Heidelberg Castle loomed over the old city horizon, while the city lights shone like a sea of jewels in the River Neckar. Flurries blanketed the city with soft, white powder. All in all, it was picturesque for a view out of the cab window.
Mycroft drummed his fingers impatiently before checking his wristwatch. He rapped firmly twice against the partition and asked, "Wie lange noch?"
"10 Minuten, 20 Minuten," the cabbie replied cavalierly.
"Why not another 30 bloody minutes?" Mycroft muttered to himself. In the rear-view window, he caught glimpse of the driver's somewhat bemused expression.
He checked the time again. He was going to miss his rendezvous at this rate. This wouldn't be an issue if his flight into Frankfurt hadn't been delayed for almost two hours. But to be honest, Mycroft Holmes' troubles began long before that.
Mycroft was a problem solver. It was his job, his calling— his life's work from the moment he laid eyes on the squalling bundle in his mother's arms more than thirty years ago. Just because the aforementioned bundle grew up into an uncontrollable force that ultimately self-destructed in a startlingly public manner didn't mean his work had ended.
But given the note slipped under his flat's door three nights ago, his Sherlock-shaped troubles weren't entirely a thing of the past.
Meet at midnight by my grave.
The crinkled note, now half-torn and subsequently mended with tape, sat at the bottom of his coat pocket. Mycroft didn't reach for it as he approached his brother's grave. The ground itself squished with every step he took, and specks of mud splattered over the toes of his wingtips. The tip of his brolly sunk into the grass when he finally stopped in front of the headstone and folded both hands over the solid handle.
His brother was dead, he told himself.
Yet Mycroft had studied the note over and over again since he first found it. The cramped and spidery scrawl was Sherlock's— or a virtually perfect imitation of his handwriting. The note was recently penned in a heavy black ink, and its content too specific to be something left over from when Sherlock was alive. Or so that was what the person who sent the note wanted Mycroft to believe.
Sherlock was and had always been alive since the incident on Bart's rooftop over six months ago. Whether or not that was the truth mattered little, Mycroft would not forgive.
At the stroke of midnight, his mobile gave three cheerful beeps— the end came so abruptly that it seemed like the night had swallowed up the noise. Yet the sound of approaching footsteps from behind him calmed his nerves. He rearranged his grip on his brolly, listening to the familiar footfall of a supposedly dead man. The other man came to a stop just a foot behind him. Mycroft whipped his mobile out and shone the screen's light upon the newcomer.
Sherlock squinted against the sudden brightness— alive, but looking more gaunt than he had in years. "Mycroft, I need you to go to Germany."
Something burned in the pit of Mycroft's gut. He quelled it and gave his brother one of those insincere smiles guaranteed to infuriate him. "Manners, Sherlock," he reprimanded. But the name tasted like ash on his tongue.
He came away from the brief reunion with a location, a time, and little else in the way of an explanation. Only later in the privacy of his flat did it occur to him that he could have said "no."
Down the street from Bismarckplatz, Mycroft thrust a handful of euros at the driver without counting. The Christmas market at the plaza was in full swing, decked out lights and wreaths. More than a few stalls had sound systems playing Christmas carols. Mycroft bobbed and weaved through the crowd of holiday shoppers.
"Verzeihung," he said whenever his briefcase bumped up against anyone. It was impossible not to with the throngs of Christmas shoppers.
The meeting place Sherlock had provided was in the dead center of the square. It was also where the food stalls were located, making it the busiest portion of the market. He paused a way back to survey his surroundings. Sherlock had not given a name to match a face to. He only obtusely replied that Mycroft would know as soon as he saw her.
Sherlock's secrecy never boded well for Mycroft.
He almost missed her on his initial sweep— the only familiar face in the crowd. With a cup of cider in each hand, Molly Hooper smiled apologetically at the couple she'd just squeezed between. She scanned the shoppers, and the content of one cup sloshed dangerously when she rotated her wrist to check her watch.
He made sure to approach her from an angle where she could see him coming. "Miss Hooper." He nodded politely when he stopped before her.
"Oh, Mister Holmes!" She squeaked over a stuttered breath and wide eyes. "What a coincidence! Uh, are you here on holiday too? Germany's quite lovely this time of the year."
He smiled, and her rambling stopped dead in its tracks as her eyes darted back over the crowd. Mycroft could almost see her little rabbit heart racing, threatening to break out of her ribcage in its frantic rhythm. She was not whom he expected— so small, so nervous, so out of place. He'd expected Irene Adler maybe, but never Molly Hooper in a million years.
(He should have put her on surveillance in addition to John Watson.)
(Sherlock should have come to him first.)
Mycroft cleared his throat. "I was sent by our mutual friend. He can't make it and asked me to send his regrets."
Then she said something unexpected as her eyes narrowed with suspicion, "Prove it then."
How like Sherlock to not to follow through on his hare-brained schemes. The least he could have done was inform his partner of his absence. He certainly hadn't left Mycroft any instructions or proof to verify he was telling the truth. Except there was the note.
Mycroft fished the page out of his briefcase and offered it to Molly. She reluctantly traded one of her cups for the note. The warmth bleeding through the Styrofoam cup was a welcome relief to Mycroft's uncovered hands.
As she studied the note, he explained, "He sent that to me a few days ago, and asked me to come meet his friend in his place."
"So that's where he ran off to," she mumbled darkly to herself. She then glanced up at him from between her bangs, nodded, and handed the piece of paper back to him. "Okay, we should get going then. Otherwise, we're going to be late."
Only then did he notice her hair piled stylishly on top of her head and the high heels adorning her pantyhosed feet.
"The party, of course."
Molly fiddled with the GPS device, waiting for Mycroft buckle his seatbelt in the passenger's seat. She tried not to stare— Jesus, Sherlock's older brother of all people. She knew she hadn't imagined Mycroft's disapproval, which felt stronger now in the cramped privacy of her rental car. Sure, he had smiled, but it was in that too British and too polite manner of keeping up appearances in public. The night was going to be nerve-wracking enough without Mycroft hanging over her.
No, she needed the short drive to get into character. She was Molly Smith on her way to the Christmas party of a wealthy financier, in hopes of wooing him into becoming a major donor to her charity. It didn't matter whether Sherlock or Mycroft accompanied her. Their host had yet to meet her plus one.
Molly glared at the dashboard. But Sherlock could have at least given her a heads up! First, he disappeared without a word for three days, only to send her a text about where to meet him just hours ago. Except it wasn't Sherlock at all, but his older brother who barely knew she existed. They were going to have a long talk about transparency when she next saw him.
And she really hoped Sherlock was alright wherever he was.
"What exactly is our goal tonight?" Mycroft asked in that plummy voice of his. On another man, it might have made him sound eternally constipated. But it worked for Mycroft in only a vaguely annoyingly superior way.
Molly let out a breath and shifted the car into drive. At least they could talk more freely here— she and Sherlock swept the car for bugs at least once every two days. Six months of working on and off with Sherlock had instilled a proper sense of paranoia in Molly about things like this. "Didn't he tell you?"
"Not as such. He only requested my presence here."
Now there was a phenomenon Molly was all too familiar with. She’d arrived in Heidelberg last week after Sherlock had sent her a sudden and vague request to meet him in Germany. Being the idiot she was, she'd immediately cashed in the last of her PTOs while citing family emergency, and left on the first Eurostar out of London. "You came anyway."
"Of course," he replied as if it was the only possible response.
Molly took a deep breath before she began her explanation. "We're going to Adelbert Gruner's Christmas party. He's a banker based out of Frankfurt. A few months ago, Sherlock found evidence that he was working for Moriarty when he was still alive. We think Gruner may have been laundering money for Moriarty's organization, and he may still be doing it. If we can get his records, Sherlock can use them to track down others that worked for Moriarty too."
"And you suspect those records can be found at his residence."
"That's what we're hoping. Sherlock couldn't find anything in his office or his Frankfurt home, so he's sure it'll be at the house here in Heidelberg."
"I see." The headlights of an oncoming car briefly illuminated the deep frown on Mycroft's face. But he quickly turned his head to gaze out the passenger's window.
Molly wanted to say more, but she wasn't sure what there was left to say. Maybe apologize for lying? Or make some excuse for Sherlock? There was no telling how much Mycroft actually knew about the entire situation. Knowing Sherlock though, he probably didn't explain as much as he should have. Before she could say anything more, Mycroft had his Blackberry out and was tapping out some message on his tiny keyboard. Molly took that to be a signal that he would like to be left alone.
They drove in silence for the next fifteen minutes. Mycroft spent most of that time reading whatever long messages he received on his mobile. Several times, she was tempted to switch the car radio to a random station— just so there was some kind of noise. But she wasn't sure Mycroft would appreciate it. She focused on the road in front of her instead, and soon she could make out the roof of Gruner's second home peeking over the horizon.
Gruner's house was one of the many villas situated on Schloß-Wolfsbrunnenweg, which was prime Heidelberg real estate overlooking the ruins of the castle (1). She slowed the car to a halt as they approached the gatehouse. There, a heavily bundled man ambled out of the shelter and asked to see her invitation. She apologized and leaned over to pop open the glove compartment— all too self-conscious of how she was practically sitting in Mycroft’s lap.
The guardsman barely glanced at the invitation before he shuffled back into the gatehouse, opened the gates, and waved them in. The driveway forked after that, one way leading around the back of the villa that had become an impromptu parking lot and the other circled around to the front of the house. Valets met them at the end and offered to park her car. Molly reluctantly handed over the keys and let them.
She shivered upon stepping outside and buried her chin into the scarf wrapped around her neck. She turned to face the massive lawn covered in pristine snow on the hill below. It must be beautiful here when everything was in bloom. From below, she could catch strains of conversations and music of a party in progress.
Breathe, she told herself, breathe. She rolled her shoulders back and straightened her posture. She had to believe she could do this, because Sherlock was counting on her help. She twirled around and started up the small flight of stone steps that led to the front door. But as she took the second step, she wobbled briefly on her heels. She nearly jumped out of her skin when Mycroft lightly cupped her elbow and steadied her. How did she not hear him approach?
"Thanks," she muttered. Her face flushed with embarrassment, and she hoped he would write it off as rosiness from the cold.
"Careful." Mycroft smiled, but his lips remained stiff with formality. The distance he had imposed between them made her doubt its sincerity though.
At the top of the stairs, someone opened the door for them and she gratefully hurried inside the warm house. Gruner had turned one of the rooms off the main entryway into a coat check. Mycroft quickly shed his outerwear to reveal a formal suit in charcoal gray. After stripping off her gloves and scarf, Molly quickly busied herself with the many buttons on her long peacoat. As she got up to the top button, she hesitated.
"Allow me help you with that," Mycroft politely offered.
With some trepidation, she turned her back to him and felt his nimble fingers brush against the back of her neck. He grasped the collar and peeled the wool coat gently off her back. A chill crept in, leaving a trail of goosebumps down her one exposed shoulder and arm. The black silk was gathered up to form a strap over her left shoulder, while the rest of the fabric draped down over the rest of her arm like a faux sleeve. The hem of the dress fell high on her thighs and hugged her body in a way that the salesperson had assured her would flatter the curve of her buttocks.
She felt the other man's eyes scan her up and down. Her stupid thoughts traveled backwards to the last Christmas party at 221B and Sherlock's thoughtless comments. She faced him, and the need to justify herself suddenly multiplied by a thousandfold. She tightened her grip on her sequined clutch and flashed a nervous smile. "I know the dress doesn't really suit me. But Sherlock told me to aim for something out of my comfort zone."
It was the sort of dress worn by more daring and stylish women, not by plain old Molly Hooper.
The chatter kept pouring out her mouth like a faulty tap. "Not to mention out of my price range." She discreetly flashed the price tag that was still attached to the one shoulder strap before tucking it back inside the dress. God willing, she'd be able to return the dress to the department store and get a full refund. Staying in Germany without any advance booking had already taken a huge bite out of her savings.
Mycroft handed both of their coats to the attendant and slipped the token into his pocket. He opened his mouth to say something, but he was quickly interrupted.
"Ah, Ms. Molly! Welcome! Welcome! I am so happy you could make it. Please come in." The towering form of Adelbert Gruner, a man in his mid-forties already sporting a head full of salt and pepper hair, came into the hallway from another room. He was wearing a crimson smoking jacket that reminded Molly of the father character from old 70's telly.
"Hallo, Adelbert. Good evening." Molly grinned as the pieces of her character slotted into place. She placed her left hand into his larger ones, which he lifted to his mouth and planted a dry kiss on her fingers. It was only then that she remembered the wedding band around her ring finger.
She stood frozen to her spot as Gruner moved in to shake Mycroft's hand and said, "And this must be your husband. It's so good to finally meet you."
Stupid! So stupid! She mentally berated herself. How could she have forgotten to tell him about his part in her pre-established cover story? She stared helplessly at the two men.
But Mycroft responded without hesitating. "Good evening, Herr Gruner. The pleasure is entirely mine. Molly has told me much about you. Thank you for having us in your lovely home."
Gruner laughed. "Please call me Adelbert. I apologize, but I did not catch your name."
"Please call me Michael."
A shiver ran down Molly's spine. All the rigid lines of his posture melted away in the blink of an eye. Mycroft almost sounded like an entirely different person from before, nothing but genuine warmth and affability. But Sherlock was much the same whenever he played a character or needed something from someone.
"Excellent, come, the party is downstairs." Gruner marched toward the stairs visible at the end of the hallway.
At the top of the steps, Mycroft offered his arm to her. "Shall we, my dear?"
She forced a smile to match the one that didn't quite reach his eyes and gently placed a hand on the crook of his elbow.
The party was already in full swing. The attendees were the usual sort: banal and predictable. There was very little to worry about in terms of security personnel, and none of the wait staff was security incognito. Mycroft surveyed the room in one long sweeping look, noting the many possible exit points. God willing, they’d walk right back out the door they came through at the end of the night.
Gruner excused himself immediately, but he pointed them in the direction of the open bar before leaving.
"Would you like a drink?" he asked Molly, who jumped slightly at his question. "It might help to calm the nerves."
She shook her head vigorously. "No, no, I'm fine."
He shot a pointed look down at her hands, where she was fidgeting with the ring on her finger. She pulled her hands apart and dropped them to her sides. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about... that.. If this is too awkward for you, I understand. I can easily handle this on my own. We can make an excuse for your absence."
Mycroft might detest legwork, but this was hardly his first time in the field. He would be lying if he said there wasn't a small and vindictive part that wanted to leave Sherlock to sort out his own mess. But he had already come this far, Sherlock had asked for his help, and Mummy would be mortified if she found out later. He swallowed back his scorn and replied, "Don't worry. It's hardly an inconvenience and the development was hardly a surprise to me."
"You knew this was going to happen?"
She may have forgotten to mention the most crucial fact, but it had been obvious to him from the moment they first got into the car. "You spent a fair amount of the drive fiddling with your glove— the one on your right hand. It doesn't fit like how you remember. And though I couldn't see it, I was confident it was because of the ring underneath. You've worn it long enough to mostly forget about it, but you can't help play with it during moments of self-consciousness. Its placement confirmed that I would be your husband, rather than fiance. That was a deliberate choice on our mutual friend's part to help you appear less suspicious when you first approached Gruner."
She clapped her hands together with glee. "Of course you knew. Sherlock said you were the one to teach him deductions." Though she didn't verbally compliment him, her eyes glowed with admiration.
Some bit of pride swelled in his chest. Sometimes, that seemed like a fact that Sherlock was intent on forgetting unless he wanted to challenge Mycroft to a game of Deduction. Despite his better senses, he found himself curious about what else his brother had told this woman. He knew for a fact that Sherlock never even mentioned his family to acquaintances; probably because he preferred to pretend he had sprung already fully-formed like a demented Athena. Still, Molly Hooper was more than a mere acquaintance if she was doing this for Mycroft's brother. Perhaps another one of those "friends" Sherlock was so previously intent on collecting.
He offered an arm to her, saying, "We should mingle for a while, establish our presence before going after our objective."
Her smile faltered for no more than a second as she laid an awkward hand on him again. Mycroft led them in a circuit around the room. Many of the other party-goers were people in Gruner's line of work: bankers and other financial tycoon types. They also approached Mycroft first if they were inclined to initiate contact. Molly stood firmly at his side, playing the part of the pretty wife who smiled politely but said little. While Mycroft was more than comfortable conversing about the current strength of the Euro and the EU's latest legislation to overhaul banking on the continent, he couldn't say the same for Molly. They wanted to be remembered as having been at the party and walked that thin line between memorable enough and too memorable.
Gruner, along with another man and woman, found them as they detached themselves from the fourth group of bankers. Mycroft tensed. The man was an art dealer and the woman a professor. All three made a beeline straight for Molly.
"Molly, Michael, I would like you to meet some friends of mine. Mister Goldschmidt is an art dealer friend of mine from Brussels, and Professor Brunstein is a literature professor at the University of Heidelberg. They were both eager to talk to you." Gruner jovially introduced in English. But as he turned back to his friends, he switched back to German, "Allow me to introduce Miss Molly Smith, she works for that non-profit I told you both about a few days ago. The man next to her is her husband, Mister Michael."
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Missus Smith." The professor gave them a reserved smile.
The art dealer, on the other hand, launched into rapid-fire German. "Yes, yes! It's rare to find an Englishman who can appreciate German Romanticism. The English are often unwilling to embrace the full spirit of the movement, that much is evident from the continued popularity of William Turner's works."
Molly rapidly blinked several times as she tried to process what the man was saying. But Mycroft wasn't sure how she could possibly respond to a language she didn't know. He opened his mouth to speak on her behalf, but stopped when she laid a gentle yet firm hand on his forearm. The warmth of her fingers seared through the sleeve.
"I can't speak for my fellow Englishmen, but I personally prefer Caspar David Friedrich. The stillness and contemplative nature of his art has no equal among English painters." The first words that rolled off her tongue in German were tentative, but they gained strength and conviction with each syllable. She practically spoke like a native.
It was an unexpected but pleasant development. Perhaps Sherlock had thought his choice of accomplice through.
The art dealer gave a deep guffaw, causing his body and the wine in his glass to shake. "Very good, Missus Smith. You are indeed a woman of discriminating taste."
"You're too kind." Molly nodded demurely as Gruner beamed and lorded over them like some benevolent deity.
"I assure you that I'm a man of discriminating taste," Mycroft added as he placed one hand over hers, falling into his role as the doting husband.
Molly kept glancing at the time, wondering when Mycroft would bore of playing his part. Sherlock would have long abandoned her by this point. But Mycroft remained attentive and affectionate— fetching her food and drinks, while subtly supplying her with answers when she blanked on a word in German.
They continued socializing after Gruner, then Professor Brunstein, and finally Mister Goldschmidt wandered off. She was even having fun, enjoying a Bethmännchen when Mycroft took command of her elbow and directed her attention to Gruner’s ruddy complexion. Together, they slipped away without the guests noticing.
"You speak German?" Mycroft asked.
Molly's cheeks heated up. "My grandmum was German and she used to speak it to me as a child. I also studied it when I was in uni. Was I that bad?"
"No, you were adequate." Mycroft furrowed his brows together.
Molly's heart sunk. Oh bother, he was trying to be nice about her atrocious accent. She shook her head and turned her attention back to the long hallway before them. All the doors in the wood-paneled hall looked exactly alike, but she remembered Sherlock's precise instructions: down the hall from the right coming up the stairs, a left at the end of the corridor, then the second door from the last on the right.
"And you studied art history as well?" Mycroft followed close on her heel.
"Oh no, Sherlock gave me a primer, said I needed it to play the part convincingly." Not since her days at university did Molly have to memorize so much new information in such a short period of time. Give her an exam on human anatomy any day!
Dear Lord, Mycroft Holmes was a difficult man to get a read on. Molly had known that even before she knew he was Sherlock's brother— back when they stood over the disfigured corpse of one Irene Adler one early Christmas morning. Since then, the very little that Sherlock had told her about his brother did little to prepare her for the genuine article. Earlier, she almost swore that he approved of her performance. But doubt dogged her with each interrogating question that he asked.
"Here!" She grasped the doorknob and turned. It resisted. She jiggled it again, but the door refused to budge. "Bollocks, it's locked."
Mycroft's gaze drilled into the back of her head.
"Just give me a moment," she fumbled with her clutch and dug out her lockpick set. She gave a small cry of victory when she had all five pins picked in under a minute. With a twist of the torsion wrench, the heavy oak door sprang open just as footsteps began heading in their direction.
Mycroft took her elbow, pulled her into the study, and closed the door with a quiet snick. They held their breaths as the person came closer and closer, before suddenly turning on their heels short of the study door and stomping away.
"Oh thank god," Molly muttered to herself. She dropped Mycroft's arm like a sack of potatoes when she realized she had been squeezing it like he was a lifeline.
Inserting some distance between them, she sat down at the seat in front of the computer and booted up the machine. When it asked for a password, she entered the same one that Gruner used on his Frankfurt computer. It went through as Sherlock had anticipated, transitioning to a desktop showing the image of Heidelberg Castle.
She moused straight over to the My Documents directory, where she found multiple folders. With no clue as to exactly where the information was stored, she began checking folder by folder from top to bottom. This was the part they always glossed over in the movies— the heroes always found the files they were searching for right away. As time passed, Molly grew more and more nervous.
What if Gruner noticed they were missing and sent people to find them? What would happen if they got caught red-handed? Most importantly, how much danger would Sherlock be in if that happened?
Molly gave a start. She had forgotten about Mycroft, who had crossed the room at one point to stand behind her.
"I don't know," she worried her lower lip. "We might have to copy all of it."
But the thumb drive she brought with her was only 16 gigabytes. Would that be enough room?
"That will take too long," Mycroft said as he leaned over her shoulder. He raised one firm hand and pointed to the monitor, "There, the folder named 'magpie'."
The first sign that they had found the right directory was the list of spreadsheets that popped up on screen. She opened the first document only to have her hopes dashed. "It's gibberish!"
Mycroft said nothing, but his disappointment was a palpable weight pressed down on her bare shoulders. With a sigh, she directed the cursor toward the x in the corner.
"It's encoded," Mycroft laid a hand over hers on top of the mouse. The sudden shock of his touch stopped her short of closing the spreadsheet.
She watched as his eyes flickered back and forth across the screen. The look on his face was not far from Sherlock's when he saw examining a corpse.
"How do you know that?"
"It's a basic transformation— the numbers correspond to characters counting backwards from the end of the alphabet minus 9 and vice versa. The first row states that 30000 euros was wired from Hugo Oberstein to John Clay three days ago. Gruner probably thinks himself very clever for coming up with it."
"You got all that from a glance?" Then Molly shook her head at herself. Of course that was all he needed.
He pulled away. "Copy the entire folder. We should return to the party before someone notices we're missing."
The files copied over to the USB drive in less than five minutes. Triumphant, she shut down the computer and locked the door behind them as they exited.
Gruner accosted them as soon as they returned to the party room. Mycroft felt Molly's grip on his forearm tighten ever so slightly. He squeezed her hand to reassure her.
Their infiltration has been flawless thus far. There was no reason for Gruner to be suspicious. He wasn't nearly as bright as he thought he was.
"What were you two lovebirds doing? Something naughty I hope."
Looking at her face, Mycroft couldn't help himself and burst into laughter. Her expression was so scandalous, and it slowly morphed into a scowl and an endearing wrinkle of her nose. He composed himself before speaking to Gruner, "No, Molly wasn't feeling well so we went outside for some fresh air."
"Hmm, she does seem a touch flushed. Would you like to lie down somewhere?"
Mycroft cut her off. "She's had a long week with all the fundraising. I told her to take it easy, but she insisted on coming to your party tonight. Now that she has over-exerted herself," he gave her a gentle but chastising look for emphasis. "I'm going to insist that we return to the hotel and rest."
"But My—" she protested.
He pressed a finger to her lips and hushed her. "Now, you promised, remember? I'm not going to let you wiggle out of this like you usually do."
Gruner laughed. "Little is more important than your health, Miss Molly. Go and rest. We'll talk another time about contributing to the foundation."
She nodded to Gruner. "Good night then. I look forward to hearing from you soon."
On their way out of the room, they exchanged goodbyes with Goldschmidt and Dr. Brunstein as they passed. They retrieved their coats, and Mycroft helped her back into it. They stood silently in the atrium, side by side and fingers still linked, as the valet braved the frosty cold outside to retrieve their car.
But when they passed through the front door, Mycroft dropped her hand. As they descended the steps to the driveway, he put more and more distance between them. The charade was over and done with.
The interior was already heated up when he climbed into the passenger's side. He watched as she clumsily slipped three euros to the valet.
He began mentally counting down when she finally got in.
She didn't speak until they drove past the villa's front gate. "We didn't have to leave in such a rush."
He fixed his gaze on the road, where a thin layer of snow had built up. "We accomplished our goal. There's no reason to linger afterwards. God willing, I'll find my way back to London by morning."
"I see..." Though she kept staring at the road, the muscle in her neck twitched and tensed as her arms locked over the steering wheel.
He sighed. She was frustratingly easy to read. "Miss Hooper—"
Her fist tightened around the steering wheel. "Molly, it's Molly." She looked him in the eye as she corrected him, but the moment quickly passed.
"Molly, it's not personal."
"Of course, it is. You can't wait to be finally rid of me," she muttered, but he heard her loud and clear over the quiet hum of the car heater. "Is there something about me that repels you Holmes boys?"
The question was meant to be rhetorical. Her face twisted in its reflection as soon as the words left her mouth.
Mycroft grimaced too— he hated to state the obvious. "Sherlock trusts you. You would not be in your unenviable position otherwise."
She cast a skeptical look out of the corner of her eyes. "Only because he needed my help."
Mycroft shifted in his seat and glanced out the window for a few seconds. "Miss— Molly, while you are a competent enough doctor, I employ doctors of similar, if not greater, skill and resources. Still Sherlock chose to entrust you with his secret."
Silence reigned for several beats, leading him to believe she would drop the subject.
She surprised him moments later by saying, "I'm sorry, I hadn't even thought about how this must all make you feel."
Mycroft blinked owlishly. His “feelings” weren’t relevant to the situation. "Why? I had always suspected so, now I have confirmation."
From now on, he would work twice as hard to compensate for Sherlock's self-defeating strategy.
"Doesn't mean it hurts any less."
He averted his gaze and set to finding the fastest way home. He had her drop him off at the hotel that Anthea had booked in case. Mycroft fully intended to get out of the car and walk into the lobby without saying anything further.
Sherlock trusted her; that would be enough for now.
He stood on the curb, grasping at his suitcase and words. "I know you'll take good care of Sherlock. If you should ever need help, do not hesitate to contact me."
She nodded with determination lighting her eyes, and the vice grip around his heart eased.
"Merry Christmas, Mycroft."
"Merry Christmas to you, Molly."
"Miss. Miss!" The receptionist called from behind the front desk.
Molly paused in the middle of the hotel lobby and the man three steps behind her nearly ran into her back. She apologized in hasty Italian and looked over to the front desk again. With one finger pointed at her face, she mouthed, "Me?"
"Yes, room 211, yes?" he called.
She nodded slowly as she approached. "That's my room."
He reached under the counter and pulled out a large, rectangular box. "For you," he waved his hand with a flourish after pushing it across the tabletop.
Molly tensed. She stared at the box as if it was a bomb that might go off at any moment. Had someone found her? Had someone found out about Sherlock?
"Who is it from?"
He checked a sheet of paper before replying, "It says here that it was sent by a Mister Michael Smith."
She took the box under her arm and bolted toward the elevator. The weight was light, and the content inside didn't shift as she ran. She didn't stop until she was back inside her room, leaning against the door and trying to catch her breath. She dropped the box on the full bed and began paced back and forth across the foot of it.
She left Heidelberg two days after the party at Gruner's house, making her way south into Italy to rendezvous with Sherlock. She and Mycroft had not seen or communicated in any way since she dropped him off at the Kulturbrauerei Hotel. How had he known to find her here?
What did he want with her? Unless it wasn't Mycroft at all.
She steeled herself and approached the box. The ridiculous part of her was relieved not to hear any ticking from inside. The cover slid off and Molly peeled back the layers of delicate tissue paper to reveal the dress she had returned yesterday. She pulled it out of the box and watched as the length of soft silk unfurled.
The price tag had been sniped.
Underneath the dress lied a crisp cream-colored card that read:
You're wrong. The dress suits you perfectly.
There was no time to contemplate the whys and hows of Mycroft's gift. Her latest burner phone chirped. Sherlock was texting her.
Time to get to work.