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The Ground Beneath Your Feet

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"You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance brings you pleasure."

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

 

 

November

John was just writing up a prescription for antihypertensives when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket: a text alert. There had been a time when he would have excused himself to glance at the text immediately, but things had been stable lately, so he was able to make himself wait until he had politely shown his patient to the door with instructions to return in a month.

If you are available, I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you tonight. Mycroft Holmes

John couldn’t help smiling, even as the muscles of his neck tensed automatically. Mycroft had come a long way since the days of kidnapping John in black cars and sending him cryptic messages over bank machines, he thought. Even as he reached for it, his phone vibrated again.

There is no cause for concern. Mycroft Holmes

No cause for concern. John took a deep breath and blew it out, forcing himself to relax. Stand down, soldier; Sherlock was not—not in hospital again, not worse, not—no cause for concern.

My turn to pay, right?

Unfortunately. Mycroft Holmes

I’ll see you at the pub at 7 then.

 

Mycroft was already perched at a table when John arrived at the pub, completely out of place in his three-piece suit and gazing meditatively at the food options as though hoping a sole meuniere might magically appear.  John gave him a wave before he went to the bar, where he collected pints for them both and carried them both to the table. “How’s the commonwealth faring?”

Mycroft clinked his glass with John’s—still a bit awkwardly, but he was making progress—and took a dainty sip.  “Trade negotiations with the Chinese. Not my area, thankfully, but a certain amount of soothing ruffled feathers on the part of other parties is involved.”

“Oh.” John considered that, drinking from his own pint. “Do you really like doing this? Or have you just been doing it so long you can’t imagine doing anything else?”

“Hmmm.” Mycroft actually seemed to ponder the question, setting down his glass and steepling his fingers under his chin in a gesture that reminded John piercingly of his brother. “The rather more salient point is that no one else could do it as well.”

“Yeah, but…” John realized that this line of conversation was going to take them into dangerously choppy waters. “Do you enjoy it?”

Mycroft gave him his usual flat thin line of a smile. “Of course I do.”

“Well then.” John took a long drink of his beer. “Hungry?”

They ate without hurry, half watching the telly over the bar, John grinning at Mycroft’s dry commentary on the news. John knew there was no rushing Mycroft; he would get around to the purpose for this meeting in his own good time.

 Mycroft finally pushed away his plate (completely clean, despite his usual complaints) and said, “Sherlock has expressed a desire to meet with you.”

John looked up immediately, hope flaring wildly in his chest. He had been waiting for this so long that he had almost forgotten he was waiting, that his state of suspended animation was not meant to be permanent. “Here? He’s in London?”

“No. He is still in Yorkshire.  I believe it will be some time still before he is able to return to London. I’m afraid you will have to go to him, but I can arrange for a car and driver—“

“No, that’s—that’s not necessary. I can take the train to Harrogate; I looked at the timetables before, and there’s a bus to the village.”

Mycroft nodded. “There is a tea shop. Sherlock has now managed to venture into the village and take tea on two occasions, and is sufficiently confident of his equanimity to request that you meet him there.”

“Okay.” John could not stop smiling; even as he tried to focus on the details his mind was soaring joyfully, he wants to see me, he wants to see me. “I can go Saturday if that works—I’m supposed to be at the care centre this weekend but I can get someone to cover, they all owe me—“

“John,” Mycroft said seriously. “Please bear in mind. Sherlock has come a very long way, but he is not back to normal, if such a term has any meaning where my brother is concerned.”

“I know.” That did sober John, a little, but he could still feel the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “But it’s progress. And progress is good, isn’t it?”

And then Mycroft smiled, his real smile that was almost as rare as Sherlock’s, the one that crinkled his eyes and nose. “It is.”

 

“Let me get this straight,” Sarah said. “You’re doing what?”

“I’ll go up Friday night on the train and spend the night in Harrogate, then take the bus out to the village Saturday, then take the bus back in the afternoon in time to catch the last train back. So I can still do Sunday, it’s just Saturday I need covered.”

“No, I’ll do it, no problem, I could do the whole weekend if you want. It’s just—you’re travelling three hours north just to have tea?”

Not counting the bus. “No,” John said. “I’m travelling three hours to have tea with Sherlock Homes.”

 

“This must feel very momentous to you,” Ella said. “When was the last time you saw him?”

“At the hospital in Germany.” John swallowed, forced himself to hold her gaze. He did not want to think about Germany, about Sherlock, unrecognizable, skeletal fingers clutching at his shorn scalp. “Four, five months ago now.”

Ella’s eyebrows went up. “Has he been in hospital all this time?”

“No, just the first month or so—seven or eight weeks counting Germany, I suppose. He’s been taking some time off, recovering.”

“So how are you feeling about seeing him again?”

“Pleased.” John felt the smile again, the bubble of happiness tugging at his heart like a balloon. “A little worried. You know. I want it to go well, I want Sherlock to be doing well. Whatever he needs, I want to give it to him.”

“Hmmm.” Ella scribbled something on her pad and looked back up at him. “When he left, last winter, you had some conflicted feelings about the situation. Do you think we need to talk about any of that?”

Last winter seemed a thousand years ago to John, a lifetime away. “No,” he answered. “I’ve sorted all that now.”

 

January

10 months earlier

“It’s just that he’s gone off again, on some other bloody exciting adventure, and at least this time I know he’s not dead, but he doesn’t answer calls or emails or texts and—I know he did it for me, for my marriage, but maybe—he made that choice for me, do you understand? And maybe I would have made, I don’t know, a different…”

“John,” Ella interrupted gently.

“Yeah?”

“When you came in today, you told me that you wanted to work on resolving your anger toward your wife. That you wanted to be able to move past your feelings of betrayal and mistrust before your child was born.”

“That’s what I want to do, right.”

“You haven’t mentioned your wife in the last half hour.”

John blinked. Hadn’t he? The whole situation was so intertwined, Sherlock and Mary and Magnussen—but of course Ella didn’t know that, she couldn’t know that. John had told her only that Mary had lied about her past.

“If you feel that this issue with Sherlock…”

“No,” John said quickly, straightening in his seat. “You’re right. I want to talk about Mary. I want to get on with forgiving her.”

 

He was successful, for the most part. It helped that Mary was obviously trying very, very hard herself, and that on a day-by-day basis, she was still the person he had fallen in love with. If he no longer felt quite the same way… well, she had lied to him and shot his best friend; surely it was natural that he was no longer in love in the way that he had been. But that was normal for couples, wasn’t it? They were adults. They were going to be parents. Marriage was work, everyone said so, and John Watson was determined to make his succeed.

It was easier, too, than it had been whilst Sherlock was still at home, his injury a visible reminder of what Mary had done. Maybe it was for the best that he’d managed to swing this Eastern Europe lark instead of prison—well, obviously it was for the best, but better for John too. Six months, he’d said. By the time he came back the baby would be, what, five months old? Sleeping through the night, hopefully, and maybe John could meet up with Sherlock regularly, like other blokes had snooker. It made things easier, having that to look forward to.

 

The baby was born on a frigid day at the end of January. Mary had been having intermittent contractions for days, but she’d been to the midwife the day before and was told her cervix was still closed. “I’m nearly a week overdue already,” she groaned to John that night. “I’m going to just keep carrying on with no bloody progress and I’ll have to have an induction which won’t work and I’ll end up with a Caesarian and then I’ll have a scar and great bloody hemorrhoids.”

“As long as you’re both okay,” John said, which got him a glare so he beat a quick tactical retreat. “Horlicks?”

As it turned out, Mary was wrong. When John woke up in the morning her side of the bed was already deserted.  “You okay?” he called at the door of the bathroom.

“I’m in the bath,” Mary shouted back. “I woke up because my back was hurting, so I got in the bath, and now the contractions are getting more regular. Battle dress, Captain.”

No induction and no Caesarian—John knew better than to ask about the hemorrhoids—and that afternoon John, ridiculously sweaty and exhausted for having done nothing more strenuous all day than have his fingers squeezed off, was handed a red-faced, squalling bundle with an astonishing shock of silver blonde hair. “Oh my God,” he said in amazement. “I’m a dad. Will you look at her, she’s beautiful…she looks like you, she looks like my mum, she looks…”

“She looks like a prawn,” Mary said, levering herself up to beam at their furious daughter. “And she’s got your temper, that’s certain. Hand her over and let’s give this nursing thing a go.”

John called Harry and the clinic, feeling a twinge of sadness at the smallness of their family; his parents were dead and Mary’s were as good as, although Harry sounded keen to jump into her new role as aunty. He called all their friends—well, Mary’s friends really—next, and dutifully passed on their squealed congratulations and promises of visits. Then he called Mrs. Hudson and Molly (more squealing, demands for pictures) and Lestrade, who skipped the squealing and told him he’d stand him a drink. A nurse had come in to check Mary, so he stepped out into the corridor and impulsively rang a number he had never thought he would call.

“John.” Mycroft’s voice came impassively over the phone.

“Mycroft, hey. Listen, I haven’t been able to get in touch with Sherlock since he left—I assume he’s undercover and not, ah, ignoring me, ha ha, so I was hoping—our daughter was born today, Emmeline, six pounds fourteen ounces, and I thought, maybe, if you’re in touch with Sherlock, you could pass that along?”

The silence that followed was so complete that John took the phone away from his ear and checked the screen to be sure he hadn’t been disconnected.

“Hello? Mycroft?”

“I am not in communication with Sherlock at present.” Mycroft’s voice was clipped and icy in a way John had never heard; he realized with a prickle of unease that he sounded the way Sherlock did when he was very, very angry. “I am sure he would be delighted to hear of your news, but I am afraid I cannot say the same for myself. I do wish you every happiness. Congratulations.

And he hung up.

John was so taken aback that for a moment he could only stand there and stare at the phone in his hand. What the hell had that been about? Mycroft had always been exquisitely courteous to John—more so than Sherlock, truth be told. And what had he meant about…

“Sir?” The nurse was leaning out the door, beckoning. “We’re ready for you to come back in now. Your wife would like you to have the honor of the first diaper.”

“Ta for that,” John said, pocketing his phone, but the prickle of unease did not go away.

 

The uneasy feeling lingered, although he pushed it to the back of his mind until several hours later when he found himself kicked out.

“Go home and get a good night’s sleep, and bring me some decent coffee in the morning,” Mary told him. “And take a shower. How did you get so sweaty anyway? It’s not as though you were doing anything.”

“Sympathy labor,” John said. He kissed her cheek, avoiding the swat Mary aimed at his arse, and blew a kiss at the tightly wrapped bundle that was his sleeping daughter. “Okay, decent coffee, any other requests?”

“Something good. A great buttery pastry,” Mary said dreamily, and John felt a sudden twist of his heart—Sherlock, Sherlock had always loved pastries, his sweet tooth was the stuff of legend. The uneasiness returned full force. “See you tomorrow, love.”

In the lift John took out his phone, turning it over as he considered his options. He was too keyed up to sleep anytime soon anyway, and now he felt as though he would be unable to rest until he understood what had Mycroft’s knickers in such a twist. The lift doors opened and he stepped out, still frowning down at his phone. If he rang, Mycroft would likely just ignore him, but if he texted…everyone read their texts, didn’t they? Even if they didn’t answer.

Could I talk to you? Please?

John looked at the time on his phone, gave it three minutes, and wandered over to peer through the darkened windows of the gift shop. No answer.

I don’t know what’s going on, but I have the feeling there’s something Sherlock didn’t tell me, AGAIN. I really want to know what’s happening.

Three minutes. Nothing. John started moving toward the doors and the taxi stand, texting as he went.

Okay. I’m going to the Diogenes Club. I’m guessing they can reach you.

The vision of himself striding through the Diogenes Club shouting “MYCROFT HOLMES!” at the top of his lungs was so grimly satisfying—wait until I tell Sherlock, he caught himself thinking, and his heart gave that twist again—that he was almost disappointed when his phone buzzed before he could even tuck it back into his pocket.

Stay where you are. A car is on the way. Mycroft Holmes

 

Mycroft turned out to be not at the Diogenes Club or even his weird subterranean office but at home, which astonished John. He hadn’t thought Mycroft had one. An immaculately dressed and silent man—did Mycroft seriously have a butler?—took John’s coat, led him to an elegantly paneled study, and wordlessly withdrew.

John looked around, curious in spite of himself. He had vaguely expected some sort of high-tech command center out of a Bond film, but the study was surprisingly cozy given its size, with a pair of armchairs drawn up before a crackling fire. Mycroft had just risen to his feet from one of them.

“John.” Mycroft gestured to the other armchair, his voice betraying no hint of the anger that had laced it earlier. “Please. Sit down.” He reached for a decanter that stood on a low table and poured John two fingers of whisky.  “I apologize for my unseemly behavior earlier. My sincere felicitations.” He raised his own glass in a toast to John and John, somewhat taken aback, raised his in return.  “If I may.” He offered John a small, elegantly wrapped parcel.

John, now completely disconcerted, took the package and set down his drink to open it. The box contained an elegant silver rattle, already monogrammed. With his daughter’s initials. Which he and Mary had finally decided only an hour earlier. How the hell…

“John, what did Sherlock tell you about his assignment?”

John blinked, feeling more wrong-footed than ever, and set the box down on the floor. He took a sip of whisky and tried to focus. “He…said he was doing a job for you. Said it would take about six months. He made it sound like the sort of thing he did before, you know, when he was dead. Larking about playing secret agent.”

“Mmmm.” Mycroft looked pensively into the fire. “Did Sherlock ever tell you that he was captured whilst he was ‘playing secret agent’?”

John blinked. “No.” They had never really talked about what Sherlock had got up to whilst he’d been away. Sherlock had dropped a few casual asides here and there, but certainly nothing about being captured, and John hadn’t asked. At first he’d been too resentful and later...it just never seemed to come up.

“Twice.” Mycroft was still looking into the fire. “The second time I had to extract him. There were some permanent sequelae, though no functional damage.” He took a sip of his drink. “Hardly a lark,” he added, almost absently.

Permanent sequelae? John remembered, almost unwillingly, the marks he’d seen on Sherlock’s back last autumn, when he’d been recovering from the gunshot wound that almost killed him. They’d been fading though, and Sherlock seemed to regard a certain amount of rough-and-tumble as part of the game. Captured?

“I…” John swallowed, feeling the weight of resentment he’d carried so long—diminished but not gone altogether—growing heavier as it morphed into guilt. “I never asked him.”

Mycroft’s mouth twisted slightly at the corner, not a smile, but John had the odd feeling that his admission had somehow redeemed him slightly in Mycroft’s eyes. He sat back, exhaled, and looked directly at John. “Sherlock has disappeared.”

“Disappeared? What? From where? Can’t you, I don’t know, track him somehow?” Mycroft had known his daughter’s initials apparently before John did, how could he lose his own brother?

“It’s not as though he’s microchipped,” Mycroft said, a little irritably. “And I’m not omniscient, in spite of what Sherlock would have you believe.”

Missing. Shit. John’s mind was spinning, his initial impulse—to demand Mycroft get him a helicopter and a gun and send him to the last place Sherlock had been seen—warring with all of the other events of this day: his responsibilities, his wife, his child. Missing. Sherlock could not be missing. He was supposed to be swanning about somewhere with his great swirly coat, dispatching baddies with dramatic savoir-faire, turning up back up glowing with his own cleverness so John could be enviously, resentfully admiring. Not captured, not hurt, and God no not missing.

John took a long, long drink of his whisky and then a second, efficiently draining it, and Mycroft wordlessly refilled it. John took another sip, then he drew a deep breath and set the glass down decisively.  “All right. Tell me.”

Mycroft looked at him pityingly. ”John. Your ineptitude at dissembling is the reason you were not apprised of Sherlock’s presence among the living previously. Please be assured that I regard this as a marker of your integrity and not as a—“

“Okay, black out whatever you think might be a state secret, I don’t care about the details. I just want to know what’s going on.”

“The situation is an extremely sensitive—“

“Oh, come on, Mycroft, if someone wanted to interrogate me about what Sherlock’s been up to—besides the tabloids—don’t you think they’d already have done?”

Mycroft regarded John with narrowed eyes, but John had had plenty of practice at dealing with Mycroft’s stare-off technique over the years. He stared back, utterly implacable. Mycroft finally broke, twisting his mouth again, and took another sip of his drink.

“There is a nation in the Caucasus, valuable both for its strategic position and for its natural resources. Please do not trouble yourself with the name; it would be better for everyone if you never knew it. The current regime consists of a Russian-backed government, extremely authoritarian, with very limited support among the general population. Resistance is centered around the largest opposition party, which is strongly Western-leaning, and the country’s sizeable Muslim majority. This group has traditionally been highly secular but in recent years has seen the rise of more radical and fundamentalist influences.”

“Okay,” John said, who thought he was following the essentials although he wasn’t entirely clear where the Caucasus was. Near Ukraine?

“The situation is highly volatile and elections loom later this year. There are three possible outcomes. First, the current regime retains power, oppressing the citizenry and violating their human rights but maintaining stability in the region. Second, the Western-friendly party takes power, although it would necessitate forming a coalition government, likely with the Muslims, who are less well organized. I should mention that our allies who are providing support for this mission are most favorably disposed to this outcome, but the possibility of retaliatory Russian military action should not be taken lightly. Third, the Muslims take power, introducing the possibility of a fundamentalist Islamic state on the threshold of Europe. Our allies are not favorably disposed to this outcome.”

“Wait a minute,” John said. “Let me get this straight. You sent Sherlock off to Eastern Europe to micromanage your revolution?”

“Or to prevent it. As I said, the situation is highly volatile, and not all outcomes of regime change are considered desirable.”

“How the hell did you expect him to carry this off?”

“His cover identity…” Mycroft hesitated in a way that made John think he was editing his words for more sensitive information not to be entrusted to hopelessly honest John Watson “…remained intact from a previous operation in another part of Eastern Europe. The one from which I was forced to extract him, as it happens. That event would actually have enhanced his credibility in this situation.”

“Okay,” John said, still trying to get his head around all this. “So he went to this country, undercover—can I call it Dalmatia?”

Mycroft looked pained. “Dalmatia is not in the Caucasus.”

“Exactly.” Actually John had thought it was, but so much the better if Mycroft believed he was capable of that much subterfuge at least. “And then what? Were you in contact with him?”

“There was a handler in Georgia. We had contacts in the opposition party, as well, and we know he initially made contact and things seemed to be going according to plan, but then eleven days ago he simply vanished.  We don’t know what actions he had been planning at the time and our contacts have no information.”

“Didn’t you have some kind of emergency back-up plan in place?”

“Impossible.”

“You can’t seriously—“

“John.” Mycroft’s voice was steely, the coldness John had heard earlier back in it now. “Sherlock knew that there was no possibility of intervention in this case. We calculated the likelihood of his survival at around thirty percent. He murdered a man in cold blood, a man who had, as you may recall, committed no actual crime—he could hardly be expected to be allowed to remain free in order to, as you put it, lark about.

John flushed, now feeling ashamed and angry at himself at his own willful ignorance.  “That was the deal? He puts his life at risk so you and, what, the Americans can get the government you want in some little country I probably can’t find on a map?”

“He put his life at risk to avoid spending the rest of his life in prison.”

“And if he survives? What then? Do you keep sending him someplace else until he doesn’t come back?”

“Of course not.” Mycroft was back to smooth now, his bland voice giving nothing away. “Give me some credit as a negotiator. If he achieved a successful outcome, he would be pardoned—that was the official agreement.”

“And what was the unofficial agreement.”

Mycroft’s eyebrows went up, which gave John a tiny measure of bitter satisfaction.  “That if he took the job, I would continue to exert my considerable influence to ensure that you suffered no adverse effects from your poor choice of spouse.  Which was his reason for committing this crime in the first place, if you recall.”

“No.” John shook his head adamantly. “He wanted to protect us, yeah, but that wasn’t the whole reason—he hates to lose, you know he hated Magnussen, he just couldn’t bear to let that smug bastard—“

“You really believe that?” Mycroft’s voice had hardened again. “Really?”

John flung up his hands. “Of course I do. It wasn’t just for me, it couldn’t have been. Sherlock would never put himself at risk like that for someone, not even me, he doesn’t care about people like that. You were always telling him not to, weren’t you?”

Mycroft stared at him a long, long moment. “Are you truly so blind.”

John stared back. He found himself at a loss for words, all the things he had thought so certain suddenly crumbling beneath him.

“Of course I warned him. You were never going to return his feelings, even he could see it.” Mycroft’s face was impassive, but his voice was coldly disdainful. “All my brother’s gifts, his brilliant mind, his heart. All thrown away so that you can have your happy little family with your beloved and no doubt deserving wife. Sherlock viewed that as a worthy bargain. You will forgive me if I do not.”

John let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding and put his head into his hands. He understood, distantly, that he had just been insulted, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. His mind was spinning. His whole life shifted, the realization that it was built on a lie, again—but this time he was the one who had lied to himself. All this time the signs had been there, and he had never let himself see. Sherlock’s machinations, his lies and deceptions and shamming and tricks, had been born not of manipulation but of self-protection, because he couldn’t bear for John to know the truth. John saw Sherlock on the tarmac, on the roof of Bart’s, in the railway carriage. Saw the naked vulnerability that Sherlock always swiftly covered. Saw the moment that he turned away from John and knelt on the cold stone of Appledore in a gesture not of maximum drama, as John had assumed, but in the purest act of selfless love John would ever know. 

John became aware of his own harsh breathing and thought longingly of his unfinished drink, but he had to clear his head and start trying to make sense of all this. He sat up slowly and looked over at Mycroft. “I’m sorry,” he said, hearing the roughness of his own voice. He swallowed noisily. “For when I phoned earlier. I didn’t…I’m sorry.”

Mycroft nodded distantly. He no longer appeared angry. Upright in his three-piece suit, Mycroft appeared impeccable as ever, but for the first time he looked as drained as John felt himself. He did not look at John. “He’s almost certainly dead,” Mycroft said, very softly.

John flinched. “No.” He reached out and gripped Mycroft’s hand, startling both of them. “No. He is absolutely not dead. He’s Sherlock Holmes, for one thing, and for another, I’m not believing it until I see a body. Not this time.”

That got a startled half-laugh from Mycroft, who glanced up at John’s face and almost, almost smiled. His eyes crinkled in a way that John had never seen before and that almost broke his heart, the ghost of Sherlock’s rare, real smile almost visible for an instant. “Well.” He straightened briskly, pulling his hand gently from John’s. “I hope you are correct, if for no other reason than the amount of histrionics we shall enjoy if he returns and finds that we have formed an alliance in his absence.”

 

November

 

John had checked the train schedule and realized he’d probably need to leave directly from work on Friday, so Thursday night he pulled out his small bag to get himself packed. It didn’t take long; he was only staying overnight, after all. He went into the bathroom to collect his shaving kit and shampoo and then, on impulse, he opened the door to Sherlock’s room.

The room was just as John remembered: dim, a little musty, its immaculate order in stark contrast to the cheerful disarray of the rest of the flat. He had come in here when he first moved back to Baker Street months ago, trying to catch some sense of Sherlock’s presence—a memory, a fading scent, something—but he might as well have stood at Sherlock’s empty grave again. Now, though…it seemed to him as though the air did not feel quite so stale as he remembered; the room did not have that feeling of being shut up and un-lived-in, somehow. Perhaps Mrs. Hudson had aired it out recently, or maybe it was just John’s renewed sense of optimism.

“Yoo hoo! John?”

“Back here,” John said, closing the door behind him as he went out. Mrs. Hudson was in the lounge, peering down at his small case with dismay.

“You’ve already packed! I thought you weren’t leaving until tomorrow night?”

“I’m not, but I’m to go to the station from work—might not make the train else. So I’ll take my bag along with me tomorrow.”

“But I was going to send some baking! You’ll come by in the morning on your way out, won’t you? I’ll have it all ready for you, and a bit of a treat for you to have on the train too.”

“Of course,” John said, smiling, and Mrs. Hudson patted his arm and fluttered off. He glanced up the stairs, wondering whether or not to take his phone charger; no, he would charge it overnight tonight, it should be fine for a day and a half. It wasn’t as though he called anyone much these days anyway. He’d use the time on the train to catch up on his journals, he thought virtuously, not play games.

John was up early, unable to fall back asleep once the thought tomorrow, tomorrow I’m going to see him popped into his head. He collected his things and tapped on Mrs. Hudson’s door: no answer. She must be at Speedy’s; he would pop round for a coffee and a bacon sandwich. 

Mrs. Hudson had a sort of unofficial job as baker at Speedy’s, at least during the periods that her on-again, off-again relationship with the owner was in an “on” phase. John ducked inside and nodded at the handful of regulars he recognized: a couple of pensioners, the thin girl with a nose ring always scowling down at her laptop, the bloke in the green jacket who leisurely read the papers. Green Jacket and one of the pensioners nodded back. John collected his sandwich and coffee and Vijay behind the counter said, “Mrs. Hudson says for you to wait just a tick—you can go on back if you want.”

“Thanks, I’ll wait here,” John said. The kitchen was a little mad in the mornings. He had just time to eat half his sandwich when Mrs. Hudson bustled out carrying a takeaway box and a paper bag.

“There you are, dear, his two favorites, and some for you to have on the train. Oh…” Mrs. Hudson clasped her hands under her chin, beaming at John. “I’m so happy, you can’t imagine. We’ve waited a long time for this, haven’t we?”

John couldn’t help smiling back. He felt as though he’d been grinning all week, as obvious as a boy with his first crush, and the more he tried to rein in his excitement the more transparent he felt. “Yes, we have,” he answered. “A very long time.”