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The stranger

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With a satisfied smile, Mrs. Hanson took the cupcakes out of the oven, her tenant's favourites, of chocolate and blueberries.

She could hear Mr. Vernet upstairs. Possibly arguing with Hermes.

She liked to know it was close, it made her feel safe.

She had really been lucky. He was such a kind, calm and polite man. A gentleman of old.

He had rented the upper floor of the building almost two decades ago, although he had only been permanently settled just over a year ago, after the accident that had almost cost him his life.

His work as an adviser to the Ministry of Culture had kept him away from London most of the time. Even so, he had never been late in paying his rent, and he had always made sure that any problems were resolved immediately. No matter how far away he was, a simple phone call and Mr. Vernet would take care of everything.

When he was on the flat, clean and tidy but full of books, carpets, showcases with maps and scrolls, paintings and antiques, he always had a moment to chat with her.
Sometimes he just smiled understandingly, while listening to her complain about the ailments of age and how times had changed.

Other times she spoke to her in her slow, soft voice, so full of nuances and so rich in details that she felt she had been there herself, about the places, cultures, landscapes, smells and wonders of every place she had visited.

Nor did she seem to care that her old cat Hermes seemed to have settled in her house and would spend the day sleeping on her old books or next to the statuettes of old forgotten kings and gods.

Sometimes he seemed exhausted, and she was a little worried that the man wouldn't have time to meet people, make friends and have relationships, but when she mentioned it to him, Mr. Vernet smiled, as if surprised, and settled the matter by saying, "I'm not alone, Mrs. Hanson."

He placed the cupcakes in a fountain, remembering to set some aside for Andrea. That young woman was a gift from heaven. Although she also worked too much, she was attentive and helpful.

She had helped keep the apartment in good condition when Mr. Vernet was gone, and had been essential in his recovery.

For a while she thought there was more than just good friendship there, but it soon became clear to her that Mr. Vernet's romantic interests, if any, were not feminine-oriented.
It's not like I'd ever seen him in a relationship with another man. The visits he received, few and brief, always had a marked professional air.

 

At least, that was how it had been until a few months ago...

One year before

 

In the waiting room of the exclusive and discreet clinic, with more MI5 agents than nurses and patients patrolling the halls, Sherlock Holmes, haggard and exhausted, seemed unable to sit still, mumbling and seeming to be about to scream at any moment.

The unstoppable energy of the young Holmes contrasted with the extreme stillness of Detective Inspector Lestrade, who with reddened eyes and lost gaze looked like a statue.

Between the two men, a nervous John Watson didn't know whether he should try to calm one of his friends or encourage the other. He remained silent.

Sherlock cursed aloud, stretching his hair in frustration, earning another look from the officer at the door.

He had not seen or spoken to his brother since the family visit to Sherrinford, which had ended with more accusations and reproaches. Then he had focused on reconstructing, courtesy of Mycroft's Coutts World Silk Card, 221 B Baker Street.

Six months had passed.

And three weeks ago, the black car standing on the sidewalk and the presence of a pale and serious Anthea, staring at him and without a telephone in sight, had taken his breath away, while he felt the world accelerating sharply.

 

- You know I couldn't tell you anything.

- I never know anything when it comes to you! No, yes, I know something: my life would be easier without you in it!

Gregory Lestrade shook his head, trying to bring his mind back to the present, though his mind insisted on reproducing the last discussion he had with Mycroft, the night Sherlock came back, the night it was all over, four years ago, with Greg screaming things he didn't feel and Mycroft silencing, as always, the things he did feel.

When the fury passed, he thought that one way or another they would fix it, that one day they would talk and...

And days became weeks, weeks became months, months became years.

The few times they had seen each other since then, always for work, always for Sherlock, the silence and coldness had been suffocating.

After Sherrinford he promised to call him, he had told Sherlock, but he simply could not.

He hid behind the overwork and left it for another day.

And then John had called him, causing the world to freeze and his heart to shrink.

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The man blinked trying to sit up, but a sharp pain running through him told him it was not a good idea.

There was an annoying whistle on his right, his throat was sore and his mouth was dry and pasty.

He tried to raise his hand to touch his face, but could not.

- Don't move, don't worry... - He recognized the voice of the woman holding him gently to prevent him from moving from the bed, and smiled weakly at him.

- Andrea? What...? - The man's voice, weak and hoarse, stopped, while the woman looked at him with a strange expression on her face.

- There was an accident, he's been in a coma for three weeks... Do you remember?

- I... no... Three weeks? I should be in Prague.....

The woman glanced grimly at the doctor whose presence had so far gone unnoticed.

- Welcome back, I'm Dr. Wilson, he suffered a big accident, after five hours of surgery it's a miracle that he's still with us. Don't worry if you feel weak or confused. Tell me, can you tell me your full name?

The man in bed looked at him, without understanding.

- Vernet. Alexander Vernet -Exhausted, he closed his eyes, losing the panicky look in the eyes of the brunette beside him, who held her breath as she gripped his wrist.

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- Erased? What the hell does it mean that he has erased everything? And who the hell is Alexander Vernet? - Indignant and not understanding a word of what they had said, Greg looked alternately at the people sitting next to him: the doctor seemed perplexed and worried, Anthea thoughtful and sad, and Lady Smallwold and Sir Edwin very upset.

Sherlock seemed to have lost all his energy and just looked at a fixed point on the wall. Anthea spoke:

- Alexander Vernet, linguist and antique collector, a regular at public and private auctions. "Advisor" to the Ministry of Culture. Only son, father dead before birth, mother a primary school teacher, died when he was twenty years old. He lives in a modest flat in Brixton, although he doesn't spend much time there. He falls a few weeks a month, is a normal guy, goes unnoticed but not so much so that the neighbors can not confirm that they know him. Alexander Vernet doesn't exist.

- What the hell?

- Alexander Vernet - Sherlock's voice sounded weak and distant - is one of my brother's false identities. Very useful when it came to infiltrating the world of art collectors, recovering stolen works and detecting forgeries.

- I thought Mycroft didn't do fieldwork... - John intervened, who didn't know very well what to think.

- He did, in his day. He still does it from time to time, nothing too obvious, nothing too dangerous. But he has recovered quite a few works stolen in recent times. He could recognize a counterfeit book only by the sound of its pages...

- And has he maintained a false identity, with a false facade, for twenty years just in case one day someone forges the Codex Calixtinus?

- You don't kill a good character just because it's inactive. Besides, we are talking about Mycroft, the foresighted man. If he had needed to pass himself off as a father of a large family, he would have managed to have five mini Mycroft´s running around him, with his genes and everything.

Tired, Greg spoke again.

- Okay, so Mycroft doesn't remember anything about his life at all. He doesn't know who he is, nor who we are, except Anthea, or Andrea, why he was part of Alexander Vernet's alibi... Dissociative disorder, well, now what?

Anthea looked at the ground, while the rest continued in silence

- Now... nothing.

- What? how what...? Bring him back! - The inspector was beginning to lose his patience. It had been two weeks since Mycroft had woken up, and they had still not been allowed to see him. They said the memories would come back on their own, faster without the additional stress of forcing him to remember.

Now, they seemed to have surrendered to the fact that the Mycroft mind had created its own reality, accepting as authentic a personality and a fictitious life with which he felt safe and secure.

- No. - Sherlock's voice shook - That's Mycroft, Greg. It's like it could have been. Alexander Vernet, art lover, is Mycroft without a psychotic sister and an addicted brother, without guilt or responsibility, without pain or secrets. He can be happy. He has given us enough. His mind has searched for a way out. A reality with which he feels comfortable. Why do we have to take this away from him? He has chosen to forget, we have no right.....

 

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Six months later

Sitting in the quiet cafeteria, Alexander looked at his watch, wondering where the always punctual Andrea would be, and why he would have quoted him there.

It wasn't that she didn't want to see her friend, but she had sounded almost anxious on the phone.

For a moment she wondered if she should tell him about the strange dreams she had been having since she had left the hospital six months earlier, but she discarded it, saying it was nonsense, ignoring the little voice that told her that they were more than just dreams and that, if those doors were opened, everything would change forever.

He thanked the waitress, shaking her head in the face of her absurd thoughts, "single mother, goes to adult school, ex-alcoholic, tries to be a better person for her children...".

Sometimes her over-imagination would do such things to her.
He was also surprised with absolute certainties about things that had nothing to do with her life, or discovering that she knew things and facts that she didn't remember learning and didn't have to know.

Sometimes he thought he was going crazy.

But his life was as normal as it always had been, translating books and creating and deciphering codes, rescuing relics and advising historians and students, and the ministry of culture when Alice or Edwin asked for it.

 

- Look, no, this is crazy, I just can't... - Greg sighed, stopping again just a few yards from the door. - You can't expect me to sit in front of Mycroft and treat him like a stranger!

- Greg... I know it's not what you want, it's not what I want, but I prefer this to nothing. Yes, now he's a stranger... A stranger with my brother's face and brain. I want him to stop being one... We just have to go in, talk and try not to scare him... Please - the slight trembling of Sherlock's hands contradicted the security of his voice.

They had been watching him in the distance for months, Sherlock's network of homeless people making sure he was safe, as well as some MI5 agents who had discreetly moved into the neighborhood.

A whole discreet network of people concerned for the welfare of the former official.

Greg could already recognize them all. He had lost count of the hours he had spent walking around the place, anxious to see him, frightened by the possibility of finding him face to face, spying on the lights of his flat, watching him sit in the old café, with a tea and a book to read.

It was frustrating and painful, but also strangely comforting. I had never seen Mycroft so relaxed and peaceful.

He had been furious with Sherlock, with the apparent coldness with which he had assumed the situation, without even wanting to talk about it.

Until desperate knocks on the door had woken him up at three o'clock in the morning a few days earlier.

Still half asleep, he opened the door to meet a troubled and anguished detective advisor who entered the floor like a hurricane.

- Sherlock, what...?

- It doesn't have to be that way, Greg! We don't have... He doesn't know us, he mustn't know anything about who he was or what he was, but he can know us! He can... I'll talk to Anthea... We can get closer and... I won't spoil it, I swear! I just want.... We don't have to bring him back, but we can go to him. I miss him so much, Greg...

 

Before anyone could add anything else, slowly releasing air and praying that it would be a good idea, Anthea opened the door as the three men followed, hesitant.

Sherlock and Greg's request had not surprised her, though the preparations, more psychological than anything else, had taken weeks.

She had naturally assumed her character, the fact that she and Mycroft had had a friendly relationship while they were working together made things easier, but she always worried that Mycroft's volatile little brother or the desperate DI would stand up to the now officially Alexander Vernet and make him face the truth.

-Andrea! - Mycroft's smile, sincere and calm, made them stop a little.

-Alexander,- the brunette gave him a brief hug,- I want you to meet some friends...

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Alexander smiled at the cat's stubbornness, apparently convinced that the mission of his original version of The Decameron was to satisfy his need for a good nap.

Luckily he had been able to keep Paganini's newly discovered musical scores away from his hairy tenant. He sure Sherlock would love them.

The smell of Mrs. Hanson's Cupcakes came through the window, reminding her that she should start preparing dinner. Hermes followed, hopeful. Gregory had spoiled him.

Thinking of his companion made him smile again.
He never believed that he could feel that way about someone, so loved and protected. Nor did he believe that he could love someone so much. Gregory was kind, loving and attentive, and everything between them seemed easy and natural.
It was strange how they had gotten into his life. But there were so many strange things in his life, such as those dreams that he later could not remember but that made him wake up gasping for air or the feeling that he was being watched when he came out that he simply ignored the thought.

He had always been a lonely man. He did not feel comfortable in crowds or with trivial chats.

And yet, after a few brief moments of incomprehensible apprehension when they entered the bar, he had gradually felt at ease with them.

The shortest of the three had been the first to approach him, holding out his hand and smiling calmly, while the other two looked at him with an expression difficult to decipher:

- Nice to finally meet you. I am John. Anthea has told us a lot about you. And the shy boys here are Sherlock and Greg.- As if it had been a sign, the young man with the black curls and the silver-haired man, whom I was sure I had seen in the neighborhood at one time or another, approached and sat down next to them.

"Army. Position of responsibility. Calm but alert. Father. Good pulse. Shooter..."

- Alexander! Are you all right?

Anthea's voice pulled him out of his thoughts. Slightly dizzy from the overload of data his mind was creating, he closed his eyes for a moment, missing out on the worried glances the others exchanged.

- Yes, I am sorry. You were saying?

Anthea smiled slightly.

- I was telling you that John was stationed in Afghanistan. You were there a few years ago, weren't you? He didn't have much time for sightseeing, as you understand, but he visited some interesting places. And I told him about the model you made of the Great Mosque of Herat, you would have to show it to him one day...

They spent a couple of hours talking about Afghanistan, about its architectural jewels, with Anthea and John carrying the weight of the conversation while the other two nodded or laughed at his anecdotes, asking him a multitude of questions and making him feel somewhat uncomfortable with their looks, without being able to shake off a strange sense of familiarity.

When they said goodbye, he knew that Greg was a policeman and Sherlock was a great violinist. Sherlock asked him for advice on a case involving possibly counterfeit Stradivarius. He agreed to accompany him a few days later, without really knowing why. He had the strange feeling that the young man was hiding something from him, but for some reason, he wanted to see him again.

That night he had nightmares again.

Gregory and he had met by chance days later, as the man walked through the neighborhood, and after a few seconds in which none seemed to know what to say, they had returned to the old cafe. The conversation had become easy with the tea and they had a hard time saying goodbye. Since then, they had begun to see each other regularly.

 

Greg tightened his embrace slightly, kissing the head with soft reddish curls carefully so as not to awaken his companion, who rested on his chest. He caressed the soft white skin covered in freckles, enjoying the warmth of the other man, who stirred slightly, without waking up.
During the night he had had another of his nightmares.

The DI had arrived early at night, ignoring the knot in his stomach that appeared every time he came home, fearing to find a Mycroft, "no, not Mycroft, Alexander" furious, shouting at him that he remembered everything, hating him for having lied to him, for having made him believe that the normal, uncomplicated life he thought he had had was really his. He reproached him for having abandoned him one day because of his lies and now he was making him live in one.

The smell of fresh cupcakes and the sound of classical music upstairs received him when he opened the entrance door and exhaled the air he had not realized he was holding.

Those had been the best six months of his life. The most difficults too. Always fearing to make a false move, fearing to call the man by his true name in a carelessness, fearing to meet someone who would give them away.

Yet it was worth it. Every minute of tension, fear and nervousness, every lie and every pretext was worth it.

Alexander was exactly the same as the Mycroft he had imagined without the ice mask, without the defensive wall the politician built around him, but with his sarcastic humor and protective instinct. He was kind, funny, shy and affectionate.

His relationship with Sherlock was also progressing. Despite his amnesia, Mycroft was still as brilliant and witty as before, though more contained, sometimes stopping in the middle of a deduction, shaking his head and discarding what he was saying as if it were absurd, apologizing for his over-imagination and telling them that they will continue their work.

Then Sherlock, who had been trying to keep up with him with an intense gleam in his gaze, as if he had recovered something very valuable, tried to hide his disappointment, pursing his lips and changing the subject.

Despite the care with which they acted, they had come very close to spoiling everything more than once.

Like when they found Mr. and Mrs. Holmes and had to tell him that he had vaguely reminded them your son who died years ago to explain his reaction. Or when they gave different versions of Mary Watson's death.

However, it was the small details of the day to day that posed the greatest challenge. Like the night before.

He had opened the door to the floor without making a sound, going to the kitchen, where he assumed the youngest would be, stealthily, only to be able to observe him in silence. He crossed the threshold and, before he knew it, two knives had flown towards him, immobilizing.

- Oh, Gregory... Sorry, I...

Greg looked over one of his shoulders, where one of the knives had pierced the fabric of the shoulder of the jacket, a few centimetres from his skin, by nailing it to the door frame. The other knife had made a similar path, this time nailing the opposite sleeve of the jacket to the wall. In front of him, his lover looked at him with a terrified expression.

He ripped out the utensils that held him, trying to reassure his companion with a slight smile.

- It's all right, I'm fine. It's my fault, I startled you. It's all right...

He approached to embrace him, but the other recoiled in anguish, his hands running across his face.

- Honey, what...?

- You don't understand. I knew you'd come in. I didn't know it was you. I just... I just felt like someone had come in.

- Okay, you got scared and acted on instinct, that's okay... You didn't hurt me.

The tallest looked at him, pale and frightened.

- I know. I didn't want to hurt. I just thought, "Don't kill him yet. First find out who he is, find out who sent him. Then..." I don't know where that thought came from, it was just there and... What kind of person thinks something like that? What kind of person does something like that, in that situation, without losing his nerves, without...?

Greg breathed without knowing how to calm him down. What he had learned as an MI6 agent had taken over when he felt in danger.

- Listen, we react strangely to stressful situations, not...

- I ordered the meat very done.

- What?

 

- Our first date. We went to dinner. I asked for chicken salad and for you a steak with potatoes with very done meat because you can't stand the blood in the food, how could I know? How could I know that John was a soldier when I saw him? And his wife... Come on, a cancer patient who gets run over while running away from robbers who shot her? Really? What aren't you telling me? Why do I feel like I've known you all my life? I don't understand...
Greg cradled his face, kissing him gently before hugging him, not knowing what to do.
- My... My life, Take it easy, take it easy, everything is fine. I love you. Don't forget it. Don't ever forget it, okay?
He felt his lover relax in the embrace as he drew comforting circles on his back, nodding in the hollow of his wet neck from tears, striving not to cry too.
Alexander went to bed shortly afterwards to try to calm the intense migraine that threatened to split his head in two, while Greg sat still in the dark, having no idea what he was going to do. When he went to bed, the younger man approached him, looking for him in his sleep. " I want to be with him", he told himself, "whatever happens, whatever his name is, whoever it is tomorrow, I just want to be with him."

The agitated breathing and the movements next to him had awakened him. Gently he drew him to him.
- Shh, easy, it's okay. You're safe. I'm here.
- Gregory?
He hugged him, accommodating it over his chest.
- It's just a dream, honey. It's all right, you'll be fine. You want to talk about it?
Alexander vaguely remembered the girl's voice, the sound of gunshots, the man in a three-piece suit so close to him that he looked at him coldly. He could still feel his skin warm from the fire, and the voice, so similar to Gregory's, screaming horrible things at him.
- No. Just hold me. Please.
Shortly after, he had gone back to sleep, with no dreams this time.

The slight change in his breathing told him that Alexander was awake. He tensed slightly, wondering if he would like to continue the conversation he had started the day before. He ran his hand over his sensitive neck, causing a small laugh.

- Good morning, darling. Are you better?

He nodded briefly, still not moving.

- Look, I know there are things you want to know and....

Alexander stood up, looking into his eyes.

- Gregory, I... There are only two things I need to know. Just two, okay?

Inhaling, Greg nodded.

- Do you love me?

Greg smiled slightly, stroking his face.

- Yes. More than anything in the world. More than I've ever loved anyone. More than I could ever explain to you.

Alexander nodded, bringing his face closer.

- And do you know that I love you?

- Yes, I do.

- Well, that's all I need to know. Nothing else matters.

Closing the distance, they kissed slowly first, deepening the kiss and the intensity until they had to separate to breathe.

- Oh, there's something else you should know. Mrs. Hanson It went up cupcakes last night, but apparently we can't eat them all because Andrea, Sherlock, John and Rossie are coming this afternoon.

Alexander laughed briefly, before reaching his lips again. It didn't matter the blank spaces in his mind, or the strange things he shouldn't know, or that the nightmares he believed were more than dreams harassed him. He had everything a man could wish for, a wonderful man who adored him and a family who loved him, and that was something he was not going to give up.