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For the August 2018 Twitter challenge from fin_amour, “beard”

Part 2 Chapter 1

John tugged at his bowtie and sighed, eyeing the line of sleek black limousines curving up the driveway ahead of them. Warm golden light shone through the open door of the castle, which still looked miles away, no closer than the last time he had checked.

“Is he always this restless?” Irene said aloud.

“Only when he’s in a particularly suspicious mood,” Sherlock replied. His voice sounded tinny through the receiver in John’s ear.

“I’d be less suspicious if I knew what the hell we were doing and why,” he grumbled.

“We are here,” Irene said, with a roll of her eyes, “because Count Sabatier supposedly has files on several of James Moriarty’s henchmen who evaded your dear boyfriend’s attempts to eradicate his network.”

“It was a particularly wide-flung network,” Sherlock muttered. “It’s not my fault that a few slipped through the cracks. Mycroft should have--”

“Darling, don’t get pouty,” Irene said soothingly, “We all know you did your best.” She leaned towards John and raised an eyebrow. “Is he always this needy?” she asked under her breath.

“I heard that!” Sherlock snapped.

“Let’s stay focused on the job, shall we, ladies?” John replied, with a glare at Irene. She sat back with a satisfied smirk on her face. “Remind me why we’re the ones having to do this?”

“Mycroft was quite useful, managing an invitation, but do you really think the nobility is ready to welcome Lord and Lord Castamere? The Lord and Lady will be far less conspicuous.” She raised an eyebrow at John again. “Rethinking our plan, are we?”

“No,” he growled, tugging at his tie again. “Just don’t like wearing this monkey suit.”

“Such a shame. You in a tux with a beard has always been your best look. Sherlock would disagree, of course.”

He frowned at her. “I’ve never had a beard before.”

“Your wedding,” she clarified.

“I’ve always been clean-shaven. I didn’t… ”

“I wasn’t referring to your facial hair, darling.”

He blinked at her, and then the penny dropped. “Listen,” he snapped, “Mary was not... I wasn’t… we didn’t….”

Irene rolled her eyes again. “Of course. That’s why you made a move on your best man on your stag night.”

“I did what?” He felt his cheeks flush. The tips of his ears grew hot.

“Oh, look, we’re here,” Irene said brightly, as the door to the limousine popped open. “Showtime, darling.”

He swallowed the retort he was about to make and, with a deep breath, handed her out of the car to the waiting doorman. The noise of the party flowed out of the massive doorway and eddied around him as he stepped out, giving his cuffs and his cummerbund a quick straighten. Irene smiled at him and held out her arm for him to take as they walked forward.

“Lord and Lady Castamere,” the man at the door intoned. No one seemed to notice. Irene slipped her ermine stole off and sauntered over to a small alcove where a young girl in a white button-down shirt and a black vest and tie was taking coats and handing out tickets. She came back to John’s side, snapping her velvet clutch closed.

Irene was dressed in a sparkling sleeveless black dress that flared out slightly below the knees. A ruby pendant, that had to be worth a fortune, glimmered on the creamy skin revealed by the plunging neckline John wondered if Mycroft had found that for her, and if so, if it was from the same place as his tuxedo.

“Any sign of our target, yet, Sherlock?” Irene murmured, as they proceeded through the foyer and into the massive ballroom.

“No,” Sherlock replied, “but he’s famous for not making an appearance until later.”

He winced. There was a weird Doppler-like effect going on; Sherlock’s voice echoed oddly in his ear. He started to reach for the receiver.

“Don’t,” Sherlock said, and the reason for the effect became apparent, as he stood in front of them with a tray of champagne flutes. He was dressed identically to the other servers in the room, white shirt, black pants, black vest, black tie. His wild curls were slicked black. He shot a worried glance at John.

“Why, thank you,” Irene cooed, as she took two of the glasses off the tray and handed one to John.

Sherlock nodded and, with another apprehensive glance at John, melted into the crowd.

He contemplated downing the glass in one go, but took a sip instead, and was rewarded for his restraint. It was very good champagne, and deserved to be savored. That didn’t do anything to relieve the restless thrum under his skin, though.

“Come along, dear,” Irene said, crooking her elbow, and he took her arm and let her lead him around the room.

Three-quarters of an hour later, he’d nearly finished the glass of wine, and his opinions on the role of the nobility in modern-day England had solidified into a plan for its overthrow. The conversations had been stultifying, endless rounds of wittering about taxes and tariffs, scandals and scarcity contingencies. Irene had thrown herself into the fray brilliantly, he grudgingly admitted, meaning that he had had to do little more than nod and hum affirmatively at her statements.

In return, he’d thoroughly mapped the room, and discovered two possible exits aside from the front door (the kitchen and a door that led out to the conservatory), as well as ascertained that the broad, sweeping staircase was the main way up to the second floor. He’d also picked out three men that looked like security, although he couldn’t tell if they were the Count’s usual or had been hired specifically for the party.

“The Count’s study is on the second floor,” Sherlock murmured quietly in his ear. It was the first time he’d spoken since he’d given them the champagne. John exhaled and felt a little of the tension drop from his shoulders.

“Fantastic,” he replied. “How are we supposed to get up there?”

“He should be making his entrance fairly soon.”

He glanced over at Irene, who was laughing at something a portly, white-whiskered man in military dress was saying, her hand sliding seductively up his arm. “We’ll still need a distraction to get up the stairs,” he said. “Maybe we can set Irene on him—”

“No, you’ll need her to break into the Count’s laptop.”

He closed his eyes briefly. Why couldn’t people keep things in paper files anymore? “Have you got any suggestions?”

“I think Mycroft will provide,” Sherlock said.

Irene came back to his side, slipping her arm into his, just as a shrill ting reverberated through the room, the sound of silver on crystal. All eyes rose to the top of the staircase, where Count Sabatier stood, resplendent in a crimson velvet smoking jacket. “My friends,” he announced in a booming voice, “be welcome! My home is yours. Eat, and drink, and—”

His speech was cut off by the harsh light that streamed through the stained glass window atop the entranceway, as well as the thwop-thwop of blades. John glanced up and saw the shadow of a helicopter, clearly descending on to the lawn in front of the castle.

“A surprise guest!” Sabatier cried. He was smiling, but his eyes had a dangerous look about them. He motioned to the three men John had noted earlier and strode down the stairs and into the foyer. The party guests milled after him, curious stares and whispers running through the crowd like lightning.

“Go! Now!” Sherlock hissed in his ear.

Irene grabbed his hand and headed for the staircase, hurrying but trying to look casual. He followed as fast as he could, with just one look back to check: yes, the guests were all looking at the door and the newcomer, and no one was paying attention to him and Irene.

“Some distraction,” he muttered, and heard Irene chuckle.

“Right at the top of the stairs,” Sherlock told them, “then second door on the left.”

The Count’s study was dim and quiet after the bright clamor of the party. A massive wooden desk stood in front of a bay window, with a sleek leather chair. The remains of a fire smoldered in the fireplace, which had a sumptuous leather couch and two club chairs arranged in front of it. A zebra-striped rug – probably real, John thought – completed the cozy space. On the other side of the room there was a beautifully crafted bar, with dusty golden-brown bottles of whisky and cognac arrayed against the wall.

Irene hurried over to the desk and opened the laptop sitting on top. “Watch the hall,” she said.

He moved silently to the door, cracking it open and looking out. No sound, no indication that their exit had been seen. He glanced back at Irene, keeping one ear tuned.

She had slid into the leather desk chair and was tapping on the keyboard. “No good,” she said aloud. He raised an eyebrow at her and opened his mouth to speak.

Sherlock cut him off. “Try the date he inherited.”

Irene tapped some more, then shook her head. “Mm-mm.”

“Son’s birthday.”

“Nope.”

“Wife’s.”

“Ah!” Irene grinned triumphantly, and reached into her cleavage, pulling out a slim thumb drive. She inserted it into the side of the laptop and began clicking and dragging things. “You were right, it was one of those dates.”

“Sentiment,” Sherlock drawled. “Never fails.”

The noise of the party grew louder, and John realized that the distraction was over and the festivities were continuing. He heard footsteps approaching, a measured, careful tread. “Someone’s coming!” he hissed.

Irene yanked the flash drive out, shut the computer, and crossed the room to his side. She shut the door, then grabbed his hand and pulled him to the couch. She shoved him down, then hiked her skirts up and straddled his lap.

He sucked in a breath as she reached up and deftly unzipped her dress down to the base of her spine. Then she pulled his bowtie loose, unbuttoned the top two buttons of his dress shirt, grabbed his hands and placed them on either side of her hips, and fastened her lips to his as the door opened.

His head swam with sensation. Warm skin, even through the sequinned dress. Swell of hip leading to plush, round arse. Lush scent of vanilla and tropical flowers. Feather-light touch on his cheek and jaw, followed by the blunt scratch of enameled nails. Slick slide of lipstick. Gentle caress on his mouth, tip of a velvet tongue teasing at his lips. Her thighs snug against his, moist heat against his groin. He groaned and his hands slid involuntarily up her back, fingers tracing the soft curves.

“Excuse me?” a male voice said sharply. “You’re not supposed to be in here.”

Irene pulled away. “Oh…” she said, breathlessly, with a quick wink at John, “I’m… I’m so sorry, we… we were….”

He was reeling a bit, squirming against the pressure in his trousers, but he took a breath and turned his head to see an older gentleman, holding some files in his hand, glaring at them. “Sorry, old bean,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. “We were just looking for a little privacy. We took the Count at his word, that whole, ‘My home is yours,’ thing.”

“You need to leave,” the man said, his expression stern.

“Could you give us a moment?” he asked, motioning at Irene’s state of undress.

The man frowned at both of them and turned his back, but didn’t leave the room.

Irene slid off his lap and presented her back to him. As he zipped up her dress, he shifted, trying to adjust himself discreetly. She motioned with her head at the man, then back at the desk. A glance showed him what she meant: her clutch was still sitting on top of the desk next to the laptop.

“Distract him,” Irene murmured low.

He took a deep breath and walked over to the man. What could he say that would support his cover and turn the man’s attention away from Irene?

“Listen,” he said, pulling his wallet out of his jacket pocket. He put a hand on the man’s back and turned him towards the door to the room, so the desk was solidly at his back. “What would it take for you to, ah, forget we were ever in here?” He opened the wallet and fingered two 100-lb notes.

The man glared at him, lip curled in distaste. “You can be sure that I have no intention of informing the Count of any of the unpleasant details of what went on here tonight, Lord Castamere. A bribe is not necessary.”

He hesitated, then put the wallet away, putting on the air of the privileged. “Well, of course not. I was merely offering compensation for services provided. I’m glad to hear I can count on your… discretion.”

The man looked over at the desk and John’s heart sank. Then he felt Irene’s hand on his elbow.

“Darling, perhaps we’d better go. I think we’ve had enough excitement for one night.” Her eyes twinkled at him as she snapped her clutch closed.

They made their way downstairs and through the crowd. The celebration had reached a fever pitch and it was slow going, but they managed to reach the foyer, where Irene retrieved her stole, and then were out the door and standing on the stoop in the chill night.

A black limousine drove up. Sherlock was in the driver’s seat, still dressed as a waiter. “Get in,” he snapped. John handed Irene into the back seat, then came around to the passenger side on the front.

“You got the files?” Sherlock asked as he guided the car down the long driveway and on to the main road.

“Of course,” Irene said, with a grin at John. “And had a little fun along the way.”

Relief at their narrow escape flooded him and he giggled, feeling light and dizzy. Then he glanced over at Sherlock, who was gripping the wheel of the limo, eyes grimly fixed on the road ahead.

He was silent for the rest of the ride back into Paris.

***

“What on earth is the matter with you?” he said, as he followed Sherlock into their hotel room.

“Nothing.”

“Well, that’s a bald-faced lie,” he retorted, shrugging his jacket off and hanging it up in the closet.

Sherlock lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug.

“Hey, we agreed we’re not doing this anymore, remember, Sherlock?”

Sherlock exhaled. “Fine.” He went to the closet and pulled out John’s duffel, started packing clothes into it. “I’m assuming that you’d rather be over in the other suite with Irene--”

“What in the hell…?” He strode over and grabbed Sherlock’s wrist. “Stop. What are you talking about?”

“I saw you.” Sherlock’s eyes were fixed on the ground.

John waited patiently.

“I saw you,” Sherlock repeated. “In the Count’s study.” Another pause. “With Irene on your lap.”

He suppressed the urge to smile. Sometimes his boyfriend could be so dramatic. “And?”

“You were clearly enjoying it.”

“Irene’s a beautiful woman,” he said.

Sherlock’s eyes snapped to meet his, then, full of fire, and he opened his mouth to retort--

“But you’re the one I love, you idiot,” he said, cutting Sherlock off.

Sherlock stared at him a moment, mouth hanging open. Then he looked away, a pink flush blooming on his cheeks and the tips of his ears.

“So don’t forget that.” He stepped forward and took Sherlock’s face in his, then kissed him as deeply and as thoroughly as he could.

When they broke apart, Sherlock was looking at him with starry eyes, and the flush had spread down his cheeks and neck. “I…I may have jumped to conclusions,” he said, his voice a low velvet rumble.

“Oh, you think?” he asked, smiling to take the sting out of his words. “What were you doing there, anyway?”

“I was coming to warn you that the Count’s valet was heading up to the study. Only I got there too late. He was already there.”

“You do know that Irene was just giving us an alibi?”

Sherlock looked down with a sheepish grin. “I do. I did. I just… when I saw her… when I saw your hands on her…”

He cupped his hand around the back of Sherlock’s neck and kissed him again. “I understand, I do. I’d feel the same way if I came into a room and saw you in a beautiful woman’s arms.”

“Not much chance of that.”

“Oh? You seem to be forgetting that time I met your erstwhile fiancee at Baker Street.”

“John.” Sherlock rolled his eyes. “That was for a case. It didn’t mean anything. You know that.”

“Didn’t stop me from being jealous, or being a bit of a prick about it.” He gave Sherlock another kiss in apology. “And Irene is… intoxicating,” he continued. “But my heart belongs to you and you alone, now and forever.”

Sherlock hummed happily, his arms sliding around John’s waist.

“What do you say we take a shower,” he continued, sliding his fingers over Sherlock’s gel-slicked head, “and get all that gunk out of your hair so I can run my fingers through it property?”

Before Sherlock could reply, someone hammered at the door.

Sherlock exhaled, a wave of irritation washing over his face. He let go of John and strode to the door.

A young man, no more than 19 years old, wearing a bellboy uniform, stumbled into the room. “Sir! Mr. Britain contacted us. You’re in danger!”

John turned as Irene barreled through the connecting door, still in her dress, a small netbook open and balanced on one hand. “We’ve got to get out of here,” she said. “Moriarty’s agents are approaching the hotel.”

“How…?”

“I don’t know,” she said. Her eyes were wide with fear. “But somehow they figured out where we were.”

“We’ve got a panic room we can take you to, down in the basement,” the bellboy said. “Mr. Britain had it installed for his exclusive use. Two, three days, at the most, and then your brother will have you extracted.”

He looked at Sherlock, then back at Irene.

“Please!” the bellboy said. “There isn’t much time!”

“Fine,” John snapped. “Let’s go.” They each grabbed as many bags as they could carry and followed the bellboy out of the room, Irene trailing behind them.

The room was three levels below ground and more of a concrete bunker than a room, an excellent place to ride out the apocalypse, should it come to that. The bellboy saw them securely inside and they closed the door against the outside world. It could hardly be called homey, but there were mattresses, canned food, running water and a toilet.

“Better than a tent in the desert,” John said.

“Or a basement in Serbia,” said Sherlock.

They both looked expectantly at Irene, but she turned up her nose and said nothing. John shrugged at Sherlock and began to push two of the mattresses together. After a moment, Sherlock came over to help him.

Irene retrieved some loungewear from her suitcase and turned her back to them, then looked back over her shoulder. With a smirk, she asked, “Could one of you help me with this zipper?” John got up and came over and unzipped her for the second time, and she shimmied out of the dress., Despite his best intentions, John licked his lips, appreciating the view, before he collected himself and turned away to see Sherlock watching him out of the corner of his eye.

“All right, that’s it! Just stop it, both of you. I refuse to be a tennis ball batted back and forth between you. Now unless somebody else wants to go first, I’m having a wash-up and going to bed. Sherlock, you can join me or you can work yourself into another snit and take your mattress off across the floor. And you,” he pointed at Irene, “there will be no more Mata Hari in this,” he flailed at the concrete surrounding them, “bank vault.”

Sherlock held his hands up innocently and Irene pointed at herself and mouthed, Who, me? He glared at both of them and went to rummage in his suitcase.

After everyone had finished their ablutions and were lying in bed, Irene clacked quietly away on her computer for a while and then said, “Britain says it will take two days to sweep up quietly, or three to do it silently. Preference?”

John muttered, “What’s an extra day when you’re among such splendid company?” He rolled onto his side, pulling the blanket up around his shoulders, and fell into a restless sleep.

***

There was no need to get up promptly and John knew that Sherlock would be the weakest link under the conditions of forced inactivity, so he let him sleep. John puttered among the MRE’s and selected the meals he remembered as the most palatable from his days in Afghanistan, already worried about keeping Sherlock fed for the next three days. Irene declared it unsafe for him to work on his blog, something about triangulating, LBS, MAC address, but basically, he wasn’t allowed. She let him write up a few old cases on her laptop, but there wasn’t even any paper or pen for writing the old fashioned way. No books, no DVD player.

“The next time Mycroft gets in touch tell him it’s not a very safe room if the people in it are driven to murder one another out of sheer boredom.”

In her soothing voice, Irene said, “But John, it’s the perfect opportunity for us to get to know one another a little better. I’ve only heard what Sherlock’s decided to tell me about you, and I’m sure there’s more to the story than just his side.”John eyed her suspiciously and she pouted. “There’s that look again. Don’t you trust me?”

“Ha! Even less than the mad genius over there. But I’ll play. Quid pro quo. What do you want to know?”

Irene crossed her legs and leaned forward conspiratorially. “Which continents?”

John stared at her for a moment and burst out laughing, loudly enough to cause Sherlock to grumble from under his sheet. They both hushed immediately, then glanced at each other. John could tell that Irene was struggling as hard has he was to suppress her giggles.

Over the next hour and a half, John’s eyes were figuratively and literally opened as he learned about Sherlock’s mad rescue of Irene in Pakistan, and how that had led to her offer of certain… activities… as a way to thank him. Sherlock tossed and turned on his mattress, desperately trying to eavesdrop on them, to no avail. When he finally got out of bed, he was even crabbier than John expected. He refused to even consider any of the MRE’s that John had pre-selected for him, and worked himself into a massive strop.

“Young man,” Irene snapped,“none of us is in a particularly sparkly mood at the moment, so I’ll thank you to keep your whinging to yourself. My options may be limited here, but I assure you my imagination quite makes up for it.”

Sherlock flushed bright red to the roots of his hair and John’s mouth fell open. Although Irene had just been telling him about what she and Sherlock got up to, he hadn’t prepared himself to actually see her in action.

Irene smiled and seized the opportunity. “Why, Sherlock. Has John not yet learned to manage your behavior? That would explain a lot. No wonder the two of you are so grumpy all the time!”

She began to bustle around the room, chattering cheerfully. “This is the perfect opportunity! We’ll have absolutely no interruptions, no preconceived notions, no routines, you know how he gets, John, about disruptions in the routines, we have no choice but to improvise.”

John looked between them in astonishment: Irene, in sprightly motion, and Sherlock, eyes wide like a deer in headlights, clearly hoping to disappear.

“He’s certainly, at the very least, earned himself a spanking,” Irene said, “but if he behaves, and eats his lunch, we can play this evening! How does that sound, Sherlock?”

With a deep breath, John backed up and sat on the director’s chair, elbows propped on the armrests. Irene was gathering a pile of objects on the small table in the center of the room, including silk scarves, a belt, a hairbrush and a bottle of hand lotion. Sherlock’s blush had disappeared, his skin paling so suddenly that John was suddenly concerned about his blood sugar. When was the last time he had eaten? Stupid--of course he wouldn’t have eaten last night, not while the game was on. Food was the absolute priority: a new game had begun.

“Ms. Adler,” he said, pretending to a calm he didn’t feel, “I cannot wait to hear about your spanking Sherlock, but first,” now turning to the proprietor of the arse under discussion, “you heard what the lady said. Lunch. You have a choice between Spaghetti w/Beef and Sauce, Brisket Entree, or Chicken Chunks.”

“Do you even hear yourself, John?” Sherlock sniped, seeming to have momentarily regained his normal imperiousness. “Chicken chunks? Are you actually expecting me to eat something called chicken chunks?”

Irene clucked her tongue. “John, honestly, I thought the army would have prepared you for this type of insubordination. You’ve let him go on too far already. Watch me.”

She took the MREs from his hand and walked over to Sherlock. “Sixty seconds, Sherlock, not a word. Read the ingredients and pick one.”

Sherlock opened his mouth, and Irene held up a finger. “Not. A. Word. And now you have forty-five seconds.”

Sherlock snapped his mouth shut and began scanning the packages. As Irene started counting down from ten, he handed her the spaghetti packet.

She tousled Sherlock’s hair and beamed at John. “You see? Poor thing just needs a firm hand. On his arse. Regularly. Isn’t that right, Sherlock? It reminds him who he belongs to. And he belongs to you now, doesn’t he, John?” Sherlock thrust his lip out with a vengeance and pouted magnificently, although there was the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

Very thoughtfully, John replied, “Yes. Yes, he does.”

Once everyone had finished their meal, Irene indicated Sherlock to John with a raised eyebrow and a tilt of her head. John looked puzzled and she rolled her eyes. “Well done, Sherlock, that wasn’t so terrible, was it?”

“So far it appears to have been edible.”

Irene again gestured to John, who made an attempt. “Thank you, Sherlock. I know it wasn’t pleasant, but we need you to keep up your strength.”

Sherlock looked mollified despite himself.

“Now, down to business. Has Sherlock discussed our recreational activities with you, John?”

Sherlock groaned and buried his face in his hands.

Back straight, shoulders square, fingers of one hand drumming restlessly on the table, John said, “No. He has not.”

“Let’s begin. How frequently would you say your mad genius has one of his black moods? Assuming there aren’t any cases, of course.”

John thought. “If there hasn’t been anything in six weeks, he gets...testy. Two months and I’m ready to make a case out of him.”

“And Sherlock, how often did we have one of our little get-togethers?”

Sherlock mumbled under his breath and Irene cleared her throat in John’s direction. “Speak up, please, Sherlock. John can’t hear you.”

Sherlock glared at Irene and spoke out of the side of his mouth to John. “Standing appointment, the first Tuesday, every other month.”

Irene waited, tapping her foot. Under his breath, Sherlock continued. “And as needed.”
She smiled smugly and John took a deep, decisive breath. “Right then, I’m ready. Show me”

Sherlock stood up so quickly, he knocked his chair over. Eyes wide, he looked like the situation had completely slipped his grip. “John, this is completely unnecessary. There’s a reason I haven’t felt the need for any, uh, let’s say, Irene type activities since you and I have begun our arrangement. This is completely unnecessary.”

Irene went and whispered in John’s ear. “Captain Watson. Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers.”

He stood up at parade rest. “That will be enough for the moment, Sherlock. Take your seat, please.”

“But John--”

“Your seat.” Sherlock sat. “At the very least, I intend to hear a description of your...sessions?” He looked at Irene. She shrugged. “Let’s consider it a sharing of your background.” He licked his lips. Sherlock was transfixed. “And perhaps a demonstration. We have time.”