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The room was humid and close; his black shirt clung uncomfortably under his arms, and was liberally covered in pale lint that reeked of the feverish gleam of new cars and showroom floors. Sherlock lifted his chin to eye the spaces where the walls joined into a slumping cavern of decay and inhaled the must and the soupy heat of a damp, enclosed space with high, broad, filmy windows. There was a roaring in his ears, but aside from the rush of his own blood, he could discern no other sounds. Closing his eyes, he tried to train his admittedly limited hearing outside the building, but whatever they’d given him made his lips numb—his scalp seemed oddly tender, too—and his hearing was… compromised, apparently.

Head injury? Possible, but not likely. His vision was fine, but he had no memory of being brought here. In fact, he had no idea how he’d been drugged. Perhaps he’d fainted from low blood sugar and been happened upon by some random citizen with an unmarked van and a bit of warehouse space.

If there were cameras, and Sherlock supposed there could be, they would be trained upon a man in a simple, sturdy dining chair, each wrist secured to each chair-arm with three zip ties tight enough to press into the flesh just under his shirt-cuffs, but not designed to cut off circulation. He could flex his fingers easily, but the ties were secure. With a tensile strength of 8 kg a piece and no leverage to speak of, he was effectively shackled, even with sweat-slick skin and sufficient motivation to pull free. His legs had not been bound, and that was something.

Casting his mind back, Sherlock found that his last coherent memory involved flossing his teeth before climbing into bed after a tiresome evening spent feinting with Mycroft over several matters beneath his attention. John was at his new position for The Howard Foundation (and what, precisely, had that position been, Sherlock wondered?). Mycroft had promised Sherlock that he would offer one Harriet Watson a three month stay in a rather well thought of Swedish clinic should John merely say the word. An interesting proposition, and one that Mycroft had assured him had no strings attached.

“Whether you consent to any future service for your country or no, my offer to John stands.”

“And why not tell him yourself? You’re so fond of plucking him from the street into that car of yours. It is his sister, after all.”

“I thought you might prefer to make John’s options available to him.”

“Surely you have realized that your offer will grant you no leverage in any case.”

“Dr. Watson’s loyalty is naturally not in question.”

“Then why make the offer at all?”

“Her work performance has been suffering of late. A little get away at a judicious time could salvage her career, to say nothing of improving her overall health.”

“So, this is merely from the goodness of your heart.”

“Perhaps. As one brother to another. One who knows the inherent difficulty in dealing with a self-destructive sibling.”

Narrowing his eyes, Sherlock bit down on a reflexive retort and studied his brother. After a moment, he blinked.

Mycroft did not smile.

“My sincerity of purpose surprises you.”

Sherlock said nothing.

Leaning forward in his chair, Mycroft rested his fingertips on his own rather bony knees and said, “He did think you were dead.”

Pressing his lips together, Sherlock focused his glare on Mycroft’s right eye, with some idle hope of fusing the retina with the sheer invisible heat of the hatred raging in his heart.

“I rather feel I owe him a debt. He has done his level best to keep you from your own excesses, and as he is a proud man, I cannot make my thanks known to him with traditional gifts.”

“Those gifts being money and influence.”

“If you think he’d be amenable to a silver tea service or an engraved plaque, I should like to hear your suggestions.”

“Would the tea service be a wedding present? She does seem fond of silver. I haven’t actually seen her yet, but he met her while I was… away, and I thought I could see your hand in it.”

“Touché, brother. Originally, I had two candidates in mind, but in the end I went with her. Her name is Mary Morstan. Blonde, as you no doubt know, a year younger than he. Not overly tall, extremely competent, steady, and kind. She even has a history of service. Three years with Doctors Without Borders as a gynecologist very interested in obstetrics and women’s health concerns. An activist of sorts, distributing sex education and barrier protection to every teenager she comes across. Your opposite in every particular. Does that surprise you? That he should run so far from your shadow that he very nearly ended up in his own arms?”

“He didn’t surprise you, I see.”

“Well, where you and I have never particularly discussed John until now, he and I have had a number of confabs about you. That he loves you has always been clear. That he was effectively ruined without you was… troubling. So I helped him cope.”

“Cloned her in a vat somewhere, did you?” Sherlock said nastily. Perhaps Sarah had been Mark One.

“Don’t be vulgar. I merely set her in his path with the help of a promising job offer. Even I can’t create chemistry. He doesn’t love her, of course. But he is very fond of her. And it’s early days, but if she should get another job offer, taking her abroad, there is a chance she’ll say no. Or even that he’ll go with her.”

There was something horribly close to pity in Mycroft’s expression, but Sherlock only closed his eyes to it and recited the periodic table to himself until Mycroft wearied of Sherlock’s pointed silence, and saw himself out.

Then Sherlock had woken here.

Perhaps whoever had abducted him had poisoned his dental floss? If nothing else, the novelty entertained.

*

He hadn’t been awake ten minutes before he heard someone scuff along a hallway outside the rusted door he happened to be facing. At 30C°, sound travels at 349 metres a second. Not particularly relevant to his situation, but grounding, nonetheless. He tensed, ready to press up on his toes and rock the chair to one side in anticipation of attack, and the door clanged open to reveal John and Lestrade crouched in the hall. Seeing the room empty, John stood up and threw a hand out to bar Lestrade from crossing the threshold.

Sherlock approved. John was waiting for a signal, and Sherlock wriggled his fingers to disguise his relief.

“I can’t see that the room’s been boobytrapped, and they didn’t bother to gag me, so they must have called and let you know where to find me.”

“They did,” Lestrade agreed, holstering his gun.

“You’re still wearing the wig,” Sherlock pointed out, as John knelt to nick through the ties with his pocket-knife. From his vantage point, Sherlock could see the extraordinary red of the hair as it disappeared into the nearly invisible weave of the skull cap. The gene for red hair corresponds with melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R). “You'll lose your billet.”

“There is something very wrong with you,” John muttered.

“So I’ve been told.”

After freeing his hands, John tilted Sherlock’s head back and peered into his eyes.

“Pupils seem to be reacting normally. Did they hit you?” He ran his fingers through Sherlock’s hair and prodded gently at the back of his neck. Sherlock's skin was damp with sweat, but John had never been squeamish. "Well, no blood, no contusions that I can see. Did they just tuck a bag over your head and stow you in a boot, then?”

“It seems likely.” They must have yanked at his hair when they’d retrieved the bag; it showed a generous concern for his ability to breathe, if none of John’s regard for his tender scalp.

“You know who did it,” Sherlock accused. He could see it in the slant of John’s mouth.

“I have my suspicions. I’ve no doubt you’ll have deduced it all by the time we’re at Baker Street.”

“And you know, too!” Feeling rather betrayed, he saw Lestrade attempt to trade his smile for a regretful look.

“Well, you weren’t hurt, were you?”

“I was drugged, I assume. Some new variant of Clonazepam. And kidnapping is generally ill thought of by policemen, last I knew.”

“Yeah, well, extenuating circumstances and all that.”

“Let’s get you home, shall we? You’re free to complain as long as you like on the way.”

Scowling, Sherlock stalked out the door and collated his data.

By the time they’d reached the street, he had deduced his captor.

It hadn’t been the dental floss, after all.  The rain-damp banknote, of course – not rain at all, but painted with clear, scentless liquid, absorbed through the skin.

*

The knock at the door was fast and light, but persistent. The bell remained broken because Sherlock had found that Mrs. Hudson was efficient at screening callers in her own way – the more tearful they were, the more tea she gave them, and her sympathetic interest was often the visitor’s true goal: a simple wish to tell their tale of woe. The knocking continued, and Mrs. Hudson being out, Sherlock roused himself to answer it.  

An undersized 16-year-old girl in jeans and a hoodie, Pakistani parentage, probably born in Romford, accompanied by a boy of 19 or 20, Italian, immigrated in his early teens, tall, heavily bearded, gay—

And they weren’t there for him.

“Dr. Watson?” The boy’s hair was mashed flat from the rain, but he wore a slicker, and driving gloves.

“It’s not him,” the girl muttered, folding her arms. The boy swallowed hard, and glanced around the street as if expecting John to materialize behind him.

“John isn’t in. You might try him at the surgery, but he’s likely on his way back.” For a moment, he considered suggesting that they wait. The girl didn’t look pregnant, and her friend was Catholic and a virgin besides, so an STD panic seemed improbable at least. But whatever it was seemed likely to be tedious.

The boy seemed anxious and the girl sullen, so Sherlock began to close the door.  As he did, the girl jabbed the boy with her elbow.

“I’m Paolo,” he burst out. “And. And this is Tabitha. We. We owe him some money, yeah, and so. Could you see he gets it?”

Sherlock held out his hand, and the boy proffered two damp £20 notes, laying them across Sherlock’s palm like they might burst into flames at any moment. Noting an unusual scent, almost familiar, Sherlock held the notes to his nose and sniffed deeply, nostrils flaring.

Hmm.  Flame retardant, industrial, used in car upholstery and carpeting.

Then he was enclosed in swooning darkness.

*

After Lestrade dropped them off, sparing a sympathetic glance for John, of all people, John elbowed Sherlock amiably and finally remembered to pry the wig from his head.

Rubbing his scalp briskly so that his hair stood up in soft, sweaty spikes, he observed, “Worked it out, did you?”

“Your little Tabitha and her friend Paolo. He drives a van. Carpet delivery and installation. A clever way to smuggle a body. Is he in on the trafficking, then? Yes, obviously,” he decided. “But under duress.”

“Yes, Mycroft thinks he was the one who tipped about it.”

“I know who did it, but oddly, why has not yet become apparent. And how did you know they’d kidnap me?”

“I imagine she actually did you a favor, tucking you away when she did. The Foundation tossed our place looking for that genomic map, you know. Paolo was worried they'd kill you, and Tabitha didn't think you'd believe them without me to vouch for her. And let us not forget that this whole bloody thing was your idea.”

“Mm.”

“Yes, ‘mm’. Let’s infiltrate a mad eugenics cult, John, it’ll be wicked!”

“You did agree to the wig,” Sherlock reminded.

“Oh, shut it.”

*

Sherlock held out a wig. From a distance it looked like half a skinned cat, but up close John could see the quality: it was genuine human hair, un-dyed, red as a Donegal sunset and fine work, but he automatically shook his head.

“Nope. No. I’m rubbish at undercover.”

“Oh for god’s sakes, you’ll be exactly who you are, look,” said Sherlock, brandishing a fat manila envelope. “Mycroft has provided you papers: Hamish Wilson, ex-army doctor, if it even comes up. My informant tells me there was barely an interview, let alone a need for a CV.”

“Why can’t you do it? You’re the Olivier of the household.”

“Notoriety,” Sherlock responded dismissively. “I’ve been in the papers far too recently, but you, your face is quite…” There was an unusual pause and Sherlock seemed unable to settle on a proper term. “Forgettable,” he pronounced at last. “Average coloring, average build, a pleasant bloke you’d have a pint with and think nothing of.”

“Yes. That’s. Lovely. Flattery will get you everywhere, Sherlock.”

After a moment’s gritting of the teeth at the unexpected sting of Sherlock’s assessment, John took the wig with a sigh. His hair was long enough now that he’d need to mash it down beneath one of those nasty little caps before he could tuck this monstrosity over his head.

“Don’t be absurd, John. You’re my secret weapon. Anyone who’s never met you would think you quite harmless, and we both know that isn’t true. As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify."

“This is you trying your hand at actual flattery, then.” John frowned at him. “Maybe you’ll get better with practice.”

Sherlock looked annoyed. John counted it as victory enough, saluted with his wig and headed for the loo to don it properly.

Tucking up his hair, John wondered just how horrified Mary would be if he met her next still wearing the thing. He himself had always been partial to gingers; his first real girlfriend’s hair had been red as a stove filament’s glow. And she’d had freckles. Everywhere.

Mary was freckled, now that he thought of it. Along the lines of her shoulders, the bridge of her nose, under her light makeup. All that time in the sun, the two of them very used to the dappled light of a medical tent.

Mary.

*

“You could meet her. You could come to dinner. She’s… she’s lovely, Sherlock. I honestly think that you, even you, will genuinely like her.”

Strangely, Sherlock had little doubt he would. The thought made him tired.

“No, John. Perhaps it would be best if. You kept us apart, some little while longer. After all, I’m hardly a real person at all to her – only stories you’ve told her, overlain with the tat the papers spread. Let us settle this case, and at the end of it, I will treat you both to a meal at Noma and I can meet her properly.” On neutral ground, Sherlock decided.

“Noma. But. Isn’t that in. Denmark?”

“I have come into some money, just recently, and I have some business there. Surely you’ve reached the minibreak stage of your relationship? A man with a rather fine little hotel there owes me a favor.”

Although he wasn’t quite smiling, John’s eyes were soft when he said, “That’s really. Overwhelmingly kind of you, Sherlock. I don’t suppose I could suggest a local establishment instead? I mean, I can hardly introduce you as a ‘real person’ when the first thing you do is fly her off to another nation for a bite and sup. Mycroft is forever building up The Fat Duck. Doesn’t anyone there owe you a favor?”

Sherlock studied John’s kind, rumpled face.

“The chief sommelier was once accused of serving a perfectly serviceable Beaujolais Nouveau from a doctored bottle that had been presented as a 1978 Montrachet... Perhaps you’re right. Consider it done.”

John’s relief had been plain. Sherlock’s inexplicable spike of anxiety had been... new. And decidedly unpleasant.

***

“All right, I’m ginger. Care to tell me why?”

“We had a visitor this morning.  A young person in my employ--”

“One of your homeless network?”

Sherlock curled his lip minutely and continued, “--brought me some news. I’d directed Jabez to attend a job interview.”

John found it rather difficult to see Sherlock steering his ragged army into traditional careers, but perhaps he was trying to balance a karmic debt of some kind. Jabez seemed a likely lad – underfed, could use a wash, but he was sharp and reliable.

Sherlock handed John the envelope and unfolded the day’s paper with unnecessary pomp and began to read.

“On behalf of E. Hopkins, The Ira Howard Foundation wishes to interview red-haired males, sound in body and mind, ages 18-50. Handsome compensation shall be provided to each applicant for purely nominal services. The chosen candidate shall be assigned a yearly sum to be disclosed upon recruitment. Apply in person, Mondays 10 AM to 2 PM, Duncan Ross Building, 4th floor, 7 Pope's Court, Fleet Street."

“Well. That’s. Clearly a steaming load.  Imaginative, though, I’ll give them that.”  

“It is rather marvelous. It positively reeks of criminal intent. But for what purpose I could hardly determine without reconnaissance, and so I selected Jabez for the task.  He’s red as carrots.”

And that explained that.

“What did he suss out, then?”

“Very little. He counted nearly eighty applicants, all with some brand of red hair, all primped for their interviews. He said most were turned away out of hand with barely a look. Jabez made it to the first room and met with one William Morris, Solicitor, apparently the executor of a rich man’s will. If Mr. Morris is to be believed, Mr. E. Hopkins cherished his fellow red-headed brethren so that his dying wish was to bring assistance to that exclusive club in the form of life-long stipends to any man who already had or wished to have a large brood of red-haired children.”

“Eccentric maybe, but hardly illegal.”

“That remains to be seen. Science, John,” Sherlock said a strangely drawn out way. His eyes locked with John’s and he leaned forward in his seat, his voice low and wheedling. “And as a medical man, a man of science yourself, you certainly understand the importance of collecting data.”  

“Quite,” John said dryly. “Care to tell me when you obtained these for me?” He indicated the contents of the envelope, now spread upon the table: birth cert, photoshopped passport, credit cards. He wondered what Dr. Wilson’s credit limit was.

“I spoke with Mycroft when I saw the advertisement. It may be connected to a small matter he’s has been asking me to look into. When Jabez returned with his intelligence, such as it was, I knew I’d need an inside man.”

“But if Jabez, an actual redhead, didn’t get in, what makes you think I will?”

“Your eminent employability and natural charm. That and your really very excellent wig. I think you’ll fit their profile exactly.” He glanced at his watch. “If you leave now, you should just make the cut-off.” He vaulted out of his chair and tugged his suit jacket on. “I have business of my own to conduct.”

Giving the license a skeptical glance—his hair had been tinted in the photo, naturally—John sighed.

“If they rob my kidneys for the black market, I’ll never let you hear the end of it.”

“I assure you, John. The Foundation has no interest whatsoever in your kidneys,” Sherlock said crisply.

***

As Theresa Merryweather had both a reputable fortune and a storied wit, Sherlock had allowed himself the small hope that she would not only prove to be of a criminal bent, but a worthy adversary.

He noted with some regret that the wear of her heels proved her to be merely a duped philanthropist. Beyond that, the line of her smart jacket dissuaded him from even a cursory review of her tax records. Depressing.

“Ms. Merryweather, I am so glad I could catch you.”

“You did make an appointment with my man,” Merryweather said dryly. “How may I help you, Mr… Von Kramm, was it?”

Clearly, she was trying to remember where she’d seen him before. Sherlock had been off-hand about why John was needed as the “inside man”, but Sherlock had not been wrong about his own memorability; he would need to employ some genuine disguise for his next interaction with a suspect.

“Yes. I am here on behalf of my father. He’s interested in establishing a legacy. His business has prospered in recent years, and he is looking for a fellow progressive to help him do something constructive. Form a charitable society, something of that sort. I was referred to you by a William Morris?”

“Oh, Morris. He and I are raising the money to build an orphanage in Brighton. Of course, they’re not called ‘orphanages’ these days, and in general, institutions are brutal places for children, particularly infants. They need eye contact, you see, physical contact, stimulation! Places like that are always overburdened and underfunded, and the children in them are prone to developmental delays. This home will have a very nearly one-to-one caregiver ratio, and lovely grounds for them to romp in. It’s quite near the seaside. Clean air and sunlight.”

“I see.  And do you have many investors?”

“At the mo it’s only me and Morris, on behalf of the Howard Foundation. I’m sure he’d be amenable to another partner. Are children a particular concern of yours, Mr. Holmes?” She dimpled at him suddenly, her round, brown little face alight with good humor. “I imagine that with all your dodging about you don’t have much time for a family of your own.”

“You recognized me when I came in,” Sherlock sighed.

“I did, yes, and I am happy to meet you. Although I suspect I won’t be when you tell me why you’re really here.”

“I fear that your orphanage has a very shaky Foundation.”

“Well, shit,” Merryweather said, clearly dismayed. It was unusual to hear a woman in her sixties with pearls round her neck say such a thing, but Sherlock plowed on.

“In fact, there is some suspicion that it may be a front for some sort of cult activity.” This was true enough in its fashion. “Morris and his league have specific plans for the space.”

“Jesus, really?” Merryweather dropped into her desk chair and covered her mouth. “Like stockpiling weapons, that sort of thing? I like to think we’d have found out about this somehow—my lawyers are a pack of bulldogs, the lot of them—but if you hadn’t... You’re saying I might have inadvertently helped finance it?”

“We haven’t yet collected enough evidence to arrest anyone, which is why I’d like your help.  Could you arrange for a tour of the grounds to be made?”

“Of course, but why?  The building hasn’t even begun yet!”

“I have a theory.”

***

As reported, the Fleet street offices were thronged with gingers. A spotty fellow in his late twenties, his hair every bit as red as John’s wig, was dismissing the sandies and the strawberry blonds outright. When he spied John, he crossed the room grinning. “That’s the thing,” he said, approaching to clap John’s shoulder and shake his hand. “You go to the head of the line. Morris will see you. Tell him Spaulding’s sent you.” He checked his watch and waved his hands at the rest of the crowd. “It’s on two now, so please come back next Monday, if you’ve a mind to.”

*

Morris, an older, owl-eyed gent, did see him, and seemed just as pleased to make his acquaintance as Spaulding.

The initial interview had been cursory, followed by a “trifling test of your skills, nothing demanding of anything other than your time” and a reminder that said time would be lavishly compensated. He was led to a room, given a brief set of instructions, and left to himself. At the end of it, Morris and Spaulding both reviewed his work and conferred briefly in an excited, buoyant way, before making him an offer.

John blinked at them, feeling a bit coshed.

“Sorry?  I don’t think I heard that properly.”

“Hopkins and Howard both wished to further the cause, as it were.”

“There are so few of us,” Spaulding said earnestly. “And every year, fewer still.”

“So much intermarriage has, naturally, diluted lines,” Morris added, blinking behind his outsized glasses. Although Morris was gray as a goat himself, John realized that at some point he must have been as red as Spaulding.

“Naturally,” John said faintly.

“We did say we would remunerate your time.”

“For. ‘Purely nominal services’. Jesus. For £300 a go. Are you serious?”

“Oh, very. It would mean a great deal to us if you could follow through, so to speak.”

“I’ll. I’ll uh. Need some time.”

“Of course, of course. Never rush it, I always say,” Morris said cheerily.

John managed a weak laugh and the door swung closed behind them.

*

Although he considered himself quite worldly, somehow he’d never actually gotten off in a strange room by himself before. In his home, yes, of course, and when he’d lived by himself, his own settee had done very well for a toss, thanks, and hotels and basically any shower with a shred of privacy since his twelfth birthday, but as far as actual furnished rooms without beds or another person to make it interesting… Never.

His life had taken so many jogs to the left since his association with Sherlock Holmes that it was a wonder he hadn’t yet run right off the edge of the world.

Maybe he almost had, too.

For some reason, an image of Sherlock first come back home and stark in the doorway at Baker Street sprang to mind. Face gaunt and pale against his great black coat, his eyes somehow bleak and starving in his head. He looked like he scarcely knew what to do with himself upon seeing John open the door, which was funny, because John had very nearly pushed him down the stairs pounding the man’s shoulder trying to convince himself that Sherlock was actually alive and on the landing.

For a moment, John’s chest had hurt like someone had lodged a fish hook the size of a carving knife in his ribs and given the line a good yank—and then he’d collected himself and dragged Sherlock in for tea.

He supposed that he spent a good portion of that first, halting conversation simply staring at Sherlock, still wrapped in his coat and folded up on the sofa. Sherlock seemed just as unable to look away, and so for long stretches, the two of them would simply leave off speaking and kind of peer at the other.

“Your hair is longer.”

“So is yours.”

“Mary likes it.”

“Mary,” Sherlock said slowly, and then had gone very still.

And John realized, at the other side of the city and a month too late, that if he’d opened the door and Sherlock had spoken first, if Sherlock had said his name in that low voice that rubbed across your cheek like a posh scarf, John would have dragged him in the flat and… and.

***

Sherlock texted asking John to meet him at Barts.

“Well, they gave me a biro and a steno pad and had me copy fair about a thousand articles from Wikipedia. For four hours. At the end of which, they reviewed my handwriting, gave me a firm congratulatory handshake and ushered me into a little room and left me there with a cup and a magazine. Does any of this sound familiar?”

“Vaguely.” Sherlock enhanced the magnification on the sample he’d gotten from Jabez; fiber treated to resist stains. Not from a garment – carpet, industrial. There were a thousand buildings with carpet like this, nubby neutral taupe. New enough not to show any signs of wear, nothing suitably damning or specific spilled on it…

“Did you know that they’d be asking me to wank into a cup?”

“It was a distinct possibility. These people have an unhealthy interest in eugenics, and any number of unsavory practices.” Sherlock’s lip curled. “My brother informs me that The Howard Foundation is a suspected clearing house for a particular kind of human trafficking. It looks like they’re branching out into some brand of breeding program as well.”

Jesus, why didn’t you warn me? I don’t want them—“

“You proceeded, did you?” Sherlock raised one eyebrow in amusement, and John’s ears reddened obligingly.

“I was undercover! I didn’t want to tip my hand, so I just… lay back and thought of England. But I wouldn’t have if you’d told me they were going to try and, I don’t know, invent a race of ginger sex-slaves!”

“A bit sensational, but accurate enough. If I may ask, what did you think they were going to do with your… sample?”

John’s throat had colored quite probably down to his shoulders, and he shrugged a little and muttered, “Write it up in a book for mums to flip through? Who the hell knows.”

“Were you offered the position?”

“Yep, I’m due back tomorrow at 10. For. Um. A deposit.” John blinked a moment. “Hang on, you don’t think they had cameras in that other room, do you?”

Sherlock let his expression answer John’s question for him and John cleared his throat and flushed again.

“Describe the room to me. Oh, and I’ll need your shoes. Just the one will do.” Rolling his eyes, John toed off one shoe and handed it to Sherlock, who prodded the sole with tweezers and prepared a new slide as John detailed his visit.

“The first one? Very plain, not over large, no recent paint, one desk, one PC, very new, top of the line. An inscription over the door, though. ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico est’. My Latin’s only so-so, but, I think it’s ‘We have great notions of everything unknown’.”

“A closer translation would be ‘everything unknown appears magnificent’.”

“That’s kind of nice. Does it mean anything to you? Could it be code, do you think?”

“I think it means that one of the organizers went to public school,” Sherlock rejoined rather acidly.

“Right then. I suppose I’ll just take my gingery wanking self off then, shall I? One shoe or no?”

“I have more questions. Lives are at stake.”

“Of course there are,” said John, sounding resigned. “By all means, ask away. Would you like to know the title of the magazine?”

“No, but I’d bet it was full of red-haired women.”

“It was, at that. I hadn’t actually thought much about that. At the. Um. Time.”

“What are the actual terms of your… employment?”

“I’m supposed to show up, do my duty and then uh.  Hang about and see if I can ring the bell again.  I am scheduled between 10 and 2 every day of the week, for the foreseeable future.”

“That is ambitious.”

“I won’t have to go back? I do have an actual job.”

“Oh, yes. I think they’ll require you at least through…” Sherlock considered. “Thursday.  And it’s a tidy supplement to your income, after all.”

“Sherlock.  Why, exactly?”

“Because of the five people I’ve yet discovered to be involved in this plot, not one of them read engineering at school.”

“That’s.  That’s all I’m going to get?”

“We need more data before I can draw reasonable conclusions, John.” He peered closely at the tread of John’s shoe. “Sand. Yes, definitely Brighton.” He held out the shoe and squinted at John’s wig a moment. “You really don’t have to keep that on, you know.”

“I’m so glad you’re back,” John muttered, jamming his foot into his loafer.

Sherlock hurriedly returned his eyes to his slide and John stamped out the door.

*

“Did you ‘ring the bell’, then?”  

John felt himself go scarlet and fixed Sherlock with a glare. Sherlock’s answering curly grin was positively Grinch-like in its smug satisfaction.

“No, but I did swipe this.”  He handed Sherlock a sheaf of papers bound in a clear plastic folder.

“They’ll miss it,” Sherlock sniffed, flipping through it. “You should have taken photographs.”

“You’re welcome,” John snapped. “There wasn’t time, Sherlock. I stowed it under my shirt before they came in.”

The report was full of hand drawn pedigrees and printouts from a lab showing streams letters and numbers.

“It’s gene sequencing,” John said, leaning over Sherlock’s shoulder to stamp a finger on the page. “They’re mapping them, Sherlock, for best breeding matches – with me! It’s horrific.”

Sherlock peered closely at the papers, frowning.

“So there is a whiff of actual science to their casting, after all - in humans most hair types are the result of mixed melanogenesis, where different levels of both types of pigment are produced. The highest levels of pheomelanins in humans are present in Caucasian so-called “fiery” red heads... and an uncommon ‘mosaic’ form of melanosome which exhibits features of both eumelanosomes and pheomelanosomes. MC1R. Hm.”

“What?”

“It’s the corresponding gene for red hair.” He narrowed his eyes at John. “It’s unlikely you’re a carrier, and they’ll know you’re a fake. We’ll have another day, at least, before they get your results.”

“Why would I need to go back again?”

“It’s likely that they’re holding the women on the premises at some point during transit. That would explain why they’re so particular about you staying put in the rooms.”

“And the motion sensors and the ridiculously elaborate alarm system…” John sighed. “Why not call the police in?”

“I assume they vary the times of day they bring them in – there may not be anything to discover. It would be a waste of the Met’s manpower and time. Besides, it’s only an off chance. It’s far more likely we’ll intercept them in Brighton, which would be out of Lestrade’s jurisdiction anyway.”

“Well. If we’re not expecting any action on this tonight, I’ll be at Mary’s.” She’d been remarkably patient about Sherlock’s demands on his time, calling it karmic payback for all the midnight deliveries she’d been called away for. “Text if anything changes.”

Sherlock bent his head over the reports and did not reply.

***

Sherlock found it very satisfying to text John at just about the time he would have arrived at Mary's flat, and John replied with pleasing alacrity.

Mycroft sent a car upon Sherlock's request, and they settled in for a two hour ride to a seaside town outside of Brighton proper. Ringing off his call with Lestrade, Sherlock plugged his phone in to charge, and John asked, "So Vincent Spaulding is really this John Clay fellow?"

"It would seem so. Plastic surgery. Even new fingerprints. But DNA is DNA, and those maps matched his to that of John Clay, wanted for three racially motivated murders in the late 90s."

"And now he's kidnapping women from outside the country? He seemed so... ordinary. Certainly nothing like a killer."

"That remains to be seen, but all signs point to it. Lestrade has been so good as to contact the local police on our behalf; we'll be meeting a D.I. Jones. And an architect called Patel."

"An architect?"

"It's not really necessary, but she may be useful if the tunnel under the orphanage begins to collapse."

"Of course there's danger of tunnel collapse," said John, sounding resigned. "If we're going to be up all night, I think I'll drop off for a bit. Wake me when we're in Brighton."

In the ensuing quiet, there was little for Sherlock to do but fiddle with his phone and surreptitiously watch John sleep, slumped against the window with his jacket balled up against his cheek. Sherlock had had surprisingly few opportunities to study John in repose. Unlike Sherlock, he wasn't given to napping in the sitting room. But then, perhaps that was due to Sherlock rather monopolizing the sofa.

Feeling self-indulgently maudlin, Sherlock wondered if this was to be his last adventure with John.  Assuming they weren't entombed for all eternity in a poorly constructed tunnel, it was unlikely Mary's patience would be elastic enough to allow Sherlock the unlimited access to John he had enjoyed prior to his "death"...

Sighing, Sherlock drew his coat around himself and closed his own eyes as well, drawing what comfort he could from John's steady breathing.

***

The tunnel in Brighton had been dug at least in part with a backhoe that was still on the premises, wrapped in a vast flapping blue tarp. The site itself was littered with lumber and girders, but the only section of the building that had been completed was a vast finished basement. Directly beneath it was the tunnel itself.

Peering into the tunnel's maw with a torch that seemed far from equal to the task, John could hear Sherlock quizzing Anjuli Patel about stability and load-bearing structures. She sounded dubious, and John's own time in Afghanistan had taught him that sand was notoriously dodgy under the best circumstances.  

"In this type of tunnel, stand-up time -- how long the ground will safely stand by itself at the point of excavation -- is paramount. Because stand-up time is generally short when tunneling through soft ground, cave-ins are a constant threat. It looks like they've at least attempted to set up shields," Patel said, using the light of her torch to indicate a steel cylinder pushed into the sand. "It carves a perfectly round hole and supports the surrounding area while workers remove the dirt.  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like they've got anything like the number of shields they'd need to really prevent a cave-in, and they haven't done anything to install a permanent lining."

“Shoddy workmanship. The Mole Man of Hackney would be dismayed,” said Sherlock.

"Worst case scenario, it trembles apart when the truck comes, and the truck and everyone in it is trapped," Patel said in a plaintive tone.

"Can't we stop it before it goes into the tunnel?" John asked.

"We don't know where the tunnel begins. We only know it leads under the orphanage," Sherlock responded.

"And it may be that they'll enter from this end," noted Jones wearily. John figured him to be pushing sixty, and not very well-suited for an all-night stake out, if the swollen joints in his fingers and his unhealthy skin tone said anything at all.

John tipped his head towards Jones and took Sherlock's forearm, towing him close so he could say, "Jones looks done in already. Do we really need him? They may not even come tonight."

"I agree that he's not exactly sprightly, but I would remind you that he is the only one of us technically qualified to make an arrest, should it come to that."

Sherlock had Patel take a circuit of the site, and some measurements just within the tunnel, and the two of them conferred for some time.

Eventually, Sherlock folded himself into the mouth of the tunnel, and John settled beside him; Patel had been sent home, and John had convinced Jones to wait for them in the car, parked well out of sight. The evening was overcast, and they turned their torches off. The weather had become unseasonably cool, and the breeze off the water made it colder still. The sand was damp against his trousers, and he brushed Sherlock's elbow with his arm.

"How many men should we expect, d'you think? Jones could call in additional police support."

"Jones already considers this a fool's errand, and at any rate, I don't think there should be more than two men, three at the most. They'll be armed, though."

John curled his fingers around his gun and rolled his eyes. Of course they'd be armed. At least his gun was "legal" now, thanks to Mycroft.

"I also think it's unlikely that they'll drive through the tunnel, at least this near to the construction site. They will probably walk the women through it, since I think they're wise enough to distrust the tunnel's ability to handle the vibration of a heavy vehicle. But they'll still want cover of night and the tunnel itself to secret the women in the basement."

"So. We wait," John sighed.

"We wait."

"This is much nicer than a cozy night at home with a girl," John teased. He tried to imagine Mary beside him, and found that he couldn't.

"Isn't it?" Sherlock sounded patently sincere, and John was honest enough to admit that he was enjoying himself on some level. His nerves sparked and his senses were high. Sherlock was a warm presence in the close, blinding dark of the tunnel, and John heard himself saying, "There's nowhere else I'd rather be," and meaning it.

Of course, then they saw the light of Spaulding's torch, and sentiment was forestalled by action.

 ***

Sherlock appealed to a very willing Ms. Merryweather for shelter for the eight beleaguered, and hugely pregnant, women; six were from the Ukraine and two had been brought from the Czech Republic. He spoke enough to translate their immediate needs to Jones, and explained to them that John was a doctor, asking them to allow him a brief examination in order to treat any injuries they might have incurred during their captivity.

"They've been fed, at least," John informed him, stripping off his last pair of nitrile gloves. "You say they've been in the country about two weeks?"

"It would seem they targeted women who were already pregnant. I suppose it saved eight months of room and board."

"As horrible as it is, I suppose it could have been worse." John offered an ice pack to a young woman with the start of a very black eye. "You were great, by the way," he told her. "Sherlock, can you tell her I'm impressed?"

Sherlock did so, and the woman smiled widely, showing a generous gap in her front teeth. She reached to squeeze John's hand and said something in Czech.

"What did you really tell her?"

"I told her that she'd thrown an elegant punch at precisely the right time, and she said that you have the devil's aim for a doctor."

John looked ridiculously pleased at that.

"Well, a case of lead poisoning couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fellow," he told her.

"Hm. In the morning, you might put a call in to your good Dr. Morstan. We will have a coach here to take them back to Ms. Merryweather's estate in Ashridge, and I imagine that her expertise will be in some demand."

 Again, John's face relaxed into a smile.

"Does that mean you're finally ready to meet her?"

"I'm sure we will cross paths at some point, but I don't believe I'll be needed on the premises myself. Pregnancy is really--"

"Not your area," John finished for him. There was a flicker of hurt in his eyes, but he set his expression into something resembling cheer and clapped Sherlock's shoulder. "I don't doubt it.  Well, I'll ride back with them, then. I'm sure it's not a bad idea to have a medic on hand, just in case."

He turned back to the woman with the ice pack, and Sherlock adjusted his coat collar and went to find his brother's driver.

***

“Aside from an oddly specific, and I’d say eminently justifiable, brand of ginger racism and some knock-off designer handbags they weren’t even trying to pass off as genuine, I confess, I don’t really see the crime of the century here.”

“She does exquisite work,” Sherlock allowed, peering closely at the wallet he’d nicked from John’s hip. “There is the small matter of my kidnap.”

“She’s 16! She’s just a kid. What’s a little kidnapping to the world’s only consulting detective? Shall I remind you that she only did it to save your life? I’ll tell you what, I won’t even write this one up. No one will have to know.”

Sherlock gave him a suspicious frown. “You’re trying to appeal to my vanity. Why?”

“I knew her, Sherlock,” John sighed finally. “When she was a just a nipper. It was, must be ten years ago? I was dressed as St. Nick.”

“Pardon?” Sherlock had that faintly scandalized expression that said that he found it offensive that you’d managed to surprise him. John was rather fond of it.

“It was one of those awful, manky crushed velveteen rentals, and I was going to a party for my friend Bill’s kids and it was all mothy and the beard kept sticking to my mouth and the knees were shiny and smelled faintly of wee and I stopped to buy a present for my sister on the way, and when you’re at a big bloody shopping center and you’re six and you can’t find a bobby, you will run roaring to Father Christmas, and you will cling to his leg blubbering because your bloody sister, who’s supposed to be watching you, has probably flitted right off to snog a boy and your mum is working 12 hour shifts at a factory and you are six, Sherlock, she was six. I helped her find her sister, a grotty little stick-legged Goth, barely old enough to be out on her own besides, and she gave her baby sister a right tweak before she hugged her and gave her a piggyback ride home. Tabitha Patel.”

“You recognized her,” Sherlock said in wonder.

“Well, statistically, not everyone can come from your mysterious past. Of course I recognized her. She’s barely any taller. I promised I’d bring her a pony if she’d stop crying,” John admitted.

Sherlock considered this in silence for some time, fingers steepled beneath his chin.

“I know some people who’ve been looking for a project along this line,” he said at last. “With a decent stake to start and a good business manager—I imagine Paolo will be looking for new work, and he read for accounting at least two years before he dropped out—she could have a smart shop on Saville Row booked out with bespoke work a good year in advance, I should think.”

“Did you, what, find a missing shoe for Donatella Versace or something?”

Sherlock fixed him with a glare and said smoothly, “It was a necklace, but that’s not who I had in mind.”

“You have GQ tucked under your mattress like porno, don’t you?”

“Hardly. But some highly visible people do owe me favors. People whose patronage could make a new designer.”

“You’re… really going to help her set up a boutique somewhere?”

“Nothing like it. I’m going to introduce her to some investors. She has a fine eye for design and her stitchwork could make Mycroft weep.”

“Twelve hours a day in a sweatshop since childhood will hone your skills,” John agreed mildly.

“Indeed,” Sherlock responded distantly, eyes already vague with calculation. Sherlock, at Baker Street, cat-eyed and lolling like a leopard on the settee. John grinned and flipped open his laptop, content with the world.

Until he read Mary’s email.

*

“So. Mary’s leaving. Off to South Africa. It’s really. An amazing chance to help young girls. She’ll be working, in some vague way, with Oprah Winfrey, if you can imagine it. Sex education and health care for girls, touring the continent, and just. Being generally angelic. I’m very proud of her.” The jangle of false cheer rang in his voice and never touched his eyes.

“Ah.”

“Yes.”

“Had you.” Sherlock found that he needed to clear his throat before he could continue. “Had you considered going with her?”

John looked at him sharply.

“She did ask, in fact. I don’t feel up to asking how you could possibly know that,” he said warily.

“It appears that. In good conscience. I must speak up.” Sherlock inhaled through his nose before speaking again. “I strongly suspect that the job offer came from my brother.”

“I don’t. I don’t understand. He’s hired her away?” John cocked his head, mouth open slightly in a faint, incredulous smirk. “Does Mycroft have particular need of a personal gynecologist, then?”

“It is more likely that he arranged a contact of his to offer her a job that would suit her abilities and ambitions.” When John continued to look puzzled, Sherlock continued. “Much as he did when he brought her to Barts.”

“He. He set me up, you mean. Set me up with Mary.”

“Not as such. He provided you with an opportunity. He said he’d had two candidates in mind and that he decided on Mary.”

“Two. Two. Do you know who the other one is?”

Sherlock was silent a long moment, deliberating.

“You do. You do, I can tell.”

“I imagine that it was Irene Adler.”

John heaved a breath, whether it was rage or shock, Sherlock was surprisingly unable to discern.

“So—she’s not dead, either?”

“She is a singular person, clever, attractive, fascinating. Suitably dangerous. Back from the dead, owing me a debt, already rather fond of you. The two of you would have had me in common, I suppose.”

“I’m not… I’m not some bodice-ripped heroine to be married off to… to be married off!”

“No one said that you were.”

“Why– why would he do that? Why would anyone do such a thing? How is that even a thing that happens?”

“Mycroft was… concerned.” At John’s look of furious incomprehension, Sherlock continued quietly, “I am told that you didn’t take my death… well.”

“And so my betters prescribed a jolly snog or two with a plush little blonde MD?”

Desolate, Sherlock could only watch John pace the floor, arms swinging but rigidly controlled. Visible restraint, a refutation of his impulse to violence.

“This is—my life. Her life! If we’d had another few months, Sherlock, I might have—And all because of the machinations of a shadowy government figure, on your behalf. Can’t you see how… deranged that is?”

Sherlock swallowed, his throat strangely tight, the sound of muscles working sounding hugely echoing and obscene to his own ears.

“I can.”

Abruptly, John dropped into his chair and gasped out a laugh.

“Jesus. Just. Jesus. You know, before I met you, nothing happened to me.”

“You got shot,” Sherlock pointed out, perhaps unwisely.

“Yes, but. I didn’t know anything about Moriarty, the bloody ‘Napoleon of crime’, or kidnapping, or faked deaths or arranged fucking marriages. I didn’t know that the QE is a chainsmoker or that I would—” He ground to a halt, rubbing a hand hard over his eyes. “That I would miss you. So much.” John gave a suspiciously damp sigh. “I suppose he meant well.”

It was probably the kindest thing anyone had said about Mycroft in twenty years.

“I was half out of my mind. Without you. He was right about that.”

“John—”

“I know. I know why you did it. And I know you didn’t really have time to second guess yourself. And at least you didn’t stay away long. Jesus, imagine it. If you’d stayed—years away.”

Sherlock preferred not to.

After a moment, John sniffed and stood up, rubbing his sleeve across his face.

“I think. I need a hug, Sherlock. My girlfriend’s broken up with me and you’re back from the dead. That definitely. Definitely warrants a hug. And she’s gone and you’re the only one on hand, so do your best, you ridiculous, pompous, gangling, meddlesome git.”

Sherlock crept out of his chair and wrapped his arms around John with uncertain caution, tucking John under his chin and then holding very still. John’s hair was tickling his nose, unimaginably soft, smelling of the same bar soap he used in the shower – what use did a man without noticeable vanity have for a posh shampoo? Johns arms were locked warmly around his back, squeezing him close. He smelled of salt and sweat and marvelous impossibly intricate simplicity, and Sherlock felt him heave a few gusty breaths against his shoulder before making some awkward gulping sounds and releasing Sherlock with a firm and final pat.

John left the room to wash his face and came back for his jacket.

“I’ll be at the pub. With Greg, if he’s free. I won’t be late.”

Sherlock nodded minutely, and watched him go.

*

Three weeks later, John tramped up the steps after a friendly lunch with Mike, who, like Greg, had been appropriately baffled and sympathetic after the whole sorry mess with Mary. To be fair, John hadn’t had much time to pine for her with Sherlock home again, and Greg happy to release any number of cases, hot and cold, to a man whose return had not only resulted in lavish and celebratory press coverage but a knighthood. As he hung up his jacket, he saw that Sherlock was paying a surprising amount of attention to some kind of fashion week program.

“With the help of coveted new fashion prodigy and designer Tabi Qureshi, Tom Hiddleston, Ewan McGregor and Jude Law have launched ‘Rory’, a line of leather goods for men of discerning taste and suave style…”

“Mm. Rory. It means ‘Red King’.”

“Tom Hiddleston. You know Tom Hiddleston and Ewan McGregor…and Jude Law?”

“Law is pleasant enough. I suspect you’d get on well with McGregor. Hiddleston is very nearly worth knowing.”

“High praise indeed.”

“Between them, they’ve commissioned a refitted warehouse space. It’s all very modern and ergonomic. Flexible shifts, as there is little machine line work. I believe they have an on-site masseuse. And yoga or somesuch. There will be proper work visas provided for any of the displaced women who may wish to stay in the country. The leather and furs will be rendered from overpopulous nutria, imported from America, where it’s an invasive species currently busying itself with destroying the Louisiana bayou, thereby providing a valuable income for those still in the throes of Katrina.”

“Sherlock. So you’ve just… invented a new designer and provided cracking motivation for people who already need work to contribute to conservation efforts abroad. Sherlock, you do see that you’ve not just saved this girl from prison, you’ve given an entire warehouse full of underserved and exploited women a living wage and proper working conditions!”

“Well. You never did give her that pony,” Sherlock intoned.

John burst out laughing.

“You great, soppy, big girl’s blouse. Come here, you.” And John bounded forward and grabbed his jacket, mashing a cheerful kiss square on Sherlock’s preposterous mouth. He pulled back grinning, chest heaving with laughter, and Sherlock merely stared at him, eyes huge and strangely blue.

After a moment, John’s smile buckled a little, uncertain.

“All right?”

Sherlock’s hands came up to rest lightly on his, still knotted in the lapels of jacket.

“John. There’s very little I wouldn’t do. For you.”

Something inside John unfurled like a new fern, and he suddenly felt bone-meltingly relieved. He combed one hand through Sherlock’s hair and curled the other around the side of his neck and bent to kiss him. Really kiss him, soft drag of skin, wet slip of tongue, warm warm warm jesus sherlock—

“Come to bed, will you, I’m getting a crick in my neck.”

Sherlock surged to his feet and half dragged him into his bedroom, voice low and dark as thunderclouds, murmuring apologies and John’s name and confessing all his miseries and sins in a hot tangle of confused passion and overdrawn longing and odd, fierce joy.

John muttered his own right back and then pressed Sherlock down on his bed.

*

“For the record, I do know you’d do anything for me. After all, you came back from the dead.”

“You did ask me to,” Sherlock observed softly.

John cocked an eyebrow at him.

“So I did.” And he gave Sherlock a pinch to the hip that made his eyes fly wide. “You skulking, sneaky, lying, spying bastard.” And then he kissed the skin he’d tweaked, and around the skin he’d tweaked, and did some licking, too, and before long, Sherlock’s eyes had once more fluttered shut.

*

In the end, it was easiest to just knock on the door. Mycroft had given him a new key, but after almost eight months gone, it seemed… presumptive, to merely stride in as if he’d only just run to the market for mounting pins.

John answered and stood staring, with all the shock and gladness Sherlock could have wanted from that moment shining all around his face.

“You beauty,” John breathed at last, thumping him on the shoulder. “You beautiful, gorgeous, utter twat,” he’d beamed, hardly able to make his words known, he was breathing so hard, grinning so wide. “All right, then?”

“All right,” Sherlock replied, his lungs too full, his hands too empty, suddenly incredibly home.

END