Chapter 1: All Time Eternally Present
Prologue: All Time Eternally Present
There are times in a hero's life when they lose their way.
Times when the battle becomes too long, or too hard; more than they think they can bear.
Times when they do not believe they are worthy of the honor of being a hero.
Times when they have unknowingly helped the side of the demons.
And times when the blood staining their hands in the course of battle threatens to drown them.
The Thousand Faces knows this, for it has existed since time began and changed with each generation. It welcomes its heroes in whatever frame of mind the hero is in, and it discards judgment. Heroism takes even more than a thousand forms, and they embrace all of them.
That is when heroes are in most need of the Thousand Faces.
Chapter 2: Long Forgotten Wars
Footnotes are at the bottom.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
I. Long Forgotten Wars
Even in dreams, his leg has started hurting again.
No amount of telling himself that the limp is psychosomatic helps, and it's just ridiculous to have your mind playing tricks with you in your dreams as well as reality. John refuses to use a cane in his dreams - had told the gentleman at the front desk to piss off, which the bloke with the flame cane  had applauded him for - and hobbles down the twisting hallways until they lead him to an oval-shaped room with only one other occupant .
"Ah, Doctor Watson. I thought I might encounter you here one of these days."
John fights the urge to salute, but the man smiles wryly from under his moustache, and he snaps to attention anyway.
"Sir. Sorry, sir, but I don't recognize you."
The man chuckles, pulling the high-backed chair next to him out in invitation. "It's a nice change. You can call me Alistair, or Brigadier, whichever suits you."
John collapses into the chair gratefully, and studies this Brigadier. His training recognizes how much of this man is wrapped up in the military; career officer, a number of medals and insignia on his chest. John doesn't recognize the olive-toned uniform or the "UNIT" patch on the beret he's got tossed on a side table, swagger stick resting atop it, but if he looks at his new companion out of the corner of his eye, he can see the man in an older form - late 70's, overcoat, still with that perfect military bearing. And if he looks full-on, the man is younger, mid-40's, hair still black and face unlined.
"Alistair," John starts, "I don't wish to be rude, but-"
"Quite all right, John. Been a bad month for the leg, has it?"
John's head thumps back into the chair in frustration. "Like you wouldn't believe. The damned thing's pyschosomatic - I'm doing this to myself. But see if I listen."
The Brigadier regards him kindly. "Sometimes we soldiers don't take our own advice. The number of times I told myself to stop rushing into the fray after the Doctor, stop cleaning up his messes."
"Oh, you've got one too? Mine has an unfortunate tendency to hijack my sidearm to shoot things into our wall and go swanning off after psychopaths to almost get himself blown up."
"Yours is human, you're lucky," the Brigadier says. "Mine is a centuries-old mostly-immortal alien who dashes off around the universe, getting into trouble and then bringing it to my doorstep."
It's only because of the experiences he's had at the Thousand Faces that John's brain doesn't skid to a stop at the mention of aliens. John blinks, then grins in wonder. He can't help it - he's always wanted to see the universe.
"Brilliant. You traveled with him, then? I'd have gone in a heartbeat."
The Brigadier's smile is a little sad and a little rueful. "Never quite got to see the wonders of the universe. I went on one or two little jaunts, but there was always my duty to consider. Leaving the world without protection was unthinkable."
"UNIT. The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, to protect the Earth from extraterrestrial threats. I founded it."
John understands duty. It's what got him through Afghanistan, what kept him from eating his gun after he was discharged, what keeps him at Baker Street despite everything. He has a duty to himself and to Sherlock, and by extension the Yard.
"I take it that since I've never heard of UNIT, you're doing your job."
"Precisely," the Brigadier says. "You're a soldier, but in matters more earthbound than I. You saw active battle, I take it?"
"Afghanistan," John replies. "Helmund province. I'm a doctor, a desperately needed commodity in that sort of area. You?"
"Two tours in India, before my apparently limitless patience and talent for leadership was needed on the home front. UNIT constantly seems to be lost without me, though I had an excellent replacement in the 80's  and the ladies running it now are two old friends . Both doctors, which I assure you is a desperately needed commodity in UNIT as well."
John nodded, and they fell silent. He can admit to himself that he missed this - simple companionship, the quiet understanding of another soldier - and when the glass of brandy appears next to his arm atop the table, he isn't surprised. He and Alistair drink "to duty, and to mad geniuses who need looking-after", and the brandy goes down smoother than he remembers.
They spend what feels like hours, but is probably only minutes, drinking and talking, being interrupted first by a British navy commodore , who tips his hat to Alistair and nods to John before continuing his search for the library, and then later by others, who stay. Alistair bids him goodbye after a time, and John studies the massive replica table whose battle keeps changing: Nelson at Trafalgar, Napoleon at Waterloo, Drake versus the Spanish Armada, Lee and Meade at Gettysburg.
When the tall Asian woman with the tattoo peeking out of her jeans  asks him his opinion on the D-Day invasion, John can't help but jump into the conversation. It soon turns into a full-on reenactment with a squadron of American marines , an ex-Navy SEAL with a mojito in his hand and a serious head for tactics , and a bunch of Klingons with wicked-looking curved sword-type things .
John can't stop smiling; his leg doesn't hurt anymore.
1. The man with the bitchin' flame cane is Doctor Gregory House, of House M.D.
2. The gentleman with the moustache is Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, of Doctor Who.
3. The Brig's 80's replacement was Brigadier Winifred Bambera, true BAMF, who went back in time and became Guinevere. Yes, that one.
4. The two old friends are Doctor Liz Shaw and Doctor Martha Jones, former companions of the Third and Tenth Doctors, respectively.
5. The gentleman of the British Navy is Commodore James Norrington, of Pirates of the Caribbean.
6. The tall Asian woman is Nikita of the similarly-titled CW reboot of La Femme Nikita.
7. The marines are Easy Company from Band of Brothers, and one would hope they'd have an opinion on D-Day.
8. The ex-SEAL who loves mojitos is Sam Axe of Burn Notice. His strategies are great, as long as you understand football plays and don't mind breaking the rules into itty bitty pieces.
9. The Klingons are from Star Trek, and the curved sword things are bat'leths.
Chapter 3: Emptying the Sensual
Blessed, soothing, better-than-oxygen silence was all he wanted, and the Thousand Faces, so far, was not providing.
Corridor after corridor, hallway after hallway, again and again, and he kept running into people. Some, he supposed, would have been an interesting distraction: the girl in the red wig  demonstrating a fascinating martial-arts hybrid on a tall black man . The girl had half-Russian ancestry, with her incorporation of sambo, but she fought like a cross between a particularly-violent ballet dancer and a gymnast, incorporating even a telephone into her attacks. The man was American - fought powerful and sloppy, like a cop, but with the reflexes that spoke of government training. Sherlock wondered if he knew he was asexual, yet, or if he was still trying to convince himself he wanted to sleep with the girl, not fight her.
Soon the clatter of their match became too much - silver serving platter over the head, quick, low thuds of kicks meeting their marks, sharp crash of desk into wall as she flipped him over her head - and Sherlock moved on in further irritation. Room after room was deemed unfit; too many voices in one, noxious cigar smoke in another, an annoying blonde girl with a camera in a third .
No, he does not wish to help a fellow detective. If she can't see that it was the movie star having an affair with the victim, she doesn't deserve to solve the case.
Just as the sensory overload reached critical, a small corridor appeared to his right. He opened the first door, and oh, perfect. Absolute perfection. A darkened, clean-smelling, comfortable meditation studio. No noise whatsoever, and "No Smoking" signs on every wall. He sank down onto one of the mats, cross-legged, and took a few breaths.
Sherlock opened his eyes, vision adjusting in the dim light, to see a young man  sitting opposite him. Fascinating - the average teenager of any nationality was not inclined to wear a pristine black three-piece suit (and Sherlock does know his bespoke tailors, that's Westmancott's work), nor were they usually able to sit absolutely motionless in padangusana for what looked, by the state of the leg muscles, to be quite a while.
"Huntsman, is it not?" the boy says, Irish accent confirming Sherlock's identification of his tailor.
Sherlock raises an eyebrow. "It is. Most would mistake it for Kilgour."
"True. Most would overlook the notched lapels for the French cuffs, and completely ignore the trademark single-pleat in the trousers. Most definitely Huntsman, though you've gone to Steed's for the shirt. Their work is acceptable, though not of Westmancott's quality."
"Matter of opinion," Sherlock says offhandedly, focusing instead on the boy's eyes. Specifically, the fact that one appears hazel and the other blue. The eyes, the knowledge of bespoke tailoring, the Irish origins - there are very few pieces that can add up to this whole. "You belong to the Fowl family, do you not?"
The boy smiles, and Sherlock recognizes it as the one he himself sees in the mirror: sharp, manic, and unsure of it's intention. "Artemis Fowl the Second. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Sherlock Holmes. Your brother was right about you."
Well, that's irritating, but unsurprising. Of course Mycroft has his eye on the Fowls.
"And what did Mycroft tell you about me?"
"That you were quite brilliant, that you like to call yourself a sociopath even though you're perfectly well aware that what you are is schizoid personality A, and that you both share a weakness for bespoke suits. Of course, I could have found that out myself. London's only consulting detective would be an interesting topic of study."
Oh, the boy's a Fowl all right. Irish criminal masterminds, the lot of them, going all the way back to the Norman conquest. Impeccable sartorial sense, genius running in the family, and only a recent foray into the legal side of moneymaking. No one knew the trigger, but Artemis the First had returned from supposed death in Siberia a few years ago, and had announced the Fowls were going clean. Artemis the Second's last known criminal enterprise had been something to do with a rare lemur, and had been studiously toeing his father's line ever since.
"Is it true that your family created the word for 'butler' out of your manservants?"
"Yes," a voice answers, but it's not Artemis's. It's much deeper, a man's baritone, and Sherlock turns to see an immense man, Eurasian features and completely shaven head, standing off to the side and going through some exquisite Tai Chi katas with a quarterstaff .
Artemis smiles. "This is Butler, the current holder of the title and my personal protector. I am never without him."
"I don't suppose I would be, if I had the B'wa Kell triad after me."
He does so love surprising people, especially people like young master Fowl, who are sorely lacking in humility. However, Artemis is as skilled at hiding his emotions as he is designing criminal enterprises, and so only conveys his surprise by a single raised eyebrow and a marked coolness to his voice.
"They have been dealt with and disbanded. Might I inquire as to how you have discovered the existence of the People?"
Butler looks as if he's gearing up for a fight, and Sherlock really doesn't care to test the man's martial arts skill - if the rumors are true, the Butlers train with Madame Ko, and he's nowhere near that level. He takes a small step backwards, holding out his hands.
"My brother is, in essence, the British government. I know a good deal of what he knows, and I make it my business to investigate anything interesting. And faeries? Really rather fascinating creatures."
"How fascinating?" Artemis asks, the unspoken question being "are you going to pursue this?"
"Not fascinating enough to publish on my blog, if that's what you're worried about."
Artemis visibly relaxes, though anyone watching would take it for the release of energy as he switches from padangusana to trikansana, stretching his body into a lunge and raising one arm. He goes through two more standard bikram yoga poses, and Sherlock notes in irritation that the boy's suit barely creases. It looks as though he's just put it on.
As the boy finishes his exercises, Sherlock looks around, bored. The blonde man in the black hoodie  looks almost as bored - and as homicidal - as Sherlock's feeling, though he himself is significantly less - er, electric. Energy sparks out of him as he paces in a corner, keeping a precise beat with his movements. He's garnering wary looks from most of the occupants of the room, except for the two men playing chess . The bald man winces every time the blonde completes a set of four paces, but his taller companion simply draws his attention back to the match with a flick of his hand.
"Must you be so loud?" the tall man drawls, hands steepled under his chin as he studies the board. "I can hear you, and I'm not even telepathic."
"Erik, leave him be," the bald man murmurs.
They seem to be having a telepathic conversation themselves, and Sherlock would be fascinated if not for the very large snow leopard and his human companion  that have opened the door.
"Has anyone seen-"
"She isn't here, Asriel," the bald man says. "I'm sorry."
"She's supposed to be here. If I'm here, then she must be here," the man insists, voice low and angry.
The bald man says something placatory, and the blonde man mutters to himself as his fingers begin tapping a familiar rhythm, and then the snow leopard talks. It's overwhelmingly interesting, but Artemis has sidled up alongside Sherlock and tugs him downwards to speak softly into his ear.
"You don't want to get involved with that lot, trust me. Not all of the antiheroes here are as well-adjusted as you and I."
"Oh, for pity's sake," sighs Sherlock. "I'm not a hero. And you're a criminal mastermind, so you clearly can't be one."
"I couldn't be here if I weren't. Neither could you."
Sherlock tries to convince himself it's only out of sheer interest in the quarrelling bunch that he doesn't bother to correct Artemis.
1. The girl in the red wig is Agent Sydney Bristow, of Alias.
2: Her tall, black, sparring partner is Special Agent Derek Morgan, of Criminal Minds, who would be interested in Sherlock's profiling skills if he were not otherwise occupied.
3. The girl with her camera is Veronica Mars of the show of the same name.
4. The young man in the impeccable suit is Artemis Fowl the Second, from Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series.
5. The very tall Eurasian bodyguard to Artemis is Domovoi Butler.
6. The agitated blonde man keeping a specific rhythm is the Master of Doctor Who, specifically the version played by John Simm in "The End of Time". That version is the only one of the Masters allowed within the grounds of the Thousand Faces; he sacrificed himself to end the Time War and saved the universe.
7. The men playing chess are Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier of the X-Men film series, both of whom distrust the Master for obvious reasons.
8. The man with the snow leopard is Lord Asriel of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and his daemon, Stelmaria. The woman he is searching for is, of course, Marisa.
Chapter 4: A Door Never Opened
III. A Door Never Opened
He never feels more alone than when he's stuck in a small, enclosed space in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Greg had been walking through the gardens - apparently, even his dream-self needed some relaxation and quiet, after the latest case - and the storm had come out of nowhere. There was an enclosed gazebo a few meters away, and so he'd hurried over to it and picked the lock, rain soaking down his face and into his coat. Freezing kind of rain, the sudden downpour like the ones he remembers from back in Somerset. He bursts into the shelter and slams the door behind him, wiping sweat and water out of his eyes.
The click of a gun safety tells him he's not the only one who had this idea.
"Hands up, please," a woman says , cut-glass RP loud in the little gazebo. He turns around slow, and can only get the vaguest impression of some ridiculously high 80's style stiletto boots with a Browning Hi-Power in her hands. "This may be simply another form of monomyth, but I still don't like being alone with a man who can pick the lock I conjured."
Well-educated, posh, and carries a Browning? He's in trouble, but a very good kind.
"I'm going to reach into my left coat pocket," he says. "Assuming my pet consultant hasn't nicked it again, I'm going to pull out my warrant card. All right?"
He reaches across his chest, slowly, and the luck of the gods is with him, because apparently Sherlock restrains himself from pickpocketing in dreams. He pulls his card out, then steps forward, tossing it at the woman's feet.
She takes an indrawn breath as he steps into the light, gun still trained on him. "Danny?" 
"No, sorry. Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade, Westminster. You can check the card."
There's a click as she switches the safety back off, bending down to pick up his warrant card. She flips it open, and a tiny, exhausted little laugh escapes her before she tucks her gun into the back of her trousers and extends her hand.
"Sorry about that. Should've known, no red braces. Lestrade, now I remember. I read your article on SOPCA - insightful. Surprisingly so. Detective Inspector Alex Drake, Fenchurch."
He remembers hearing about her; the psychologist drawn into her patient's delusions, shot and survived a two-year-coma before her death a few years ago. She's good-looking, for a dead woman. He'll never get over how this place can work, how he can meet people who have been dead, some for centuries, and some who won't be born until he himself is long gone.
She smiles ruefully. "It's all right, I know I'm dead. That's why I'm here, and not where I was before. That's the difference."
"They released your book, you know," he says, sitting on a bench opposite her. "About Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt and what supposedly happened in that coma."
"Oh god," she groans. "It wasn't even edited!"
"That's your concern? Not how ridiculous time-traveling in your head is, but the fact that it might not have been properly grammatical?"
"You've never seen my overreliance on dangling modifiers and semicolons." They laugh, and Alex shakes her head. "You really do look like one of the blokes I met there."
"Decent sort, I hope."
"Wanker. Worshipped Maggie Thatcher, took me to the Blitz and was shagging his secretary. You seem better."
He doesn't know how to respond to that. He's read a little on dream theory and on symbolism, but the idea that there's someone out there who looks like him but isn't him is unnerving. Even if that person is only in someone else's head.
"Hell of a downpour," he says instead, wishing for a pack of cigarettes.
She winces. "Not my favorite terminology right now."
He remembers coming here the first time - how confusing it was, how he just knew what he needed to do, how good it felt just to let the Thousand Faces give him what he most needed (the sympathetic ear of a friendly Jedi Master ), He bets it's been a long time since Alex has had someone just to talk to, no judgments.
"You blame yourself," he says, watching her dark eyes snap to his and her mouth open in a gasp. "You shouldn't. From what I read from your book, neither you nor Tyler would have been better off in your own time."
"How can you know?"
"I've been here a few times, enough to suss out how this place works. You met the girl, right? Told you about the heroism stuff?"
"I- no. No, I didn't. I just woke up in the chair over there."
"Well, that's not right at all." He doesn't know why it's not right, just this bone-deep feeling that the universe has already mistreated Alex enough. "Come on. Rain's stopped. Let's get you sorted, hmm?"
She follows him in spite of herself, walking down the garden paths and stone steps around the corner of the Thousand Faces. There is a young girl with ages-old eyes  waiting to greet new heroes, but it is not Antigone. She is tall and blonde and smiles when she sees them, though she is currently pinning a communicator onto the shirt of a man with some of the coldest blue eyes Greg has seen . The man looks suspicious until the translator kicks in, then a surprisingly warm smile spreads across his face. He glances at the sign on the Thousand Faces (Greg wonders what it says for him), and kisses the girl on the cheek before entering.
"It took him a long time to come back," the girl sighs. "Sometimes people like him don't. Too much blood on their hands."
"You're not Antigone," he says, a bit stupidly, but she smiles and pats his shoulder.
"Antigone and I are sisters-in-arms. We share welcoming duties. I am Eurydice. Now, what can I do for- Oh. Oh, my dear Inspector Drake. Here,"
Alex looks confused, but takes the proffered communicator. She pins it into place. "I don't even like Star Trek - oh, that's better. I can even see you more clearly. Both of you." She blinks at him. "You're not even blonde. You looked so different."
"Will you permit me, Alex?" Eurydice asks. "I must touch you before you are allowed entrance to this place. I cannot fathom why you were simply dropped off in the garden."
"She needed to meet me," Greg replies, because that's as good an explanation as any.
Eurydice shakes her head fondly. "Insufferable man. You're lucky you have a pure heart. I like those the best."
Eurydice approaches Alex, who looks nervous as the girl gets closer. Greg doesn't remember being so anxious during his own initial visit, and he would take her hand, some other comforting gesture, but it's not his place.
The girl considers Alex, a kind smile on her face that fades as Alex is within a breath of her. Eurydice reaches out both hands, resting one on Alex's shoulder and the other on her cheek, stroking slightly. Alex inhales sharply, and Eurydice speaks in a low, soothing voice.
"The temptation of the underworld is a great trial, Alexandra Drake. To walk through its fire is to emerge a hero. I promise you, there will be no more trials for you. You have proven worthy twice over, and He can never touch you again."
Eurydice embraces Alex in a warm hug, and Greg can see the relief in Alex's shoulders. Alex draws back and gasps in shock as she takes in whatever the Thousand Faces looks like to her.
"Oh my god, again?"
He isn't sure what she's referring to until she takes his arm, and lets him see what she sees. It's a pub ; an imposing old Victorian style pub with lamps, painted blue, with a sign atop it that keeps changing names.
"C'mon," he says, tugging her after him. "If it's the same one it was for me, I could murder a pint of bitter right now."
And it is the same pub. There's the friendly Jamaican barman  who kisses Alex on the cheek and claps Greg on the back. At the first table there's the gorgeous copper and her pet psychologist  who talked Greg's ear off about working with a real live high-functioning sociopath last time. Over in the corner is the table of American detectives  working their way through the drink menu and persisting in calling the chips "fries".
One of the detectives - the short one who reminds him of John - whistles at Alex, and his partner swats him good-naturedly with a bar napkin. The older one to their left coughs into his whiskey sour at the sight of her boots and has to be clapped on the back by the tall, dark-haired one. The pair in the corner, though, have eyes only for each other and their low, friendly conversation.
He and Alex sit down at the bar next to an older American detective. He's tall, strong accent, and he's defending his position on baseball to a woman on his right, brown leather jacket hanging off her chair and Yankees cap on her head . Alex orders "the biggest glass of Sauvignon Blanc you've got, Nelson", and Greg gets his pint of bitter.
"I thought I'd already been through this," Alex grouses, into her wine.
He smiles. "Relax, Inspector. We've earned this."
Her smile is brilliant, and it's a good thing, because she hands him his arse at darts.
1. The woman in the boots with the shiny gun is Alex Drake of Ashes to Ashes.
2. "Danny?" and Alex's reference to red braces is from Ashes to Ashes, where Rupert Graves played a Thatcherite Wanker - but not the Thatcherite Wanker - whom Alex perved over.
3. The Jedi Master Lestrade met his first time at the Thousand Faces is Qui-Gon Jinn of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
4. The girl who greets new heroes is Eurydice, of Greek mythology. She is the doomed wife of Orpheus, who could not resist the temptation of the underworld.
5. The man with the cold eyes is Leroy Jethro Gibbs of NCIS.
6. The pub with the blue front and the old Victorian lamps outside is the Railway Arms, of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, which is the entrance to the afterlife.
7. The Jamaican barman is Nelson, of Life on Mars.
8. The copper and psychologist are Carol Jordan and Tony Hill of Wire in the Blood,
9. The table of American detectives are, in order, Danny Williams and Steve McGarrett of Hawaii Five-O, Andy Sipowitz and Bobby Simone of NYPD Blue, and Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler of Law and Order: SVU,
10. The older, accented detective is John Munch of Homicide: Life on the Street and Law and Order: SVU. His baseball-discussing companion is Kate Beckett, of Castle.
Chapter 5: The Form of Limitation
IV. The Form of Limitation
He finds himself in what he has named "The Game Room".
It is a wide, orderly space, with computer terminals, Stratego and chess boards, and enough surveillance equipment to make NORAD jealous. One could, if they were so inclined, run a full-scale war games from here, not that he's ever been tempted. He gets enough of that in the waking world. But some of the others, retired or dead heroes who want to keep their skills sharp, make use of it.
The current game has drawn a crowd. Britain versus America versus a planet he's never even heard of, all superior tech above 2011 null and void. A three-way espionage battle against a coded foe. Mycroft has kept out of it so far, though he does favor his home country - and well, he'd better.
He's the woman's replacement, after all.
"M" is a title with a long history, but there had never been a leader like Barbara Mawsley  at MI6. She's got her hands full, though, with a grim-faced American who runs game-theory like he's a computer himself  and a slight man in all-black, who's staring off into space but is managing to pull ahead in the game .
"M, please remind your agent that civilian casualties will cost you points," the American says calmly.
"Oh, Jack," she responds. "There's a reason I never let you have Bond. He's an excellent weapon, just point and shoot. He leaves the human element to me."
"Then you're fine with him losing you 50 points a casualty?"
"Absolutely not. But I wouldn't be pointing fingers; you're the one who's put your ex-wife into the scenario. Her wild-card ratio is off the sodding map."
"Irina's an excellent asset, and I can predict what she'll do."
Barbara's cough sounds suspiciously like "Panama", but he can't be sure.
The slight man can barely be heard over the discussion, but he cultivates an extremely mild tone. "Wild cards have a higher point threshold, M. My own operative, for instance."
"Only you would have a possible schizophrenic and acknowledged sociopath for an agent, Illyan," Barbara drawls. "I don't deny he gets results, but if either of us capture him, rest assured, we'll have fun seeing what makes him tick."
"Since you don't have fast-penta capabilities, I'm not worried. Unless you have a burning desire to hear Richard III from an actual hunchback, in which case, you're welcome to use my supply."
Mycroft can just barely spot a suppressed laugh from the American. He vaguely remembers him from the last MNE; part of the American delegation, very controlled, very good at game theory (Mycroft doesn't deny it has its uses, but he finds that technology can often be miscalculated). The other man, though, is an absolute enigma. Harmless-looking, but definitely possessing of a keen mind and very few scruples.
The game comes to a stop for an intermission a few minutes later - Illyan's up 250 points, to Jack's 210 and Barbara's 180 (she really needs to keep Bond in line) - and he stands up, extending an arm to his predecessor.
"Tea with an old friend?" he asks.
She smiles, Mona-Lisa vague, and tucks her hand into the crook of his elbow. "Make it a scotch, Mycroft. I'll need it if I'm to lose to Simon Illyan for the third time in a row."
He laughs. "We'll have to get you that scotch, then."
They leave Illyan and Jack discussing negative capability, though Jack seems to be referring to John Keats and Illyan is talking about something called ImpSec . The halls of the Thousand Faces are quiet today, though they do spot a ginger woman with fantastic legs curled up with a book of mysteries by a fireplace , and a dwarf in an excellent suit  playing cards with a blonde man in a trenchcoat, cigarette dangling from his lip  and a dark-haired woman who's drinking them both under the table .
Barbara directs him into a hallway that leads to a broad stone room that looks like a spa. He could kiss her - he's been dying for a sauna and massage for ages, though he's not sure if a dream massage will do his actual body any good.
"Oh, do stop thinking so loudly," she says, stepping behind a screen and grabbing one of the plush robes hanging for their use. "What does it matter if it's just a dream? You need the relaxation as much as I."
Snapping to attention the way he used to when he was one of her lieutenants, he picks out his own robe and sets about removing his suit. An attendant takes his clothing once he's finished, assuring him it will be cleaned and pressed for his later use, and he comes out from behind the screen to find Barbara stretched out on a chaise lounge with a glass of scotch in one hand and a box of cherry cordials in the other.
"You are positively evil," he says, selecting one of the cordials and lying down on a second chaise. "I've been good all week."
"Don't tell me you're still on that rubbish diet? There was nothing wrong with how you looked when I knew you, and there's still nothing wrong with how you look."
"That's a matter of opinion."
"Yes, which you take far too much of from that skinny twit of a brother of yours."
He makes a non-committal noise and lets his head tip back on the lounge chair. It's next to useless debating with Barbara. She'll simply quirk that eyebrow of hers at you and leave you wondering why your head aches.
"I've missed you, you know," she sighs. "I don't recall being too busy to ring my friends when I was at Vauxhall."
"You know precisely how busy I am. And it was a rare day indeed when you rang me up as Barbara, instead of as M."
"Enough to wish I'd poached your assistant. Did you know Bond hacked into her file?"
He opens his eyes to laugh. "He doesn't think Moneypenny's actually her name, does he?"
"I'm afraid he rather does," she giggles. Honestly, giggles, as if she's a girl of twenty.
He imagines Barbara at twenty was even more beautiful, if not more dangerous (in a different way, perhaps) than she is now. They were very different people in their youth; Barbara an operative, a masterpiece of a honey trap to bait and ruin even the most stolid of men. He'd been a paper-pusher, a bean-counter, cog-in-the-wheel persona designed to mask his steel-trap mind and ruthless instincts. And yet they'd both ascended to perhaps the highest position in the country.
"He's a wreck without you around," Mycroft says, despite his better judgment. "I can rein him in, point and shoot as you mentioned, but I don't imagine I could ever utilize his full potential."
Barbara hums almost lazily, but then nods. "I'll keep that in mind. In my time. So long as you remember that not everything can be deduced or accounted for. Wild cards have their uses - just look at your brother."
He takes another cordial and finishes her scotch, just to watch her nose wrinkle in half-annoyance, half-laughter.
1. Barbara Mawsley may be better known as "M" from the latest series of James Bond films, as played by Dame Judi Dench. Her name is novel canon, though I owe the idea of Mycroft Holmes as M to Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
2. The American spymaster is Jack Bristow of Alias (yes, the woman in the red wig's father). His ex-wife is former KGB agent and the poster girl for Heel Face Revolving Door, Irina Derevko.
3. The slight man kicking everyone's butts at war games is Simon Illyan, of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, and his hunchbacked sociopath agent is Miles Vorkosigan. Fast-penta is a truth drug in that universe.
4. Negative capability is a theory of the poet John Keats, in which a person is able to distance themselves from a situation and see all points of view. Someone with negative capability would make a good spy; Irina was an English teacher in her cover, and Simon is described in various books as having the qualities of negative capability.
5. The woman reading by the fire is Laura Roslin of Battlestar Galactica.
6. The well-dressed dwarf is Samson, of Carnivale.
7. The man in the trenchcoat with the nicotine addiction is John Constantine of Hellblazer.
8. The woman drinking her poker buddies under the table is Marion Ravenwood of the Indiana Jones series.
Chapter 6: At the Still Point
Epilogue: At the Still Point
People are drawn to the Thousand Faces at many times in their lives.
For some, it is new-found heroism, coming to terms with strength and bravery they did not know they possessed.
For others, it is a reminder to continue the struggle, to burn brighter and harder and let their light shine for those who cannot.
And yet others arrive at the outlands of the Thousand Faces at the end of their lives, a welcome rest after a long journey home.
The Thousand Faces bids them welcome, and ensures they will always find what they need there. Whether one is living, dead, or somewhere in between, they will never be turned away.
No matter what.