hillside, with single shots in response.

“Hinde, anything on icom?” John calls to Hinde, who’s crouched on the other side of the rocks.

“No, sir,” Hinde shouts back. “They may not be Taliban, just local freelancers.”

“Is that any better?” Sherlock asks acidly.

“It means they're probably not capable of taking down a chopper,” John says pleasantly.

He thumbs the radio control on his chest.

“This is Two Two One Bravo Baker requesting an immediate off from our last drop point, over,” he says clearly.

The distant drone of the helicopter grows louder and then drops in pitch as it comes to circle in overhead.

“Hinde, leg it over there and give me some covering fire from that side,” John calls as the helicopter touches down again next to the ruin of the house.

Hinde runs half-crouched across the open ground and drops to one knee in the lee of the helicopter.

“When I tell you to run, you are going to run like you’ve never run before,” John says to Sherlock. “And you’re going to keep running until you hit that chopper, okay?”

“You told me to stay with you,” Sherlock says.

“And now I’m telling you to go to Hinde,” John says, lifting his eyebrows until Sherlock nods his acquiescence.

“McMath, give them hell; we’re moving the package,” John says.

Bursts of gunfire break out higher up the hillside. John scrambles up onto the rocks, his rifle raised.

“Sherlock, run,” he shouts.

Sherlock clears the rocks in one clean thrust and sprints across the open ground. The second he’s got one foot on the floor of the helicopter bay, Hinde swings round and shoves him the rest of the way in and scrambles aboard behind him.

“Go!” Hinde yells at the pilot. “Go.”

“We’re not going without them,” Sherlock says, surging for the doorway though the helicopter is already lifting.

Hinde stops him with a hand in the middle of the chest.

“With respect, sir, you’re not in charge of this,” Hinde says steadily. “They’ll be fine, now they don’t have a civilian to worry about. They’ll get another chopper in and be off the ground before we get back to base.”

Sherlock grimaces a little, but then nods reluctantly.

Half an hour later, Sherlock’s pacing, insofar as the tiny amount of floor space in his quarters allows, and wringing his hand through his hair. There’s a single rap on the door.

“It’s me,” John says even as Sherlock wrenches the door open and yanks him inside.

“Are you all right?” Sherlock demands, slamming the door again as his eyes swarm over John’s face and hands and unarmored body.

“Yes, of course I’m all right,” John says in surprise. “It was fine - it was under control.”

“They were shooting at you,” Sherlock snaps.

“People shoot at me all the time,” John frowns in confusion. “It only counts if they kill me.”

Sherlock stares at him for a second, and then his mouth curls and he starts to laugh. John wrinkles his nose, his own laughter just a breathy exhalation.

“John Watson,” Sherlock grins, “you are the most completely - ”

He catches John by the face, both hands curving around John’s cheeks, dips his own face and smothers John’s mouth with his own. For a few seconds John clutches at Sherlock’s arms, and the narrow bow of his mouth breaks open under Sherlock’s lips and tongue. But then he lifts one hand, presses his palm into Sherlock’s chest, and pushes him back until the connection between their mouths is lost. Sherlock grimaces in frustration.

“That's an adrenaline reaction,” John says gently.

“Yes, obviously, I do know,” Sherlock says, eyes flashing as he dips his head again and tries recapture John’s mouth.

“You don’t actually want to do this,” John says, holding him off.

“On the contrary,” Sherlock says, “I can’t remember the last time I wanted to do anything so badly.”

He leans in enough to press his erection against John’s hip, and then shifts to draw his thigh across the front of John’s combat pants. John’s eyelids flutter heavily, and his tongue flicks between his lips.

“You’re hard,” Sherlock murmurs, his mouth only inches from John’s. “You want me, too.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t,” John says, looking up at Sherlock from under his brows. “I’m just – trying to show some sense here.”

“Says the man who invaded Afghanistan,” Sherlock says, his eyes devouring the thin curves of John's lips.

“Yeah, that wasn’t all me,” John says huskily. “Someone else had already decided to do that and I just came along for the ride.”

“All right; if that’s the kind of rationalization that works for you,” Sherlock growls. “I’ve already decided I'm going to suck you until you come down my throat.”

“Oh, bugger,” John says, his eyelids flickering. “Okay, if you're going to anyway, I’m in.”

Sherlock exhales loudly, both hands skimming greedily over John’s face and neck and shoulders.

“Sit down,” he says, already using the press of his chest and thighs to guide John back the single step to the side of the bed.

John yields, sinking down onto the edge of the mattress and leaning back on his elbows with his thighs splayed wide to make room for Sherlock. Sherlock goes down onto his knees in front of him; there’s barely room for the length of Sherlock’s shins between the side of the bed and the legs of the table. He runs one hand up John’s thigh, and the other down his chest and stomach. John watches through slitted eyelids as Sherlock smears his open mouth against John’s side, against his hip, huffing heat through his clothes. He moves both hands to the front of John’s pants, and picks open his belt and fly buttons.

“Shit, fuck,” John breathes softly.

“Lift,” Sherlock says.

John plants his feet and lifts his hips. Sherlock strips pants and underwear down John’s thighs; his cock falls to lie up along his belly, half-hidden by his shirttails. Compared to the deep gold tan of his face and hands, the skin beneath his clothes is startlingly pale, plushly soft and creamy, with a narrow line of fair-brown hair running down his belly and widening over his groin. Sherlock pulls John’s clothes down his shins and around his boots, leaving his ankles tethered but with enough space between his knees for Sherlock to lean over him. He slides both hands up John’s bare thighs. John shakes a deep breath in.

Sherlock dips his face, inhaling deeply. John tips his hips forwards; his cock lifts from his belly and slants towards Sherlock. Sherlock palms John’s shirttails aside, rings his forefinger and thumb around John's cock, and slips it into his mouth. John’s entire body jolts, but the only sound he makes is a sharp, nasal inhalation. Sherlock hollows his cheeks, sucking softly and lavishing saliva on John’s glans. John breathes deeply and deliberately. Sherlock starts to bob his head lightly, his mouth moving quickly and smoothly around the shaft of John’s cock.

“Jesus, that’s nice,” John says on a long exhalation.

Sherlock switches to moving his mouth more slowly, long strokes up and down John’s shaft, with a sharp suck on the glans before each downward slide. He takes John’s balls in one broad hand and tugs gently in concert with his sucking. John’s head falls back against the wall with a soft thud.

“Oh, fuck, that's good,” he murmurs. “That feels good.”

Sherlock goes back to the rapid bob of his mouth on the top of John’s cock. John shudders, his knees closing on Sherlock’s ribs. His breathing turns to short, hard-edged huffs.

Slower again; John shifts restlessly and then settles once more. Sherlock drops his free hand into his own lap, unbuttons his fly, and insinuates his hand inside his clothing. He groans around John’s cock as he grips himself. John drags air in noisily through his nostrils and tilts his head forwards to look at Sherlock: red lips wrapped around his cock, pale eyes snapping sparks as Sherlock returns his stare. John groans and clenches his hands into fists. Sherlock takes his hand from John’s balls and pulls on his wrist. John reads the permission given; he shifts his weight onto one elbow and splays the other hand over the top of Sherlock’s head.

“Fucking Jesus,” John says softly as Sherlock recommences tugging his balls in concert with the pull and push of mouth along John’s cock, Sherlock’s right shoulder works the same rhythm as his pumps he hand around his own cock. John’s thighs tense, his knees tighten on Sherlock’s sides, and his fingers flex in Sherlock’s hair.

“You’re getting me close,” he warns.

Sherlock growls encouragingly. John’s hips move on the rhythmic clench and release of his buttocks as Sherlock works his mouth faster, his head bobbing and his dark hair brushing against the pale skin of John’s belly. John’s fingers bite into the curve of Sherlock’s skull.

“Oh fuck. I'm so fucking close,” John gasps.

Sherlock’s eyes fall closed. The movement of his mouth roughens as he thrusts his cock hard into his fist. He pushes his mouth down recklessly, his nose pressing into dense muscle and crisp curls of brown hair.

“I’m going to come,” John whispers, his entire body tensing. “Oh fuck. I'm going to come.”

He does, utterly silent except for the billow of his breath out of his nostrils, but every muscle jerks in sympathy with the repeated pulse of his semen out his cock. He slackens as Sherlock groans around him, hips jerking messily as he comes, too.

“Jesus. Fuck,” John says, his hand slipping from Sherlock’s head.

Sherlock draws back just enough to swallow, and then slides his mouth greedily down again. He draws back more slowly, sucking John clean as he goes, licking the clinging smears of semen from around his foreskin before letting him go completely. He pulls his lips between his teeth, and licks the corners of his mouth carefully. John shifts his legs a bit. Sherlock leans back, giving him space to sit and pull his clothing back together. Their eyes meet, John’s still drugged dark with pleasure, Sherlock’s cold and clear and a little unsure.

“That was incredible,” John husks.

Sherlock smile is just a slice of light behind his eyes and the faintest tightening at the corners of his mouth.

“I - could use a towel,” he says.

John’s gaze drops to Sherlock’s hand still inside his pants.

“Hang on” he says.

He gets up, goes into the bathroom,and comes back with a hand towel that he drops into Sherlock’s left hand. Sherlock inhales, caving his belly to open enough space between himself and his clothing to scoop the towel in and collect most of the mess. John tucks his shirttails in, buttons his fly, and fastens his belt. Sherlock unfolds off his knees, up onto his feet.

“You said the men’s bodies were taken to Kandahar Air Base,” John says, his voice a little glottal but perfectly steady. “I’ll arrange a chopper - given the clearance you’ve got, we can probably be in the air in half an hour.”

“Good,” Sherlock says, wiping his hands.

John looks him up and down thoughtfully, then walks out the room and closes the door quietly behind him.

Chapter Text

 

July 10th, continued
Camp Bastion, Helmand province

When John comes back a quarter of an hour later, Sherlock is sitting in the plastic chair at the cramped table, contemplating the screen of a very thin, steel-gray laptop.

“There’s a chopper ready to go whenever we are,” John says.

“I knew it. I knew the ashes were too cold,” Sherlock murmurs to himself, and then says more sharply, “John, come and look at this.”

He leans back in the chair as John moves forwards to look at the screen.

“What am I – oh, the hills outside Khush-i-Nakhud,” John says, parsing the flicker of the images through a time-lapse sequence. “Drone pictures.”

Brightness moves from right to left in the images, cloud-shadows jerk across the foreground, and black spots jitter around the houses at the foot of the hill. The pale-walled house on the shoulder of the hillside flares brightly, and then folds into a dark smudge. After several seconds, the smudge turns back into a pale-walled house as the image sequence begins again.

“So, the house was burnt down,” John says dubiously. “We already knew that.”

“Look at the image time-stamp for the fire,” Sherlock says, looking up at John from the corners of his eyes.

John frowns at the screen. The house flares and darkens again.

“Sixteen hundred hours,” John reads, “oh seven oh – wait. That’s three days ago – that’s two days before the American patrol said they found the men's bodies. They're lying."

“I don't think that house was burnt down to hide the fact that the men were killed there,” Sherlock says, the corners of his mouth tucked in satisfaction. “I think was burnt down to hide the fact that they weren’t killed there.”

“The patrol that filed the report, do you know who they are?” John asks.

Sherlock dabs a fingertip on the laptop’s touch pad and another tab displays. John frowns as he scans the list of six names.

“Stationed at Combat Outpost Rath,” he reads. “Let’s get the patrol leader choppered in to Kandahar; no point in taking you to Rath if we don’t have to.”

“Bad neighborhood?” Sherlock asks dryly.

“It's better than Sangin,” John says, tilting his hand back and forth, “but gentrification hasn’t really taken hold yet.”

“All right,” Sherlock says with a slight smile. “Sergeant Harlow, that’s the patrol leader. Have him brought to Kandahar Air Base, and we’ll talk to him after we’ve seen the bodies.”

 

“Christ Almighty,” John says quietly as he considers the four corpses laid out on white enamel sluice tables in the mortuary.

Sherlock moves from one body to another quickly, comparing and considering.

“Almost no bruising,” he says.

“You said the bodies were abused post-mortem,” John replies. “There wouldn’t be bruising.”

“It’s perfectly possible to raise bruises on a corpse,” Sherlock says peevishly. “Or whip-stripes or anything else you might fancy; it just takes a bit more application than on a living body.”

John looks at him dubiously; Sherlock flashes a brief, bare-toothed smile.

“They weren’t interested in simulating physical abuse, just sexual,” he says. “Would you rather be beaten or raped, John?”

“I beg your pardon?” John says, his expression flickering through confusion and disgust into steady-eyed watchfulness.

“Hypothetically,” Sherlock says with a faint smile. “Would you hypothetically prefer a beating or a rape?”

John flicks the tip of his tongue across his bottom lip.

“I’ll take the beating, thanks,” he says evenly.

“Even a bad beating?” Sherlock goads. “Even a truly brutal beating, in preference to a rape that was not particularly injurious?”

“Is this some twisted variation on shag, marry, throw off a cliff?” John says, his mouth a thin, ugly line.

Sherlock’s expression folds into sly amusement, and he turns his attention back to the body in front of him.

“No marks on the hips,” he announces.

John shakes his head slightly, not understanding.

“Come on,” Sherlock says impatiently, “fucking someone hard: it’s natural to take a hold of their hips, even when the other party’s alive and enthusiastically invested in the success of the endeavor. Imagine trying to fuck a corpse with that kind of violence and no hold on the body. It’s preposterous.”

John blows his breath out noisily, swallows audibly. Sherlock scoops an arm under the corpse’s shoulders and turns it deftly onto one side, then almost onto its front.

“There’s some marking on the back, though,” he says. “Darker here, lighter here.”

He spreads his gloved left hand on the corpse, illustrating how the marks align with the heel of his hand and the tips of his fingers – or at least, the fingertips of someone with shorter fingers than his.

“Hold the corpse in position with the left hand,” he says in an undertone, “and use some kind of implement to - ”

“Christ,” John grimaces.

Sherlock nods, his own expression rather strained.

“- and then turn the corpse over, and the rest was simple knife work,” he concludes.

He goes back to the one corpse that is short-haired and clean-shaven.

“The words cut into this one,” he says. “What do you think about the blade used, John?”

“What do I – think about it?” John echoes.

“Sharp, or dull?” Sherlock asks, clearly exerting every fiber of his being in a heroic display of patience.

“Oh, uh – serrated, and fairly dull,” John says. “There’s quite a bit of damage at the edges of the cuts.”

“Why would someone choose a dull blade for such a fiddly task?” Sherlock frowns. “The result is quite neat but it must have taken considerable time and attention.”

“Maybe they didn’t have a sharp blade,” John shrugs.

“Look at the genital mutilation,” Sherlock says, almost rolling his eyes.

John forces his gaze downwards.

“No, really look at it,” Sherlock insists. “Look at the edges of the cuts.”

“They're clean,” John says, “very clean – this was done with something extremely sharp.”

“So they had a sharp blade,” Sherlock says, “but they chose not to use it for the text - oh, of course.”

John tilts his head questioningly.

“Legibility,” Sherlock says, as if the word is a soft-edged satisfaction in his mouth. “Cuts made with a scalpel, especially on a corpse, tend to collapse together again very neatly. Some of the lines would be almost invisible in a photograph.”

“But you could still see them in real life,” John says.

“Which means the message is meant to be conveyed by photographs of the body, not by the body itself,” Sherlock says, his eyes skimming over the long, white lines of the corpse.

“Conveyed to who? And by who?” John asks.

“Whom,” Sherlock corrects absently, his attention still on the short-haired, clean-shaven corpse again. “We have to identify this one. None of this is going to make sense until we know who he is, and why the house at Khush-i-Nakhud is significant. “Let’s go and talk to Harlow.”

Sergeant Harlow is waiting for them in a small room furnished with only a table and two straight-backed chairs. He stands when they enter, but John waves him down into his chair again as Sherlock drops the manila file folder onto the table. Harlow is everything Hollywood likes to think American servicemen are: tall and broad, with inky brown eyes, buzz-cut black hair, and skin tanned to a deep caramel. He’s soft-spoken, with just a hint of drag on his vowels. He gives Sherlock a single up-and-down look, but eyes the green beret tucked into the epaulet of John’s shirt with a lingering gaze of mixed defiance and desire.

“Sergeant Harlow, I have some questions about your - adventure, on patrol outside Khush-i-Nakhud,” Sherlock says.

“Uh, which particular one, sir?” Harlow says with a slight smile. “That patrol route’s a bit of a party at the best of times.”

“The one where you found the corpses of four men who’d been murdered, raped, and mutilated,” Sherlock says flatly.

Harlow looks doubtfully from Sherlock to John, and then back at Sherlock.

“With respect, sir, I think you’ve got me confused with someone else,” he says. “We’ve never found anything like that.”

“You - you’re saying you didn’t report finding the bodies of four men yesterday?” Sherlock blinks.

“No, sir, not us,” Harlow says, shaking his head.

“Your section’s call-sign is on the report,” Sherlock says, drawing a page of text from the folder and sliding it towards Harlow.

Harlow picks it up. His slight scowl turns to a deep grimace as he reads.

“I - I just don’t know what to say to you, sir,” he says, handing the page back to Sherlock. “I didn’t write this. We don’t even go up that hill on routine patrols. I guess some other section did, and somehow our call-sign got attached to the text of their report.”

“That’s your story?” Sherlock says.

Harlow flashes John a sharply querying look, which John studiously declines to respond to.

“It’s not a story, sir. It’s the truth," Harlow says crisply. “You can ask the rest of my section. They’ll tell you the same thing.”

“I’ll certainly be putting that theory to the test,” Sherlock says.

“Will that be all, sir?” Harlow asks John.

“Yes, thank you, Sergeant. Dismiss,” John nods. “Tell the watch-officer you're done here. There’s a chopper waiting for you - you can get back to your post before dark.”

John and Sherlock have been assigned shared quarters. The room is slightly bigger than the one Sherlock had at Camp Bastion, but with two single beds crammed into it, as well as the table, chair, and closet, the effect is actually more claustrophobic. John dumps his gear on one of the beds. Sherlock stakes his claim to the table by putting his duffel bag on it, leaving his bed clear. The bathroom is identical to the one in Camp Bastion, right down to the discoloration of the concrete around the drain grating.

“Harlow’s story about the report being attributed to the wrong patrol,” Sherlock says, as he watches John unbutton his shirt. “Could it happen?”

“Anything - and I do mean anything - that can be achieved by inefficiency, stupidity, or venality has been achieved here,” John smirks, stripping his shirt off.

“Ah,” Sherlock says, “human nature: the vast unchangeable. I want to talk to the rest of Harlow's team as soon as possible.”

“We’re losing the light,” John says, glancing through the window at the darkening sky. “I’m not taking a civilian on a night excursion – Maiwand district is a fucking mess after dark.”

Sherlock exhales nasally, but nods.

“I’m going to take a shower,” John says. "I washed in a coffee can this morning."

He pulls his tee shirt off over his head, his identity tags clinking softly as their chain catches and then drops free to fall against his chest. He tosses his tee shirt onto his bed and walks into the bathroom. Sherlock pulls his shirttails out of his pants and starts unbuttoning as he moves to the open doorway. John’s sitting on the closed toilet, unlacing his boots and heeling them off.

“Six men in the patrol,” Sherlock says thoughtfully. “That’s a lot of people to keep a secret.”

“You think one of them will talk?” John asks, peeling his socks off.

“I think one of them will believe someone else has talked,” Sherlock says.

John lifts his eyebrows skeptically.

“You don’t agree,” Sherlock says, his eyes moving appreciatively over the thick curves of John’s shoulders and chest. “You think they’ll trust each other with that secret.”

“They already trust each other with their lives,” John says.

Sherlock shoulders his own shirt off and tosses it back out the bathroom door. John’s eyes narrow a little as he considers the long, slender lines of Sherlock’s torso. He exhales a rueful smile, and shakes his head fractionally.

“What’s wrong?” Sherlock asks.

“Nothing, just - us, here, now,” John says, lifting his gaze to meet Sherlock’s. “The timing on this isn’t ideal, that’s all.”

Sherlock presses his lips together, half-grimace and half-smile.

“Shall we wait, then?” he asks. “Maybe in a year or so, when you’ve finished this tour, we could - ”

“Don’t,” John says softly, his eyes closing momentarily as if there’s physical pain in the soft edges of Sherlock’s words.

Sherlock’s mouth quirks unhappily. He drops his chin a little, looking at John from under his brows.

“It’s fine,” John says, his expression clearing to a determined smile. “It’s more than fine.”

“How long until dawn?” Sherlock asks quietly.

“Nine hours,” John says.

“All the time in the world, then,” Sherlock smiles.

John stands up and they move towards each other. They touch, Sherlock’s pale fingers curving around John’s face, John’s tanned ones around the nape of Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock dips his face, John lifts his, and for a moment they just breathe the air on each other’s lips. And then they kiss, an open-mouthed drag of lips against lips, and a slow curl of tongue against tongue.

Sherlock’s hand slips down John’s neck, over his tag chain, and onto the lightly furred skin over his breastbone. John’s fingers comb into Sherlock’s curls and close into a fist as Sherlock breaks from his lips to mouth along the line of one fair eyebrow.

“I want - God, I want everything,” Sherlock says, his voice catching in his throat.

“I know,” John says fiercely.

He pulls back and they stare into each other’s eyes, both breathing hard, half-panicked at the inexorable slide of the seconds falling away from them.

“I don’t even know where to - ” Sherlock gasps, and then more sharply, “damn it, focus.”

He brushes his fingers of both hands into John’s hair, his eyes fixed the short gold and silver strands as they bristle past his fingertips. He draws the edge of his thumbnail down the creases between John’s brows, along the half-moon crease at the corner of his mouth, and then down the cleft in his chin. John’s smile is just a gleam in his eyes as he studies Sherlock studying him. Sherlock moves his fingertips over the curves of John's face, over the wind- and sun-roughened skin, and the pale gold creases etched in the deeper tan around his eyes. He touches John's mouth, tracing the thin bow.

John parts his lips and licks Sherlock’s fingertips. Sherlock catches his breath and slips his fingers aside as he bends to slide his tongue into John’s mouth. The kiss is careful, considered, but hard-edged and deep. John’s eyes fall closed, Sherlock’s stay fiercely focused. When they pull apart again, John’s eyes open, dark and heavy lidded.

Sherlock's hands move outwards over the creamy, unmarked skin of John's chest and shoulders, then down to ride the flaring rise of his ribs as he inhales deeply. Sherlock's eyelids flicker heavily, but his gaze remains brutally intense as he touches John's stomach, his fingers fanning over the solidly formed muscle and then dropping to John's belt. Sherlock opens it, and then unbuttons John's pants, his hands quick and sure as he folds the heavy cloth back from John’s belly. Then he hesitates, his fingertips wavering for an instant before combing delicately into the fuzz of hair above John's underwear. John sways into the touch, lifting his head to glance from Sherlock's hand to his face.

“God,” Sherlock whispers.

His fingers slip down over the stretched cotton of John’s underwear, to touch a spot of glossy fluid darkening the cloth over the head of John's cock. John pulls a sharp breath in through his nostrils. Sherlock slips his fingers in between the layers of John's pants and underwear to caress the length of John’s erection. John drops his forehead against Sherlock’s shoulder and breathes slowly, in big dragging sighs.

“John,” Sherlock murmurs.

John drags his head up again, blinking up at Sherlock.

“I still want that shower,” he says.

Sherlock pulls his hand out of John’s pants with a pout of mostly mock chagrin. John strips his pants down, steps out them, and then skims his underwear off. He kicks his discarded clothing into the corner beside the toilet, well out of the range of water from the shower. He crosses to the shower and turns the water on. It spits, and then starts to spray steadily. Sherlock starts stripping the rest of his clothes off, piling them with John’s things.

John steps under the spray. For a few seconds, the water just rolls over the bristled tips of his hair and drizzles off his hairline, but then it begins to soak in, turning his hair mink-brown. Streams of water thread down his cheeks and run off the tip of his nose and chin. Rivulets snake over his chest and turn the hair there to a smooth darkened pelt. Sherlock moves to join him; John turns, smiling and blinking beads of water off his darkened lashes.

The water breaks against John’s back. Sherlock is dry except for a haze of tiny droplets collecting in his hair and on the tips of his shoulders. He touches John again, as if John wet and sleek is an entirely new text. His fingertips follow the threads of water over John’s skin, letting the streams show him new paths, new places to know. John catches his own lower lip in his teeth, bites hard enough to indent the flesh white and then deep red when he releases it. Sherlock’s hand slips down over John’s stomach to glance over the half-hard slant of his cock.

John inhales sharply. Sherlock bends his head, and the water smoothes his hair down into tendrils on his forehead.

“ … John … ”

John snarls his top lip back from his teeth, tugs at Sherlock’s hip and nape to pull him in closer. Their bodies align, thighs and hips and bellies, cocks sliding wetly, blundering against each other’s skin. John pushes his cock down so that it's caught against Sherlock’s inner thigh; Sherlock lifts his so that it’s pressed along John’s belly.

“Fuck,” John husks, pushing closer.

Sherlock squints into the water spray. He reaches past John to take the wrapped bar of low grade soap from the ledge under the shower-head. He shucks the wrapping, and rolls the bar between his palms until they’re slick. John takes the soap from him and does the same. They start sliding their hands over each other’s skin.

“God, I want you so badly,” Sherlock marvels.

“I know, me too,” John says, his smile more in his eyes than on his lips.

They breathe in unsteady concert. Their hands slip lower, over the blade of a hipbone, along the hard curve at the back of a thigh. They kiss, fragments of contact and breath and warm shower water running across parted lips. Hands glance, stroke, squeeze. Sherlock groans loudly as John takes hold of his cock, callused fingers wrapping around the thickness of his shaft.

“What do you like?” John murmurs, the words shaped hotly against Sherlock’s lips. “Tell me – tell me how to make you come.”

“Fast,” Sherlock breathes, guiding John’s hand to circle just behind the head of his cock, “not tight - lightly.”

John grimaces with greed, bites softly at Sherlock’s lips as he starts to rub. Water and lather and precum entwine to make an erratic surface of smooth and staccato. Sherlock’s breath catches, sounds softly in his throat. John bites gently down the side of Sherlock’s neck and along the pale skin stretched thin over his collarbone. He slips his free hand under Sherlock’s balls, scoops and strokes. Sherlock lets his eyes fall closed and his brows furrow.

“Beautiful,” John growls, forehead pressed to Sherlock’s chest as he looks down. “So fucking beautiful.”

Sherlock groans, grimaces as he struggles to hold himself upright and balanced against the steady onslaught of sensation. He opens his eyes and reaches out to grip the ledge behind John’s head, bracing himself as his body starts to shake.

“There,” he says, his voice dropping to a deep growl. “Oh God, there, that’s - ”

John lifts his head and sinks his teeth softly into the smooth plane of Sherlock's chest as Sherlock’s body jolts and his cock jerks in John’s grip. His semen spurts onto John’s belly and is washed down into his pubic hair. Sherlock breathes in deep, shaking gulps, clinging to John’s shoulders as if that's the only thing keeping him on his feet. John presses kisses into the notch at the base of his throat. Sherlock tips his head back and lets the water wash through the sweat and flush on his face. His breathing slows and steadies. He drops his head again and puts his lips close to John’s ear.

“Tell me how,” Sherlock says, his voice a low hum.

“Tight,” John says, his lips curling crookedly. “Start slow, but hold me tightly.”

He shapes Sherlock’s grip on the shaft of his cock, and guides his hand through the first couple of slow tugs.

“Yeah,” he says softly, letting his hand fall away from Sherlock's. “Like that – that’s – fuck, that’s good.”

“John … John … John,” Sherlock murmurs.

John clutches a handful of wet hair at the nape of Sherlock’s neck, growling wordlessly as he rolls his hips in counterpoint to the push and pull of Sherlock's fist.

“Yeah, good,” he breathes, lifting his face, eyes closed and water sticking his eyelashes together.

Sherlock sleeks his free hand down John’s chest and pinches at one nipple.

“Ah – fuck,” John mutters, squeezing his eyes shut even tighter.

Sherlock tugs at the pip of pink flesh, and works his grip on John’s cock harder. John’s breathing shatters into rapid shallow gasps, then stops completely.

“Fu – yes,” he hisses, as his cock pulses in Sherlock’s hand.

He grasps Sherlock’s wrist, stilling his hand as his semen stripes out across Sherlock’s thigh and slides down his wet skin. John shivers violently, sways a little, and then centers his weight again. His eyes flick open and he grins open-mouthed up at Sherlock, who smiles back, something shocked and utterly joyful tumbling in his gaze.

John twists, turns the water off, and shakes his head vigorously. He pads away, leaving wet footprints on the concrete beyond the immediate shower area, and drags down two of the towels stacked on a rack above the toilet. He throws one to Sherlock, shakes the other one out, and starts toweling himself off. Sherlock remains motionless, the towel clasped in his hands and water dripping from the ends of his hair, until John says quietly,

“Come on. Take me to bed.”

Chapter Text

 

July 10th, continued
Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar province

John drapes his towel over the chair and lies down on the bed that’s not piled with his gear. He shifts onto his side and moves over until his back is pressed against the wall, leaving almost two feet of empty bed in front of him. Sherlock comes out of the bathroom, rubbing his towel through his hair.

“Not much question about positions,” he says, surveying the margin of available mattress. “It’s going to have to be one of us on top of the other or we’ll never fit on the bed.”

“Come on, we can make like sardines for a bit, first,” John says, crooking an eyebrow invitingly.

Sherlock drops his towel on the floor and gets onto the bed. He slips one knee between John’s legs, slotting their limbs together as economically as possible, and folds his lower arm under his head to solve the problem of where to put it. John lets his body-weight tip away from the wall slightly, pressing chest to chest and belly to belly with Sherlock.

For a while there’s a kind of languor to them, to the turn of mouth against mouth and the trail of fingers on skin. John winds an arm around Sherlock’s shoulders, fingers idling in his hair or following the bony crests of his vertebrae down to the curve of his behind. Sherlock’s hand shapes the rise and fall of John’s ribs, or slips around his shoulder and trails down over the roped muscles at the back of his arm. Sherlock pulls away a bit to work his mouth against the skin below John's ear, and then down the side of his neck. He smears his thumb over the curve of muscle at the top of John's arm, where the words Royal Marines and the emblem of 40 Commando are inked in thick, slightly blurred black lines. He takes his thumb away and places his mouth there instead, tonguing over the letters. John inhales heavily, his upper lip curling.

Sherlock shifts lower on the bed, kissing and licking and tugging John’s flesh between his teeth, leaving petals of pinked skin behind as he works from collarbone to chest, from ribs to waist. John’s breathing grows deeper and harsher. His body repeatedly tenses and then falls away in an uneven, unordered sort of non-rhythm under Sherlock’s touch. Sherlock wriggles farther down the bed and bites softly into the heavy ridge of muscle above John’s hipbone. He rings his thumb and index finger around the softness of John’s cock and licks delicately around the furls of his foreskin.

“Shit,” John whispers, and then “isn’t it my turn to do that to you?”

“Don’t worry,” Sherlock says. “I don’t have a generous bone in my body - I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons.”

He takes John's cock into his mouth, his hand wandering over John's hip, down his thigh, and back up to the curve of his balls.

"Oh, that - that's working," John murmurs. "That's definitely working."

Sherlock sweeps his hand up John's torso and flicks his index finger across one nipple. John hisses his breath in. Sherlock draws back and lets John's cock drop from between his lips.

“Oh, well done,” he murmurs, and laps with the tip of his tongue around the thickening flesh.

He moves his weight over John a little, giving John enough space to shift from his side onto his back a bit. Sherlock pushes up onto his elbow and looks up the length of John’s body. John’s staring back, eyes narrowed, tongue tip sliding slowly around his parted lips. Sherlock growls softly and dips his head to lick roughly at the curve of John’s ribs, while his fingers move in slow sweeps along John’s cock.

“Christ,” John says, his body flexing luxuriously.

Sherlock tightens his grip on John’s cock and gives it an earnest downwards stroke that pulls his foreskin back. John huffs his breath out, squirms fully onto his back, and arches into Sherlock’s hand. Sherlock shifts up over him, breathing kisses onto the creamy freckled skin of John’s collarbones. He works his fist slowly on the shaft of John’s cock as it hardens completely.

“Fuck,” John murmurs into Sherlock’s hair.

“Oh, bugger,” Sherlock says, lifting his head. “I’m fairly sure I’m not carrying lubricant.”

“Fairly sure?” John snorts in amusement.

“I didn’t pack my own bag,” Sherlock explains.

“Front pocket of my pack,” John says. “I carry Vaseline – for the wind burn.”

Sherlock smirks, dipping to kiss him lightly before unwinding himself from the bed. He turns to the other bed, and digs into John’s pack. There is, as promised, a half-used plastic tube of Vaseline stuck into the front pocket. He squeezes some onto his fingers and rubs his thumb across the smear, softening it. He reaches behind himself, his shoulder and triceps shifting as he works his fingers between his buttocks.

“Fucking – hell,” John says quietly. “That’s – that looks incredible.”

Sherlock looks at John over his shoulder, a sly sidelong glance. He bends forwards fractionally, shifts his legs apart, and pushes his fingertips into the ring of his anus.

“Christ, you don’t mess about, do you?” John marvels.

He wraps his hand around his cock and squeezes hard enough to make the rigid shaft flex in his fist. Sherlock presses out another smear of grease onto his fingers, before tossing the tube back into John’s pack. He turns, cants one long thigh over John’s hips, and straddles John with one knee against the wall and the other on the outside edge of the bed. He reaches back and slicks his fingers down the length of John's cock, back up, twisting around the head and then down again. John growls softly, arching into the contact. Sherlock leans forwards, lines himself up, and pushes back. John snatches a breath, sharp and sudden.

“You might want to grab hold of something,” Sherlock says darkly.

John clutches at Sherlock’s thighs. Sherlock blows his breath out noisily and rolls his head on his neck to coax the tension from his body as he presses back and down. His eyes flutter wide; his mouth wavers softly. John arches again, blinking rapidly. Sherlock pushes down relentlessly, farther and farther. John puts one splayed hand to the base of Sherlock’s belly, seeking the pressure of his cock pushing up into Sherlock’s body.

“Fucking Jesus,” John whispers. “Fucking Jesus, that’s sweet.”

Sherlock pushes down until he’s sitting solidly on John’s hips, and then he grinds his weight down even more and rocks a little. His mouth falls open and his eyes drop half closed. John draws his knees up, bracing his feet flat on the bed.

“Can I move?” he husks.

“Not – not yet,” Sherlock says, “just - ”

John grimaces a little as he spreads both hands on Sherlock's thighs again. Sherlock plays his weight from front to back, gradually establishing a real slide up and down on John's cock. John can't wholly stifle a movement of slight response, a subtle rock of his hips under Sherlock. Sherlock groans loudly, leaning back until his head falls back and he’s a single long arching line from the uplifted tip of his chin, down the complex flex of his throat, down his heaving chest and his hollowed belly, to the tightly sprung bow of his thighs as he holds himself pinioned on John’s cock. He takes hold of his cock in his slicked hand.

“Come on, John,” he coaxes. “Come on.”

John snarls softly and starts to thrust up in short, smooth stabs. The narrow bed was never intended for this; it creaks in protest, and the frame knocks against the wall every time John lifts Sherlock's weight on his hips and then drops it back down again. John shoves his left fist against the wall next to his head, and exerts enough push to dampen the impact of the bed-frame.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” John growls, the kick of his hips turning ruthless as he slams himself up into Sherlock’s body.

“Oh God, oh good,” Sherlock gasps, his voice sliding down through registers of sound until it’s a low rumble of breath. “So good - so good - ”

He pumps himself lightly, quickly, an off-rhythm counterpoint to John’s tempo.

“Fuck, you feel fucking beautiful,” John says breathlessly.

Sherlock claps his free hand to his mouth and sinks his teeth into the fleshy base of his thumb in order to muffle the sound of his voice breaking around each breath.

“Oh, fuck, you’re getting so tight,” John gasps.

Sherlock yanks his head forward and down to glare at John, eyes slitted, lips drawn back from where his teeth are indenting deep white pits into his hand. Every exhale is a stifled grunt, every inhale a high, nasal surge of air. His spine flexes as he brings his weight forwards again, upright instead of arched, so he can shove and jerk and twist against John’s thrusts. He groans in desperation and then in dilating relief as his cock jerks in his fist. He exhales in a chain of stuttering grunts around his hand as his semen arcs spectacularly in the air and then spatters across John’s chest. John gives up trying to brace the bed and grabs Sherlock by the hips, his body jerking in a desperate attempt to catch the trailing edge of the wave himself. Sherlock drops his hand from his mouth and clutches at John’s arms as John thrusts furiously, indifferent to the disorganized roll of Sherlock’s hips above his.

“Fuck, oh fuck yes,” John mutters as he shoves up under Sherlock, holds, shaking, sustaining the deepest possible push as he comes.

Sherlock laughs breathlessly even as John jerks and quivers under him. John’s body slackens, jolts, slackens further until he’s unraveled under Sherlock. Sherlock reaches forwards, drags his fingers through the pool of his own semen in the hollow of John’s breastbone, and draws a streak down onto John’s stomach. John jumps minutely every few seconds, little aftershocks burning through his major muscle groups until he finally shivers out the last traces of tension and lies still. Sherlock rises up on his knees, pulling their bodies apart. He tumbles back onto one elbow and straighten his legs, letting one slip off the outside of the bed and draping the other over John’s thigh. John wipes a hand down over his face, and pinches the skin between his eyebrows.

“Jesus,” he says hoarsely. “I think I just blew a fuse.”.

“It was rather - exceptional,” Sherlock grins.

He pushes his toes into the thick belly of muscle on the underside of John’s arm. John strokes his palm up Sherlock’s shin, disordering the silky dark hairs lying against the pale skin.

“Just imagine how great we’ll be when we’ve had some practice together,” John smirks.

Sherlock grins, then they both sober slightly, but Sherlock shakes his head emphatically.

“We’re going to have plenty of time to get completely sick of each other,” he says.

John laughs, smoothing the back of his hand up the inside of Sherlock’s thigh.

“I'd like that,” he says, squirming around enough to reach the soft, damp crease of Sherlock’s groin with his fingertips.

Sherlock rocks his knee inwards to trap John’s fingers.

“You’re covered in come,” he says approvingly.

John tucks his chin to look down at himself. He stripes his free hand through the pool sitting in the dip of his chest and puts his fingers in his mouth. Sherlock chews on his already flushed and swollen lower lip. He hooks his extended foot under the towel lying on the floor next to the bed and elevates it to bed-level.

“Thanks,” John murmurs, plucking the towel from Sherlock's foot and wiping himself clean, before tossing the towel at Sherlock.

Sherlock cants his knee out again to wipe himself, while John draws a shivery line down the inside of his thigh with the edge of his thumbnail. Sherlock drops the towel on the floor again.

“Come here. You’re too far away,” John says, stirring his knee against Sherlock’s hip.

Sherlock groans bitterly, but unfolds himself from the tangle of John’s legs and gets off the bed, giving John room to rearrange himself. John wriggles up until he’s propped head and shoulders against the wall, knees drawn up a bit. Sherlock gets back onto the bed, managing to curl around him, lying on his side with his head on John’s chest, right arm draped across his waist, thighs under his knees. John fingers through the damp curls clinging to Sherlock’s temple.

“You want to get some sleep?” he murmurs.

“No,” Sherlock says. “You?”

“Not yet,” John murmurs, his fingertips following the heated upper edge of Sherlock’s ear. “You got a bit of sun. You need to be careful, that skin.”

Sherlock turns his face into John’s chest, inhaling luxuriously. John trails his fingers down Sherlock’s neck and out along his shoulder.

“I could never live anywhere except London,” Sherlock says abruptly.

“Me neither. I love London,” John says at once.

“And I play the violin,” Sherlock says, laying the words out precisely.

“Seriously?” John says.

Sherlock unfurls his left hand from where it’s lying between them, and holds it up to display the slightly reddened striation across the pad of each fingertip.

“That’s from the strings?” John says. “Wow. I’m impressed.”

“You?” Sherlock asks, dropping his hand to John's side.

“I play the stereo,” John says, amusement roughening his voice.

“Philistine,” Sherlock smiles against John’s chest.

“You can be cultured for both of us,” John says, going back to combing his fingers through Sherlock’s hair.

There’s the sound of a door slamming somewhere down the hallway, and then raised voices and fists pounding on doors. John lurches up into a sit, and Sherlock scrambles off the bed onto his feet.

“Med teams out!” someone yells in the hallway. “Evac called for Outpost Rath!”

“Get up,” Sherlock snaps, lunging for his clothes still lying on the bathroom floor. “We’re going with them.”

“Yeah, you’re not going on a nighttime evac,” John says, rolling off the bed and striding into the bathroom. “I’m supposed to keep you alive, not get you killed.”

“Harlow’s patrol team is the nearest thing to a lead that I’ve got,” Sherlock says, as both of them pull their clothes on.

“So I’ll go,” John says.

Sherlock scowls discontentedly but nods after a second’s hesitation. John straps on his body armor, and picks up his helmet and assault rifle. They both go out into the hallway, which is now a mill of men in combat gear. John glances up and down the hallway until he catches sight of the watch-officer.

“I need a ride-along on this,” he says loudly enough to be heard over the general din.

"Nicholson," the watch-officer calls to a fair-headed medic, "take this guy with you."

Sherlock and John follow Nicholson out of the accommodation building to the concrete pad where several helicopters are standing, rotors turning, as the evacuation teams climb aboard. The first helicopter is already stepping up from the ground. Nicholson climbs aboard one of the others, and John follows him. The helicopter lifts; the turbulence from its rotors tugs at Sherlock’s hair and clothes, and then the helicopter sweeps round and flies out into the dark.

Fifty minutes later, Sherlock’s standing beside the landing pad next to the hospital when the helicopters return. He knows what the first one is carrying the second it touches the ground. The medics wait for the wheels to settle fully, and pass the stretcher down with slow care. The body on it is completely wrapped in a heavily blood-stained blanket, the face covered. The next helicopter carries two bodies, the next two more. Men are gathering around the landing pad, watching as the stretchers are passed down and carried into the hospital. The dead men’s gear is handed down too, and piled in the tented area at one side of the hospital entryway.

The last helicopter hasn’t fully contacted the ground when the door is thrown open, and two medics jump down to receive the stretcher from other hands. John scrambles down alongside it, saline bag held aloft in one hand while the other presses to the blood-slicked skin of his patient’s neck. John is bare-headed, his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, and the cover of his body armor and the thighs of his combat pants are blood-stained.

“B positive,” he says loudly. “Tell me someone is pulling blood - pull blood.”

The stretcher is hurried across the pad to the entryway of the hospital.

“Come on, Lane, stay with me,” John says urgently to his patient.

“John,” Sherlock says, pushing as close to the stretcher as he can among the medics surrounding it. “I need - ”

Get away from us,” John snarls, twisting his head towards Sherlock but never taking his eyes off Lane.

Sherlock catches his breath sharply and steps back, even as the stretcher and its attendants are hurried through the double doors leading to the operating rooms.

 

July 11th

Sherlock’s stretched out on the bed, still clothed. The sky is just beginning starting to streak purple and gray, and the room is filled with a silvery half-light in anticipation of dawn. The door opens softly, and John comes in. He leans back, letting his weight carry the door shut again.

“John?” Sherlock says experimentally after significant interval of silence.

“He died,” John says. “Lane. He died. We’re oh for six on his patrol team.”

“Are you hurt?” Sherlock asks, sitting up and swinging his feet down onto the floor.

“What? No – no, none of this mine,” John says, looking down at himself. “Whatever happened was over by the time we got there.”

“What did happen?” Sherlock asks.

“Beats me,” John says, shaking his head. “They weren’t even on the perimeter, but – I guess the Taliban have got themselves a sniper school and some good quality night-scopes.”

“Harlow’s entire patrol is dead,” Sherlock says, “and no one else was even hurt.”

“You think they were killed because of the case,” John says.

Sherlock’s gaze flickers, an affirmation. John shoves himself off the door and takes a single stride towards Sherlock, then stops abruptly with his hands squeezed into fists at his sides.

“What’s the matter?” he snaps. “You think there isn’t enough death in this place already? You think we need an excuse for more?”

“John, I can’t reason to anything except a logical conclusion, no matter how much you might want me to,” Sherlock says coldly.

John twists away, pushing the heel of one hand hard against his forehead.

“I just - Christ, the entire fucking patrol,” he says. “I don’t even know what to do with that.”

Sherlock stands up and steps towards to him. John turns his face aside and curls his shoulder defensively. Sherlock moves past him, into the bathroom. He turns the sink faucet on, soaks a hand towel, and wrings it out.

“Sit down,” he says as he comes back out, towel in hand. “You’re covered in blood.”

John scowls, but he sits down on the edge of the bed that Sherlock has just vacated. Sherlock goes down on his knees beside him. Kneeling upright, he’s at eye-level with John sitting on the low bed. He takes hold of John’s wrist, turns it to expose the rust-red streaks of dried blood on the inside of his forearm, and starts wiping them away.

“Lane said they didn’t find anything,” John says quietly.

Sherlock’s hand stills on John’s arm.

“What?” he asks, very softly.

John swallows and then swipes his tongue across his lower lip.

“In the chopper, on the way back,” he says. “Lane said they didn’t go up the hillside - they never found those bodies.”

“He volunteered that?” Sherlock says doubtfully. “As he was dying he volunteered that information?”

“No. I - I asked him,” John grimaces, squeezing his eyes closed.

“I’ve heard - Christ, I have heard men try to empty their souls out. When they know it’s their last chance to tell someone - ”

He jerks his head around, glaring into Sherlock’s eyes.

“ - he kept saying tell my mum it’s okay, tell her it’s okay,” he says fiercely, “and I told him I would - if he told me about the four bodies they found outside Khush-i-Nakhud.”

Sherlock catches his breath and fumbles his hand around the curve of John’s neck to pull him closer. John turns his head and puts his forehead against Sherlock’s.

“He was dying,” he says, his voice steady but utterly ragged, “and I fucking leveraged that to get the truth out him.”

Sherlock slips his arm around John’s back, and brushes his lips over John's temple.

“He was dying, and I scared him and confused him because I knew you needed to know,” John says.

Sherlock bends his head, and for a moment they just lean together, breathing each other’s breath.

“I don’t understand,” John says more calmly. “If they didn’t find the bodies - if they didn’t see anything - why would someone kill them for what they didn’t see?”

"This case, everything's fake," Sherlock murmurs. "A fake atrocity, a fake report, a fake crime scene."

"Real killings," John says.

"It's light again," Sherlock says, glancing at the window.

"Where do you want to go?" John asks.

"How's your Dari?" Sherlock says, instead of answering John's question.

John frowns slightly, puzzled but also intrigued.

"Terrible," he says. "That's why I put up with Hinde's frankly awful marksmanship."

Chapter Text

July 11th, continued
Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar province

An hour later, the mess hall is more than half empty and strangely subdued even for the number of people in it. People sit in small, scattered groups, silent or talking very quietly. There isn’t much food on the tables and a lot of what there is is just being stared at or pushed about aimlessly. Sherlock spots John sitting alone, and eating with mechanical deliberateness. Sherlock walks over and sits down opposite him.

“How’s breakfast?” he asks, ticking the terminal ‘tee’ sound with great precision.

“I’m not sure I understand grits,” John says. “Are they porridge? And, if so, why do they come with cheese?”

He pushes his tray aside and looks Sherlock up and down.

“You haven’t slept,” he says.

“Neither have you,” Sherlock counters.

“I’m good for another twelve hours or so,” John says, “especially if there’s shooting - but somewhere around forty-eight hours I do tend to just fall over.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Sherlock says with a slight smile.

John glances around the mess hall.

“The story going around is that it was a friendly fire accident,” he says quietly.

“There were six men in Harlow’s patrol,” Sherlock frowns. “Four of them were shot in the head - precision shots, clearly all made at exactly the same instant when the targets were static and unalarmed. The other two, Barker and Lane, were shot in the chest and the stomach - messier shots, made after the first four, when the targets were in motion. So there were four shooters, well-coordinated in making those first shots, and then at least two of them made second shots. That’s not any kind of accident.”

John wipes his fingers firmly down over his mouth and chin.

“So, what now?” he asks, leaning towards Sherlock.

“I want to go back to the hills outside Khush-i-Nakhud,” Sherlock says.

“But there’s nothing to find, it’s all been burnt,” John says.

“Not that house,” Sherlock says, shaking his head, “the other ones, at the bottom of the hills. Maybe the people living there know why the house on the hill was important.”

“You want to question the neighbors,” John smiles.

Sherlock tips his head, doesn’t quite roll his eyes.

“It’s standard procedure for a detective - when you’re well and truly stuck,” he admits.

This time Sherlock puts his body armor on himself, though John tugs at it to assure himself that it’s taped tightly enough. When Bravo Baker section boards the helicopter, Sherlock hangs back without invitation to ride in the open doorway next to John, while Henn and one of McMath’s fire-team, Cullen, ride in the doorway on the other side.

The helicopter sets down some distance from the scattering of houses at the foot of the hills, east of Khush-i-Nakhud. Everyone climbs down from the helicopter, squinting against the dust and grit flung into the air by the still turning rotors. The helicopter lifts again and circles away. The section starts walking towards the houses, falling into the same arrangement as the previous day: Blackwood and Henn on either side and somewhat in front of Sherlock, John a hand’s reach behind his right shoulder, and Hinde a little farther back. McMath’s fire-team walks strung out in a line, farther off to the left.

Several Afghan men gather at the doorway of the nearest house. Everyone except Hinde halts. Hinde continues forwards right to the threshold of the house, where he greets the men standing in the shade of the doorway. At first they regard him in silence, but he keeps talking, twisting to display his sleeve and gesturing towards the rest of the group.

“What’s going on?” Sherlock murmurs.

“He’s making sure they know we’re British, and just passing through,” John says. “There’s probably been an American patrol through here already today – these guys are pissed because they think we’re going to come in and toss their house all over again.”

The Afghans are talking back at Hinde now, gesturing and shrugging and throwing their hands up. Hinde gestures and shrugs and spreads one hand placatingly, and eventually the Afghans begin to nod agreement.

“Let’s go,” John says, touching Sherlock’s arm.

They walk forwards to join Hinde and the Afghans, who look Sherlock over curiously. One of them says something that elicits nods and some slight smiles from the others.

“He says you look like a Pashtun,” Hinde explains.

“He’s right, you do,” John grins. “With a tan, and a beard, you’d look right at home in the Kush.”

One of the Afghans slices his fingers in front of his own eyes, and then in the air across Sherlock’s face, repeating a short phrase.

“Knife eyes,” Hinde supplies, and then when Sherlock looks puzzled, “it’s what they call pale colored eyes. They’re supposed to be keener.”

“Ask them about the house on the hillside, before he gets offered a wife or something,” John says.

Hinde relays the question, prompting a lot of talking and talking over.

“It’s – um, it belongs to the Ahadi family,” Hinde translates, “but when the fighting got bad, most of them went to Pakistan, some went into Helmand. One of the men is something big in the Afghan National Army though – a general.”

"He'd be short haired and clean-shaven," John says to Sherlock. "He could be our dead guy."

“Ask them if anyone’s been using the house recently,” Sherlock says to Hinde.

Hinde asks, and after a little discussion relays the answer.

“The general stayed here with some friends about three months ago.”

“What friends?” Sherlock prompts.

Hinde asks the question, and then repeats the answer a couple of times as if seeking confirmation.

“Two Americans - one of them was big army brass, too,” he says.

“An Afghan general who is friends with a high-ranking American, and no one has noticed he’s gone missing,” Sherlock says sourly. “You’re clearly translating that wrong. How good is your Dari, anyway?”

“Considering my parents are from Mumbai and I’m from Bristol, pretty shaggin’ good,” Hinde says. “You want to try yourself?”

“Hinde,” John warns.

“Yes sir, sorry sir,” Hinde says, and then to Sherlock, “I apologize, Mister Holmes, sir.”

“What about the house being burnt out? Do they know who did it?” Sherlock asks.

“Four men came in an unmarked helicopter,” Hinde says. “Nothing but a serial number on it - that means it was a private military contractor.”

Sherlock turns his head to stare up at the blackened ruin on the hillside.

“All right, I’m done here,” he says, glancing at John.

Hinde says something to the Afghans while John nods gravely, adding the weight of his rank to Hinde’s thanks. John’s fire-team turns and starts walking back with Sherlock towards the open ground where the helicopter left them. McMath’s fire-team lingers for another moment, and then follows.

“Not in the back,” Blackwood says lightly as they walk, “do not fucking shoot me in the back, thank you.”

Sherlock darts a sharp look at John, whose face is set in lines of implacable calm, but whose eyes are vivid with intensity. Sherlock looks away again, fixing his gaze on the helicopter as it circles in, and clenches his empty hands into fists at his sides.

 

“You got a printer,” John says, walking into their shared quarters a couple of hours later to find every surface hidden by a surf of paper.

“General Amar Ahadi,” Sherlock says, throwing several pages towards John. “No one missed him because he was on a week’s leave, not meant to be back at his post until tomorrow.”

John fumble-catches one page against his chest and turns it over. The picture is of two men, one fair and blunt-featured, one darkly blade-faced, caught in overlapping parallel profiles as they look at something out of frame.

“He was literally the poster-boy for Afghan-American cooperation,” Sherlock says. “There was a perfectly dreadful fluff-piece in the Times a while ago, about how his friendship with the American General Daniel Rost was an omen of good things for Afghanistan. It's horrible writing, just horrible, but they ran that picture with it. It's quite striking.”

John looks from the page in his hand to the folder lying open on one of the table. The photograph of Ahadi’s dead body is uppermost. The angle of Ahadi’s profile and its placement in the frame are almost identical in both pictures.

“Here's another picture from the same article,” Sherlock says, thrusting another page at John. “Recognize the setting?”

This picture shows Ahadi and Rost standing side by side, arms folded, smiling into bright sunlight. There’s a steep slope and a tumble of rocks behind them.

“That’s the hill outside Khush-i-Nakhud - they’re at the house that was burnt out,” John says.

“Those pictures were taken three months ago - when the Afghans said Ahadi had been there with his friend, the American general,” Sherlock says. “I suppose Hinde’s Dari isn’t that bad, after all.”

He twists away to survey the pages scattered across one of the beds.

“So,” he says, squaring his shoulders with a little jerk. “Timeline: the house at Khush-i-Nakhud was burnt down, then the women and children - and presumably the men, too - were killed in the house near Musa Qala. You found the women and children two days later, around mid-morning, but you didn’t file your report until that night - ”

“We got bogged down in an ambush at Musa Wadi,” John says. “I had to wait for an ammunition resupply before we could get moving again.”

“ - and later that night the report of the men’s bodies being found outside Khush-i-Nakhud appeared in the data stream, along with the photographs. The bodies were in the mortuary by then, though no one can quite locate the paperwork detailing who brought them in.”

“So, wait. The house at Khush-i-Nakhud, that’s Ahadi’s family home,” John says. “Someone wanted to make it look like he and his relatives were killed in their own house. Why?”

“No idea,” Sherlock grins. “And another thing, why Harlow’s patrol? Why choose to attribute the fake report to that particular group of men?”

“Does there have to be a specific reason?” John asks. “I mean, it was just a name to put on a fake report, right?”

“No,” Sherlock says. “Attributing the report to Harlow's patrol was only the first step. The second step was killing them so that couldn’t contradict the report. Picking Harlow’s patrol meant picking six men to be killed.”

“What happens now?” John asks quietly.

“I need to see the house near Musa Qala, where you found the women and children,” Sherlock says.

“You want me to take you into Sangin,” John says dubiously.

“Is this the part where you don’t want me to see where you live?” Sherlock smirks. “Are you - John, do you have a girlfriend?”

John laughs, ducking his head to hide the warmth in his eyes, but then he looks up sharply.

“Christ - do you?” he asks.

“John,” Sherlock says, retracting his chin in dismay at John’s obtuseness.

“Oh, right, no,” John says. “But - a boyfriend?”

“No, no complications,” Sherlock says. “Except for my work, and your war.”

“Dead straight forward, then,” John smiles.

"How soon can we go to Musa Qala?” Sherlock asks more seriously.

“In the morning,” John says. “I need sleep - I’m not taking you into that while I’m running on the last couple of hours of consciousness I’ve got left.”

Sherlock nods, frowning with impatience but bowing to the necessities of the situation.

“I’ll go and slate us for a chopper at first light,” John says.

He comes back a little later, carrying a flat, square metal box.

“There’s been a ban on journalists and other civilians in Helmand province for the last eight months,” he says. “We can’t undertake to keep them safe.”

“Well, that ban doesn’t apply to me, obviously,” Sherlock says tightly.

“I’m not arguing, I’m explaining,” John says. “This is for you.”

He flips the lid of the box, extracts the handgun inside, and sets the box aside.

“SIG Sauer P two two six,” he says. “Nice gun. I don’t really have the hands for it, but you do.”

He turns it over, offering it grip-first to Sherlock, who looks doubtful.

“Take it, it won’t bite,” John says.

Sherlock purses his mouth a little, but wraps his fingers around the grip and takes the gun from John’s hand.

“Yeah, look at that,” John smiles. “That could have been made for you.”

Sherlock tilts his hand, contemplating the fit between his own long fingers and the chunky grip.

“You ever used a gun?” John asks.

Sherlock shakes his head.

“Okay,” John says, curling his fingers over Sherlock’s. “First thing, to load it you need to drop the magazine – this button here, press that and it - ”

The bottom of the magazine slips out of the grip into John’s cupped palm.

“I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” he says in the same even, matter-of-fact tone as he presses the magazine back into place. “I swear to God, Sherlock, you're going to be all right – okay, you try it.”

“You can’t promise that,” Sherlock says, his eyes flickering towards John’s.

“I just did,” John says evenly. “Drop the magazine.”

Sherlock looks down, cupping his left palm to catch the bottom of the magazine as he presses the button himself.

The sky is darkening into night when John comes out of the bathroom to find Sherlock barefoot and sitting cross-legged on one of the beds. He’s practicing removing and replacing the magazine and slide of the SIG, his large hands moving around the bulky, blunt metal with increasing certainty and speed. John leans one shoulder against the open doorway.

“That is easily the sexiest bloody thing I have ever seen,” he says.

Sherlock smiles at him, slots the gun together one more time, and sets it down on the table. John pushes away from the doorway, pulling his tee-shirt off over his head and throwing it on the other bed. He sits down beside Sherlock, twisting and leaning so that he’s half-reclining across Sherlock’s thighs. He catches his identity tags in one hand and flips them over his shoulder, then he leans forwards to dip his face into the open neck of Sherlock’s coarse cotton shirt.

“You smell fucking gorgeous,” he murmurs, one tanned and callused hand slipping inside Sherlock’s shirt-collar.

Sherlock shifts, unfolding his legs so that they bracket John’s hips, and leaning back to draw John more directly on top of him. John growls softly, nudging his mouth into the underside of Sherlock’s jaw, then into the pulse beating at the base of his throat. Sherlock hums, already moving restlessly under him. John fingers a shirt button open, and then another. He pushes cloth aside and rubs his mouth across one soft nipple. Sherlock gasps, splaying his hand around the back of John's skull.

John mouths over the same sensitive spot until the flesh peaks and tightens, then shifts across Sherlock’s body. He fingers the nipple he’s just left, while he uses his mouth to rouse the other one.

“John,” Sherlock groans, slipping his hand down to the nape of John’s neck. “Oh, that's good.”

John lifts his head, eyes dark and thin lips reddened. Sherlock arches deliberately, pushing his erection against John’s stomach.

“There are a million things I want to do to you,” John says.

“And I want you to do them all,” Sherlock grins breathlessly.

John shifts back, undoes Sherlock’s belt, and unbuttons his pants. Sherlock squirms helpfully, rocking from one hip to the other as John strips his pants and underwear down his thighs. They separate enough for John to drag Sherlock’s clothing down his shins and off his feet, then John swarms over him, his clothes rasping against Sherlock's bare skin. They blunder open-mouthed at each other, but before they can shape anything as subtle as a kiss, John shifts lower again and Sherlock arches greedily under him.

Sherlock’s cock is rigid, lifting out of the hollow of his belly as he tilts his hips. John skims his hands over Sherlock’s skin, and bends his head to drag his mouth over the sharp tip of Sherlock’s hipbone.

“God, yes,” Sherlock says, twisting to the side, trying to bring his cock to John’s mouth.

John presses one forearm across Sherlock’s stomach to pin him down, and with the other hand captures Sherlock's cock and guides it to his open mouth. Sherlock’s breath explodes in a sharp, low-voiced gasp. John closes his eyes as he closes his mouth over Sherlock’s glans. Sherlock groans, a big brazen rumble of sound that makes John lift his head again and gesture with a finger on his lips. Sherlock shakes his head fiercely, but he grits his teeth and exhales with exaggerated control as John bends and takes Sherlock's cock into his mouth again. John hums his own pleasure, making Sherlock shiver appreciatively. John slides his thumb down the crease of Sherlock’s groin and back up into the cleft of his behind. Sherlock spreads his thighs and tilts eagerly into the touch. John pulls back, letting Sherlock's cock fall from his mouth.

“Hold that thought,” he says as he climbs over Sherlock’s leg and off the bed.

Sherlock turns his head to watch as John digs into his pack and extract the tube of Vaseline. John comes back, straddles into the space between Sherlock’s legs, and shifts down onto his stomach again.

“Where was I?” he says with a sly smile. “Oh, right.”

He clicks the tube open, slicks the fingertips of his left hand, and tosses the tube aside. It falls against the long shallow curve of Sherlock’s shin. John shoulders down between Sherlock’s thighs and strokes his fingers up the cleft between his buttocks. He pushes two fingertips in, twisting a little, and then crooking and sliding the length of his fingers deep. Sherlock inhales shakily through clenched teeth; John drops his head to Sherlock’s hip and groans softly.

“Oh Jesus,” he whispers.

Sherlock reaches down to brush his fingers through John’s hair. John moves his hand, a twisting withdrawal and then a smooth push in that makes Sherlock throw his head back and squeeze his eyes closed. His body curls possessively against John’s, his hand slipping down to the fleshy place between John’s shoulder blades, one knee tilting over the small of John's back.

“Yes. Oh God, that’s good,” he whines.

John turns his head to one side, pressing kisses to the inside of Sherlock’s thigh.

“More?” he asks softly.

Sherlock nods, the slide of his head on the pillow just a wisp of sound. John takes Sherlock’s cock into his mouth again, and starts to suck softly, the pull of it working in slow unison with the push of his fingers at first, and then the tempo picking up, roughening, until Sherlock is arching his back and spreading his thighs as wide as the narrow bed will allow.

“Oh God, I need - ” Sherlock gasps. “John - ”

John takes his arm from across Sherlock’s stomach and brings that hand to cover Sherlock’s balls, tugging them down and squeezing them enough to make Sherlock squirm against the pressure.

“Oh my God,” Sherlock moans. “Oh God.”

John’s rocking his own hips, rubbing himself against the bedclothes as he works Sherlock’s body with both hands and his mouth. Sherlock twists his head from side to side, fevered, half-frantic from the crush of pleasure pinning him in place. He starts to shake, quick delicate tremors running counter to the slow strong tense and release of his thighs and back. John lifts his head; Sherlock gasps at the sudden loss of John's mouth around his glans.

“Do you want to come like this?” John asks.

“No - inside me,” Sherlock says. “I want to come with you inside me.”

John growls, rubbing his face against Sherlock’s hip. He shifts upwards, his fingers still pushed into Sherlock’s body.

“Yeah,” he murmurs, his gaze skimming up over Sherlock’s sweat-shined chest and neck to his flushed face. “Let me fuck you.”

He dips and brushes his lips against Sherlock’s. Sherlock is breathing in hard-edged gasps that sound almost like sobs. John pulls his fingers slowly from Sherlock’s body, kneels up, undoes his belt and his fly buttons, and shoves his pants down his thighs. He pushes down his underwear, picks up the tube of Vaseline, and stripes some out onto his left palm. He slicks himself with absolutely efficiency, hissing his breath in impatiently and then wiping his hand on his bare hip. He lies down again between Sherlock’s thighs and tucks one hand under Sherlock’s hip, guiding him upwards.

Sherlock plants his feet and tilts his hips up. John leans in, guiding the head of his cock into the already slick cleft of Sherlock's behind. John pushes, the broad muscles of his back rolling under his skin as he twists his hips, and then pushes again.

“John, oh God,” Sherlock says, his body shaking with the sweetness of the first stretch.

John's eyelids slide almost closed, and his breath comes slow and tidal as he rocks a little, and pushes in farther. Sherlock arches, and then falls back again.

“Jesus,” John murmurs, “oh fucking Jesus - Sherlock.”

Sherlock winds an arm across John’s back, his fingernails digging into the tattoo on John's left shoulder.

“You feel so good around me,” John says, dragging slowly back and then driving in again.

Sherlock cries out softly, his voice high and thin for want of breath.

“Put your hands on the wall,” John says. “Keep this stupid bed from making a racket.”

Sherlock nods frantically, and slaps both hands to the wall. John moves again, his whole torso - shoulders and back and hips - working the slow withdrawal and sharp return. Sherlock’s breath breaks, and he writhes luxuriously.

“Fuck,” John whispers. “Oh fuck. Jesus, so sweet - so good.”

Sherlock blinks sweat out of his eyes, and bites his lip to stifle the sounds that cluster in his throat. John’s body ripples, rocks, shapes each stroke carefully until the two of them are moving together smoothly. Sherlock drops one hand from the wall and takes hold of his cock, rubbing his foreskin around his glans in concert with the movement of their bodies. John stares down into his face, eyes wide and dark.

“Christ,” he whispers.

“I know,” Sherlock says on a sharp exhale.

John drops his head, his gaze moving between Sherlock’s fist around his cock, and the slide of John’s cock behind his balls. Sherlock’s hand moves faster, short flurries of strokes interspersed with brief pauses. His body tenses, and John’s hips kick sharply.

“I’m close,” Sherlock says breathlessly.

John groans, his spine bowing above Sherlock. Sherlock loosens his grip on himself, strokes lightly along his shaft. John glances up at him, questioning and then grinning as he understands.

“I’m right there,” Sherlock says, his voice deeper than ever. “Tell me when.”

John nods. He drops his head again, staring at the intersection of their bodies as he thrusts. Sherlock closes his hand around himself again, works a few brisk strokes and lets go again.

“Fuck, yes,” John says. “I’m there – Sherlock, I’m right there, come on - come with me.”

Sherlock grips himself and pumps rapidly. His body arches, rigid, and then shatters into orgasm even as John gives a low, rough groan that widens into a breathy gasp of relief. Sherlock’s semen pulses out between his fingers and slides across his stomach as John drops his forehead on Sherlock's chest.

“Christ,” John says shakily. “Oh, Christ.”

Sherlock’s gasping for breath. He drops his hand from the wall and folds both arms around John’s shoulders. John eases down on top of him, eyes closed and brows folded into a slight frown. Gradually their breathing evens, and they ease against each other, and for a while they lie together as if the narrow bed really can hold them both.

Chapter Text

July 12th
Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar

Before they leave, John takes a black sharpie and very neatly writes HOLMES across the upper right chest of Sherlock’s body armor. Then he shows Sherlock how to half-fasten the armor's tapes before threading the straps of a black webbing shoulder holster through and fastening everything off tight, so the holster is snug against his left side. The bulk of the SIG in its holster makes Sherlock hold himself a little differently, shoulders pressed farther back so his upper arm lies slightly behind the protruding grip of the gun. John moves in as close to Sherlock as the bulk of their clothing and armor will allow, and puts both hands on Sherlock’s hips.

“It suits you,” he murmurs, his sandy fair eyelashes dipping and then lifting as he glances from Sherlock’s mouth to his eyes.

Sherlock rumbles a soft sound of appreciation and arousal. John flicks the tip of his tongue across his own lips, but then steps back crisply.

“Let’s roll,” he says.

After the high desert plains of Kandahar, riding a helicopter along the valley of the Helmand River is a revelation. Patches of scrubby green growth dot the ground, and deeper greenery marks the semi-regular grid of irrigation canals and the long sweeping curves of the river course. House compounds are surrounded by dusty shade trees, and the fields that bear thick veils of white or pink flowers are surrounded by thick hedgerows and copses of gray-green trees. There’s a deep thudding some way ahead, and several columns of smoke rise into the sky. Sherlock looks questioningly at John.

“Couple of MK eighty-twos,” John says, raising his voice to be heard. “Five hundred pound bombs - the plane that dropped them is long gone by the time they hit the ground.”

At midsummer, the Helmand river is a café-au-lait brown band of sluggishly flowing water between steep, broad banks. Forward Operating Base Sangin is a compound delineated on three sides by walls of stacked sandbags, and on the fourth by the river itself. A number of fair-sized buildings – including a couple of tile-roofed and plaster-walled houses, but rather more structures with sandbag walls and corrugated plastic roofs - cluster inside the compound, together with numerous tents that have accrued such trappings of semi-permanence as water barrels and wooden walkways. Pale camouflage painted vehicles in various states of function and dysfunction are scattered inside and immediately outside the compound walls, together with artillery pieces. Every roof that isn’t canvas carries an array of antennae and satellite dishes. The helicopter sets down on a small concrete pad in one corner of the compound, and everyone piles out into the clouds of dust boiling in the rotors’ draft.

“Be it ever so humble,” John says, hefting his gear onto one shoulder.

He walks across the compound to the largest sandbagged building, with Sherlock following him. They stoop through a low doorway into a warren of narrow hallways walled in stacked sandbags, roofed in corrugated plastic, and lit by bare fluorescent tubes with the wiring festooned loosely from one to another. They pass door-less doorways giving onto offices, lounges, and odd alcoves where soldiers idle or clean weapons or pore over laptops.

“Honey, I'm home,” John announces to no one in particular as they emerge into a large open-plan office area.

The operational command looks like a violent collision between telephone sales, air traffic control, and online war gaming. A wall-mounted, wide-screen television shows footage of open ground skimming by at high speed, with an occasional stand of trees or a collection of houses flicking past. The rest of the walls are festooned with terrain photographs, maps, and whiteboards used to keep track of every unit currently outside the compound.

“Well, if it isn’t our good Doctor Watson, back from parts foreign,” the officer at the nearest computer says. “How was Bastion?”

“Fantastic. They have taps in the walls and water comes out of them,” John says, lowering his gear to the floor. “Sherlock, this is Captain George Leonard, Queen's Dragoons. George, this is Sherlock Holmes.”

“You don’t look like a contractor,” Leonard says to Sherlock as they shake hands.

“He’s not, he’s a consultant,” John says. “We want to go onto the ground just west of the Musa Qala township line – how’s the weather today?”

“Oh, light to moderate Taliban,” Leonard says, “and a decent chance of getting mortared by the Twenty-Ninth. They’ve hit one of their own supply pallets already this morning.”

Sherlock glances at John.

“No, really, we absolutely know what we’re doing,” John grins.

“You going?” Leonard asks John.

“Yeah,” John says. “It’s not like it’ll be any better another time.”

“Chopper?” Leonard asks.

“No, it’ll only make it obvious we’ve got something valuable,” John says. “Vehicles as close as the road can take us, and we’ll walk the rest of the way in.”

“You think they’re not going to notice you?” Leonard says skeptically.

“I think they’re not going to start a fight right off,” John says. “They’ll come sniffing around, but the house compound is a decently defensible position – we’ll only need to get serious with them when we want to leave again.”

“All right,” Leonard says. “Though sooner you than me.”

“A chopper for the return trip would be nice,” John says, “assuming we can make it safe enough for a chopper to come down.”

“Honestly, I wouldn’t be too tender of them,” Leonard says, deadpan. “We had two fall out of the air for no good reason at all yesterday – no one hurt, thanks be, but it goes to show there’s no bloody trade-in value left on those things at all. So we might as well just use them up.”

John laughs, but stops abruptly when he glances at Sherlock, who’s looking at him with some uncertainty.

“He’s joking,” John says.

“About using the choppers up,” Leonard says, “but not about them falling out of the sky.”

“Thank you, George,” John says.

“Welcome to Sangin, Mister Holmes,” Leonard grins. “Don’t step on anything explosive.”

John leans over the top of Leonard’s computer monitor and shoves him in the forehead.

“Come on, Sherlock,” he says, lifting his gear again. “I’ll show you to your suite.”

They walk out of the operations building, and into the sandbagged building next to it. Sherlock follows John down another maze of narrow, low hallways, then through an open doorway hung with a canvas curtain, and down a couple of steps that facilitate the ceiling of the room being a full seven and a half feet above the floor. The room is about ten feet by fourteen, and largely occupied by a red velvet couch. At the end of the room farthest from the doorway, the sandbag walls form a slightly enclosed niche, with a another canvas curtain strung across it but pulled aside to reveal a cot bed and a folding camp stool doing service as a bedside table. Sherlock looks around in obvious disbelief.

“Before you say anything,” John says tightly, “I want you to know - these are Major Burrows’ quarters. This is what the commanding officer gets, and he’s giving it to you.”

Sherlock throws him a frowning glance, as if he can’t understand why John is telling him something so utterly irrelevant at precisely this moment.

“The couch, John,” he says. “How? No, wait, not how - why?”

John exhales so hard through an open-mouthed grin that he sounds like he’s been punched.

“How?” he laughs. “The same way every other thing you see here came in - by chopper. Why?”

He pauses, clearly marshaling his thoughts, as if he’s about to convey a principle so fundamental and all-permeating that he’s never had to clothe it in words before. He rolls his tongue against his lower lip, then nods fractionally, and says,

“We don’t have running water. In a dust storm, we don’t have power or radio or satellite communication. If we want to wash we do it in river water, and except for three weeks in early spring that water isn’t see-through. For eight months of the year the ground is too hard to dig latrines, so we shit into a plastic bag.”

He looks up at Sherlock with fierce good-humor flashing in his eyes.

“The couch is here because we could get it here,” he says triumphantly, as Sherlock grins down at him.

 

The Land Rovers stop where the district road passes south of the house compound in which John found the women and children, five days earlier. Everyone climbs down, and the vehicles turn, bumping into the ditch at the side of the narrow dirt road and hauling back out again, and then drive away. The compound is a bit more than a mile away across open ground.

“The second biggest crop around here is landmines," John says to Sherlock. "I’ll be walking in front of you. Follow the path I take. Don’t get too close to me – this is one time when proximity can’t help you and it could get you killed if I’m unlucky. If anything feels odd underfoot, stop moving. A mine doesn't kill you when you step on it; it kills you when you step off again.”

Sherlock nods, his expression taut but more with interest than anxiety. John looks up at him, pleasure and approval making his eyes vivid.

They cross the open ground and approach the gateway in the compound wall, which is shaded by trees. On the far side of the compound is a field of billowing white poppies, and beyond that again a thick hedgerow interspersed with more trees. Each man peers keenly at the cover provided by the hedgerow as he passes through the gateway into the compound, but nothing moves except for a faint swaying of leaves on a wisp of breeze.

“Sherlock, stay put,” John says when they're all inside the compound. “McMath, Blackwood, clear the ground.”

John and Sherlock stay by the compound wall, while everyone else disperses to check that the house and outbuildings are still unoccupied. There’s the crunch of boots on grit, and the bang of doors thrown open, and echoed shouts of clear and clear. Blackwood emerges out of the main door of the house, his hand clasped over his nose and mouth.

“Clear but – fuck it, that smell is not getting any better,” he says as he walks back to where John and Sherlock are waiting.

“You want to see this?” John says wearily to Sherlock.

“Not yet,” Sherlock says, his gaze skimming the exterior of the house. “Let's look upstairs, first.”

John leads the way across the courtyard to the house, and through an archway to a steep flight of exterior stairs. At the top of the stairs is a small veranda and doorway leading into a room with windows on three sides, shading by the deeply overhanging eaves of the house. The room is pleasantly furnished with rugs on the wooden floor, overlaid by a number of floor cushions interspersed by several small tables holding glasses still sticky with residue and some half empty bottles.

“Eight cushions,” Sherlock says, pulling a pair of blue nitrile gloves on. “Ahadi and his three relatives, and four other men, I'm guessing. I see the party was just beginning when the Ahadis were killed.”

“How do you - ” John begins.

“Drinks, but no food,” Sherlock says. “The meal hadn’t been brought up yet.”

“No, I meant – it doesn’t look like four men were murdered in here,” John says.

“No, it doesn’t, does it?” Sherlock says with a slight smile. “But they were.”

He stoops, touching one gloved fingertip to a small dark mark, almost invisible against the pattern of the rug underfoot.

“Bloodstain, not spatter,” he says. “The body probably fell sideways off the cushion; the exit wound contacted the rug directly.”

“There’s a mark on this cushion,” John says, crouching down to peer at the purple cotton cover.

“Yes, good,” Sherlock says.

“That was a hell of a surprise attack,” John says, as they both straighten up again.

“Apparently,” Sherlock frowns. “Let’s look downstairs.”

As they come down the exterior stairs, Hinde appears in the archway, holding a radio handset to one ear.

“I’ve got icom chatter,” he says. “They know we’re here.”

“Any idea where they are?” John asks.

“They can see us, but they must be in cover – somewhere in the trees or the hedgerows.”

“Okay, let me know if anything changes,” John says.

Hinde steps back out into the courtyard. John and Sherlock turn aside under the archway, walk along the front of the house, and through the main door into the room where John found the bodies of the women and children. The bodies have been removed, and one or two pieces of fallen furniture have been returned to their places, but otherwise the room is as John left it. The tiled floor is stained black in places by congealed blood; the walls are splashed and slashed with it, and in places smeared hand-prints are clearly visible, rust red against creamy white plaster. The smell is, incredibly, even fouler than that first day, despite the absence of the corpses. There’s a stronger undertone of pure rot, now.

There are broken earthenware dishes disgorging rotting food on the floor, and metal plates and cups scattered about, too. Flies crowd thickly over everything, and the pieces of fallen fruit have turned to writhing masses of maggots. John cups his hand across his nose and mouth. Sherlock crouches down, head tilting as he contemplates the corners of the room, then he stands and surveys the walls carefully.

"All right," he says after a moment.

He walks out, John following. They both breath deeply, trying to wash the smell out of their nostrils with cleaner air.

“The men were killed first,” Sherlock says, stripping his gloves off again. “There were no signs of struggle in that room, and we already know there were four shooters from the way Harlow’s patrol was killed. So, four men who were welcomed into the house, and trusted so deeply that they were able to bring guns into the upstairs room. There was no altercation, no warning. They simply drew and fired, all of them at the same instant.”

“The women and children must have heard that,” John says. “But they didn’t bar the door.”

“No, I don’t think they understood what had happened,” Sherlock frowns. “Four shoots that tightly timed, it must have sounded like an explosion.”

“And then the men who’d killed their husbands went in there and started killing them and their children,” John says thinly

“The women and children obviously knew who the killers were,” Sherlock says. “They could have identified them, so they had to be killed, too.”

“They switched to knives for the women and children. Why?” John asks.

“There were five women and three children in that room,” Sherlock says, and his gaze flickers slightly. “They were terrified, and trying to escape.”

John groans, drops his head up and back.

“Ricochets,” he says. “Misses – it’d be too easy to hit one of your own in that kind of chaos.”

“So they took out knives and waded in,” Sherlock nods. “Messy, but the wiser way to do it.”

“Whoever did this,” John says huskily, “the rest of it is – but, you know, this - ”

“No,” Sherlock says emphatically. “Whoever did this didn’t care about the women and children or this house. They’re not part of the message.”

“I don’t give a fuck about the message,” John snaps.

Sherlock tilts back, opening up the space between them for a second, but then leans in again.

“Well, I do,” he says sharply, “because that’s how I’ll figure out what this is all for and that’s how I’ll figure out who did this.”

John stares up into Sherlock’s face, frowning hard and blowing his breath through his nostrils, but after a minute or two his expression softens and he nods a little grudgingly.

“Okay. Good,” Sherlock says. “I’ve got everything there is to get here.”

“Doc, they’ve just about wound themselves up to do this thing,” Hinde calls.

Even as he says it, there’s a sharp crackle of gunfire from the trees beyond the poppy field outside the compound.

“Just in time for tea,” John says drily, thumbing the radio control on his chest. “This is Two Two One Bravo Baker requesting immediate off from our present position, but that chopper needs to stand off until we clear the ground a bit, over.”

There’s another heavy flurry of gunfire, trailing off into single shots and then silence.

“Cullen, sling an RPG into the trees. See if it’ll knock them loose,” John says.

John gestures Sherlock aside as Cullen moves forwards, shoulders a launcher and fires. The back-blast is strong enough to throw a plume of smoke past Sherlock and John, and then there’s a solid thump and bang as the rocket hits and explodes among the trees. Henn whoops with satisfaction. There’s a few seconds silence, and then the sharp clean cracks of small arms fire are renewed from the cover of the trees. McMath shoulders his rifle, as does the rest of his fire-team, and they move slightly out of the cover of the compound wall and start to return fire. John’s fire-team hang back a bit, surrounding Sherlock. Incoming rounds clip the dirt and the trees along the compound wall just in front of them.

“Is that hailstones?” Henn says as the pattering and smacking increases in intensity.

“Back it up,” John says cheerfully.

They move back along the wall enough to get out of the immediate zone of incoming fire. There’s a bang and then a sort of ripping sound and a white cloud surges among the trees.

“Incoming,” John says loudly, pushing Sherlock in against the wall a bit more.

There’s a streak of white off to their left and then the thud and boom of a rocket exploding on the open ground behind them. A plume of beige-gray smoke trails upwards.

“That was a bloody awful shot,” Blackwood says, his expression pained.

John leans one shoulder against the compound wall and touches his radio control.

“This is Two Two One Bravo Baker, we’re taking some RPG and small arms fire from a wooded area just north of our position,” he says pleasantly. “If you could put Air on that, that would lovely, over.”

McMath’s fire-team continue to return fire. Hinde and Henn crouch down, leaning their backs against the compound wall. Blackwood stays on his feet, but he lets his rifle tilt down. John is still leaning his shoulder against the wall, watching McMath’s team with idle interest. Sherlock, after looking at everyone with a slightly disbelieving frown, crouches down next to Henn. Henn grins at him.

There’s a steady beat of engines and rotors from behind them. They look up to see their transport helicopter circling overhead.

“Strafe in one,” John says, touching his radio earpiece just as they hear the smoother drone of an Apache’s engines.

The Apache is a sleeker, more insect-like machine than the Pumas used for personnel transport. It crosses above them, left to right, and the open ground between the compound and the trees starts to spurt up in sudden clouds of dust. There’s a noise like something splitting, over and over as the ground churns under a broad band of intense fire. The trees begin to lash, bits of wood showering out of the branches, leaves flying up and falling down again.

The lower, choppier sound of their transport helicopter grows louder. John glances round to see it stooping steeply down towards the poppy field. The gunfire from among the trees starts up again, rounds cracking and whining as they hit the ground or the trees or the compound wall.

“He’s coming in close,” Henn beams. “Good man.”

“He’s just worried about them hitting him with an RPG,” John smirks. “He knows they won’t risk blowing him up in the middle of the sodding dope.”

“Are you going to send me with Hinde again?” Sherlock asks.

“God, no,” John says, “I’m not leaving anyone behind in this. We’re all going together.”

Sherlock grins.

“Back by teams,” John says. “Sherlock, stay behind me, but if you want to put some more miles on that SIG, now would be a good time.”

Sherlock glances at him, but John’s attention is on firing an uneven beat of rounds as he backs up briskly. Sherlock backs too, slipping the SIG from its holster and swinging it up, his arm extended. He thumbs off the safety catch, aims towards the flashes among the trees, and squeezes the trigger. His hand jerks upwards a little as the gun recoils. He keeps backing, aims and fires again, and this time the gun stays steady in his hand.

Hinde has run most of the way to the helicopter and is down on one knee, firing back towards the trees. Sherlock, John, Blackwood, and Henn move as a fairly compressed group, firing steadily. McMath’s fire-team is hanging back, firing too. John glances over his shoulder, judging the distance to the helicopter.

“Alpha Team break and run,” he calls.

He grabs Sherlock, shoves him around, and then pushes him in the direction of the helicopter.

“Just run!” he snaps.

Sherlock takes off, scrambling over the rough ground. John’s right behind him. Sherlock runs past Hinde, and leaps up into the open bay of the helicopter. John slams to a stop right at the helicopter door, turns, and starts firing again. Blackwood and Henn are just a couple of yards farther off, firing too, and McMath’s team is running in, heads down and not stopping until they’re jumping into the helicopter.

“Go go go,” John is yelling as Blackwood and Henn jump aboard, and the helicopter lurches up from the ground. John and Hinde throw themselves up into the doorway, and the others grab at them, haul them up as they kick and climb and then collapse onto the floor of the helicopter bay.

“That was awesome,” Henn crows.

“How many of those sods were there in that hedge?” Blackwood says. “That was some serious bloody fire-power.”

“Christ, I am too old for this shit,” John laughs breathlessly as he rolls up onto his elbows and then his knees. “Sherlock - you okay?”

“I’m – I’m fine,” Sherlock says with a smirk. “You’re insane. You’re completely insane.”

“Yeah, well - you’re up here with us,” John beams.

 

Sherlock has taped the photographs from the manila file folder to the sand-bag walls of his borrowed quarters, together with the printed out pictures of Ahadi and Rost together at the house on the hillside, and pictures of the six men from Harlow’s patrol. He’s pacing back and forth in front of the red velvet couch, glaring at the pictures while he taps two fingertips vigorously against the tip of his chin. John is sitting at one end of the couch with his laptop on his knees.

Why?” Sherlock says furiously. “Why Ahadi? Why that house? Why Harlow’s patrol? There’s something I’m not seeing.”

“Oh, God,” John says softly, not looking up from the laptop's screen. “Barker – one of the guys from Harlow’s patrol – his brother was killed in Iraq a year ago. His picture was in the New York Times.”

“How did he die?” Sherlock asks sharply.

“Oh, IED – just – bad fucking luck,” John says.

“Why was his picture in the Times?” Sherlock presses, coming to look over John’s shoulder.

“No particular reason, just – who the hell knows why some deaths attract more attention,” John says. “It’s all journalists, God knows what they – Hinde was in the Observer Magazine this year. The article wasn’t even about us, it was about some bunch down in Lashkar Gah, but someone liked that picture I guess and - ”

“Oh,” Sherlock says, taking a half step back. “Oh.”

John looks up at him in frowning concern.

“John, I’m – horrified at your bad judgment,” Sherlock says, turning towards the gallery of pictures again.

“What did I do?” John asks indignantly.

“You fell for a complete idiot,” Sherlock grinds. “I’ve been looking at it – literally looking at it.”

“At what?” John demands.

“What’s different about Hinde?” Sherlock says. “What makes him stand out in a crowd?”

“He’s … Desi? He’s even taller than you?” John hazards.

“God, I don’t have to worry about you straying, do I?” Sherlock says in dismay. “He’s handsome - really handsome.”

“So - ” John says doubtfully.

“Harlow, he looked like a film star,” Sherlock says, flipping the edge of one picture with his fingertips. “Barker – of course his brother’s picture was in the Times, what’s more heartbreaking than the death of a beautiful young man? And Lane – God, Ahadi, he looked like something from a Kipling story.”

John stares at him, confused but wide-eyed and open-mouthed in fascination.

“I said the process wasn’t important to them, what mattered was the product,” Sherlock says, snatching the pictures of Ahadi’s body and of Ahadi and Rost together off the wall, “but the product wasn’t the bodies. It was the photographs. The framing, the angle of Ahadi’s profile – it’s the same in both photographs and that isn’t a coincidence – the photograph of Ahadi’s corpse was taken to match the one of him with Rost. The house on the hillside was important because it was the house where those photographs were taken – what could be more poignant than that house being the scene of the murder?”

“But - ” John says, shaking his head in bemusement.

We did this,” Sherlock quotes. “It’s not a message, it’s not a warning, it’s a headline. What editor in his right mind would run a different phrase over these pictures? God, it’s brilliant; they’ve handcrafted this atrocity for publication.”

“But – they’re trying to cover it up.”

“No, they’re not,” Sherlock grins. “They burnt out the house that wasn’t where the men were murdered. They killed Harlow’s patrol who didn’t find the bodies. They’re making it look like there’s a cover-up. What could possibly add more scandal to Ahadi’s death? A murderous attempt at a cover-up.”

John wipes his hand down over his mouth.

“But – we still don’t know who did this,” he scowls. “Someone Ahadi and his family knew, and trusted but - ”

“Rost,” Sherlock breathes.

Rost killed them?” John gapes.

Sherlock’s eyes – distant with revelation, snap back into focus.

“Tell me that isn’t really what you think,” he says.

“Uh - no,” John says, his intonation chaotic with confusion.

“What’s the one thing that could make these two pictures more horrifying?” Sherlock demands, shaking the pictures of Ahadi’s corpse and Ahadi with Rost.

“If Rost was the killer,” John insists. “If he’d turned on Ahadi and then – Christ – if he’d killed his own soldiers to cover it up.”

“Exactly,” Sherlock says triumphantly.

“But when I said just said that and you got all - pissy,” John protests.

“You said Rost was the killer,” Sherlock says. “I’m saying they’re going to make it look like Rost is the killer.”

“But we don’t know who,” John says helplessly.

“Oh, come on,” Sherlock almost shouts. “They’re going to frame him for murder – it’s someone who has access to Rost, someone he trusts – and someone Ahadi trusted. That can’t be such a terribly long list of people.”

“What do we do?” John asks.

“Warn Rost,” Sherlock says, pulling his phone out of his hip pocket. “Get a message to him.”

Sherlock’s phone buzzes abruptly in his hand. Sherlock frowns in surprise, but seeing the caller ID he answers at once.

“Mycroft, don’t talk, listen,” he snaps. “They’re going to frame General Daniel Rost for the killings – it has to be someone close to him - ”

He stops, lips shaped for the next syllable but eyes dilating out of focus as Mycroft speaks.

“What is it?” John says.

Sherlock blinks at him, a silent acknowledgement of the question while he listens to Mycroft.

“I see,” Sherlock says absently. “I’ll – we’ll be there as soon as we can.”

He cuts the call.

“Rost was found dead in a hotel room in Kabul a few minutes ago,” he says flatly.

“Bloody hell,” John says. “How?”

“They’re saying it was suicide,” Sherlock says. “That he shot himself in the head.”

“But you don’t believe that,” John says.

“Come on, John,” Sherlock says with the ghost of a smile in his eyes. “You don’t believe it, either.”

“No, I don’t,” John says. “Are we going to Kabul?”

Sherlock’s smile firms a little, touches the corners of his mouth.

“Yes. Kabul.”

Chapter Text

July 12th, continued
Kabul City, Kabul province

The Serena Hotel looks much like any five-star hotel, if one disregards the waist-high concrete blast-barriers that almost completely surround it at ground level, and the heavily armed security personnel who search every vehicle before it’s permitted to take the ramp into the car park. The hotel lobby and the spacious lounge and restaurant areas are primarily populated by men in quasi-military clothing, many of them openly wearing a handgun, and by significant numbers of high-ranking military personnel in uniform.

Sherlock, John, and Hinde have their identification carefully examined by security guards at the hotel’s main entrance. The packs that John and Hinde carry, together with Sherlock’s backpack, are thoroughly searched. No one, however, questions the acceptability of Sherlock having the SIG in its shoulder holster under his unbuttoned bush jacket, or of John and Hinde wearing their handguns in their hip holsters.

“Rost came in alone,” Sherlock says, as they take the elevator up to the third floor. “He’d been in the room a couple of hours when the shot was heard. There was quite a bit of confusion in the hallway – it was lucky someone else wasn’t hurt. There are entirely too many firearms among the guests, if you ask me. Eventually a hotel employee thought to check the room where the guest hadn’t come out brandishing a weapon. He found Rost.”

The three of them step out of the elevator and walk down the hallway. There’s an American Marine standing at an open doorway, together with an Afghan in black pants, white shirt, and black bowtie. The American exchanges a brief nod of acknowledgement with John and Hinde as they drop their packs next to the door.

Inside the room, another American Marine is standing at the foot of the king-sized bed, on which Rost’s body - dressed in khaki pants and a white tee-shirt - lies face-up with a handgun next to it. There’s a reddish-black hole in the underside of Rost’s jaw, beneath the chin. The words I DID THIS have been carved into the skin on the inside of his left forearm.

Sherlock glances at the body, lowers his backpack to the floor, and looks around the room. It’s generously sized; as well as the bed and dresser, there’s a chair and a spacious desk with a closed laptop on it, and beyond that a couch and armchair grouped around a coffee table. There’s a dispersed splatter of blood across the floor behind the desk chair. Sherlock looks up at the ceiling, and spots the bullet hole in the textured white plaster.

“He was found on the bed?” he asks doubtfully.

“We moved him,” the Marine nearest the door says.

“Oh, good thinking,” Sherlock says. “I’m sure he’s more comfortable there. Hinde, ask him how the body was positioned when it was found.”

“He was sitting up at the desk, with his head bent down,” Hinde translates after an exchange in Dari with the Afghan, who bends his chin towards his chest in illustration.

“All right, everyone out except John and Hinde,” Sherlock says.

The Afghan leaves a soon as Hinde relays the dismissal, but the Marines are clearly reluctant to obey.

“Don’t worry, I’ll call you if he needs anything,” Sherlock says, his hand on the door.

The Marines throw John a significant look, but he just stares back, all mild obtuseness. The Marines leave and Sherlock throws the door shut behind them. He takes a pair of nitrile gloves from his pack, walks around the bed as he pulls them on, bends low over Rost’s body and inhales deeply. John watches him intently. Sherlock takes hold of the corpse’s chin and pries the mouth open. He hooks one gloved finger inside, extracts it again, and sniffs it carefully before wiping it off on the sheets.

“What are you looking for?” John frowns.

“What do you smell?” Sherlock counters.

John leans down and sniffs carefully.

Alcohol,” he says.

Sherlock lifts his eyebrows questioningly; John shakes his head.

“Yes, alcohol,” Sherlock sighs, “but with no discernible notes of fusel oils or congents, which means that alcohol was a high quality vodka. I also don’t smell even the slightest trace of carbon, so it’s unfiltered. No contaminants even though it’s unfiltered means it’s a very high quality. There’s a very slight ferric taint, though; that’s probably a characteristic of the water that was used to proof it.”

“No drinking glasses," he says, glancing about. "No sign of the bottle either - they must have taken it with them.”

"After they killed him,” John says, his eyes hard.

“Maybe,” Sherlock says as he closes the corpse’s mouth again, and tilts the chin up. “Look at this.”

John leans in, shoulder to shoulder with him.

“I’d expect scraping or bruising under the chin, from Rost trying to struggle away while someone else held the gun in position, but the skin’s perfect except for the entry wound. And no signs of a struggle anywhere else,” Sherlock says, skimming his hand down the corpse’s right arm and unfurling the fingers of the right hand. “And there are clear powder burns on his fingers, and this little bruise on the thumb. What do you make of that, John?”

John peers at the small, purpled indent in the pad of the thumb.

“It’s – I think it’s from the safety catch of his handgun,” he says. “If he pressed on it hard, for a minute or two.”

Sherlock leans across the body, touching the tip of one finger to the darkly bloody line of the I cut into the corpse’s pallid skin.

“This is different,” he says. “Ahadi was cut with the words after he was dead. These were done while Rost was alive – there’s swelling at the edges.”

“Jesus – Christ,” John winces.

“They’re on the left forearm – Rost was right-handed,” Sherlock says, “and the angle of the cuts – this was self-inflicted.”

“That is fucking sick,” Hinde says.

“Thank you, Hinde; that was very helpful,” Sherlock says. “Needle punctures on the arm, here and here - and here. He used Lidocaine, so not quite as sick as it could have been. Hinde, take a pair of gloves from my pack and bring me what you find in the bathroom.”

Sherlock turns from the bed and looks around the room again.

“The couch cushions at each end are flattened,” he says, “and the armchair cushion, too. So, three men sitting over there, and Rost at the desk - ”

“Syringe, bloody towels, and a knife,” Hinde announces, emerging from the bathroom with his gory trophies and dumping them on the coffee table.

“ - they had some vodka,” Sherlock goes on. “Rost had some Lidocaine. He cut his suicide note into his arm. He took out his gun, but he hesitated, he leaned hard on the safety catch for a minute or two. There are two faint depressions in the carpet on the right-hand side of the desk chair, so - ”

He glances up and down Rost’s body, and then up and down Hinde.

“Come here,” he says to Hinde, stripping his gloves off to reach into a pocket and produce a pen. “Give me your left arm.”

Hinde takes his gloves off as well, unbuttons his cuff, and strips his sleeve back up his arm. Sherlock takes hold of his wrist and turns it so the inside of his forearm is uppermost.

I DID THIS, Sherlock writes.

“Sit at the desk,” he says, pocketing his pen.

Hinde carefully skirts the blood on the floor and sits down. Sherlock kneels down at the right side of the desk-chair, fitting his knees carefully into the depressions in the carpet. He draws his SIG, pumps the slide to demonstrate the empty chamber to both himself and Hinde, and touches the gun’s muzzle to the underside of Hinde’s chin. Sherlock glances up at the bullet hole in the ceiling and twists his wrist a bit, a bit more, and then tries twisting his torso instead.

“The angle’s absurd,” he announces. “Someone got up from over there and came to kneel beside Rost, but they weren’t holding the gun when he was shot.”

John shakes his head, disbelieving. Sherlock stands again and reholsters his gun. He touches two fingertips to the underside of Hinde’s chin and tips his head up and back.

“The shot would have thrown Rost’s head back, like this,” Sherlock says. “They rearranged him.”

He cups one hand around the back of Hinde’s head and guides it down until Hinde’s chin is almost touching his chest. Then he takes hold of Hinde’s arm and aligns it with the smears of blood on the surface of the desk. He steps back, contemplating the effect.

“It’s the perfect angle if you want the face and the message visible in the same frame. They took a picture and they left.”

“And no one noticed them?” John says.

“The hallways were already full of men brandishing guns,” Sherlock says. “Why would anyone notice three more?”

He glances at Rost’s laptop sitting on the desk.

“Hinde, get out of the way,” he says. “John, pass me my laptop, and the short cable that’s with it.”

Hinde scrambles up, rubbing at the ink on his forearm with a grimace. John takes the steel laptop and the cable out of Sherlock’s backpack and brings them to Sherlock, who’s sitting down at the desk and pulling the laptop already on the desk towards him. He takes his own laptop from John, opens it, and turns it on.

Enter Biometric appears on the screen. Sherlock leans in, opening his eyes wide and presenting one to the tiny lens of the web cam. A beam of intense blue light shines from it, and scans slowly across his eye.

Enter Audiometric, Sherlock's laptop prompts.

“Sherlock Kingsley Shackleton Holmes,” Sherlock says clearly.

“I’d make some crack about Shackleton if your first name weren’t already Sherlock,” John says.

Sherlock flashes him a quick smile as he opens the other laptop and connects the two together with the cable. He types a short command on his laptop’s keyboard, and the word ENSLAVE appears on its screen. Sherlock leans back and folds his arms. The other laptop clicks on; the password prompt appears briefly then disappears again. Sherlock sits forward again, scanning menus and opening files.

“Most – most computers can’t do that, can they?” John says.

“No, and most computers aren’t fitted with a GPS tracker and the ability to call in an air-strike if their encryption is compromised,” Sherlock says.

“Jesus Christ,” John grimaces. “You’re telling me that if someone breaks into your computer, the RAF is going to drop a bomb on me?”

“Again,” Hinde says in an undertone.

“Don’t be silly, John,” Sherlock says with a quick sidelong glance. “If you were there, no one could break into it in the first place. You’d stop them.”

One of Hinde’s eyebrows arches strenuously.

“Ah,” Sherlock says, his smile falling away as he finds what he’s looking for.

“Oh – Christ,” John sighs.

Sherlock clicks rapidly through several photographs showing the six members of Harlow’s patrol standing together in the compound at Outpost Rath. The images are grainy, flatly colored, and shadowless in the way that photographs taken through night-sights always are. Sherlock’s laptop chimes an incoming email alert. Sherlock reaches to dimiss it, but then the email has also been sent to Mycroft. He opens it. There’s no text, just two attached picture files. He opens them. The first picture is of Rost, head bowed and arm arranged on the desk in front of him in precisely the attitude in which Sherlock placed Hinde a few minutes earlier. The second picture is of Sherlock, crossing the hotel lobby with John at his side and Hinde just behind them.

“They’re still here,” Sherlock says.

“Stay with him,” John snaps at Hinde, throwing a hand towards Sherlock even while he’s tearing his handgun out of its holster and strides towards the door.

“John!” Sherlock says sharply, twisting in his seat. “Who are you looking for? Someone carrying a gun?

John turns around, glaring, almost snarling in frustration, and then abruptly slackens again.

“Christ. Fucking Christ,” he says.

Sherlock nods and lets his shoulders slump. His phone buzzes in his hip pocket; he digs it out and answers the call.

“I want you to come home,” Mycroft says.

“No, this isn’t over,” Sherlock scowls. “There are three men out there who helped Rost to kill Ahadi’s family and Harlow’s patrol.”

“Precisely,” Mycroft says. “They’ve killed eighteen people, none of whom were even a threat to them. What makes you think they won’t kill you?”

“If they wanted me dead, they wouldn’t have pointed a camera at me,” Sherlock says angrily.

“It’s a warning,” Mycroft says, “and I intend to take it. I've endangered you - I apologize.”

“Mycroft, are you really suggesting that my untimely death would be anything but a profound relief to you?” Sherlock grinds.

There’s a hesitation, and then Mycroft says,

“I – you’re my brother.”

“So Mother always maintained,” Sherlock says. “That wasn’t what you were about to say.”

“What I was about to say, you won’t hear. So let me put this in terms of a motivation you will find credible,” Mycroft says. “Those three men are in possession of pictures that, if published, will seriously disturb the American public’s acceptance of this war.”

“I didn’t realize preserving the tranquility of the American public was part of your remit,” Sherlock sneers.

“It’s not, at this moment,” Mycroft says. “My concern is that the United Kingdom’s only involvement in this matter is your investigation, and that’s an involvement I’m not willing to prolong.”

“You’re bowing to a threat, Mycroft.”

“I’m bowing to necessity, and I insist that you do the same. I’ll send someone I trust to escort you to Kabul airport, at six o’clock tomorrow morning.”

“Mycroft,” Sherlock says.

“Goodnight, Sherlock,” Mycroft says. “I look forward to seeing you soon.”

The call ends. Sherlock lets his eyes drop closed for a moment as he returns his phone to his pocket. When he opens them again, he meets John’s gaze, steady but infinitely soft.

An hour later they’re in a different room, though the layout and furnishings are almost identical to the ones in Rost’s room. Sherlock is sitting at the desk, the glow from his laptop screen turning the planes of his face to strange slices of light and dark, and his fingers flickering over the keys. John is sitting on the side of the pristine, tightly smoothed bed, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped in front of his mouth.

“Rost killed himself – helped kill eighteen other people to make this war unacceptable to the American public,” Sherlock says. “Why? Why would anyone do that?”

“Wars are – some people are quite opposed to them,” John says, dropping his hands.

“Opposed enough to kill and die for it?” Sherlock asks.

“Peace is what half the wars are for,” John says with a slight shrug.

“They have the pictures,” Sherlock says, his voice strong but his intonation erratic. “Why haven’t they gone public yet? What are they waiting for?”

His fingers strike the keys harder, harder still, and then he thrusts his laptop away with a jerk of his arm. He shoves up out his chair and stands there breathing hard.

“Sherlock,” John says quietly, “we can pretend that this isn’t happening, that we have all the time in the world, and that tonight doesn’t matter because tomorrow night or the night after that we can be together. Or we can accept that this is it for us - for now, at least - and be together right now.”

There’s a long moment when the only sound in the room is the low hum of the air-conditioning, then Sherlock swallows audibly.

“You’re a very brave man, John Watson,” he says, his voice low and raw.

“No, I’m really not,” John says, “but our time is running out, and I’d rather be with you while I can.”

Sherlock turns to face him, and walks to the side of the bed. John wraps one arm around Sherlock’s thighs and draws him in, laying his cheek against Sherlock’s stomach. Sherlock lifts a hand to the back of John’s head, his fingers circling aimlessly in the short strands of John’s hair.

“Am I - am I supposed to - ” Sherlock stammers, but he can’t make the words come to anything.

John draws back, hooks his fingers into Sherlock’s belt, and pulls him down until Sherlock sinks to his knees in front of him and stares up at him with eyes gone dull and uncomprehending with misery. John leans forwards, curves both hands around Sherlock’s face, and presses to his mouth a kiss that’s as soft and solemn as a blessing. Sherlock just breathes against John’s lips, while his eyes fall closed and his hands hang empty at his sides. John turns his mouth insistently against Sherlock’s, tracing his fingertips around the shells of Sherlock’s ears and along each side of his jaw. Slowly Sherlock rouses enough to press his mouth to John’s, and then his hands lift, one slipping around John’s waist and the other cradling the back of his head as Sherlock pushes deeper into the kiss.

John’s hands go to the front of Sherlock’s shirt, unbuttoning by touch alone. He pushes Sherlock’s holster off his shoulder, and then pushes his shirt back, too. Sherlock takes his hands off John just long enough for them to jointly strip the garment off him completely, their mouths still brushing together. Then Sherlock’s touching John again, hands catching and clutching at him. His eyes still closed, he reaches for John’s shirt buttons, but can’t seem to keep his fingers there long enough to make any progress, instead slipping them back into the bristle of John’s hair and stroking down the gritty curve of his jaw as they mouth softly at each other’s lips. John opens a couple of his shirt buttons and strips shirt and tee shirt off in one bundle. Sherlock’s eyes flash open, vivid with desire.

“Get undressed,” John murmurs, already undoing Sherlock’s belt. “Come to bed with me.”

Sherlock nods, his hands half-helping, half-hindering John in getting his pants open. John blurs another kiss on Sherlock’s mouth before he stands, steps aside a bit, and starts to strip himself with brutal efficiency. He’s unlaced his boots and heeled them off in the time it takes Sherlock to unfold from his knees and get to his feet again. John strips peels off socks and pants and underwear while Sherlock’s still getting his boots off. John goes into the bathroom, while Sherlock manages to take the rest of his clothes off. John returns holding the complimentary bottle of aloe lotion, which he tosses onto the bed. He climbs up and kneels with his thighs splayed apart. His cock is already standing almost vertically against his belly, solid and stiff.

Sherlock gets onto the bed, too. He crawls onto John’s lap; John straightens his legs out and lies down so that Sherlock’s straddling his hips. Sherlock slides both palms up John’s chest, and John catches his wrists and draws him lower.

“Lie on me,” John murmurs.

Sherlock stretches his legs out, tangling them with John’s, twists his hips to lay his erection alongside John’s, and brings his weight down onto John’s body so that they pressed together from shins to chest. John winds his arms around Sherlock’s back and lifts his face into the warm curve of Sherlock’s neck.

“That feels good,” he says softly.

Sherlock takes hold of John’s shoulders and starts to rock his hips slowly, strongly. John exhales against Sherlock’s neck with each push, the press of Sherlock’s weight driving the air out of his chest each time, so that a single slow, tidal beat animates them both. John lifts his head a little, rubbing the side of his face against the side of Sherlock’s. Both of them have their eyes closed, and it’s by a soft blundering exploration of touch that they find each other’s mouths again.

Sherlock digs his toes into the bed cover, finding purchase to push harder against John’s body. John spreads his thighs apart, letting Sherlock’s hips tip down so his balls slip below John’s. They slide against each other more freely, sweat turning the contact between them slick and smooth. John twists his face aside and groans, the sound soft yet profound.

Sherlock opens his eyes, and slides down John’s body. John stares at him, his mouth curling in a soft, pained snarl. Sherlock meets his gaze, holds it steadily even as he kisses from the faintly freckled hollow next to John’s hipbone, to the taut crest of his thigh, to the faintly furred skin at the top of his inner thigh. John shudders out a deep breath as Sherlock slips his arm beneath John’s thigh and gathers it onto his shoulder. He arches a little, lifting John’s hips off the bed, and scoops his forearm underneath to keep him raised. John’s hand goes to Sherlock’s head as it bends again, fingers threading into his curls as Sherlock brings his mouth to the skin behind John’s balls.

John’s body flexes sharply and then falls into softness, sinking into the sensation of Sherlock’s mouth. Sherlock swipes his tongue along the crease where John’s thigh meets his buttock, then inwards, into the cleft of his behind. John arches, one foot planted on the bed to bear his weight, the other heel digging into Sherlock’s back. Sherlock cups a broad hand under John’s buttock and presses it aside, the cleft between kissing open. John arches higher, his body quivering with tension.

“Sherlock – Jesus - yes,” he gasps.

Sherlock’s tongue curls out, flicks and then licks more lingeringly. John shudders; his voice catches shakily, sharply in his throat. Sherlock drives his shoulder into the back of John’s thigh, pressing it up and back, opening him more. He pushes in harder, his fingers digging into John’s buttock. John is shaking, a potent mix of pleasure and muscular exertion wracking through him. Sherlock manages to get his face deep enough between the taut muscles of John’s buttocks to pierce him, his tongue spearing in strongly. John jolts, knocking him loose again, and Sherlock snarls in frustration.

“Turn over,” he says, spilling John’s thigh from his shoulder and lifting himself out of the way.

John twists, a compact rotation of neck and shoulders and spine, one calf crossing over the other until he spreads them apart, opening his thighs, and buries his face in the crook of his bent right arm. Sherlock sleeks both hands firmly up the backs of John’s calves, thumbs dipping into the hollows at the backs of his knees, up the coarse skin at the backs of his thighs and the unexpectedly soft skin of his behind. Sherlock leans down over him, hands coming rest at either side of John’s torso as he dips and slides his skin upwards over John’s. John groans into the pillow, pushing up and back into the contact.

Sherlock slides downwards again, a caress that uses every inch of his body, his shins pinning John’s calves against the bed, his forehead dragging down the back of John’s neck to the thick muscle between his flexed shoulder blades. Sherlock coils up, sitting back on his heels between John’s legs, then slides down onto his elbows, legs stretched out, shins off the end of the bed as he bends his face to John’s behind. John spreads his thighs wider, grinding a sound of sheer desperation between clenched teeth as Sherlock exhales against his skin.

Sherlock spreads both hands on John’s buttocks, pushes the two taut rounds apart and dips his face lower. John’s fingers fist on two handfuls of pillow as Sherlock licks a slow, wet stripe up the cleft of his behind. He squirms, the muscles of his shoulders and back shifting heavily under his skin. Sherlock pushes his tongue in slowly. John cries out, the sound chest-deep but softened in the pillow. Sherlock kneads the dense muscles of John’s buttocks, and hooks his tongue in and out luxuriously. John’s breathing comes apart, turns to uneven gasps and groans. He twists aside slightly, and snakes his left hand beneath him to grip his cock. When he settles onto his stomach again, he starts to roll his hips, pumping himself into his own fist. Sherlock tongues him, and traces the fingertips of one hand down the underside of his balls.

“Oh Jesus, fuck me,” John gasps, wrenching his face out of the pillow. “Fuck me, come on, I want you to fuck me.”

“Are you sure?” Sherlock says breathlessly. “I didn’t think you - ”

“I usually don’t but right now God I really really do,” John blurts.

Sherlock grabs the bottle of lotion, spills half of it into his cupped palm, and coats the fingers of both hands. John comes up onto his knees and elbows; Sherlock moves in closer, one hand cupping John’s balls and the other sleeking down the cleft of his behind. Sherlock presses a fingertip to John’s anus. John circles his hips minutely, and pushes back so that Sherlock’s finger sinks into him as far as the middle joint. John gives a deep, raw-edged cry of pleasure.

“Oh, yeah, it’s good, come on,” he groans, reaching back and grasping Sherlock’s wrist. “Come on.”

Sherlock slides his finger deeper, eyes flickering between the incendiary sight of John’s body accepting him, and the shifting of John’s back and shoulders as he moves cautiously around Sherlock’s touch.

“Oh Christ that’s nice,” John says.

Sherlock twists his finger, slips it almost all the way out, and then tucks a second fingertip in before pushing deep. John groans loudly again, rolling his hips subtly.

“John,” Sherlock says. “Oh my God, John.”

He reaches between John’s thighs with his free hand, circles thumb and forefinger around the thick root of the shaft, and draws his hand slowly along the length. John’s spine rounds and his body flexes deliberately as Sherlock thumbs gently around his foreskin and glans.

“Now,” he growls. “Come on.”

“Turn over,” Sherlock says, drawing his fingers out.

John grunts, shoving himself over onto his back. His cock is deeply flushed and stringing a thread of mucus onto his hip. Sherlock pours most of the remaining lotion into his hand and strokes himself, twisting his hand to coat every surface of his cock. John watches him, cinder-eyed. Sherlock reaches out with his slicked right hand and clasps John’s left, intertwining their fingers until John’s are slippery too. Their hands slide apart, and John takes hold of himself, his fingers moving smoothly around the head of his cock. He nods at Sherlock, rolling his tongue over his lower lip. Sherlock scoops a hand behind John’s left knee, lifts it, and bends down to tuck his shoulder behind John’s calf.

“Oh fuck,” John says, drawing his other foot in. “Both up?”

“No,” Sherlock says with a shake of his head. “I don’t want to go too deep if you’re not used to it.”

John nods. He hooks his right heel over the back of Sherlock’s calf, shifting his weight onto his right hip a bit. Sherlock knees in a little closer, tilting his head as he considers the angle, the necessary hitch of his own hips and the helpful lift of John’s that bring them into the proper alignment. Sherlock presses close, then pushes forwards smoothly, and John throws his head back, opens his mouth wide, and groans.

“Ah - fuck.”

“Are you all right?” Sherlock gasps.

“Oh Christ I have never been more all right in my life,” John says loudly.

Sherlock grins as rocks his hips, teasing little pushes at first, unwinding into longer slower strokes as John begins to tense and quiver. John falls back, pulling deep deliberate breaths and stroking his hand up and down the length of his cock. He meets Sherlock’s gaze, and the thin line of his upper lip quirks away from his teeth, a soft, inchoate suggestion of a snarl. Sherlock goes back to shorter, sharper thrusts. John’s fist moves more quickly around his glans, until he’s sobbing his breath through gritted teeth and curling his shoulders up from the bed. Sherlock eases off, slower and smoother again.

“No – don’t – keep – oh God,” John chokes.

Sherlock kicks his hips in swift rolling thrusts that don’t bury him all the way but keep the head of his cock working where John can feel it the most.

“Christ, oh Christ,” John cries, his muscles quivering with tension but his body still open and accepting as he slides over the edge.

“Oh God, you’re coming,” Sherlock groans.

John jerks both knees in reflexively, and Sherlock’s next thrust goes suddenly deep. John’s semen spurts and then spatters more softly over his stomach, trickling down his side. He’s gasping, still shuddering as Sherlock stops thrusting. Sherlock clasps his arm around John’s knee, presses kisses there because that’s the only bit of John he can readily reach with his mouth. His hips move subtly, just sliding himself forwards and back inside John with the pull of his own breath.

“Oh, Christ,” John pants. “Oh, Sherlock.”

Sherlock manages a crooked, unsteady smile. John licks his lips.

“Come in me,” he says, his voice roughened and low.

“Oh God,” Sherlock says. “All right - here, sit up.”

He shifts back, pulling his cock from John’s body. John sits up and straddles Sherlock’s lap. He takes hold of Sherlock’s cock, guiding it back into place. He sinks down, giving a short, soft grunt as the head pushes in and his body clasps tight around it, then a softer longer groan as he slides down on the shaft.

“John, oh,” Sherlock breathes.

John rolls his hips, drawing himself up on Sherlock’s cock and then quickly down again, his lips caught between his teeth to stifle his own sounds.

“No, slower,” Sherlock says. “Don’t move - let me.”

John nods. Sherlock’s hands splay on John’s waist, holding him steady while Sherlock rocks his hips slightly. John relaxes, accepting the push and pull of pressure inside him. He wipes the damp tendrils of Sherlock’s hair back from his face, and stares into his eyes as Sherlock’s pupils contract and dilate. Sherlock spreads his thighs a little and growls in appreciation of the more intense angle. John unfolds his legs, extending them around Sherlock, hooking one foot around the opposite ankle. Sherlock’s breathing starts to surge, though his thrusts are still controlled, considered.

“Christ,” John says, lifting his chin and closing his eyes. “Christ that feels so sweet.”

“John,” Sherlock says, and then more sharply, “John.”

“Come on,” John urges, dropping his head and opening his eyes. “Come for me.”

Sherlock wraps his arms around John and rocks steadily until the sensation is too much even without the added spur of speed. He comes in a long, blossoming shudder while John drops soft kisses on his eyebrows and trembling eyelids and open mouth. Sherlock shakes, clutching at John’s nape and hip. John’s murmuring, not words, just soft-edged sounds as he wipes his palm back over Sherlock’s flushed face and closes his fingers in Sherlock’s hair. Sherlock opens his eyes, and shudders an enormous breath into his lungs. John stares at him, eyes darker and sharper than Sherlock has ever seen them.

“Oh God, just – don’t die,” Sherlock blurts, burying his face in John’s neck.

“I won’t,” John says, his voice steady but very raw. “I promise you, we're both going to be all right.”

“You can’t promise that,” Sherlock says. “It’s impossible.”

John makes a warning sound in his throat, cups both hands under Sherlock’s jaw, and lifts his face until Sherlock’s forced to meet his glittering gaze and razor smile.

“I’m a commando, Sherlock,” he says. “I do the impossible all the time.”

 

July 13th

The telephone on the bedside table buzzes as Sherlock finishes his shirttails into his cargo pants and buttoning his fly.

“They’re early,” he says.

John, already fully dressed, answers the phone.

“I’ll tell him, thank you,” he says after listening for a moment.

He hangs up again and turns to look at Sherlock.

“Your escort’s here,” he announces.

Sherlock shrugs on his bush jacket. The SIG, in its holster, is lying on the bed; Sherlock picks it, wraps the holster strap around to make a neat bundle, and hands it to John.

“Here,” he says. “I don’t think they’ll let me keep it when I get back to London.”

John takes it from him, tucks it into his pack, and then lifts his pack to his shoulder. Sherlock picks up his backpack, but then drops it again and abruptly moves toward John. John lets his pack slide to the floor and winds his arms up around Sherlock’s shoulders as Sherlock presses one hand to his back and the other to the nape of his neck.

“It’s okay,” John says fiercely. “We’re okay. We’re going to be okay.”

He brings his hand to the nape of Sherlock’s neck and pulls him down. He turns his open mouth against Sherlock’s, and for a moment they’re just pushing and pulling and clutching at each other as they devour the connection of lips and teeth and tongues. At last John pulls back. Sherlock lifts his hand to John’s mouth, fingers trying to read the soft swollen skin of John’s lips. John reaches up, takes hold of Sherlock’s wrist, and draws his hand away. Sherlock steps back, nodding, almost smiling though the twist at the corners of his mouth is uncertain. He picks his backpack up, John shoulders his pack again, and they leave the room together.

They step out of the elevator in the lobby, and at a solidly built man with cropped dark hair comes forward to greet them.

“Mister Holmes, I’m John Moran,” he says, offering Sherlock his hand. “Your brother instructed me to take you out to the airport.”

Moran isn’t in uniform, but he’s wearing a crisp khaki shirt, khaki pants, and tan boots that make it clear he’s at least quasi-military. He has strikingly green eyes, and a deep tan. The shoddiness of his shave adds to his apparent swarthiness. Sherlock glances down as they shake hands, noticing the ragged cuticles and uneven nails of Moran’s right hand.

“Your car’s waiting,” Moran says. “We should go - hotel security won’t let the driver sit for very long.”

“Of course,” Sherlock says, then he looks at John. “John. I know I can count on seeing you again very, very soon.”

John frowns, but his eyes are soft and his voice is more than gentle when he says, “Goodbye, Sherlock.”

Sherlock turns away and starts to walk with Moran towards the front entrance of the hotel. John lifts his chin and presses his lips together tightly as he watches them go, but then Sherlock halts abruptly. He says a couple of words to Moran, turns again, and strides back towards John. John shakes his head fractionally, but Sherlock keeps coming until he’s crowding into John’s space and winding the arm not encumbered by his backpack around John’s neck. John fists his hands at his side for a second, but then he grabs haphazardly at Sherlock, clutching one handful of waist and one of shoulder. Sherlock bends his head, pushes his mouth against John’s ear and whispers,

Vernet.”

He pulls away again, never meeting John’s uncomprehending stare, and walks straight across the lobby. Moran falls into step beside him as he passes. They push out through the hotel doors, and climb into a black SUV waiting outside. The vehicle pulls away, and Sherlock is gone.

End of Part 1

Chapter Text

July 13th, continued
Kabul City, Kabul province

Six minutes after the black SUV pulls away from in front of the Serena Hotel, it turns off the street into an alleyway and then through a pair of metal gates into the courtyard of a shuttered house. Several armed men emerge from the house, two of them closing the gates while the others surround the SUV.

“Get out, and bring the backpack with you,” Moran says, turning around in the front passenger seat to point a handgun at Sherlock’s face.

Sherlock exhales heavily as someone wrenches his door open. He unfolds out of the seat, emerging into the glittering morning sunshine. Moran climbs out of the car and slams the doors shut.

“You don’t seem very surprised, Mister Holmes,” he says as he pulls Sherlock’s backpack from his hand.

“You are not being very surprising,” Sherlock says.

Moran flicks a glance at him, then looks down as he unzips the center compartment of Sherlock’s backpack, withdraws his laptop a bit, and then shoves it back in. He hands the backpack to the nearest man.

“How did you know?” Moran asks as he takes hold of Sherlock’s jacket to turn him, and push him face-first against the side of the car.

“My brother doesn’t trust anyone until he’s met them in person,” Sherlock says while Moran pulls his arms back and zip-ties his wrists together. “Your personal appearance is - not conducive to winning my brother’s trust. He has rather nice ideas about what constitutes a gentleman.”

“Unlike his baby brother,” Moran says, pulling Sherlock off the side of the car and turning him around again, “who’ll get into a car with anyone.”

“I like to think of it as rising to a challenge,” Sherlock says.

Moran pats both hands over Sherlock’s jacket pockets, then inside to pat his shirt pockets, and finally down the hips and thighs of his cargo pants.

“I think it’s that you don’t know when you’re getting in over your head,” Moran says as he extracts Sherlock’s phone from his hip pocket. “I think it’s a family trait – you and your brother, you just don’t know when you’ve been out maneuvered.”

He drops Sherlock’s phone into the offered backpack and dismisses the man holding it with a jerk of his head. The man passes the backpack to the car driver just as the gates are opened again. The SUV drives out, and a battered dust-colored sedan drives in. One of the gun men opens the trunk, and Moran gives Sherlock a shove towards the car. Sherlock blows his breath out noisily in displeasure.

“In the boot? Is that absolutely necessary?” he grimaces.

“You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to secure a bit of privacy in this country,” Moran says. “Eyes everywhere - mechanical ones, anyway.”

“The temperature in there could break fifty degrees,” Sherlock says, “so if your plan isn’t to have me die of heat stroke, I suggest you stop to give me water at least every ninety minutes.”

“And if it is?” Moran smirks.

“Then I applaud the novelty of your choice of murder weapon, the stupidity of it notwithstanding,” Sherlock says.

“You’re very cocksure for a man who’s about to have a very unpleasant day,” Moran says, not without approval.

“I think I’m up to it,” Sherlock says.

“Really? Because I think you should have yelled for help while that squaddie was still within earshot,” Moran says. “Climb in.”

 

Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar province

“Does someone want to tell me what this is about?” John demands, as the soldier escorting him steps aside leaving John to cross the threshold into a small windowless room, where several soldiers and an officer are in close consultation over an array of laptops and maps. Those seated rise, and everyone comes to attention as John enters. The officer – a tall, powerfully built redhead dressed in pale camouflage combat dress and a beige beret – salutes John. John straightens and nods crisply in acknowledgement, though his expression is still fluid with annoyance and wary interest.

“Captain William Murray, Special Air Service,” the officer says. “Sorry to hijack you like this, Captain Watson.”

“Yeah, I was in the air on route to Sangin and my chopper was ordered down,” John says. “Is there - ”

“Your civilian’s gone missing,” Murray says.

“My – sorry – wha - ” John says, shaking his head in confusion, and then sharply, “Sherlock? What the hell happened?

“His escort turned up the hotel but he’d already left with someone else,” Murray says.

“Shit,” John snaps. “That was hours ago. Where is he?”

“We don’t know,” Murray says.

John exhales deliberately.

“Okay, you brought me here, that means you think I can do something about it,” he says.

“You’ve been with the guy for the last three days, and your security clearance was good for anything he cared to tell you,” Murray says. “I’m hoping against hope you know something that’ll help us foind him.”

John throws his head up in frustration and gestures to the nearest computer.

“I know there’s a GPS tracker in his laptop,” he says.

“And another in his phone,” Murray says, eyebrows raised ruefully. “The good news is that they’re signaling.”

“And the bad news?” John prompts.

“Is that they were both found in his backpack, in the SUV, which was abandoned at a building site just outside the city. Also in the potentially useless good news department,” Murray says, “is that there’s another GPS tracker embedded in one of his boots but it hasn’t been activated.”

“I don’t understand,” John says. “Why isn’t it activated?”

“The deal was, Holmes wouldn’t consent to carry a tracker in his clothing unless he controlled whether it was active or not,” Murray says wearily. “If he needed to, he could activate it using his phone or his laptop.”

“Neither of which he has now,” John winces. “Okay, there must be some way for us to activate it.”

“Theoretically – we can talk to the tracker but it won’t talk back unless we have the codeword Holmes set for activating it.”

For a split second John’s eyes go soft with relief, and then turn flint-hard as full realization hits.

“Vernet,” he says, his voice vibrating with barely restrained fury. “The codeword for activating the tracker is Vernet.”

 

The sun has crossed the top of the sky and turned from pale gold to white steel by the time they pull Sherlock out of the trunk. The car is in an walled courtyard, in front of a blank-faced house with only a few small windows high up, and one door at ground level.

Sherlock’s hair and skin and clothes are completely drenched in his own sweat. He’s flushed, not just his cheeks and mouth, but the skin of his throat and chest where it’s bared by his half open shirt. He stumbles, gasping for breath, when he’s set on his feet. Someone grabs hold of him, half supporting him, half just shoving him in the direction they want him to go. He’s herded hurriedly through the door of the house, and the plunge into shadow and coolness makes him groan in relief. Someone has him by the shoulder, shoving and pushing him up a steep flight of wooden stairs and through another doorway into a windowless room. The zip-tie around his wrists is cut apart, and he cries out in pain as his shoulders fall forwards from their unnaturally flexed position.

“Sit down, before you fall down,” Moran says, shouldering past one of the two gunman already in the room with Sherlock.

There’s a mattress on the floor, with a pillow and a blanket spread out on it. Sherlock stumbles the couple of steps that separate him from it, tries to sink down with some control, but more or less folds to his knees involuntarily.

“Here,” Moran says, nudging his shoulder with a full water bottle.

Sherlock takes it from him, grimacing as he summons enough grip-strength to crack the cap open. He drinks in steady sips, wincing and scowling and breathing hard. Moran squats down in front of him and takes hold of Sherlock’s left wrist. Sherlock hisses as Moran’s fingertips graze the raw line made in his flesh by the zip-tie. Moran presses two fingertips along the tendon inside Sherlock’s wrist and contemplates Sherlock’s pulse for several seconds.

“You’ll do,” he says, dropping Sherlock’s wrist. “You’re tougher than you look.”

Sherlock arches an eyebrow in rueful acknowledgment of the compliment, and keeps drinking. There’s a loop of twisted wire cable attached to an eye ring embedded in the concrete of the wall. Moran double wraps the loose end twice Sherlock’s left leg, just above his ankle bone, pulls it snug, and then fishes a high quality combination padlock out of his thigh pocket and secures the wire in place with it, spinning the rollers with a flourish of his thumb.

“You’ll feel like shit for a day or two,” he says, standing up again, “but you can have all the water you want now.”

“I’m afraid you and your associates are over-estimating the influence and interest of the American public,” Sherlock says.

Moran looks at him, cocks an eyebrow quizzically.

“Rost died to get America out of this war,” Sherlock says, eyes brilliant with intent, “but it won’t work. Horror is the new normal - didn’t you know?”

“In the first place, they’re not my associates,” Moran says, smiling crookedly. “I’m just a lowly contractor doing what I can to expand my future business opportunities; they’re gentlemen of vision and principle. And in the second place, Rost – God bless him for the bat fuck crazy warmonger he was - didn’t die to get anyone out of this war. If they get their way, and I believe they will, there won’t be a family left in England or America that hasn’t bled out a child in this war.”

Sherlock frowns in confusion, his gaze skittering up and down Moran as if some detail of his physicality will supply the key to understanding what he’s said.

“All right,” Moran says, looking around the room in satisfaction. “I’d love to sit here and debate defense policy all day with a long effete fuck who’s never marched a mile in his life, but I’ve got obligations elsewhere.”

He turns and walks out, followed by of one the gunman, leaving Sherlock staring after him. The remaining gunman kicks at Sherlock’s outstretched boot desultorily, until Sherlock draws his leg in and scowls in annoyance. Then the gunman goes out, banging the door behind him and locking it with a lot of scraping of metal and rattling of chain.

“Anytime now, John,” Sherlock murmurs as he lifts the bottle to his lips again, “anytime at all.”

 

“It’s the least attractive setting for an extraction I’ve ever seen,” Murray says, as he spreads the photographs out across the tabletop.

“One house, no cover within five hundred yards that could hide a flea,” John says, picking up pages and dropping them again in disgust. “Enclosed courtyard at the front only, one gate in the front wall that aligns directly with one door in the front of the house. No windows except on the courtyard side.”

“Ways in,” Murray says. “Through the front or … I dunno, rope-drop from a chopper onto the roof, hack our way through with axes?”

“While they riddle the roof with bullets,” John says. “The chopper is going to give away the element of surprise, and I’d rather not get shot in the nads, thanks.”

Murray winces sympathetically.

“We’ll just have to wait for the dark and crawl in,” John says. “Get a closer look and hope for something that doesn’t show on the pictures.”

 

John is lying on his belly behind a slight rise in the dirt, with Murray beside to him, contemplating the walled courtyard and the house where Sherlock is being held. John, like Murray and the rest of John’s section, is dressed in night camouflage combat dress, with his face smudged black over the brows and cheekbones.

“They don’t have someone in the room with him,” Blackwood says as he shoulders in close to John and hands him a small viewing screen.

In the heat-image, the walls of the house are shadowy veils of dark. There’s a single blur of yellowish green on one side of the building, and three closely grouped blurs on the other.

“It’s nice, but it doesn’t give us a way in,” Murray says.

“I can fix that,” John says, his mouth quirking unhappily as he touches the radio control on his chest. “This is Two Two One Bravo Baker requesting artillery support - I need a Snatch hot for Hellfire, over.”

“Is your plan to blow up the house?” Murray says. “Because as far as I know this guy does not have a keep-or-kill order on him.”

“The gate’s metal mesh,” John says, “and the door’s regular wood. We can laser sight through the gate onto the door - target the missile there. That door’s not going to slow the missile one bit - there’s a decent chance it won’t detonate before it hits the back wall on the way out, and that’ll be our way in.”

Murray drops his head onto his forearm for a second and huffs his breath out heavily.

“There is so much wrong with that fucking plan,” he says as he lifts his head again.

John stares at him until Murray nods sharply.

"You think we can get the Snatch within range for the laser guidance without them hearing it?" Murray says.

"Yeah, if we kill the engine and push the fucking thing," John says.

Blackwood snorts in amusement.

"I love this plan," he says. "It's completely fucked up and it’s really hard work – it can’t miss.”

 

“God, I hate this plan,” Murray says an hour later.

They are now lying in the dirt contemplating the blank back of the house.

“Me too,” John says. “Let’s do the other one instead.”

Murray turns his head, frowning in incomprehension at John. John smiles, his teeth a pale gleam in the dark; Murray grins back. John touches his radio control.

“Blackwood, how are you doing?”

“Doc, I’ve got fucking sand in places my mother has never seen on me,” Blackwood says through the earpiece in John’s right ear. “And I’m close enough to mark that door with my spit, if that would be helpful.”

“Just the laser sight will be fine, and for God’s sake remember to stay down,” John says, and then, “this is Two Two One Bravo Baker to artillery support. You should be able to see our mark now, over.”

“Two Two One Bravo Baker, we have your mark,” John hears through his earpiece.

John exhales softly, his eyelids sliding half-closed.

“Deep breath, Sherlock,” he whispers, and then says clearly, “fire.”

The sonic boom of a Hellfire missile traveling twelve feet above the ground is a sickeningly loud crack, like a lightning strike consuming half the horizon. John, ahead and to the side of the missile’s flight path, hears the sound over Blackwood’s open radio channel, and simultaneously (it seems) the roaring crash of the detonation as the back wall of the house shears open in a burst of rubble and broken timbers and clouds of smoking dust. There’s a sharp, chaotic rattle of gunfire from inside the wreckage of the house.

“Bravo, get that guy closed down,” John shouts. “We don’t have time for this.”

McMath’s fire-team is up and moving, firing in short bursts into the smoke and spreading fire. Through the haze, John catches a glimpse of a figure in pale khaki spinning and then falling as a shot hits home. John is the first one over the smoking heap of rubble and into the broken shell of the house. There’s a fire burning fiercely on his right, licking up the walls and reaching greedily for the wooden beams supporting the floor of the upper storey. The stairs are gone.

“Murray, make sure we got them all,” John snaps, scrambling over the broken remains of the stairway to stand below the naked edge of the upper floor. “Blackwood, give me a boost up here.”

Blackwood comes to him, crouches slightly, and stirrups his hands together. John sets his boot into Blackwood’s palms, one hand resting lightly on Blackwood’s shoulder to steady himself.

“Go,” John says.

Blackwood straightens and shoves John upwards. John gets an elbow on the edge of the upper floor, and then a second elbow, and with a bit of kicking and cursing and a useful push on the sole of his boot from Blackwood he’s able to climb up.

“John,” Sherlock roars from behind the locked door.

John flips the chain and padlock with his gloved hand.

“Get away from the door,” he yells. “Get to the side.”

He swings his assault rifle up and fires a single round that shears the chain and punches a splintering hole through the wood. He kicks the door open. The room is smoky, gray billows coming up between the far edge of the floor and the wall. Sherlock’s kneeling at one end of the mattress with a soaked section of the blanket held to his nose and mouth, and his empty water bottle lying on the floor.

“Are you hurt?” John asks, dropping to one knee next to him.

“No, but I’m tethered,” Sherlock says, extending his leg to display the cable. “I was trying lock combinations but there’s ten million possible permutations - ”

“And the house is on fire,” John says as he yanks his ten-inch serrated Bowie knife from its sheath on his left calf.

“Oh, God,” Sherlock gasps, jerking back and then schooling himself to stillness. “Okay.”

“The cable,” John says tightly. “I’m going to cut the cable.”

“Oh,” Sherlock says.

John folds the length of the cable into a loop, inserts the knife blade, and strips the blade outwards. Several strands of the twisted wire part. A few more strips of the blade and John is able to pull the last strand frayed strand apart with his hands.

“Get up,” he says, springing up and hauling Sherlock onto his feet, too. “Go.”

He shoves Sherlock out the door. Sherlock hurries to the broken edge of the floor.

“Come on, Holmes,” Blackwood says.

Sherlock crouches, turns, and slithers feet-first off the edge. Blackwood wraps an arm around Sherlock’s shins, helping to control the momentum of his slide off the upper floor and his drop to the floor below. John dead-drops down and folds into a deep crouch to absorb the impact.

“One chopper’s practically on the ground. The other’s about ten minutes out,” Blackwood says to John. “And the neighbors are coming over to see what the fuck is going on.”

“Come on,” John says.

The three of them dodge past the flames and scramble through the rubble-tumbled hole in the back of the house into the open air. A helicopter is coming in, its search lights sweeping the ground, palely illuminating the clouds of dust thrown up by its turbulence. Blackwood steps forwards, his arm raised to shield his face from the glare and the flying grit. Sherlock moves to follow him, but John grabs him by the sleeve, jerks him back and around to meet the slam of John’s fist into his face. The impact is hard enough to spin Sherlock around and leave him bent double, coughing and cupping his hand over his nose and mouth.

“You could have been fucking killed!” John shouts over the rotors’ roar. “We could have been fucking killed!”

Sherlock straightens and turns to face him. He takes his hand from his face, staring in disbelief at the bright red streaking his palm. He touches his fingers to his upper lip, wiping ineffectually at the blood running from his right nostril.

“It’s not a fucking game,” John shouts, shoving the flat of his hand into Sherlock’s chest, hard enough that Sherlock has to yield backwards a step to stay on his feet.

The helicopter kisses down onto the ground, the dust swirling madly around it.

“Yes, it is,” Sherlock snarls, teeth bared as John shoves again, but this time Sherlock just twists with the impact, refuses to yield backwards again.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” John demands.

“The same thing that’s wrong with you,” Sherlock snaps.

John grabs Sherlock’s sleeve again and shoves him towards the open door of the helicopter.

“Get him out of here, before I fucking kill him myself,” John says to Blackwood.

Blackwood nods, taking Sherlock by the arm and guiding him to climb up into the helicopter bay, then climbing in behind him. Sherlock goes down on his knees on the bay floor, pressing the back of his hand under his bleeding nose, staring through the churning dust at John as the helicopter tilts and then rocks up off the ground. John holds his gaze for a second, and then twists away, arm extended as he points towards something, shouting instructions to the soldiers still on the ground.

“That was quite impressive,” Blackwood says, bumping down to sit on the bare metal floor next to Sherlock.

Sherlock turns his head, looks at Blackwood with a glare that doesn’t quite congeal properly.

“He really likes you,” Blackwood says, his grin a white slash in his blackened face.

 

July 14th
Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar province

Sherlock is back in the two-bedded quarters he and John shared two nights ago. He’s sitting on one of the narrow beds, holding a wrung-out towel to the right side of his face. He’s crumpled and grimy, and his hair is tangled in dust-dulled locks around his face. There’s a crust of black-red blood inside his nostril; his lips are cracked, with a hair-fine split traced in red on the lower one. There’s a soft rap on the door, and it opens.

“Can I come in?” John asks from the threshold.

Sherlock turns his head to look at him, mouth curling instantly.

“Yes,” he smiles.

John sets his rifle against the wall inside the door, props his helmet on top of it, and pushes the door closed again. Sherlock lowers the towel from his face, revealing a purple-red bruise on his cheekbone. John, still wearing his body armor, comes to crouch at Sherlock’s feet and looks up into his face. Sherlock stares back, his smile glittering in his eyes as well as shaping his lips. John looks down, and takes the towel out of Sherlock’s hand.

“If you ever do something like that again, I will seriously kill you,” he says gently.

He reaches up to wipe the blood away from Sherlock’s nostril. Sherlock flinches back slightly, but then forces himself to hold still under John’s careful touch.

“You can take whatever insane bloody risks you like,” John says, “but it’s my job to take them with you, okay?”

Sherlock lowers his eyelids, lifts them, a gestural acknowledgment.

“Do you carry on like this at home?” John asks.

Sherlock’s cheeks crease in an almost successfully suppressed smirk.

“Jesus,” John says wearily. “Well - it’s fair, at least.”

Sherlock tips his head slightly, questioning.

“I’ve avoided getting involved with anyone from home because – it didn’t seem right for them to have to worry about me, here,” John says, his frown melting into a rueful smile. “At least with us – you can worry about me here, and I can have shitting nightmares about what you’re getting yourself into in London.”

Sherlock’s grin opens the split in his lower lip enough for the blood to bead a little. John swipes it away again with the towel.

“What happens now?” Sherlock asks.

“Now – we fuck each other one more time, and we put you on a plane and get you the hell out of here before anything else happens to you,” John says.

Sherlock touches dirty fingertips to the curve of John’s eyebrow, where traces of black grease cling to the roots of the fair hairs.

“Do you think it’ll be easier the second time?” Sherlock says very softly. “Saying goodbye?”

John tips his head, his gaze sliding away from Sherlock’s and then coming back very deliberately.

“No. I don’t think it will,” he says.

Sherlock nods, just once, and John pushes up from his crouch to rest on one knee as he brings his mouth to Sherlock’s.

Chapter Text

July 14th, continued
Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar province

Sherlock’s lips have roughened and reddened. John ghosts his mouth against Sherlock’s, his hands - fingerprints and nail edges etched in beige-gray dirt - lift to Sherlock’s face, thumbs stroking lightly over Sherlock’s cheekbones. The press of their mouths deepens and Sherlock winces a little at the sting. When John draws back, there’s a minute imprint of Sherlock’s blood on his lower lip. Sherlock touches it with his thumb, and wipes it away carefully.

“I feel like I’ve been saying goodbye to you since the moment I met you,” he says softly.

John closes his eyes for a second, and when he opens them again they’re dark, and complex with hunger and unhappiness. He breathes slowly, deeply, just leaning into the hurt, letting it be what it wants to be. Sherlock shakes his head slightly.

“I mean - it’s worth it,” he says, his voice low but strong. “I’d have come a lot farther for a lot less than this.”

One of John’s hands slips from Sherlock’s cheek, back into his hair, fingers clenching on the dusty tangle. Sherlock bends his head, pushes his chin forwards, and John’s open mouth cuts across his, hard and half desperate, but very deliberate. John winds an arm around Sherlock’s neck, and Sherlock clutches at John’s shoulders. Their kiss turns to gasping, grabbing at the air in each others’ lungs, a mutually smothered groan sounding in someone’s throat.

“John - John,” Sherlock murmurs.

John pulls back and his hands go to the front of Sherlock’s shirt, undoing the few buttons that are still fastened. He pushes the crumpled, clammy cotton out of his way, and strokes his splayed fingers from Sherlock’s chin down to the waist of his pants. There’s a distinct transition of color developing on Sherlock’s skin, from his throat where a faint flush overlies the first hint of gold, to his chest where the skin is still ivory pale. John rises up, pulls Sherlock down with a hand on his nape, and mouths the bridge of Sherlock’s nose, where the skin has darkened to rose-gold.

“John,” Sherlock says, grasping at John’s arms.

John leans back, tonguing his own lips and pulling them between his teeth as he tears one shoulder tape and the corresponding waist tape of his body armor open. He shrugs the empty carapace off and dumps it next to him. Sherlock leans forwards and starts pulling John’s shirt buttons open, his hands pale against the black and gray camouflage cloth despite grime and the coming gold of his skin. John peels his cuffs open and strips his shirt off, all elbows and rolling shoulders. He drops his shirt and pulls his tee shirt off from behind his head. His dog tags ring on their chain as they slides sideways and fall against his chest. The skin over his breastbone is dusky with ingrained dirt, the hairs looking darker and thicker than they should.

Sherlock makes a stifled sound low in his throat, and slithers off the edge of the bed to sit on the floor, knees drawn up and thighs splayed on either side of John. John leans into him, bracing himself with a hand on Sherlock’s thigh. John looks him over, eyes flickering intently from hairline to eyes, to the purple-red bruise on his cheekbone, and down to his mouth.

“Someday, I’m going to spend a week in bed with you,” Sherlock says, his eyes fixed on the faint quirk of John’s thin lips.

“Count on it,” John says, his smile slight but sure.

He runs his hand down Sherlock’s chest, down the smooth skin of his stomach to the waist of his pants. He stares into Sherlock’s eyes, his own twitching narrow, as he tugs Sherlock’s belt open and twists Sherlock’s fly buttons out their buttonholes. Sherlock stares back, mouth open, breath coming in long, shaky waves. John scoops a hand into the open front of Sherlock’s pants, fingers pushing into the narrow space between khaki and cotton. Sherlock’s breath turns even shakier, and he catches hold of John’s wrist.

“Inside,” he murmurs. “On my skin - don’t tease me, touch me - touch my prick.”

John pulls his hand free, dips again, his fingers scooping into Sherlock’s underwear this time. Sherlock’s nostrils flare as he breathes deeply, momentarily satisfied with the touch of John’s callused palm on his cock. John grips him, twists his hand so that his wrist pushes the front of Sherlock’s underwear aside a bit. Sherlock tilts to one side, easing his weight off one buttock enough to let him push his pants and underwear down slightly, then tilts to the other side and eases them down a bit more. John's hand moves more freely in the enlarged space. He reaches down, palming Sherlock’s balls and tugging them gently. Sherlock lets his head fall back onto the edge of the bed, eyelids fluttering heavily.

“Oh God,” he says softly. “I get hard the second I know you’re going to touch me.”

John’s mouth curls crookedly. He draws his fingers up the underside of Sherlock’s erection, then grips him and slides his hand slowly downwards, drawing Sherlock’s foreskin off the already wet flesh of his glans. Sherlock groans loudly, clenches his behind and thighs, and pushes himself up into John’s fist. John works his grip on Sherlock’s cock, firm, slow strokes that have Sherlock shuddering and squirming in less than a minute, while John’s eyes cut along every line of Sherlock’s face.

“Oh God,” Sherlock grimaces, rocking up to meet each downward slide of John’s fist. “Fuck me - ride me, something - anything - I need more of you than this.”

John stands up, his hands at his belt and then his fly buttons. Sherlock is reduced to reaching out and gripping a fistful of the dirty, thick fabric of John’s camouflage pants, just below the left knee. John pauses for a second, staring down at Sherlock while Sherlock gazes up at him, eyes nakedly pleading for some reprieve from reality. John turns his face away, then twists out of Sherlock’s grasp long enough to dig the Vaseline tube out of his field pack. Sherlock wriggles his pants and underwear down his thighs and onto his shins.

“Shit – boots,” he mutters.

“It’s fine,” John says, “just – spread your knees.”

Sherlock shoves his clothing down until it jams on the bulk of his boots, tethering his ankles together, and splays his knees as apart. John steps into the diamond of his bent legs, and pushes his own pants down until they bundle around his knees. He hooks his thumbs into the top of his underwear and works that down, too. His cock comes free, thick and hard and darkening at the head. Sherlock gives a muffled groan, his hands skimming up the backs of John’s legs, then over his hips and down onto his thighs.

“Give me your hand,” John says, clicking the cap of the tube open.

Sherlock unfurls his right hand, and John stripes the greasy ointment thickly across the palm. Then he stripes his own left hand generously, too. He closes the tube and tosses it onto the bed behind Sherlock. He goes down onto his knees, tucking his heels through the arches of Sherlock’s knees. Sherlock draws his feet up until his boot heels are braced just behind John’s. John leans in; the space where their bodies meet is constrained and complicated, but they manage to get their hands on each other’s cocks, and their chests half-pressed together, and their mouths close enough to catch each other’s heated exhalations and sipping gasps as their hands slide, and slip, and squeeze.

John starts to rock his bodyweight forward and back in concert with the movement of his fist on Sherlock’s cock, while Sherlock’s pushing his hips up with each stroke his hand on John’s cock. It takes little more than a shift of his knees under Sherlock’s thighs, and a guiding hand on Sherlock’s wrist to rearrange them so that John’s cock is pushed down between Sherlock’s legs. Sherlock groans deeply, his head falling back on the edge of the bed and his eyes falling closed. John stares at him, at the heavy flicker of his eyelashes as he angles John’s cock, pushes him into the cleft of his behind, and smears the head of John’s cock across his anus.

“Oh God,” Sherlock says. “Yes, always - yes.”

He draws John in by the grip on his cock, and John pushes up, catching his lower lip in his teeth and biting as he manages the sudden heat and pressure of Sherlock’s body engulfing him. He pulls back a bit, exhaling deliberately, and then pushes in again. Sherlock jerks his head up, eyes wide, and catches John’s face in his hand, cupping the angle of John’s jaw and the cleft tip of his chin as if they’re infinitely fragile, and utterly priceless.

“Oh God,” Sherlock gasps, as John pushes in farther. “Oh my God.”

John’s breath sounds in his nostrils, and his eyes turn soft and hooded. Sherlock’s breathing is chaotic, his body trembling as he eases right down into John’s lap. John’s hips roll back a little, then rock upwards again.

“Oh God, touch me,” Sherlock says, his hand closing around John’s grip on his cock.

John caresses him, strong fingers encircling his shaft, stroking slowly up and down. Sherlock moans, his spine arching as he lifts himself up out of John’s lap a little, and then yields back down again, and the friction of John’s cock in his behind makes him groan brokenly. John grins at him, open-mouthed and breathless, his fist working steadily on Sherlock’s cock and his hips rolling relentlessly under him.

“Oh God, so good, so good,” Sherlock says, arching back again, his head thrown back as he palms sweat off his face. “Oh fuck, yes.”

“Oh Christ that’s good,” John marvels.

Sherlock clamps his knees on John’s sides. With his feet flatter on the floor he can brace himself and lift himself higher, with his shoulders half-supported on the edge of the bed. John moves with him, coming up onto his knees more, bringing the strength of his thighs to bear on his thrusts. Sherlock’s breath snaps out with each push of John’s cock into him, the rhythm turning edged and unkind.

“Fuck, yes,” Sherlock pants.

He strains, his belly caving away from his ribs as he bends farther backwards.

“Come for me,” John mutters roughly, his hand moving quickly on the head of Sherlock’s cock. “I can feel you getting close – come for me.”

Sherlock whines, twists, trying to cheat enough sensation from John’s cock and John’s hand. He grimaces, tensing, and then shakes his head sharply as he tries to relax into what John’s doing.

“I can’t I – oh God – oh there,” Sherlock groans.

He flexes forwards, breath shattering and eyes wide as his semen spurts out from John’s fist, striping onto his own chest and then his stomach, and then a last helpless pulse that falls across his hip.

“Oh God, oh God,” he says, his breath sobbing out through his parted lips.

John’s gasping open-mouthed, his body moving with insistent haste, but he drags himself back and out of Sherlock’s body abruptly enough to make Sherlock clap a hand over his own mouth to smother his cry at the intensity of it. John grips his own cock, rubbing feverishly, and almost at once he grunts his breath out, and his semen spurts across Sherlock’s hip.

“Damn,” John says, and he leans farther over Sherlock, and the next spurt stripes across and over the ribbon of Sherlock’s own semen on his stomach.

“Oh, fuck,” Sherlock whispers, the double line of fluid suddenly the most spectacular thing he’s ever seen.

John’s cock pulses in his fist once more, dribbling a few spots of liquid into Sherlock’s pubic hair, and onto the softening shaft of his cock. John’s gasping for breath, and curling forwards over Sherlock as if he can hardly keep himself on his knees. He lets go of his cock, and strokes his hand down Sherlock’s body, from the sweaty, dust-grimed hollow of his breastbone, down through the mingling lines of semen on his stomach. Sherlock watches John’s fingers trailing the cloudy fluid across his skin.

“That means we’re married, or something, right?” he grins, looking up to meet John’s laughing eyes.

“Yeah,” John says, bending in until he can rest his forehead against Sherlock’s. “That’s exactly what it means.”

Sherlock lifts a hand to John’s neck, fingertips slipping on sweat.

“I do,” Sherlock murmurs.

“I do, too,” John says, and then, pulling back a bit, “Christ, we reek. Shower?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, and they peel apart, both grimacing at the mess smeared across their stomachs.

Later, when the sky is just beginning to lighten, John is lying naked on one of the beds. He’s flushed pink from the shower, his hair still bristled damply, and freshly shaved. Sherlock, also clean and damp and shaved, is sitting naked on the floor with his shoulders against the side of the bed and his head tipped back, John’s fingers idling in his hair.

“Six months until you’re done with this tour,” Sherlock says. “Then what?”

“Then our gracious monarch will offer me another two years,” John says, twisting a soft dark curl around one finger. “And I’ll accept - realistically, I’m only good for another three or four years of front line combat. They’ll kick me upstairs a rank after that.”

Sherlock nods fractionally.

“But, I'll have two – no, three months leave in between this tour and the next,” John says.

Sherlock hums low in his throat, pushes his head back farther so John can see his smirk.

“Gorgeous,” he beams. “Twelve weeks of you.”

“Jesus, I’ll be lucky to get out of that alive,” John says.

Sherlock exhales silent laughter. John slips his hand from Sherlock’s hair and drops it to his shoulder instead.

“If you - ” John starts to say.

There’s an immense boom somewhere outside, with a crash at its core like lightning in a roll of thunder.

“What the - ?” Sherlock gasps, sitting bolt upright.

“Get dressed,” John says, rolling up and off the side of the bed.

He glances out the window. There’s a plume of black smoke unfurling from the low hills off to the west, reaching up into the graying sky. Sherlock exhales hard, even as he turns away and drags clean clothes out of his backpack. John digs into his own pack and pulls out a fresh set of pale camouflage clothing. They’re both buttoning and buckling and tying bootlaces when there’s a pounding on their door.

“Come,” John says.

“We just had a chopper shot down,” Murray announces as he opens the door.

John glances at Sherlock.

“Yeah,” Murray says, “the chopper that was supposed to take Mister Holmes to Kabul airport to connect with a plane out.”

“That’s a hell of a coincidence,” John says.

“They're not going to let me leave,” Sherlock says, and his glance at John is a confused mix of outrage and dawning relief.

“We have other choppers,” Murray says.

“And they have other missiles,” Sherlock says. “You’ve just lost a pilot and co-pilot, haven’t you? So, another pilot and co-pilot, and myself … you could try for five deaths in one morning.”

“You can’t stay here,” John protests, “just – waiting for them to - ”

“Where do you suggest I go?” Sherlock asks, his mouth twisting in half plaintive amusement. “They knew the second I walked into the hotel in Kabul. They’re watching for me.”

“Somewhere,” John insists. “Anywhere that’s not a bloody public thoroughfare like this place. Somewhere we control who comes and goes, somewhere a stranger would be spotted right away - ”

He stops, his expression smoothing from angry frustration to sudden inspiration. He looks at Murray, who shakes his head, not understanding.

“FOB Sangin has a two hundred and twenty-five men in it,” John says. “We all know each other by sight.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Murray says. “I like this plan even less than the one where we almost blow him up.”

“How would you even get me there?” Sherlock says, but his eyes are sharp with intent. “My name was on the flight manifest for that chopper and - ”

“So we don’t put your name on the manifest,” Murray says.

Sherlock turns on him, wrinkling his nose impatiently.

“They’re not just reading the paperwork,” he says sharply. “They’re here, on the base, or at least they have informants here - ”

“He does stand out like a sore thumb,” Murray admits to John.

“You hide a tree in a forest,” John says. “There’re a hundred thousand coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, and most of them are white men under the age of thirty-five – they can’t look at every face on every chopper.”

Sherlock’s eyes flash ice-bright with delight, but then he shakes his head again.

“No good,” he says, turning his shoulder and bending his head a little, so that Murray is shut out of the connection of intent gaze between him and John. “The quartermaster’s requisition orders – if they look for a paper trail and see that somehow a soldier needed complete outfitting after he reached Kandahar - ”

“So we’ll scavenge,” John says, and turns to Murray. “Find my guy Hinde. Tell him I need his spare combat dress. Give me your field pack, and scare up a rifle out of the slush pile.”

“Done,” Murray says, already leaving the room.

John digs into his own pack, pulls out a flat metal box, and flips it open. He rattles through the instruments and extracts a fine-bladed scissors. Sherlock unbuttons his shirt again, strips it off, and drops it on the nearest bed.

“In the bathroom,” he says, moving that way. “We can wash the evidence down the toilet.”

He walks into the bathroom and sits down on the closed toilet, straddling it with his back to the door.

“Do the back, I can manage the rest myself,” he says, leaning his folded arms on top of the toilet tank.

John squares himself, feet somewhat awkwardly braced around Sherlock’s. He combs the fingers of his left hand up from the nape of Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock’s curls wind silkily around his knuckles; he flexes his fingers straight and together, trapping the hair. He opens the scissors in his right hand. After several seconds of silence and stillness, Sherlock turns his head very slightly.

“John?” he prompts.

“Yes, I’m – I’m doing it,” John says sharply.

Sherlock twists farther around, his hair pulling free from John’s fingers. John scowls.

“John … I had no idea,” Sherlock laughs.

“Yeah, well – what? It’s not something you tell another bloke,” John says defensively.

“It’ll grow back,” Sherlock says as he turns away again, still grinning.

John flicks his tongue out of the corner of his mouth and threads his fingers into Sherlock’s hair with more determination. The scissors’ blades slick closed on the first curl. The lock retains coherence as it falls, then shatters into a cloud of separate strands against the crest of Sherlock’s spine, and ghosts on down his bare back. Another cut, and another, and John’s working deftly. A few minutes later there’s a rap on the outer door.

“Yes?” John says, without looking away from his task.

“Hinde, sir,” Hinde says from outside.

“Keep going,” John says to Sherlock, passing the scissors forwards.

He goes out of the bathroom to see Hinde coming into the room carrying a folded bundle of pale camouflage clothing.

“I need to make your own way back without appearing on any flight manifests,” John says, accepting the offered bundle. “I’ll reimburse you for anything you trade or pay for ride-alongs.”

“With a face like this?” Hinde grins. “Sir, I can get a lot farther than Sangin for free.”

John shakes his head, smiling indulgently. He takes up the bundled holster containing the SIG and Sherlock’s body armor, piling them on top of the clothes in his arms. He shoulders part way into the bathroom and dumps everything on the floor, barely glancing at Sherlock, who’s standing over the toilet with one hand in the front of his hair and the other wielding the scissors.
John ducks back out again and slides the bathroom door closed behind him.

“Okay, go on,” John says, dismissing Hinde as Murray returns hauling a field pack and an assault rifle.

“I’ve got a chopper slated to take Bravo Baker section back to Sangin,” Murray says, dropping the gear on one of the beds.

John opens the pack Murray has provided and starts pulling some of the contents out, replacing them with Sherlock’s laptop and some other items from his backpack.

“Sherlock, how’s it coming?” he says loudly.

“Just done,” Sherlock calls back.

“Okay, Murray, thanks for the help,” John says, returning an armful of clothing and personal items to him.

“Good luck out there,” Murray says.

John lifts an eyebrow in acknowledgement.

The bathroom door slides open again, and Sherlock steps across the threshold. His hair is cropped closely enough to follow the contours of his skull, though the tips still break into disorderly attempts at curls behind his ears and over his hairline. The broads and sharps of his face, and the pale shock of his eyes, are even more striking now that they’re so exposed. The stiff, enveloping combat clothing, with the bulky body armor and shoulder holster over it, sit strangely on the angles and lengths of his body as he slouches, shoulders rolled and chin tipped down.

Murray exhales heavily. John scowls uncertainly, and Sherlock tilts his head quizzically.

“It’s – it’s still the best idea we’ve got,” Murray says grimly.

Sherlock’s eyes slip closed, his mouth curling into a complex smile. He opens his eyes again, still smiling.

“Please,” he says lazily. “I do realize there’s a bit more to it than - ”

He palms his hand from the top of his head down to his hairline, shifts his weight and straightens up – except, it isn’t anything as rudimentary as standing straight. It’s every muscle and tendon pulling into a new arrangement. His skull and shoulders and spine are sprung like a bow waiting for the pull; his hands are relaxed at his sides, but the fingers of his right hand are half-curled, the etched muscle-memory of thousands of hours on a rifle’s pistol-grip. His combat clothing and armor seem to find their proper places on his frame, everything pulling into long, parabolic folds. His expression smoothes, and at the same time tightens slightly – composed, but faintly wary, and eyes habitually narrowed from long days of too bright sunlight glaring on pale ground.

“That’s – that’s genuinely disturbing,” Murray says.

“That’s - incredible,” John grins, his eyes tracing up and down Sherlock’s body.

“Here,” Murray says, lifting the pack prepared for Sherlock and helping him shrug it on.

“I’ll clean up the crime scene,” John says, going into the bathroom.

Sherlock settles the pack on his shoulders and tugs the straps to his liking. Murray hands him the assault rifle, and Sherlock slings it onto his shoulder, canting the weight over the back of his hip with every sign of instinctive ease.

“Good luck, sir,” Murray says.

Sherlock nods and Murray leaves the room. John comes back out of the bathroom, bundling Sherlock’s discarded clothes together. He stops, drawing a deliberately deep breath as he looks Sherlock over.

“So, what do you think?” Sherlock asks, pulling a pair of tinted glasses out from one of his pockets and slipping them on. "Captain Watson, sir."

“I think – it’s time to move out, soldier,” John says with a rueful smile.

Chapter Text

 

July 14th, continued
Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar province

“Don’t stare at him, and don’t take up defensive positions around him,” John says, as the section starts to walk across the airfield to where the helicopter waits.

Bravo fire-team walks in front, in a loose group, with Blackwood somewhat behind them, followed by Henn, Hinde, and Sherlock more or less together, and John trailing. Halfway across the concerete, Blackwood turns around and starts walking backwards to keep pace with the group.

“You look sharp, Holmes,” he says with a slight smile, “but where’s your beret?”

“Inside my armor,” Sherlock improvises, his expression serious but his eyes vivid with amusement. “Not all of us feel the need to keep it dangling out of our clothing like a prosthetic penis, Blackwood.”

Henn explodes into laughter, both at Sherlock’s response and Blackwood’s look of shock at it. Blackwood grimaces threateningly at Henn and makes a ‘dial it down’ gesture at him, but then flashes Sherlock a grin and turns away again.

They climb aboard the helicopter as the rotors begin to turn. Henn takes a safety line and sits in the doorway on one side, but Sherlock sits on the floor of the helicopter bay, near the door at first but then shifting back a bit more to make room for John to climb in and sit down, too. The helicopter lifts, wheels in a low circle, and then sweeps upwards. Two Apache attack helicopters take off just behind them. Sherlock lifts his head from his apparently thoughtful examination of the stitching on his right cuff, and meets John’s glance. The Apaches slide past like two dragonflies darting through the air, and disappear into the distance. Sherlock looks away again.

After about half an hour in the air, John moves forwards and exchanges a few words with the pilot, and then hunkers back down next to Sherlock. The helicopter stoops, sweeping down to a wide plain of pale beige ground surrounded by softly rolling pale beige hills.

“School tour!” Henn crows.

Dust billows in the rotors’ wind, and the helicopter sets down with a bump. Everyone piles out, dumping packs either in the helicopter or on the ground next to it. John glances around, and – apparently reassured by the vast emptiness around them, with no sign of human existence except the low rooflines of a settlement in the distance – gestures across his throat with his thumb, and the pilot cuts the helicopter’s engines. The rotors slow gradually, the thrum of the blades dropping in tone, then turning uneven, and finally falling into silence as they swing to a stop.

“Come on, I want to show you something,” John says to Sherlock.

Several of the men have moved away from the helicopter, just wandering, and occasionally stopping to scuff the dirt with the side of a boot. Henn stoops and picks up something small from the ground.

“Got one,” he says to no one in particular.

“What are they doing?” Sherlock asks, as he and John walk away from the helicopter.

“Collecting shells,” John says.

Sherlock’s brows quirk, fold together in slightly perplexed annoyance. John glances sidelong at him, his smile very slight but his eyes glittering. He looks away again, down at the ground, and drops to his haunches.

“Like this,” he says, plucking a curved fragment of rusted metal from the dirt.

He stands again, and passes it to Sherlock.

“Bit of casing from a forty-four millimeter anti-tank shell,” he says.

“What is this place?” Sherlock asks.

“Well, that’s the Maiwand district center over there,” John says, gesturing to the roofs in the distance, “and Khush-i-Nakhud’s over there and here’s where the battle of Maiwand was fought in eighteen eighty. Twenty-five hundred British and Indian troops against twenty-five thousand Afghans.”

He drops his chin slightly, looking up at Sherlock from under his brows.

“The Afghans won,” he smiles.

Sherlock watches him intently. John’s expression turns more serious. He pivots, gesturing to a faint encircling rise in the terrain that stretches three-quarters of the way around the place where they’re standing.

“There’s a seasonal river-course running right around this,” he says. “By midsummer it’s dry, or nearly dry. The Afghan cavalry came out of ambush from there, and overran the British lines. The British fought from around noon until nightfall, mostly just trying to keep a retreat open for the wounded to get away. In the end, eleven men were holding out in a compound garden over there – it’s long gone, but you can see the marks of the walls’ foundations – and rather than be picked off one at a time by the snipers, they made a charge. Eleven of them, against twenty-five thousand.”

Sherlock glances along the horizon, but almost instantly his gaze falls back to John’s face. John clasps his hands behind his back and rocks his weight on his heels a little.

“They didn’t have anti-tank shells in eighteen-eighty,” Sherlock prompts gently.

“Hmm? Oh, no. That’s from the nineteen eighties – probably manufactured in Russia, and almost certainly fired against a Russian tank,” John says with a slight smile, “but you can find rifle bullets from the battle – horseshoe nails, bits of bones. Henn found a cap badge from the 66th Berkshire Foot last year, but it’s unusual to find anything that good; the ground’s been picked over pretty well by now. There’re places in the Gandara valley where you can find arrowheads, and bronze strips that went on the ends of the bows – from Alexander’s army.”

Sherlock nods, and looks from horizon to horizon again with more care.

“Whatever the hell it is that’s wrong with us, Sherlock,” John says tranquilly, “it’s been wrong with some men for a long, long time – and it’s not going away.”

He scuffs the ground with his foot, and crouches to pick something else up. He passes it to Sherlock, who peers at the misshapen bit of dark metal.

“Jezail bullet,” John says. “That’s from the battle. The Afghans made them out of all kinds of metal scrap, bound together with a bit of lead. Nasty buggers – like primitive fragmentation rounds. I wouldn’t fancy catching one of those.”

Sherlock exhales a slight smile. He tosses the bit of shell casing away, but keeps turning the bullet over in his fingers.

“Moran said that Rost wanted to make this war bigger, not smaller,” he says. “What would it take to do that?”

“More money,” John snorts. “We’ve got enough stupidity and enough courage and enough Taliban to do this forever, but we could use more money – on our side, I mean. The Taliban essentially has infinite finance.”

He glances at Sherlock, who shakes his head in puzzlement.

“The poppies,” John says. “Out of every gram of heroin used in the United Kingdom, nine hundred and fifty migs of it comes from here. And forty of the remaining fifty come from the other side of the border with Pakistan – and the Taliban controls it all.”

He smirks up at Sherlock.

“The American and British governments have been nickel and diming us, but Britain’s junkies have been more than generous in their support for the other side,” he says.

Sherlock’s frown is soft, almost sad.

“I – I didn’t realize,” he murmurs. “I mean, I didn’t really think about that or - anything, really.”

“Hey, come on, not your doing,” John smiles, touching him on the arm to summon him as John starts walking back to the helicopter.

Sherlock tucks the bullet inside the cover of his body armor, and follows him.

 

Forward Operating Base Sangin, Helmand province

“You have the use of Burrows’ quarters again, of course,” John says, “but frankly, at this time of the year this is more comfortable during the day if you can stand the lack of privacy.”

He and Sherlock are standing under the canvas roof of a two-man tent. The canvas side panels have been rolled up and tied into place, so the four sides of the tent are open to the air. The furnishings consist of two cot beds, a card table, and a square trunk that doubles as a seat.

“This is fine. I’ll work here,” Sherlock says and then, flicking a glance at John, “I’ll use Burrows’ quarters for not working.”

“What will you do?” John asks, as Sherlock drops his rifle and pack on one of the cots.

“Find the names of the other three men who were there when Rost killed himself,” Sherlock says, extracting his laptop from his pack and setting it down on the card table. “They’re the other three members of Rost’s conspiracy to scale this war up.”

“I don’t understand,” John says, shaking his head sharply. “The pictures – Ahadi’s family, and Harlow’s team, and Rost killing himself – publishing those pictures wouldn’t make anyone want to - ”

“How do you make money out of incendiary pictures, John?” Sherlock goads, as he kicks the trunk into place in front of the table and sits down.

“You sell them – or – you threaten to sell them,” John says, eyes widening with realization.

Sherlock’s smile is wide and warm, though his gaze remains on the screen of his laptop as he starts it up.

“They’re blackmailing someone with everything they’ve done,” John says, “but who?”

“You mean, who specifically doesn’t want Rost revealed as guilty of war crimes, treason, and suicide?” Sherlock says, swiveling his laptop round to show the screen to John. “I’m guessing, this man.”

“Edwin Rost,” John reads.

“General Daniel Rost’s younger brother,” Sherlock says. “He’s Chairman of an advisory panel to the Defense subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations.”

“That sounds kind of – minor,” John says.

“John, we are all as ants under the feet of men who hold minor positions in governments,” Sherlock says bleakly.

“Is that another way of saying the civil servants run everything?”

“No, it’s a way of saying that the most powerful men in the world don’t like to be noticed,” Sherlock says. “Edwin Rost has been arguing that the level of funding for the war in Afghanistan is perfectly adequate, the army is well supplied, and morale is high. Given his relationship to General Daniel Rost - ”

“People think he knows what he’s talking about,” John says.

“I imagine he’s keen not to have his brother exposed as an insane, murderous traitor.”

“Would undermine his credibility a bit, yeah,” John says. “Jesus, though, it means Rost killed himself to force his brother to – do whatever it they want him to do. Write a bigger check for the war, I suppose. Not much fraternal love lost there, then.”

“Cain and Abel,” Sherlock says thinly. “Osiris and Set – it’s the second oldest story in the book.”

“That’s a hell of a blackmail package they’ve put together,” John says.

“I suspect they want a hell of a check,” Sherlock says, lifting his eyebrows.

“So, how do you do this?” John asks. “How do you find the other members of the conspiracy?”

“I’ve got access to every record generated throughout Rost’s career,” Sherlock says. “Missions, meetings, reports, recommendations - somewhere there’s a connection between the members of the conspiracy and Ahadi. Ahadi trusted Rost, and the other three members of the conspiracy, literally with his life.”

“Yeah, bad decision, that,” John murmurs.

“There’s got to be some history there,” Sherlock says with relish. “Four men who not only hated Ahadi enough to kill his family, but enough to hide that hate and cultivate his trust.”

“Wait a minute. Rost’s been in Afghanistan on and off since nineteen eighty something,” John says. “He’s met – thousands of other military personnel in that time. You’re going to try and pick out three of them?”

“We don’t know for certain that the other three members of the conspiracy are military personnel,” Sherlock says scrupulously. “Though it seems very likely that they were, even if they’re not, now.”

“Okay,” John says in confusion. “So, that makes the field even wider. What about Moran? You think he’s one of the three?”

“I’m not sure,” Sherlock says, shaking his head. “He certainly doesn’t think of himself as one of them, just an associate - but they do trust him enough to let him know what Rost was after.”

“So, there could be three remaining conspirators including Moran, or in addition to Moran,” John says. “Jesus, Sherlock, that’s a hell of a lot of maybes. You’re seriously going to go through every contact Rost has ever had in Afghanistan?”

“It is going to take a while,” Sherlock admits, looking at John with a thin gleam of pleasure in his eyes.

For a second John’s eyes betray the same light, but then his expression turns darker.

“They’ll figure out that you’re not in Kandahar pretty fast,” he says. “They’ll realize you must have been transported out in disguise. Given enough time and analysts and drone images, they can figure out which base has one man too many. You don’t have an infinite amount of time here, Sherlock.”

“Then, maybe you should stop distracting me, and let me do my work,” Sherlock says with a faint smile.

He shrugs his shoulder holster off, and then his armor, and tosses them on the cot next to him. He turns his attention to the screen of his laptop.

“Anything I can do to help?” John asks.

“Just - close the door on your way out,” Sherlock says absently.

After a while he takes his camouflage shirt off and sits in his khaki-drab tee shirt. John keeps him supplied with water bottles, and Sherlock actually drinks because he’s sweating out enough that he isn’t unduly interrupted by the need to urinate. Periodically he digs his fingertips into the short ruffle of hair on the top of his head and scratches contemplatively. At some point during the day John leaves a plastic plate of food at Sherlock’s elbow, and Sherlock eats half of it without bothering to deduce what culinary reference the paste and mush and patty are attempting to make.

It’s late afternoon when eyestrain and sheer tedium force him to stop for a bit. He comes back to himself, aware of the sounds of distant voices, laughing and shouting and whooping. He closes his laptop and gets up from the desk. He slips the SIG in its holster back onto his shoulder, over his tee shirt, picks his armor up, and steps out from under the tent canvas, rolling his shoulders and twisting his neck to knock the knots loose. There’s still a solid kick of heat in the air, despite the lengthening shadows of early evening. He walks across the compound, towards the voices that are coming from the river.

The riverbank is high and steep, but there’s a more gradually graded track that goes diagonally down to the water, walled with sandbags to the height of a tall man on the side nearest the river. It’s intended to provide protected access for artillery and other heavy equipment, in the event of a significant attack from the far side of the Helmand. So it’s not until Sherlock clears the end of the wall and comes out onto the riverbank that he sees what’s going on.

There are twenty or so men on the river, most of them in the water, but a few more - including John - standing on the baked mud flats of the shoreline. About half of the men are bare-chested; a few more are in underwear, and the rest are animal naked. There’s a rope slung from one side of the river to the other, tethered to the bank at either end so that it’s level about eight feet above the surface of the water. Another length of rope is secured to the first, close to the near side of the river. The task at hand seems to be to bring the loose end of the second rope across the river, and secure it to the tethered one on the far side. The project is going badly, if enjoyably. Henn is standing waist-deep in the water close to the far bank, and Blackwood is attempting to climb up on his back with the end of the heavy, water-logged and current-dragged rope tied around his waist.

Henn, wet, is apparently a friction-free surface. Blackwood keeps gripping him at the back of the neck or around the shoulder, and digging a knee - Blackwood’s camouflage pants darkened with water - into the small of Henn’s back, but once he pushes up off the river bottom, he just slips and splashes back in a fall of coffee-colored water. Blackwood – his neck and shoulders and forearms tanned dark, but the rest of his skin stubbornly fair except for the gleaming black ink of the tribal tattoo covering most of his left arm - makes one more heroic effort and succeeds in pulling Henn right off his feet, so they both go down in a swirling, splashing mess to jeering, laughing applause from the spectators. Blackwood surfaces, pulling the rope from around his waist, and lets it go to stream downriver on the current.

“Shouldn’t you be - providing direction?” Sherlock says to John, who’s standing with his arms folded across his tee-shirted chest, grinning widely.

“Hell no, this is way too funny for me to interfere,” he says.

Henn surfaces, spluttering, and Blackwood pushes him under again with a flat hand in the face. Henn twists aside, breaks the surface again, and swims to the near shore. He stands up in the shallows, muddy water streaming off his skin, which is the same even pinkish-gold over every inch of his naked body. Blackwood swims across, too, and then tips down to float on his back, kicking up dirty looking foam with his bare feet.

“Isn’t this what the Engineers are for?” Henn says, wiping his palm across his nose and mouth.

“No, the Engineers are to buy pretty things for boys like you,” Blackwood says, coming up onto his feet and wading closer to shore.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Sherlock says, shrugging the SIG’s holster off his shoulder and leaving it on the ground with his armor. “Hinde, you’re with me. Blackwood, get the rope back.”

There’s a brief conference of glances among Blackwood, Henn, and Hinde, who’s standing in the river with his hands clasped behind his neck and just the top edge of his camouflage pants visible above the surface of the water. Some conclusion must be reached as Sherlock walks into the river, still fully clothed, because when he lowers himself into the water and starts to swim across the river, Hinde follows him. Blackwood reaches for the rope flowing along the current, and hauls it hand-over-hand until he has the end.

Sherlock and Hinde stand up in the shallows on the far side of the river, the water around their hips.

“More hands on the rope,” Sherlock calls. “Take as much tension off it as you can.”

Henn and several other soldiers move to obey, gathering the rope and lifting it clear off the water. Blackwood ties the end around his waist again and plunges into the deeper part of the channel, swimming across.

“You’re heavier and undoubtedly stronger than I am,” Sherlock says to Hinde, “so I’ll climb, you hold me.”

Hinde nods, his expression sharp and serious now that there’s a real chance of success. Blackwood comes up out of the current next to them, and unties the rope from his waist.

“I’ll climb first, then pass me the rope,” Sherlock says to him. “Once I’ve got it, your job is to help brace Hinde.”

Hinde glances up at the rope strung overhead, then sets himself squarely under it with his feet apart and dug into the soft mud river bottom. Sherlock faces him, lifts one booted foot and plants it on the front of Hinde’s thigh.

“Give me your hand,” Sherlock says.

They lock their hands - Sherlock’s left, Hinde’s right - together with interlaced fingers, a common fist, and then brace that against the smooth brown plane of Hinde’s right pectoral muscle.

“On three,” Sherlock says. “One, two, three.”
Hinde gives a deep grunt as he takes Sherlock’s weight, helps it upwards with his free hand by grabbing a fistful of Sherlock’s camouflage pants at the hip. Sherlock extends upwards, past the tipping point of Hinde’s balance but his right hand just closes around the rope overhead and that’s enough relief for Hinde to stagger and steady himself again. Sherlock draws his knee up and plants his shin on the wide crest of Hinde’s shoulder. Another stagger as Sherlock gets hold of the rope with his other hand, too, and plants his second shin on Hinde’s other shoulder. They settle, Hinde looping his forearms around the backs of Sherlock’s knees to pin him in place, and tucking his head down between Sherlock’s thighs.

“Blackwood, pass up the rope,” Sherlock says tightly.

He drops his right hand from overhead and reaches down as Blackwood reaches up. Because there are half a dozen men holding the rope up out of the river’s pull now, it doesn’t upset Sherlock’s balance much to take hold and haul it upwards. Blackwood sets himself behind Hinde and wraps his arms around the other man’s waist to brace him even more securely against the current and the shift of Sherlock’s weight. The laughter and jeering from the other soldiers turns to more focused shouts of encouragement.

“Go, Bravo Baker,” someone yells.

“Fuck that, go Alpha fire-team", Henn shouts, to more laughter and clapping.

Sherlock tries to whip the end of the loose rope over the tethered one, but it flips back too quickly and he has to try again.

“Come on, Holmes,” Blackwood urges, glancing up over the back of Hinde’s neck and up the arched front of Sherlock’s body.

Sherlock grunts as he gathers himself and tries again, whipping the end of the rope upwards, and this time it snaps around the tethered line and he lets go, leaving it hanging. There’s an outbreak of piercing whistles and applause from the men watching.

“Hinde, I can’t reach to tie,” Sherlock says, “I’m going to have to stand.”

“Do it,” Hinde growls.

“Henn, get over here,” Blackwood yells.

Henn plunges back into the water and swims across. Sherlock reaches up, grips the overhead rope with both hands again as he draws his left shin up and plants his boot on Hinde’s shoulder. Hinde grimaces in discomfort but stays steady. Henn surges onto his feet in front of Hinde and leans into him, bare shoulder and side into Hinde’s chest to brace him. Sherlock pulls himself upwards, sets his other foot on Hinde’s shoulder, rocks dangerously and then finds his balance again on the immovable structure of Henn, Hinde, and Blackwood. The other soldiers are yelling, whistling, the cries of Wahoo and Come on, Holmes coming thick and fast.

Sherlock wraps one arm around the tethered rope, and then uses his free hand - with some limited help from the other - to tie the loose end of the second rope into place.

Done!” he bellows as he yanks the last turn tight.

Henn twists aside from in front of Hinde. Blackwood unwraps his arms and shoves Hinde with both hands between the shoulder blades. Hinde goes down face-first and Sherlock’s thrown back, wheeling his arms in a frantic but fruitless grab at the ropes, and he hits the water with his back, throwing up a tremendous foam-frothed wave. He comes up coughing and cursing. Hinde surfaces, sleeks through the water a couple of strokes to him, and offers his right hand curled into a half-fist.

“Excellent,” Hinde says, and Sherlock - eyes narrowed as if he’s observing some heretofore unimagined reaction of chemical and chemical - lifts his hand out of the water and touches his loosely fisted knuckles to Hinde’s.

Hinde twists away, to be engulfed by a laughing Blackwood. Sherlock swims back across the river, comes up onto his feet, and wades out of the water. He stops on the edge of the mud flat, water streaming out of his clothes, and looks up to where John’s standing. The gleam of pride and pleasure in John’s eyes makes Sherlock twitch his eyes narrow in surprise, and then smile back at him with perilous delight.

Chapter Text

 

July 14th, continued
Forward Operating Base Sangin, Helmand province

Sherlock’s camouflage clothes and his boots are wet through, but no longer actually dripping water. He walks through the sandbagged warren of low, narrow hallways, with the SIG’s holster hanging from one hand and his body armor from the other. John follows, carrying Sherlock’s pack and his assault rifle. They go down the couple of steps into Sherlock’s borrowed quarters. The line of Sherlock’s head and shoulders and back unravels from elastic erectness to a softer slouch as he drops his holster and armor at one end of the red velvet couch dominating the confined space. John catches his breath; Sherlock turns, head tipped curiously and eyes narrowed intently.

“It’s – it’s fantastic, the way you can just turn it off,” John grins.

The sharp edge of Sherlock’s expression crumbles into a slight smile. John puts Sherlock’s pack and rifle down against the wall, draws the heavy canvas curtain across the open doorway, and moves towards him. John tilts his head up, and Sherlock bends his down a little. Their mouths are softly open and only a couple of inches apart, but they don’t kiss. They just breathe each other's breath, warm waves of air that taste of each other.

John’s gaze moves slowly over Sherlock’s face, tracing newly emergent details – the skin on the bridge of Sherlock’s nose darkened to warm gold and flecked with dark brown, the skin above his cheekbones gilded and flecked to a lesser degree, and the bruise on his cheekbone turned to plum-blue. John lifts one hand, his fingers curving in the air near Sherlock’s temple, but not quite touching as his eyes follow the abbreviated arc of one damp curl. Sherlock watches his face intently. John dips his fingertips into the short, slippery tendrils; his eyes flicker half closed and he groans softly.

“You still find me - acceptable, then,” Sherlock murmurs, his mouth curling into a slight smile.

“Oh, Christ, yes,” John growls, pushing closer.

He glides his hands down the front of Sherlock’s tee shirt, down the corrugations of wet cotton clinging to the narrow planes of his stomach, then fists two handfuls of cotton and peels it upwards. It clings tenaciously, but Sherlock raises his arms, narrows his shoulders, and it comes free. John drops the water-heavy bundle at his feet, and strokes his hand down the chill, damp skin of Sherlock’s stomach. Gooseflesh ghosts across Sherlock’s chest and arms; his nipples pull into hard, pale peaks.

There’s a tide line across the front of each of Sherlock’s biceps now, warm golden pink below, cool ivory above. John runs a thumb across each one, and down Sherlock’s arms to take hold of his hands and turn them. John thumbs the heated, flushed stripe bitten into each palm by the rough rope across the river. He lifts each hand in turn and presses a soft kiss to each palm. Sherlock’s breath shakes out of his open mouth. John glances up at him, and then his eyes drop again to follow the careful path of his own fingers, up Sherlock’s breastbone, along his collarbone, down his pectoral to circle around one nipple.

John strums his thumb lightly across Sherlock’s nipple, and Sherlock’s eyes flick closed momentarily. John flicks his thumb backwards and forwards deliberately, each pass making Sherlock jolt minutely, then presses and smears his thumb on the spot. Sherlock catches his breath audibly. John pinches softly, and Sherlock groans.

John’s tongue flicks from between his lips, licks at the corners of his mouth. he bends, his lips trapping the nipple he’s teased into exquisite sensitivity. His fingers skim across the silky hollow of Sherlock’s breastbone to his other nipple. The fresh contact makes Sherlock jerk and gasp a little. His body melts; he winds an arm around John’s shoulders to keep himself on his feet. His head tips back and his mouth blurs into a slack smile.

John takes Sherlock’s nipple between his teeth and tugs softly, his fingertips mirroring the pressure and pull on the other one. Sherlock’s breath fractures, falls from his parted lips in little gusts. John lifts his head to look at Sherlock, and Sherlock’s eyes flutter wide again.

John tugs Sherlock’s belt open, and then struggles his fly buttons open, the wet canvas around the buttonholes stiff and recalcitrant. Sherlock huffs his breath out sharply as he stares with utter fascination at John’s hands on him. John folds the two sides of Sherlock’s fly apart, exposing a tender vee of skin at the base of his belly. He hooks his fingers into the top edge of Sherlock’s underwear, pulls it out and down, letting Sherlock’s cock fall free and bob stiffly upwards.

“Oh,” Sherlock breathes.

John hooks Sherlock’s underwear down under his balls, so that he’s hanging exposed out of his clothes. Sherlock’s open-mouthed, breathing in soft, sharp little gasps of pleasure as John scoops his hand under Sherlock’s balls, cupping them, tugging teasingly on them.

“Oh God, oh fuck,” Sherlock sighs.

John grins. He bites his lip as he takes hold of Sherlock’s cock with his other hand and draws it down, draws his hand along it gently and gives a soft tug before letting it go. The shaft flexes and rises a little higher than before. Sherlock’s eyes slide almost closed, and he tips his head forwards to rest his forehead against John’s head.

John strokes Sherlock’s cock again, and again, each stroke ending with a maddening little tug and release. Sherlock’s cock hardens further, rises until it stands upwards along his belly. John slips his other hand from Sherlock’s balls, to dip lower and farther back between his legs, into the cool damp convolutions of clothing and skin. Sherlock is breathing slowly, but so deeply that each inhalation pulls him away from John fractionally, and each exhalation presses him close again. John’s gaze moves over Sherlock's face, devouring the heavy drop of his eyelids and the slurred softness of his open mouth. John slips his hand up out of the open front of Sherlock’s camouflage pants; Sherlock’s forehead furrows slightly, then smoothes again as John uses both hands to work his open pants and underwear down over his hipbones.

“Sit down,” John murmurs.

Sherlock frowns as he reluctantly pulls away and fumbles his way down onto the couch. He leans back, his eyes widening as he watches John go down onto his knees in front of him. Sherlock shifts slightly from side to side, easing his clothing farther down onto his thighs, and wraps his fingers lightly around the rigid shaft of his own cock.

John sits back on his boot heels, and gathers Sherlock’s booted right foot into his lap. He unlaces Sherlock’s boot, draws it off, and sets it aside. He peels off the wet sock underneath, revealing Sherlock’s long white foot, water-softened and marked with fine honey-colored silt around the nail beds. John curls his hand around the sharp bones of Sherlock’s ankle and draws his hand slowly down Sherlock’s instep, then he cups Sherlock’s heel and lifts that foot out of his lap, placing it onto the scuffed linoleum floor. He takes up Sherlock’s left foot and strips it bare too. This time, when he’s stroked his palm down from ankle to toes, he runs the ball of his thumb back up along the underside of Sherlock’s arch. Sherlock tugs his lower lip between his teeth.

John presses his thumb into the center of Sherlock’s arch and Sherlock groans. John carves a small circle of pressure; Sherlock writhes, his knees falling open and his eyes falling almost closed. He closes his fist more firmly around his own cock.

“Oh, God,” he breathes. “There is no reason that should be - ”

John cups his hand under Sherlock’s heel, lifts it as he dips his head, and puts his open mouth to the ball of Sherlock’s foot, just below his big toe. Sherlock’s body jolts. He arches up, his cock sliding through his fist.

“Oh God. Your mouth, oh God,” he gasps, his toes flexing and curling. “Oh God, so soft - ”

John smiles against Sherlock’s skin. He mouths slowly along the underside of Sherlock’s arch, while Sherlock squirms and squeezes his cock tightly. John drags his teeth delicately over the sensitive skin, and Sherlock bucks, faintly panicked.

“Oh God that feels - ” he begins, but he breaks off, slumping bonelessly as John relents and switches to pressing light kisses to his instep.

“Feels like what?” John prompts, lifting his gaze to meet Sherlock’s.

Sherlock’s features tighten slightly, eyes narrowing and mouth pressing into a small, careful smile.

“Like we’re not saying goodbye, right now,” he says quietly.

John smiles. He sets Sherlock’s foot down, rises onto his knees, and leans into the space between Sherlock’s splayed knees. He slides his hands up Sherlock’s thighs, over rucked clothing to bare skin, and then dips his hands into Sherlock’s groin, thumbs slipping along the cool creases between thigh and crotch, below Sherlock’s balls.

“No,” John says, his smile more in his eyes now than on his lips. “It really doesn’t.”

Sherlock shudders, as if past pleasure is still echoing through him.

“That thing with my foot,” he smiles slyly, “that was rather unexpected. You’ve been holding out on me. What else do you know?”

John hisses his breath in through his teeth.

“Take your trousers off, and I’ll show you,” he challenges.

Sherlock laughs lazily. John sits back, then stands up and steps aside. Sherlock sits up a bit and skims his clothing down his legs and off, while John strips his own tee shirt off and then pulls Sherlock’s pack from against the wall and dips into various pockets. John extracts a neat roll of brown canvas. Sherlock frowns, puzzled.

“No Vaseline,” John says, unwinding the cord around the roll and opening it out, “but every pack’s got a gun kit – and every gun kit’s got oil.”

Sherlock looks faintly appalled.

“It’s mineral oil,” John says, “just plain old mineral oil.”

Sherlock slouches lower, and lets his knees sway apart. John extracts a small bottle from the roll, returns the roll to Sherlock's pack, and comes to kneel in front of the couch again. He sets the bottle on the floor next to him.

“Come forward a bit,” he says, his hands on Sherlock’s thighs to draw him closer to the edge of the couch seat. “And open your legs – nice and wide.”

Sherlock smirks, though it softens into a lazy smile almost at once. He slouches forwards and spreads his thighs. John inhales noisily, and growls his breath out again appreciatively.

“Fuck, you are – fucking gorgeous,” he says, drawing his hands down the crests of Sherlock’s thighs, and then stroking back up along the inner surfaces.

He takes up the bottle and screws the cap off, tucking it into one of his pockets. He pours some oil into his right palm and replaces the bottle on the floor. He slides his two hands together, working his fingers past each other until his hands are completely slicked.

“Okay,” he says contemplatively. “Tell me if this is - ”

He slips one hand along the underside of Sherlock’s balls, coating the skin with oil, then closes his hand gently around the hanging curves and draws his hand forwards slowly until first one and then the other of Sherlock’s balls slide smoothly out of his grasp and fall free. At the same time, he closes his other hand around the root of Sherlock’s cock and pulls slowly up to the tip. The combined sensations make Sherlock gasp sharply, his thighs quivering a little and his hips tilting uncertainly.

“Oh – oh my God,” he says shakily as John scoops under his balls again, returns his grip to the root of his cock, and pulls slowly forwards and upwards again. “Oh my God.”

He spreads his thighs wider, wide enough to make the tendons in his groin stand proud from the flesh. John works both hands steadily, together at first, and then slightly off-set so that the pulling stroke over Sherlock’s balls comes just before the one on his cock. Each time, Sherlock arches and then arches higher before slackening back again breathlessly.

“Jesus - John - oh,” he says blurrily, rolling his head from side to side against the couch back.

“Ready for more?” John asks, his eyes dark but glittering.

“Oh – yes,” Sherlock says.

John reaches under Sherlock’s balls, beginning his forward strokes farther back, and farther each time until he’s stroking from Sherlock’s tailbone, over the already yielding muscle of his anus, over the firm curve of his perineum and then over his balls. Sherlock squirms restlessly.

“Oh God,” he gasps. “John - I need - oh.”

John strokes his fingertips over Sherlock’s anus again, and Sherlock’s body dilates greedily. John pushes two fingers in, driving a guttural groan out of Sherlock’s open mouth. Sherlock cranks his head upwards and his eyes open to stare at John. John smiles narrowly. He furls his fingers inside Sherlock’s body, turning the touch into a knot of pressure that he tugs teasingly close to Sherlock’s opening. Sherlock writhes. John straightens his fingers again and pulses them in and out, with a wicked two-hundred degree rotation of his wrist every few strokes, while with his other hand he jerks the top of Sherlock’s cock lightly. Sherlock rolls his hips, tries to spread his thighs even wider. He strains, lifting himself off the couch seat a little, his weight sustained by his shoulders against the couch back and his bare feet planted on the floor.

“Oh God, I can’t - I – oh, John,” Sherlock groans, writhing himself farther off the edge of the couch so that John’s fingers push deeper.

“Christ, you look fucking amazing,” John says.

“John - now - fuck me,” Sherlock murmurs, cheeks and lips and throat flushed feverishly.

John bends until his forehead is resting against Sherlock’s waist; his dog tags and a length of their chain pool against the base of Sherlock's cock.

“Oh Christ, this is so wrong,” John growls. “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Sherlock smiles blurrily and lifts one leg to rub the inside of his thigh against the curve of John’s bare shoulder.

“John, I’m not actually your subordinate,” he says.

“No, but you are actually on Burrows’ bloody couch,” John says, dragging his head up to look at Sherlock, “and I’m going to fuck you until you come on it. He’ll cashier me.”

“My brother’s disgustingly influential,” Sherlock manages to say around the soft snarl elicited by John’s fingers flexing inside him. “I’ll blackmail him into having you reinstated.”

“Blackmail him with what?” John laughs quietly.

“Oh God,” Sherlock slurs as John pushes and twists and crooks his fingers. “With the fact that his brother came all over Burrows’ bloody couch - oh God John - come on, now.”

“Turn around,” he says, withdrawing his fingers. “Get up on your knees.”

Sherlock drags himself back onto the seat of the couch and then twists, unfolding and refolding his long limbs. He kneels up on the couch, thighs spread, his feet and the lower part of his shins off the front edge of the seat.

“Back up a bit,” John says, guiding him with both hands on Sherlock’s hips.

Sherlock shifts his knees closer to the edge of the seat. He leans over, his spine and shoulders rounding as he rests his forearms along the top of the couch back. John draws Sherlock’s hips back experimentally, the added flexion exposing the glistening cleft of Sherlock’s behind.

“This is going to be really fucking good,” John murmurs, tipping his hips and pushing forwards a little as he considers the angle between their bodies.

“Oh God,” Sherlock says softly, as he bends lower and drops his forehead against one bare forearm.

John lets go of him and rocks back, both hands on his own belt and then his buttons. He opens his pants and pushes them down to his thighs. His erection is flexed awkwardly inside his underwear, already rock hard. He scoops his underwear out and down, and his cock springs outwards and then slants upwards. He picks the bottle of oil again, pours a bit more into his palm, and sets the bottle down well to one side. He slicks his palm along the length of his cock, working the oil right down to the root and then right up and into the slit of his glans. Sherlock groans softly, shifts his weight restlessly on his knees.

“It's okay, I'm right here,” John murmurs, placing his right hand flat at the small of Sherlock’s back.

He holds his shaft steady with his left hand and leans in, bending his knees and tipping his hips a little to bring himself to just the right height. He nudges his hips forwards, and the head of his cock slips easily into the soft circle of muscle. Sherlock catches his breath, and his fingers flex on the couch back. John leans in a bit more, and a slow wave of tension moves through Sherlock’s limbs as he’s stretched.

John lets go of his cock, taking hold of Sherlock’s hips as he pushes farther in. His eyes fall closed and his head drops forwards; he keeps pushing steadily until he’s buried balls-deep in Sherlock’s body. Sherlock squirms a little, and John’s eyes bloom open again.

“All right?” he asks huskily.

“Yes – no – I don’t know – oh move,” Sherlock gasps.

John flicks his tongue out of the corner of his mouth. He pulls his hips back, and his eyes widen as he stares down at his shaft drawing slowly out of Sherlock’s body.

“Oh God,” Sherlock says.

John pushes forwards again, a swift smooth stroke in until his pubic bone is pressed hard against the soft curves of Sherlock’s buttocks.

“Fuck, that’s beautiful,” John murmurs.

Sherlock makes a throaty sound of agreement. John draws back, slides forwards with a little more punch to his stroke. Sherlock’s breath comes out in a slight huff. John rolls his hips lazily, stirring his cock inside Sherlock’s body.

“Oh God,” Sherlock groans, lowering his hips slightly to narrow the angle of penetration, and then lifting them to deepen it again, “God that’s good.”

“Fuck yeah,” John says, his breath catching on what might be a laugh or a groan.

He works another long, rolling stroke out and back in.

“Oh God, John,” Sherlock says shakily.

“I know,” John says. “I know.”

They have a rhythm now, a smooth weightless rolling. John slides one hand over the small of Sherlock’s back, and up the sweat dampened skin of his spine into the short wisps of dark hair at the nape of his neck. Sherlock unfolds one arm from the top of the couch and reaches back to clasp John’s thigh so that he can feel the muscles shifting under the skin as he moves.

“Oh - fuck,” John groans, blinking sweat out of his eyes and throwing his head back.

Somehow the rhythm is getting away from them, turning hastier and hungrier. Sherlock straightens his supporting arm, bracing himself more firmly and at a more aggressive angle to John’s thrusts. There’s a soft, repetitive slap of flesh on flesh, and Sherlock’s breathing turns harsher.

“Oh, Christ, John,” Sherlock says loudly.

“You can’t make that much noise,” John says, his voice rough but shaky with almost laughter.

“Then you can’t make me feel this good,” Sherlock says.

“You want me to stop?” John asks.

“Don’t you dare,” Sherlock growls.

He takes his hand from John’s thigh and clasps it against his own mouth, then turns his fist and bites into the base of his thumb to stifle himself. He twists his hips, turning smooth strokes into complex coils of sensation for them both. John’s fingers tighten on Sherlock’s nape and hip as John jerks him back sharply to meet his thrusts. John starts slamming himself into Sherlock’s body with brutal snaps of his hips that break his own breath loudly, and drive muffled cries from Sherlock. Sherlock pries his palm from his mouth, reaches down to grasp his cock, and immediately has to grit his teeth again to stifle the groan of pleasure that rips out of him.

“Fucking Jesus,” John gasps, his spine bowing as he finds an even sweeter angle into Sherlock’s body.

“Oh God, that’s magnificent,” Sherlock grinds.

He bends his supporting arm again and dips so low he can bring his mouth to the top of the couch back and sink his teeth into the firm curve of the upholstery. He huffs his breath out hard, and the sound is almost completely smothered in the red velvet.

“Oh Christ I’m dead,” John says, a single punch of laughter breaking his breath.

Sherlock might laugh, too, if he weren’t so busy groaning. He slips his hand from his cock to his balls, stroking and squeezing and tugging.

“Fuck, I’m getting close,” John says hoarsely. “Are you – do you – should I - ”

Sherlock brings his hand back to the top of his cock and tugs lightly, quickly. In a matter of seconds his body goes rigid, every muscle trembling. His cock jerks; he slips his hand forwards, attempting to muffle his ejaculation with his fingers and foreskin, but one broad ribbon of semen hits the back of the couch and runs down towards the seat while he’s shouting into the upholstery.

“Oh fuck,” John rasps as he arches his spine, his hips shuddering. “Fuck – I’m fucking coming.”

Sherlock gives another stifled shout, though softer this time, and then a long groan. John bends over him, hands smoothing down Sherlock’s sides repetitively, and then coming to rest on his hips again. Sherlock unlatches carefully from the back of the couch. There's a damp circle on the red velvet, margined by deeply indented teeth marks. The rill of semen lower down the couch back has soaked in, leaving a whitish film on the surface of the fabric.

“That,” he says gruffly, “was seriously the best fuck I have ever had. Bar none.”

John rolls his hips enough to pull himself out of Sherlock’s body, cupping his slack cock in his palm to contain the spill of semen that comes with it.

“Yeah,” John says. “Yeah. No competition.”

Sherlock sinks down onto his heels, and then slowly unfolds and turns over to sit down with his feet back on the floor. He glances sidelong at the couch back, and smirks. John starts to laugh, just low, breathy little breaks that crease the corners of his eyes and wrinkle his nose.

“You are - ” he begins.

Sherlock’s smirk turns soft, and his eyes widen.

“ – everything,” John says gently, laughter falling away into something quieter yet more joyful. “All at once.”

Sherlock’s gaze skitters, falls away from John’s. He stares at his own thigh with great interest, while John stands silently over him. After seconds and seconds, Sherlock looks up again. John’s still smiling down at him, and this time Sherlock answers with a smile of his own.

A little later Sherlock, still completely naked, is stretched out along the length of couch, his head propped against one end and his feet pressed to the other. John, bare-chested and with his camouflage pants pulled up again but still open, is sitting on the floor next to him, one arm extended across Sherlock’s waist, and his head tipped down to rest on his own biceps.

“Do you really think you can find them – that you can figure out who they are?” he asks quietly. “Out of all the people Rost’s ever met here?”

“You do have a brain, John,” Sherlock says lazily. “It wouldn’t hurt to use it a little.”

John wrinkles his nose.

“The relevant pool isn’t all the people Rost’s ever met in Afghanistan,” Sherlock says. “There are quite a few people he met who are now dead; they’re out. There are people he met who are no longer in Afghanistan; they’re out. People who are definitively known to have been elsewhere in the country when the killings at Khush-i-Nakhud and Outpost Rath took place, or when Rost killed himself in Kabul – though, it doesn’t narrow the field a great deal, given how little time it takes to move around by helicopter. But realistically, we’re looking for people of similar rank to Rost – they have access to everything, they can mobilize whatever resources they need, and they’re high enough up the chain of command that no one questions their authority to do that.”

“Does that narrow it enough? For you to able to figure it out?” John asks.

“Perhaps,” Sherlock says uncertainly, “but there’s - John, if you were going to die, if you knew you were going to die, who would you want with you?”

“You,” John says without hesitation.

“Before you met me,” Sherlock says, his lips curling indulgently.

“Blackwood,” John says with equal alacrity.

“Thank you,” Sherlock says. “That’s all I needed to know.”

Chapter Text

July 14th, continued
Forward Operating Base Sangin, Helmand province

Sherlock is wearing clean, dry camouflage pants, a khaki tee shirt under an unbuttoned camouflage shirt, and dry boots. He’s sitting at one end of the red velvet couch, his right ankle resting on his left knee, and his laptop cradled in the crook of his bent leg. The damp spot on the top of the couch back has dried out, but the teeth marks around it are still perfectly visible. The margins of the stain farther down the couch back have been blurred by rubbing with a wet wipe, leaving the fibers of the velvet stuck together in minute spikes.

“Am I interrupting?” John says, brushing aside the canvas curtain covering the doorway.

“Yes, thank God,” Sherlock groans. “Do you have any idea how many associates a career soldier acquires?”

John quirks his mouth slightly.

“Yes, all right, I suppose you do,” Sherlock says.

“So, no leads, then,” John says as he steps down into the room.

He twitches the door-curtain closed again with the hand not holding the hanging shell of his body armor.

“Leads, maybe - useful leads - maybe,” Sherlock says, tilting his head from one side to the other, gesturing ambivalence.

John sits down next to him, dropping his armor at his feet.

“How long has Blackwood been your second?” Sherlock asks suddenly, his expression sharpening.

“Uh - almost two years,” John says, frowning a little.

“What happened to his predecessor?” Sherlock says.

Promoted,” John says with a slight huff of amusement.

“Did you like him?” Sherlock asks, his eyes sharperning.

“Wait, is this an ex-boyfriend question?” John says, his eyebrows lifting.

“Not remotely,” Sherlock scowls. “I’m trying to understand why you said Blackwood would be the man you’d have chosen to be with you when you died. Is it because he’s your best second? Or because he’s your current second?”

John’s eyebrows fold down into a tight frown, and he licks his lips carefully before he answers.

“It’s - he’s a good bloke - he knows his job,” he says hesitantly, “but - you don’t compare. You can’t. You - you live and die by your trust in these guys, and you can’t afford to think, Jesus, I wish I still had Maclaine with me. Maybe later, when you’re not on the frontlines anymore, you can compare - you can afford to know if you were closer to some than to others.”

“Ten years from now,” Sherlock says, and his eyes are soft and warm, “who do you think you’ll think of most?”

“Blackwood,” John says, his lips quirking again.

“Why?” Sherlock insists, when it’s clear John won’t continue unprompted.

“He was with me the night I shot a Hellfire straight through a house - it killed three out of the four men in there, and one of them wasn’t you,” John says.

“So, he shared a significant event with you,” Sherlock says carefully.

“Yeah, it was - passingly important to me,” John says.

“What did you want me for?” Sherlock asks. “When you came in?”

“I wanted to show you something – outside,” John says.

He stands up. Sherlock sets his laptop aside, unfolds himself and stands too. John goes to the alcove at the other end of the small room, strips the sleeping bag off the cot bed, folds it, and rolls it up.

“Oh, I think I’ve already seen this,” Sherlock smirks.

“No, you haven’t. Come on,” John says, picking up his body armor again. “Sidearm and armor – you don’t have to put them on, but you need to have them with you.”

He leads Sherlock through the narrow, sandbagged hallways. Before they reach the outer doorway, however, he stops, and extracts a large square of tan colored cotton from one of his pockets. He folds it into a narrow diagonal band. Sherlock turns his head aside slightly, perplexed, and deeply intrigued.

“It’s more of a surprise this way,” John says.

Sherlock arches an eyebrow, but he bends his head and allows John to blindfold him. Then John takes hold of him by the forearm and guides him forwards.

“Mind your head,” John murmurs as they pass through the low outer doorway.

Sherlock feels the transition from plywood and linoleum underfoot to dry dirt, and the stale warmth of indoors gives way to sweet night air. He hears the small click of a switch as John turns on a torch, and then they walk for several minutes across flat and then slightly sloping ground.

“Here’s good,” John says, halting.

He lets go of Sherlock’s arm, and Sherlock hears the drop of armor and holster onto the ground, and the flurry of the sleeping bag being shaken and spread out. John takes Sherlock’s armor and holster from him, and Sherlock hears them being put down too.

“Lie down, on your back,” John says.

Sherlock crouches and then kneels, his hands splayed and smoothing from side to side slightly as he reads the texture of the spread sleeping bag and the ground beneath it. He unfolds his legs, bumps himself forwards, and then stretches out on his back. He shifts his shoulders and hips to settle himself more comfortably, crosses his ankles, and clasps his hands on his stomach. He hears the faint shift and whisper of clothing as John sits down next to him, and then the click of the torch being turned off.

“Ready?” John asks.

“I think so,” Sherlock smirks. “I didn’t hear you unbutton, so whatever you’re going to show me isn’t going to be that shocking.”

“We’ll see,” John says.

He takes hold of the blindfold, leans back so that he’s not in Sherlock’s line of sight, and pulls it off.

“Open your eyes,” he says.

Sherlock’s eyes snap wide.

“Oh my God,” he gasps. “Oh my God.”

The night sky is fractured by a river of light running almost vertically up from the horizon. There are more stars in that river than Sherlock could have ever imagined exist. Hundreds of thousands of them crowd together so closely that the darkness between them is obliterated, turned to glowing rose-violet instead of black. Great clouds of stars fume off from the central flow of the river, billowing outwards into the dark, and tens of thousands of lights sparkle all the way out to the far horizon.

“Oh my God,” Sherlock says again, his voice shaking.

He puts his hands flat on the ground at either side of his body.

“Dizzy?” John asks with a slight hitch of laughter.

Sherlock nods, breathing hard through parted lips.

“I think your brain tries to interpret the gradient of light sources as motion,” John says, “and then it gets confused because nothing’s actually moving – it affects lots of people like that.”

Sherlock’s panting turns to a breathy grin. He reaches up with one hand, arm extended and fingers splayed.

“It looks like I could touch them,” he marvels.

John leans down onto one elbow beside him, staring at Sherlock’s face.

“I didn’t know,” Sherlock says, his hand still reaching upwards. “How did I not know this?”

“Just light pollution,” John says. “You can’t see the Milky Way like this in a city – even on the bases the lights are on all night.”

Sherlock turns his raised hand slowly, and furls his fingers as he studies the faint glow outlining his skin.

“That’s not moonlight,” he says narrowly.

“Moon went down an hour ago,” John confirms.

“It’s starlight,” Sherlock says. “You can see by starlight here.”

“Not well enough to stop you falling into a ditch, but – yeah,” John says.

Sherlock manages to tear his eyes away from his own hand and turns his head to meet John’s gaze. The dilated pupils of Sherlock’s eyes reflect the torrent of stars crossing the sky. John catches his breath, his own eyes dark and wide with wonder. Sherlock’s mouth softens, and he lets his hand drop against John’s chest and twist into the front of John’s shirt.

“John.”

It’s less than a whisper, less even than a breath, no more than the soft shaping of Sherlock’s lips, but John senses it anyway, perhaps in the minute flow of warmth against his own lips. He shifts his weight so that he’s leaning over Sherlock, and bends his head, and bends lower still, until their lips touch.

It’s so quiet that the brush of their mouths, the ruffle of their breath, and almost the flick of Sherlock’s eyelashes as he blinks are audible. The shift of clothing against clothing as John braces a hand on the ground at Sherlock’s side is distractingly loud. Their mouths move against each other, John turning his head from side to side slightly as he cradles their mouths closer, and tighter together. Sherlock winds his arms around John’s shoulders, and finally turns his head aside. His breathing’s harsh, deep and slow. John presses kisses to his eyelid and cheekbone and the corner of his mouth, while Sherlock manages to kiss the soft flesh under the corner of John’s jaw, and his ear, and the stubble-rough tip of his chin. Sherlock rocks his weight aside, drawing John more directly onto him. John yields, moves across Sherlock and braces himself with a hand on each side, his knees between Sherlock’s legs.

“You’re insatiable,” John murmurs.

“I need something to live on,” Sherlock says, his voice ragged, “something to remember when - ”

“ – don’t,” John whispers, brining his mouth back to Sherlock’s, blundering a little in the darkness so that his tongue catches the corner of Sherlock’s lips, but then Sherlock turns to meet him and they fit together again.

For a long time there’s just the kiss, just the press and turn of mouth and mouth, and the wipe of hands against clothed bodies. At last, John pulls away breathlessly, and skims his lips down Sherlock’s throat. His hands go to the already open front of Sherlock’s camouflage shirt, pushing aside the two sections of cloth while he tongues the hollow between his collarbones. Sherlock arches under him, drawing his knees up on either side of John’s hips, and gives a softly stifled groan of pleasure. John lifts, dips his mouth to Sherlock’s briefly, just long enough to taste the trailing edge of the sound, before he sways downwards again. He tugs at Sherlock’s tee shirt until he’s loosened the hem from Sherlock’s pants, slips his hand up inside it, and folds the cloth upwards with his forearm.

“Jesus,” he whispers, and then his voice unravels into breathless, open-mouthed kisses along the edge of Sherlock’s ribs.

He shoulders farther down Sherlock’s body, dragging lips and teeth over the taut skin of Sherlock’s belly while he works Sherlock’s belt open and thumbs his fly buttons out of their buttonholes.

“Oh God yes,” Sherlock says unsteadily, his fingers raking through John’s hair and down between his shoulder blades.

“Lift,” John murmurs.

Sherlock arches extravagantly, and John pulls back onto his knees and yanks Sherlock’s camouflage pants down onto his thighs. John shifts his knees to straddle Sherlock’s legs, which are tethered more closely together by his pants now. He dips to kiss Sherlock’s lips again; this time Sherlock lifts his head to meet him, but the kiss is half-undone and brief. Sherlock lets his head fall back, and John’s already swarming down his body, dropping quick touches of his lips at throat and navel. John exhales heavily, and Sherlock moves restlessly under him.

“Yes,” he breathes, his hand pushing down on John’s shoulder.

John slips his hand inside the top edge of Sherlock’s underwear; his cock is already hard, lying at an angle across his abdomen, the head against his hip. John curls his fingers around the shaft and draws it straight up along Sherlock’s belly. The top couple of inches protrude from inside his underwear, the slit smearing a little moisture below his navel. John takes a deep shuddering breath. He bends his head, and draws the bridge of his nose across the exposed portion of Sherlock’s cock. Sherlock writhes, fingernails biting into the nape of John’s neck.

“Oh God, yes,” Sherlock breathes as John trails his open mouth slowly over the same terrain.

John turns his jaw slightly, and cups his mouth over the top of Sherlock’s cock. Sherlock exhales hard, his body tensing as he tries to spread his thighs despite the constriction of his own clothing and John’s knees straddling his shins. Movement stifled in that dimension, he tips his hips upwards instead, pushing into the contact. John tongues over his glans, winning a breathless sound of pleasure low in Sherlock’s throat.

John’s kissing more than sucking, making slow swirling passes with his tongue and lips on the sides and distal surfaces of Sherlock’s cock. He curls the tip of his tongue under Sherlock’s glans, licking up the smear of pre-cum from his belly; Sherlock’s cock hardens further, pushing proud against the binding edge of his underwear. John hooks a finger inside the fabric, pulling outwards to ease the pressure.

“Yes, off,” Sherlock snaps.

Suddenly they’re both scrabbling over and under each other’s hands, trying to get Sherlock’s clothes pushed farther down. Sherlock’s cock flexes free, and John huffs a groan of pleasure as his fingers glance against rigid flesh and smooth skin.

“Yes, yes,” Sherlock murmurs, falling back gratefully.

John bends, bringing his lips to Sherlock’s cock. Sherlock’s limbs tense momentarily, and then relax. John works his fist on Sherlock’s cock, quick light flurries interspersed with slower firmer strokes, dipping his head to lick or kiss or briefly suck the slippery tip of his glans. Sherlock’s breathing becomes a strand of soft grunts. He reaches down to clutch at John’s shoulder, the nape of his neck. His boot heels scrape in the dirt beyond the edge of the sleeping bag as he arches, drops, and then arches again. He’s half struggling, his breath stuttering to a stop and then breaking into rapid shallow panting. John hums soft sounds of encouragement.

“Oh God – oh - oh,” Sherlock cries brazenly, though the sound of his voice is cut into instant silence by the emptiness around them. “Oh God, I’m coming - oh God.”

He arches, drawing his knees up and throwing his head back. John’s eyes are closed as he rides the long tremor wracking Sherlock’s body, and its slow unwinding, and the small aftershocks that ripple through him and leave him unraveled on the ground, turning his head weakly from side to side. John draws his mouth up the softening length of Sherlock’s cock, swallows, and sucks softly again. Sherlock makes a small, blurred sound in his chest. John swallows again, and then lets him go, lets Sherlock’s cock drop from his mouth to fall across his belly. John crawls up the length of Sherlock’s body and hovers over him. They peer through the darkness at each other, at the slight gleam of eyes and lips.

“I need to fuck you,” John says, his voice low and terribly ragged. “I need - ”

Sherlock doesn’t even speak, just gathers his limbs and pushes John aside enough to twist over onto his stomach. John drags down over him, nuzzling from the nape of Sherlock’s neck, down between his shoulder blades, into the hollow of his waist as John kneels up again.

“I don’t have anything to use,” John says, one hand curving softly down the round of Sherlock’s bare buttock.

“You’ve got spit, and I haven’t done more than wipe since earlier,” Sherlock says, pushing up onto an elbow and forearm, turning his head a bit.

“Oh Christ,” John growls, a broken sound deep in his chest. “Okay, but - you have to tell me if it’s not enough, okay?”

Sherlock’s answer is to drop his head down onto the sleeping bag, and spread his thighs as far as he can with John kneeling over him. John grips the folds of Sherlock’s pants and works them a bit farther down on the backs of his thighs. He smears his palms back up onto the curves of Sherlock’s behind. Sherlock murmurs approval, and John digs his fingers in harder, pushing Sherlock’s buttocks up and apart, and then down and together again. Sherlock writhes lazily under him. John just works Sherlock’s flesh like that until his breathing is harsh again, and he’s rounding his spine and rolling his hips under John’s hands. John presses Sherlock’s buttocks up and apart and holds them there; he ducks his head and there’s the wet rasp and breathy pop of his spitting messily. Sherlock jerks, gives a sharp cry of pleasure.

“I can’t even fucking see here,” John says shakily. “Was that - ?”

“Dead hit,” Sherlock groans. “Do it again, it feels fantastic.”

John laughs unsteadily, dips lower and spits again. Sherlock rubs his face against his forearm, fists his hands on the sleeping bag beneath him. John feels his way along the crease between thigh and buttock, then into the cleft, and then into Sherlock’s anus with two fingertips.

“Oh Christ you’re - fuck, you’re still wide open,” he gasps.

“Fuck me, come on," Sherlock says. "I need it, too.”

John extracts his fingers again, pulls back and up onto his knees. He wrestles his pants open, shoves them and his underwear down onto his thighs. Sherlock lifts slightly and bundles a fold of the sleeping bag under his hips so that he’s tilted up a bit. John stretches out over him again, his cock held in his fist as he blunders the head against the curve of Sherlock’s behind, finds the right alignment, and pushes in closer. John gives a long, shuddering gasp as he sinks down onto Sherlock’s back. For a moment he just lies there, his breath slicing noisily in and out through his teeth.

“Is it okay?” he manages to ask at last. “Is it?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, his voice almost fragile in its softness. “Yes, move, I - ”

John draws his hips back, and then sinks forwards again.

“Yes,” Sherlock breathes. “Oh, yes - ”

John rocks slowly. He’s straddling the backs of Sherlock’s thighs, his cock working a shallow angle between Sherlock’s buttocks into his body. John’s bowed forwards over Sherlock’s back, his hands splayed on Sherlock’s ribs. After a minute or two, Sherlock pushes up onto his elbows again, his head hanging down and his forehead almost brushing his forearm.

“Oh God, good,” he sighs as John’s thrusts turn a little deeper and more defined.

“Oh, fucking Jesus,” John whispers.

Sherlock reaches back with the arm not supporting his weight, grips John’s hand, and weaves their fingers together in a single fist at his waist.

“Yes, oh God yes,” Sherlock says, his voice rising as John moves faster and more forcefully.

“Sherlock – Christ – oh God,” John says.

He bows his head, and then lifts it again, the steady rock of his hips unwinding up along his spine and through his shoulders. His breath sounds in his throat, a repetitive catch and break like a soft grunt, while Sherlock’s voice unwinds in a steady oh of pleasure.

“Fuck – close – there, oh fuck,” John says, his body going rigid and his movements turning suddenly jagged.

Sherlock writhes under him, pushing up and back, coming almost up onto one hand as he tries to brace himself against John’s thrusts.

“Oh – oh fuck – oh fuck,” John gasps, as his body shudders and his breath fractures and falls away into a helplessly shaking groan.

For long minutes there’s just a rush of their breathing, and the fine tremor of John’s body. Their fingers loosen, but they don’t divide their joined fist. Sherlock eases down onto the ground again and lets his head rest on his bent arm. John straightens his legs out, his cock pulling almost but not quite all the way from Sherlock’s body as he stretches out on Sherlock’s back.

“Jesus, that was – that was just - ” John says breathlessly.

Sherlock’s response is a hum that ripples into slight laughter at its end. John shifts a bit, peeling away from Sherlock’s back, but Sherlock tightens his grip on John’s hand.

“Not yet … stay with me, just for a few more minutes,” he says, his voice blurred by exhaustion and muffled by the arm pillowing his head.

John murmurs agreement, lays his head down on the back of Sherlock’s shoulder, and closes his eyes.

July 15th

The sky is thin blue, and the sun is a pale golden disc just above the hills to the east. Sherlock and John are both asleep. Sherlock’s lying on his side with his face pressed to the back of John’s head, one arm bent and pillowing his own head, and the other one wound around John’s chest. John’s got one arm under his head and the other thrown back behind him with his hand splayed on Sherlock’s hip. They’re both fully clothed, their holsters lying on the ground above their heads with the guns carefully uppermost and grips towards them. Their boots and body armor are lying at their feet. The sleeping bag is tangled around them from hips to shins.

There’s a high, thin piping sound in the sky - not sweet, but piercingly pure. Sherlock’s eyes flicker open. He swallows dryly, and shifts a little, his arm tightening around John slightly. John stirs, murmurs a husky non-word. Sherlock pushes up onto his elbow, peering down over John’s shoulder at his flushed and stubbled face.

“John?” he says softly.

“ … hundred and sixty rounds,” John sighs, and then as his eyes snap open he says sharply, “bloody hell - what time is it?”

Sherlock husks a slight laugh. John reels his hand in and up in front of his face to look at his chronometer.

“Almost half past six - bloody hell,” he says again, not unhappily, as he rolls onto his back and sits up, pushing the sleeping bag out of his way.

Sherlock sits up, too. There’s another peal of the high, thin sound from somewhere high and to their right, somewhat behind them. Sherlock twists round and sees Henn standing a couple of hundred yards away with his head tipped back as he stares up into the sky. He’s dressed in his usual pale camouflage combat clothing, with his armor and hip holster on, but he’s not carrying his rifle. His left hand is bare; on his right he’s wearing a cuffed glove of rough tan leather. Sherlock looks up into the sky, following the line of Henn’s gaze, and spots the sunlit curve of a small raptor circling slowly high above.

“That’s Margaret,” John says, as he ties off his bootlaces. “Come on, boots, armor, sidearm, we’ll go over and introduce you.”

When they’ve put themselves back together, and John’s rolled the sleeping bag up again, they walk the short distance to where Henn’s standing.

“Morning, sir,” Henn says with an almost suppressed smirk. “Mister Holmes.”

“That’s quite enough lip, thank you, Henn,” John says placidly.

Henn’s smirk splits into a huge grin.

Falco peregrines,” Sherlock announces, staring up at the bird. “Does she come when you call? Or do you need a lure?”

Henn tips his head back and gives a piercing whistle as he lifts his right arm, his hand furled into a fist and dropped so that he’s offering the outside of his wrist. Margaret flurries in the air; the smooth upward curves of her wingspan crumple and she drops. She’s hardly thirty feet off the ground when she abruptly unfolds again, her wings beating her fall into a rising curve and then a fluttering stoop, and she steps down onto Henn’s wrist and shakes her wings before folding them smoothly on her back.

“Oh, lovely,” Sherlock says, eyes vivid with delight.

Margaret is about fourteen inches long from hooked beak-tip to flicked tail-tip. Her face, back, and the outer surfaces of her wings are a dark, brownish gray; her belly is ivory dashed with reddish black crescents, and the underside of her throat and the top of her chest are a deep apricot-flushed cream. She twitches her elegant little head from side to side, bringing each dark eye to bear in turn on Sherlock and John.

“Good girl,” Henn murmurs, extracting a bit of torn meat from a plastic bag partially tucked into his left thigh pocket and offering it to her.

Margaret snatches the meat from between his fingers with her beak, and then pins it down with one claw while she rips at it enthusiastically. Henn strokes his hand lightly down her back, over her folded wings, and tugs softly at her slightly splayed tail. John squints at the horizon, and then contemplates the sky.

“Nice day for a patrol,” he says.

“A decent intelligence analyst would look at the drone pictures for the infantryman who never leaves the compound,” Sherlock says.

John turns his head to look at Sherlock questioningly.

“They’ll assume a civilian won’t have the nerve to walk patrols,” Sherlock says.

“They’ll also assume an officer won’t be thick enough to take a civilian with him.”

“They’re wrong about me,” Sherlock says with a slight, crooked smile. "Are they wrong about you?"

“Yeah, but at least they’re underestimating you,” John laughs. “Come on.”

Chapter Text

July 15th
Musa Qala, Helmand province

They climb down from the Land Rovers at one end of a dusty street lined with blank-faced houses and a couple of open-fronted stores. There are a few battered looking parked cars and a few Afghan men in evidence, but the general impression is of desertion and semi-dereliction.

“What are we looking for?” Sherlock asks, tugging the chin strap of his helmet snug.

“Trouble, mostly,” John says with a humorless quirk of his mouth.

He pulls at the tapes of Sherlock’s armor and at the strap of his shoulder holster, and then taps the underside of his right elbow to adjust the angle of his assault rifle in his hands.

“I’ll be fine,” Sherlock says.

“You bloody better be,” John mutters darkly.

He hefts his own assault rifle and glances from man to man.

“Henn and Hinde in front,” he says. “Holmes and I are in the middle; Blackwood, you’re rearguard. Bravo team stays in the street – it looks okay but I don’t want any surprises.”

They move into position, Alpha fire-team in the shadow of the first building and Bravo in the middle of the street.

“Let’s roll,” John says crisply.

House to house patrol is always a slow business. Householders generally open their doors only after repeating banging and shouting for entrance. Perhaps the delay is a natural reluctance to have one’s home tossed about by heavily armed foreigners with dirty boots and no respect for anyone’s privacy; perhaps it’s because that’s how long it takes to hide whatever arms or explosives are at hand. If no one responds to repeated demands for access, then the door gets kicked in. The house may just be empty, or it may be empty and booby-trapped. This time the householder opens up after only a few minutes. He says something in Dari, smiling but in a way that doesn’t reach his eyes. Hinde smiles back and answers in kind.

“He says we search his house every other day and don’t find anything,” Hinde says. “I told him that meant he wouldn’t mind if we search again.”

McMath gestures the Afghan out into the street while Alpha fire-team files into the house, each man looking around warily and holding his rifle at the ready. The interior of the house is suddenly dim after the bright daylight outside; turning on the torch beams of their assault rifles produces only weak shafts of light through the dusty, gleaming half-light. Hinde and Henn move straight down the narrow hallway towards the back of the house; John and Sherlock turn aside into the room facing the street.

“Doorframe, corners, overhead,” John says, demonstrating how his gaze systematically quarters the room, the muzzle of his assault rifle tracing the same quick path.

The room is very sparsely furnished, with just a rope-strung bed frame against one wall, a wooden chest against another, and two low stools arranged on a large rug in the center of the floor. John steps closer to the chest and sinks down on one knee. He peers into the gap between the lid and the lower part of the chest.

“No wires, no contact pads,” he says.

He stands again, and flips the lid open with one hand. The interior is almost empty; a few strewn items of clothing are all that’s inside. John shifts the folds of cloth left and right with his hand, but there’s nothing concealed beneath them. He drops the chest lid again.

“Clear here,” he says.

“What about the rug?” Sherlock says, looking down.

“What about it?” John says.

Sherlock glances at him, the corner of his mouth curling slightly. He swings his assault rifle aside on its strap, goes down on one knee, and draws his gloved fingertips backwards and forwards across the rug’s surface.

“There’s sand in the pile,” he says, “but it’s not evenly distributed … look, there’s a distinct line from side to side where there’s more. And that edge - ” he jerks his chin toward the edge farthest from the doorway, “ – is more curled than the other ones.”

John stares at him, uncomprehending but intensely interested.

“The rug gets rolled up frequently,” Sherlock says, his eyes gleaming, “from the far side of the room towards the doorway, but not all the way – just about as far as here, where the sand settles out.”

“There’s something underneath,” John says in sudden realization.

Sherlock scrambles up; they shift round, hunker down, and start rolling the rug towards the door.

“Nothing,” John scowls, when they’ve exposed the broad, rather uneven boards of the floor; dark nail-heads dot the edges of each one.

Sherlock quirks an eyebrow and extracts a pencil torch from his leg-pocket. He goes to his knees, and then bends lower as he traces the torch’s narrow beam along the gaps between the boards. Each one is about an inch deep and half filled with sand and dust. Then, between two boards, the beam abruptly drops away into a deeper darkness beneath.

“Bloody hell,” John breathes.

Sherlock clamps his torch in his teeth and slips his knife from its sheath on his right calf. He hooks the curved tip under the edge of the board and prizes it upwards. It comes easily; when he lifts it free, it’s evident that the nails in it have been sawn off level with the underside of the board. He throws the board aside. The space beneath is narrow, deep, and dark, but even before Sherlock shines his torch into it the dull gleam of metal is apparent. With the torchlight, Sherlock and John can see the long slanting lines of half a dozen rifles lying one on top of another.

“Un-bloody-believable,” John grins. “You are – unbelievable.”

Sherlock suppresses most of his smile as he resheathes his knife and gets to his feet.

“McMath, we found something this time,” John says into his radio. “Zip him up, we’re taking him in.”

Sherlock draws his assault rifle back into his arms.

“Let’s take a look upstairs,” John says.

They step back into the hallway. Blackwood is standing just inside the open street door. Hinde and Henn are already on the upper landing, and John starts up the stairs. Sherlock glances at Blackwood as he moves to follow.

“Yeah, okay,” Blackwood says to him, as if they’re in the middle of some conversation.

Sherlock’s expression flickers through surprise, into a smile that widens to a grin as he passes Blackwood and begins to climb the stairs.

 

The open ground beyond the southern wall of the camp compound functions as a shooting range; several heavily pocked wooden posts and the scrub growth dotting the ground serve as targets. Bravo Baker section goes out in the evening, when the sunlight’s deeply golden and the shadows slant darkly over the ground. In the open air, the crack of the assault rifles sounds crisp and sharp edged, and the report of the handguns sounds as thin as firecrackers.

Hinde, Garrett, and Cullen take turns firing entire clips from their assault rifles under Blackwood’s intensely critical supervision. Henn, Barr, and McMath divide their attention among target practice and adding their own criticism of the others’ performance. Sherlock begins by firing several clips from the SIG, while John refines his stance with quiet words and light touches of his hands. Blackwood approaches with an assault rifle in his arms.

“Holmes,” he says. “If you’re going to carry it, you better know how to use it.”

Sherlock glances at John, who’s watching the exchange with mild amusement. Sherlock looks back at Blackwood and nods firmly. He takes the assault rifle from him, cants the weapon in his arms, and then lifts it to his shoulder.

“Pull it in tight, and push into it hard,” Blackwood says. “It’s gonna kick like a beast - give it nowhere to go.”

Sherlock nods, his shoulders and spine flexing tautly.

“Make all this solid and strong,” Blackwood says, thudding his fist lightly over Sherlock’s shoulder blade and ribs, “finger soft on the trigger, just like the SIG.”

Sherlock inhales, lets his breath spill gently from parted lips, and squeezes the trigger. The kick of the rifle jerks through his shoulders.

“Again,” Blackwood says. “Pull in, push out, make your shoulder hard and your hand soft.”

Sherlock fires again, and this time his shoulders just twist slightly to accept the force.

“Good. Let’s see some semi fire,” Blackwood says.

Sherlock thumbs the fire-selector, settles himself again, and fires a three round burst. The repeated thud of the recoil pushes his shoulder back slightly, but he leans into the impact and holds the rifle steady.

“Yeah, that’s not bad,” Blackwood says. “Keep this elbow up, don’t let it drag or it makes the wrist weak.”

Sherlock fires again. Blackwood nods in satisfaction, and steps aside, exchanging a slight smile with John. Sherlock fires the rest of his clip with increasing accuracy.

“Yeah, that’ll do,” Blackwood laughs. “Good eye.”

McMath, who’s been watching with a growing scowl, stoops to extract another rifle from the canvas bag at his feet and then walks towards Sherlock as he’s taking the empty clip from the assault rifle. Sherlock looks at the weapon McMath is holding; it’s longer, slimmer, more intelligent looking than an assault rifle.

“Here,” McMath says, “try this – one fifteen sniper rifle. You’ve too good an eye to be beating stuff to death with an eighty-five like the rest of these chimps.”

“Oh, here we go again,” Blackwood says.

Sherlock and McMath exchange weapons; Sherlock hefts the sniper rifle in his arms. McMath puts the assault rifle down and extracts a spotter’s scope from his bag.

“Down here,” he says, going down onto one knee next to Sherlock.

Sherlock sinks down beside him.

“Arse all the way down on your heel,” McMath says, “you’re not proposing marriage.”

Sherlock settles himself, weight on one heel and the other foot set at a slight angle for stability. He raises the rifle to his shoulder.

“The recoil suppression’s better than on an eighty-five, so don’t strangle it.”

Sherlock’s shoulders soften slightly.

“Don’t crowd the sight,” McMath goes on. “There shouldn’t be any dark parts around - ”

“Like a microscope ocular, I know,” Sherlock says, lifting his cheek against the rifle’s stock slightly to align his eye with the sight.

McMath lifts his eyebrows in surprise, and raises the spotter’s scope to his own eyes.

“Okay, see the scrub-tree with the flat top? That’s just about five hundred yards; aim for the trunk. The trick to this is, very still before you pull the trigger, while you pull the trigger, after you pull the trigger.”

Sherlock makes a soft affirmative noise in his throat. He stares down the rifle’s sight, blinking occasionally. His breath flows very softly in and out through his parted lips. McMath remains just as still and silent as Sherlock, apparently content to sit and peer through his scope indefinitely. In the pause between an exhalation and an inhalation, Sherlock squeezes the trigger. The shot report is soft and thin compared to an assault rifle, and Sherlock holds the recoil to just a slight backward jerk of his shoulder. The rocks to the left of the tree spout dust.

“Twenty-five feet too far left,” McMath intones. “That’s pretty fucking impressive for a first try.”

Sherlock quirks an eyebrow fractionally as he settles again. He stares down the sight and breathes gently as he waits for the minute eddies of movement in his body to taper away. He squeezes the trigger; the shot rings out as his shoulder shifts under the recoil. This time the left side of the tree trunk spews a shower of finely splintered wood.

“Clipped it,” McMath says. “You’ve got an eye, man; you’ve got a fucking eye.”

Sherlock permits himself a slight smile, and then settles again. This time it takes him fewer breaths to achieve stillness. He squeezes the trigger, the shot reports, and the center of the tree trunk splits pale and dark.

“Done,” McMath says. “That was lovely – I’ve seen blokes come out of commando training not a bit better than that.”

Sherlock turns his head to look at John. John’s head is bent, his eyes are fixed firmly on the ground at his feet, and he’s grinning broadly.

 

When John goes to Sherlock’s quarters later in the evening, he finds Sherlock lying at full stretch on Burrow’s couch, contemplating the corrugated plastic sheeting overhead.

“How’s it going?” John asks.

Sherlock turns his head sharply.

“What are you up to?” he smirks, seeing the unnatural cant of John’s left hand behind his back.

John’s smile quivers wider.

“I brought you something,” he says, presenting a cylindrical plastic tub.

Sherlock sits up and takes it from him, already laughing.

“Eight ounces of clinical aqueous base,” he grins. “John, it’s lovely - are you blushing?”

“No,” John says indignantly, the flush in his cheeks deepening by the second. “I just – I don’t mean to - ”

“I hope you’re here to show me the stars,” Sherlock says.

“Actually, I was planning to show you the river,” John says. “You can’t see a bloody thing down there at night, but the artillery wall means you can’t hear the camp, and the camp can’t hear you.”

“Ah,” Sherlock says, his eyes darkening, “now, that I’d like to see.”

The moon hasn’t set yet. It’s a fat three-quarters disc shining pure white above the high mountains in the west, obscuring the stars surrounding it, though it’s powerless against the great stream of stars higher up in the night sky. As John and Sherlock emerge onto the riverbank at the end of the sandbagged wall, the sounds of the camp – voices, boots on cinder-dry ground, the incessant thrumming of generators – fades abruptly into silence, and the flow of the river is an almost noiseless uncurling. John leads the way along the bank, to a level area a foot or two above the water. He turns his torch off, stows it in his thigh pocket, and drops his body armor. He spreads the sleeping bag he’s carrying out onto the ground. Sherlock drops his shoulder holster and armor, and turns off his torch, too. For a moment the darkness presses closely around them, but then their eyes adjust to the softer gleam of moonlight. Sherlock puts his torch in his pocket and spreads his sleeping bag out over John’s.

Sherlock steps onto the edge of the sleeping bags and begins to strip himself efficiently: he pulls his tee shirt off and drops it, crouches to unlace his boots, and stands to heel them off. John makes a small sound like a firm-edged sigh, and sits down, leaning back with his hands braced behind him. Sherlock stoops to pull his socks off, and straightens again as he begins to undo his belt and fly buttons. His breathing is too harsh and hurried for the slightness of the exertion. He skims his camouflage pants down his thighs and steps out of them. He’s hard, his cock lying awkwardly aslant his belly and distending the thin cotton of his underwear so that the hem pulls up a bit over the front of his left thigh.

He slips his thumbs into the waist of his underwear, works the garment down off his hipbones, and out over his cock. John sinks down onto one elbow, one leg extended out in front of him and the other drawn up somewhat. Sherlock steps out of his underwear and stands naked under John’s scrutiny. There’s enough moonlight to turn the lengths of Sherlock’s bare limbs and torso to silver-white, but not enough to illuminate the dark pools of John’s eyes.

“God, you’re – you are – beautiful,” John says.

Sherlock’s eyes twitch narrow, a smile that doesn’t quite reach his lips. He moves forwards to stand straddling John’s extended leg, and looks down, his gaze fixed on the darkly blurred shapes of John’s eyes and mouth. John tips his head back to stare up the gleaming facets of Sherlock’s naked body. John pushes up from his elbow and brings his hand to Sherlock’s thigh. He turns his wrist, and run the backs of his knuckles up the inside of Sherlock’s leg, then slips his hand round and down the taut line at the back of Sherlock’s thigh as he brings his mouth to the long lean curve at its front. He kisses the skin there with soft exhalations, as if he’s trying to infuse his breath into Sherlock’s flesh. Sherlock’s head tips loosely on his neck, and he drops one hand to rest on John’s head. John’s breathing turns edged, small sounds catching low in his throat. Sherlock answers him with quiet, blurred noises that are more breath than voice.

John gathers himself up onto his knees, both hands curling around Sherlock’s behind. He kisses the skin just below Sherlock’s navel, Sherlock’s erection bumping and brushing along his jaw and against his chin. Sherlock drops his head up and back, flicks his eyes closed against the dizzying spiral of the stars, and arches his back to press his belly against John’s mouth. The quick, shallow quiver of Sherlock’s breath turns edged, hardens until it’s breaking into sound. Laughter wells in his throat, spills from his open mouth, and shakes through the whole long line of his body in peals of utter joy. John starts to laugh too, more softly, more shakily. He takes hold of Sherlock at the hips.

“Come here,” he says, his voice husky with delight. “Come down here.”

Sherlock folds, nothing as considered as kneeling but rather tumbling down and dropping back to sit on his heels so that he’s looking up at John, who’s still up on his knees. John bends to him and clasps his face. Sherlock catches at him, a hand on his cheek and another on his nape, and pulls him in until John’s forehead is pressed to his. Sherlock’s fingers slip down to the collar of John’s shirt and tug impatiently. John takes his hands from Sherlock’s face, reaching down to undo his shirt buttons. Sherlock’s fingers brush over John’s, not helping or hindering, but reading the roughness of his knuckles, the smoothness of his fingernails, and the warm quick movement of his hands. John parts the two sides of his shirt, shrugs it off, and then strips his tee shirt off. Moonlight catches the small metal discs of his identity tags and they gleam white for an instant before falling back into shadow. John moves back to straighten his legs out in front of him. He tugs one set of bootlaces open while Sherlock works on the other one; between them, John’s quickly stripped naked. Sherlock extracts the plastic tub from a pocket of his camouflage pants, and they shove the accumulation of discarded clothes aside. John places their holsters side by side on the ground next to the spread sleeping bags, with the gun grips turned to face them.

“SIG’s on the right,” John says as Sherlock crowds against him, bare chest to John’s bare shoulder.

Sherlock nods an acknowledgment even as he brings his mouth to John’s ear.

“Finger me,” he breathes, the words and the warmth of his breath make John gasp, “and then fuck me.”

“Bloody – hell,” John sighs, drawing back and turning his head enough to peer into the star-spotted shine of Sherlock’s eyes.

“You said no one can hear us, here,” Sherlock murmurs with a crooked smile. “Make me shout, John.”

John’s eyes widen, and he takes the plastic tub out of Sherlock’s hand.

“Turn over,” he says.

Sherlock rolls aside and stretches out onto his belly, then draws his knees under himself, folding back until he’s sitting on his heels with the long line of his back sloping smoothly downwards, his chest and shoulders and head on the sleeping bag beneath him, and the long pale lines of his arms extended in front of him. John exhales hard, as if his breath has been driven out by a blow. Sherlock stirs a little, his hips tilting and circling hungrily. John bends over him, presses kisses to the back of his hip, the ridges of his ribs, the broad flat of his shoulder blade. Sherlock groans and rolls his shoulder back to press his skin more closely to John’s mouth. John kisses into the creased side of Sherlock’s neck, the soft spot beneath his ear.

“John,” Sherlock says sharply.

“Yeah, I know,” John says.

He shifts his weight aside a bit and cracks the seal on the tub in his hand. He opens it, tosses the lid aside, and digs his fingers into the smooth surface of the ointment. He scoops up a ridiculously extravagant dollop of the stuff and curls his fingers across his palm.

“Get your arse a bit higher,” he says.

Sherlock makes a low sound, muffled by the folds of the sleeping bag and the curve of his bare shoulder, and pushes up off his heels until his spine describes a steep curve from his tailbone down to the nape of his neck. John huffs his breath out loudly, and tips his head to one side as he contemplates the obscene grace of Sherlock’s flexed hips and spread buttocks, and the shadowy shapes of his cock and balls hanging below.

“John, I know this is going to be worth waiting for,” Sherlock says, “but I’d rather not - wait, I mean.”

John slips his hand underneath Sherlock’s raised behind, wraps his fingers around Sherlock’s cock, pulls it back and down as he slides his grip from its root to tip and then releases it to spring upwards again. Sherlock grunts softly; John repeats the slow pull and release several more times until Sherlock squirms impatiently.

“John – fuck,” he pants.

John dips his fingers again, and then trails his fingertips up the open cleft of Sherlock’s behind. Sherlock manages to hold still long enough for John to smooth his fingertips around and over his anus several times, but then he pushes back with enough accuracy that John’s fingertips pierce him. John gasps a little, and Sherlock writhes back into the connection.

“I want - ” Sherlock begins.

John thrusts his fingers in, everything frictionless and easy from the ointment. Sherlock shudders, and some of the tension unravels from his shoulders and spine.

“Like that?” John says softly.

“Yes,” Sherlock sighs, as if the long unwinding ripple of his spine curving and rounding isn’t an answer in itself.

John thrusts his fingers deeper, his other hand scoring slowly down Sherlock’s back. Sherlock writhes, his body coiling and then easing again as John pumps his fingers slowly.

“Oh God, oh God,” Sherlock groans, every breath sounding in his chest.

John twists his fingers free again, turns his wrist, and pierces Sherlock with his three middle fingers folded together. Sherlock moans as he pushes into the harsher stretch.

“You’re amazing,” John murmurs, “you are – amazing.”

Sherlock laughs breathily, turns his head to rub his cheek against the bare skin of his own biceps.

“I mean it,” John says, dipping his head so that he breathing the words against Sherlock’s shoulder blade. “You’re – more than I could have ever believed.”

Sherlock reaches back, his hand fumbling over John’s hair, his ear, the stubble-rough curve of his cheek.

“Let me up,” he says gently.

John presses a kiss to his shoulder and draws back, draw his fingers out of Sherlock’s body. Sherlock drags up onto his knees and twists to face him.

“Lie down,” Sherlock says.

John’s smile gleams in the dark. He exhales a kiss against the corner of Sherlock’s mouth, and pulls away. He stretches out on his back, his legs stretched out and his arms folded back to pillow his head in his interlaced hands. Sherlock moves over him, straddling his hips. He leans forwards a little as he lowers himself, and reaches back to grasp the rigid shaft of John’s cock. John murmurs a little sound of pleasure; when Sherlock rubs his glans into the slick cleft of his behind, John gasps more loudly. Sherlock locks his wrist, and rolls his hips, and pushes back.

“Oh - bloody - oh yes,” John groans brazenly as Sherlock’s body parts around him and he slides slowly inwards.

Sherlock settles down into John’s lap. John draws his breath in slowly through bared teeth, and then blows it out deliberately through pursed lips. Sherlock’s eyes slide half-closed, and his head tips forwards loosely on his neck. The line of his shoulders and spine turns liquid, muscles and sinews shifting beneath his skin, sliding as he rolls his hips slowly from side to side. John exhales hard, a long voiceless cry of pleasure. Sherlock tips his head up, back, his eyes rolling up beneath his eyelids as he shifts, and circles, scribing the strange geometries of skin on skin, and flesh inside flesh. John grips him by the thighs, his fingertips pressing dimples in Sherlock’s muscles.

“Jesus,” John murmurs. “Oh – Jesus.”

“John,” Sherlock hums, his eyes falling closed and his lips falling open. “Oh my God. Oh, John.”

Sherlock’s hands come down over John’s, confirming John’s hold on him, as well as bracing himself against it to give himself the leverage to edge his movements a little more.

“Oh fuck – you feel so good,” John groans, his hips shifting incoherently beneath Sherlock’s.

Sherlock’s eyes blossom open again. His hips circle, lean into the point of most pressure until John’s breath stutters, and then circle back again. His cock sways stiffly against his belly; moonlight gleams on the wetness it’s smearing on his skin just below his navel.

“Oh, fucking God,” John marvels.

“Fuck me,” Sherlock says hoarsely. “Oh God, John, fuck me.”

John draws his knees up, rocks his hips, and drives his cock deeper into Sherlock’s body. They both exhale hard, voices breaking a little on the trailing edge of their breath. John works his hips slow, strong pushes, each of which Sherlock meets with sharp downward drop of his weight, leaving both writhing and panting in just moments. Sherlock skims his hands down his own body, grips his cock in one hand and cups his balls in the other. John tucks his chin to watch the slow flex and twist of Sherlock’s wrist as he strokes himself with the same slow but sharply punctuated motion as his hips are making above John’s. Sherlock shudders as the currents of sensation cross within him, and John groans, arches and closes his eyes as he feels every vibration of Sherlock’s body around him.

“Oh Jesus,” he gasps, gripping Sherlock’s hips tightly to hold him in place as he kicks his own hips hard, stabbing himself up into the constricting grip of Sherlock’s body. “Oh fuck yes.”

“God, going to come,” Sherlock rumbles. “Going to … ”

John’s eyes snap open again, devouring the shadowed shape above him.

“Yeah, come on, you’re fucking beautiful,” he babbles. “Come on me – let me feel you coming on me – ”

Sherlock’s eyes flare wide and his mouth gapes as he sucks in a long shuddering breath. John’s hips churn under him; Sherlock’s breathing shatters into frantic little gasps.

“Yes fuck John fuck,” Sherlock cries as his cock pulses in his fist and the thick ribbon of his semen unfurls onto John’s belly.

“Ah fuck – fucking hell yes,” John shouts, his body arching beneath Sherlock’s.

“Yes oh - oh - ” Sherlock groans, the final exclamation turning to long, shaking sigh that goes on until he’s bowed forwards with his palm spread on John’s chest and his forehead resting on the back of his hand. “Oh, I could feel that, I could feel you coming in me.”

They both heave deep breaths through their open mouths, their chests shaking under the impacts of their thundering heartbeats.

“Jesus Christ,” John says after a moment. “Never mind the bloody camp, I think they may have heard that in Kabul.”

Sherlock’s shoulders shake, but he’s too exhausted to produce sound. Gradually their breathing steadies and slows. Sherlock drags his head up from John’s chest. John reaches up to push aside the damp tendrils of hair from Sherlock’s forehead, and then lifts his head and shoulders and pulls Sherlock down to kiss his mouth.

“Oh, no more,” Sherlock breathes, when an incautious shift of John’s hips stirs the soft weight of his cock still held in Sherlock’s body.

“Off, then,” John murmurs, his eyes caught on the moon-lined curve of Sherlock’s mouth.

Sherlock unfolds, groaning as he flexes the tight tendons and strained muscles of his legs, and both of them shivering at the sensation of John’s cock pulling out of Sherlock’s body. Sherlock lies down against John’s side, craning his head until John can turn his face into the curve of Sherlock’s neck. John breathes into his skin and Sherlock shivers delicately. John stirs slightly against him, a subtle shift of hips and thighs, the ghost-image of a thrust. Sherlock huffs his breath out, and he pushes a little against John’s side.

The moon has set now. The night sky is broken open above them, and the light of the stars pours out of the fracture. John and Sherlock breathe in slow concert with each other: the rise of chests, and the fall of bellies. Their eyes close, and they sink down together into sleep.

Chapter Text

July 16th
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.

Sherlock nods.

“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.

 

July 17th
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


Chapter Text

 

July 21st
North-east of Miriam Shah, just inside the Pakistan border

Sherlock and Hinde are lying side by side on their bellies on a broadly sloping expanse of gray rock. Hinde is peering through a spotter’s scope; Sherlock is resting his cheek against the stock of his sniper rifle and gazing through the sight.

“Seven hundred and fifty yards, moving fast right to left, just below that crack in the rocks,” Hinde intones.

“I see it,” Sherlock murmurs.

Four full days on the open mountains have tanned his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose to caramel brown, and speckled them with darker flecks; his eyes are shockingly light by comparison, the irises more pearl than pale gray now. His beard is coming through, silky black hair lying smoothly over his upper lip and along his jaw line. His lips are reddened and a little chapped from constant sun and wind, and his hands are darkened with ingrained dirt as well sun.

The small gray hare running across the stony ground flicks to a halt in the shadow of a bit of dead scrub-bush.

“Seven hundred and seventy yards,” Hinde says softly.

Sherlock’s breath tides almost imperceptibly between his lips as he stares unblinkingly. The hare takes off again. Sherlock’s shot rings out, echoing over the mountainside, and Hinde grimaces as the small body is torn apart by the large caliber round, dark flesh and pale fur dashed across the stones.

“Jesus,” he breathes.

Sherlock shakes his head slightly.

“That’s barely half the maximum effective range for that round,” he says.

“Yeah but it was a shagging rabbit,” Hinde says, “running. Mac only wishes he could shoot like that.”

Sherlock stifles a smile as they both sit up. Farshad calls out from farther down the mountainside.

“He says it’s time to stop pissing about and get moving again,” Hinde says.

Sherlock glances at Hinde, who’s staring down at Farshad and the other two Afghans.

“You don’t trust them,” Sherlock says.

Hinde shrugs.

“I rarely trust people who’ve shot at me in the past,” he says.

Sherlock turns his head quizzically, his mouth curling a little.

“Farshad and his brothers are fighting on both sides of the street – against us and against the Taliban,” Hinde says with a hitch of his eyebrows. “Or they were, until Doc pulled a humanitarian and saved their father’s life. Pashtuns hate being indebted - they can’t fight someone they’re indebted to. They’ll do right by Doc so they can go back to shooting at him with a clear conscience.”

Sherlock shakes his head and grins. He slips the sniper rifle back into its canvas bag and picks up his assault rifle instead. Hinde adds the spotter’s scope to the bag and takes up his own assault rifle.

The rattle of gunfire – a single shot, then two more almost one on top of the other – shatters the quiet around them.

“Fucking hell,” Hinde snaps as they both fling themselves onto their bellies again and flatten out on the rock. “Where’s that coming from, then?”

Farshad and his brothers have scattered to the cover offered by the numerous tumbles of rock on the mountainside. There’s another flurry of shots; this time it’s clear that they’re coming from higher up the mountainside.

“It can’t be Rost’s lot,” Hinde says. “No one could find you out here.”

“I agree,” Sherlock says. “Besides, the men who killed Harlow’s team were considerably better shots than this.”

The next flurry of gunfire strikes the edge of the rock they’re lying on, showering them with dust and stinging chips of stone.

“Fuck it,” Hinde says, “they’re useless, but they’re getting warmer.”

“We’d too exposed up here,” Sherlock says. “Go, I’ll cover you.”

“You go and I’ll cover,” Hinde says indignantly.

“I’m a better shot,” Sherlock says.

“Yeah, you’re also a shagging civilian,” Hinde says. “Get up and run when you’re told to.”

Sherlock smirks as he cradles his assault rifle in his arms.

“Ready?”

“On three,” Sherlock nods.

“Three,” Hinde says, thrusting up onto his knees.

He swings his rifle up and opens fire; Sherlock lunges to his feet. He scrambles up the exposed face of the rock, jumps from the bare edge, and lands heavily on the stony ground below. Farshad, Mahyar, and Houshmand are moving up the mountainside from one spot of cover to the next, firing in short considered bursts as they go. Sherlock sees one messily prone figure on the slope above, but there are at least two gunmen still up there, judging by the rate of returned fire. Sherlock raises his rifle to his shoulder and fires a three-round burst up the slope.

“Hinde, come on,” he shouts without looking back.

“Wahoo,” Hinde yells, springing up onto his feet.

The rock to Sherlock’s right explodes, spewing stone fragments. Sherlock whirls that way, the muzzle of his rifle trailing his glance by only a split second. He spots another gunman, half-hidden by a tumble of rocks, no higher up the slope than Sherlock and Hinde. There’s a flicker of muzzle-flashes, and the shots crackle past Sherlock to strike the rock he’s just vacated. He’s peripherally aware of Hinde dropping down again, but then his attention is sucked into the rifle stock at his shoulder, the trigger beneath his finger, and sliver of the gunman’s head showing from his cover. Sherlock fires; the gunman jerks away from the rocks and collapses onto the ground.

“All right, let’s try that again,” Sherlock calls, glancing towards the place where Hinde was standing.

He’s no longer there. The slope of the rock is empty except for Sherlock’s sniper rifle lying across its open canvas bag.

Farshad and the others are sure enough of the fight’s outcome now to press their advantage, running up the hill, firing short bursts as they go. Sherlock lets his rifle swing on its strap as he scrambles onto and then down the sloping rock. There’s a dark, wet slash on the dry ground at its base and Hinde’s lying face down across it, his rifle next to him.

“Hinde, where are you hit?” Sherlock demands as he grasps Hinde by the right shoulder and rolls him onto his back.

The upper part of his left sleeve is soaked to glistening wetness with blood. His eyes are closed; there’s a smear of dust over his right cheek, and a thread of blood showing in the fleshy arabesque where his upper lip lies along his lower one. He’s limp – no, more than limp. He is undone. The thin threads of tension that hold the human body in coherence, despite sleep or even unconsciousness, have all broken. Sherlock scoops an arm beneath his shoulders and lifts his upper body onto his lap, but Hinde’s left arm falls liquidly to lie curved on the ground, and his head spills loosely to one side on the slope of Sherlock’s thigh.

“Hinde,” Sherlock says in dawning understanding. “Hinde.”

He pushes the voluminous folds of brown gauze aside from Hinde’s chest, revealing the neck of his tunic protruding from inside his body armor; the dun-colored cloth is dyed deep crimson now. Sherlock lets him slide aside a little, and lifts the limp weight of his right arm to reveal the neatly singed hole in his shirt where the bullet entered, almost in his armpit. Sherlock stares at it for several seconds, and then scoops his arm across Hinde’s chest and draws him in again. Sherlock begins to tremble and his breath shivers out of his open mouth.

“Oh God,” he says softly, and then a little more loudly, “oh God, John.”

He bends, bringing his forehead down to the canvas cover of Hinde’s body armor, his breath coming in great ugly shudders as he clutches the body in his arms.

After a while, his breathing turns deeper and more tidal. He draws himself up again, and shifts Hinde’s body from his lap to the ground. He hooks his fingers into the neck of Hinde’s tunic, draws out his identity tags on their chain, and detaches the shorter loop and its disc. A flicker of movement farther up the slope catches his eye. He looks up to see Farshad and the others coming back. They’re moving without haste, and each man is carrying a second rifle in addition to his own.

Sherlock turns his attention back to Hinde’s body. He undoes the tapes of Hinde’s body armor and lifts the front section away. Hinde’s shirt is wetly red from collar to waist, as is the inner side of his armor cover. Sherlock pries his fingers into each of the little pockets; three are empty, but the fourth contains a small, roughly made silver om hung on a length of thread that may or may not have been red to begin with. Sherlock drops it into his left palm with Hinde’s tag.

The others are close enough now to see what has happened. Farshad says something, his voice gentle. Sherlock ignores him, focusing on searching through the folds of Hinde’s clothing. Farshad waits for a moment, and then steps closer. He speaks, gesturing to Hinde’s backpack, to the four of them, and then to the mountains ahead. Sherlock stares at him, hard-eyed. Farshad purses his mouth a bit, shakes his head, and repeats whatever it is he said before. Sherlock drops his gaze grudgingly and drags Hinde’s backpack to him. He starts emptying it methodically, beginning with the smaller front pockets. There’s a digital camera, a leather wallet that’s thick with bits of folded paper and frayed photographs, and a badly mauled paperback edition of the Bhagavad Gita in English; Sherlock takes those. The sleeping bag and coil of thin rope he sets aside. The rest - the rations, the medicines, the tools, the weapons and ammunition – he piles together, and throws Hinde’s empty backpack on top. Then he turns his back pointedly on the whole heap. Farshad speaks quietly to the others, and they begin to distribute the gear among them.

Sherlock takes a piece of white gauze from his medical kit and wets it from his water bottle, then wipes the dust from Hinde’s face and the blood from his lips. He unrolls the sleeping bag, spreads it out, and then moves the body onto it. Farshad and the others stand watching as he folds the sleeping bag over and tucks it under, leaving Hinde’s face uncovered until last.

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock says softly. “I don’t know any of your prayers – or any of mine, either.”

He draws the sleeping bag over Hinde’s face and uses the length of rope to tie the wrapping securely in place.

Farshad says something, his voice sharper than before. Sherlock glances up at him. Farshad gestures at the surrounding mountains, his frown anxious and a little angry. Sherlock moves the wrapped body carefully to the foot of the sloped rock. Then he picks up one of the smooth oval stones from the ground and places it next to the body, and then another, and another. Farshad speaks sharply. Sherlock doesn’t even look at him, just keeps picking up the smooth stones and piling them around Hinde’s body. Farshad snaps at the other men. They pick up their packs and their weapons. Farshad shouts something at Sherlock. When Sherlock continues to ignore him, Farshad snaps at the others again, and the three of them start walking obliquely up the mountainside. Sherlock has cleared the ground at the foot of the rock of suitable stones, and he has to move aside a little to pick up another one. Farshad and the others are some way farther up the slope. Sherlock makes another trip from and to the rock, carrying another stone. Farshad stops and looks back down the mountainside, and the others drift to a halt too. Farshad throws up his hands in frustration and strides back down the mountainside, the others hurrying behind him.

Farshad is speaking loudly and gesturing angrily as he drops his pack and rifles and picks up a stone. Sherlock glances up at him as he comes closer and Farshad’s frown melts into a softer grimace. Sherlock moves aside and Farshad puts the stone down on the growing heap.

Mahyar and Houshmand alternate between helping pile stones and watching the surrounding terrain, but Sherlock and Farshad work steadily in silence until a low cairn is raised at the foot of the sloping rock, and a large X is laid out in stones on the flat ground next to it to facilitate identification of the spot from the air. Then all four of them reshoulder their packs and their weapons, and begin walking up and around the mountainside, out of the nameless place where William Hinde was killed.

 

July 24th
Fifteen miles north-east of Mianwali, Pakistan

Before, Farshad and Mahyar would walk in front, with Sherlock and Hinde following, and Houshmand trailing. Afterwards, Sherlock walks in front, alone, and sets a pace that makes the Afghans glance at each other with grudging approval. Farshad occasionally calls out to Sherlock, and Sherlock condescends to look back so Farshad can, by gesture, indicate the proper route. At night, Sherlock spreads his sleeping bag some distance from the others. They watch him with concern, but they don’t try to approach him.

They’re out of the mountains now, among the low hills with the thin strand of the paved road running from one side of the horizon to the other. Farshad calls out; when Sherlock looks back, he sees that the three Afghans have come to halt. He stops too, but doesn’t walk back to them. Farshad hesitates, clearly contemplating some kind of leave-taking. Sherlock jerks his head sharply, not quite a nod but not quite a dismissal either, turns away, and starts walking again. The Afghans remain where they are for a moment but Sherlock doesn’t look back again, so they turn away too and begin walking back the way they have come.

By early afternoon Sherlock is striding steadily along the margin of the road. The hills have softened, the road has widened, and the vehicles that pass him by are as likely to be sedan cars as trucks. He’s out of the wild lands and back in the realm of laws, however spottily enforced. An open-backed truck carrying half a dozen Pakistani soldiers pulls up next to him and the soldiers pile out, guns drawn, and order him by unintelligible phrases and then - when he can only stare blankly - with gestures, to raise his hands. He makes no attempt to resist as his assault rifle, then his backpack, and then his shoulder holster and knife-sheath are yanked from him. The soldiers are shouting at him, shoving him, demanding answers to questions he can’t understand.

“My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he says. “I’m a British citizen.”

They don’t understand, of course, but at least something in the shape of the words or the texture of his voice catches their attention. He gestures down towards his chest a little with his raised right hand; the most senior soldier nods warily. Sherlock lowers his hand slowly and draws the fallen folds of gauze aside. The quality of the soldiers’ attention shifts as they recognize his Osprey armor in its canvas cover, and perhaps even parse the significance of his name written so legibly across the upper right chest. They’re less alarmed now, and more intrigued. Sherlock tears the tape open at his left side, slips his hand beneath the front section of his armor, and extracts his British passport. The senior soldier takes it from him and nods, obviously recognizing the slim booklet with its ox-blood and gold cover.

They usher him – at gunpoint, but without any more manhandling – into the back of the truck. The soldiers climb up after him, so that he’s hedged into one corner, and his gear is handed up. Sherlock lets himself slump on the narrow bench seat, and when the truck moves off again he gives himself up to watching the softly sloping land turn flatter and more verdant, while the road grows wider and smoother.

Islamabad is broad open stretches of tenaciously cultivated grass, punctuated by great slabs of buildings – concrete and brick and stone and marble, managing to look simultaneously raw and weary. The British High Commission is housed in a sort of geometric puzzle of rust-colored concrete and dark glass. Sherlock’s passport is handed over to the British soldiers at the entrance and scrutinized, after which Sherlock himself is handed over, along with his gear. Both rifles, the SIG, and his sheath knife are confiscated; he and his remaining gear are then deposited in a small interview room with bare white walls, a low-pile gray carpet, and a plastic chair drawn up on opposite sides of a small Formica-topped table. After several minutes, a personable young officer dressed in crisply pressed dark camouflage clothing, unarmored, and unarmed except for his handgun in its hip holster, comes in, to find Sherlock sitting facing the door.

“Mister Holmes, I’m Captain Cadigan,” the officer says, with the kind of smile usually produced by a doctor treating a minor ailment in a small child. “I gather you’ve had a bit of an adventure, sir.”

Sherlock lifts his gaze slowly. Whatever the other man sees – and perhaps it’s no more than the bare physical fact of Sherlock’s pale eyes set in his tanned face – wipes his smile away. Sherlock unfurls the fingers of his right hand where it rests on the tabletop. He tips his palm and spills out the small treasure of Hinde’s tag and talisman.

"Corporal William Hinde, Forty Commando, the Royal Marines,” Sherlock says carefully. “His body’s in the mountains about twenty-five miles north-east of Miriam Shah. It’s clearly marked. You should be able to find it from the air quite easily.”

“I see,” the other man says quietly. “Are you injured, sir?”

“His section officer doesn’t know,” Sherlock says, as if the other man hasn’t spoken at all. “I should be the one to tell him.”

Cadigan looks like he’s contemplating arguing – it’s hardly standard procedure, after all – but his short nod suggests he’s aware that standard procedure doesn’t apply to Sherlock. He goes out of the office. After an interval of ten or fifteen minutes, he returns, carrying a cell phone which he offers to Sherlock.

“Captain Watson’s on the line,” he says.

Sherlock surges to his feet and practically snatches the phone out of Cadigan’s hand. He scoops it against his chest protectively.

“Go away,” he says sharply.

Cadigan’s expression flickers through offence and annoyance to grudging acquiescence. He nods slightly, turns away, and goes back out into the hallway. Sherlock claps the phone to his ear.

“John.”

“Sherlock,” John says instantly. “Are you - ”

For a split second Sherlock’s whole body yields to the relief of hearing John’s voice, and then pulls taut again.

“Hinde is dead,” he says, his voice steady and strong.

He can hear the draw of John’s breath, and the faintly shivering exhalation that follows.

“Are you hurt?” John asks gently.

“No, I’m fine,” Sherlock frowns. “John - it was very quick. I don’t think he even - ”

“Good,” John says, and the sincere pleasure in his voice is enough to make Sherlock’s eyes fall closed in pain. “I’ll make sure his family knows that – they’ll want to - ”

“I’ll go,” Sherlock says, his eyes snapping open. “When I get back - I’ll go to Bristol.”

“Sherlock,” John says, “you don’t have to - ”

“I’ll go,” Sherlock insists. “You can tell me what to say.”

“All right,” John says. “Thank you, that – that helps.”

There’s another aching silence. Sherlock’s eyes flicker closed again as he listens to John breathing.

“I’d better go,” John says at last. “I’d better – tell the others.”

“John,” Sherlock breathes. “I love you.”

“I know,” John husks.

Sherlock grimaces, squeezes his eyes tightly shut, and then forces them open again.

“I love you too,” John says, his voice rough and breathy.

“Goodbye, John,” Sherlock says, with a pained twist to his mouth.

“Goodbye,” John breathes.

Cadigan comes back in, having been waiting out of earshot but within sight of Sherlock through the open door of the office.

“We have a chopper ready to take you to the airport,” he says, “and there’s a plane there to take you home – we can find you some less picturesque clothes, if you’d like.”

“Yes, that would be - thank you,” Sherlock says rather at random, handing the phone back.

They provide him with a pale blue work shirt, a pair of pale tan cargo pants, and a dark blue bush jacket meant for someone a little broader in the shoulders. Sherlock abandons his Pashtun clothing in the restroom where he changes, but his body armor he wedges into his backpack, jettisoning his remaining food and his medical supplies to make room for it. They put him on a helicopter with plush-covered seats and safety belts, and the door is closed up tight before the rotors even begin to turn.

The evening sky is streaked deep red and rose in the west, and darkening to dusk in the east by the time the helicopter lands at an outlying airstrip at the airport. Sherlock is ushered off the helicopter and up the steps of the waiting plane. A British soldier wearing a Red Cross patch on the sleeve of her dark camouflage shirt is waiting by his seat. She’s holding a paper-lined plastic tray bearing a glass vial, a disposable syringe, and a foil-wrapped alcohol swab.

“Mister Holmes, sir, I can give you something for the flight if you wish,” she says pleasantly.

Sherlock drops into his seat, and nods absently.

“Give me your arm please, sir,” she says.

Sherlock uses his right hand to thrust his jacket and shirt sleeve up his left forearm, and then turns his head pointedly to look at the window. He blinks as the needle breaches his skin, and the fluid burns its way into the vein.

“Done,” the soldier says, gathering the debris. “You have a good flight, sir.”

Sherlock rocks his head against the seatback a little, and closes his eyes.

July 25th

Somewhere over Germany, in the deep darkness, it begins to rain. The water beads and streaks on the outside of the small window, the lines slanting and quivering in the slipstream. By the time the plane lands at Northolt, the sky is just beginning to lighten to a flat gray, and the rain has turned to a fine drizzle. There’s a car waiting for him, and when he gets into the backseat he’s mostly unsurprised to see his duffle bag waiting for him, with his coat – looking a little crumpled for its travels – draped over it. He pulls it on, shivering against the chill of its lining, and wraps the two sides of the heavy wool across his chest gratefully.

The roads and then the city streets are early morning empty. Sherlock stares out of the car window, his gaze flickering restlessly in the narrow confines of building against building, and pavement against street, all closely capped by a low gray sky.

The car stops in Montague Street. Sherlock gets out, hefting his duffle bag onto one shoulder and carrying his backpack in his other hand. He goes into the house, up the narrow stairs and into his flat. He dumps his bag and backpack on the wingchair next to his desk, shrugs his coat off and throws it over his desk chair. He rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes, scrubs his fingers into his cropped hair, and then scratches at the softening growth of black beard on his jaw line.

An hour later he returns to the sitting room freshly showered and shaved, dressed in clean pajama pants and tee shirt, and rubbing a towel over the short wet tendrils of his hair. He unzips his duffle bag, which is uppermost on the chair, his backpack lying under it. He unpacks the duffle, dropping dirty clothing in a pile on the floor next to the chair, returning his wash bag to the bathroom and his other personal items to the bedroom. When the duffle’s empty he tosses it on top of several stacked boxes behind the front door. He opens the top of his backpack. At the first graze of his fingers on the gritty canvas, every line of his body pulls taut. He drags the bulk of his armor out from the constriction of the backpack, sinks down onto his knees in front of the chair with the armor held on the seat in front of him, and stares at his own name written in John’s precise hand. He bows his head until his forehead is resting on the canvas and tapes, closes his eyes, and breathes the smell of sweat and dust and blazing sunlight.

Chapter Text

July 25th, continued
Montague Street, London

When Mycroft comes to the open doorway of the sitting room a little later, the wingchair next to the desk is empty. Sherlock is standing at the window, his back to the door and his head bowed, making one long, languid line from his cropped hair down his loose gray tee shirt and faded blue pajama pants to his bare feet. Mycroft exhales open mouthed, his eyes creasing almost closed with the intensity of his smile as he enters the room.

“Sherlock.”

Sherlock turns sharply, jerking his head upright. The sight of his face – his eyes blind-pale, his skin sun-dark, his ears and neck exposed by his shorn curls – makes Mycroft’s smile fall into slack disbelief.

“Good God – Sherlock,” he murmurs.

Sherlock moves past Mycroft and drops into the wingchair, draws his knees up to his chest, and digs his bare heels into the front edge of the seat.

“I’m ready for my scolding,” he says. “You may begin.”

“Your scolding,” Mycroft echoes, as his features recompose themselves into mild surprise, although his eyes are still too soft and too alive.

“I failed to solve your case,” Sherlock says. “Nineteen people have been murdered and the only killer I found was already dead. Not very satisfactory, am I?”

Mycroft lowers himself into the armchair opposite Sherlock, twitching the knees of his suit pants up slightly as he sits. He allows his gaze to drift away from Sherlock’s cold, opaque eyes and to settle on the haphazard piles of books and journals and papers stacked on the desk.

“I realize now that my initial assessment of the case was – hasty, and – inexact,” he says carefully.

Sherlock’s eyes sharpen predatorily.

“You were quite right,” Mycroft says. “It was obviously more than a random act of barbarism – the post mortem abuse, the conscious composition of the photographs. I thought someone was engineering an atrocity to vivify public opposition to the war – it seemed obvious. I’m afraid wishful thinking often does.”

“You want the public to oppose the war?” Sherlock says with a slight frown and an uncertain shake of his head.

“Oh, I don’t care if they’re for it or against it,” Mycroft says absently. “It’s the indifference I find wearying.”

Sherlock sweeps the fingertips of one hand briefly across his brow, as if brushing away a faint irritation.

“The murders of Harlow’s patrol, Rost’s suicide, and the existence of a conspiracy,” Mycroft says more crisply, “you put those pieces together more quickly than anyone else could have.”

Sherlock unfolds his legs, straightens them out, and places his bare feet flat on the floor in front of him.

“What they have done – if it becomes known – will go far beyond stirring up public opposition to the war,” Mycroft says. “It would certainly bring down the current administration in the United States – and very probably the British government too - and force a complete change of military leadership.”

“The only chance of political survival would be to repudiate the war completely,” Sherlock says.

“Quite,” Mycroft smiles icily. “And I can’t allow that; we must have the war, I’m afraid. The Taliban tolerates poppy-growing because it funds resistance to the occupation. Without an occupying army, they’ll be a good deal less permissive. You can’t imagine what would happen if heroin became simply unobtainable in this country – or, perhaps you can.”

“I didn’t realize your concern for drug abusers was general, rather than specific,” Sherlock says evenly.

“It’s not,” Mycroft says. “I couldn’t care less, but a drug addict without any hope of supply is apt to become - ”

“ – don’t,” Sherlock says sharply.

Mycroft’s eyelids flicker, an almost imperceptible acquiescence. Sherlock relaxes minutely.

“Of course, heroin isn’t the only addiction at issue,” Mycroft says. “War itself, I’m told, can be – well, it’s probably best if men like Captain Watson can breathe a freer, more far-flung air than that of stuffy, sedate old England, don’t you think?”

Sherlock stares at him implacably.

“I see,” Mycroft says.

“I doubt it,” Sherlock mutters.

Mycroft’s smile is too quick and too broad.

“Moran said that Daniel Rost wanted more of the war, not less,” Sherlock says with a sharp upward tip of his chin. “They won’t go public with what they’ve done; they’ll use the threat of it – of dragging down the administration and the senior military and making support for the war political suicide – to blackmail Edwin Rost into increasing funding for the war.”

Mycroft brushes the palm of his hand back and forth over the crest of one kneecap. Sherlock leans forwards in his chair, grasping the armrests with both hands.

“Edwin Rost - he’s your opposite number in the government of the United States, isn’t he?” he asks. “The man who is the government of the United States.”

Mycroft taps one fingertip on his knee. Sherlock lifts both hands, presses them palm to palm, and slowly splays his fingers wide.

“And this isn’t just about Edwin Rost,” he says, his eyes narrowing in a suppressed smile, “it’s about you, too; they need you and Edwin Rost to agree to an increase in funding. I didn’t understand why Moran didn’t just kill me and be done with it, but he wasn’t interested in stopping the investigation. He was interested in increasing the pressure on you to cooperate. That’s why they wouldn’t let me leave, to keep me in play as a bargaining chip - clever, except for the stupidity of assuming you’d care.”

Mycroft drops his gaze, his features blank.

“What will you do?” Sherlock asks.

“Edwin and I feel the war is at a perfectly reasonable level now,” Mycroft says mildly, “but a modest increase in expenditure could be justified, I suppose, to avoid all the – tiresomeness, of a public scandal and governmental resignations and elections and – all of it. And naturally, Edwin’s keen to protect his family – and his family’s privacy.”

“You’re giving in to them,” Sherlock frowns.

“Until we know who they are,” Mycroft says, his eyes suddenly hard and vivid. “And then - we won’t be challenged in this way. We simply won’t.”

“I tried to find the connection in Daniel Rost’s military record,” Sherlock says. “I’ll keep working at it, but there are a lot of possibilities. What about William Murray? He’s the last point of contact with the conspiracy.”

“The search is continuing,” Mycroft says, his mouth pursing slightly, “but I’m afraid he’s still missing.”

Sherlock turns his head towards the window. Mycroft rises from his seat.

“Sherlock, I am glad you’re home,” he says, “and all right. You are all right, aren’t you? I thought, when I came in - ”

He frowns faintly, as if his apprehension is almost too subtle for his own perception.

“Go away, Mycroft,” Sherlock says coldly. “I don’t want you.”

The corners of Mycroft’s mouth twitch uncertainly, and then settle into a determined smile. He makes a small, non-committal sound in his throat, turns away, and walks out of the room.

 

Forward Operating Base Sangin, Helmand province

The interior of the two-man tent is warm and glowing thickly golden with sunlight filtered through the tan canvas. George Burrows is sitting on the edge of one cot, his left hand cupped in his right, and his head bent meditatively. John throws the tent flap aside for a second as he ducks through the opening. For a split second, his eyes blossom wide and his expression softens into disbelief as he catches sight of Burrows’ long, narrow frame and dark head. Then John shakes himself back into focus, straightening up as his face smoothes into cool, crisp composure.

“Sir?” he says.

“As you were, Captain,” Burrows says, lifting his head a little to glance up at John.

John’s posture softens somewhat and he frowns. He turns aside, props his rifle in the corner, and balances his helmet over it. He turns to face Burrows, pulling the tapes of his body armor loose. Burrows gestures to the other cot, and John sits down, their knees almost touching in the confined space.

“How was patrol?” Burrows asks pleasantly.

“Hot,” John says. “Pointless. The Taliban are mining the Al Akhad road because we patrol it, and we patrol it because they mine it. We’re going around in circles after each other.”

Burrows huffs a slight laugh.

“They found Hinde, didn’t they?” John says quietly.

Burrows’s smile widens, gets less firm.

“Good. That was quick,” John nods, dropping his head slightly.

“The spot was well marked,” Burrows says.

John nods again without looking up.

“He – the body was wrapped, and they’d piled rocks to keep the scavengers off it,” Burrows says.

John exhales carefully, the sound a soft rasp in the enclosed space.

“He’s been brought back to Bastion,” Burrows goes on. “He’s going home in the morning.”

John rubs his left thumb into the dirt-ingrained lines on his right palm.

“You talked to the family,” Burrows says.

“Yes,” John says, raising his head.

“How are they?” Burrows asks.

John shakes his head, a slow, weighty swing of his chin from one side to the other.

“They’re not an army family,” he says after a hesitation. “They – they had no idea.”

Burrows puffs his breath out noisily and leans back against the taut canvas of the tent’s side.

“They’re angry at us - angry at him,” John says.

Burrows crooks one corner of his mouth, tips his head in a half-negation, but John shakes his head emphatically.

“They’ve got a point,” he says, eyebrows lifting. “We act like it’s all fun and games until someone gets killed – but someone always gets killed.”

“If he didn’t do this job, what would he have done?” Burrows prods gently. “If you didn’t do this job, what would you do?”

John laughs, a short, dry, but genuine bark of amusement.

“Jesus knows,” he says. "Wrestle alligators or some bloody thing."

They lock gazes for several seconds, eyes sharp and steady.

“Any news about William Murray?” John asks.

Burrows shakes his head. John sighs, dropping his head again, and wiping one hand from his nape to his crown.

“If he breaks and tells them Holmes left with you, they’ll come looking for Holmes here,” Burrows says.

“Doesn’t matter, they won’t find him,” John says, glancing up from under his brows. “He’s not here.”

“No, but you are,” Burrows says archly.

“You’re saying that in addition to the twenty-some million Afghans, hundred-and-some thousand foreign Taliban, and however many dozen idiots we employ to target the air and artillery strikes, there might be three maniac American brass after me as well,” John says, his expression twisting into a brazen smirk as he speaks.

“Yes. So, just a bit of a heads up there,” Burrows laughs.

“All right, taken, thank you, sir,” John says.

Burrows stands and briefly drops a hand to John’s armored shoulder before moving aside. He stoops to pass out through the tent’s door-flap. John twists round and stretches out on his cot. He stares up at the sun-pricked canvas for a moment, and then drapes his forearm across his face and closes his eyes.

 

Seymour Road, Bristol

The house is a narrow fronted Victorian, its stone cladding painted an apricot-tinted cream. Sherlock raps the brass knocker on the plain wooden door. After a brief interval, the door is opened. The young woman in the doorway is tall and broad-boned, but athletically thin. She’s striking rather than lovely, with dark, strongly drawn features.

“Miss Krishnachandra?” Sherlock says. “I’m Sherlock Holmes - we spoke on the phone earlier.”

“Please, call me Rami,” she says with a not quite successful attempt at a smile. “Won’t you come in?”

Her voice is firm and low, and she has the liquid ‘r’ and slightly lilting intonation of one whose first language is Hindi. She closes the door when Sherlock has crossed the threshold, and leads him down the dim hallway into a small sitting room. The curtains are almost completely drawn, but even in the half-gloom Sherlock can see that the room is exuberantly and colorfully decorated, and impeccably neat and clean. A console table against one wall is draped with a white cloth; on it, a framed photograph of Hinde in his high collared, midnight blue dress uniform presides over a small clutter of brass dishes containing various oddments of flowers and spices and a thin skein of red thread. Sherlock glances at Rami, who shakes her head slightly as she gestures to an armchair and sits down at one end of the couch.

“I’m sorry William’s parents aren’t here to meet you,” she says. “I’m afraid they’re - ”

She turns her head aside, but her expression remains open and steady.

“I have some of his things,” Sherlock says, extracting the paperback book and a bundle wrapped in a tan cotton square from his coat pockets.

He leans forwards, hands extended. Rami shifts forwards too, and takes the things from him. She skims one thumb over the softened edges of the book’s pages.

“Have you ever read it?” she asks, without lifting her head to look at Sherlock.

“I … I don’t think so,” Sherlock answers.

“It’s about a soldier, going into battle,” Rami says, and her voice thickens a little but remains even and strong. “He asks how he can ever be forgiven for the deaths he’s about to cause - ”

Her black eyes turn liquid, though her expression is still composed.

“ - and he’s told, you’ll bear the guilt, but in the end you’ll be forgiven because you’re a soldier and you’re doing what a soldier does.”

The tears overbalance on the black sweep of her lower eyelashes, and shatter down her cheeks in two shining streaks. Sherlock’s frown folds his brows together. Rami makes no attempt to wipe her face; indeed, there is nothing in her expression or posture to indicate any failure of control at all, except for the two tear tracks. She unties the cotton bundle and takes out the distended fold of Hinde’s wallet with its interleaved pieces of paper, tickets, and photographs, his short-loop dog tag, and his silver talisman.

“You were there,” she says.

“Yes,” Sherlock says quietly.

“His section leader telephoned this morning,” Rami says, her voice slightly roughened. “He said he’d heard that it was – very quick.”

“It was,” Sherlock says. “I don’t think he even knew he’d been hit.”

“Was it for something?” Rami says. “I mean – did it make a difference that he was there?”

“It did to me,” Sherlock says. “He was protecting me.”

Rami nods. Her gaze slides towards Hinde’s photograph.

“How long did you know him?” Sherlock asks.

Rami grimaces, a smile that can’t quite find its fit.

“He had a ten day leave in February,” she says. “We met then. It’s insane, isn’t it? Being engaged to a man I’ve spent ten days with?”

“No,” Sherlock says, something pale shifting in his eyes. “It’s not insane at all.”

Rami shakes her head and looks down at the wallet in her hands. She extracts a folded page of a newsprint magazine and opens it out. The full page photograph is of Hinde, in pale camouflage clothing and holding his assault rifle in his arms, caught in profile against a rough plaster wall with a pair of tall, sleek pye dogs at his heels.

“The picture from The Observer,” Sherlock murmurs.

He scowls, lifting his fingertips to his lips. His gaze moves up and down the complex, inflected line that runs from Hinde’s sculpted profile down the slant of his rifle to the delicate muzzle of the dog nuzzling at one of his thigh pockets.

“That’s a striking picture,” Sherlock says. “Is it one of yours?”

“I wish I was that good,” Rami says. “That was taken by Mitchell Gowan – he’s American. He’s got a great eye, and of course he gets fantastic access.”

Sherlock tips his head questioningly.

“He was a United States Marine,” Rami supplies. “And the rumor – well informed rumor – is that he was in Afghanistan with the Mujahideen in the eighties, fighting the Russians.”

“Like Daniel Rost,” Sherlock says sharply.

“With Daniel Rost, according to the rumors,” Rami says. “They’re certainly thick as thieves – Gowan took that picture of Rost and Amar Ahadi that was in The Times a few months ago.”

"Oh," Sherlock breathes. "I think he photographed them again rather more recently than that."

"I don't understand," Rami says.

"I do, or at least I'm beginning to," Sherlock says, thrusting up out of the armchair, onto his feet. “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

Rami sets Hinde’s things out of her lap and stands up, frowning in surprise.

“You wanted to know if it made a difference, that Hinde was there,” Sherlock says, gripping Rami by the arms. “I’m going to make sure it does.”

He whirls away again, striding out of the room and leaving Rami staring in surprise as she hears the front door open and slam shut again after him. Sherlock walks quickly down the street towards the main road, extracting his phone from his coat pocket, placing a call, and lifting it to his ear as he goes.

“Mycroft, it’s me,” he says, as he turns onto the high street heading towards the train station. “Daniel Rost served with Mitchell Gowan in Afghanistan during the mid-eighties, and I’m betting that’s when they met Amar Ahadi. I need to know about Ahadi - his history. And find Gowan; I think he's one of the three surviving conspirators.”

“I’ll look into it,” Mycroft says.

Sherlock turns his head very slightly, glancing from the corners of his eyes.

“Mycroft, do you have someone following me?” he asks.

“No,” Mycroft says, his voice sharpening. “It seemed superfluous - Bristol has an excellent CCTV system. Are you - ”

Sherlock cuts the call off and drops his phone back in his pocket. There’s a pub just ahead, its rather shabby single story frontage tacked onto a featureless row house. Sherlock walks past the half-curtained windows and turns through the narrow doorway. The interior is dimly carpeted and upholstered, with a cursory nod to antique charm in the form of globe light shades and a cherry wood bar front. A flat screen television is playing loudly near the door, covering the slight sounds of the few mid-afternoon customers. Sherlock moves purposefully past the bar to an unoccupied window seat at the far end of the room, sits down, and looks towards the door.

The next person to enter is a man of average height and slender build. The loose drape of his clothing - an olive green bush jacket over a pale khaki tee shirt and blue denim jeans - suggest that his slenderness is a sudden and relatively recent acquisition. His brown hair flops around his forehead and the collar of his jacket; the serried ends of the strands are compatible with his hair having been previously worn cropped, but allowed to grow unchecked for the last few months. As he approaches, Sherlock sees that he’s quite young - certainly no older than Sherlock, judging by the boyishness of his fine features and his wide blue eyes, though the strained set of his expression makes him seem older.

“Mister Sherlock Holmes,” he says.

“You’d hardly be following me if I weren’t,” Sherlock says.

The other man tips his head and lifts his eyebrows in slightly rueful admission.

“Please,” Sherlock says lazily, gesturing to the seat next to him. “Mister - ?”

“Captain McAvoy, Second The Rifles,” McAvoy says as he sits down. “My discharge hasn’t quite gone through yet.”

“You were injured,” Sherlock says.

“I was crippled,” McAvoy amends. “It just doesn’t show in daylight.”

“What can I do for you, Captain McAvoy?” Sherlock frowns.

“Not a damn thing,” McAvoy says. “It’s too late to help me, but there’s a hundred thousand men still fighting in Afghanistan.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrow as he looks McAvoy up and down intently. McAvoy shakes his head.

“You can investigate me all you like,” he says, “but I’m just a messenger, and I don’t even really know for sure who’s sending the message. But I do know what they want, and it’s the same thing I want.”

“What is that?” Sherlock says carefully.

“For men like me, and William Hinde, and your boyfriend not to be hurt – not to be killed – for no bloody gain at all,” McAvoy says.

He leans forwards in his seat, and Sherlock can make out the darkly discolored scarring above his right ear, under the shadowed wave of his hair.

“I was hurt on a mission to clear the Taliban out of a village near Musa Qala,” McAvoy says. “We had two fatalities and six casualties, but we won that fight. And then we were ordered to withdraw because there weren’t the men or the firepower to hold what we’d taken. We pulled out, and the Taliban walked right back in.”

Sherlock’s eyes flicker beneath his furrowed brows.

“And that happens over and over again,” McAvoy says. “We fight, and we die, and it’s for nothing. It can’t go on.”

“But – Rost and the other conspirators don’t want to stop the war,” Sherlock says.

“Of course not,” McAvoy says with a slight huff of laughter. “What kind of soldier wants to stop a war? They want to win it.”

"They want more money," Sherlock says flatly. "They'll get it; my brother's willing to compromise, for now."

"They don't want more," McAvoy says. "They want enough. They want what it's going to take to win this thing. Your brother won't give that so easily."

“What do you expect me to do?” Sherlock scowls, though his voice is soft and ever so slightly unsteady.

“Go back,” McAvoy says, his eyes sharpening. “Put yourself back in harm’s way. Give your brother a personal incentive to do what he’s going to be forced to do anyway.”

Sherlock’s eyes twitch narrow and then widen in disbelief.

“Go back - to Afghanistan,” he says.

McAvoy nods.

“What if I refuse?” Sherlock says, with a sharp, unnatural jerk of his head.

“There’s no conscription in this war,” McAvoy shrugs. “The men I’m speaking for aren’t interested in taking anything that hasn’t been freely offered.”

“You’re insane,” Sherlock murmurs.

“I chose to get shot at for a living, of course I’m insane,” McAvoy says with a genuine smile.

Sherlock stares helplessly at him.

“Think about it,” McAvoy says, as he rises from his seat. “It’s up to you how long your brother takes to give in - ”

His expression slices from open sincerity to hard-eyed warning.

“ – and how much more pressure they’ll have to put on him before he does it.”

He steps away, turns, and walks unhurriedly back out of the pub. Sherlock lifts one hand, caging his fingers over his forehead as he breathes open-mouthed and unsteadily.

 

Montague Street, London

Sherlock drops his coat inside the front door of the flat, and then sheds his suit jacket as he goes into the sitting room. He crosses to the couch and lies down on his side, his legs drawn up slightly, his back to the room, and his face turned to the leather upholstery. He folds his lowermost arm beneath his head, and lifts his other hand, his fingertips following a fold in the deeply buttoned hide with delicate precision. His hand drops, turns, and his fingers trace down his throat into the open collar of his shirt.

He shifts his weight, pressing himself more closely against the back of the couch. His hand moves down, dipping into the space described by the angle of his abdomen and thighs. His eyes fall closed as he splays his fingers over the soft knot of flesh in his groin. He murmurs a soft-edged breath sound as he grips himself. He licks his lips, drags his lower one between his teeth. His body flexes, his legs extending and then folding up again restlessly. His eyes flick open as he exhales shakily. His hand stills on himself. His breathing turns to uneven, hard-edged quivering. He turns his face into the angle of seat and backrest and squeezes his eyes shut, but a tear still forces its way from between his lashes to pool against the bridge of his nose.

Chapter Text

July 25th, continued
Montague Street, London

It’s late evening when Mycroft comes to the open doorway of the sitting room, to find Sherlock sitting in the wingchair next to the desk with his violin tucked between shoulder and chin. His bow is not in evidence, however; he’s staring rather abstractedly into space while he fingers a complex exchange of notes over and over again, not quite in silence but rather eliciting minute ghosts of sounds as his fingertips contact and then release the strings. When Mycroft crosses the threshold, Sherlock’s eyes snap into sharp focus, and he sweeps the violin out from under his chin. He looks Mycroft up and down, dissecting the slightly disordered ruffle of fine hair waving back from Mycroft’s forehead, the hard set of his features, and the taut downward press of his shoulders. Sherlock’s mouth tucks into a small, sly smile.

“Let me guess,” he says. “The bill was rather larger than you had anticipated.”

Mycroft steps forwards sharply, his features knotting into a scowl of undisguised fury. Sherlock’s head jerks back instinctively and his fingers tighten on the neck of his violin. Mycroft falters, collects himself, and steps past Sherlock’s chair to stand in front of the window. He stares unseeing through the thin gauze curtain covering the glass. Sherlock turns his head slightly, not quite looking at him.

“I’m sorry,” Mycroft says, as the tension drains from the set of his shoulders and spine.

Sherlock unfolds out of his seat and moves past Mycroft to where his violin case is lying open on the spindle chair in the corner. Mycroft turns to face him, his features carefully composed now. He moves to the armchair on the other side of the room and sits down. Sherlock replaces his violin in its case and then returns to his own chair.

“I’d ask how much,” he says, hands splayed in front of him, fingertips steepled together, “but I suppose the number wouldn’t mean a great deal to me.”

“There is no number,” Mycroft says. “They don’t just want money – they want everything it would actually take to win the war in Afghanistan decisively and permanently.”

Sherlock frowns a little, though it’s without heat, more puzzlement than disapprobation.

“You’ve seen a little,” Mycroft says, “what do you think it would take – to subdue Afghanistan?”

Sherlock’s eyes narrow and he shakes his head.

“The difficulty, of course, is an intractable and armed general population,” Mycroft says, raising his gaze to the yellowed paint of the ceiling. “Say five million Afghan households. I could draft every male in Britain between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, and I still couldn’t put a British soldier in even half of those households. I suppose I could draft the young women as well, but that would still leave every shop, and street, and field, and mountainside - ”

He glances at Sherlock.

“And of course, five million newly drafted British soldiers would have be armed and provisioned,” he goes on, his eyes widening a little. “I could bleed this country dry, scrape its bones bare to build the army it would take to conquer Afghanistan - make them melt down the railings again for steel, rip up the paths to pave airstrips, plough the parks for farmland. I could turn England into a barracks, and then empty it into Afghanistan.”

“You think you’re God,” Sherlock says softly.

“Of course I don’t,” Mycroft says. “I don’t have the luxury of being so hands off, for one thing. I can do those things, but I won’t.”

“You’ll let them publish?” Sherlock says. “Let them pull down the American government and maybe ours? Cause an overthrow of the military leadership? End the war that you think is so necessary?”

“Certainly not,” Mycroft says, the hard edge of his gaze softening, melting into an almost smile. “I’ll stop them.”

“They’ll look for more leverage - a way to force your compliance with their demands,” Sherlock warns.

“I’d be disappointed if they didn’t,” Mycroft says.

For a moment they stare at each other, eyes sharp and intent, expressions carefully composed. It’s Sherlock who drops his gaze first.

“What about Ahadi? What were you able to find?” he asks.

Mycroft hooks a finger into his waistcoat pocket and extracts a memory stick.

“Everything we have is on this.”

“And Gowan?” Sherlock asks, as he unfolds from his chair and takes the memory stick from Mycroft’s lifted hand.

“We’re looking,” Mycroft frowns. “He seems to have be accorded rather more freedom of movement than most photojournalists.”

“I dare say,” Sherlock smirks.

 

July 26th
Forward Operating Base Sangin, Helmand province

A dozen or so soldiers are standing or sitting near the sandbagged wall on the southern side of the base compound, several drinking tea out of tin cups and a couple smoking, with their gear strewn around their feet and their armor hanging loose over their pale camouflage shirts. John is standing with his pack and assault rifle on the ground next to him as he fiddles with the cotton insert in his helmet.

“Here’s the boss,” Blackwood says.

John turns to see Burrows striding towards them, a sheaf of pictures clenched in his hand.

“Watson, now,” he barks.

John picks up into a solid jog to cross the space between them.

“They think they’ve spotted William Murray on a drone feed,” Burrows says, thrusting the pictures at John, “and he’s on our turf.”

John twists and looks back over his shoulder at the rest of his section, who are watching with interest.

“Bravo Baker - suit up!” he shouts.

There’s an instant flurry of motion, his men throwing the dregs from their cups and quickly gathering their gear.

“These images were taken forty minutes ago,” Burrows says to John, yanking pictures out of his hands and shoving them back in a different sequence, “about four miles into Nawzad district.”

John glances up at Burrows’ face, and then back down at the pictures. The images are low quality, pale beige on mid beige relieved by darker beige shadows.

“Two trucks traveling together,” Burrows says, as John surveys the picture, “moving due east over open ground. They stopped - ”

He shuffles to another image.

“ – and two men got out of one truck, carrying a third – they put him into the second truck, then they and the other driver got back into the first truck and drove on, leaving the other truck there.”

John leafs through the pictures. The three men on their feet are dressed in what look likes the semi-camouflage clothing typical of contractors – white shirts and khaki pants. The man being carried is wearing pale camouflage print. There’s one grossly enlarged image of him, blurred and imprecise, but John can make out the tint of vivid auburn on the man’s head. He grimaces, jerks his head.

“Why would they dump the truck with him?” he says, glancing up at Burrows again. “It’s got to be rigged.”

Burrows nods, eyebrows raised.

“What about the other truck?” John asks.

“Veered north-east into Musa Qala district,” Burrows says. “Lucky for them – the drone flyover there is every seventy minutes, and they just missed it. They’ll cover some ground before we see them again.”

“They’re not lucky,” John murmurs. “They’re well-informed.”

“He could still be alive,” Burrows says, jerking his chin to indicate the picture in John’s hand.

“Yeah, but he’s not going to last long out there in this heat,” John says. “We need to move.”

“Do it,” Burrows nods.

 

Montague Street, London

The curtains are partially drawn; the half-light in the sitting room is cold and gray, street lights having given way to an overcast dawn. Mycroft is stretched out on his back on the couch, shoeless and jacketless and with two buttons undone at the bottom of his waistcoat, but otherwise fully and neatly dressed. His head rests on a small throw pillow, his hands are folded one upon the other over his waistcoat front, and his legs are crossed at the ankles, one socked foot hooked lightly against the other. His eyes are closed, but the small disorders of his breathing and the coherence of his occasional movements – scratching the side of his nose with one fingertip, tugging the front of his waistcoat smooth – suggest he is wide awake.

Sherlock is sitting in his wing chair, one ankle resting on the opposite knee, his laptop resting on one thigh and braced at the back by the other. The glow of the screen cuts his face into pales and shadows as his eyes flick from image to image.

“I’ve got it,” he says abruptly, tugging out the ear-buds he’s wearing.

Mycroft’s eyes snap open as he sits up, swings his legs off the couch, and stands. Sherlock’s already on his feet, laptop cradled on one forearm as he kicks the desk-chair aside and uses his free arm to sweep the surface of his desk clear. Books and journal tumble to the floor at his feet while pages of loose paper flutter farther afield. Sherlock plants his laptop on the empty surface; Mycroft leans in to look at the screen.

“Nineteen eight-eight,” Sherlock says. “Amar Ahadi was fighting with the Mujahedeen in the defense of Kanadahar.”

On the screen, a group of heavily armed men are gathered in the shelter of a rock outcropping on a wind-swept hillside. Most of them are Afghans in Pashtun dress, the loose ends of their tunics and wraps baffling in the wind, but there are also four European men wearing pale camouflage clothing without insignia. Two of them are clearly framed by the camera, together with one Afghan, but the other two Europeans are visible just as an arm and shoulder, or an upper back and bent head, to the side of and somewhat behind the three men in clearer view.

The Afghan sitting with the Europeans is hardly more than a youth, but his gaze is steady and unflinching as he stares into the camera. He’s lightly bearded, and his hair is long enough to sweep across his eyes when the winds plays from one direction to another, but the strong straight lines of his features and the dark slash of his eyes are unmistakable: he is Amar Ahadi as a very young man. The two men with him – one wheat-fair and light eyed, the other a little darker, judging by the faint shadow of stubble on his skull – are easily recognizable as Daniel Rost and Mitchell Gowan.

Ahadi is speaking in Dari, his voice very controlled, though his eyes are narrowed and the corners of his mouth are pinched tensely. Rost is looking seriously at him; Gowan is fiddling at his rifle strap, but he looks into the camera as Ahadi stops talking.

“He says, it’d be best if there were no foreigners in Afghanistan, but since there are – he doesn’t want the Russians to win, he’d rather the English or the Americans ruled Afghanistan than the Russians.”

Ahadi speaks sharply, while one of the soldiers only partially visible murmurs something under his breath. Gowan grimaces a little as he translates for Ahadi.

“He says that would be worth his life, and the lives of all his family for the English and Americans to win,” Gowan says.

Sherlock pauses the video. Mycroft shakes his head sharply.

“They interpreted that as consent to his own murder twenty years later? To the murder of his uncle’s family?” he grimaces.

“Unthinking consent, but then consent often – ah,” Sherlock breathes. “McAvoy said they didn’t take anything that wasn’t freely offered.”

“I’m supposed to believe Harlow’s entire patrol team volunteered to - ” Mycroft begins, but then he stops, realization already lighting in his eyes.

Every soldier has volunteered to die in pursuit of victory,” Sherlock says.

“Not at the hands of their own officers,” Mycroft protests.

“Technicality,” Sherlock says. “Assuming you’re insane.”

He leans in and resets the video a few seconds back.

“Listen,” he says. “Focus on the third man who speaks, not Ahadi or Gowan.”

Mycroft bends his head and lets his eyes slide almost shut. Sherlock starts the video playing again.

“ – he’d rather the English or the Americans ruled Afghanistan than the Russians,” Gowan finishes once more.

“Course he’s gonna bleedin’ say that,” the soldier to the side of and slightly behind Gowan says. “We’re right here.”

“He’s English,” Mycroft says, every line of his posture pulling subtly taut. “Is it Moran?”

“No, wrong timbre of voice entirely,” Sherlock says. “And the other soldier – the one turned away from the camera – he’s too fair to be Moran.”

“I’ll try to find out whom Rost and Gowan were serving with,” Mycroft says, “but – British support for the Mujahedeen was entirely unofficial. It’s possible the information has been – irretrievably secured.”

“You mean destroyed,” Sherlock says.

Mycroft tips his head slightly from one side to the other, gesturing equivocation.

 

Nawzad district, Helmand province

The abandoned truck is on open ground, with no cover for hundreds of yards in every direction, and no overlook except for the low rise of hills to the north and north-east at about six hundred yards’ distance. The passenger-side door of the truck’s cab is standing wide open, but there’s no sign of movement or even occupancy.

A helicopter cuts across the empty blue of the sky, then curves back and circles above the truck. John and Blackwood crouch in the open bay doorway, contemplating the flat, bare ground. They scowl at each other, shaking their heads, but the helicopter circles lower anyway. Clouds of dust kick up as the rotors’ wind scours the dirt below, but the helicopter doesn’t land. Instead it just pivots about twenty feet off the ground.

“Go!” John yells.

Two cables hang from the upper fuselage out of the open doorway on each side of the helicopter. Each cable is grasped and a man slides swiftly downwards, drops the last few feet to the ground, runs crouched out of the churning dust-shadow of the hovering helicopter and drops to one knee with his rifle raised to his shoulder. The second the last man hits the ground, the helicopter swoops upwards again and circles out over the open ground to join the two other helicopters scribing wide curves over the plane and the hills.

“Move!” John barks.

All seven men surge to their feet and run forwards. Blackwood, Henn, Garret, and Cullen each go down on a knee again, rifles raised, encircling the truck at a distance of about a hundred feet. John, McMath, and Barr move in much closer, the muzzles of their assault rifles following the quick path of their gazes over the truck’s exterior. McMath drops to his belly on the ground, his eyes scouring along the underside of the truck. Barr goes to the dropped tailgate and surveys the empty back of the truck. John steps around the open door of the cab, and looks inside. William Murray is lying prone along the bench seat, his arms drawn back and his wrists bound together behind him.

John glances him over, but then forces his attention back to the cab of the truck. He looks carefully over the door hinges, the door frame, and the space between the dashboard and the seat. McMath and Barr are moving along each side of the truck towards the cab, examining the wheel wells and wheels.

“I’ve got nothing,” McMath says as he circles around the front of the truck.

“Me neither,” Barr says.

The three of them let their rifles slant down to half-ready posture, and stare into the cab.

“Could be wired with a pressure switch on the suspension,” McMath says, “and blow when you put your weight on the truck.”

“Yeah,” John says.

“Could be wired with a pressure switch on him,” Barr says, “and blow when you take his weight off the seat.”

“Yeah,” John says again.

“Get a CIED team in?” McMath says.

“He doesn’t have time,” John says, wiping the sweat off his upper lip onto the back of his glove.

He shrugs the strap of his assault rifle off over his head and passes it to McMath, then he drops his field pack off and lets it slide to the ground at his feet. He retrieves his water bottle and tucks it into one thigh pocket, taping the flap to hold it securely.

“Get way back,” he says.

McMath nods; Barr takes up John’s discarded pack and they both withdraw. The others move back too, leaving John alone at the truck’s open door. John puffs his cheeks, blows his breath out noisily, and taps the fingertips of his right hand against the front of his body armor, just to the left of his breastbone. He glances up at the empty blue bowl of the sky.

“Don’t make a liar out of me,” he murmurs.

He reaches out, grasps the sides of the doorframe, sets his foot to the truck’s step and swings himself up. The truck shifts on its suspension, and settles again. John exhales, and slides onto his knees in the confined space between the bench seat and the dashboard. He strips his glove off his left hand and presses his fingertips below the exposed angle of Murray’s jaw. After a moment he moves his hand to the radio control on his chest.

“Good pulse, firm and not too fast,” he says.

“Sweet,” Blackwood says through the earpiece in John’s left ear.

John strips his knife from its sheath on his left calf and hooks the curved tip of the blade under the zip tie holding Murray’s wrists together. The thick pliable plastic peels apart along the blade’s serrations, the tie splits, and Murray’s wrists fall away from each other as his arms assume a more natural position. He groans very faintly, low in his throat.

“Hey, hello,” John murmurs.

Murray’s frowning hard, eyes squeezed shut, and John can see the tension springing into the lines of his limbs.

“Captain Murray, it’s Captain Watson, Forty Commando,” John says firmly. “You’re going to be okay but I need you not to move – we think you may be wired.”

Murray shifts his head a little on the seat.

“Not – a bomb,” he says, his voice little more than a rasping whisper that dissolves into a weak, breathy cough.

John leans lower, reaching for the water bottle in his thigh pocket.

“ – snipers,” Murray says, his voice suddenly stronger.

John’s hand flashes to his radio control, but even as he touches it he hears the sharp abrupt crackle of several gunshots made almost instantaneously.

“Blackwood!” John says sharply into his radio mike.

“Flat and freeze!” Blackwood shouts over the radio. “We’re hit!”

John crouches as low as he can in the confined space.

“Two Two One Bravo Baker to aerial,” he says into his radio mike as he pulls his helmet off. “We are taking sniper fire - do you see them? Do you see their firing positions?

“That’s negative,” the answer comes back over his earpiece. “We don’t see anything – but we’re looking.”

“Fuck,” John says, unclipping his radio control from his chest, then untaping his armor and shrugging it off. “People, talk to me, who’s down?”

“Cullen, KIA,” Blackwood says, his voice even but breathless. “He’s right next to me.”

John’s eyes flick closed for a second, and then snap open again. He drapes his armor over Murray’s torso, tucking it around him as securely as he can. He hears a small scuffle of movement over his radio earpiece.

“I think Garrett’s dead,” Henn says shakily.

“You think?” John says, scooping the curve of his helmet around Murray’s head.

“Garrett, KIA, sir,” Henn says more firmly.

“Anyone else?” John says. “McMath?”

“I’m here, I’m fine,” McMath says.

“Barr?” John prompts, and after several seconds of silence more sharply “Barr?”

“I see him,” McMath says. “He’s not moving. I’m going to - ”

“No,” John says sharply. “We’ve got three snipers out there. No one moves except me.”

“He’s at your five o’clock,” McMath says after a second’s hesitation, “about a hundred and thirty yards out.”

John puts his radio headset on again, clipping the control to the front of his camouflage shirt.

“Stay flat, stay put, I’ll be right back,” he murmurs to Murray.

Murray exhales nasally and nods a bit. John’s already slithering out of the truck to crouch on the ground. He drops flat and side-squirms under the truck.

He peers out of the shadow of the truck across the sun-blasted open ground. There’s enough unevenness to the terrain and enough heat shimmer in the air that he can’t be sure whether he’s seeing or not seeing the prone figures in pale camouflage lying flat in the dirt, let alone determine if they’re moving or motionless. He pulls his left glove back on, scoops a palmful of dry dirt up and rubs it over his face, eyes squeezed shut and nose wrinkled in distaste. He blows his breath out hard to clear his nostrils, then scoops a second palmful of dirt up and scrubs it over the nape of his neck. He rolls his weight onto his right elbow enough to bring his right hand under his chest and touch the left breast pocket of his shirt, and then splays his elbows out until he’s almost flat on the ground and slithers out from under the truck.

“Blackwood, Henn, tell me about the wounds,” he says as he wriggles over dusty, stony ground.

A helicopter circles immediately overhead and then curves away again. Two more are scribing over the hills to the north and north-east.

“Through the neck,” Blackwood says.

“Much splatter? He is ripped up?” John asks.

“No, it’s – pretty neat,” Blackwood says.

“Henn?” John prods.

“The same,” Henn says.

“Okay, one neck shot could be luck but two means they’re good,” John says as he shifts from elbow to elbow, dragging himself along the ground. “Not much mess means it’s a small round or a long distance, and a sniper making a kill’s got no reason to use a small round – you guys in the choppers, are you hearing me?”

“Yes sir,” someone says over John’s radio earpiece.

“Okay, so they’re at least seven hundred and fifty yards out from our position,” John says, “probably more like a thousand.”

“We’re looking sir, but until they fire again we’re unlikely to spot them.”

“Well, thanks for playing anyway,” John says.

Barr is lying on his side, the pack on his back facing John. John drags himself nearer. He strips his glove off again and angles himself so he can reach over Barr’s shoulder to press his fingers to his neck, above the deep red punch of the entry wound. John stills, waiting, and then withdraws his hand.

“Barr, KIA,” he says wearily.

He turns his head to look back at the truck.

“We have to get Murray out of here,” he says.

“Which means we have to spot those fucking snipers,” Blackwood says.

“Which means we have to make them fire again,” John says.

Blackwood groans.

“Scopes,” John says. “Blackwood you’re twelve to four, McMath four to eight, Henn eight to twelve.”

“We can cover - ” Blackwood begins.

“Don’t cover, look for the muzzle flashes,” John says.

“Bollocks,” Blackwood says softly.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” John says. “I’m going on three. One, two - three!”

He surges up onto his feet and starts running towards the truck, head down and shoulders rounded but otherwise making no attempt at defense or evasion. Under the vast empty silence of the sky and the soft drone of the helicopters circling, the thud of his boots on the dry dirt and the rasp of his breath seem preternaturally loud. His foot slides on a collapsing crust of earth and he stumbles for a split second, rights himself, and runs on. He flings himself at the shelter of the truck, throwing himself into the cab and onto the floor next to the bench seat. For a few seconds he lies gasping, and then he lifts his head, scowling furiously.

“That was a bit of a fucking anticlimax,” he says.

He rolls up onto his hip and turns his attention to Murray, who’s shifted onto his side and gathered his arms in front of himself. His eyes are closed, but they flicker open as John leans in. Murray’s face bears a heavy bristle of red-brown beard, a deep cut immediately below one eyebrow, and a selection of fading bruises on his cheekbone and chin. John extracts the water bottle from his thigh pocket and scoops an arm around Murray to lift him a bit. Murray grasps at John’s arm for support, and John’s able to pour a steady trickle of water into the other man’s mouth with only minimal spillage. When Murray’s had enough, John lays him down again, takes a swig of water himself, caps the bottle and tucks it away.

“Doc, what do you think?” Blackwood asks after another minute or two.

“I think they’re working my last fucking nerve,” John says roughly. “Scopes.”

“Ah, fuck,” Blackwood says.

“On three,” John says. “One, two, three.”

He shifts forwards, slithers down from the cab floor again, and crouches next to the truck. The steady drone of the helicopters circling is the only sound. After a minute, John straightens up onto his feet and steps deliberately away from the side of the vehicle.

“Doc,” Blackwood says warningly.

John takes another step, and another.

“Nobody move,” he says quietly into his radio mike. “No matter what happens, nobody move a fucking muscle.”

He closes his eyes for a second, opens them, and starts walking back towards Barr’s body. The crusted dirt crunches softly beneath his boots. When he reaches Barr, he crouches again next to him.

“Aerial to Two Two One Bravo Baker, we’ve got two platoons on the hills as of right now,” he hears through his earpiece. “If your snipers fire again, we’ll be on them.”

John turns his head, squinting into sunlight and heat shimmer, but it’s impossible to make anything out except the low undulation of the hills and the broad expanse of the open ground in front of them.

“They’re not willing to risk being caught,” he says. “We need to get Captain Murray out of here. One of you whirly-gigs come down on the passenger side of the truck.”

The drone of the helicopter most directly overhead drops in pitch as it sweeps down. John stands up, jogs unhurriedly back to the truck, and climbs inside again.

“Your lift’s here,” he says to Murray, who grins back at him crookedly.

“Is everybody - ?” Murray begins.

John cuts him off with a sharp shake of his head. Murray closes his eyes briefly.

“Sit on it,” John says, “we’re not home yet.”

Murray nods. The air starts to swirl around them, dust blowing through the open door of the truck cab as the helicopter touches down about fifty yards away. John lifts his armor off Murray and then shifts, backing into the doorway on his knees and wrapping his arms around Murray’s chest under his armpits. Murray pushes off with his heels and hands, providing considerable assistance as John drags him down off the bench seat and onto the cab floor. John jumps down to the ground, draws Murray’s arm around his shoulders, and then twists. With a deft application of strength, he gets Murray draped across his shoulders, his arms crooked around Murray’s right arm and leg.

“Bloody hell,” John says as he shifts under Murray’s weight. “Two forty?”

“Two forty four,” Murray says with a huff of laughter that turns into a cough.

“Bloody hell,” John says again, but when he starts to move it’s with steady certainty and a brisk stride that breaks into a jog after the first few yards.

The bay door of the helicopter is open, and two soldiers are crouching in the midst of the dust-churn with their rifles raised to their shoulders, while another is in the open doorway beckoning encouragingly to John. John turns his face aside, unable to use his hands to shield himself from the grit flying in the rotors’ turbulence. He reaches the helicopter and turns, allowing other hands to take Murray off his back.

“Go,” John shouts.

The helicopter lifts again. Blackwood, McMath, and Henn come up onto their knees, and then get to their feet. Another helicopter comes in and touches down. John walks back to Barr’s body and crouches again. He takes hold of one arm and hauls the body into a boneless sit, then hefts it upright with his arms around the chest. He bends, letting the body fold onto his shoulder, and then twists to pivot the weight across his back. McMath picks up Barr’s rifle, and then goes to gather the bits of gear lying with Garrett and Cullen. Blackwood and Henn lift the other two bodies, and carry them to the helicopter.

The gear is piled against the bulkhead. The bodies are laid down side by side, with Cullen in the middle. Then the four survivors of Bravo Baker section climb aboard, and sit down next to their dead. The helicopter lurches a little, and lifts, and turns south-east towards Sangin again.

End of Part 3

Chapter Text

July 26th, continued
Montague Street, London

Sherlock is sitting in the wingchair, drumming his fingertips alternately against the pad of his thumb and the edge of the armrest. Every few minutes he scowls, or jerks his head slightly as if dispersing an unpleasing arrangement of thoughts. Mycroft has re-donned his suit jacket and shoes, and is sitting tranquilly in the armchair opposite him. Mycroft’s phone buzzes in his pants pocket; he shifts to extract it, and stares at the screen, his lips pursing discontentedly as he reads. Sherlock lifts his eyebrows, an interrogative.

“Gowan’s vehicle has been found,” Mycroft says, “but there’s no sign of Gowan - no sign of a struggle either.”

“He’s gone to ground,” Sherlock says, folding his hands together and brings his fingertips to his lips.

“Evidently,” Mycroft says.

“Which raises the question, how did he know I was onto him?” Sherlock asks with undisguised relish.

“Hinde’s fiancée?” Mycroft suggests.

Sherlock shakes his head.

“If she were involved, she wouldn’t have given me his name in the first place,” he says. “McAvoy - no, there’s simply no way he could have guessed that Miss Krishnachandra would see that particular picture, and provide me with Gowan’s name.”

“That only leaves one other possibility,” Mycroft says.

Sherlock leans aside, extracts his phone from his pants pocket, and holds it up.

“This is why I don’t call you, in the usual order of things,” he says archly.

Mycroft hums dubiously. Sherlock brings one corner of his phone to his forehead and taps it lightly between his eyebrows.

“Without Gowan or Murray we’re at an impasse,” he says. “There’s no way to identify the other two surviving members of the conspiracy – and no way to catch them, except to be on the ground when they make their next move.”

Mycroft twitches his head to one side slightly, his eyes narrowing fractionally.

“Send me back,” Sherlock says.

“You said yourself they would seek additional leverage over me,” Mycroft says. “Why would I risk providing them with it, in the person of my own brother?”

“Because you care about England a damn sight more than you care about me,” Sherlock says, his tone casual but his pale eyes razor-edged. “And there’s no other way to catch them.”

“How would you find them?” Mycroft challenges.

“I wouldn’t,” Sherlock says. “They’ll come looking for me.”

“And you’re willing to risk your life for this?” Mycroft asks.

For England?” Sherlock says, his voice vibrating dramatically and then falling to narrow mockery. “How can you even ask, Mycroft?”

Mycroft turns his head aside and curls his fingers against his mouth in an obvious masking gesture. Sherlock’s features fall into cold, predatorial composure. Mycroft’s phone, still held in his other hand, buzzes again. He glances at it, frowns, and lifts it to his ear to answer the incoming call. Sherlock watches him indifferently at first, but then with increasing attention as Mycroft’s expression hardens into restrained anger even as his eyes turn softly stricken. After a minute or two, he ends the call without having spoken a word and lowers his phone again.

“Captain Murray has been found – relatively unhurt,” he says evenly.

Sherlock’s expression flickers with interest, and an unmistakable instant of chagrin.

“However, three British soldiers have been killed by coordinated sniper fire while attempting to secure him,” Mycroft says.

The corners of Sherlock’s mouth quirk irritably, and he’s already turning his head away dismissively when he catches the raw, apologetic look in Mycroft’s eyes. Sherlock’s eyes flare wide and his phone falls from his hand to thud softly on the rug.

“Captain Watson is unhurt,” Mycroft says quickly, but Sherlock’s already leaning forward in his chair, one fist clenched against his breastbone and a look of utter disbelief on his face.

Mycroft drops his gaze deliberately to the floor. He stares at Sherlock’s phone lying next to his outstretched foot, until he hears the soft shift of Sherlock sitting back in his chair again.

“Who, then?” Sherlock asks, his voice low and rough.

“Corporals Barr and Garrett, and Marine Cullen,” Mycroft says, lifting his eyes to meet Sherlock’s.

“Send me back,” Sherlock says, each word sharp-edged and glittering.

“That’s what they want,” Mycroft says, but without heat.

“And if they don’t get it, they’ll kill him,” Sherlock says.

“And if they do, he becomes superfluous, and they may kill him anyway,” Mycroft counters.

Sherlock thrusts up out of his chair, claps the heels of his hands to his brows, and presses hard enough to make the tendons of his wrists stand proud under his skin. Mycroft rises too, his brows furrowed together anxiously.

“Damn it – do your duty!” Sherlock shouts, wrenching his hands from his forehead. “Send me back! You have no right to keep me away – I can draw them out, I’m the only one who can.”

“Listen to me,” Mycroft snaps as he grabs Sherlock by the arms. “I have every right.”

Sherlock grimaces, drawing his head back as though trying to escape the proximity of his brother’s stare.

“I know that you cannot bear to hear me say that I love you,” Mycroft says, “so I won’t tell you that. I will tell you that there is nothing I place above my promise to keep you safe, nothing, except my promise to keep my country safe. Do you understand, Sherlock?”

Sherlock stills, his eyes widening fractionally and his breath steadying.

“Yes, I understand,” he says evenly.

Mycroft’s hands loosen on Sherlock’s arms and then fall away.

“Captain Watson and the other survivors have been taken back to Forward Operating Base Sangin,” Mycroft says, “but it’s clearly not safe for them to remain there. And nowhere they’re sent by the army can be safe either, not if there are senior British commanders involved in this conspiracy.”

Sherlock nods again, more grimly.

“Call him,” Mycroft says. “If you’ll excuse me, I'll wait for you in the car.”

He pats his pockets absently, glancing around, and then walks out of the flat and goes down the stairs. Sherlock hears the street door open, and then close. He stoops, picks his phone up from the rug, and straightens again. He places the call and lifts the phone to his ear.

“John, listen and don’t talk,” he says quietly. “The only way you or any of your section are going to survive this is to run. Don’t tell anyone where you’re going – don’t tell anyone that you are going – don’t trust anyone - just run.”

“Sherlock, that’s desertion,” John says, his voice thin with disbelief.

“No, it’s not,” Sherlock says, “it’s escape from behind enemy lines. I’ll find a way to get you out.”

There’s a pause, and Sherlock hears the soft click-whisper of John’s tongue on his lips.

“If you do get us out,” John says, “does it stop, then? Is it over? Or do they just pick some other lucky bastards to be the next sacrifice?”

Sherlock wraps his forearm across his stomach and flexes forwards slightly.

“You promised,” he whispers.

“I promised I wouldn’t die,” John says. “I didn’t promise I’d leave someone else to do it in my place.”

Sherlock’s knees soften, and he sinks slowly down until he’s kneeling on the floor with his head bowed and the phone still held to his ear.

“Besides,” John says, “you don’t think I’m going to let you run around Afghanistan with someone else, do you?”

“How do you know I’m coming back?” Sherlock asks, half-smiling despite himself.

“I’ve met you,” John says, “and this is where the case is.”

Sherlock exhales a slight sound of amusement.

“I’ll meet you at the beach,” he says. “Remember? You took me beach-combing. Don’t say where, just say if you remember.”

There’s a second or two of silence and Sherlock grimaces in frustration, but then John says confidently,

“Yes, I remember. When?”

“Give me eight hours,” Sherlock says.

“All right,” John says. “What about Murray? They want to take him to Bastion for a tox-screen.”

“Let him go,” Sherlock says. “Evidently he’s become - irrelevant to them.”

“Okay,” John says. “I’ll see you soon, then.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, and then, “John - ”

He squeezes his eyes shut, his brows furrowing intently.

“I know,” John says. “I do, too.”

They let the silence unspool between them for several more seconds, and then John cuts the connection. Sherlock inhales nasally, and unfolds back up onto his feet.

He crosses to the desk, closes his laptop and picks it up. He moves to where his duffel bag is lying behind the sitting room door, already distended by the weight and bulk of his body armor. He slips the laptop in beside it, then takes his coat from the hook on the back of the door, and shrugs it on. He drops his phone into his pocket, picks up his bag, and walks out of the flat without a second glance.

An hour later, Mycroft is standing on a concrete airstrip, watching a dust-colored Humvee being driven into the cargo bay of a Chinook helicopter. Half a dozen soldiers in dark camouflage clothing are busily stacking supplies and equipment into the Humvee even as it’s being tethered with cables and chains to the floor of the helicopter. Sherlock, dressed once more in pale camouflage clothing and with his body armor hanging loosely on his shoulders, is simultaneously glancing over the equipment that’s present and harrying everyone about what isn’t. When he’s finally satisfied, he walks to where Mycroft is standing.

“I believe these belong to you,” Mycroft says, gesturing to the bundled black holster, assault rifle, and the canvas bag containing Sherlock’s sniper rifle and spotter’s scope piled at his feet.

“Yes they do,” Sherlock says with obvious satisfaction.

He takes up the holster, draws the SIG out, pumps the slide, and checks the chamber before returning the pistol to its cradle and shrugging the holster onto his left shoulder. He threads the holster straps through the tapes of his body armor and pulls everything tight. He straightens, his posture responding instinctively to the tension of the armor strapped around his torso, and the protrusion of the SIG’s grip in front of his left biceps. He picks up the assault rifle, pulls the breech open and lets it snap shut again before he swings the strap over his right shoulder to sling the rifle muzzle-down behind him.

“I did always rather think,” Mycroft says, “that if you were ever to fall in love, it might make quite a different man of you – but I never imagined anything like this.”

“Well, you never had much of an imagination, did you?” Sherlock says with a slight smile.

Mycroft smiles back ruefully.

“I took the liberty of having these made,” he says, extracting his hand from his coat pocket. “Just in case.”

He extends his hand, palm cupped; in it lie two small gray metal discs on two joined loops of ball-chain, one long and one short. Sherlock exhales a slight sound of amusement, but he picks the identity tags up out of Mycroft’s hand and examines the indented text.

A+
00000000
Holmes SKS
CE

Sherlock smiles crookedly as he lifts the longer loop of chain over his head, lets it drop around his neck, and scoops the shorter loop and both tags into the open neck of his pale camouflage shirt.

“Ready when you are, sir,” a soldier says to Sherlock as the Chinook’s engines cough and then kick into roaring life.

Sherlock nods a glancing acknowledgment.

“Well. Godspeed,” Mycroft says crisply. “Isn’t that how one’s supposed to farewell a soldier?”

“Actually, I think you’re supposed to say, the next round’s on me,” Sherlock smirks.

“Ah,” Mycroft grimaces.

The two men shake hands. Sherlock turns away and walks towards the helicopter.

“Let’s roll,” he shouts over the steady thud of the Chinook’s twin rotors.

He strides up one of the sloped track rails into the Chinook’s belly. The rails are run in and the bay doors shut. Mycroft narrows his eyes against the buffeting air, and watches as the Chinook steps ponderously upwards, heaves itself into the gray sky, and is lost in the cover of the clouds.

 

Camp Bastion, Helmand province

Sherlock walks briskly through the warren of interconnected canvas-walled rooms and corridors that make up the base hospital. In his pale camouflage clothing, with his hair cropped and his face freshly tanned, he barely garners a glance from either the military or the medical personnel he encounters. He passes several numbered doorways and then stops at one standing open. Murray, dressed in a tan tee shirt and blue pajama pants, is sitting on top the covers of his hospital bed reading a thick paperback book. He looks up and his expression flickers through surprise to faintly frowning watchfulness.

“Mister Holmes, sir,” he says, tossing his book aside. “I didn’t expect to see you again.”

“I could say the same of you,” Sherlock says.

He crosses the threshold, picks up the metal frame chair standing against the wall, sets it next to the bed, and sits down.

“You look remarkably well, all things considered,” he says.

Murray turns his head in slight negation and his frown deepens.

“They didn’t try to extract my location from you,” Sherlock says, not a question but not quite a statement either.

“No,” Murray says.

“They just - kidnapped you, held you for a week, and then let you go again,” Sherlock says.

“They doped me with something before they dumped me,” Murray says. “When Watson found me I pretty foggy.”

“Mmm. I suppose that explains why you didn’t warn him about the snipers sooner,” Sherlock says.

Murray’s eyes twitch almost closed, a blink denied.

“You think I’m working for the conspiracy,” he says evenly. “You think I was knowingly bait in a trap that killed three Royal Marines.”

“It’s consistent with the events,” Sherlock says.

Murray exhales sharply, an unamused breath of laughter, and reaches for his book again.

“You’re not going to try to convince me that I’m wrong?” Sherlock asks.

”Will it make any difference?” Murray asks. “If I were a traitor, I’d try to convince you I wasn’t.”

Sherlock raises his eyebrows in slight acknowledgement.

“The nice thing about a war, though,” Murray says, “is that sooner or later everyone shows what they are. I’ll sit tight, and trust I’ll get my chance.”

Sherlock’s slight frown deepens. He pushes his chair back and stands up. Murray fans the pages of his book between his fingers and shakes his head wearily.

”Mister Holmes,” he says, as Sherlock’s turning away.

Sherlock glances back, one eyebrow raised questioningly.

“Good luck,” Murray says.

Sherlock shakes his head. Murray looks away and doesn’t look back again, so Sherlock turns and walks out.

He rides in the back of the Chinook’s cockpit for the short time it takes to travel from Bastion to the old battlefield outside Maiwand. The Chinook sets down with a heavy lurch and a metallic creak of the fuselage settling under its own weight. Sherlock steps down into the dimness of the cargo bay just as the rear door is dropped open, to reveal a square of brilliant sunlight that shafts along the narrow spaces between the fuselage and the sides of the Humvee.

The track rails are run out from the bay to the ground below, and the steel chain and cable tethers are unfastened from around the Humvee’s chassis. Sherlock climbs into the driver’s seat, pulls his gloves on, kicks the seat forwards and backwards until it’s set to his satisfaction, and huffs a deep breath out. Someone bangs on the side of the Humvee, a three-thud okay that Sherlock already knows from patrols and rifle practice. He shifts the vehicle into reverse and rolls it straight back, out of the confines of the Chinook’s bay, down the slanting track rails, and onto the dry dirt outside. The soldier returning the rails to the bay hesitates, and then comes to the open driver’s window.

“You know your way from here, do you, sir?” he asks with a raised eyebrow.

Sherlock laughs and the soldier grins ruefully in response.

“Well, good luck sir, with – whatever it is,” he says.

“Thank you,” Sherlock says with quiet sincerity.

The soldier turns away and climbs up into the Chinook’s bay. The bay door is closed up and the Chinook’s rotors start to turn again. Sherlock shifts gears and pulls the Humvee around in a large half-circle to put himself out of the worst of the rotor wind, with its clouds of swirling dust and specks of flying grit. The Chinook lifts away from the ground, slants upwards, and turns westwards. Sherlock watches until it’s no more than a dark dash in the vast blue of the sky.

He kicks the driver’s door open, slides out of his seat, then pulls his assault rifle from under it and hefts the weapon in his arms. He takes a step towards the front of the Humvee, turning his head to look from one side of the horizon to the other, his eyes narrowed against the glare of sunlight beating off the bleached ground. He hears a thin, piercingly pure note high overhead, and looks up to see the thin crescent of a raptor wheeling far above. He looks around again, his mouth stretching into a wide smile.

“John,” he says, his voice at first tentative in the vast silence, and then louder, “John.”

He hears from somewhere behind him the sibilant slide of loose earth and the scatter of small stones. He whirls, raising his rifle to his shoulder, to see a pale camouflage figure some thirty yards away unflexing from its knees onto its feet, dirt raining off sleeves and shoulders and helmeted head. Sherlock is peripherally aware of three other figures emerging from under low undulations in the ground off to his right as he drops his rifle on its strap, steps forwards, and then breaks into an uncontrolled run.

“John!” he shouts.

John throws his helmet off and snorts his breath out noisily to clear the dust from his nostrils. He pulls his tinted glasses off, baring a strip of somewhat cleaner skin and the vivid blue gleam of his eyes just as Sherlock careens into him shoulder first, winding an arm around his waist as so that they both twist aside, wind together, the bulk of clothing and armor and weapons insufficient to keep them from clutching each other close. Sherlock dips his face and John lifts his. The first touch of lips to dry, dust-roughened lips and then tongue to slick heated tongue is enough to make Sherlock’s eyes fall closed and his breath spill into John’s mouth in a moan of helpless, heartfelt gratitude.

Chapter Text

July 26th, continued
Maiwand, Kandahar province

For a few seconds, they press mouth against mouth, hard and hurried in the intensity of their relief, and then they pull apart again, both grimacing at the taste of dust. They lean their foreheads together, eyes squeezed shut and both pushing hard, as if their thoughts can be infused from one to the other by sheer force of will.

“John,” Sherlock rasps. “Oh God, I’m sorry.”

John takes him by the arms and holds him off a bit. Sherlock lifts his head and opens his eyes, his mouth soft with misery as he meets John’s gaze, only to find it clear and steady.

“There’ll be time later,” John says evenly. “Right now we need to keep doing our jobs.”

Sherlock exhales in slight surprise even as he catches at something of John’s composure. John turns aside, grasps the strap of his still half-buried pack, and drags it up out of the dirt. He kicks it and shakes it to empty its folds and crevices, and then swings it up onto his shoulders.

“Look at you,” Blackwood says as he approaches Sherlock. “Like a bad fucking penny, Holmes.”

Sherlock creases the corners of his eyes, a fractional gesture towards a smile. Blackwood’s gold-speckled eyes gleam against the dull dust coating his face.

“Welcome back,” McMath says as he passes Sherlock.

Sherlock nods in acknowledgment, his gaze skidding away to meet Henn’s pale blue eyes, wide and watchful.

“Henn,” Sherlock says. “Shut up.”

Henn flicks his eyelids, approval softening his expression as he follows Blackwood and McMath towards the Humvee. Sherlock looks back at John.

“Let’s get the MV out of sight,” John says crisply, but his eyes are meltingly dark.

They walk side by side to join the others. Henn whistles Margaret down; she comes to him in a swift stoop and a quick flurry of cream and ochre plumage as she drops onto his offered glove. He pecks kissing sounds at her as he slips her hood on, fitting the coarse nubuck shell gently over her head. He pulls a square of soft cloth from his thigh pocket and drapes it over her, folding and wrapping until only her hood protrudes from the swaddle, then he tucks her upright into the belt-pouch above his left hip.

“Let Blackwood drive,” John says to Sherlock. “He knows more about IED placement than you do.”

Sherlock gets into the Humvee on the front passenger side; Blackwood gets in on the driver’s seat and kicks the seat forwards while looking up and down the length of Sherlock’s legs with obvious disapproval. John crouches down in the space between the two front seats, an elbow braced on one corner of each backrest. McMath and Henn climb into the back of the vehicle, among the packs and the cases of supplies and equipment.

Blackwood drives in a more or less straight line across the open ground, with occasional curving detours around some juxtaposition of hump or hollow with a bit of scrub-brush or a scattering of rocks that displeases him in some way. There’s a dirt track leading into the hills, but he avoids that and takes the Humvee over the rolling rises and falls of the ground alongside it instead. They approach a half-destroyed house surrounded by a largely intact courtyard wall. Blackwood stops the Humvee and everyone piles out, hefting assault rifles to the ready.

John moves quickly towards the gateway in the wall, Sherlock following close behind and slightly to his right.

“Stop,” Sherlock snaps, snatching at John’s sleeve as he comes close to the wisp of fiber stranded across the gateway at waist height. “There’s a piece of - ”

“I know – it’s mine,” John grins. “I put it up so we’d know if anyone had been here while we were gone – it’s too fine to feel if you walk through it – way too fine to see - unless you’re you.”

Sherlock grins back at him. John steps through the thread, beckoning for Blackwood to bring the Humvee into the courtyard.

“What happened here?” Sherlock asks, surveying the gaping front of the house.

“We did,” John says. “There’re plenty of abandoned houses in good shape around here, nobody’s going to poke around one that’s missing half the roof. So we stuck a bit of PE4 on this place and blew the front off.”

Blackwood drives the Humvee over the heaped rubble and underneath the half-hanging upper floor of the house. McMath and Henn drape a large camouflage cloth from the broken floor joists above to the ground below, further screening the Humvee from view. Blackwood climbs out and slams the driver’s door shut. Sherlock ducks into the back of the vehicle and retrieves a hard-shell plastic case.

“I brought these,” he says, cracking the case open and extracting one of the headsets inside; it’s considerably sleeker and more expensive-looking than the radio headsets the others wear inside their helmets.

“Closed network,” Sherlock says, handing the headset to John and taking another one from the case. “It generates its own encryption second by second, using atmospheric noise for randomization. This is absolutely cutting-edge technology. It can’t be hacked - unlike the radios, or our phones.”

“That’s why you didn’t want me to say the place name when we were on the phone,” John says.

Sherlock nods.

“They hacked my phone – it’s how they knew I was onto Gowan and how McAvoy was able to find me in Bristol,” he says. “And it’s how we’re going to bring them out into the open. When I make a call, they’ll know I’m here, and they’ll come after me.”

John blows his breath out and wrinkles his nose in displeasure. Sherlock lifts a small laptop from the bottom of the case and hands it to Henn.

“That goes with this,” he says, opening a plastic pod from which he extracts a small assembly of lightweight mesh tape and plastic coated cable, with a tiny camera attached. “And this goes on that.”

He tips his head, gesturing to where Margaret is perched in a deeply shadowed corner with her hooded head tucked down against her speckled breast.

“That is fucking wicked,” Henn says, taking the whisper-light camera harness from Sherlock’s hands.

“Aerial surveillance and secure communication,” John says, his eyes sharp and bright.

“And some supplies, and as much ammunition as possible,” Sherlock says.

“There’s only three of them,” McMath says. “How big a fight are you expecting?”

“Two of the three surviving members of the conspiracy are very likely high-ranking British officers,” Sherlock says. “They have significant resources at their disposal.”

“Fucking hell,” Henn says softly.

“Let’s get the gear out and divided up,” John says, as he pushes away from where he’s leaning against the side of the Humvee.

As the evening draws into dusk, they spread their sleeping bags on the dirt floor next to the Humvee and sit leaning against their packs, while they eat and watch the sky turn coral and then red and then purple. Without fire or lights other than their small torches, the dusk turns to darkness in minutes and the stars flare into brightness across the night sky.

“We’re moving in six hours,” John says. “Let’s get some rest.”

“Henn, you’re first watch,” Blackwood says. “Two hours – then McMath, then me.”

Henn looks at John, who confirms Blackwood’s order with a slight nod, though he’s pursing his lips discontentedly. Henn lifts his eyebrows, clearly declining to dissect the exchange any further, and moves away. He goes up the mostly intact stairway to what’s left of the house’s upper floor. Blackwood gathers his sleeping bag up off the ground.

“McMath and I call top bunk,” he announces, “since we’re pulling watches.”

McMath is already climbing into the back of the Humvee; Blackwood follows, and slams the door shut behind him. The vehicle shifts a little on its suspension as the two men inside get settled.

“If the Humvee’s the top bunk,” Sherlock says, “I’m guessing the bottom bunk is - ”

He gestures to the ground beneath the wheels.

“Yeah,” John nods.

“May I armor-off?” Sherlock asks.

“Yeah, just – take it in there with you,” John says.

Sherlock untapes and shrugs off his body armor, and tucks it behind one of the Humvee’s front wheels. He wriggles under the front of the vehicle, his torch held in his teeth while he shoves and spreads his sleeping bag ahead of him, and rolls onto it. He plants his torch in the dirt beyond the sleeping bag’s edge, extracts the tub of aqueous base from his thigh-pocket, and composes himself on his back with one hand pillowing his head and the other lying on his stomach as he stares up at the underside of the Humvee looming above him. John sheds his own body armor and heaps it next to Sherlock’s, then he crawls under the Humvee too, spreading his sleeping bag to extend the area of covered ground and stretching out on his side, facing Sherlock. Sherlock turns his head to meet John’s dark gaze.

“I missed you,” John says softly. “I missed you so much it hurt.”

Sherlock rolls onto his side. There’s a whisper and wipe of clothing against clothing as they shift together, John cupping one hand around the curve of Sherlock’s face and Sherlock slipping an arm around John’s waist as they press against each other from chests to knees.

“I couldn’t breathe without you,” Sherlock murmurs.

John pushes forwards with his chin. Their open mouths meet, fit together with swift certainty. John shifts his weight over Sherlock, and Sherlock spills onto his back, drawing John with him. John straddles Sherlock’s right leg, brings his left up onto John’s hip with one scoop of his hand. He breaks from Sherlock’s mouth to press teeth-edged kisses into the corner of his jaw. Sherlock’s breathing is already quick and rough. John pulls back a bit, his eyes flicking over the torch-carved lights and shadows of Sherlock’s face.

“I love you,” John whispers.

Sherlock eyes flicker in the dim, yellow light, and his open mouth shapes a wondering smile.

“I love you,” John says again, still softly but with greater confidence.

He slips his hand from Sherlock’s neck to the buttons of Sherlock’s camouflage shirt. He opens the first couple and then his fingers encounter the chain lying across Sherlock’s chest. He lifts it on one fingertip and stares at the pendant tags. Sherlock watches his face, watches the flicker of confusion and then comprehension.

“We’re the same tribe now,” Sherlock says softly.

John shakes his head.

“We’ve always been the same tribe,” he murmurs.

He lets the chain and tags fall back into the silk-skinned hollow at the base of Sherlock’s throat, and places a kiss where the cool metal meets warm flesh. He finishes opening Sherlock’s shirt buttons, and then his hand slips lower to Sherlock’s belt. There’s the minute ring of Sherlock’s buckle and then the whispered pop of buttons out of buttonholes.

“I love you,” John says, against the tender skin of Sherlock’s stomach.

Sherlock inhales noisily and arches. John strips him, pulling camouflage pants and underwear down onto his thighs. Sherlock slackens again, lying limp-limbed on the sleeping bag beneath them. His cock is already rigid, the taut flesh pulsing up from his belly with each heartbeat.

“John,” he breathes.

“I love you,” John says, brushing the words along the shaft of Sherlock’s cock.

Sherlock heaves a deep breath and his hand curves around John’s skull. John drags his lips upwards, mouthing softly at the attachment of Sherlock’s foreskin. Sherlock’s breath shudders out and he squirms impatiently. John cups his open lips around Sherlock’s glans, and then sucks it into his mouth. Sherlock jolts under him, his body quivering violently before he can school himself to stillness. John moves slowly, clearly savoring every particle of sensation. Sherlock’s response gradually coalesces into a gentle rock of his hips, drawing his cock deliberately out through the circle of John’s lips by a couple of inches and then slipping it swiftly in again.

“Oh God,” Sherlock breathes, lifting the hand not occupied in stroking John’s hair to his own face. “That’s - oh.”

John sucks harder, little short jabs of pressure that make Sherlock waver an uncertain sound of pleasure and roll his head loosely from side to side. John pulls away, letting Sherlock’s cock fall from his mouth; it braces arrow-stiff along Sherlock’s belly, wet and flushed. John nuzzles down into the crease between Sherlock’s thigh and groin. Sherlock flexes his thigh aside as well as he can, tethered by his clothes and pinned by John’s weight.

“I love you,” John says, the heat of the words on sensitive skin enough to make Sherlock bite at his own lips.

John dips his hand between Sherlock’s thighs, palming the firm curves of the inner surfaces. Sherlock strains against the clothing restricting his movement.

“John, fuck me,” he murmurs. “I need it. I need you.”

John lifts his head, looks up the naked curves and planes of Sherlock’s body, and nods. He shifts his weight aside onto one elbow. Sherlock rolls over onto his stomach, writhes his clothing down to the backs of his knees, and nests his face in the crook of one bent arm. John shifts again, straddling him, and reaches for the tub. He pops the tub lid, scoops up a thick smear of the cream on two fingertips, and sets the tub aside. Sherlock rounds his back and spreads his legs as best he can.

John splays his other hand on the curve of Sherlock’s buttock and presses the flesh aside. He sleeks his fingertips up over Sherlock’s anus, then down, circling around and dipping inwards. Sherlock groans into the crook of his arm. John leans over him, watching the side of his face intently as he pushes his fingers into Sherlock’s body. Sherlock squeezes his eyes shut and his mouth falls open.

“I love you,” John murmurs.

Sherlock gives another soft, breathy groan as John extracts his fingers again. John wriggles aside to give himself space to undo his own clothing. He opens his belt and buttons and shoves everything down to the tops of his thighs, then rolls forwards onto Sherlock again. He takes hold of his cock and shifts down until he’s pressed into the cleft of Sherlock’s behind. He pushes inwards, Sherlock’s body dilating eagerly and confidently around him. Sherlock’s hand flexes to a fist on the sleeping bag, and Sherlock rasps his breath out loudly.

“Jesus,” John says unsteadily. “Jesus.”

He rubs his face in the back of Sherlock’s shirt, between his shoulder blades, and begins to move. With Sherlock almost completely prone on his belly and his legs only moderately spread, the connection between them is tenuous, and incomplete. John’s glans and a couple of inches of his shaft are inside Sherlock, the rest of his shaft rubbing in the narrow space between Sherlock’s buttocks, and the depth of his penetration limited by the plump curves of flesh under his pelvis. Any attempt at an outward stroke risks uncoupling them entirely, so John restricts himself to short jerks of his hips, pushing his cock a precious inch or two deeper. Sherlock moans into the sleeping bag beneath his face, the sensation intensely pleasurable but ultimately unproductive. John clasps a hand over the nape of Sherlock’s neck, and the added leverage pulls him a little higher on Sherlock’s body as he thrusts. Sherlock moans again, the sharper angle and crueler stretch adding a thin edge of peril to his pleasure. John fucks steadily, his pace gradually increasing as his excitement builds, and his breathing turning quick and harsh.

“I love you,” he says, his gaze flickering over the flushed curve of Sherlock’s turned cheek. “I love you.”

Sherlock squirms, pushing back into his thrusts greedily.

“Close,” John says, as if the quicker, more erratic pace of his thrusts isn’t warning enough. “Oh fuck, close, going to come - ”

Sherlock writhes, spreading his legs until the clothes around his thighs bind white lines into his flesh.

“Do it,” he growls. “Come in me.”

“Oh - fuck,” John gasps, his body jerking sharply against Sherlock’s. “Love you - God - love you - ”

“Oh God,” Sherlock says breathlessly, “oh God - oh - ”

John’s still panting and shivering through the aftershocks as he pulls back. Sherlock moans as their bodies part, John’s soft and slack with relief, Sherlock’s still wound tight with need. John uncoils from Sherlock’s back and slumps to one side. Sherlock pushes up onto one elbow as John slides down onto his stomach. John’s camouflage pants and underwear are bunched around the backs of his thighs just below his buttocks. Sherlock grips the folds of thin cotton and heavy canvas; John lifts obligingly, and Sherlock strips everything lower.

“Bring your knees in,” he murmurs. “You’re too closed up like this.”

John hunches, drawing his knees under himself while leaving his torso folded limply over. Sherlock curls around him, picks up the tub of cream and uses two fingers to scoop some out into his left palm, then shoves the tub out of the way. He uses the clean back of his right hand to push John’s shirt up out of the way, and then smears his coated fingertips up along the open cleft of John’s behind. John stirs, rolling his hips as Sherlock touches, and then pushes in a little. John makes a soft throaty sound and gathers two fistfuls of sleeping bag in his hands. Sherlock pushes deeper, and starts to rock his fingers gently in and out. John’s body yields to him, still too stunned with relief to exert itself in resistance.

“Oh, my God,” Sherlock breathes. “You’re so open.”

“Oh, fuck,” John rasps. “Come on, I’m ready.”

Sherlock draws his fingers out again. He shifts aside enough to bring his lubricant-filled palm to himself, smoothing the stuff up and down his shaft and thumbing it around the ridge of his glans and into his slit. He moves over John, but there isn’t enough clearance between Sherlock’s back and the underside of the Humvee for him to mount John that way without John flattening out again. Sherlock shifts back down onto his side.

“On your side,” he says softly, drawing John into the curve of his body.

John rolls with him, pulling his knees in towards his chest to open himself. Sherlock hitches in close behind him, insinuating one knee under John’s lowermost thigh to lift him a bit. John braces himself with an elbow; Sherlock shifts his hips, frowning intently as he takes hold of himself and uses the curled knuckle of his index finger to feel his way between John’s buttocks and find the right spot to push at.

“Oh,” John says lazily as Sherlock presses, the softness of his glans belying the unforgiving hardness of the shaft behind it.

Sherlock exhales shakily. He grips John’s uppermost thigh, flexing it upwards, giving himself the space to cup his pelvis inwards and push his cock deeper. John wavers a weak sound of surrender, and lets his head drop onto his supporting arm. Sherlock tips his pelvis back, drawing his cock slowly outwards until the ridge of his glans catches in the ring of muscle, and then pushes back in.

“Oh - fuck me,” John whispers. “Come on.”

Sherlock hooks his arm over John’s thigh and presses his palm to John’s belly. John groans messily, throwing his head back into the crook of Sherlock’s neck, and arching his back enough to pull his belly taut. Sherlock rocks his hips back, and then thrusts forwards, and John moans as he’s pinned between the pressure of Sherlock’s cock and Sherlock’s hand.

“I can feel it,” Sherlock says breathlessly, “I can feel myself moving in you.”

John slurs a sound of affirmation. Sherlock stares at him, eyes wide as they follow the blurred edges of John’s face, down the tangle of his shirt around his chest, the thick curve of his stomach muscles, to the slack weight of his cock lying against his inner thigh.

“Oh - fuck,” John breathes.

“ I love you,” Sherlock whispers.

John’s open mouth stretches into a soft-edged smile and he reaches back with his uppermost hand to clasp Sherlock’s bare hip.

“John, I love you,” Sherlock says, his face against the curl of John’s ear and the heavy turn of his neck. “Oh God, I love you.”

“Yeah, come on,” John says, his spine flexing and bowing in counterpoint as Sherlock moves inside him.

“Love, love you,” Sherlock murmurs, his eyes falling closed. “Oh God, love – love - ”

John writhes, pushing back around Sherlock’s cock, driving a helpless groan from Sherlock’s chest.

“ - love – oh, John - ”

Sherlock coils, his fingers digging into John’s belly and his thighs quivering. John grips Sherlock’s thigh tightly and rocks back into each of Sherlock’s thrusts.

“Oh God,” Sherlock gasps, “God – love – God - ”

John gives a soft cry of satisfaction as Sherlock comes, shivering and shaking and sighing his breath out against John’s cheek.

“ - love - love – oh God, love - ”

Sherlock’s shivers turn to real trembling, his body utterly undone. John murmurs a low sound of reassurance, and pushes Sherlock off enough to twist, to disconnect them, and then gather Sherlock against him. He presses closed-lip kisses onto Sherlock’s damp temples and flushed cheeks.

“I love you,” John whispers, “I love you.”

Sherlock nods, his eyes still closed as he slackens against John, his body slowly finding itself again.

“Love,” he breathes. “Love - ”

Their voices ebb together, John’s soft and low but shaping the words to completion, Sherlock’s deeper but no more than a slurred breath.

“I love you.”

“ – love - ”

“I love you.”

Sherlock’s breathing gradually slows, steadies, while his fingertips trace lightly over John’s belly and hip. After a few minutes he slips his hand up inside John’s shirt and presses his palm to John’s breastbone.

“Why don’t you want what they want?” he asks quietly, though his voice is hard-edged.

John exhales a soft breath of amusement.

“Because I’m not a raving lunatic,” he says, putting his hand over Sherlock’s.

Sherlock lies still, breathing against the curve of John’s neck.

“Wait,” John says. “That was a real question.”

Sherlock nods, the movement transmitted as the brushing of his mouth and chin against John’s skin. John draws Sherlock’s arm more closely across his chest.

“The first time I saw combat,” John says, “proper combat, I mean, a proper fight - not that hit and run shit we used to get in Ulster – was in Kosovo. And then Sierra Leone, and Iraq, and here. And every time I go home it’s - obscene to me, that people can walk down the street or stand in a shop or do any of the things they do, and not think about the wars – all the wars, all the time, everywhere.”

Sherlock presses nearer, but John shakes his head slightly, and when he speaks again, his voice is low but perfectly steady.

“Sometimes it’s hard being there, because people don’t understand,” he says, “but – I don’t want them to understand. I don’t want home to be the kind of place where everyone knows what I know.”

He twists his head towards Sherlock, who tilts his face up, so they’re peering at each other in the slanting light and dark. John flicks his tongue over his lips. Sherlock’s eyes narrow and the corners of his mouth tuck in anticipation.

“I – Christ, I’m just so glad you’re here,” John says, his smile uneven and somewhat abashed.

Sherlock’s own smile widens as he tucks his face into the side of John’s neck again, and they shift a little to find the right alignment of bodies and limbs that let them stay close and yet rest in reasonable comfort on the unforgiving ground beneath them. Sherlock reaches back with one hand and fumbles his torch over and off. The darkness presses in around them, and they close their eyes, and after only a few minutes they both sleep.

Chapter Text

July 27th
Maiwand, Kandahar province

The sky is still dark but there is a thread of rapidly lightening gray above the eastern horizon. Blackwood clumps down the mostly intact wooden stairway from the half-demolished upper story of the house. He scuffs across the rubble-littered dirt floor to where the Humvee is hidden by the camouflage sheet hanging from the broken floorboards and joists to the ground. He ducks behind the sheet, and kicks the side skirt of the Humvee lightly.

John’s eyes snap open in the second before Blackwood’s boot meets the metal panel. He rolls away from Sherlock, fastening and fixing his clothing, and crawls out from under the Humvee dragging his body armor with him.

“We’ll have some light in fifteen, twenty minutes,” Blackwood murmurs.

John nods as he swings his body armor onto his shoulders and tapes it closed around his waist. McMath and Henn climb out of the Humvee, yawning and scratching and stretching as they put their armor on. Sherlock emerges from under the Humvee, and gets to his feet.

“Let’s eat and gear up,” John says.

Sherlock rolls his head from side to side to realign himself after a night spent on the ground. He brushes perfunctorily at the dirt clinging to his pale camouflage clothing and then turns his attention to strapping his armor and shoulder holster on. Blackwood tosses MRE packages to everyone. Henn hunkers down to eat, while Sherlock leans back against the Humvee. McMath peels his package open, picks something up out of one compartment and throws it at Sherlock. Sherlock grimaces in annoyance until he plucks up one of the particles that have showered his sleeve: freeze-dried rice.

“Congratulations,” McMath smirks.

Blackwood glances at John, who’s studiously considering the contents of his own package, and then at Sherlock.

“Phaedrus said an army of lovers can never be defeated,” Sherlock says as he brushes his sleeve clean, only the faint crease at the corner of his mouth betraying his amusement.

“What about an army of two lovers and three casual fuck buddies,” Blackwood says. “Did he have anything to say about that?”

Henn laughs, a short, easy sound. McMath shakes his head but he’s smiling. Sherlock’s mouth curls, his smile mostly suppressed on his lips but shining unabashed in his eyes.

“So what happens now?” Blackwood asks more seriously, looking from Sherlock to John.

“Gowan and his two coconspirators wanted me back in Afghanistan,” Sherlock says, his gaze flicking from Blackwood to rest with John. “That’s why you were attacked at Nawzad - they knew that if you were threatened, I’d come back."

“And they’ve got what they wanted,” John says with a slight grimace.

“They’ve hacked my phone,” Sherlock says, “including its GPS chip. When I make a call, they’ll know where I am and they’ll come after me.”

John and Blackwood exchange thin-edged glances.

“What about Gowan?” John prompts.

Sherlock shakes his head.

“He’s gone to ground,” he says. “His name’s been put at the top of every search and secure list in the country, but that’s meaningless with the other two conspirators protecting him. We have to identify the other two members of this conspiracy.”

“What’s your plan?” John says.

“In order to force my brother’s cooperation, they need me as hostage,” Sherlock says, dipping his chin slightly so that he’s looking up at John from under his brows. “That means they need me alive; my brother’s not going to give them anything in return for a corpse. They’ll have to engage us at close quarters with nonlethal force.”

John quirks an eyebrow and his mouth lifts slightly at one corner.

“Fortunately we’re not operating under the same constraints,” Sherlock says.

“Gowan and two others,” McMath says, flicking the remains of his food aside and crumpling up the package. “That’ll just come out even for our three, then.”

“Henn and Margaret will give us aerial surveillance so we know what’s coming,” Sherlock says. “The rest of you will be in ambush. I’m the bait - I’ll be out in the open.”

“You’re not standing out there alone,” John says without looking at him.

“John, we’ve covered this. They need me alive,” Sherlock says crisply. “The rest of you are expendable at best and a liability to them at worst. It doesn’t make sense to risk one of you out in the open.”

John turns his head, his eyes flicking shut and then open as he meets Sherlock’s gaze. The planes and curves of John’s face are flint-sharp, and his eyes are metallic blue.

“You’re not standing out there alone,” he repeats evenly.

There’s a suppressed ripple of movement among Blackwood, McMath, and Henn, and a quick exchange of half-averted glances. Sherlock’s expression fragments through confusion and obvious discomfort to an uncertain acquiescence, and he nods jerkily.

The sky has brightened to flawless blue, but the air hasn’t yet thickened into heat haze when Sherlock and John walk out of the house’s courtyard onto the deserted road outside. Sherlock takes his phone from his hip pocket, places a call, and lifts his phone to his ear.

“Mycroft,” he says almost at once.

“Sherlock, is it safe for you to call me?” Mycroft says evenly.

“Probably not but I can’t think of another way,” Sherlock says. “I’ve spoken to William Murray - the man’s every bit as good a liar as you.”

“I see,” Mycroft says. “That’s – unexpected.”

“It’s intriguing, certainly,” Sherlock says, glancing down at his wristwatch. “That’s all I need to say.”

“Sherlock,” Mycroft says sharply. “I – ”

Sherlock ends the call and drops his phone back into his pocket.

“What did you mean about Murray being such a good liar?” John frowns, his gaze hard-edged.

“My brother used to tell me that the secret to being a really good liar was to always tell the truth,” Sherlock says with a blossoming smirk.

“So he was just innocent bystander,” John says.

“Unfortunately,” Sherlock says.

John scowls, uncomprehending.

“You can’t get information from someone who doesn’t know anything,” Sherlock says dryly.

One hour and forty minutes later Sherlock is kneeling in the roadway, one leg folded beneath him, the other knee raised as a convenient support for the weight of his assault rifle. John is on his feet, cradling his assault rifle in his arms, and looking up at the small dark mote that is Margaret flying wide, high circles in the empty blue above.

“We’ve got something,” Henn announces over the headset channel, “one MV coming in from the south-west.”

Sherlock scrambles to his feet.

“Keep talking to me,” John says.

“Land Rover, looks like one of ours,” Henn says. “That’s it, one vehicle. There’s nothing else out there.”

“Could be a coincidence,” John says to Sherlock, “just someone passing by.”

Sherlock shakes his head. They can see a plume of pale dust rising in the distance, and after another moment they can make out the Land Rover.

“That’s a bit fucking insulting, then,” John says. “Four commandos and a ruddy genius and that’s all they throw at us?”

Sherlock drops his head, his breath rippling out in almost suppressed laughter.

“No, really,” John says with a crooked grin.

The Land Rover is traveling parallel to the roadway, humping and dropping over the rough ground. John and Sherlock shoulder their assault rifles and peer through the sights; through the dust and lurching motion they can just make out the silhouette of the vehicle’s driver. The Land Rover turns aside slightly and stops when it’s still a couple of hundred yards away. The driver’s door is thrown open, but there’s no further movement as the dust drifts aside and clears.

“Huh,” John says after a pause.

They start walking towards the vehicle, their rifles still raised. As they draw nearer, they see the driver sitting patiently in his seat with his hands lifted.

“Get out,” John calls. “Slowly.”

The driver unfolds a little awkwardly from his seat, keeping his hands raised. He’s readily recognizable as Mitchell Gowan, the man from the thirty year old video Sherlock saw in London. He’s tall and still powerfully built, with tightly buzzed hair that’s white at the temples and iron gray elsewhere. He’s dressed in desert boots, pale khaki pants and shirt, and a darker khaki bush-jacket, with a pistol in a holster on his right hip.

“Walk forwards,” John instructs, as he and Sherlock start to back up. “Away from the MV.”

The three of them move back until Gowan’s a hundred yards away from the Land Rover.

“Keep coming,” John calls to Gowan, but he and Sherlock stop.

Gowan approaches, his stride deliberate.

“Stop there,” John says when Gowan is a hundred feet away.

Gowan halts. Sherlock stares at him intently along the barrel of his raised assault rifle. John lowers his own assault rifle, letting it hang from its strap, and draws his handgun from his hip holster. He clasps the grip two-handed, arms extended, and thumbs the safety catch off as he moves towards Gowan. Gowan flicks him an appraising look before re-engaging his gaze with Sherlock’s.

John circles to Gowan’s right side, his handgun aimed at Gowan’s head. Gowan’s mouth quirks into a slight smile. John reaches for Gowan’s hip holster, unsnaps the strap and pulls the gun out. He backs away a couple of steps, then without taking his eyes off Gowan’s face he flings the gun away, back-handed, so it goes spinning through the air and lands quite a way off in a puff of dust and a scattering of grit. John backs away a few more paces, so that he’s standing almost directly between Gowan and Sherlock, about equidistant from both men.

“Blackwood, any sign of anyone else in the MV?” John says into his headset microphone.

“I’m on my own,” Gowan says, but John shakes his head dismissively.

Blackwood is on his belly in the shadow of the courtyard wall, hidden beneath a camouflage sheet and a heavy scattering of dirt. Peering through the optical sight of his assault rifle, he can see without obstruction in through the Land Rover’s windows on the near side, and out through the ones on the far side.

“Doesn’t look like,” he says. “Hang on - I’ll take a gander up close.”

He throws the camouflage sheet aside and scrambles to his feet. With his assault rifle raised, he moves in a quick half-crouch towards the vehicle.

“Anything happens to him, you’re dead,” John tells Gowan.

Gowan’s mouth flexes discontentedly. Blackwood straightens up as he circles the Land Rover, his rifle at the ready.

“Clear,” he says. “It could be wired, but there’s no one in it.”

“All right, get away from it,” John says.

Gowan is looking Sherlock up and down carefully, his bright blue eyes tracking from Sherlock’s dusty boots, up the legs of his pale camouflage pants to the pouch-belt slung around his hips, up the bulk of his body armor to where the open neck of his camouflage shirt reveals a loop of ball-chain lying across the base of his throat, up his face with the fresh flush of sun on his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose to the short dark crop of his hair.

“So you’re the brother,” Gowan says.

Sherlock nods, the movement slight enough that he never loses his line of sight along his assault rifle’s barrel.

“You don’t look like a civilian,” Gowan says.

“Thank you,” Sherlock says.

Gowan exhales hard, a sound of wry amusement. He tilts his hands a little and looks questioningly at John.

“Captain,” he says, “may I put my hands down? I’ve got a bit of small-shrapnel in my right shoulder that’s older than you are, and it’s starting to bite.”

“Slowly,” John says, with a slight flicker of his eyelids.

Gowan exhales heavily and lowers his hands to his sides.

“You didn’t think you were going to take me from four Royal Marines like this,” Sherlock says.

Gowan tips his head, a half admission but no more.

“I’ve read this all wrong, haven’t I?” Sherlock says quietly. “You were never interested in re-capturing me.”

Gowan stares back at him, eyes vivid and mobile with something that’s unsettling close to satisfaction.

“Then - what?” Sherlock grinds. “What’s the benefit to your conspiracy of having me - ”

He stops, and for an instant his scowl flickers into a soft grimace. John lets his gaze flick from Gowan to Sherlock for a split second.

“Sherlock?” he prompts, looking back at Gowan. “You want to tell me what’s - ”

“If I was being held hostage, my brother wouldn’t know where I was,” Sherlock says evenly, “but he’d know I was alive and in the possession of people who knew my value. There’d be negotiations, threats, deadlines - there’d be some sense of control.”

“And – this?” John says.

“He’s got no information, no input, and no way to affect the outcome,” Sherlock says, the corner of his mouth curling. “I could be anywhere - anything could happen to me.”

“I’m - ” John begins, but then he lets the sentence unravel into a small sound of incomprehension.

“Nicely done,” Sherlock says to Gowan with almost perfect sincerity. “I can’t think of situation more perfectly calibrated to break his nerve.”

Gowan’s eyes crease at the corners, a smile he doesn’t permit to reach his lips.

“All right,” Sherlock says. “That doesn’t explain why you came out here, alone.”

“No, I’m going to let you work that out for yourself,” Gowan says. “I’m not going to tell you.”

“Oh, I think you’ll be surprised at what you’re going to tell him,” John says, his voice steady but almost raggedly rough.

“You’re ready to torture an American civilian?” Gowan says, looking John up and down. “That’s not much of a testament to the old regiment, is it?”

“Three of my men were murdered yesterday,” John says, his expression perfectly composed but his eyes glitteringly sharp, “and you pulled trigger on one of them. All the regimental pride in the world wouldn’t stop me taking a knife to you if I have to.”

“After all, we don’t have a lot of options here,” Sherlock says. “There’s no point in turning you over to the authorities here, and we can’t get you out of the country to turn you in somewhere else. We’re at a dead-end.”

“Funny you should say that,” Gowan says.

The distinct hum of a small engine sounds somewhere in the distance.

“You know what a soldier is?” Gowan says, looking past John to address Sherlock. “It’s a man who’s willing to die so that other men don’t have to.”

The sound of the drone’s engine sharpens as it comes into view. Gowan presses his hand to his thigh, to the pocket of his pants, and there’s a loud bang and the front of his bush-jacket explodes messily, blood ribboning through the air to spatter on the bright dirt as he arcs backwards and falls. John slams into Sherlock, wiping him off his feet so that they both hit the ground with a breath-breaking impact. Sherlock struggles but John pins his shoulders and plants one knee between Sherlock’s thighs so there’s no way to get enough leverage to throw him off.

“Who is firing?” John barks. “Blackwood.”

“No,” Blackwood snaps. “It’s not us!”

“Henn, do you see them?” John demands.

“No there’s - ”

“There’s no sniper,” Sherlock says breathlessly.

John frowns, but allows Sherlock to kick out from under his body. They both scramble the few yards to where Gowan is lying on his back. The ripped front of his jacket is soaked bright red. John pulls his left glove off and presses his fingers to Gowan’s neck; after several seconds he shakes his head.

“The front of his jacket was blown outwards but he fell backwards,” Sherlock says, coming up onto his knees next to Gowan and gripping one side of his clothing.

He hauls the body onto its side, exposing the unmarred back of Gowan’s jacket.

“No entry wound,” John says, “I don’t - ”

Sherlock lets the body spill back onto the ground and pushes the ragged clothing aside to reveal a butcher’s mess of blood, torn flesh, and shattered bone. John wrinkles his nose in distaste. Sherlock hooks one crooked finger under a strand of something redly glistening and lifts it: it’s a thin wire, and there’s another loops around and disappears into the blood-soaked shoulder of Gowan’s shirt.

“He was wearing explosives,” John says blankly.

“A small charge, but big enough to do the job,” Sherlock says. “We knew who he was. He’d lost his access and his freedom of action. He was no further use to the conspiracy, and a security risk to the other two surviving members.”

“So they killed him,” John says.

“So he killed himself,” Sherlock says.

He pulls Gowan’s shirt out of the waist of his pants to expose two strands of wire running down the dead man’s side, and then lifts the flap of Gowan’s thigh pocket to reveal a small, circular pressure pad adhered to the fabric and connected to the wires through a hole in the pocket’s interior.

“He triggered it himself,” Sherlock says.

“Fucking hell,” John says softly, and then, more clearly into his headset microphone, “we’re clear - stand down.”

Sherlock rolls Gowan’s corpse over onto its face, then draws his knife and slits the back of Gowan’s bush-jacket from hem to nape. He brushes the cloth aside, exposing a crisscross of black webbing between Gowan’s shoulder blades, supporting a small taped block of batteries to which the fine wires trailing from the front of his body are attached.

“He couldn’t have rigged this on himself,” Sherlock murmurs, his fingertips brushing the connections between wires and batteries.

“So maybe he was forced,” John says.

Sherlock shakes his head.

“No signs of struggle on the body,” he says. “He wasn’t forced - he was helped.”

He grips the corpse by the shoulders and turns it onto its back again. He leans low, bringing his face close to Gowan’s, and inhales deeply. His mouth twists into a small, crooked smile as he leans away again.

“What do you smell?” he prompts.

John bends low and sniffs the air immediately above the corpse’s nose and mouth.

“Alcohol,” John says, his gaze flickering intently.

“Vodka, unfiltered but very pure, with just the faintest suggestion of ferric taint,” Sherlock says, his eyes glowing with pleasure.

“The same thing Daniel Rost drank before he killed himself,” John says, his own eyes taking fire from Sherlock’s.

Sherlock looks down at Gowan’s corpse again.

“It’s a ritual with them,” he says quietly. “They all drink together first and then - ”

He lifts his head to look at John, and then turns his head to watch the others approaching.

Another engine hum emerges from the silence, comes into clarity as it passes overhead, and blurs again.

“Wait a second, there was a drone just a minute ago,” John scowls.

“Oh,” Sherlock sighs softly, his mouth stretching into a humorless smile.

John looks at him questioningly.

“They’ve rerouted drones,” Sherlock says, “to make sure they get enough incriminating pictures.”

John looks down at Gowan’s body again, his eyes narrowing as realization hits.

“On drone images it’s going to look like we shot him,” he says. “But – what – why would - ”

“We’re not just on the loose, John,” Sherlock says. “We’re on the run.”

“So what do we do?” McMath asks. “There’s nowhere we can - ”

“We don’t run,” John says, his voice cold and steady as stone.

“So what do we - ?” Blackwood starts.

“I don’t know, but we don’t run,” John says again.

“We take the fight to them,” Sherlock says abruptly.

“We don’t have a lead on them,” John protests.

“The Land Rover,” Sherlock says, jerking his chin towards Gowan’s vehicle. “It’s a British army vehicle.”

“Yeah, so?” John scowls.

“So it’s GPS tagged,” Sherlock says, stepping away from the group. “We can rip the GPS chip and find out where the vehicle’s been.”

“We can do that?” Blackwood says.

“I can do that,” Sherlock says.

He moves forwards, taking two long quick strides before John bulls his way in front of him and shoves him to a stop.

“You’re not touching the MV - we don’t know if it’s wired,” John says, thrusting his rifle into Sherlock’s hands. “Stay here, the lot of you.”

He glances at Blackwood.

“I’d tell you not to let him look,” he says with a sharp jerk of his chin at Sherlock, “but - ”

“Yeah, I know,” Blackwood shrugs.

John turns away and walks the hundred yards or so to the Land Rover. He stops just short of the front passenger’s side door, and glances back over his shoulder. Blackwood is down on one knee, the others are flat on their bellies on the ground. John blows his breath out noisily and turns to look at the Land Rover again.

“Fuck this shit,” he says sharply.

He thuds the heel of his hand against the left side of his chest, then drops his hand to the door handle and wrenches the door open with enough exertion to make it bounce on its hinges a bit. He yanks his helmet strap open and throws his helmet off before ducking into the passenger seat. He drops onto the seat hard enough to rock the vehicle on its suspension, and reaches down to pull his knife out of its sheath on his right calf. He turns his wrist to bring the knife’s hilt to bear on the dashboard and slams it into the GPS display panel, shattering the plastic screen. He flips the knife over and uses the hooked tip of the blade to pry out the green circuit board with its attached chip, ripping the whole piece loose from the connecting wires. He re-sheathes his knife, kicks the door wide open again, and gets out. He walks back to the others, who are already climbing to their feet and dusting themselves off perfunctorily.

John presents the circuit board and chip to Sherlock, who accepts it with a slight nod of acknowledgement and returns John’s rifle. There’s a low hum overhead yet again; they squint up into the sun to see another drone pass overhead.

“Let’s move,” John says wryly. “I feel like I’m standing out here with my fly open.”

Chapter Text

July 27th, continued
South of Musa Qala, Helmand province

The tracking data for Gowan’s vehicle leads them south-west across the provincial border from Kandahar into Helmand, and then farther south into the gray-green farmland bordering the Helmand River. When they’re still a few miles short of their destination, they leave the Humvee hidden under a camouflage sheet in an overgrown hedgerow. From there, they go on foot in single file, John leading and every other man taking care to step only in the tracks left by those in front of him. They stop in the cover of the trees growing alongside an irrigation canal.

“That’s it,” John says to Sherlock, nodding from the screen of his GPS handset to the single house standing about a mile away, over the canal and on the other side of two fields.

The nearer field is lying fallow, but the one next to the house bears a dense crop of fully-flowering poppies. There’s a partially fallen wall running between the two fields, offering some potentially useful cover. They slide down the steep slope of the canal’s bank into thigh-deep muddy water, wade the few feet across, and scramble up the bank on the other side to kneel in the undergrowth among the trees, lifting their assault rifles to scrutinize the house through their sights.

“Someone’s still there,” Sherlock says sharply, as he focuses on the roof of a dust-colored Land Rover just visible above the courtyard wall at the back of the house.

“McMath,” John says, “take Henn, go left.”

McMath nods, jerks his chin at Henn, and they both move away through the undergrowth.

“Blackwood, straight down the middle,” John says. “Holmes, you’re with me.”

They move quickly through the line of trees in the opposite direction to that taken by McMath and Henn. John stops and hunkers down, looking back the way they’ve come.

“This is Alpha One,” he says into his headset microphone, “on my mark, over.”

“This is Alpha Two, copy on your mark, over,” Blackwood answers over the open channel.

“This is Bravo One,” McMath says. “We copy on your mark, over.”

“Go,” John says.

McMath and Henn break from cover far down the line of trees, both of them bent low and running fast over the open ground of the fallow field. Blackwood emerges closer to John and Sherlock, running a zigzagged line. John and Sherlock break and run towards the cover of the field wall. Shots sound, sharp and short in the open air.

“Get down,” John snaps at Sherlock.

They both throw themselves down behind the field wall, but Blackwood, McMath and Henn vault over it and fling themselves down in the thick cover of the poppies. After a moment, they plunge out of the far side of the poppies and cross a foot track to the wall of the courtyard. There’s a flurry of gunfire and muzzle flashes from the front of the house, but the three men reach the courtyard wall and throw themselves up and over it without hesitation. John taps Sherlock on the arm, and they both spring up and over the wall, and then plunge into the waist-high growth of the poppy field. They fetch up against the courtyard wall, and move quickly along it until they’re just feet short of the gateway.

“You should have let me go first,” Sherlock says to John, winding the strap of his assault rifle around his forearm.

“Eh – no,” John says with a quirked twist of his mouth.

“John, they don’t want me dead,” Sherlock says.

A round clips the top of the wall nearby, showering chips of brick onto them.

“The guys with the big elaborate plan for world domination don’t want you dead,” John says. “These guys are just contractors – how much of the plan do you think they know? They weren’t supposed to come face to face with you. They just want to get paid and then stay alive to spend it. They’re equal-opportunity shooters.”

Another round hits the top of the wall, somewhat closer to where they’re crouched.

“Blackwood,” John says into his headset microphone. “Keep pushing - those guys must have called for back-up by now.”

The scattered rattle of gunfire continues for another thirty seconds or so, and then is punctuated by the solid bang of a grenade explosion. John cranes sideways to peer through the bars of the gate, and sees a cloud of dust and smoke rolling out of the now door-less doorway of the house. John swings round, bringing his rifle up and firing a single round at the gate’s lock, which springs apart with a spark and a snap.

“Let’s move,” John says to Sherlock, kicking the gate open.

They run, half-crouched, across the courtyard and through the doorway. Blackwood is down on one knee, his back to the soot-stained wall of the narrow hallway.

“Get down,” John says to Sherlock, but Sherlock’s already dropping in imitation of Blackwood’s posture.

John slides his back along the wall to the interior doorway. McMath is on his feet, but pressed back into a blind corner at the far end of the hallway. Henn is crouched at the bottom of the stairs, counting off the flurries of semi-automatic fire being directed down the stairway in response to his single shots.

“Twenty-four, twenty-seven - ” he murmurs, and then pushes up from his heels, fires two single shots, and drops again as rounds smack into the wall above him and spray him with debris. “Thirty, thirty-three - ”

He surges to his feet and launches himself up the stairs, taking two or three steps at a time. There’s a hurried scuffling of feet across the floorboards above, then two closely-spaced single rounds from Henn’s rifle, followed by a heavy thud and a hoarse scream.

“Stay down!” Henn yells, over a grunting cry of pain.

John glances at Blackwood, and swings round to cross the threshold of the downstairs room. There’s a figure slumped in the corner beneath the window, head dropped, with dark blood streaking down the front of his khaki clothing. John moves closer, his assault rifle aimed at the man’s torso. He hooks the other man’s fallen rifle with his boot and kicks it aside, and then crouches down next to him. Pressing his fingers to the man's neck confirms what is already obvious from the shattered bone and pulped tissue of the man’s forehead. John stands up again and backs to the doorway, glancing around the empty room.

“Clear,” he says, raising his voice a bit.

“Clear up here,” Henn calls down as John returns to the hallway.

Sherlock stands up as John passes him, and they both clatter up the stairs. There’s a man sprawled on the floor of the upper hallway, grimacing in pain as Henn straps a field dressing over the torn, blood-soaked khaki covering his right arm.

“I’m a fucking British citizen,” he spits as John steps up to him.

“And you just fired on British soldiers,” John says. “So now you’re a fucking traitor.”

He and Sherlock pass into the upstairs room. The only furniture is a broken wooden stool in one corner and an upturned wooden box serving as a table in middle of the room. The signs of recent occupancy are clear though: a sleeping bag spread on the floor, a tan canvas duffle bag at its foot, and several empty water bottles as well as the debris of several MRE packages heaped in the corner with the broken stool. On the upturned box is an empty glass bottle with a torn and discolored label.

Sherlock picks up the duffle and dumps the contents out onto the sleeping bag. He tosses quickly through the contents: some soiled clothing and underwear, a shaving kit, a toothbrush and washcloth. There is nothing of any personal import at all.

“They’ve taken his phone,” Sherlock mutters, “his computer, his cameras - ”

“So there’s nothing here,” John says.

Sherlock twists, tilting his head to one side as he regards the bottle standing on the box. He steps closer, and then squats down in front of it, curving his fingers in the air above the bottle's neck. Abruptly he picks it up, lifts it to his nose, and sniffs carefully.

“Is the same stuff Rost drank?” John asks. “Before he - you know.”

Sherlock hums affirmatively.

“This isn’t a manufactured label,” he says, his eyes glittering with pleasure. “It was typewritten onto good quality paper – electric typewriter, West German Olympia model judging by the crispness of the ink indentation. This vodka was distilled specifically for one recipient - ”

“If we could find out who - ” John says sharply.

“We’d know the name of a Soviet officer who was wealthy enough to have all the comforts of home with him while he served in Afghanistan,” Sherlock says with an indulgent smile. “He abandoned this bottle – and several more like it, I imagine – when he decamped.”

“How do you know?” John says, but it’s a simple request for information, not an expression of doubt.

“The paper of the label has dirt worked into its texture, but there’s no loose dirt on the surface and the glass of the bottle is clean. The edges where the label is torn are slightly smeared – the rag fibers lie parallel to each other instead of randomly angled. The bottle was very dirty at one time but it was wiped off using a moist cloth, and has been stored somewhere clean ever since. This bottle is war spoils.”

John frowns as he takes the bottle from Sherlock’s hand and hefts it in his palm. Sherlock walks back out onto the landing and looks questioningly down at Henn’s prisoner.

“I’m not going to tell you anything,” the other man grimaces.

“Well, of course you’re not,” Sherlock says. “You don’t know anything I can’t already deduce.”

The other man looks at John doubtfully; John returns the look stonily.

“You were in the army,” Sherlock says, his gaze skimming down and then back up the injured man’s frame. “Not an elite unit, but you did serve at least one combat tour. You were invalided out after a rather minor injury, but I daresay that was charity on the part of your commanding officer – he probably didn’t relish the bureaucracy that would have been involved in having you dishonorably discharged.”

The other man’s scowl turns wary and uncertain.

“The men you escorted here,” Sherlock continues, "are in their fifties but in excellent physical condition. They’re dressed in civilian clothing, but their haircuts and bearing make it obvious that they’re military – I imagine their high-handedness makes it equally obvious that they’re senior officers. You rendezvoused with them on the road somewhere close to a British base - Bastion, probably; it’s the nearest.”

The other man nods grudgingly.

“But you don’t know their names,” Sherlock says, “or anything else that might help me to identify them.”

He glances at John, who nods, narrow-mouthed, flipping the tab up on his hip holster and starting to draw his handgun.

“One of them has a tattoo,” the injured man blurts.

John’s hand stills on the grip of his handgun as he looks questioningly at Sherlock; Sherlock quirks his mouth slightly.

“He’s wearing a tee shirt and he has a tattoo on his left arm,” the other man says hurriedly, “the Forty Commando patch.”

His eyes drop to the patch on John’s left sleeve.

“You’re lying,” John says, but there’s wretched certainty is his eyes, not doubt.

Sherlock’s frown turns to a pained grimace as John steps back, turns, and thuds his way back down the stairs. Henn looks anxiously at Sherlock.

“Stay with him,” Sherlock says, gesturing at the injured man and rising to his feet.

He goes down the stairs. McMath is at one end of the hallway and Blackwood is at the other, down on one knee in the rubble scattered around the doorway. John is just behind him, hunkered down with his back to the wall. Sherlock goes to him, sinking down on his knees beside him.

“Who is it?” Sherlock asks.

“David Brecon,” John says quietly. “Brigadier David Brecon – Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Marines in Afghanistan.”

“You can’t know it’s him,” Sherlock says, but there’s more curiosity than doubt in his eyes. “You have the very same tattoo – so does Blackwood, so did Barr.”

John shakes his head fractionally.

“I knew Brecon in Basra, when he was a colonel,” he says, his voice firm but raw edged. “We knew before the end of that tour that Forty’s next tour would be in Afghanistan. Brecon was on fire about it, he couldn’t wait to get here – he’d talk about how beautiful the land was and about the Pashtuns and – it was obvious he’d been here, that he’d seen it all for himself.”

“That doesn’t mean - ” Sherlock begins.

“And he told us war stories,” John goes on. “Like the one about an American marine whose shoulder was ripped up by grenade shrapnel, and all they had to give him before they dug the worst of it out was this handcrafted Russian vodka, that had been left behind when some general decided he’d had enough and just ran off home.”

“Gowan,” Sherlock says quietly, his eyelids flickering down and then slowly up again.

“And apparently the vodka was so bloody good that, even though they had to carry the Yank fifty miles to Kandahar, they decided to carry the rest of the case of vodka as well,” John says, his eyes like glass. “And they divided it among the four of them – spoils of war. Just like you said.”

“John,” Sherlock breathes. “I – what do you want to do?”

“I want to kill him,” John says without hesitation. “And I want to do it up close.”

Blackwood makes a slight sound of agreement. Sherlock glances at him, and then back at John, and nods.

“Shit,” Blackwood says sharply.

Sherlock and John both turn their heads to look out of the open doorway. There are two Land Rovers approaching fast across the open ground behind the house, throwing up clouds of yellowish dust in their wake.

“Time to go,” John says, and then louder, “Henn, get down here.”

“What about - ” Henn begins.

“Leave him,” John says. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

Henn thuds down the stairs. Blackwood is already outside, and Henn and Mcmath follow him. The Land Rovers veer around the back of the courtyard and stop abruptly.

“Go,” John snaps.

McMath and Henn set off a run towards the poppy field.

The two Land Rovers disgorge men – eight in all – dressed in khaki and carrying assault rifles. They scatter along the cover of the courtyard wall and start firing.

“We have to get out of this,” John says. “There may be more of them on the way.”

Blackwood brings his rifle up and fires towards the courtyard wall, while Sherlock and John make a run for the poppies. They dive into the cover of the soft green growth, roll up onto their knees, and fire cover while Blackwood makes the same run. Then all three of them drop and crawl hurriedly towards the open ground between them and the canal.

McMath and Henn are crouched at the edge of the field. All five men surge onto their feet and fire back towards the house. A gunman standing a little too far from cover spins, his rifle wheeling out of his arms, and falls.

“McMath, Henn, go,” John says.

They turn and run out onto the open ground of the fallow field, going a hundred yards or so before turning back and each dropping to one knee to fire cover again.

“Holmes, fall back,” John shouts, glancing over his shoulder at Henn and McMath. “Go between them.”

Sherlock jumps to his feet and runs half-crouched, with John right behind him. Rounds plow into the ground around them, throwing sprays of dirt into the air. Sherlock yells, a shapeless sound of exhilaration and fear. A round hits just feet behind him, and there’s a spark and a whine as the bullet glances on a mostly buried lump of stone. McMath is jerked backwards, a black-red arc of blood splaying through the air as he twists through a hard half-circle to fall stretched on the ground. Henn throws himself down and scrambles on his elbows to him. Sherlock turns, drops to one knee and fires a short burst back towards the house. John runs another couple of strides to slide to a halt on his knees next to Henn. He reaches for McMath, but then he sees the bloodied wreckage of McMath’s face and pulls his hand back.

“Get up,” he says, pushing to his feet as he grips Henn by his armor. “Get up and run.”

For a second, Henn’s just dead weight at the end of John’s arm, but then he explodes up onto his feet and throws himself forwards towards the trees. John turns and fires a burst over Sherlock’s head. Blackwood runs towards them, head down, passes them and drops to his knee a few yards from where Henn’s already in position and firing cover.

Sherlock and John break and run towards the trees growing on the nearside of the irrigation canal. Henn and Blackwood fire short bursts into the poppy field, though the remaining gunmen have thrown themselves down in the thick cover provided by the flowers. As soon as Sherlock and John reach the patchy shade beneath the trees, they turn and start firing into the field. Henn and Blackwood turn and run to join them.

The four of them withdraw a little further among the trees, dropping empty magazines from their rifles and slapping full ones into place. The poppy stalks shake, betraying the creeping progress of the gunmen towards the edge of the field.

“Get him out of here,” John says to Henn, gesturing at Sherlock.

“I’m not leaving you,” Sherlock says, already shifting into position beside him and raising his rifle to his shoulder.

John lunges at him, one splayed hand catching Sherlock in the middle of chest so hard that Sherlock stumbles back, almost falling before he rights himself. He gapes at John in wide-eyed incomprehension.

“I said get him out of here,” John shouts at Henn. “If he won’t go, shoot him in the leg and drag him.”

Henn’s breath comes out as if he’s been punched, but he lets his assault rifle swing on its strap and strips his handgun out of his hip holster.

“Holmes, move,” he yells, grabbing Sherlock by the sleeve and wrenching him away from John.

Sherlock’s expression as he tears his gaze from John’s is undisguised anguish, but he twists away as Henn shoves him forwards and then Sherlock’s throwing himself down the bank of the canal and into the water, wading and splashing and then scrambling up the opposite bank with Henn right behind him. They plunge through the trees on the other side of the canal and start running across the treacherously uneven ground, leaping half-hidden ditches and hillocks. The crackle of gunfire from behind urges them on, both of them careening across a dirt track and then over the bare, un-irrigated ground beyond, their boots throwing up spurts of dirt with each stride. At last, Henn slackens his pace, dropping to a jog. Sherlock runs past him a few paces and then wheels.

“Keep moving!” he shouts, grabbing Henn by the arm and yanking him forwards.

“What - ” Henn starts to protest.

“I need a line of sight and a spotter so move,” Sherlock roars.

Henn flings himself out of Sherlock’s grasp and they’re running again, full tilt across the hard dry ground to the first steep slope of the hillside.

“There,” Henn says, throwing a hand out to indicate where a section of broken wall against a heap of rubble offers both cover and a precious extra eight or ten feet of elevation.

They scramble up the heap of dirt and broken bricks to the top of the wall, and throw themselves down on their bellies. Sherlock pushes his assault rifle aside even as Henn yanks the strapped canvas bag off Sherlock’s back and claws it open. He hooks out the spotter’s scope and ammunition belt, and then shoves the bag at Sherlock, who takes out his sniper rifle and throws the bag aside. Sherlock sets the rifle on its bipod, shakes his head sharply, and brings his cheek down to the stock. He’s still breathing hard; he pulls a long deep inhalation, pauses, and blows it out again.

“They’re still in the trees,” he says, peering through his rifle’s sight.

“Fuck – that’s twenty-seven hundred yards,” Henn says as he looks through the spotter’s scope. “That’s impossible.”

“No, just improbable,” Sherlock says. “The water sluice on this side of the canal. Twenty-seven hundred yards.”

He blinks, his eyelids sweeping slowly down and then up again, and squeezes the trigger. The shot rings out thin and clear, and Sherlock huffs slightly as the rifle jerks a little in his arms. After several seconds, the dirt in front and to the left of the sluice puffs up in a pale cloud.

“A hundred yards too short, a hundred yards too far left,” Henn intones.

Sherlock touches the sight’s calibration wheel briefly, and then returns his finger to the trigger. He stills, his breath resting on his parted lips, and fires again. This time, after a pause, the sluice explodes in a shower of torn wood.

“Two o’clock, in the trees on the far side of the canal,” Henn snaps. “See them?”

Sherlock pivots the rifle slightly and stares down the sight. He can make out glimpses of pale camouflage and khaki among the shadows and lights.

“Yes, but not well enough to – come on, John,” he mutters.

Blackwood plunges out of the trees, slides down the canal bank, and splashes into the muddy water. The leaves on the trees slash and scatter as bullets rip through the branches. John flings himself out of the undergrowth, down the bank and into the water. He surges up onto his feet, firing. Blackwood turns and pitches himself up the nearer bank, turning at the top of the mud slope to fire back across the canal. John backs through the water towards him, firing in short bursts.

“Right below the tree with the broken branch,” Henn says, “Twenty-seven hundred.”

“Yes,” Sherlock breathes, staring down the rifle’s sight at the gunman down on one knee among the shifting shadows of the trees.

Sherlock eases the rifle by a hair’s breadth, and another, until the open cross at the center of the crosshairs is poised precisely between the gunman’s head and chest. Sherlock’s breath dies away; his pulse slows, and in the stillness between two beats he squeezes the trigger. There’s the clean crack of the report, and the rifle twitches against his shoulder. Sherlock keeps staring down the sight. The gunman in the trees slams sideways and disappears in the undergrowth.

“Jesus Christ,” Henn says.

Sherlock catches another glimpse of khaki among the trees, but there’s a burst of muzzle flash from Blackwood’s rifle and a flurry of movement in the undergrowth and then stillness.

“Fifty yards to the left of them,” Henn snaps. “On the bank.”

Sherlock pivots his rifle, gray-green sweeping past the crosshairs. He spots the gunman crouched in a stand of rushes on the canal bank. Sherlock rolls his cheekbone against the stock of his rifle, stills, and squeezes the trigger. There’s a sweet, whip-crack report and the rifle twitches against his shoulder. He stares unblinkingly down the sight.

“ … four one thousand, five one thousand,” Henn murmurs, “six one - ”

The gunman is thrown back, the reeds splaying around him, and then he slides down the steep slope and rolls into the water.

“Jesus – fucking - Christ,” Henn says.

Sherlock pivots his rifle fractionally, the view through the sight sweeping along the canal side until he spots John again. John turns, but even through the telescopic sight Sherlock can’t make out more than the vague outline of his face, and John must see only the apparently deserted hillside, but he raises his left fist and jerks it briefly in the air above his head. Sherlock stares down the sight long enough to see John turn away again and slide down the canal bank, and then Sherlock drops his forehead against his right biceps and lets his breath shudder out loudly.

Chapter Text

July 27th, continued
Maiwand district, Kandahar province

Sherlock and Henn walk back the way they came, Henn leading and Sherlock following. John and Blackwood meet them on the far side of the road. John’s gloves and the thighs of his pale camouflage pants are marked with bright blood.

“We can’t just leave him there,” Henn protests.

“We can’t take him with us,” Blackwood says.

Henn’s eyes flinch away from Blackwood’s. John steps forwards, swinging his rifle aside, and slips his arm lightly around Henn’s shoulders.

“It’s all right,” he murmurs. “He’s all right.”

Henn nods, reluctantly at first, and then with increasing conviction.

“We need to keep moving,” John says quietly, letting Henn go and bringing his rifle to half-ready again.

He turns and starts walking away, along the side of the road. Henn falls in behind him. Sherlock and Blackwood exchange a bleak glance, then Sherlock follows Henn and Blackwood takes up position as the rearguard.

They retrieve the Humvee from its hiding place, and return to the half-destroyed house at Maiwand. They’ve no reason to go back there, but no reason to go anywhere else, either. They roll the Humvee in under the wreckage of the upper floor and hang the camouflage sheet over it. Blackwood takes four food packages from the supplies and distributes them. Sherlock watches as the other three men sit on the ground, open their packages, and start conveying food to their mouths with hard-eyed determination. He sits, too, but drops his unopened package on the ground between his feet.

“Eat it,” John says tightly.

Sherlock frowns, glancing at Henn, who’s staring into space and chewing deliberately.

“Eat the food and drink a bottle of water,” John says. “We’re not out of the mission, and I need you functional.”

Sherlock nods, and opens his food package with uncharacteristically clumsy hands.

“Let’s take an hour,” John says, when they’re finished eating.

“Can I let Margaret up for a bit?” Henn asks.

“Yeah, just – be careful out there,” John says.

“Come on, I’ll go with you,” Blackwood says to Henn.

“I don’t understand,” John says, when he and Sherlock are left alone. “Why would Brecon take the chance of making me your bodyguard? Why would he put someone beside you who knew that story?”

“It wasn’t him,” Sherlock says. “It was me.”

John’s brows fold together in confusion.

“I asked for you,” Sherlock says. “Ormond was dull and ordinary and - I wanted you.”

John exhales, one corner of his mouth lifting in an approximation of amusement. Sherlock shivers, the motion coarsening to a slight shake of his head.

“If I hadn’t,” he says. “If I’d – you’d all be - ”

“No,” John says at once. “You don’t know that – no one knows that.”

He shifts forwards to kneel straddling Sherlock’s thighs.

“If I’d known - ” Sherlock husks, his voice clotting in his throat.

“If you’d known,” John says, catching Sherlock’s face in his hands and forcing Sherlock to look him in the eyes, “who would you have chosen to come with you instead?”

Sherlock’s gaze darts over the dirt-engrained creases across John’s forehead and around his eyes, the red-gold bristle of beard-growth on his cheeks, and the coarse and cracked skin of his lips.

“Tell me,” John persists. “Who do you wish was with you right now?”

Sherlock’s gaze returns to John’s and settles there.

“You,” Sherlock exhales, the tension draining from his body as he leans into John’s embrace. “You.”

John winds his arms around Sherlock’s shoulders, one hand rubbing slowly over the back of his armor, and the other threading into the sweat-damp hair at the back of his head.

“Yeah,” John says hoarsely. “That’s all it is. That’s all it ever is.”

He turns his head a little and presses the corner of his pursed lips to the sleek skin of Sherlock’s temple. Sherlock’s hands tighten on John’s sides, just beneath the lower edge of his armor, and he pushes back reluctantly to look John in the face again.

“Shouldn’t I want you to be anywhere but here?” he asks.

“Remember our first morning, in the officers’ mess at Bastion?” John counters.

“Vividly,” Sherlock says, his eyes sharpening with interest.

“You said that if you were prying, you’d ask me what happened to me in Ulster,” John says.

Sherlock nods, his eyes almost radiant with intensity.

“It was – they brought in a couple of kids from the Royal Irish,” John says. “Their patrol had been attacked – one of them was hit in the hip and was down, out in the open. The other one – he’d gone out under fire to get the kid who was already down. He was hit in the arm; it shattered the bone, but he dragged the other kid to safety anyway. When they brought them in to us, he was – he just kept saying over and over I could do it, I never knew if I could do it but I could, I could do it.”

Sherlock frowns very slightly.

“He was nineteen,” John says, “and he knew more about the man he was capable of being than I did, and I was twenty-six.”

Sherlock’s frown fades into an uncertain quirk of one eyebrow.

“So you joined the army,” he says.

“So I joined the army,” John echoes.

Sherlock exhales softly, not quite a sound of amusement.

“Don’t try to tell me you don’t understand,” John says.

“Of course I understand,” Sherlock says, his eyes glowing.

“Come here,” John says, curling a hand around the nape of Sherlock’s neck and drawing him in again.

Sherlock yields, head tilting so that the first graze of lips and teeth is followed at once by an open-mouthed interlocking. John’s fingers tighten around the base of his skull, and John’s thumb scribes over the silky dark scruff covering the corner of his jaw. Sherlock shifts, wrapping one arm around John’s shoulders, the other hand clutching at John’s hip. John breaks from Sherlock’s mouth.

“I love you,” he murmurs, the words blurred against the shell of Sherlock’s ear.

“John,” Sherlock says.

“Yeah,” John breathes.

“Let me touch you,” Sherlock rasps. “I need to touch you.”

John nods, already shifting back out of Sherlock’s lap. Sherlock kneels, too, moving so that they’re facing each other. They each pull at their own belt and fly buttons. Sherlock scoops his cock out from his fly, the flesh half-hard and heavy. He knees closer to John. John’s eyes flick shut as Sherlock’s fingers graze his crotch, work into his open fly, and dip down inside his underwear.

Sherlock grips the thickening shaft of John’s cock. His own shaft lifts, hardening heartbeat by heartbeat. John catches his breath as Sherlock draws him out and runs the pad of his thumb slowly from root to tip. John’s skin is already slick with sweat. Sherlock thumbs gently around the soft edge of John’s foreskin, winning a quick grimace of pleasure from him. John groans quietly as Sherlock takes hold of them both, left hand around John’s cock, right on his own, working the same slow stroke over both shafts.

“Oh, fuck that’s – that feels so fucking good,” John says quietly.

They’re breathing together, each sharp inhalation and harsh exhalation matched on their open mouths. John’s fingers brush over the backs of Sherlock’s hands and his knuckles. Sherlock murmurs a shapeless sound of encouragement, and John insinuates his fingers between Sherlock’s, weaving their touches together. Sherlock’s breath spasms in his throat. John glances up at him from under his eyelashes, and his mouth blurs into a slight smile. Sherlock begins to shake and his grip weakens.

“Let me,” John whispers.

Sherlock allows his hands to fall away from under John’s. John pushes him down onto his heels and bends down over his lap. Sherlock curves one hand over the dust-coarse strands of John’s pale hair, and spreads the other on the shoulder of John’s armor. John takes the head of Sherlock’s cock into his mouth, his hand working a firm, brisk pump on the lower part of the shaft. Sherlock’s thighs spread wider, his spine arches, and his head comes up and back until his throat pulls taut.

“Oh – God,” he husks. “Yes.”

John hums approvingly, working his mouth and his fist in quick concert. Sherlock’s breathing turns loud, over the rhythmic wipe of canvas against canvas and the slight creak of John’s armor.

“Close,” Sherlock says, his fingers sliding through John’s hair to dip down inside the neck of his armor, “really close – oh - there, yes - oh.”

He tenses, and then the tension shatters into trembling and falls away into breathless, heavy-eyed relief. John’s movements turn languid as he sucks and licks Sherlock’s cock clean, and then slowly sits up. His thin lips are chaffed red, and his eyes are soft and dark. Sherlock leans in slowly, reverently, and brushes his mouth against John’s. Then he shifts back, his hands going down to John’s lap. John’s cock is standing up from the folds of his open camouflage pants, his glans red and glossed with precum. Sherlock takes hold of him, and John lets his eyes fall closed. Sherlock bends, shifting again so that he’s half-kneeling and half-lying between John’s thighs as he brings his mouth to John’s cock. John groans softly. Sherlock squeezes his own eyes shut, and begins to move his mouth up and down while his fingers slide lightly along John’s shaft.

“Christ – your mouth is a crime,” John says breathily.

Sherlock slides his thumb up and down the wisp of skin on the underside of John’s glans, and flicks the tip of his tongue around the slit. John groans again more firmly, and runs his fingers through the damp curves of Sherlock’s hair.

“Oh Christ,” John murmurs, his breathing growing harsher from second to second, and his body pulling taut.

Sherlock sucks harder and pumps his fist around the sweat and spit-slicked base of John’s cock.

“Oh Christ, yeah, right there,” John says, “right there, yeah – right – there.”

His orgasm is a sharp shudder through his body, followed by a gradual easing of his muscles. Sherlock lets John’s cock slip from his mouth and lifts his head, wiping the back of his hand across his lips. He straightens up and their eyes meet, their gazes blasted and dark. John winds an arm around Sherlock’s neck, and pulls him in until he can rest his forehead against Sherlock’s.

“Find me a way to get to Brecon,” he says softly.

Sherlock grips him by the arms, fingers biting into muscle.

“You don’t need to get to him,” he says. “He’ll come to you.”

John inhales audibly and sits back, looking intently into Sherlock’s face. Sherlock unfolds up onto his feet, pulling his clothing together and rebuttoning his fly. John stands up, too, and he’s still buttoning and belting when Sherlock takes his phone from his thigh pocket and places a call. John reaches out to stop him but Sherlock steps back, shaking his head as he lifts the phone to his ear. John watches, frowning warily.

“Mycroft, listen carefully,” Sherlock says, his eyes still locked with John’s. “The third member of the conspiracy is Brigadier David Brecon of the Royal Marines.”

“Sherlock, you know this phone is compromised,” Mycroft says quickly. “Right now Brecon knows you’ve identified him and in a minute or two he’ll know where you are.”

“Yes, which means you have to move fast,” Sherlock says. “Seconds count - I don’t know who the fourth member of the conspiracy is, but Brecon will tell you if you’re fast enough, do you understand?”

“Yes, of course, perfectly,” Mycroft says. “Sherlock, are you - ”

Sherlock drops the phone from his ear and cuts the call.

“Sherlock, that was - ” John begins, and then shakes his head and tries again. “I don’t doubt your brother can mobilize the entire Commonwealth if he chooses, but there’s no part of the chain of command here that he can trust. He’ll have to bring people in from outside – Pakistan at the least. There’s no way he can get to Brecon before Brecon goes to ground.”

“He’s not sending anyone after Brecon,” Sherlock says. “Right now, every resource he has is focused on tearing into every line of communication available to Brecon. Right now, Brecon is trying to get word to the last member of the conspiracy, warning him, telling him he’s the only one left - saying goodbye.”

“And your brother’s trying to get ahead of it and trace where it’s going to,” John murmurs. “That’s a hell of a long-shot.”

Sherlock nods.

“We should move,” he says, glancing around. “Unless this is where you’d like to be when Brecon gets here.”

“You really think he’ll come after you himself?” John frowns.

“He doesn’t have a choice,” Sherlock says. “They can’t risk their secrecy by using soldiers or contractors to fight us – they never meant the contractors at Musa Qala to see us. And they can’t risk the last member of the conspiracy; if he’s identified, then everything they’ve done has been for nothing. They need to get control of this situation – they need to get control of me.”

“He can’t take you from me on his own,” John says.

“No, but he has to try,” Sherlock smiles.

John picks up his radio headset and slips it on.

“Alpha One to Alpha Two,” he says. “Tell Henn to get Margaret down, rigged, and back up – then both of you gear up and meet us out at the nullah.”

“Copy that,” Blackwood says in John’s ear.

The nullah is a long ravine, about thirty feet wide and twelve feet deep, with steeply sloping sides running down to a sluggish flow of muddy water. Blackwood and Henn are lying against the sloped bank, Blackwood on his chest, Henn on his back holding in his hands the small screen displaying the video feed from Margaret’s camera. John and Sherlock scramble over the edge of the nullah, sending dirt and gravel sliding down the slope.

“What have we got?” John asks Henn.

“One Land Rover,” Henn says.

John sighs and rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes.

“D’you think he’s going to blow himself up at us?” Blackwood says.

“I fucking hope so,” Henn says, “though I’d like to help with it.”

Blackwood slices one hand across the sweat-spiked top of Henn’s hair; Henn tilts away, grinning.

They watch as the distant plume of dust resolves into a vehicle and its trailing dust cloud. The Land Rover is five or six hundred yards away, traveling across the open ground more or less parallel to the run of the nullah. It rolls to a stop just a hundred yards or so short of the house. The dust cloud dissipates, and the air shimmers with heat, turning the Land Rover to a trembling streak of beige against the paler beige background. John draws his assault rifle under his shoulder and peers through the sight at the driver, who’s turning his head as he surveys the house on one side and the empty ground on the other.

“Is it him?” Blackwood asks, staring at John’s profile.

“Yeah,” John says tightly, lifting his cheek from the stock of his rifle. “It’s Brecon.”

“We can take him from here,” Sherlock says.

“He knows who the fourth member of the conspiracy is,” John says. “We’re not putting a bullet through his brain.”

“It’s too fucking good for him anyway,” Henn says.

“Mycroft may already know who the fourth conspirator is,” Sherlock says to John.

“Or he may not,” John says. “Do you seriously want to wipe out your only remaining lead in this case?”

“Is he just going to sit there?” Henn scowls.

“Are we just going to sit here?” Blackwood asks, glancing between Sherlock and John.

“If he stays there long enough, he’ll get heat stroke,” Henn says.

“If he stays there long enough, so will we,” Blackwood says.

“Fuck it,” John says, sliding down the slope enough to retain cover as he comes up onto his knees. “When in doubt, poke it with a stick - it’s the Commando way. One of us has to go over the top.”

“Me, I’m the least valuable,” Henn says at once.

“No, me,” Sherlock says sharply, “since I’m the one he doesn’t actually want dead.”

Blackwood smirks and loops the strap of his assault rifle around his forearm.

“Not a chance,” John says to him.

Blackwood’s smirk turns to a grin as he nods towards Sherlock.

“Doc, he’s your responsibility, not mine. You’re not sticking me with him.”

“The Royal Marines is not a democracy,” John says. “We don’t discuss it. I decide who goes - and I’m deciding it’s me.”

“Yeah,” Blackwood says slowly. “Except, this isn’t the Royal Marines, is it? It’s a civilian and three deserters in a ditch.”

“Shit,” John says. “I was hoping it’d take you a bit longer to figure that out.”

Blackwood snorts in amusement, while Henn grins at them both.

“We should all go,” Sherlock says. “All of us or none of us.”

The others look at him, sobering.

“Sorry about that crack about the civilian,” Blackwood says quietly.

Sherlock smiles humorlessly and shakes his head.

“I’m arguing from a purely pragmatic point of view,” he says. “He wants the three of you dead and me alive. Any one of us is a straight forward proposition for him, shoot or don’t shoot; the four of us together - we’re four guns against one and he has to differentiate among us. It’s better for us and worse for him.”

“His plan can’t be to sit in the MV until we drag him out and torture the fourth name out of him,” John says to Sherlock.

“No,” Sherlock says. “I’m sure it isn’t - but I don’t know what it is.”

“Ah, fuck it,” Blackwood says. “Come on. Let’s see what he’s got.”

Henn snaps his computer closed and slips it into his thigh pocket.

“Stay close,” John says, glancing from Henn to Blackwood, “and - and I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but - stay behind Holmes.”

“What am I supposed to do, turn fucking sideways?” Blackwood says. “I could get more cover from a bleeding tent pole.”

Sherlock grins as he slaps a fresh ammunition clip into his assault rifle.

“On three,” John says as the four of them crouch just below the edge of the nullah. “One, two, three.”

They scramble over the lip of the nullah and start running across the open ground.

“Go, go,” John urges, as they sprint over the flat, hard earth.

The Land Rover abruptly lurches into motion, turning a tight circle and then coming directly towards them. Without a second’s hesitation or a single word being exchanged, Blackwood and Henn peel left while Sherlock and John swing right. Sherlock’s gaze snaps from the Land Rover - less than a hundred feet away - to Blackwood and Henn.

“No,” Sherlock roars, but the sound is swallowed in the double crack of high-powered rounds passing just yards away from him.

Blackwood and Henn are thrown back simultaneously, as if struck by single blow.

“Get down,” John yells at Sherlock, hooking a foot around Sherlock’s ankle and sweeping him off his feet before he has a chance to obey of his own volition.

John thrusts away from him, sprinting across the Land Rover’s path. It swerves, throwing up a curtain of dirt and grit, and then kicks into gear again, heading straight towards John. John braces himself with his feet spread wide and his assault rifle at his shoulder. His first shot explodes one of the front tires; the vehicle veers aside as the driver struggles for control.

Sherlock is up and running towards John as John fires into the driver’s door. The Land Rover swerves past John and slams to a halt almost at the edge of the nullah. John and Sherlock approach it together, assault rifles raised.

The driver is lying back in his seat, his eyes screwed shut and his face contorted in pain. John takes one hand off his rifle to wrench the vehicle door open. There’s blood splattered across the driver’s clothing and the Land Rover’s dashboard; he’s gripping his thigh with one hand, and the other is hanging limply down on his far side.

John swings his assault rifle aside, grabs Brecon by the armor, and yanks him forwards out of the seat. In the instant John’s hands touch him, Brecon’s eyes flash open and his hand swings up from where it’s been dangling between the Land Rover’s front seats. He shouts in pain as John drags him out of the vehicle, but he succeeds in bringing the gun in his hand up and jamming it into John’s chest, the muzzle pressed against his armor.

“Call them off,” John shouts into Brecon’s face. “Moran and your other mate – call them off or I’ll kill you with my bare hands!”

“Fuck off,” Brecon snarls. “I’m already dead.”

Sherlock’s gaze skitters from Brecon’s face down to his trigger finger and then up to John’s face. Sherlock flexes his fingers on the pistol-grip of his rifle, almost snarling in frustration.

“You put the fucking green beret on me,” John yells. “We trusted you.”

“Trusted me to do what?” Brecon growls. “To keep you alive? To keep you safe? You’re commandos; your job is in the kill zone.”

John shoves at him. Brecon grunts in pain but keeps the muzzle of his gun bedded in the front of John’s armor.

“I’ve sent you into the line of fire a hundred times before and you went,” Brecon says. “You went even though you knew it was a pointless fucking mission in a pointless fucking war. Well, this time there is a point – men are dying so that we can get what we need to win this fucking thing. Isn’t that worth it, John? Isn’t that worth your life and mine?”

John’s face twists, anger and anguish distorting his features. He lets go of Brecon with his right hand, tears his pistol from its holster and shoves it into Brecon’s side beneath the edge of his armor.

“Come on then,” John grimaces, “you and me, let’s go.”

“John, no,” Sherlock says sharply.

“They can’t kill you,” John says, not taking his eyes from Brecon’s. “Take the Land Rover and run. I love you.”

“No,” Sherlock says.

He steps quickly behind John, swinging his assault rifle aside and grabbing the back of John’s armor to pull him in tight.

“Holmes, what the fuck are you doing?” John snaps.

Sherlock tears at the tapes of his own armor, and wrenches the front section aside from his chest.

“Oh, Christ,” John says, “that’s a fucking stupid plan.”

“You can’t shoot him,” Sherlock grins breathlessly at Brecon over John’s shoulder. “Not at this range – that round’s going to go straight through him and into me, and you need me.”

“Oh, fuck,” John says, but he grabs Brecon and grapples him in even closer.

Brecon glares at Sherlock across the top of John’s head.

“You think a bullet hole in you is going to make your brother less anxious to get you out of here?” Brecon says. “You have to be alive; you don’t have to be undamaged.”

“Oh – shit,” John hisses.

He twists violently, the length of his forearm slamming into Sherlock’s chest, wiping him right off his feet and throwing him down the bank of the nullah just as Brecon pulls the trigger. Sherlock rolls and hits the water, a wall of foaming beige thrown up around him. The round punches through the back of John’s left shoulder and explodes out through the front of it, his armor useless at such close range. His gun arcs darkly through the air as he’s slammed forwards off his feet. He hits the ground face-first, writhing in agony as Brecon aims at him again.

Sherlock surges upright, muddy water streaming from his face and clothes and assault rifle as he swings it to his shoulder. Brecon sweeps the muzzle of his own gun upwards, but Sherlock’s shot rings out. It catches Brecon in the throat; there’s an explosive burst of blood and ripped flesh and then the heavy fall of his body to the ground. John digs a boot-heel into the dirt and heaves himself over onto his back, as Sherlock scrambles up the side of the nullah and flings himself onto his knees next to him.

John’s gloved right hand clutches at his left shoulder, his blood blossoming brightly on pale camouflage cloth and thick nubuck. His boots scuff in the dirt as he thrashes under the pain, his breath whistling in and grunting out again around a liquid cough.

“No, no,” Sherlock says. “No.”

He puts his hands on John, and John grabs at him, clutching his sleeves. Sherlock’s eyes widen as he sees the raggedly punched hole in the left shoulder of John’s armor, the tattered edge of the canvas soaked red. John’s shaking, his whole body ridden by tremors. Sherlock wrenches his gaze upwards to meet John’s.

“Check them,” John gasps, his breath surging between bared teeth. “Blackwood – and Henn - ”

“John, they’re gone,” Sherlock grimaces.

Check them,” John snarls.

Sherlock sobs his breath in and tears himself out of John’s grip. He twists up onto his feet and runs to Henn, drops to one knee, and pushes his fingers into the shattered bone and bloody meat that was his neck. Sherlock’s shoulders shake as he delves pointlessly in the mess. After a few seconds he stands again and half stumbles the couple of yards to Blackwood’s body. He drops to his knees, grasping Blackwood’s armor and turning him over. He bends, and then drops his forehead on the blood-splattered cover of Blackwood’s armor. For a few seconds Sherlock just shakes, his breath tearing in his throat. Then his fingers tighten on the folds of pale camouflage cloth, and he heaves a breath and holds it, before pushing back onto his knees and up onto his feet. He turns and runs back to John, who’s curled on his side, his whole body quivering.

“They’re gone,” Sherlock says firmly. “John, they’re gone – there’s only you. You have to tell me what to do.”

John uncurls fractionally, his lips pinched tight and his nostrils flaring. He nods fiercely and snatches at Sherlock, catching the nape of his neck and pulling him in.

“Morphine,” he rasps.

Sherlock is already ripping open the pouch at John’s hip and scrabbling out the syringe in its plastic tube. He pops the cap and drops the syringe out onto his palm. He strips the cover from the needle and grasps John’s wrist, twisting it to expose the snaking sinews of his forearm. Sherlock slips the needle into the blood- and dirt-streaked skin and presses the plunger swiftly. John’s grunting gasps melt almost instantly into short breathy pants. His limbs relax and he spills onto his back on the dirt.

“Sherlock - ” he sighs. “I need you to know - ”

“No,” Sherlock snaps, grabbing him by the right shoulder and the left side of his waist and hauling him into a sit. “You promised me, John – you fucking promised me, so you stay alive.”

John nods haphazardly.

“All right, we’re leaving,” Sherlock says tightly.

He grimaces as he unfolds his own legs, scoops both forearms under John’s armpits, and hauls them both upright. He bends into John, letting John’s torso drape across his shoulders, and then straightens again to bring John’s weight up off the ground. John gives a low, groaning exhalation, and then a sharper grunt as Sherlock shifts to center his weight more securely, and moves towards the Land Rover.

Chapter Text

July 27th, continued
Maiwand district, Kandahar province

Sherlock gets John into the passenger seat of Brecon’s Land Rover. He drives more or less due east, until he spots a loose collection of derelict buildings that might, very charitably, be considered a village. The nearest building is barely a house, more a two room hut with a narrow set of stairs leading up to a flat roof, but the half-collapsed wooden porch extending along one side of the building provides some cover for the Land Rover. Sherlock drapes the camouflage sheet over the protruding end of the vehicle and then helps John out.

Inside the house, the rooms are bare walled and dirt floored. One is completely empty except for a few torn rags and broken pieces of pottery on the floor. The other has the same scattering of debris, but also a rope-strung cot propped up against one wall. Sherlock, supporting John with one hand on his waist and the other pinning his arm around Sherlock’s shoulders, uses the toe of his boot to hook one pole of the cot frame and knock the whole thing away from the wall. It falls to the floor, stirring clouds of golden dust in the dimness of the room, and Sherlock eases John’s weight down onto it.

“Okay, I need to get a decent look at this thing,” John says breathlessly, glancing around the room. “No mirrors, though.”

Sherlock slips his phone from his thigh pocket.

“Picture?” he asks.

“Yeah,” John says. “Okay, right now my armor’s acting as a bit of a pressure dressing, so don’t be surprised when there’s more bleeding after you open it.”

Sherlock gives a slightly pained smile.

“All right, let’s see the damage,” John says, setting his head down deliberately.

Sherlock peels the waist and shoulder tapes of John’s armor open, lifts the front carapace off, and throws it aside. The left side of John’s camouflage shirt is soaked deep red. There’s a hole torn in the cloth over his shoulder, through which Sherlock can plainly see the part of John that has somehow been reduced to pulped meat. The color drains from Sherlock’s face, but he lifts his phone, presses the button, and turns the screen towards John. John flicks his eyes closed for a second and blows his breath out, then snaps his eyes open again and nods.

“Yeah, okay,” he says, his voice too loud for the small space. “That’s not the worst I’ve seen.”

Following John’s directions, Sherlock removes John’s shirt, puts a dressing pad on the back and front of his shoulder, and wraps everything tight with yards and yards of bandage. Then he loads a syringe from a vial of antibiotic solution and injects it into the top of John’s arm. He wets his bandanna from a water bottle, and wipes away the sticky streaks of blood from John’s back and chest, spreads John’s sleeping bag under him on the cot, and rolls his own into a pillow.

“You need a hospital,” Sherlock says, when he’s done all he can and is kneeling on the dirt floor beside the cot.

John wrinkles his nose and turns his head in slight negation.

“There’s not much for anyone to do,” he says. “The bullet went clean through and missed the lung – you can’t argue with that for luck.”

“John,” Sherlock says very softly. “I’m not an idiot.”

“No,” John says, his expression pinching. “No, you’re not, are you?”

“How long before you’re really in trouble?” Sherlock asks.

“Hard to say,” John says, his gaze flicking towards and away from Sherlock’s. “It’s been almost an hour and I’m not more than short of breath, so – a slow hemothorax – it could be twelve or eighteen hours before the left lung stops functioning.”

“By which time the other one will be severely compromised, too,” Sherlock says, with a long heavy beat of his eyelids down, and then back up.

“And the morphine’s problematic, as well,” John says. “The amount it’ll take to control the pain is almost certain to be enough to cause some respiratory depression. Added to a hemothorax of one lung and a hydrothorax of the other - ”

Sherlock squeezes his eyes shut for a second.

“If I take you to a hospital - ” he begins, his voice rough.

“Whoever the fourth member of the conspiracy is, he’s got as much access and authority as Brecon did, maybe more,” John says. “If you take me to a hospital, I’ll be handed over to him. If I’m lucky, he’ll kill me; if I’m not, he’ll use me against you.”

Sherlock nods unevenly.

“Anyway, you’ll be all right,” he says with bright determination. “Mycroft is forward-tracing Brecon’s goodbye message. Once we know who the fourth member of the conspiracy is, Mycroft can have troops here from Pakistan in a couple of hours to capture him.”

John smiles in agreement, though the warmth of it doesn’t reach his eyes. Sherlock leans over and takes his laptop from his pack.

“Mycroft will let me know when it’s done,” Sherlock says, powering the laptop up, “then I’ll tell him where we are and he can get us out of here. In the meantime, you should rest.”

John nods, but his grave gaze remains fixed on Sherlock’s face as Sherlock opens his email.

“Close your eyes,” Sherlock murmurs, brushing a hand over John’s forehead, and then leaning down to enforce the instruction by kissing John’s eyelids.

John murmurs acquiescence, and his eyes stay shut. He sleeps for almost two hours, while Sherlock sits on the dirt floor beside his cot. The image on the laptop’s screen remains unchanged, but John’s face is a minute study in the passage of time. His lips have acquired a cool, faintly blue tinge and his eyelids quiver restlessly. His breathing is shallow, but his ribs shudder laboriously at each inhalation. Sherlock is already staring intently at his face when he lurches into wakefulness again.

“It’s all right,” Sherlock says gently, pressing a hand to John’s uninjured shoulder.

John’s skin is hot and dry under his fingers.

“Oh, Christ,” John groans.

“Morphine?” Sherlock offers.

John twists his head from side to side on the rolled sleeping bag.

“Not yet,” he husks.

He glances at the screen of Sherlock’s laptop.

“It’s - taking longer than I expected,” Sherlock says, his tone determinedly light.

“They didn’t catch the call in time,” John says.

Sherlock’s gaze flinches away from John’s for just a split second, but it’s an admission, nonetheless. John flicks his tongue over his lips, and reaches out with his right hand to grasp the front of Sherlock’s shirt.

“Take your clothes off,” he murmurs.

Sherlock pulls back fractionally, looking down at him anxiously.

“Do it,” John says, his breath a soft punch. “Let me see you, one more - ”

“Hush,” Sherlock says sharply, bending low again. “We’ll have plenty of time later.”

“So we’ll do it again, later,” John says, tugging at Sherlock’s shirt buttons. “I want to see you, please.”

Sherlock snatches a short breath through flaring nostrils. He straightens and starts to jerk his shirt buttons open, his fingers quick but clumsy. He tugs his shirttails out of his belt, shoulders his shirt off, and lets it fall. He roughly strips his tee shirt off and drops it.

“All of it,” John says. “Let me see.”

Sherlock thrusts up onto his feet, jerking his belt and fly buttons open with desperate, determined haste. He kicks his camouflage pants down his legs as he’s heeling his boots off, then steps out of them, lifting each foot in turn to strip his socks off. He hesitates just a split second, before shoving his underwear down his thighs and shaking it off over his bare feet. John’s heavy-lidded gaze moves slowly over the highs and hollows of Sherlock’s stomach and hips. He lifts his hand and then lets it fall down the bare skin of Sherlock’s hip and thigh. Sherlock’s face twists and his shoulders shudder.

“Lie down with me,” John says.

Sherlock shakes his head slightly, but it’s an aborted negation. He gets onto the cot and stretches out along John’s right side. John moves his hand awkwardly between them, brushing his fingers against Sherlock’s bare chest.

“You are - beautiful,” he says breathlessly. “I’ve never been with anyone else as beautiful as you.”

He looks at Sherlock, his eyes too dark and soft. His hand grazes down Sherlock’s stomach. Sherlock pulls in a deep, shaking breath.

“ - your body,” John says. “God, the way your body feels - ”

Sherlock presses his lips together tightly.

“ - your hands,” John says, “your mouth - ”

“John,” Sherlock groans.

“I want you,” John says, his breath as hot and dry as flame against Sherlock’s lips. “I always want you.”

Sherlock smiles shakily.

“Come for me,” John whispers.

“Oh my God,” Sherlock says.

“Please,” John says. “Please.”

Sherlock lifts one hand and lays it at the base of his own throat. He drags it deliberately downwards, arching into the contact as he palms down his chest and stomach. He grasps his cock, the flesh soft and spongy in his grip. For a second, his expression softens to despair, but then gathers again into heated determination.

“I want you, too,” he whispers, his mouth just inches from John’s. “I wanted you the first second I saw you. I knew we’d be good together. I knew we’d fit.”

John’s mouth stretches momentarily into a smile. Sherlock shifts his hips closer to John’s, so that when he tugs his foreskin against his glans, his knuckles brush the folds of John’s camouflage pants.

“The first time I touched you – tasted you,” Sherlock breathes, his cock thickening in his hand, “I have never wanted someone so much. I almost came from just your prick in my mouth.”

John’s lips curl softly. His hand blunders gently down Sherlock’s chest, his fingertips grazing past Sherlock’s nipple.

“And when you fucked me,” Sherlock says, his lips brushing John’s, “it was so good - you were so good.”

He starts to rock his hips a little, the cot creaking under the slight movement.

“When you touch me,” he says, “I can’t think of anything else. When you fuck me, there is nothing in my head but you and the way you feel inside me.”

John murmurs a fragmentary sound of agreement. Sherlock rubs the ball of his thumb over the slit of his glans, coaxing out a little slip of secretion, and begins to move more emphatically. John’s hand moves over Sherlock’s thigh and hip and flexing forearm. Sherlock’s breath sobs through bared teeth as he kicks his hips ruthlessly and pumps his fist around the head of his cock. He cries out sharply, a sound of pure despair. His cock jerks in his grip and his semen spatters over his bare thigh and the rucked folds of the sleeping bag beneath them. John exhales an exultant sigh that frays into a weak cough. Sherlock buries his face against the curve where John’s neck slopes into his right shoulder, and clutches at John’s hip. For a couple of minutes, the only sound is their breathing, Sherlock’s steadying and slowing while John’s remains uneven and quick.

“Sherlock,” John says. “I’m going to give you an order, and you’re going to follow it. Do you understand?”

“I’m a civilian,” Sherlock says shakily. “You can’t give me orders.

“No, you’re not,” John says, his right hand coming up between them to tangle in the chain of Sherlock’s identity tags. “And yes, I can.”

Sherlock flinches, his chin and shoulders drawing defensively downward.

“I’m ordering you to go,” John says. “I’m no use to you, now.”

“No,” Sherlock says, his tone a naked plea for mercy.

“Listen to me,” John whispers, tugging on Sherlock’s tag chain. “You are the most incredible man I have ever known, and I have been lucky enough to know heroes. I believe that you will find a way to stop this conspiracy – but you won’t do it staying here with me. So, I need you to go – everyone needs you to go.”

“I don’t care about - ” Sherlock begins fiercely.

“Don’t,” John says. “Don’t - make me say something about England. Don’t make me try to explain what I know you already understand about me.”

Sherlock exhales hard. John unhooks his fingers from the tag chain, and Sherlock gets off the cot and onto his feet. John shifts restlessly, while Sherlock wipes himself half-clean, draws his clothes on again, and unwraps another morphine syringe. He kneels down next to the cot.

“In a second,” John grimaces, writhing in the tightening grip of his pain. “I need to tell you – Sherlock – I will love you for the rest of my life.”

“No, you won’t,” Sherlock says. “You’ll loath me. We’ll fight constantly. I’ve never kept a boyfriend for more than a month and I’m utterly impossible to live to with.”

“Commando, remember?” John grimaces, as Sherlock slips the needle into his forearm and presses the plunger down. “Impossible is what I do.”

Sherlock watches intently as John’s mouth slackens and his eyes flutter closed, and then he leans down and presses his lips to John’s.

John’s body armor is lying in one corner of the room. Sherlock takes John’s green beret from where it’s folded beneath one shoulder tape, and tucks it into the left shoulder of his own armor. Then he picks up John’s pale camouflage shirt, and peels the captain’s insignia patch off the Velcro strip on the sleeve. Something in the heft of the blood-soaked cloth catches his attention as he’s grips it in his left hand. He palms the insignia patch onto his own sleeve, and then delves into the pocket of John’s shirt and extracts a blood-stiffened curl of dark hair, tied at one end with a scrap of suture thread.

He turns the lock of his own hair between his fingers, his brows furrowing together and his breath trembling out through his parted lips. At last he shakes himself back into focus, and pulls open the front of his armor enough to tuck the lock into his own breast pocket.

The evening sky is streaked deep gold and rose by the time Sherlock turns the Land Rover onto the road that runs from Camp Bastion’s airfield to the base. He’s waved through the checkpoints without hesitation, everything from his vehicle and clothing, to his sun-flushed face and curt nod to the sentries vouching for him beyond question. He drives past the serried rows of the British barracks, to the sprawling building of hybridized concrete and canvas where he first met John, and swings the Land Rover to a stop.

“Oi, you know you can’t leave it there,” a harried looking corporal protests, as Sherlock gets out and slams the driver’s door shut.

“It’s for five fuckin’ minutes,” Sherlock says in a suddenly broadened accent, pulling John’s green beret from under the shoulder tape of his body armor.

“That’s not a parking permit, y’know,” the corporal says rather plaintively.

“Yes, it is,” Sherlock growls, slipping the beret on and tugging it low on his forehead. “It’s any fuckin’ thing I say it is. Go on, fuck off out of it.”

The corporal subsides in sneering annoyance as Sherlock strides past him, under the canvas entryway and through the doors into the abruptly ordinary surroundings of the officers’ common area. Several men in pale camouflage clothing are lounging about, while several more are studiously typing on laptops or writing in notebooks.

“I’m looking for Captain Murray,” Sherlock says loudly, his glance raking across the room. “Special Air Service?”

“Eh, twenty-four or twenty-five, somewhere down there,” one man says, gesturing at an adjacent hallway.

“Cheers,” Sherlock says.

He walks quickly past several closed or slightly ajar doors. The door of room twenty-four is open; inside, two men are in consultation over a long printout of figures, but neither of them is Murray. The door of room twenty-five is closed, so Sherlock raps two knuckles sharply against the hollow-core wood panel.

“Come,” Murray calls in response.

Sherlock opens the door with his left hand, simultaneously stripping his handgun from its holster with his right. He steps across the threshold and backs the door closed behind him again as he swings the SIG out and up to aim at Murray’s head. Murray jerks back in his chair, an unfolded map spilling from the desk in front of him.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he gapes, his flicking between Sherlock’s face and the green beret on his head. “What are you – what the hell is going on?”

“John’s been shot,” Sherlock says at once. “He needs help.”

“Wh – what about Blackwood and the others?” Murray asks as he gets to his feet, his hands lifted slightly in front of him.

“They’re dead,” Sherlock says flatly. “There’s no one left but John and me.”

“Oh, Christ,” Murray says.

“You’re the only person in this entire country I can trust,” Sherlock says.

“My duty is to get you to safety,” Murray grimaces, “at whatever cost – including my life, or John’s.”

“Why do you think I’m pointing a gun at you?” Sherlock asks with a slight life of one eyebrow. “We’re not doing this your way; we’re doing it mine.”

“You really think you can take me out of here at gunpoint?” Murray says.

“No, of course not,” Sherlock says, “but I can cause enough commotion that I’ll be taken into custody, from where I will undoubtedly be handed over to the very person you’re supposed to be saving me from.”

“You’re seriously fucking blackmailing me with your own life?” Murray asks.

Sherlock winces fractionally.

“Fuck, I got to admire your balls,” Murray says. “Let me get my kit.”

“Thank you,” Sherlock says, letting his gun-hand drop.

“Yeah, just if we all survive, say something nice at my court-martial, all right?” Murray says.

 

The battery lamps throw streaks of yellow light up the rough plaster walls, and across the dirt floors, but the corners of the room are deep dark. Sherlock is kneeling on one side of John’s cot, and Murray is on the other. John is unconscious, his eyes closed and his body yielding heavily as he’s rolled onto his side to face Murray with his injured shoulder uppermost. The skin over John’s ribs has darkened to deep plum.

“Okay, hold him steady,” Murray says quietly.

Sherlock slips one forearm under John’s neck and folds it across his collarbones, puts his other hand on John’s hip, and presses his chest to John’s upper back. Murray tucks a folded towel against John’s side, pulls on a pair of nitrile gloves, and wipes an alcohol pad over the lower part of John’s ribcage. Sherlock watches intently as Murray snaps the plastic cover off a ready-pack scalpel, and then palpitates gently along John’s ribs with two fingertips. After a moment’s consideration, Murray places the scalpel tip to John’s skin and cuts in. A stream of dark blood half-mingled with clear fluid spills out from under the blade and soaks into the towel. When the flow slows to just the welling of bright blood, Murray wipes away the mess, tapes the incision, and covers it with a dressing.

“What do you think?” Sherlock asks, as they ease John down onto his back again.

Murray shakes his head and strips his gloves off.

“The wound’s not so bad - it missed the lung and that’s the main thing,” he says, getting to his feet. “And draining the hemothorax a bit will give the lung more space to work – buy him a little more time, but he’s burning up - pulse and respiration are much too fast, and there’s some purpling in the flesh around the wound.”

“I gave him antibiotics,” Sherlock protests as he stands up too.

“He was a surgeon before he was a soldier,” Murray says ruefully. “He’s probably been carrying a resistant strain of something for the last ten years, and now it’s taking over. He needs a hospital, and soon - another twelve hours and he’s going to be too far gone for anyone to save.”

Sherlock clasps a hand over his nose and mouth, then wipes it downwards and clenches it into a fist.

“So what’s the plan?” Murray asks.

“What?” Sherlock scowls.

“We can’t take him to a hospital until we close down the fourth member of the conspiracy,” Murray says. “So what’s the plan for doing that?”

Sherlock’s breath twists out in a hard parody of a laugh.

“Don’t you think - if I had a plan, I would be doing it right now?” he says, his voice rising angrily. “I don’t have a plan. I don’t have anything.”

“Then think of something,” Murray says tightly.

“I - ” Sherlock falters.

“Don’t you dare tell me you can’t,” Murray spits, stepping forward to loom over Sherlock. “You cut your hair and you wear the clothes and you had the fucking audacity to take his beret and put on your head, so you give me reason to let that pass by doing the fucking job.”

“I – I see the significance of information,” Sherlock says. “I can’t see significance in information that doesn’t exist. They didn’t catch Brecon’s goodbye message, or - ”

He stops, pulling deep uneven breathes even as his eyes turn sharp and steady.

“ – or there was no goodbye message,” he says flatly.

“All right. What does that mean?” Murray prods.

“It means they were already together when I made the call,” Sherlock says.

He shakes his head sharply and glances around.

“It took Brecon thirty minutes to reach Maiwand by vehicle,” he says, “which means he was already close by - but the snipers - Moran and the fourth member of the conspiracy - were in position too, and we didn’t see a second vehicle. So, the three of them must have already been together, and really close by.”

He slams to his feet, grabs his laptop, and shoves it into his pack.

“What are you going to do?” Murray demands.

“Find them,” Sherlock snaps. “They’ll have to cover up Brecon’s death to avoid questions – hide the body so he’s presumed missing, not killed.”

“All right, let’s go,” Murray says.

“No, you’re staying with John,” Sherlock says.

“That’s not - ”

“Listen to me,” Sherlock hisses. “I will save queen and country and honey for tea, and you will stay here and keep him alive.”

Murray scowls, but he doesn’t protest any further. Sherlock moves back to the cot and drops to one knee beside it. John is struggling towards consciousness again, his eyelids flickering rapidly.

“Sherlock,” he murmurs.

“I’m here, John. I’m right here,” Sherlock says, bending lower.

John’s right hand comes up, his fingers blundering against the front of Sherlock’s shirt.

“Sherlock,” John says more loudly.

Sherlock covers John’s hand with his own and presses it against his chest.

“I’m here,” Sherlock says firmly.

“Tell Sherlock,” John grinds, his fingers clenching under Sherlock’s. “Tell Sherlock – I’m - ”

His breath breaks and his body yields, his hand falling from beneath Sherlock’s and his limbs sinking back into purposeless little struggles and shifts. Sherlock reaches into the open collar of his own shirt, draws out his identity tags, and quickly detaches the shorter loop and tag. He picks up the long loop of John’s chain from where it’s pooled against the side of his neck, refastens his own short loop and tag to it, and lays it down again on John’s chest.

He stands, turning his head aside to avoid Murray’s eyes, and moves back to his pack. He pulls out a notebook and a pen, writes less than a dozen words in a firm, confident hand, and rips the page out. He dips his fingers into the left chest pocket of his shirt and extracts the curl of his hair. He places it in the middle of the paper, folds in each side and then top and bottom to make a neat square.

“This is for John,” he says.

“Any other messages?” Murray asks quietly, taking the paper and tucking it into his own chest pocket.

Sherlock shakes his head. He moves around the room gathering the rest of his gear. He shrugs his body armor and then his shoulder holster on and tugs the tapes tight.

“I’ll send someone as soon as I can,” he says.

“How will I know they’re from you?” Murray asks.

“John’s codename is Bulldog,” Sherlock says, the corner of his mouth quirking minutely.

He swings his pack up onto one shoulder, picks up his assault rifle, then steps quickly forwards and drops to his knees beside John once more. He bends down, bringing his mouth close to John’s ear.

“Goodbye,” he whispers.

There’s no change in the shallow, off-kilter huff of John’s breathing. After a few seconds Sherlock pulls back and stands up again.

“Good luck, sir,” Murray says, extending his hand.

Sherlock grasps it briefly, and then turns and walks out.

End of Part Four

Chapter Text

July 28th
Maiwand district, Kanadahar province

The moon is a fat segment of bright white, high in the sky. The thick band of stars snakes farther down the darkness, arcing from one quarter of the horizon to the other. Sherlock is leaning on the hood of the Land Rover, and peering through the bulky, black mass of an enhanced optics sight attached to his sniper rifle. He shifts fractionally, and his view through the sight sweeps rapidly across several hundred yards of low hill and winding road, to the broken shell of an abandoned house. With the combination of moon and stars and night-sight, he can see every rock and rise of the ground picked out in perfect detail. He ratchets a lever at the side of the sight, dropping the infrared filter into place, and the image abruptly blurs into black.

Sherlock straightens, gathers his rifle up, and swings back into the driver’s seat of the vehicle. He drops his rifle on the passenger seat and picks up the night vision visor lying next to it. He pulls the visor on, shoves the Land Rover into gear, and drives on.

His view through the visor is rather less detailed than through the exquisite lenses of his rifle’s sight, but he can make out the general rise and fall of the ground, and the shapes of deserted houses and broken walls nestled in the folds of the low hills. The Land Rover crests a slight rise, and he instantly sees a smudge of brightness on the green-black field of his view. He pulls the Land Rover to an abrupt stop, throws off the visor, and snatches up his rifle instead. He shoves the vehicle door open and spills out, already twisting to bring his elbows onto the Land Rover’s hood, bracing the rifle as he dips his eye to the eyepiece.

There’s a house at the foot of the next rise in the ground, surrounded by a head-high courtyard wall. Through the rifle’s night-sight, Sherlock can see dazzling bands of green spilling through the gaps in the window shutters, and a broader band streaking from a slightly open door. He straightens up again, reaches into the Land Rover to drag out his pack, and shrugs it onto his shoulders. Then, his rifle cradled in his arms, he moves away from the Land Rover towards the house at a quick, half-crouched lope.

A couple of hundred yards short of the house, he drops to one knee and lifts his rifle, peering down the sight as he flicks the infrared filter into place again. The image of the house blurs, the background darkening in contrast to the half dozen bright blobs scattered throughout its interior.

Sherlock gets up and moves forwards again, bent low, until he’s crouched at the foot of the courtyard wall. He shrugs his pack off his shoulders, and eases it silently to the ground. He digs the toe of his boot into the crumbling brick and hoists himself up on the wall. Looking over, he can see two Land Rovers parked next to the house. Two men, dressed in khaki and carrying assault rifles, are wandering backwards and forwards between the house and the courtyard gate, and there are snatches of several voices on the still night air.

Sherlock drops softly back to the ground. He hunkers against the wall, frowning and rubbing the back of his knuckles contemplatively across his mouth for a moment. Abruptly he throws the flap of his pack aside and pulls out his laptop. He opens it, and the screen flickers into brightness. He glances around, before looking down at the screen, his fingertips beginning to patter across the keyboard.

Enter Biometric appears on the screen, but Sherlock doesn’t speak. Instead, he keeps typing in rapid flurries, sometimes shaking his head irritably, occasionally flashing a quick cold smile. The prompt disappears from the screen, replaced by strings of numbers that appear and disappear sporadically, and then the words Authorization required to access encryption template. His fingers skim the keys. The words are suddenly replaced by a rapidly scrolling column of numbers, and then the words Automatic deletion of encryption template has been initialized flash across it.

Sherlock throws the laptop down, jerks his knife from the sheath strapped to his right calf, and stabs the curved tip of the blade into the narrow gap between the keyboard and its casing. He twists the knife, wrenching the sections apart, and then plucks the keyboard off and tosses it aside. He slips his knife-blade under the green and silver circuit board and levers it out. There’s a small silvery pellet wired into place underneath; Sherlock works it back and forth in his fingers until the connections snap. He clasps the pellet in his palm for a second, and takes out his phone. He places a call and lifts the phone to his ear.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft answers almost instantly. “What is - ”

“You said I could have anything,” Sherlock cuts in. “If I solved the case - you said I could have anything I wanted.”

“Sherlock,” Mycroft snaps. “What is going on? What are you doing?”

“Relying on your department’s remarkable forethought,” Sherlock says. “In about fifteen minutes, you’ll be informed that one of your department’s standing orders has been carried out. When that happens, I need you to send a retrieval team for John. Look after him – that’s what I want. That’s my price.”

There’s the crunch of boots on the ground nearby. Sherlock glances towards the sound, his expression smoothing and his shoulders lifting slightly.

“Sherlock, no,” Mycroft says. “Whatever you’re doing, don’t, there’s - ”

“Mycroft,” Sherlock cuts in. “I probably won’t get - ”

“Drop the phone,” Moran says sharply, aiming his assault rifle at Sherlock from only yards away.

“Sherlock - Sherlock,” Mycroft says with rising insistence.

Sherlock cuts the call and lets the phone fall to the ground.

“Stand up, move away from the wall,” Moran instructs.

Sherlock obeys, his hands extended in front of him and raised a little. Moran steps behind him, and takes the SIG from Sherlock’s shoulder holster. He throws it away; Sherlock’s head turns fractionally, following its brief glint and then the disappearance into darkness. Moran strips the strap of the sniper rifle from Sherlock’s shoulder and shrugs it onto his own.

“Inside,” he says.

Sherlock moves as directed, along the compound wall and through the gateway.

“Get out there,” Moran barks at the two gunmen in the courtyard. “This fucker walked right up to the wall – get out there and make sure he’s on his own.”

The two men nod, one beckoning to another man just inside the doorway of the house, and all three hurry out of the courtyard. Sherlock glances back at Moran, who gestures him forwards, into the house. There are two more heavily armed men lounging in the hallway.

“You should leave,” Sherlock says to them. “You’re in danger, you should leave while you can.”

“They’re being paid rather well to stay,” a man’s voice announces from the stairway above.

Sherlock wrenches around in Moran’s grip to see a middle-aged man in pale camouflage combat clothing descending the wooden steps. He’s of middle height and strongly built, with short, gray-speckled fair hair, and a ruddily tanned face. He looks Sherlock up and down with a grimace of distaste. Sherlock’s gaze skitters over him, over the small insignia patch on the front of his shirt.

“Lieutenant General,” Sherlock says flatly. “Richard Cunningham – you’re the British commander in Afghanistan.”

“And you, are way more fucking trouble than you’re worth,” Cunningham says.

He glances at the two men who are watching with wary curiosity.

“Get out,” he says.

The men move away, leaving Sherlock alone with Moran and Cunningham. Moran pushes Sherlock into the nearest room, leaning his sniper rifle against the wall next to the doorway. Cunningham follows them in.

“I don’t have the time or inclination for any more of this shit - I’m going back to Kabul,” Cunningham says to Moran. “You take him and your men and find somewhere to hole up.”

“No,” Sherlock cries, lunging for Cunningham.

Cunningham steps back sharply and Moran grabs for Sherlock, so that Sherlock can only clutch briefly at the open breast pocket of Cunningham’s camouflage shirt before he’s jerked back and thrown against the wall. He surges forwards again, but Moran swings the stock of his assault rifle around and catches Sherlock across the face, hard enough to spin him away and down onto his knees, with blood running freely from below one side of his lower lip.

“Wait,” Sherlock gasps. “I can help you – I will help you.”

Cunningham turns his head slightly, eyes narrowing.

“You want me to call me brother?” Sherlock says. “You want me to tell him that I love him and I trust him and I know he won’t let me down? I’d be happy to – I’ll do it right now, just give me a phone.”

Cunningham’s eyes rake across Sherlock’s face.

“What are you playing at?” he says softly, moving to stand over him.

Sherlock stares up at him, hardly breathing.

“He’s got a tracker on him,” Cunningham spits, grabbing Sherlock by the front of his shirt and yanking him up from his knees. “You stupid fuck – your brother can’t get an order past me, not in this country. And I’m not planning to sit and wait for a rescue mission from fucking Pakistan to get here.”

He thrusts Sherlock at Moran.

“Strip him - find it,” Cunningham snarls.

He sweeps out of the room and thuds his way up the stairs. Moran shoves Sherlock off and points his assault rifle at him.

“You heard him, strip,” he says.

Sherlock’s eyelids flick down and then up, and he nods slightly. He goes down on one knee and starts to unlace his boots.

“Faster,” Moran says tightly. “You’re not going to stall long enough to make any bloody difference.”

Sherlock’s shoulders flex around a deep inhalation and deliberate exhalation; his fingers move more swiftly on his other boot. He stands up and heels both boots off, then unbuttons his shirt rapidly. Moran grabs at him, yanking his shirt down from his shoulders and off his arms. Sherlock’s eyelids drop to half-mast. He starts on his fly buttons, while Moran throws the shirt on the floor and stamps on the pockets. He picks the garment up one-handed, shakes it, and throws it aside with a grimace of dissatisfaction. Sherlock is stepping out of his pale camouflage pants, and Moran gestures for them. Sherlock tosses them to him.

“The rest of it,” Moran says, draping Sherlock’s pants against his thigh and palming over the pockets.

Sherlock draws his tee shirt off over his head and throws it at Moran’s feet. He stoops and takes his socks off, and finally skims his underwear down, steps out of it, and throws it on top of his tee shirt. Moran stamps on each garment, then snatches it up and throws it down again, his scowl growing increasingly fierce.

“Where is it?” he demands, his rifle still pointed at Sherlock as he picks up one boot and then the other, flinging them aside.

Sherlock is naked but for his single identity tag. Moran grabs at it and yanks hard enough to break the chain. He turns the tag in his palm, frowning in confusion and irritation when it’s clear that it is nothing more than a regular tag. He pitches it aside as Cunningham reappears in the doorway, carrying a laptop and a canvas duffel bag.

“Well?” Cunningham says.

“It’s not in his clothes,” Moran says.

“Then it’s in him,” Cunningham says, dropping his bag and laptop onto the table and scooping up Sherlock’s sniper rifle. “Mister Holmes, you just became more trouble than you’re worth.”

Sherlock’s attention flickers, drawn to a very, very faint thread of sound in the far distance. Cunningham glances at Moran.

“Take your men and go,” he says. “I don’t need them as witnesses. I’ll catch up with you.”

Moran throws a disdainful look at Sherlock before turning and walking out of the room. After a moment, there’s the bark of a Land Rover’s engine kicking into gear and then roaring away. As that sound dies into the distance, there is another coming closer, a rapidly thickening drone filling the air.

“If you’re going to kill me, you’d better hurry up,” Sherlock says with a slight smirk, as the sound blossoms into the scream of a jet’s engines.

Cunningham’s eyes go wide.

“It’s not a tracker,” Sherlock says apologetically. “It’s a suicide chip.”

Cunningham lunges at him, catching him across the chest with the length of the sniper rifle and driving him back into the wall.

“Where is it?” Cunningham yells, into the suddenly deafening shriek of the jet passing overhead.

“In your breast pocket,” Sherlock chokes.

There’s a monstrous crash, and a sound like the sky ripping in two, and then the ground seems to wrench itself aside from under them. Sherlock is flung forwards and – as he crashes to the floor – the wall behind him collapses into rubble and swirling dust. After a few seconds Sherlock surges up onto his hands and knees, coughing and gasping for breath. There’s blood streaking wetly from his hairline as well as his mouth, and his bare skin is scattered with bright grazes and pinking bruises. He jerks his head up, to see Cunningham lying on the far side of the room, struggling from his side onto his back.

“Why,” Sherlock rasps, lifting his head to glare at the swathe of moonlit sky showing through the broken roof timbers, “are you people incapable of hitting the bloody target?”

The right leg of Cunningham’s camouflage pants is torn open and soaked red, and the flesh beneath is ripped bloody and spiked with shattered bone. There’s a thick rill of blood running from above his right temple, too, but his eyes are sharp and clear. He roars in pain as he rolls up into a slumped sit. He lifts his right hand heavily towards the holster on his hip and grimaces as he tries to unsnap the strap, but his hand is reddening and swelling and his fingers won’t obey him. Sherlock spots his sniper rifle, lying half-buried in the rubble halfway between himself and Cunningham. He surges up onto his feet, but his legs refuse to support him and he falls hard among the wreckage.

Cunningham reaches across with his left hand and jerks his holster strap open. Sherlock throws himself forwards, half crawling and half just dragging his naked body over broken stone and shattered wood. He throws his hand out, grasps the rifle by its barrel and drags it to him.

Cunningham draws his pistol awkwardly with his left hand. Unable to steady the weapon with his injured right hand, he resorts to laying it on his left thigh in order to push the safety catch off. Sherlock forces himself up onto his knees and then unsteadily onto his feet. Cunningham glances at him, eyes radiant with determination. He tries to snap the slide back to chamber a round, but the spring’s too stiff to yield with the gun inadequately braced against his thigh. Sherlock brings his rifle stock to his shoulder and plucks the bolt between his fingers, trying to shunt a round into the chamber. The bolt doesn’t move. He grunts in frustration, pulling harder on it, but some part of the mechanism’s been jolted out of alignment by the explosion and it’s jammed in place.

Cunningham hacks out a hard sound of triumph as he brings the slide of his gun against the corner of his jaw and clamps it in place against his chest. He pushes on the grip and the slide drags back until he lifts his chin, then it snaps forwards again and there’s the slight chink of the round springing into the chamber. Sherlock drops the rifle stock from his shoulder, letting his hand slide along the barrel until the weapon’s dangling from his grip close to the muzzle.

Cunningham extends his left arm, his hand shaking but the range too short for it to matter. His eyelids twitch as he struggles against an obvious urge to squeeze them shut for a second, in order to clear the blood and sweat from his eyes. Sherlock straightens, every long lean line of his body pulling taut.

“You don’t belong here,” Cunningham says hoarsely, his mouth twisting humorlessly as his finger starts to tighten on the trigger.

Sherlock’s body whiplashes, his left hand joining his right on the rifle’s muzzle as the heavy stock scythes through the air and smashes into Cunningham’s extended right hand. The pistol shot at such close quarters is a shattering bang, with a simultaneous flash and whine as the bullet ricochets from a piece of rubble and disappears, and the gun is thrown clear. Cunningham cries out, jerking his broken left hand against his chest. Sherlock – without a second’s hesitation – uncoils again in the opposite direction and the rifle strikes Cunningham across the head this time. There’s a wet crack, and a streak of dark blood arcs through the air with the rifle’s stock. Sherlock stumbles back a step.

“I belong here as much as you do,” he gasps, staring at Cunningham’s corpse, its head lying at an impossible angle to the rest of it.

Sherlock lets the rifle fall to the ground at his feet. He lifts his hands and clasps them over his ears, swaying unsteadily. Abruptly he drops his hands again. There’s a distinct drone thickening the air again.

“Oh, shit,” he husks.

He steps forwards, grimacing as his bare feet slip over chunks of broken brick and shards of splintered wood. He scrambles over the wreckage of the exterior wall and limps across the courtyard to the open gate. He pushes himself forwards, one foot in front of the other, faster, and then picking up into an uneven jog. The sky shatters into engine scream again. Sherlock grits his teeth, clenches his fists and forces himself into a straining, shambling run. There’s a massive crash and the house behind him smashes outward around a rolling fireball. The shockwave hits Sherlock’s back, flinging him forwards and throwing him down on his face. Fire swarms hungrily over the remains of the house, and a column of pale smoke rises up into the darkness. Sherlock’s fingers scrabble weakly in the dirt, and then fall still.

The fire dies down to smoldering embers among the charred wreckage. The sky begins to lighten subtly, dark gray streaking the black.

Sherlock is lying face down on the ground, one arm folded over the back of his head like a broken wing. The long lines and shallow curves of his naked body catch the subtle glow of the coming dawn; the bruises and bloody grazes on his shoulders and elbows and hips are turned to shadows.

He stirs, straightening his arm and turning his head slowly. His eyelids flicker open, and he exhales softly through bloodied lips.

There’s a light floating in the darkness – a brilliant white orb that sways heavily downwards. The air ruffles over Sherlock’s skin, and the dirt begins to swirl around him. A broad band of light sweeps across the ground, carving a sudden swathe of bright and shadow out of the gloom, and the air pulses with the drone of an engine and the chop of rotors. There’s the bite of boots on dirt, and the sound of men’s raised voices.

Sherlock grimaces, draws his hands under himself, and slowly, painfully pushes himself up onto his elbow. Half a dozen men, dressed in pale camouflage clothing and carrying assault rifles, move quickly towards the ruin of the house, and three more approach Sherlock. The one in the lead comes to a halt standing over him.

“Jesus,” Murray says, crouching down. “Look at the fucking state of you.”

Sherlock’s mouth quirks in an attempted smile, but it turns to a wince as the split in his lip flexes open and starts to bleed again.

“That’s fucking commandos all over,” Murray says, glancing up and down the length of Sherlock’s body. “You all love getting yourselves into shit, and give no fucking thought to how you’re going to get out again. Can you walk?”

Sherlock snarls, grits his teeth, and strains to straighten his arms under himself.

“Don’t mind me, I’m just taking the piss,” Murray grins. “Come on, you’re done.”

He swings his assault rifle aside and pulls Sherlock up, stooping in and then straightening with Sherlock draped across his shoulders. Sherlock’s body yields limply, and his eyes drop closed again.

Chapter Text

July 30th

The cuts and bruises on Sherlock’s face have darkened, and their contrast with his skin – despite its golden tan – is heightened by the absence of dirt and dried blood. His hair is clean, too, the short curves of the strands clinging silkily to the dazzling white pillowcase beneath his head. His pale green hospital gown leaves the base of his throat and part of his collarbones bare; there’s an angry red line scored across one side of his neck, where the chain of his identity tag bit before breaking in Moran’s hand. His tanned forearms, where they emerge from the gown’s half-sleeves, are scraped and bruised, and his knuckles are reddened and raw against the stiff white sheet.

A young woman in pale camouflage clothing comes to the side of the bed, setting down a clipboard on the nightstand and curling her fingers around Sherlock’s wrist. He stirs, his brows gathering together. The nurse murmurs softly, a sound that’s half encouraging and half interrogative. Sherlock’s eyes flutter open.

“Hello, Mister Holmes,” the nurse says with an indulgent smile.

Where - ” Sherlock whispers.

“You’re at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center,” she says. “You’re going to be fine, sir – no harm done. You just got a little bashed up.”

“No,” Sherlock grimaces. “Where is - ”

His eyes flicker heavily and fall closed.

When he opens them again, the hospital room is dark but for the dim glow of one small light above his bed. Mycroft is sitting in an upright armchair beside him, his head bowed as he frowns at the papers he’s shuffling in his hands. Sherlock manages to flinch the fingers of his right hand against the bed sheet. Mycroft’s head jerks up, his fierce joy plain to see for a split second, before his expression smoothes into mild approval.

“Sherlock,” he says pleasantly, tucking the papers into their folder and setting it aside.

“How long?” Sherlock husks, his voice gritty and low.

“Two days,” Mycroft says at once. “You woke briefly twelve hours ago; you’ve been in and out since then.”

He leans over Sherlock, slips an arm behind his shoulders, and supports the unsteady weight of his head and neck while pressing the button to raise the top of the bed. Sherlock hacks out a short, hard cough and nods shakily.

“John?” he rasps, when he’s at an acceptable incline and Mycroft is breaking the seal on the water bottle from the nightstand next to the bed.

“Captain Watson is very ill,” Mycroft says, pouring water into a flimsy plastic cup. “The doctors haven’t been able to find an antibiotic cocktail that will work against his infection. It’s touch and go, but he is still with us.”

Sherlock accepts the cup from Mycroft’s hand, nodding his gratitude for Mycroft’s frankness.

“I want to see him,” Sherlock says from behind the cup’s rim; he takes a sip of water, wincing at the discomfort of his throat flexing as he swallows.

“Of course,” Mycroft says. “We’ll look in on him as we’re leaving.”

Sherlock’s brows twitch together, and his eyes harden.

“Sherlock, you can’t stay here,” Mycroft says, his voice rising in anticipation of Sherlock’s interrupting. “Moran still hasn’t been found. It seems certain that someone helped him escape - there may still be a conspirator at large.”

Sherlock huffs his breath out sharply, scowling in frustration.

“If there is still a threat from this conspiracy,” Mycroft says more gently, “Captain Watson is in danger. I’ve had the MoD regretfully announce that he is missing in action. Your continued presence here will only arouse suspicion – and finding Moran is the best contribution you can make to Captain Watson’s continued survival.”

Sherlock’s expression softens, falls into pained acquiescence.

“All right,” he says quietly. “Just let me see him, and I’ll go.”

Sherlock is unsurprised that the clothing provided for him to put on is his own, collected from the flat in Montague Street and transported to him by efficient and officious hands. It takes rather more time and effort than he expects to dress himself. The thin wool of his dark gray suit and the smooth cotton of his white shirt feel brittle and insubstantial compared to the soft, heavy hand of canvas and webbing. His black leather shoes, too, lack the easy solidity of desert boots.

When he’s dressed, Mycroft escorts him from his room. The hallway is deserted, except for an armed sentry at either end. Mycroft opens a door and gestures Sherlock in. Sherlock crosses the threshold, his gaze skittering among the various monitors and tubes and bags of fluid gathered around John’s bed, and then skimming the folds of curtains and sheets before finally coming to rest on John, on his hands and chest and face.

“Oh my God,” Sherlock breathes.

Mycroft shifts slightly at the periphery of his vision, but Sherlock ignores him, ignores the hand lifted uncertainly towards him. He takes the three or four steps to John’s bedside and stands staring down at him.

John looks unutterably young, as if suffering and sickness have stripped away everything he has won in the last decade. His skin cleaves tightly to the bones of his face, and his heavy, drug-induced sleep has smoothed away the familiar lines of his expressions – the arched eyebrow or curled corner of his mouth. He’s pale, except for the fever-bright flush high on his cheekbones, and the chapped, cracked reddening of his mouth. Mycroft sets a chair down next to Sherlock.

“Three minutes, Sherlock,” Mycroft says. “Not a second more, do you understand?”

Sherlock turns his head to look at him, his eyes pale and opaque.

“Get out,” he rasps.

Mycroft’s chin comes up sharply, but his eyes are gentle. He nods slightly, turns away, and goes back out, drawing the door closed behind him. Sherlock hooks a foot around the leg of the chair, jerks it to him, and sits down.

The metal clipboard holding John’s chart is hanging from the bedrail. There’s a small, clear zip lock bag tucked under the board’s clip, which contains John’s identity tags and the note that Sherlock gave into Murray’s keeping. Sherlock fumbles a little as he tugs the bag free and opens it. He tilts it, letting the three tags on their shared chain slither out into his palm, and then plucks the folded paper out. It’s still in the firm, deliberate creases that he made; indeed, except for a slight smudge of yellowish clay on one corner, it is precisely as it left his hands. He turns it in his fingers, and finally parts the leaves to open it out. The curl of his hair is still inside, dark and stiffened in its circle; there are faint traces of rust red powder in the paper’s folds, and he brushes them away with the side of his hand as he stares at the words in his own slanting script.

There will never be anyone after you. I am, for the rest of my life,

your Sherlock.

He inhales unsteadily. He pushes paper and tags between the cup of John’s motionless hand and the blanket beneath, and then cages his own long fingers carefully over the back of John’s hand, above the tape and needle and plastic line.

“John,” he says. “Listen to me - ”

His mouth wavers, twists unpleasantly.

“You – you have to - ” he presses on, but his voice catches, collapses into a broken exhalation.

He grimaces, his breath surging fiercely, and then – inevitably, inexorably, the tears come. Not one or two, but a swift shining stream that threads down both cheeks to drip from his chin and spot the open collar of his shirt. He bends forwards, his forehead almost touching John’s hand.

“Please,” he whispers harshly. “Please God, let him live.”

And then his voice fails completely. He lays his forearm on the bed next to John’s and buries his face in the crook of his own elbow. His shoulders shudder, and his breath comes in muffled sobs. He doesn’t hear the soft turn of the door latch, or the whisper of the hinges as Mycroft pushes it open.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft says quietly.

Sherlock wrenches upright, twisting around on the chair, his face contorted and streaked with tears. Mycroft makes a small sound of despair, a hardly breathed oh and he’s already striding across the room. He reaches out, and Sherlock leans forwards and throws both arms around Mycroft’s hips, buries his face against Mycroft’s waistcoat front, and shakes with the force of his sobs.

“Oh, Sherlock,” Mycroft says, one hand smoothing the irrepressible waves of Sherlock’s hair, “I am sorry. I am so sorry.”

“Is this how you feel about Thomas?” Sherlock demands, his voice utterly stripped of all control. “About the boys?”

“About my brother,” Mycroft murmurs.

Sherlock draws back, clasping his hand over his mouth to stifle the chaotic hitch and break of his breathing.

“How do you live like this?” he asks after a moment, “feeling like this?”

Mycroft sways forwards fractionally, shaking his head. Sherlock leans in to meet him, setting his cheek against Mycroft’s stomach again and letting his eyes drop closed with a sigh of surrender.

 

August 7th

Taunton is in mourning. From the outskirts of the town, many houses bear black and dark green ribbons on the front doors or garden gates. Near the town center, the poles of the streetlights are sashed with ribbons, the long strands streaming on the breeze. The iron railings surrounding Saint James’s church are fluttering with ribbons and cards and little bunches of laurel leaves, and the foot of the railings is piled with flowers and laurel wreathes. There are crowds of people outside the railings, examining the tributes already in place and adding their own. Inside the churchyard, Marines in dress uniforms and black armbands move among the dark-clothed mourners, guiding their attention to particular tributes and marshaling them into the church.

Sherlock and Mycroft get out of the car and go into the churchyard. Sherlock’s eyes sweep the crowd, reflexively surveying the mourners. Some are clearly adrift, soft-eyed and slumped as the Marines shepherd them – a middle-aged black couple and a younger man, whose round, tip-tilted eyes are so familiar that Sherlock winces in recognition; a lean, powerfully built man and a woman whose exceptional beauty – pale olive skin, darkly drawn features, and deep green eyes – is evident despite the swollen, flushed ravages of grief and exhaustion. And there are mourners who move through the crowd and go up the church steps with hard, clear eyes and determined grace, like the three women who are quite unlike each other in build and coloring, but clasp each other’s hands as they gather and guide five dark-haired, golden-eyed little girls in identical black silk dresses. Mycroft grasps Sherlock’s elbow and steers him in the same direction. At the foot of the church steps there’s a large group of lean, raw-faced people with red-gold or auburn heads; the dark blue uniforms of the Royal Navy and the pitch green uniforms of the Royal Irish Regiment are as numerous among them as civilian outfits.

Sherlock and Mycroft climb the steps, but as they pass into the church porch, Mycroft pauses, drawing his phone from his pocket and glancing sharply at Sherlock. What little color Sherlock has drains from his face, and his eyes widen. Mycroft lifts his phone to his ear.

“Yes,” he says crisply, and then, “yes, of course I understand it’s - ”

He lets his hand drop, and his eyes are alight.

“Captain Watson’s awake,” he says.

Sherlock exhales sharply, his shoulders flexing forwards as if he’s been punched.

“He’s still extremely ill,” Mycroft says, but his mouth is curling irrepressibly. “He’s not well enough to talk to anyone or to - ”

“He’s going to be all right,” Sherlock says.

“There is certainly a good possibility - ” Mycroft begins.

“No, you don’t understand,” Sherlock says. “He is – he promised me he would be.”

Mycroft exhales a sort of sighed laugh, and then they both look around, suddenly aware of their surroundings again.

“Oh God,” Sherlock murmurs, “I shouldn’t be here. I have no right to - ”

“Mister Holmes,” a woman’s voice says clearly.

Sherlock turns to see Rami, dressed in a severely sleek black dress and with her hair freshly cut to the nape of her neck, coming up the steps towards him.

“Please, Sherlock,” he says, taking her hand briefly. “This is my brother, Mycroft – Mycroft, this is Corporal Hinde’s fiancée.”

“Miss Krishnachandra,” Mycroft says, “how do you do – I’m only sorry to be meeting you under these circumstances.”

Rami gives him a quick, cold-eyed smile before looking intently at Sherlock.

“Is there any news about Captain Watson?” she says.

Sherlock’s gaze flickers away from hers, catching momentarily on Mycroft’s.

“I’m afraid not,” Mycroft says smoothly, “he is still missing, but – we are very hopeful.”

Rami nods.

“I know you can’t tell me what happened,” she says to Sherlock, “but – they really did make a difference, didn’t they? They must have – Two Two One Bravo Baker section’s been awarded a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, and three Military Crosses, and four Mentions in Dispatches. Those things mean something, don’t they?”

Sherlock glances at Mycroft; Mycroft’s eyelids drop, a fractional gesture of agreement.

“They made every difference in the world,” Sherlock says softly, his gaze meeting and holding Rami’s. “Without them – nothing would be the same, for any of us. They – gave us the chance to go on as we are. It doesn’t sound like much but - ”

Rami nods, her tears standing bright in her eyes.

“I’ll see you inside,” she says, her hand glancing against Sherlock’s.

She nods a parting to Mycroft, and then turns away and walks in through the arch of the church doorway. Someone else brushes past Sherlock and Mycroft. Sherlock glances up, his eyes caught momentarily by a row of ribbons and two medals on the breast of dark suit jacket.

“They look a little different now, don’t they?” Mycroft says, “A little less preposterous, perhaps?”

Sherlock nods.

“I – I almost wish - ” he murmurs.

“I took the liberty of ignoring your refusal,” Mycroft says, drawing a small, square jewel-case from his inside pocket.

Sherlock’s eyes widen, his expression an uncertain mix of relief and indignation. Mycroft takes him gently by the arm and guides him back, into the dimmer seclusion of the vestry doorway.

“By the authority of Her Majesty, Elizabeth the Second, by the grace of God Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of her Dominions overseas, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith,” Mycroft murmurs, opening the jewel-case and extracting a heavy bronze cross on a short, deep red ribbon, “I present you with the Victoria Cross, in recognition of your act of pre-eminent valor, and extreme devotion to duty in the face of the enemy.”

He works the stiff pin of the medal through the thin black cloth of Sherlock’s suit jacket, touches the medal contemplatively, and then steps back.

“I am – I have always been - deeply proud of you, Sherlock,” he says, his voice thickening and his eyelids flickering.

Sherlock shakes his head, his gaze dropping away from Mycroft’s, but he grasps his brother’s arm briefly as he moves past him to enter the church and take his seat.

 

August 25th
Baker Street, London

Mycroft has to step carefully past several document boxes stacked on one side of the staircase, and then stoop under the punt pole and rolled theater backdrop sloped against the top of the stairwell wall. In the sitting room, the furniture is almost lost among the teetering piles of cardboard boxes and plastic crates, many of which seem to have spontaneously disgorged their contents onto all the horizontal surfaces available. Sherlock is sitting in his new, angular chrome-framed armchair, sheafing intently through a bundle of documents and casting aside pages in rapid succession.

“The space is very pleasant,” Mycroft says, crossing the threshold and peering into the kitchen, where more boxes and crates have yielded enough laboratory glassware and jars of chemicals to cover the table and countertops and even the hob of the stove. “And it’s an excellent location – a rather unfortunate address, though.”

“I chose it for the address,” Sherlock says flatly, throwing aside the rest of the papers in his hand. “You didn’t come to look at my new digs. What’s happened?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid,” Mycroft says as he gathers up several pages from the seat of the other armchair and sits down. “The impasse continues.”

Sherlock slices his knuckles across his mouth, his expression flicking through raw frustration before settling into half-convincing attempt at composure.

“There has to be some lead to Moran,” he says. “I will find it.”

“There’s no trace of any contractor using the name John Moran,” Mycroft says.

“So he was using a false name, that’s scarcely surprising,” Sherlock says with a dismissive flick of his hand.

“You’ve looked at the identity pictures of every contractor who vaguely fits the criteria of age and general appearance,” Mycroft says. “Moran hasn’t just disappeared – every trace of his existence has vanished, too.”

Sherlock turns his head aside a little, his gaze darkening.

“The prudent course might be to continue as we are,” Mycroft says. “Let Moran – and whoever helped him to effect this remarkable disappearing trick – make the next move. However, Major Watson is sufficiently recovered to be protesting his continued hospitalization - and I’m reluctant to foul my relationship with my future brother-in-law by confining him against his will in a military hospital.”

“What do you suggest?” Sherlock asks, his smile held to little more than a flash of light in his eyes.

“I daresay you’d benefit from a change of scenery,” Mycroft says, looking around. “What about Paris? I always find it oppressively dusty and unnecessarily foreign, but you’ve always seemed fond of it. You’ll have a security detail, of course, but a discreet one - ”

“ – and if Moran declines to take the bait?” Sherlock asks.

“Then we must all go on with our lives as best we can,” Mycroft says with a slight smirk, “despite the lack of a satisfying closure to this episode.”

Chapter Text

August 27th
Paris

Sherlock is leaning on the white stone balustrade of his suite’s roof garden, contemplating the city below. There’s a trace of morning haze lingering in the air, turning the distances to pale blue and gray, but the sky is crystal clear and the sun’s light is already delving into every shadowed corner and warming it. The sweet ring and patter of water spilling into water overlies the more distant hum of traffic, threaded with the occasional sound of a car-horn or truck’s reversing.

The sound of sirens pushes itself gradually but insistently into Sherlock’s awareness. He looks down at the Rue de Rivoli immediately below him, to see the vehicles in the near lane moving aside for a black SUV surrounded by four police motorcycles. As the leading motorcycle slides to a smooth halt just beyond the hotel’s front entrance, Sherlock’s expression blazes into sudden certainty. He flings himself away from the balustrade, running at full tilt through the open French doors and across the expanse of pale carpet to the elevator.

The hotel entrance is a complication of glass and mirrors, black marble and bright gilt. There’s a dark silhouette against bright sunlight on the other side of the doors; the liveried doorman steps aside, and John crosses the threshold. He’s wearing an olive green bush-jacket over a checkered shirt and dark denim jeans. He’s thinner now, and there’s a subtle softness to his features that wasn’t there before, but his eyes are clear and sharp, and there’s purpose and decision in his stance even as he looks doubtfully around the hotel lobby.

Sherlock explodes from the elevator, twisting his shoulders to slip through the narrow gap between the still parting doors. He runs across the mirror-smooth tessellated floor of the lobby, swerves precipitously around a group of white velvet and silver-leaf salon chairs and then suddenly stumbles to a halt when he sees John. John lifts his chin, his mouth set in an uncertain line, and starts walking towards him.

He comes right up to Sherlock, reaches out right-handed, and takes him by the forearm to draw him in and wind his arm around Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock stoops enough to turn his face into the angle of John’s neck and shoulder, nuzzling past corduroy and cotton to find warm, fragile skin. His hands skim down over John’s body, reading the sweet coherence of muscle – albeit wasted and weakened – over bone, and then settle at John’s waist.

“Oh God, John,” he rasps.

“We’re okay,” John murmurs thickly, clasping his hand on Sherlock’s nape. “We’re all right. It’s over.”

Sherlock’s breath shivers through him as he lifts his head from John’s shoulder, his eyes cutting intently along the lines of John’s features.

“Let’s go somewhere less public,” John says evenly, his darkened gaze flicking past Sherlock’s shoulder.

Sherlock nods unsteadily. They turn and walk – their arms just brushing – to the elevator. Sherlock palms the call button, and the doors open at once. They step in, and Sherlock swipes his keycard and presses the button for the penthouse suite.

The doors close, and the elevator jolts slightly as it starts to move upwards. Sherlock and John reach for each other, pressing in chest to chest and thighs to thighs, Sherlock’s hands cupping John’s jaw and John grasping one-handed at Sherlock’s shirt front. Sherlock dips forwards, and John tips upwards, but for a moment they don’t kiss.

For a moment, they just breathe together, sharing the quick cold strip of each inhalation, and the long heated slide of each exhalation. And when their mouths do touch, it’s just a trembling graze of lip against lip, and the slight lurch of the elevator stopping is enough to break the tenuous connection before it’s fully formed.

The elevator doors slide open. Sherlock draws back reluctantly, and steps backwards out of the lift. He pulls John to him, and drops his mouth to John’s. They push jaw to jaw, breathing hard, making stifled sounds of pained pleasure as they grind their mouths together. John clutches one-handed at Sherlock’s side, his hip, the taut muscle at the front of his tight. Sherlock shifts his hands inside John’s jacket and pushes it back. John extracts his right arm from his jacket sleeve, but then flinches and draws back a little with his left arm still entangled.

“Watch the shoulder,” he murmurs.

Sherlock steps back and uses both hands to slide John’s sleeve from his arm with exquisite care. He drops the jacket and steps in again, his gaze moving greedily over John’s body.

“Bloody hell,” John says, his gaze tumbling past Sherlock to speckled mirrors and gilt curlicues and billowing white silk.

Sherlock turns and his eyes jump from point to point as if seeing his surroundings for the first time.

“Ah,” he says, “somehow I failed to realize – this is Mycroft’s idea of a practical joke.”

“Joke’s on him,” John murmurs, slipping his arm around Sherlock’s waist and gathering him close again, “unless there’s a cocktail bar and a roof-garden, but no bed.”

“There’s a bed,” Sherlock says breathlessly. “I distinctly remember seeing a bed.”

“Good, because you would not believe how hard I am right now,” John breathes.

Sherlock’s eyes widen and his mouth curls. John reaches out with his left hand and takes hold of Sherlock’s wrist, his grip uncharacteristically soft as he draws Sherlock’s hand to him, and cups it against the rigid thickness of his erection through the heavy denim of his jeans. Sherlock’s eyes flicker narrow and he inhales sharply.

“Where’s that bed, then?” John murmurs.

Sherlock weaves his fingers into John’s, and draws him across the sitting room towards the bedroom. John pushes the door open, and considers the enormous bed with its tendrilled iron frame, caramel colored silk sheets, and drifts of caramel and cream pillows.

“Well,” he sighs, “we’ll just have to make the best of it.”

Sherlock exhales his amusement against John’s ear, and trails his fingers down John’s chest.

“Help me with this,” John murmurs, plucking the hem of his shirt out of his jeans.

Sherlock’s brows fold together intently as he works buttons out of buttonholes, and then brushes John’s shirt back from his shoulders. John pulls his right arm free, and Sherlock draws the garment off his left with tender reverence. He drops the shirt and traces his fingertips along the base of John’s neck, over the thin pale line in his tan commemorating the place where the chain of his identity tags used to rest. Sherlock’s fingertips brush lower, over the tee shirt’s cotton where it lies on John’s chest. There’s a slight thickening of texture over his left pectoral, betraying the dressing beneath.

“Is it - ” Sherlock breathes.

“The scar tissue’s sensitive - it’s easily irritated,” John says, “but it’s healed over.”

Sherlock exhales a relieved smile. John’s eyelids slide down, and his gaze lingers on Sherlock’s mouth.

John pulls the hem of his tee shirt out of his jeans, and Sherlock skims his hands up under the soft cotton, over his stomach. John dips his head and hooks his right arm out of his sleeve, grunting a little in discomfort as Sherlock peels the garment off him. Sherlock throws it aside and his hands fall to John’s bare skin. He traces the edge of the large square dressing taped over the left side of John’s upper chest. The surrounding skin is still faintly mottled with purplish red, and pitted with fresh red scar tissue here and there. Sherlock bends his head, brings his lips to the skin beneath John’s left ear, and kisses carefully down the side of John’s neck, while his hand skims over the crest of John’s shoulder to the smaller dressing taped onto his back.

“Can I see?” Sherlock murmurs.

John’s expression tightens, but he nods readily.

“Get the one at the back,” he says, starting to pick at the tape of his chest dressing himself.

Sherlock moves around him, his fingertips tracing gently down John’s nape before he begins to peel the tape from his skin. He lifts the small square dressing away, to expose a neat circle of dull red, tautly shining skin. John shifts slightly, throwing the larger dressing onto the nearby chair. Sherlock discards the smaller dressing too, and then around him again, his gaze lifting to meet John’s, before dropping to the scar at the top of his chest. It’s the same shining, plum red, but instead of a circle it’s a messy star, its rays spreading unevenly across John’s chest.

“There’ll be hell to pay when I’m old,” John says quietly. “I’ll get arthritic - I’ll be able to tell when it’s going to rain.”

Sherlock lifts his hands, the tips of his thumbs brushing whisper soft over the corners of John’s mouth.

“Doesn’t count unless they kill you,” Sherlock whispers.

John’s smile flashes, quick and sharp. He draws Sherlock down, and in, their mouths fitting together with complete certainty. For a moment, there’s just the steady push and pull of their breathing, and gentle wipe of their hands on each other’s skin, until John pulls back a little.

“Let me see you,” he husks. “Let me touch you.”

Sherlock’s breath catches, a slight break of sound low in his throat, but he steps back and starts to unbutton his shirt, his eyes never leaving John’s. He strips the thin white cotton off his shoulders and down his arms, and drops it where he stands. John’s gaze flicks downward to the pale pink traces of cuts and grazes still marking Sherlock’s skin, and then back up to meet Sherlock’s eyes. Sherlock pulls his belt open, and then the fly of his pants, heeling his shoes off at the same time. John starts opening his jeans. Sherlock skims his pants down his legs, revealing more faint pink marks on his thighs and knees. He steps out of his pants and plucks his socks off. John kicks his shoes off and sits down on the end of the bed, and Sherlock comes to him, kneeling down in front of him.

“Oh God, you look beautiful,” John says, running his fingers through the ripples of Sherlock’s hair.

Sherlock rises up on his knees, his hands stuttering down over John’s shoulders and chest and thighs. He sinks onto his heels and runs his hands down John’s shins to his feet. He draws John’s shoes off, and then his socks, and then John bends above him, both of them breathing hard.

John’s splays his hand on Sherlock’s ribs, drawing him up as John leans back, and Sherlock scrambles up and stretches out beside him. With one hand each, they push John’s jeans off his hips and down his thighs, and he kicks the stiff cloth down his shins and off. Sherlock curls over him, dragging his lips and then his nose and his forehead over John’s chest while he uses both hands to strip John’s underwear down. Sherlock moans unabashedly as he inhales against John’s belly.

“Jesus,” John says quietly. “Oh, Jesus.”

“Wait,” Sherlock says.

He folds back, stands up again despite the plaintive curl of John’s upper lip. He turns away, and disappears into the adjoining bathroom for a brief moment, returning with a clear bottle in his hand.

“All the amenities,” he smirks, but the way John rolls his shoulders up and reaches out for him is enough to turn his expression grave again.

He takes his underwear off and lies down next to John again, both of them shifting up from the foot of the bed onto the full length of the mattress. They tangle together, John on his back and Sherlock leaning over him. John extracts the bottle from Sherlock’s hand, and Sherlock watches avidly as John pumps a curl of the clear fluid over the fingers of his left hand.

“I’ve no strength in this hand anymore,” he says. “You’ll have to - ”

“Sit up,” Sherlock says, rolling onto his elbow and up onto his hip.

John uses his right arm to push himself up, and shift himself back into the drift of pillows piled against the bed’s curling ironwork. Sherlock swings one leg across him, straddling his thighs, and then takes John’s left hand and lays it palm-up on John’s thigh.

“Just keep your fingers stiff, if you can,” Sherlock says.

“Oh, fucking hell,” John smiles, as Sherlock cants his weight to the side, and lowers himself.

Sherlock lets his head fall up and back, groaning softly as he bears down and John’s fingers pierce him. John drags in a deep, shuddering breath, and his eyelids flicker.

“I’m close,” Sherlock says blurrily, dropping his head forwards.

“Already?” John marvels.

Sherlock nods messily.

“I won’t last, I’m sorry,” he breathes.

“No, it’s okay,” John says, flexing his fingers slightly, just pulsing the pressure inside Sherlock’s body. “It’s – you’re wonderful.”

Sherlock’s mouth curls slowly, and his eyes fall closed. He grasps John’s forearm, stilling his hand and pulling up, off his fingers.

“Inside me,” Sherlock whispers, leaning forwards to brush his lips along the bridge of John’s nose. “I want you inside me.”

John’s eyelids flick up, down, his gaze – cindered dark and gleaming – moving between Sherlock’s eyes and his mouth. Sherlock fumbles for the bottle lying against his calf, and pumps a thick curl of fluid out into his palm. He rises onto his knees, his free hand braced on the wrought iron vines behind John’s head to steady himself, and bends sideways to drop his wet hand to John’s lap. He cups his hand over the head of John’s cock, swirling the curve of his thumb and fingers slowly downwards.

John’s breath punches out, snaps in again.

“Christ,” he says softly. “Oh, Christ.”

Sherlock shifts his weight to center again, and sinks down against the head of John’s cock. John’s head falls back and he grasps Sherlock by the hips, drawing him farther down. Sherlock cries out - a soft, desperate sound - as John’s cock pushes into him.

“Oh Christ, oh fuck yes,” John murmurs, as he draws Sherlock right down onto him.

Sherlock rolls his hips, his hands fisted on his thighs and his cock swaying heavily up against his belly, while John strokes both hands softly down his forearms and along the insides of his thighs.

“Oh God, I’m going to come,” Sherlock says, his eyes squeezed shut. “I can’t help it, I’m going to - ”

“Yeah,” John smiles, “come on, come on - ”

He runs his fingertips up the taut line of Sherlock’s cock, and it jerks abruptly under his touch.

“Oh Christ, oh fuck,” Sherlock grimaces, as the slit of his glans pulses and his semen spurts out, slashing up onto his stomach and rolling down his belly into his groin.

John shudders, both hands sleeking down Sherlock’s thighs greedily. Sherlock slumps a little, his shoulders rounding as he gasps for breath.

“Get off me,” John says sharply.

He pushes at Sherlock’s thighs, and Sherlock is still too weak with relief to resist, though he gives a small, bereft moan as John’s cock slides out of him.

“Lie down,” John husks.

“Don’t,” Sherlock pants, but he’s already spilling onto his back and drawing his knees up shamelessly. “You need to - ”

“ – I need to fuck you, is what I need,” John says, as he comes up onto his knees and down onto his heels, his thighs splayed around Sherlock’s buttocks.

Sherlock writhes, grasping at John’s knees and raking his fingernails down the fronts of his thighs. John grips his cock in his right hand, pushing it down into the cleft of Sherlock’s behind, rubbing his glans a little awkwardly up and down over the slick, soft opening of Sherlock’s body. Sherlock squirms closer, and the connection between their bodies happens almost accidently, John’s glans suddenly dipping into Sherlock’s anus. Sherlock whines desperately, and John kicks his hips forwards. His cock slides inwards a single, stunning rush.

“Oh Christ,” Sherlock cries, his spine arching.

John grasps Sherlock’s knee and pulls their bodies more tightly into alignment.

“John, oh Christ, John,” Sherlock groans.

“It’s okay,” John murmurs, starting to rock his hips, though his movement is less a withdrawal and return, and more a push and deeper push. “I love you - I’m here - we’re okay.”

Sherlock nods, his expression flexing through a grimace into a breathless, half-sobbing smile.

“Oh God, you’re beautiful,” John says, his left hand glancing on Sherlock’s chest, down his stomach onto the slight slick of semen on his belly.

Sherlock’s smile widens, and the brightness in his eyes spills from their corners and runs back into his hair. John bends lower over him, grimacing in discomfort even as he mouths kisses over Sherlock’s cheeks and chin. Sherlock winds an arm around John’s neck and flexes his biceps to pull them close without John’s straining.

“Oh fuck, I’m gonna come,” John mutters. “Oh fuck.”

“Yes,” Sherlock breathes, “for me – in me.”

John’s thrusts turn abruptly reckless, his spine and hips flexing fearlessly even as his face tightens in pain. Sherlock thrashes under him, trying to rise up to meet his thrusts despite John’s weight pinning him down. John throws his head back, his mouth gaping wide, and gives a terrible cry of pleasure and anguish and utter defeat as he shudders into his orgasm. Sherlock lifts his head, kissing haphazardly over John’s temple and ear and the corner of his jaw.

“I love you,” Sherlock murmurs, as John slackens against him, their legs straightening and their hips tilting apart.

John’s shoulders are shaking, though his breath is smooth, if swift, against Sherlock’s neck.

“I love you, and it’s all going to be all right,” Sherlock murmurs, one hand splayed over the soft bristle of John’s hair, and the other covering the dark, smooth circle of scarring on the back of John’s shoulder. “I promise – it’s all going to be all right - we are going to be all right.”

For a few minutes they lie pressed closely against each other, and then John rolls aside with a low groan. Sherlock sits up and drags a handful of the bedcover into his lap to wipe himself half-clean. He twists round to open the drawer of the nightstand on his side of the bed and dips his hand into it. When he turns back, there are two plain rings of thick yellow gold hanging loosely around the top joint of his middle finger. He lets them slide off and onto John’s breastbone. John picks up one, holds it up in front of his eyes, and peers at the graceful script engraved on the inner surface.

Holmes SKS 00000000 it reads. John smiles and drops the ring onto his chest again, picking up the other one.

Watson JH 74214183. John slips it onto the ring finger of his left hand. Sherlock dips his fingers to John’s chest, picks the other ring up, and puts it on.

“When can we sign the papers?” John asks.

“Whenever we get back to London,” Sherlock asks.

“When can we go back to London?” John persists.

“Whenever we put our clothes back on,” Sherlock says.

“Soon, then,” John says.

 

London

The evening sun is slanting through the high windows, turning the mahogany paneling to blazing russet. The room is hushed, insulated by rows and rows of leather-bound books, and heavy red drapes and carpeting. The pen scribes audibly across the paper as Sherlock signs his name with a deliberate flourish, and passes the pen to John. John signs his own name less extravagantly than Sherlock, but with a heavier, more angular line, and then drops the pen and steps back from the desk.

“And the witnesses sign here,” the elegantly suited gentleman murmurs, glancing up at Mycroft and his assistant.

“Thank you for arranging everything at such short notice, Stephen,” Mycroft says, when he’s left a signature that’s effectively indistinguishable from Sherlock’s.

“Always a pleasure, Mycroft,” Stephen says, as Mycroft’s assistant adds her signature.

“Are we done?” Sherlock asks.

“Yes, all completed and correct,” Stephen says with a quick smile as he gathers up the documents. “Congratulations, gentlemen, and good luck in your new life together.”

“Thank you,” John says, his expression impressively composed considering the way Sherlock is winding his arm around John’s and almost pulling him towards the door.

“A word, if you would, Major Watson,” Mycroft says, raising his eyebrows significantly.

John and Sherlock exchange glances, and John turns back to Mycroft while Sherlock permits himself to be ushered out alongside Stephen and Mycroft’s assistant.

“This is for you,” Mycroft says, taking a large Mylar envelope containing something bulky and angular from the desk and presenting it to John.

“A wedding present?” John says dubiously, but his eyes narrow in recognition as soon as his hand closes on the package and he parses the weight and solidity of the contents.

He peels the envelope flap open and tips the envelope. The SIG slides out and falls directly into his grip. He glances up at Mycroft questioningly, even as he tucks the envelope under his arm to free his hands for the instinctive snap of the slide and check of the chamber.

“The gun is from me,” Mycroft says. “The authorization to carry it is from the Home Secretary – he sends his best wishes, by the way.”

John’s gaze flickers uncertainly, but the corner of his mouth quirks as he drops the SIG’s fully loaded clip into his palm and then slaps it back into place.

“Moran?” he asks, reaching back beneath his jacket to tuck the SIG into the back of his belt.

Mycroft shakes his head.

“We have been unable to find any trace of him,” he says, his mouth pursing discontentedly.

“Someone helped him disappear,” John says. “Who – another member of the conspiracy we don’t know anything about?”

“Perhaps,” Mycroft says lightly, “though it isn’t quite their bailiwick, is it?”

“Someone else, then,” John says, “someone new - who?”

“I have no idea,” Mycroft smiles. “We must await events, Major Watson. There’s something else I’ve taken the liberty of - ”

He looks down, his brows folding into a slightly doubtful frown, but then he lifts his eyes to meet John’s again.

“The Royal Marines will be withdrawn from Sangin,” he says quietly, “effective immediately. I think the Americans should bear that burden for a while, don’t you?”

John nods, though his expression is grave and somewhat uncertain.

“Don’t worry,” Mycroft says. “The fight will still be there when we’re ready to rejoin it.”

John nods again more sincerely.

“Yes,” he says. “I daresay it will.”

“We’d better catch up with Sherlock,” Mycroft says, gesturing towards the doorway. “He’ll suspect I’m sharing embarrassing reminiscences of his childhood.”

“Do you have any?” John asks as he follows Mycroft out into the hallway.

“Not a single one,” Mycroft says mournfully.

They emerge onto the street to find Sherlock standing with his hands in his coat pockets, blowing his breath out and impatiently rocking on his heels.

“My club is close by, if you’d care for a glass of champagne to mark the occasion,” Mycroft says, as he and John reach Sherlock.

“Thank you, Mycroft,” Sherlock says easily, “but I think John and I would like to go home now.”

“Yes, but – thank you,” John says with a nod at Mycroft.

“Ah. I’ll bid you good evening, then,” Mycroft says.

Sherlock waves a cab to the curbside and climbs into the back seat. John moves to follow him, glancing up and down the street before getting in.

“I’m assuming we do have a home to go to,” he says with a crooked smile as he shuts the cab door after himself.

Sherlock smiles back at him before switching his attention to the cab driver.

“Two hundred and twenty-one bee, Baker Street,” he announces, his voice rippling with suppressed delight.

John’s expression collapses into disbelief, and then lifts into wry amusement.

“It seemed – appropriate,” Sherlock says, his eyes glittering, “to me, if not to anyone else.”

“It is,” John says. “It – really is.”

He turns his head aside and gazes out of the cab window as they drive. Sherlock watches the uncertain wane and wax of John’s smile for a moment or two, and then turns to stare out of the window on his side instead. At some point in the journey, John’s right hand drifts from his lap to the seat beside him, and then into Sherlock’s cupped left hand, pushing aside the pair of gloves loosely held there so that John’s thumb can slide slowly back and forth over the smooth surface of Sherlock’s wedding ring.

When they reach Baker Street, Sherlock jumps out of the cab first and strides across the pavement to knock on the front door while John climbs out more sedately and pays off the driver. Missus Hudson opens the door, exclaiming over Sherlock affectionately and then ushering John inside with a look of unabashed curiosity.

Sherlock goes up the stairs first. John follows him, glancing up intently up the second flight of stairs before turning aside to the open doorway of the flat. His gaze skims over the uprights and horizontals of the kitchen doorway and the two windows before he’s taken a step over the threshold. Sherlock is standing to one side, shrugging his coat off while his eyes flick between John and the objects of John’s gaze.

“This is very nice,” John says, his smile no more than a slight tensing of the skin beneath his eyes, “very messy, but very nice.”

“Oh, I’ll tidy up a bit,” Sherlock says, scooping a newspaper up from one armchair and dropping his coat there instead.

“No you won’t,” John smirks.

“No, probably not,” Sherlock says as he tosses the newspaper into the other armchair.

“If I’d known you were both coming home today, I’d have put the place right,” Missus Hudson says, plucking empty mugs out of the tangle of papers and books on the table. “Just to start you off, you know – I’m not your housekeeper.”

John and Sherlock stare at each other, amusement curling their mouths and glittering in their eyes, while Missus Hudson deposits her trove in the kitchen sink and returns to the sitting room.

“There’s another bedroom upstairs, Major Watson,” she says archly, “if you’ll be needing another bedroom.”

“No, one bedroom’s fine,” John says, pulling his gaze from Sherlock’s to look at her, “but I think the extra storage space might be the saving of us.”

Sherlock hums agreement, glancing at John from the corners of his eyes while gathering a handful of unopened mail from various surfaces. John crosses to the window; as he passes, Sherlock reaches out without looking to brush his fingertips down the back of John’s jacket.

“Hello,” John says quietly, pushing the curtain aside slightly as he looks down into the street.

Something in his tone catches Sherlock’s attention. He tosses the bundle of envelopes on top of the newspaper in the armchair and moves to join John at the window. Sherlock cranes a little to peer down over John’s shoulder at the police car outside, and smiles crookedly. John glances up and back at him, eyebrow lifted questioningly. At the sound of quick, heavy footfalls on the stairs they both turn from the window, John brushing past Sherlock to stand in front and somewhat to one side of him.

“No rest for the wicked,” Missus Hudson says pointedly as she retires back into the kitchen.

“You’re not answering your messages,” Lestrade scowls as he reaches the top of the stairs.

“I’ve been busy,” Sherlock says curtly.

John glances from Lestrade to Sherlock and back, his expression carefully blank.

“You’re not the only one,” Lestrade says with a rueful quirk of his mouth. “There’s been another suicide – and this time there’s a note.”

“Where?” Sherlock says, his eyes lighting with interest.

“Brixton - Lauriston Gardens,” Lestrade says. “Will you come?”

“We’ll be right behind you,” Sherlock says with a slight nod.

“We?” Lestrade echoes, his gaze sliding from Sherlock to John. “Who’s - ?”

“John, may I introduce Detective Inspector Lestrade of New Scotland Yard,” Sherlock says, his voice uncoiling fluidly. “Lestrade, this is my husband, Major John Watson, late of Forty Commando the Royal Marines.”

Lestrade’s expression collapses into gaping disbelief.

“You did what?” he says to Sherlock.

“Detective Inspector,” John says mildly, offering his right hand.

Lestrade manages to gather some semblance of composure and accepts the handshake.

“Bloody hell,” he says. “I mean, congratulations I suppose but – bloody hell. Good luck with him.”

“Thanks, I think,” John smiles.

“John’s also an MD,” Sherlock says, picking his coat up and slipping it on again, “specialization in trauma - seen rather more violent deaths than most doctors.”

He pats his pockets, glances about, and flashes Lestrade a wide smile.

“And you won’t have to listen to me berating Anderson,” he adds.

Lestrade looks John up and down, his eyebrows practically up at his hairline.

“Yeah, all right,” he says. “Welcome to the madhouse, Major Watson – I’ll see you at the crime scene.”

Sherlock waits, his lower lip caught in his teeth in a fruitless effort to hide his grin, as Lestrade turns and leaves.

“This is what you do then, is it?” John asks. “Investigate suicides, and stuff?”

“They’re not suicides; they’re murders,” Sherlock says, his grin softening to a slight but vivid-eyed smile. “And it isn’t what I do; it’s what we do.”

John reaches his right hand back beneath his jacket, touching the gun tucked into the back of his belt. He looks up at Sherlock again, his eyes narrowed slightly and the corners of his mouth curled in pleasured anticipation.

“Let’s roll,” Sherlock says softly.

“Yeah, let’s,” John says.

He turns away, strides through the open doorway, then down the steep, narrow stairs and out of the street door with Sherlock sweeping along behind him. Sherlock throws a hand up, waving down a cab that’s passing on the other side of the street. As the cab pulls over, John steps back to let Sherlock get in first, while John’s razor bright gaze slices up and down the street before he climbs in after Sherlock. John pulls the cab door shut behind him; the vehicle moves off, slips easily into the early evening traffic, and is lost from view when it turns out of Baker Street.

 

End of Part 5

Chapter Text

The village at Al Maleash consists of less than a dozen mud-walled houses near a dirt road that crosses a windswept, gray-grassed upland. Today, almost two hundred cars and trucks – many with horse trailers attached – are parked along the sides of the road and across the open ground beyond. The crowd that throngs among the vehicles is entirely male, from small boys to old men, but their clothing runs the gamut from shiny nylon sports suits, through dark camouflage canvas and indigo dyed cotton, to rigorously traditional red padded coats and round fur hats.

Goods for sale, everything from silverware and leatherwork to small electronics and pirated copies of Pakistani action movies, are arranged on truck tailgates or cloths spread on the ground. The air is smudged with smoke from cooking fires burning in empty oil drums, gusting the scents of spices and charred meats. Curtains hoisted on poles over carpets on the ground provide rudimentary backdrops for coffee-drinkers and hashish-smokers, and thin trills of pipe music are snatched and torn about by the wind.

There are horses everywhere – small, powerfully built animals with long tangled manes and tails – mostly dark bays and pale grays, with a scattering of lighter chestnuts, and one or two pure blacks. They’re harnessed in thick, roughly tanned leather, with brightly painted saddles over colorfully striped saddle cloths.

John and Hinde lead the way through the crowd, with Sherlock, McMath, and Henn just behind them. Barr, Garrett, and Cullen are a little farther back, with Blackwood at the rear. They’re all armored, but bare-headed and carrying their assault rifles slung across their backs. They’re met with mostly appraising stares, but also with some nods of recognition and even one or two quickly flashed smiles, as they make their way to the ragged edge of the crowd, on the open ground where the buzkashi game is already in progress.

There are about sixty horsemen in play, though almost half of them are content to ride to and fro on the outer margins of the game. The other thirty or so horses and riders are milling in a tight, chaotic crush. At its very center, half a dozen horses bray and bite at each other, while their riders thrash at each other with whips and fists. From second to second, it’s possible to catch just a glimpse of the dirt-coated calf carcass – headless and limbless – as it’s grabbed and dropped and grabbed up again from among the horses’ churning hooves.

“There’s Farshad,” Hinde says, gesturing back at the crowd, where a group of Afghan men are contemplating a horse plunging and pulling at its leading rein while its groom tries alternately soothing and scolding it.

John, Hinde, and Sherlock move in that direction, while the others remain where they are, watching the game.

“This is Farshad,” John says to Sherlock, “and his brothers, Mahyar and Houshmand.”

The Afghans shake Sherlock’s hand with frank smiles, but only amorphous murmurs of greeting.

“Is this his horse?” Sherlock asks, glancing from Farshad to Hinde and then to the darkly dappled gray with its streaked mane and tail.

Hinde and Farshad have a brief exchange in Dari, while Sherlock circles the horse at a circumspect distance, his gaze moving greedily over the swooping curves of its neck and chest and haunches.

“Yes,” Hinde relays in answer to Sherlock’s question.

“He’s beautiful,” Sherlock says emphatically, looking at Farshad.

Sherlock’s meaning is clear to Farshad, even before Hinde translates; he shrugs deprecatingly, but there’s a hint of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

“I bet you go like the wind, don’t you?” Sherlock murmurs, stepping closer to the horse.

The animal sidles a little, rolling its dark eyes and flaring its nostrils.

“Careful, they’re trained to bite,” John says quietly.

“Other riders,” Sherlock says, reaching one hand out slowly, “other horses, not - ”

He presses his nubuck-gloved hand firmly to the horse’s neck, and sweeps it down onto the broad slope of its shoulder. The horse shifts its hooves a little, and then stands foursquare.

 “You are lovely,” Sherlock says, his voice low and vibrating with warmth.

The horse tosses its head slightly. Sherlock scratches the rough tips of his gloved fingers up and down the finely curve bone of its profile, and murmurs soft sounds of approval. Farshad watches intently, and then says something to Hinde. Sherlock glances at him questioningly.

“He says his cousin usually rides the horse,” Hinde says, looking from one man to the other, “but he took a fall right at the start of the game and can’t play now.”

“Oh, no wonder you’re cross,” Sherlock murmurs to the horse, tugging gently at its forelock. “They’re all having fun without you.”

The horse drops its head and thrusts its brow gently into Sherlock’s armored chest, making him stagger back a half step. Farshad says something to Hinde, who darts an uncertain look at John before translating.

“He says – he’d be willing to let a good rider like you take his horse into the game.”

“No,” John says, his voice cresting above the surrounding noise.

“How can he tell that I can ride?” Sherlock asks, pushing the horse’s muzzle aside with one hand.

Hinde relays the question, and Farshad grins as he answers.

“He says he can’t, but the horse can,” Hinde translates with a laugh.

“Sherlock, no,” John says more insistently. “Hitting other riders with the butt of the whip is a legitimate piece of play.”

“Polo’s faster and the mallet weighs more than a whip,” Sherlock says lightly, but there’s bright-edged steel in his eyes.

The horse’s groom is already cinching up the girth of the saddle more tightly. Sherlock shrugs the strap of his assault rifle over his head and passes the weapon to Hinde, before starting to tear the tapes of his body armor open.

“Oh – fuck it,” John says, swinging his own assault rifle off and thrusting it at Hinde.

Farshad throws his hands up in delight and says something around a gust of laughter.

“Sir, he says you said you’d never do this again after the last time,” Hinde says, as Farshad says something quick and sharp to Houshmand, who ducks away into the crowd.

“Yeah,” John mutters darkly.

“You’re going to play?” Sherlock beams, handing his armor off to Mahyar.

“No, you’re going to play,” John says. “I’m going to stop you getting killed.”

Houshmand returns, a hank of thin rope over one shoulder, leading a horse by the bridle: a bright chestnut with a lopsided white blaze down its face. John approaches, tugging the tapes of his armor tighter.

“Look at me,” he says, spiking his forked fingers from in front of the horse’s eyes to in front of his own. “I’m John Watson. I’ve got a medical degree, a Queen’s Commission, and a big fucking gun. You roll me one more time, and I will fucking end you. Are we clear?”

Sherlock pauses with his foot in the stirrup to watch this exchange. The chestnut rotates one ear very slightly.

“Good,” John says grimly. “Good talk.”

He moves to the horse’s side, claps both hands on the saddle, boosts himself straight up without touching the stirrup, and swings his right leg over the saddle. Sherlock completes his own smooth, swift step up on his stirrup and seat into the saddle.

Houshmand takes hold of John’s left boot, shoving John’s heel to a more satisfactory angle in the stirrup, and then binds it into place with one end of the rope. Sherlock weaves both reins through the fingers of his left hand, grasps the whip in his right.

“Ask him what the horse’s vice is,” Sherlock says to Hinde, who relays the question to Farshad.

“He says – he says, only that it eats calf-meat,” Hinde says doubtfully, but Sherlock and Farshad grin at each other in perfect comprehension.

Houshmand flicks the loose end of the rope under the horse’s belly, hurries round to John’s right, and ties that boot into its stirrup.

“You can’t ride so you let them tie you to the horse?” Sherlock says, simultaneously horrified and awed.

“I prefer to think of it as tying the horse to me,” John says coolly as Houshmand passes up the whip.

Houshmand and the other groom wheel the horses, and the crowd draws back to give them open passage to the game. Sherlock’s groom releases his grip on the bridle and more or less flings himself aside as Sherlock claps both heels to his horse’s sides. The horse surges forwards and Sherlock bends lower in the saddle.

It’s instantly obvious that the horse’s plan is simply to crash the broad flat of its chest against the churning wall of horses and men separating it from the thrashing, rearing heart of the game. Sherlock twists the reins and drops his weight aside, wheeling his mount and then kicking it forward again, directing its attack to the one spot where the alignment of horses’ shoulders and flanks produces a momentary weakness in the barricade.

Sherlock’s horse rears under him, whinnying in exalting anger, and then plunges down again to cleave itself a place between the pressed flanks of the two horses in front. The rider on Sherlock’s right lashes out with the butt of his whip, but Sherlock’s horse is already writhing forwards, and Sherlock has only to dip his head and lift his forearm to deflect the already half-avoided blow. His horse is shoved strongly from the other side; Sherlock looks over, already flinching low in anticipation of another attack. Instead, he sees that John’s chestnut is pressed along his horse’s side, John gripping both the reins and his horse’s mane in his left hand, while he catches another rider a brutal blow across the head with the butt of the whip in his right fist.

“Stay down,” John barks at Sherlock.

Sherlock takes him at his word, crouching low in the saddle. There’s a scuffle of hooves and shouted curses, while Sherlock’s horse stamps and snorts in frustration. There’s the sharp slap of knuckles on flesh, and John gives a short, angry shout and then someone else howls in pain. John’s horse sidles away from Sherlock’s slightly, and Sherlock’s horse thrusts itself into the somewhat looser tangle of half a dozen horses and riders contesting immediate possession of the calf.

The carcass – its brindled brown and black hide dulled by a thick coating of dust – is drawn between two riders, each of whom grasps it with one hand while striking at the opposing rider with the other. Three other horses are shoving and shouldering in on the pair, snapping and snorting, while their riders alternately snatch at the carcass and strike at those in possession of it. Sherlock’s horse shrieks in fury, darting its bared teeth at the horse between it and the calf’s carcass. John’s horse shoulders in against Sherlock’s, but just far enough behind not to draw its attack. John doesn’t even glance at the carcass or the riders struggling for control of it, instead he twists and leans in his saddle, fending off the whip blows meant for Sherlock’s back, and repaying them with solid punches and well-aimed jabs of his whip butt. Sherlock catches a glimpse of his face – bright eyed and hard-mouthed despite the smudge of blood at one corner of his lips – and grins.

“Get the fucking calf,” John shouts above the cacophony of hoof thuds and harness jingles.

Sherlock narrows his eyes and digs his heels into his horse’s sides. The horse leaps forwards again, plowing straight into one of the two horses whose riders are in partial possession of the calf carcass, ears flattened, eyes rolling, and teeth snapping viciously. The other horse rears in alarm and twists aside; his rider’s hand is wrenched from the carcass, leaving it hanging heavily from the other rider’s hand. The knot of horses unwinds and rewinds rapidly as riders jostle for an advantage of position. In that second or two of respite, John leans across his saddle and lashes out at full-reach with the butt of his whip, catching the one hand that’s gripping the calf’s carcass. The carcass drops to the ground among the quick, heavy cuts of the horse’s hooves.

Sherlock’s horse tries to rear, but Sherlock swoops forwards to lie on its shoulder, the press of his weight turning the upward thrust to forward push. The horse catches Sherlock’s intention, stabbing itself low among the other horses instead of trying to batter its way in from above. John’s horse is rearing, half-mounting Sherlock’s in a frenzied attempt to put itself between Sherlock’s horse and the battering mass of the other animals. John rises in his stirrups, leans half out of his saddle as reaches over Sherlock’s bent back, whipping off the riders who are trying to break Sherlock’s advance to where the calf carcass is rolling and pitching on the ground among a flashing thicket of hooves.

Sherlock cries out triumphantly as he swings back up into the saddle, throwing the calf carcass across his thighs. His horse rears up, striking out with both front hooves, cleaving a sudden path through the churning crush of horses and riders. Sherlock kicks him on ruthlessly, and they explode free, scattering the less determined horses and riders on the periphery of the game. Sherlock’s horse flings itself forwards, hooves battering on the hard ground as it gallops for the thin stake stuck in the ground a hundred or so yards away. Sherlock rises in his stirrups and bends low over the horse’s shoulder, his eyes narrowed against the lash of its mane.

He slants in the saddle, dropping the hand holding the reins to one side, and his horse carves a wide circle around the marker stake. About a third of the horses and riders have gathered between Sherlock and the scoring circle at the far end of the pitch. On the other side of the group, John turns his horse and gallops a short way off.

Sherlock presses his heels in and tightens his reins, shortening his horse’s stride until it’s chopping the turf with its hooves, its body one sprung line from haunches to head.

John turns again and comes galloping back, straight for the center of the herd. Several riders realize what’s happening and hastily unwind from the group.

Sherlock drops his rein-hand and his horse explodes into motion. Several more riders lose their nerve and kick aside from the group. John’s horse careens straight into the remaining half dozen, scattering horses in snorting, stamping confusion. Sherlock tilts in the saddle, his bodyweight gesturing to an opening gap in the chaos. The gray reads his intent perfectly and surges forwards. John stands in his stirrups, yelling for pure joy as Sherlock and the gray flash past.

Riders wheel, whipping their horses in pursuit, but the gray is away, hooves hammering and breath bellowing, a comet with a rag-taggle tail of Afghans. Sherlock gathers the gray slightly, and it scuffs past the scoring circle as Sherlock shoves the calf carcass off his thighs to flop inelegantly onto the ground. A shout of mingled annoyance and admiration and amusement goes up, and Sherlock finds himself in the middle of gesturing, laughing, gesticulating group of riders.

The group half-disperses, someone hefts the calf casually, and abruptly the game is on again.

Sherlock is able to score twice more, but each successive fight is harder and longer as more and more of the Afghan players abandon their own attempts to score in favor of driving Sherlock and John apart in the melee. Sherlock has to divert some of his attention from securing the calf’s carcass to defending his own, and John has to fight to reach Sherlock before he can fight to protect him.

“And that is how we’ll unite a viable Afghan state,” John says, as they both wheel their horses around and ride away from the game. “We’ll piss them off so badly they’ll work together to kick us out.”

John’s section has joined Farshad and the other Afghans on the edge of the crowd; all of them are grinning and applauding. The grooms catch at the horses’ bridles as Sherlock and John slide, breathless and boneless, from their saddles. Farshad flicks his fingers against his own forehead, throws his hand out towards Sherlock, and makes an emphatic pronouncement in Dari that elicits a great deal of approving laughter from the other Afghans.

“He says – the horse fathered you?” Hinde laughs dubiously. “Or – you fathered the horse, or – you fathered something on the horse – I – have no idea, but I think it’s a good.”

Sherlock drops his head in acknowledgement.

“I’ve got something I want to show you,” John says, as their rifles and Sherlock’s armor are returned.

His tone is light, almost indifferent; it’s only when Sherlock glances down into his face that the razor gleam in John’s eyes betrays his meaning. Sherlock is already flushed and breathless from the game, but his eyes widen and his mouth quirks.

“Half of these houses aren’t occupied anymore,” John announces. “We should check one out, it’s interesting.”

“Smooth,” Blackwood says.

John scowls at him, but when Sherlock moves past them he follows at once. A single loped stride puts him side by side with Sherlock, and they walk together to the nearest house. They go through the open gateway in the chest-high surrounding wall, and then through the unfastened doorway of the house.

Sherlock crosses the threshold and turns sharply. John follows him in, picks up the splayed remains of a small wooden stool from the dirt floor and swings it back-handed against the wall. There’s a crash of splintering wood and a puff of dust as it breaks apart, the seat and one leg separated from the other leg. John throws the seat portion aside, picks up the single leg, and shoves the rickety wooden door closed with his forearm. He jams the broken end of the stool leg into the gap between door and doorframe, and rams it tight with the heel of his gloved hand.

“Is this a good idea?” Sherlock asks, though he’s already lowering his rifle to the floor and stripping his gloves off his hands.

“It’s a terrible idea,” John says shortly, setting his rifle against the crumbling wall plaster and crossing the room in two quick strides.

He walks straight into Sherlock, hard enough to carry him back against the wall, their breaths breaking from their open mouths in soft grunts under the impact.

“You’re incredible,” John mutters, dragging the two sides of Sherlock’s pale camouflage shirt up out of his belt. “You’re fucking incredible.”

Sherlock exhales a smile, his eyes dropping half-closed and his body unraveling against the wall as John shoves both hands up inside his shirt.

“Incredible,” John says again, thrusting his mouth into Sherlock’s open shirt collar, and then pushing brief, hard kisses against the side of his neck and beneath his ear.

John wrenches back again, his fingers moving swiftly on Sherlock’s belt and then on his fly buttons.

John drops to his knees, palming Sherlock’s pants and underwear down his long thighs as he goes. Sherlock moans softly and squirms against the rough plaster wall.

“Yes,” he breathes. ”Yes.”

John pushes the tails of Sherlock’s shirt up onto his stomach and twists them into a half-knot to keep them out of his way. He slides both hands down Sherlock’s thighs, and then back up again until his thumbs are tracing the creases between Sherlock’s groin and his balls. Sherlock’s cock stands stiffly, slanting away from his belly and pulsing fractionally with each beat of his heart.

“You have to be quiet,” John warns, tilting his head slightly as he eyes Sherlock’s cock.

Sherlock nods, taking a deep breath and pressing his mouth closed emphatically. John takes hold of Sherlock’s hip, and runs the fingertips of his other hand up the shaft of Sherlock’s cock. Sherlock’s nostrils flare and his eyes flicker wide in the gloom. John leans closer, pursing his lips to blow softly over Sherlock’s skin. Sherlock shifts slightly and brings his hand gently to curve around John’s skull. John’s eyes flutter closed as he opens his mouth and circles his lips over the tip of Sherlock’s cock.

Sherlock exhales - a long, unwinding sigh – and his fingers splay in the short strands of John’s hair. John presses forwards, his cheeks hollowing as he sucks the length of Sherlock’s cock into his mouth.

“Oh,” Sherlock breathes, his back scraping down the dusty wall a little as he slumps.

John draws back, clasping the root of Sherlock’s cock in one hand as he flicks his tongue over the upper shaft and tip. Sherlock jolts minutely with each touch. John dips forwards again, slipping Sherlock’s cock into his mouth again. He starts to rock, a quick, fluid motion from his hips up his spine to his head. Sherlock squeezes his eyes shut and grimaces open mouthed at the intensity of the pleasure.

“John,” he whispers, “oh – oh that’s exquisite.”

The corners of John’s mouth quirk around Sherlock’s cock. He skims both hands up over the crests of Sherlock’s hipbones, and reaches farther back, lifting Sherlock’s pelvis away from the wall a little, drawing his cock deeper into John’s mouth. Sherlock presses a hand over his own mouth, stifling his soft cry of pleasure. John’s breath billows from his nostrils as he pushes his mouth farther down on Sherlock’s cock, saliva beading in Sherlock’s pubic hair. Sherlock’s eyes go wide, gleaming in the half-dark. He starts to writhe against the wall, hitching himself up slightly and then sliding lower again, his hips rolling restlessly until John’s forced to pin him with both hands.

Sherlock starts to squirm. His voice catches in his throat, soft shapeless moans and little gasps of anticipation. He keeps one hand clasped over his mouth; the other dips down, fingers splaying and biting into the thickness of muscle between John’s shoulder blades, clawing up the damp cloth of his camouflage shirt. John flexes his spine under Sherlock’s hand, and groans. The vibration of it makes Sherlock grimace and then sink his teeth hard into the base of his thumb. His breathing turns shivery and uneven. John throats another groan of encouragement, and Sherlock whines quietly into his hand.

The long pale muscles of his thighs begin to quiver. John is breathing hard, his nostrils flaring with each inhalation. The corners of his mouth and the tipoff his chin are wet, his thin lips flushed dark red around Sherlock’s shaft. He rocks fluidly, alternating long deep, slides of his mouth down to the root of Sherlock’s cock with short pulls that just play the ring of his lips up and down over the ridge of Sherlock’s retracted foreskin.

Sherlock gives a muffled, drawn-out moan, and the quivering of his thighs turns to a deep, spasmodic shuddering. John jolts slightly, his cheeks rounding as he struggles to breath and swallow and not cough.

Sherlock’s head falls forward, his spine curls away from the wall, and his hand drops to the nape of John’s neck. John rolls his shoulders, sucking lavishly along Sherlock’s softening flesh to clean him.

“John,” Sherlock breathes, “oh … John.”

John leans back, tonguing messily over the soft, swollen flesh of his own lips. Sherlock slumps, slides down the wall a bit. John murmurs a slight sound of protest. He pushes up from his knees onto his feet, gathering Sherlock’s arms over his shoulders and half-holding him up, half-pinning him back against the wall with a full body press from knees to chests.

John twists his head, cutting his face close to Sherlock’s. Sherlock exhales in a long, shaking sigh as John pushes in even closer. Sherlock closes his eyes, his brows folding together, and hums a sound of pleasure as John’s mouth, silky and heated and tasting of Sherlock’s own semen, touches his. For several seconds there’s just the whisper of clothing against clothing, and the slight flurry and ruffle of their breathing. John brushes his fingertips over Sherlock’s bare hips, and then slides his hand back and down to draw his buttocks away from the wall and grip them firmly. Sherlock arches lazily, letting John pull him forwards off the wall, turn him, and push him against the rough plaster again.

John runs his hands up over the rucked, damp folds of the back of Sherlock’s shirt, and grasps at his arms, his shoulders, the nape of his neck. Sherlock growls, the hard-edged noise at odds with the sated softness of his expression – brow smooth, eyes almost shut, and cheekbone pressed to the dusty wall. John surges up onto the balls of his toes, sliding his body upwards over Sherlock’s back. John’s cock – soft skin over rigid flesh, heated but with a cool wisp of wetness at the tip – brushes the back of Sherlock’s bare thigh, and then pokes awkwardly under the curve of his buttock. John mutters, eager and impatient. Sherlock circles his hips slightly, and the head of John’s cock drags across his buttock and slips into the space between his thighs. Sherlock scrapes one boot in the dirt, pressing his thighs together tightly. John exhales noisily, and his fingers bite hard into the crests of Sherlock’s right shoulder and left hipbone. He rocks his hips, and his cock stutters forwards and then slides back on the sweaty skin of Sherlock’s inner thighs. Sherlock slumps a little farther down on the wall, and John can ease down onto his heels, cant his hips, and thrust forwards more forcefully. His shaft plumbs forwards between Sherlock’s legs, along the underside of his balls to nudge the soft weight of his cock.

“Fucking Jesus,” John rasps, grinding his face between Sherlock’s shoulder blades, “oh fucking Jesus.”

Sherlock groans softly and drops one hand to his own groin. He cups his fingers over himself, pressing the soft flesh down and back. The head of John’s erection pushes forwards, pulls back. John’s boots scuff in the dirt a little as he thrusts his hips.

 “Fuck me,” Sherlock murmurs, “just fuck me.”

 The rhythm of John’s thrusts collapses. He presses himself along the length of Sherlock’s spine.

 “I’ve nothing to use,” he says, but he turns one hip and fumbles the fingertips of one hand into the cleft of Sherlock’s behind.

 Sherlock hums appreciatively as John probes deeper, rough fingertips on sweat-softened skin. Then John’s fingers are replaced by the smoother, blunter pressure of his glans.

 “I don’t want to hurt you,” he breathes.

 He plays his bodyweight up and down from his thighs, so that his glans slides up and down between Sherlock’s buttocks.

 “Oh, fuck, that feels nice,” John says hoarsely.

 Sherlock pushes his pelvis out from the wall, meeting the upward slide of John’s cock. John’s glans catches against the ring of Sherlock’s anus. Sherlock moans appreciatively.

 “Sherlock,” John says, half-querying, half-warning.

Sherlock rings his thumb and forefinger around the soft shaft of his own cock, and tugs gently as he bears back against the pressure of John’s erection. John’s knuckles graze the underside of Sherlock’s behind as he draws his foreskin back, and then plays his glans back and forth over Sherlock’s anus a little.

 “Just – a little,” Sherlock whispers, “just push it - ”

John works himself in small circles over Sherlock’s opening. The muscle softens, and John pushes forwards slowly but implacably. His glans pierces Sherlock’s anus, slides in, and is ringed tightly by the abruptly constricting muscle. Sherlock’s breath shakes out from between his parted lips.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” John says again, his hands glancing lightly over Sherlock’s sides and hips.

“I know,” Sherlock says softly.

John uses one hand to scoop and pin Sherlock’s shirttails up on his back. He looks down, his gaze carving down the line of Sherlock’s spine to where John’s cock is fitted into the cleft of his buttocks. John slips his free hand between their bodies and grips his shaft in his fist, knuckles brushing Sherlock’s skin. John shifts his hips tentatively, his eyelids flickering as he glances up at Sherlock’s half-averted face. Sherlock exhales, open-mouthed and smiling crookedly. John rocks his hips slightly, jerking his grip on himself to provide most of the sensation while he just tugs fractionally at the pressure of his glans in Sherlock’s anus.

Sherlock gives a shuddery little laugh. John growls his breath out, and leans in with his chest against Sherlock’s back. He moves his hand more rapidly, and more roughly. Sherlock makes a sharp-edged sound that stills John for just a second, but he starts to move again when Sherlock nods encouragingly even as he lifts his hand to cover his mouth.

“I’m going to come,” John mutters a minute later. “Oh Christ, I’m going to come.”

Sherlock gives a low, fervent gasp and sinks his teeth into the heel of his hand. John’s breathing turns shaky, and the shifts of his hips turn arrhythmic and off-kilter. He bites into the thickness of Sherlock’s shirt where it’s rucked between his shoulder blades. Sherlock whines around his own hand. John’s body goes rigid and then jerks hard enough to pull his glans from Sherlock’s body, his semen splattering between Sherlock’s thighs and into the folds of his pants crumpled around his knees. Sherlock reaches back with his free hand and clutches at John’s thigh. John lifts his head slowly, spitting out a damp circle of Sherlock’s shirt.

“Jesus,” he whispers, “oh Jesus – you are – Sherlock, you’re incredible.”

Sherlock eases the heel of his hand from his mouth, looking ruefully at the deep red indents pressed into his skin, even as he smiles slackly. John lays his cheek to Sherlock’s back gently, and strokes his hands down Sherlock’s sides.

“Are you okay?” John asks softly.

“It felt good,” Sherlock says, tightening his fingers on John’s leg. “A little dangerous and – very good.”

“Sherlock,” John says carefully.

Sherlock eyes sharpen, and a subtle tautness runs through his limbs and spine.

“Yes?” he breathes.

“I’ve never been this happy in my life,” John whispers.