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Enigma

Chapter Text

The bee’s legs softly tickle the bare skin of Sherlock’s arm. He watches the small insect crawl industriously from his wrist to the rolled-up fabric of his shirt-sleeve near his elbow. Perhaps, he muses, it is attracted to the thin layer of salt on his skin, the result of his bicycle ride in the noon heat. Having reached the cloth, the bee turns, wandering in the opposite direction until, suddenly, it halts and takes off, buzzing away to join its companions in the meadow.

Sherlock props himself up on one elbow and uses his other hand to shield his eyes from the sun. Through the gently swaying grasses and wildflowers (scabiosa, galium, malva, cirsium, serratula …) he can see the beehives near the edge of a line of oaks and ash-trees. The hives are busy, now that summer seems to have decided that a return is worthwhile after all. Today, the 31st of August, is the first day of sunshine after a mostly miserable, wet and cold month which felt more like early autumn than what August is supposed to be, even in England. But today summer reigns with a vengeance: high temperatures, bright sunshine, the smell of ripe fruit and of flowers, the chirping of crickets and hum and buzz of bees.

Not that Sherlock would have had much opportunity to enjoy a sunny month of August, had there been one. He flops onto his back into the fragrant grass, his arm loosely resting over his eyes to avoid the sting of the sun. He has to be careful not to get sunburned. His skin is still pale despite a faint freckly tan he acquired from cycling earlier this year, on the odd occasions he managed to be out and about on the bike. The rest of the time he spent cooped up in a wooden hut behind stacks of papers without much chance of seeing sunlight, nor listening to the sound of crickets or feeling wind on his face – unless one counts the constant draught in his corner of the shack.

It wasn’t so bad last winter, he thinks, being mostly confined indoors. Of course, work was tedious and uncomfortable even then, but one hadn’t been tempted to gaze longingly out of the window at the green expanse of the lawn and lake and the tall trees of Bletchley Park. The view had been grey and dreary, or, depending on one’s shift, dark. Sherlock actually prefers the night shifts, because with his mind constantly demanding distraction and so preventing him from falling asleep most nights, at least at work it’s occupied, and effectively, too.

So voluntarily, he takes on the unloved night shifts, often working overtime. He spends far longer poring over little rows of garbled letters than he is required to (and, if he’s honest, is altogether healthy). Even now, when he closes his eyes, he can see them marching through his mind: Enigma encoded texts, typed out from intercepted radio messages by the industrious Wrens, the ladies of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. These girls keep the enormous decryption machine of Bletchtley running like a hive of busy bees, providing codebreakers such as Sherlock Holmes with their daily nourishment, not of nectar and pollen, but of riddles.

Sherlock has lived on that diet for almost a year now. At first he went reluctantly and not entirely voluntarily, despite knowing that he was perfectly suited for the task. But at the time, the job he had invented for himself had finally begun to bear fruit. The first clients had called upon his services as a consulting detective, the only one in the world. Also, and more importantly, contacts to Scotland Yard had been established, promising cases more complicated and interesting than stolen jewellery and marital infidelity. He hadn’t known what to do with himself after reading chemistry at Cambridge, but his interest in crime and crime-solving soon sparked the idea of using his extraordinary skill at observation and deduction to aid the police, who really do need all the help they can get. He moved to London some five years ago, found himself a flat on Montague Street, acquired contacts, worked on some high-profile forgery cases and even the odd juicy murder.

All in all, things were going quite splendidly. And then the damned Luftwaffe started dropping bombs on his beloved city, and hell broke loose. His flat was spared of damage during the first nights of the Blitz, but of a sudden the war that until then hadn’t troubled him had arrived on his very doorstep. It messed up business. And, worse, it enticed his ever-meddling elder brother to interfere with his life. His motivation was twofold, Sherlock knows. Mycroft wanted to get his sibling out of danger, likely on behest of their parents if not for some brotherly concern and affection. Moreover he saw the necessity to keep Sherlock’s ever active mind occupied to prevent him from employing unhealthy measures to keep himself distracted, now that cases were likely to be scarce with half the city up in flames.

Also, people like Sherlock are sorely needed at Bletchley Park. The place seems to soak them up like a big sponge, an anthill crawling with intelligentia and social misfits. Crossword competitions were held to determine which quick and unusual thinker might be suited to codebreaking work at the Park. The major universities of Oxford and Cambridge were raided, and recruiters searched far and wide, leaving no stone unturned. And now the mansion and the codebreakers’ huts are filled with mathematicians, linguists, chess grand masters, crossword experts, the odd archaeologist or historian, cryptoanalists left over from the Great War, and even people like Geoffrey Tandy, the former director of London’s Natural History Museum who was approached because he is an expert for ‘cryptogams’. His recruiters, idiots, the lot, only belatedly realised that his field of study has little to do with cryptography but with lichens and mosses and seaweed. But Tandy, like the rest of the motley crew, has stayed on anyway.

Sadly, Sherlock thinks as images of his colleagues pass through his mind, the Oxford don with the predilection for inventing languages of his own and writing children’s books didn’t. He’d been interesting to talk to on the one occasion Sherlock met him at George Allen & Unwin’s. The publisher’s secretary had incidentally scheduled their appointments with Mr. Unwin for the same time. Sherlock had wanted to get his study on London soils published (decision still pending due to paper rationing at the moment). The professor had been called to an emergency meeting. A German air raid had apparently destroyed the remaining stock of his fairly successful children’s book. Sherlock deduced the man as they waited outside Mr. Unwin’s office. The don took it in stride, even when Sherlock enquired whether as an obviously skilled philologist he had been approached by Bletchley, which he had. However, Sherlock later learned he’d declined the invitation due to other commitments. Sherlock hopes that one of these is finishing the sequel to his book. He rather liked the first one.

He’d have fit in nicely with the crowd, Sherlock muses as he lies in the meadow, bees humming and crickets chirping around him, creating a far more pleasant noise than the buzzing of Turing’s Bombe machines in Hut 11. So, in fact, does Sherlock. Genius and ‘freak’ both, that’s what he is. It had only been a matter of time until he’d have ended here, anyway. Only the manner in which he was ‘volunteered’ by his brother still riles him. Mycroft more or less blackmailed him into leaving Montague Street head over heels with just a small bag. Sherlock was carted off to Euston Station in his brother’s forbidding black car and put on the next train to Bletchley. Sherlock half expected to be asked to wear a cardboard sign round his neck like the many children who were being evacuated from the city at that time, clogging the platform and the trains, leaving teddy-bears and dolls all over the place and crying for their parents or siblings.

One year of codebreaking. How time flies. One year stuck in a sleepy Buckinghamshire town with only a few short trips to London and one to the family estate in Sussex over Christmas for a change of scenery. Sherlock misses London, its lively rhythm, its grandeur and darkness both, its potential for thrill and adventure, its serene beauty at times and revolting ugliness at others, its history and modernity. Here, there is only tiny Bletchley and its surrounding villages, as quaint and boring as one would expect. There aren’t even any decent crimes round here apart from the odd theft or drunken brawl.

True, London is only about an hour away on the train, but every time he arrives there after a prolonged absence, it feels increasingly unfamiliar with yet another part destroyed or barricaded behind sandbags, another neighbourhood torn apart by fire and death from the skies, or by grievous news from the Continent. In that respect, Bletchley isn’t so bad. Sherlock never thought he’d appreciate staying out in the countryside, but over the past year his cycle rides to natural places like this peaceful meadow with its fascinating flora and fauna have become increasingly important to maintain his sanity. Bletchley Park is a busy place with thousands of people working there, but it’s different from busy London, perhaps due to the high degree of security maintained throughout. It doesn’t feel like home the way London did before the war. Sherlock, who never expected to say that of himself, feels uprooted, cast into a sea of letters. Sentiment, that’s what it is. Apparently he’s not as immune to it as he’d like to be. Without the cycling, without the opportunity to collect specimen or soil samples even his riddle-craving mind would dissolve under the constant pressure and repetitiveness of codebreaking.

Sherlock signed the Official Secrets Act in Mycroft’s car as they drove to the station. Most people working at Bletchley have no clue what transpires in other parts of the Park, in the various huts and the stately if architectonically nightmarish mansion. Staff of the various sections are forbidden to talk about their daily work to anybody outside their own station, and there are countless measures in place to prevent news of what is really going on from reaching enemy ears, to the extent that sometimes fake reconnaissance missions are undertaken to let the Germans believe intelligence about their troop movements has been acquired through a lucky aircraft or important papers accidentally found in a waste basket instead through messages decoded at Bletchley.

Despite being mostly confined to deciphering German naval messages in Hut 8, Sherlock has kept his eyes and ears open, and by now thinks he knows who does what at the Park. Not that there is anybody he is eager to tell about his findings, or indeed anybody who’d listen apart from spies of the enemy. It’s not like he has a lot of friends at Bletchley. There are some acquaintances, but even among so many individuals with obviously limited social skills, he is labelled a ‘freak’, and shunned accordingly. In his own hut his fellow codebreakers only seek his advice if they must. Not that Sherlock minds the solitude.

At first, he truly thrived in the environment. They put him under Alan Turing to work on the Kriegsmarine’s Enigma codes, nicknamed “Dolphin”, more challenging to decipher than those of the Wehrmacht or the Luftwaffe. And he loved the challenge. Crib-based decoding is hard, often consisting of guess-work and tenacity and sometimes sheer luck, but it’s rewarding when after hours (rarely) or days (more realistically) of brain-wracking the rows of garbled letters suddenly make sense and can be read as plain text. Most of the messages are boring, however: weather forecasts and routine accounts of submarines and destroyers letting each other know that there are “Keine besonderen Vorkommnisse”, that nothing untoward happened. But there is the odd position notification, and, more valuable still, actual commands that let the Allied forces guess where the dreaded U-boats are heading, and so to warn their convoys of the trap.

It in’t that Sherlock feels a strong patriotic duty towards the war effort, unlike his brother who virtually incorporates the British Government in his person. People who think they know what he does call Mycroft Holmes Churchill’s lapdog, yet Sherlock knows that in truth the places are exchanged. His brother runs the country, not the official prime minister. And after all, Winston looks far more like a grumpy bulldog than Mycroft, who to Sherlock has always resembled some kind of stiff and stalking bird.

But even Sherlock is aware of the dreadful reports from the war on the Continent and the treatment of all who are different and don’t fit the system in Nazi Germany. He has heard the screaming of the sirens, felt the bombs setting London on fire, and seen the large dome of St. Paul’s wreathed in smoke. He never considered fighting at the front, had managed to avoid conscription on the basis of (at the time non-existent) health issues. God, he’d staged such a show for the medical examiners, pretending great eagerness to join up while behaving increasingly strange, having practised how to enact certain ticks and medical issues beforehand. He wouldn’t make a good soldier, anyway, with his troubles following orders and arranging himself in an authoritative hierarchy.

Imagine that, he thinks, smiling wryly from under his arm. Private Holmes standing to attention. Not a private, though. His familial status and education would elevate him to lieutenant right away. He’d be the nightmare of any commanding officer, so much for sure. Even Turing has to reprimand him now and again, and his superior of sorts here at Bletchley is as far removed from a hard-faced major or colonel as possible. The man wears a gas mask when cycling to work to prevent upsetting his hayfever, for God’s sake. At Bletchley Sherlock lets his brain provide patriotic duty. As this also means trying to outwit the Germans and their ingenious, devilish, fascinating Enigma machines and encoding strategies, so much the better. Sherlock isn’t much good with a gun, anyway. He is an excellent fencer, thanks to lessons both at Harrow and Cambridge, but wars aren’t fought with blades anymore.

It comes with a price, though, working at Bletchley Park. Even for a man such as Sherlock Holmes who craves intellectual challenge and stimulation, who needs it to function properly and not fall into the dark pits of boredom, the constant pressure of the long shifts has begun to take its toll. The repetitive nature of codebreaking is slowly wearing him down. What started as a fascinating game of riddles has turned into routine. Already after deciphering the third uneventful Wetterbericht in a row Sherlock began to wonder whether he’d not be better off in London, despite the bombs, or as an intelligence agent out in the field, spying on the Germans.

He sighs as he shifts on the ground. A hard tussock of grass is making a hole in his back. His stomach rumbles, and he digs in his trouser pocket for the last of the plums he plucked where he left his bike. He’d been so caught up in his work that he extended last night’s shift beyond breakfast time, and then, seeing the sun out for the first time in what seems like months, instead of returning to his lodgings for a meal and a nap he took the bike and did a good few miles before settling in one of his favourite places in these parts. He has visited the bees frequently over the summer. He doesn’t know who owns the meadow, but the grass hasn’t been mown for hay in June nor later. Probably it belongs to the beekeeper who owns no other livestock. There are no tracks in the grass apart from his own, so nobody has been looking after the hives in the past day or two. In the nearby orchard the plums are almost over-ripe. Perhaps the owner is gone. Sherlock decides to ask his landlady. She knows most people in the vicinity and is an excellent source of gossip.

He slowly eats the plums, savouring their sweetness. Lazily, he spits the pits at a large thistle, trying to hit the downy seed pods. He’ll have to stop by his accommodation or the canteen before his next shift and have some proper food, he knows. Some tea would be nice, too. No good denying his transport any form of nourishment as he’s done so often in the past year, simply forgetting to eat (or sleep) while poring over a code. He’d subsisted mostly on milky tea, sugary coffee, and cigarettes.

He takes aim with another pit, spits, skilfully hitting the pod which breaks apart, sending fluffy seeds afloat on the breeze. Well, he thinks a little wistfully as he watches them lift and rise above the grasses like smoke, a cigarette would be nice now, actually. He stills the desire for having something in his mouth by keeping the pit of his last plum on his tongue and slowly shifting it from one cheek into the other, the hard surface rasping against his teeth.

Now and again he still feels the odd craving, despite having stopped smoking over three months ago. Having been forced to stop, more like, on doctor’s orders. In April, after a spring of feverish work due to the capture of a German trawler near the Lofoten Islands which had yielded a complete set of Enigma keys for the month of February, Sherlock contracted pneumonia. Not heeding his body’s warning signs, and continuing to work, at one point he collapsed rather spectacularly while setting out on his bike. Subsequently, he spent two weeks in hospital and two on sick leave at his lodgings, almost too weak to use the stairs, his shoulder aching from where he’d hit the ground. He should have stayed off work longer to recover properly, but he had entreated Dr. Stamford to allow him back as soon as he was (shakily) on his feet again, the boredom of being confined to his small room almost unbearable. But he should have rested longer. The illness has left traces. Even now he feels a slight wheezing and a sting in his lungs whenever he draws a deep breath. He felt it today on the bicycle. Every small hill makes him gasp for breath, his strength han’t fully returned yet. He’s always been on the slender, lanky side, but now his tailored clothes are hanging loosely about his frame and he is only slowly beginning to fill them properly again.

He’d been too ill and weak these first weeks in spring to heed the nicotine withdrawal his body was going through. It surely added to his general misery, though. Once he’d recovered enough to try and smoke, he found that he couldn’t stand the taste anymore. It made him retch, and the hot burn made his lungs ache. He still thinks longingly of the splendid rush and focus the nicotine used to provide, but by now this has reduced to a dull craving. It’s similar to the one he encounters for cocaine now and again, despite never having used regularly, only a few times during his Cambridge days when his studies hadn’t been sufficient to entertain his mind, and rarely afterwards, in London. Not that he has to do completely without smoke. Hut 8 is usually full of it due to the majority of the personnel smoking. The first time Sherlock entered it after his involuntary confinement he felt like hitting a wall of fumes, the obnoxious reek of Magnussen’s pipe most prominent.

So, no more smoking. Mike Stamford will be pleased. Sherlock has an inkling that the doctor has been charged by Mycroft to keep an eye on his wayward little brother, because ever since his release from hospital Mike regularly accosts Sherlock and enquires after his health, and has twice pulled him out of a double shift to make sure he ‘doesn’t overdo things’, as he put it. Sherlock wonders whether the jovial, round-faced man is receiving any compensation for his spy-work.

Still, he likes Mike, who is one of the few tolerable acquaintances Sherlock has made at the Park during the past year. He’s a capable doctor, too. That’s the advantage of working on the cribs day in day out. One doesn’t have to deal with too many people, and since many of the odd inhabitants of Hut 8 aren’t much more sociable than Sherlock, even though they work together in teams now and again, he socialises with none. God, the mere thought of that. Conversation, mind-numbing small-talk. Worse, potential attempts at romance. Anything he can do to avoid these things, he does. However, there are exceptions, rare ones. At one point Milner-Barry, a fellow Cambridge man and now head of the Hut 8 Crib Room, invited Sherlock to a game of chess. Uncharacteristically, Sherlock agreed, if only to test his skills against a real professional. He lost, albeit narrowly. The defeat didn’t much bother him. After all, Milner-Barry had represented England at the Chess Olympiade before war had been declared, so losing had been … bearable.

No, Sherlock decides, dealing with people isn’t his strong suit. It’s unnecessary and overrated most of the time, anyway. He is more content out here, surrounded by bees. The only distraction people provide is of an intellectual kind. Most are interesting to deduce, hiding small clues all over themselves in their bearing, way of speech, their clothing, the shape and state of their hands and fingers. All those little details most people overlook because they don’t observe properly. That’s were Sherlock’s expertise and special talent lie. At a glance, he is able to deduce a person’s life story and habits, which in turn enables him to often predict their behaviour. More than once his uncanny skill has come in handy for devising cribs by deducing mistakes made or short-cuts employed by the German operator on the other side. Sherlock’s skill with languages (Latin, Greek, German, French, some Dutch and Flemish and Italian, a little Danish and Russian) and generally quick wit help, but in these he is not exceptional at Bletchley.

He shifts the plum pit again and gazes at his watch. Two o’clock. In two hours he has to be back at work. The thought of the cramped, stuffy hut doesn’t fire his motivation to return. His stomach rumbles again. Too many plums and not enough solid food for the past few days. He really ought to get himself a bowl of porridge and some toast. A wash and shave wouldn’t go amiss, either, he thinks as he runs a hand over his face where the dried sweat is making the skin itch slightly, while his fingers rasp over faint stubble at his chin.

With a sigh, he heaves himself up and shakes out the garbadine jacket he placed on the ground to protect his backside from the moisture still lingering between the grasses. It’s too warm to don the jacket, so he slings it loosely over his shoulder. With a last wistful glance at the beehives, he sets out through the tall grasses to retrieve his bicycle, grasshoppers springing away at every step. Back to the front, he thinks wryly as he secures his jacket on the rack and mounts.

 

–<o>–

 

Both his landlady and her visiting sister are out when he arrives at his lodgings, which consist of a small room in a well-kept detached brick house off Buckingham Road, about a mile and half from the Park. Several other employees of Bletchley Park are housed in this area, mostly women. His landlady, an elderly widow named Turner, lost her elder son in the early days of the war. The younger is away fighting in North Africa. She invited her younger sister, Mrs. Hudson, over from London to help her with things, not least looking after her lodger. Despite the two women’s constant fussing, Sherlock likes them. Mrs. Hudson’s late husband, as it transpired, had quite a colourful past and got himself killed during the Prohibition in Chicago, after which his wife returned to England and set up residence in London.

As he climbs the narrow stairs to his room, Sherlock finds a note addressed to him stuck to the bannister.

Sherlock, dear,

since – again – you did not come in for breakfast this morning there is some bread and butter and jam put away for you on the middle shelf in the larder. Tea you’ll have to make for yourself. Milk is in the pantry, too. Martha and I will stay in town after church to have lunch with a friend. Don’t forget that we’re expecting another lodger to join us tonight. I did tell you before, twice, but you tend to forget these things so easily. He’ll be renting the room next to yours, so you better remove your extra books and the smelly chemistry set you secretly stored in there. I won’t touch your things for fear of poisoning myself, after what happened with the soda. And get rid of the dead … things in the jars. And the creepy skull. Horrid thing. Please also make some space in the bathroom. We don’t expect to be back before tea.

Best regards, Ellie and Martha

P.S.: Do please eat something, poor starved thing that you are! Remember, you aren’t entirely recovered yet.

Sherlock rolls his eyes as he runs a hand through his tousled curls. Another lodger. Great. Exactly what he needs. He must have deleted the information, because only dimly he remembers Mrs. Turner mentioning it. It seemed unimportant at the time. Blast.

He enjoys the relative peace and quiet of this place as a respite from the people-infested anthill that’s the Park, and now an invasion is imminent. His room is tiny, he needs the additional space of the formerly spare room for experiments to take his mind of cribs and cyphers. And where and when is he supposed to practise his violin? It’s doubtful his new neighbour will appreciate the musical interludes at odd hours. His two landladies are sound sleepers and moreover occupy a somewhat separate part of the house. They usually don’t complain as long as he leaves out the more modern and experimental tunes and plays the odd Ivor Novello song for them to coo and sigh over.

Well, with a little luck he’ll get rid of the nuisance in no time. Last autumn there’d also been an attempt at billeting somebody in the neighbouring room, but the fellow soon moved out again. Sherlock swore to his landladies that his sudden departure hadn’t been his doing. He didn’t mention that he’d had a little chat with the man, a linguist from Edinburgh, and confronted him with a number of unsavoury things about this past the other surely wouldn’t want to see exposed. He’s going to get rid of the new arrival, too, before he has the chance to settle in.

 

–<o>–

 

When he arrives at his room, he finds the door slightly ajar and Hattie, Mrs. Turner’s old black cat, sprawling on his bed. He’d been somewhat annoyed the first few times this happened, the cat treating the room like her territory. But after Mrs. Turner burst into tears one day over breakfast and told him that Hattie had so loved her Robbie and always slept on his bed, and that apparently now that her son’s old room was occupied again Hattie just assumed he had returned, and that please if Sherlock would gently put her outside if she bothered him but not scold or tease her, he rolled his eyes and assured her the damned cat could stay. He surprised himself with that. Sentiment again. Bloody cat.

In fact, Sherlock isn’t really bothered by Hattie treating his room (and in fact the entire house) like her kingdom, and him as one of her underlings. They soon struck a bargain to suit both sides. Sherlock pets Hattie for a few minutes when he encounters her, and in return she brings him all kinds of critters she hunts outside. Mice, rats, squirrels, frogs and toads, and if he’s lucky, a snake. Oh, they are perfect for experiments, now that there is no morgue nearby to acquire fitting dead material. Outside this arrangement, they ignore each other.

The cat stretches lazily when he enters, and yawns. “Hello, Hattie,” he greets her, stooping to briefly scratch her chin and ears. She purrs for a moment, licks his hand once, then stands and with the haughty gaze of a queen surveying her unworthy minion, she jumps down from the bed and stalks off.

Sherlock begins to half-heartedly shift some of his possessions from the other room. On the wardrobe he leaves the jar with the mangled toad, one of Hattie’s more recent gifts, just so the new lodger knows what to expect. A quick wash, shave and change of shirt later, Sherlock makes himself a sandwich from the utensils in the larder, but after wolfing it down he’s still hungry and decides to pass by the canteen for a warm meal. His shift is going to last until midnight with only a half hour break in the middle, and he feels that after the exertion he needs more in his stomach than a sandwich and some fruit.

 

–<o>–

 

Sherlock arrives at the canteen with half an hour to spare. As usual, the place is brimming with life: Wrens sitting together in giggling groups, some army personnel playing cards, grey-faced and shadow-eyed codebreakers huddling over their plates. Two women (college graduates, Oxford, one is engaged, the other in mourning, beau in the airforce shot down over the Channel) are playing chess in a corner. Sherlock spots some of his companions from Hut 8. Crossword champion Anderson is chatting up yet another woman, this time a fiercely smart-looking dark-skinned Wren (Jamaican, also crossword champion, attended lady’s college overseas, recently arrived in England, has a brother in the army, likely as a driver; she has started training on the Bombe machines). Sherlock feels a brief inclination to saunter over and warn the girl of her danger. Anderson is a notorious womaniser. But she looks clever enough to see through his ruse.

At another table Alan Turing and Dilly Knox (Cambridge don, used to teach egyptology and Greek at King’s College, now head of Enigma decoding) are engaged in animated conversation, the latter properly attired for a change. He sometimes shows up at work in his dressing gown, having forgotten to dress because an idea hit him in the bathroom. Turing, however, is still wearing sports gear, having obviously used the fair weather for a run to clear his head. Despite being another Cambridge man, Sherlock never really encountered him over there. Turing is younger than he by some five years, attended a different college, and since neither participated much in inter-college activities, their paths never crossed before Bletchley. He is a true genius, though, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of his age and a driving force in the codebreaking efforts at Bletchley. The whirring Bombe machines in Hut 11 which so help the cryptographers by technically limiting the myriad ways a message can be encoded are his invention, partly based on the work of Polish codebreakers. But he’s a weird one, Turing. Shy and mostly living in his own head, he seems happiest when dealing with numbers. Or when he’s running. Sherlock sympathises with him. For him the cycling does it, or his violin and experiments when he needs distraction from abstract brain work.

Sherlock also has a strong inkling that Turing is gay, like a number of people at Bletchley. Unlike some of them, however, Turing is prudently careful not to display it openly. Bletchley Park is notorious for romances, the path round the lake a favourite beauty spot for many couples. But those romantic entanglements conducted in the open are strictly between men and women for fear of repercussions, although there are hints of those of other kinds if one looks closely. Sherlock does look closely, always and unscrupulously, but he couldn’t care less about these things. Romance or sexual intercourse have never interested him. The mere thought is unappealing, and if he’s perfectly honest, quite frightening. Sentiment, he thinks derisively, which makes people irrational and limits their intellectual powers. And sex must be worse if one forfeits the control over one’s body during the act, becoming a slave to base biology. And worse still, it involves having to deal with other people in a very intimate way. No, thank you kindly. It’s not for him, never has been, never will.

So whether Turing and the rest of Bletchley are gay or straight, abstinent or running after everything wearing a skirt as Anderson does, they are welcome to their choice of idiocy. Sherlock is glad to leave them to their fancy, as long as they leave him in peace and don’t get on his nerves. All he is interested in is the Work.

 

–<o>–

 

As if to test his resolution, after he’s fetched himself some stew, bread and cheese and a pot of milky tea, and is settled on a bench near the door where he can feel a draught of air, a shadow falls on his table. He hears a rustle of cloth and an excited whisper, “Come on, just ask him,” followed by a slight push. There’s a nervous rearranging or hair judging from the sound, and a tentative step forward.

“Hello, Sherlock,” says a slightly tremulous voice, despite the hard work the owner is obviously putting into making it sound calm and confident. For a moment Sherlock is tempted to ignore it. He recognises the voice (educated, middle-class, originally from the East Midlands but stayed long enough in London area to pick up a City dialect, either the family moved or she stayed with relatives, had a slight cold recently) and faint smell of perfume (difficult to place, borrowed, flowery, rather expensive, must research perfumes more thoroughly) and links it with somewhat mousey features and shy smiles directed at him. Better get it over with quickly, he then decides. With deliberate slowness he puts down his spoon and gazes up into the blushing face of Molly Hooper, one of the many female clerks from Hut 8 who spend their shifts punching holes into Banbury sheets.

Sherlock doesn’t understand why so many highly intelligent women are reduced to these uninspired (if necessary) tasks, when many of them would make brilliant cryptoanalists themselves. Molly is no exception. She speaks several languages, amongst them good German and French, has a quick wit and pays attention to detail. She also has a morbid fascination with dead things which Sherlock shares and finds almost endearing. In spring when a mummified bat was found behind the radiator, close to where Turing usually chains his mug to prevent it from getting stolen, most of the women and many of the men cringed and demanded the dead thing to be removed immediately. Only Molly and Sherlock took an interest. Molly even managed to identify the species by the size and shape of its ears (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). Sherlock still keeps the bat in one of his jars. Molly is … all right, as far as fellow human beings range on Sherlock’s scale from ‘obnoxious imbeciles’ to ‘good’.

Now, however, the competent Miss Hooper is reduced to a nervous wreck as she stands, wringing her hands in front of her. She has done something with her hair that makes it look like a bird has attempted to pile it in a nest and failed, and wears lipstick for a change, the colour too pink for her complexion. She has also opened the top button of her blouse, which is reasonable in the heat. Sherlock gives her a quick once-over and decides to be kind and spare her the trouble of a long speech. Molly is tolerable company where codebreaking and talking about dead bats is concerned, but it’s obvious even to Sherlock that she is trying to steel herself into asking him out, and that simply won’t do. Why do people even bother? He sits up straighter.

“Hello, Molly,” he replies evenly.

“I … hello.” She smiles nervously. “I’m sorry for interrupting your meal. I was just wondering …”

“Whether I would like to accompany you to the concert tomorrow evening. Bach, is it? I fear I shall have to decline. Not because of Johann Sebastian, whose music as you rightly recalled I usually enjoy, but rather because the last time I attended one of the amateur musical entertainments here I found the second violins so badly out of tune that I left early. For your sake and that of your friends I hope the conductor will pay more attention to the tuning this time round and prevent his orchestra from thoroughly butchering the pieces.”

Molly blushes almost as pink as her lipstick and the bow in the hair of her friend, the one who urged her on (seems to have a penchant for pink clothing in general, already dressed up for a date, Welsh, doesn’t work in Hut 8 but at the mansion, perhaps on the teleprinters, acquaintance of Molly’s through shared lodgings, broken off engagement, string of lovers), then casts down her eyes.

“Uh, all right, then. Um. thanks for the warning. I guess. I’ll let you know if they were better in tune this time, yes? The violins, I mean.”

Sherlock is about to tell her that he really doesn’t care. She does look rather dejected, though. Why? Isn’t that what one does? Being truthful? Warning her of what is likely to turn out to be an underwhelming experience? Was that not kinder than inventing some kind of lie? Ah … it’s not about the concert itself, is it? She thinks I’m rejecting her. I didn’t say so, did I? Why does she believes it, then? Why are these things so complicated? It’s not my problem she wants to attend a potentially dreadful concert and desires my company. I’ve never given her any indication that I desire hers. Still, better be civil. Might need her expertise on bats again.

“Please,” he offers, smiling briefly. God, it must look dreadfully fake. As an afterthought, he adds, “Pay attention to the cellos, too. One usually plays half a beat behind. It’s quite upsetting.”

“I will. Have a good day, Sherlock.”

He gives her a nod and picks up his spoon again, overhearing Molly’s pink friend mutter in her Welsh lilt clearly loud enough from him to hear, “He is a bit of a freak, isn’t he? Sorry for persuading you to ask him. That’s codebreakers for you. All brains and no balls. Believe me, I know. Don’t recognise a pretty gal when she’s dancing naked in front of them. At least this one knows how to put on his trousers the right way round. But hey, don’t be sad. My friend Jim, he has a good-looking mate who’s in the army and on leave at the moment. I’ll ask him to bring him round when I meet him tonight. You’ll like him. And oh hello, what this? Nice uniform, don’t you think, and the contents aren’t too bad, either. Shame about the limp, but hey, the rest certainly makes up for it.”

Her voice is drowned by the general background noise in the canteen as they leave the building. The last thing Sherlock hears from the duo is a playful whistle and a sharp, “Jenny, behave,” from Molly.

Sherlock sighs and dedicates himself to his meal again. Someone has left a stack of newspapers on the table and he flicks through them as he eats. Unsurprisingly, the crossword has already been filled in but there are a few blank fields, and at least two entries are incorrect. Sherlock seems to have lost his pen, he realises as he searches his pockets. Casting a look around for a familiar and not entirely annoying face to borrow a writing utensil from, he notices that one has just entered the canteen.

Dr. Stamford is stepping through the door, accompanied by what seems to have been the cause for Pink Jenny’s catcall and sudden excitement.

“Bit different from Barts canteen, eh?” Mike is saying to the officer who has arrived with him (naval surgeon, rank captain, wounded in action, newly arrived, probabky on official invitation, walked from station despite limp, train must have been delayed …). “You can get food all day round here, even in the middle of the night. And decent grub, too. Do you remember the sludge they served at the hospital on Fridays and what looked (and tasted) like the leftovers from the entire week thrown together? You won’t find that rubbish here. But of course it’s no officers’ mess, either,” he adds with a wink and a good-natured clap to the other’s shoulder (flinches ever so slightly, recent injury to shoulder, traumatic experience, limp likely psychosomatic …).

“Mike, can I borrow your pen?” asks Sherlock. The doctor is usually equipped with one, even if he is wearing civilian clothing at the moment.

Stamford turns to him and smiles. “Oh, hello, Sherlock. Wait, let me see.” He pats the pockets of his jacket. “Here,” he says, stepping up to the table and handing over a fountain pen. “Might be out of ink, though.”

Obviously, Sherlock thinks as he receives it. It’s too light. Nevertheless he tries it on the edge of the newspaper and manages to draw only a scratchy line. “It is,” he says, handing it back.

Stamford shrugs. “Sorry,” he apologises at he returns it to the inner pocket of his jacket. “Forgot to refill it. Pencil’s gone, too. Must have lost it.”

At this, the naval officer limps over to the table as well, rests his walking stick against it and withdraws a fountain pen from the flat briefcase he has been carrying under the arm not wielding the stick.

“Here, try mine,” he says.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock studies the officer as he takes the pen. His initial deductions expand as he weighs the instrument in his hand. It yields plenty of information about its owner, a veritable gold mine. They grow and branch out like a fast-growing tree, like ivy, speeding through his mind like an express train. There are many fascinating details about the surgeon’s figure, many questions arising from his appearance and bearing that observation alone cannot quite validate as fact. Verdict after the first two minutes: the man looks interesting, might be worth further study.

So caught up in his deductions is he that only belatedly Sherlock remembers his manners. Not that he usually considers them a necessity. Still, better be civil. He looks up into a pair of eyes almost as dark blue as the wool of the naval uniform (Hainsworth cloth, wool twill, slightly worsted), calm and steady, yet with a tiny spark of something Sherlock finds difficult to place. There is pain there, but also resolve and a hint of wry humour. (Traumatic experience indeed, but tries to hide it. Keep calm and carry on, so very British. How did he get to be like this? Ah, rather obvious, isn’t it?)

The man looks out of place in his polished uniform, a fish out of water. Most Bletchley Park personnel, even the Wrens, wear civilian clothes for security reasons. People might start to wonder and ask difficult questions if they saw hordes of uniformed men and women wander around sleepy Bletchley town or the quaint little villages surrounding it. Why is he here, then? Sherlock has an idea based on his deductions, and he is itching to speak them out aloud to test his theory. Also, he wants to gauge the other’s reaction. This surprises him. Why this sudden urge? He is a show off, he knows that. But why speak up now? To shock and repel? To impress? His fellow codebreakers have long ceased to be affected either way, if ever they were, geniuses as they are in their own right.

“Thank you,” says Sherlock, then tries out the pen. It’s a little scratchy at first, but after turning it slightly and placing the nib differently, it writes well. Quickly, Sherlock fills out the first incomplete column, then looks up when Mike addresses him. “Sherlock, this is Doctor John Watson, a fellow student from Barts Hospital. John, meet Sherlock Holmes, one of our brightest minds in this place full of clever people. If I’m not mistaken, you’re going to be colleagues.”

Sherlock’s eyebrows shoot up as he extends a hand and shakes Watson’s quickly (firm handshake despite tiniest of tremors). Colleagues, he thinks, with no small measure of derision. Seriously? The man doesn’t look a total moron. He is a doctor, after all, although admittedly in times of need many of far less than summa cum qualifications have been promoted. Still, he certainly is no codebreaker material. He might be useful for reading nautical maps, but then he’s a surgeon, not a navigator. Sherlock decides to give him a taste of what he can expect at Bletchley, and from his ‘colleagues’. Moreover, he wants to test his deductions.

He sits up straighter, closes the pen, and fixes Watson with a seemingly bored but in fact very keen gaze.

“Greenland or Norway?” he asks.

The doctor frowns. “Pardon?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Where did you receive your injury? Greenland or Norway?”

“Greenland,” replies Watson warily, then casts a quick glance at Mike who is smiling. Why is he smiling? Ah, he knows Sherlock, has been on the receiving end of his deductions, too, and weathered it with fairly good grace and his usual joviality. How is this sailor going to fare?

“You told him about me?” enquires the doctor.

“Not a word,” promises Mike, his smile broadening. Perhaps he should have warned his friend of me, thinks Sherlock wryly.

Watson looks back at Sherlock, still frowning. “How then—?”

“Ah, there you are, captain,” a gruff voice interrupts him. Behind Watson and Stamford the uniformed figure of Commander Alastair Denniston has appeared, head of the GC&CS, the Government Code and Cypher School which is responsible for the codebreaking work at Bletchley. Denniston has ties with Naval Intelligence and the Admiralty. Recently, he was awarded a CBE and was made head of a department at the Foreign Office. Interestingly, he also won a bronze medal at the 1908 Olympics. Field hockey. He still retains some of the fitness, despite being around sixty now and approaching retirement. Sherlock knows him, obviously, as he’s basically his boss, but he’s never had much contact with him. Turing, Welchman and the other ‘senior’ codebreakers are who Denniston mostly communicates with. Now, however, he seems to have been expecting the new arrival, and seen it fit to welcome him personally.

There is a brief exchange of salutes. Sherlock isn’t sure how naval hierarchy works in this case because actually Watson is of higher rank than the other, but he isn’t of the Admiralty, and also he’s a medical officer. Apparently they have met before, as there are no introductions.

“My apologies for the kerfuffle with the driver,” says Denniston. “We’re not far from the station, but you shouldn’t have had to walk with your injury. But nobody expected such a long delay.”

Watson’s expression tenses slightly at this. Doesn’t like to be pitied, thinks Sherlock. Interesting.

“The inconvenience was minor, commander,” he replies. “I’m glad to be here at last. The trains were cramped, and at one point it wasn’t certain we’d be moving on at all. I would have phoned or sent a telegram, but there was no opportunity. But it all worked out in the end. My orders said to report at the mansion, which I did, but your secretary told me to wait and to get some food if I wanted to as you weren’t likely to be available for some time.”

“Yes, sorry for having kept you waiting. Phone-call from London. Apparently we’ll be getting an important visitor in less than a week’s time. Thanks for looking after him, Dr. Stamford.” He shakes Mike’s hand.

“He’s a friend from medical college,” explains Mike.

“It’s a small world,” says Denniston. “Well, looks like you’ve already met one of our codebreakers, captain.” He extends a hand to Sherlock. “Afternoon, Holmes. Actually, you may be just the person I need right now. Captain Watson here has been assigned to assist your station. I’ll introduce him to Turing in a moment, and explain how this came to pass and how exactly he’s supposed to be helping you.”

It’s obvious, isn’t it, thinks Sherlock, suppressing an eye-roll. You can read it all over his person. Still, he’s curious to see his deductions confirmed.

“Sorry to interrupt your meal, Holmes, but could you come with me for a moment?”

Mike smiles. “Well, I’ll leave you to the important folks now, John. Whenever you fancy a pint in less exalted company, let me know.”

“Thanks, Mike, I will,” replies Watson.

Denniston nods a brief farewell and leaving his naval colleague to collect his walking stick, moves around the table to approach Turing and Knox. Reluctantly, Sherlock rises. Reaching for his cup to at least finish the tea, he then follows the other two, studying the surgeon’s limp as he walks in front of him. Psychosomatic, no doubt. Didn’t ask for a chair while he stood, didn’t even need the stick as if he had forgotten about his injury while he was distracted. But now it’s quite bad. And why isn’t he wearing his medal? He certainly received one for his ‘extraordinary bravery under enemy fire’, or however the bureaucrats justify handing out shiny bits of metal. It’s almost like he’s ashamed of having been awarded one, even though the holes were it was pinned to his chest are still visible on his uniform. War hero. Must be relatively important since obviously his briefing took place back in London. High status security clearance, if Denniston talks about his assignment so freely, even in front of people like Mike. Well, well, let’s see what act of heroism our dear Surgeon Captain committed that took him off the water and got him thrown in with the funny fish here at Bletchley.

 

–<o>–

 

Apparently Turing has been previously informed of the officer’s imminent arrival, because he doesn’t seem surprised at the introduction. Sherlock thinks there’s actually a spark of recognition in the mathematician’s eyes when Watson’s name is mentioned.

“Surgeon Captain Dr. John Watson, formerly of HMS Northumberland,” Denniston introduces him, his demeanour stiff and formal, perhaps to impress Turing. Won’t work, thinks Sherlock with a wry smile. Alan isn’t interested in one’s rank. One would not expect it from his shy demeanour, but he is not afraid to speak up against the higher ups when he believes bureaucracy is once again thwarting his attempts to do his work properly, be it related to lack of qualified staff, equipment, or a general refusal to understand the importance of what they are doing here at Bletchley. At least Denniston seems to be on his side most of the time, but he, too, has to negotiate matters with the Admiralty, with Naval Intelligence and the MI6, or even some of the dick-heads at Whitehall.

“And these gentlemen are Alan Turing and Dilwyn Knox. Mr. Turing is head of Hut 8 where you’ll be working, captain,” explains Denniston. “Mr. Knox is Hut 6.” He doesn’t mention what goes on there. Sherlock knows, but apparently Watson’s clearance doesn’t entitle him to this information. The less the single person knows, the least they’re likely to blab. And there’s a death penalty on blabbing, as they’ve all been told over and over again, and made to sign.

After briefly shaking Watson’s hand, Turing looks the officer up and down, furtively, as is his custom, without meeting the other’s eyes. “I heard you are one of the men we can thank for the latest opportunity to peek at the German Enigma codes,” he mutters. “Excellent work, Dr. Watson. Your capture helped us enormously.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Mr. Turing,” replies Watson gravely. No boasting about what appears to have been quite a feat of bravery. Sherlock has expected him to spill the tale, but he seems almost reluctant to say more about it. But then it can’t have been all happy sailing, otherwise he wouldn’t be needing the cane. “It was about time we managed to pay them back a little, after they’d wreaked havoc with our ships in the North Atlantic.”

At Knox’s questioning glance, Denniston claps Watson’s shoulder. “The destroyer Dr. Watson served on was torpedoed by a German submarine near Cape Farewell off the coast of Greenland. He was one of the few men picked up by the U-boat as prisoners of war, probably because they were short of qualified medical officers since theirs had fallen ill. How long did you stay on the boat, doctor?”

“Four days. It was U-110, under Kapitänleutnant Lemp. On April 9th we were attacked by British destroyers HMS Bulldog and HMS Broadway. Lemp believed the submarine was doomed to sink as it had been badly hit by depth charges, so he ordered evacuation. We came under fire from, well, my side, and two of my companions were killed and I wounded. When Lemp realised the U-boat didn’t seem to be sinking after all, he made to swim back to it to try and destroy the Enigma and the relevant codebooks and bigram tables, but he never made it. I didn’t see it clearly as I was in the water myself at the time, but I think he was killed by one of our snipers. Sub-lieutenant Balme of the Bulldog organised a boarding party, but by that time the U-110 was sinking indeed, and they didn’t have much time. I knew it would be of great importance to try and get their encoding device and the keybooks. I thought I remembered where they were kept, because the radio operator who had been charged with destroying them had neglected to do so in the rush to get out of the submarine. So after they’d dragged me out of the sea, I volunteered to join the party. We managed to get some of the stuff, but had to hurry to get out again since the thing was taking in water rapidly. As I said, I’d already spent some time adrift on and in the North Atlantic and wasn’t keen on another bath, but due to my injury I was slowing down the others.”

He clears his throat, his expression sad and slightly angry. “Two men didn’t make it out in time, mostly because they helped me. They were pulled down by the sinking vessel. Should have been the other way round. I’m the bloody doctor, after all. Still, we got your books and codes. Hope you used them well.”

“We did,” says Turing. “We read their communications for a few days, and more importantly solved their Reservehandverfahren.” He doesn’t bother to explain what that means. Sherlock knows, Watson surely doesn’t. But he doesn’t ask, either, seems lost in unhappy memories.

“I understand your grief about the loss of your shipmates’ lives, Captain,” adds Denniston gently, “but be assured that their sacrifice saved the lives of many more. I cannot stress it enough, but the work we do here at Bletchley is of utmost importance. Even Churchill begins to understand it, although we’re still lacking the support we’d need, isn’t that right, Turing?”

The addressed nods, again keeping his eyes down. Knox’s demeanour is quite the opposite, however. “Actually, Alastair, I’ve been meaning to address this matter with you. We’re still desperately short on staff,” growls Knox with his habitual lack of tact, his infamous temper rising. Well, at least he gets things done that way.

“We can discuss this in a minute,” replies Denniston, not rising to the bait. Peacemaker, as so often. Sherlock certainly does not envy his position. “Actually, it’s related to something I need to talk to you about. You and you, too, Alan. Welchman and the others as well. It may bear directly on your request for more qualified personnel.”

He turns to Watson again. “Administration, don’t we all love it?” he asks with an apologetic but undeniably grim smile. “I’d have suggested Turing here to give you a tour of your new workspace and introduce you to your colleagues, but unfortunately we’ll have to see to this other matter first. But I’m sure Mr. Holmes here can do the job just as well, isn’t that right, Holmes?”

Sherlock isn’t exactly thrilled by the idea. This almost sounds like being forced to ‘socialise’. He’s not sure he’s very good at introducing his colleagues. There’s a lot he could tell Watson about them, but most of these things he learned through observation and deduction. As interesting as many of these findings are, he doubts the other would appreciate getting to know his colleagues so intimately so soon. Also, what to tell him about the work in Hut 8? He’s unlikely to understand the various skills required for cryptoanalysis, won’t be able to tell a Banbury sheet from a bigram table, and even though he mentioned an Enigma machine, Sherlock is certain he has no idea how they work. Still, a guided tour round the barrack might save himself from an hour or two of boring codebreaking, so he nods.

“Certainly,” he says, trying to sound civil. “I was just about to start my shift. Dr. Watson is welcome to join me. How much information is he cleared to receive?” he then enquires of Denniston.

“Same as yourself, Holmes. He’s been briefed at the Admiralty.”

“Very good.”

“Excellent. Report back to me tomorrow, Dr. Watson, once you’ve settled in,” says Denniston. “As for you, Alan, get yourself some decent clothes and meet me up at the manor at four thirty. You, too, Dilly, and find me Gordon Welchman, Milner-Barry and the others. Good day to you, Captain. Good to have you here.” With a nod, Denniston stalks off.

“Wonder what this ‘important’ business is,” mutters Knox, looking sceptical and slightly annoyed, his temper under control, though, as he takes off his glasses to wipe them on his tie. “I’ll round up the others.” He rises, puts on the glasses again and straightens his jacket. “See you later, Alan.”

Turing gets up as well. “Thanks for taking over, Sherlock,” he mumbles. “Stuart mentioned earlier he needs your help on some cribs, so you better see him soon. There’s been a problem with one of the Bombes, meaning we must do more by hand until it’s fixed. I’ll see to it. I hope to catch you and Dr. Watson later, but I may be delayed.”

He empties his glass of what looks like diluted juice and sets out as well. Sherlock is left standing with Watson. He sighs softly. “Shall we?”

As they pass the table where Sherlock’s abandoned meal still stands, Watson nods at it. “I’m sure we have enough time for you to finish.”

Sherlock shrugs. “I wasn’t that hungry in the first place.”

The other looks up at him and frowns. “Nonsense. Your stomach has been rumbling throughout Commander Denniston’s introductions.”

Oh, so he noticed. Not bad. But impertinent. It isn’t his concern whether I’m hungry or not, even if he is a doctor, thinks Sherlock crossly. Something of his consternation must have shown in his face, because the other raises his hands in a soothing gesture. “Sorry, didn’t mean to be so forward, but you look like you could do with a bite. Or two.”

Rolling his eyes, Sherlock grabs the bread and cheese from his plate and quickly assembles a makeshift sandwich, which he wraps in his handkerchief. “Satisfied?”

The other even has the impertinence to smile slightly. “Only if you eat it.” Bending over the table, he retrieves his pen. “Uranus,” he says as his eyes scan the crossword.

“What?”

“The missing word. Seventh planet of the solar system. It’s Uranus.”

Sherlock frowns. Stars and planets. Never’ve been his strong suit. One has to prioritise what information one stores in the mind. They never seemed important. Right now, however, he feels annoyed that he didn’t know and this land-logged sailor does. Well, he’ll put him in his place soon enough.

 

–<o>–

 

“So how did you know about Greenland?” asks Watson as they approach the mansion and the huts scattered across the park. Sherlock is walking his bicycle, not really caring if the other keeps up. He does, despite his limp which interestingly doesn’t seem as bad now as when he entered the canteen. The air is warm and still, with the distinct acrid smell from the brickworks lingering between the trees. In the distance, a railway whistle announces the 3:46 to Cambridge (delayed by almost twenty minutes). “Did Denniston tell you?”

“Nobody told me,” returns Sherlock brusquely. “I saw.”

The other seems intrigued by the answer. “Saw, how?”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? One glance at you tells me everything I need to know.”

A brief pause. Disbelief? “Right. So what did you ‘see’?”

Sherlock halts and cocks his head to look at the other. He draws a breath, holds it for a moment before releasing it. With it, the deductions gush forth. “Your rank and profession are easily recognisable by your uniform. No great deductive feat, that. The fact you’ve seen active duty is highly likely considering that there is a war going on and men like you are needed at the front, so to speak. But there are also clear signs that indicate you have been out at sea, such as the faint saltwater stains on your cap. It’s been cleaned recently, yet they’re still visible where the sun has bleached the wool slightly. You were busy when your cap got wet, no time to clean it there and then, causing the seawater to seep into the fabric. The fact that you’re wearing a blue cap indicates service in a northern clime, otherwise you would have been issued the white version. This rules out the Mediterannean and the tropics. Moreover you’ve been assigned to Bletchley, meaning you know something useful to assist us. Those of us dealing with naval codes are chiefly concerned with the battle in the North Atlantic and the attacks on Allied convoys. Likely you were on convoy guard duty. Denniston and yourself relayed your feat of retrieving the codebooks and bigram tables, but even without the information I deduced that you must have been involved with Enigma in some way, even if only surficially, otherwise you wouldn’t have been invited here, or ‘volunteered’ to join us.”

The officer is staring at Sherlock with wide eyes. Sherlock sets in motion again, causing the other to hurry to keep up, and continues. “Your injury was also obvious to me before it was mentioned. Bullet wound to left shoulder; you were hit from behind, the projectile damaged your scapula.”

“How did you know that?”

“You flinched when Stamford clapped your shoulder, indicating a wound that is not completely healed, or at least muscles that are still sore. You’ve also been favouring your arm. A injury that took a long time to heal, makes damage to the bone very likely. You are left-handed, yet you handed over the pen with your right. The pen itself shows signs of having been used by a right-handed writer, but not for long. Your arm was immobilised for some time. The nib still shows clear signs of prolonged left-handed writing, though, which is why it was so scratchy when I tried it out. That indicates you’re left-handed. Also there’s your uniform.”

“My uniform?”

“It’s seen some wear but is still fairly new. It was fitted before your last assignment. But now it hangs loosely about your frame, particularly round the shoulders and your waist. Your trousers are too large as well, particularly round your middle. You lost weight since, considerably so, indicating a prolonged confinement. True, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to exercise on a battleship, but your work would have kept you fit and active. You used to play rugby judging from your frame and what remains of your musculature (and the damage to one of your front teeth), perhaps football, too. But the lines on your face and the scattering of grey hairs visible under your cap look recent. You’ve been through a phase of physical unease and inactivity. I’d hazard you were shot, either intentionally by a German sniper, or accidentally by one of ours as you surmised, the wound could not be treated on the spot, or else you treated it yourself as best you could under the less than ideal circumstances, before you volunteered for the boarding party. You barely made it out of the sinking submarine, spent some time in the sea and nearly drowned due to bloodloss, fatigue and hypothermia. Because of the delayed treatment infection set in, prolonging your confinement. You were rescued, but some of your shipmates weren’t, and you blame yourself for that because as a medical officer you consider it your duty to put your men first and too look after them. Guilt, psychological trauma. This accounts for the use of the walking stick, too.”

“In what way?” asks Watson, with a trace of sharpness. Ah, thinks Sherlock, we’re getting offended and angry. How predicable.

He nods towards Watson’s right leg. “There is nothing physically wrong with it, despite it still lacking the musculature it used to have. Your limp is psychosomatic. It’s really bad when you walk, particularly when you’re stressed or upset about something, for example the entire situation here. You don’t want to be at Bletchley, you’d prefer to be back at sea, or at least to work in a field hospital, anywhere where you feel your skills as a doctor are being appreciated. Then again it is likely your career as a surgeon is over. You have an intermittent tremor in your dominant hand, it showed clearly when you were forced to relate the account of your heroic deed, and I felt it when we shook hands. All of this indicates you are traumatised by the events that ultimately brought you here. That’s why you don’t wear your medal, either. It’s almost like you’re ashamed you got one and live to wear it, while your perished friends and companions only received the honours posthumously.”

“How did you know about the medal?” asks the other, his voice and expression carefully neutral.

Sherlock rolls his eyes. Aren’t people paying any attention whatsoever?

“The holes from the pin are still visible on your chest. You were awarded it during your sojourn in London, but you removed it upon leaving the Admiralty. What was it? The George Medal, or even the George Cross? Considering what you did, the likelihood of you getting some kind of shiny recognition is very high.”

“Not a difficult deduction, then, is it?” Watson says gruffly.

Oh, a challenge. Sherlock is intrigued. Time to up the game.

“You’re right,” he concurs. “Most of what I told you I could have picked up just by listening, or quick observation. But that’s not all one can glean from your person. Your pen alone tells me much about your background which I doubt anybody here knows about.”

Watson raises a questioning eyebrow. Sherlock cannot be sure – gauging people’s emotions has never been his strong suit, that’s why he’s always avoided getting too involved – but it almost seems the doctor is enjoying their little game. Sherlock doesn’t quite know what to make of that. People don’t usually react this way.

“What’s so remarkable about my pen, then?” asks Watson, and Sherlock thinks he can hear an amused smile in his voice. It’s almost a tease. He narrows his eyes. The grim dejectedness that hung over the officer when he arrived, despite Mike’s jovial company, has almost dissipated.

Sherlock’s head jerks up haughtily. “It’s a fairly outdated model, Onoto Valveless, at least twenty years old. The nib has been shaped by your (left) hand, meaning you have handled it for some time – not counting your recent attempts at writing with your right hand, which you managed remarkably well, probably because at school you were forced to use your right – retraining, they used to do it at public schools as well. The pen is still in fairly good nick, the nib is only slightly scratchy, the ink container doesn’t leak, and the cap still holds tightly, despite the regular and ardent use it has seen. You wrote your dissertation with it, longhand, several drafts, because you lacked the funds for a professional secretary, and didn’t get a typewriter before the last draft. You write a journal or diary, too. It’s in your folder, as well as several sheets of stationery, for family who expects regular correspondence and hopes that now that you’re not at sea they’ll receive it. You write fairly much, then, as the callouses on both your middle fingers show clearly. But this pen, it’s not just another writing utensil for you. You carry it in your briefcase now, but it shows clear signs of having been kept in pockets or bags. There are faint scratches all over it. The contents of your briefcase are meticulously looked after. No creases in the papers, no bent edges, no ink smudges. You usually treat your belongings conscientiously. You looked after your pen, too, cleaning it regularly and even oiling those parts that were affected by seawater after your dip in the Atlantic. But since you carry it around with your wherever you go, it’s seen some wear. It’s more than a mere pen for you, it’s a personal treasure, a talisman, even. Now, why is that so? Sentiment, of course. There is some sentimental value attached to the object. It was given to you by someone you hold dear. Hold, or rather, held. Likely you received it as a gift from someone you lost, presumably because they died. Who? First assumption would be a family member, a parent or older sibling. No, strike the sibling. Brothers or sisters are often rather sources of conflict than deep emotional attachment.” Look at mine, a continuous nuisance.

“A parent or grandparent, then? Possible, but the pen is too new to be a treasured heirloom. I suspect a romantic attachment, then. The pen is good quality but not particularly expensive. Affordable, say, for a young woman you were involved with. She gave you the pen when you left home, to attend university, I would reckon. A not so subtle reminder to stay in contact. For some reason, things didn’t work out between you. You aren’t married, and there are no indicators that you have been at some point. You still keep the pen, though, and look after it. Strong sentimental attachment. Long one, too. Childhood sweethearts, set on the way to betrothal and marriage. You didn’t drift apart due to neglected correspondence or alternative romantic entanglements. You still hold her memory dear. Ergo, she died.”

Sherlock has been watching the doctor’s reactions closely, and his intake of breath, the casting down of his eyes and faint swallow are answer enough. Excellent, thinks Sherlock. That wasn’t so difficult, now, was it?

He isn’t quite finished, though. “Given the estimated age of the pen, and thus the date of your parting, I’d say she fell victim to the Spanish Influenza in ’19 when it wreaked havoc all over Europe. There was no way of saving her, a fact which, to this day, you regret and blame yourself for because you think that as a doctor, you should have been able to save her, despite only having begun your studies at the time.”

Noticing that Watson is not limping at his side anymore, Sherlock halts and turns. The officer stands in the shadow of the large mammoth-tree in front of the mansion, leaning on his stick, studying Sherlock with a curious expression. Again, Sherlock doesn’t know what to make of it, and notices with astonishment that this bothers him. Normally, people’s moods and sentimentalities don’t interest him. Codes and cyphers or dead bodies are easier to read than human emotions, and so far he’s successfully avoided having to invest much energy in learning the latter skill. But now, looking at the doctor in his too large uniform jacket which must be nightmarish in the afternoon heat, sweat glistening on his lined face and curling his hair behind his ears despite the military shortness of the cut, Sherlock feels the flutter of ... something. Not good, flashes through his mind. Reminding virtual strangers of their deceased loved ones, if anything falls into that category, it must be it. Even Sherlock isn’t entirely oblivious of social mores, although he chooses to ignore them most of the time.

What’s the proper code of conduct now? Apologise? What for? Sherlock hasn’t told the other anything he didn’t know already. And he doesn’t look angry or affronted, just a little dejected and weary. Express sympathy? Say he’s sorry? He didn’t even know the deceased. And what’s he doing now? Is that a smile. Sherlock frowns. This is ... strange.

“That,” says John Watson after a pause during which the two men just gaze at each other over the shadowy divide, “was amazing.”

Sherlock’s brows draw together even more. Is this teasing again? An attempt to repay him for his impertinence, for his need to show off? God, why are people so frightfully difficult to read? All code and no crib, and even the plaintext is a riddle.

“You think so?” he enquires carefully, almost shyly.

Now Watson’s smile broadens and is definitely recognisable as one. “Extraordinary, quite extraordinary.”

Surprised doesn’t even come close to how Sherlock is feeling. “That’s not what people normally say,” he manages.

Watson sets in motion again and joins him in the sunlight beyond the tree. “What do people normally say?” he asks, cocking his head as he looks up at Sherlock with his blue eyes, which, on closer inspection, aren’t simply blue at all. There are all kinds of shades in there, hazel, green, grey, specks of gold. Depending on the light, they could be almost any colour, much like Sherlock’s own, but the doctor’s are darker.

Sherlock smiles wryly. “Piss off,” he says.

Watson huffs in a short bout of laughter. “No idea why’d they do that,” he quips, and there is a mischievous twinkle in those remarkable eyes. “Although I must admit I was warned.”

“Of me?” asks Sherlock incredulously. He does have a certain reputation at Bletchley, and not a favourable one, even among his colleagues from Hut 8, some exceptions aside. He’s not been aware his ‘fame’ has spread beyond the park, however.

“Not particularly of you,” states Watson. “Of your ilk in general. Codebreakers, complicated geniuses, unsociable freaks. There were other terms used, too. There’s a lot of prejudice. Some warranted, I reckon. But I like to make up my own mind, and give people a fair chance.”

“Have I confirmed your prejudice, your laudable open-mindedness aside?”

“To some extend, yes.”

Sherlock raises an eyebrow. “Unsociable freak?” Wouldn’t be the first time he’s been called that.

Watson shrugs. “Complicated genius, rather. And a codebreaker, obviously. That was quite some deduction, and most of it just from my pen. Remarkable.”

Something warm blooms in Sherlock’s chest. It feels strange, but ... good. He barely manages to suppress a smile.

“Did I get anything wrong?” he enquires.

Watson takes off his cap and brushes a hand through his sweaty hair. The strands are dark golden, with touches of grey, and show only a minimal treatment with pomade to keep them in place. Sherlock approves, he abhors the stuff. It doesn’t work with his curls, anyway, they’re too wayward even for the strongest pomade. Sherlock is astonished the doctor’s hair draws his attention. Must be the sunlight falling on it.

“Very little,” Watson replies. “I did take off the medal, but not because I’m ashamed of it. I don’t believe I deserve it. Those men how at the bottom of the Atlantic did. The pin doesn’t fasten properly, and I didn’t want to lose it on the train, cramped as it was. I had to stand most of the time.”

Didn’t want to be pitied and take the offered seat, thinks Sherlock. “There’s always something. What about the pen?”

Watson smiles sadly. “Right on all accounts. It sounds so easy when you explain it, but you must have done it all in a heartbeat. You didn’t even handle the pen that long.”

“That’s where the genius part comes into it,” remarks Sherlock, eschewing false modesty.

Watson laughs. “Yeah, I guess. But there appear to be many of your kind here. Geniuses, I mean. Genii? What is the proper plural? Whatever. I feel quite out of place here already. What were you doing before you ended up at Bletchley?”

“I’m a consulting detective.”

“Never heard of that profession.”

“You wouldn’t have. I’m the only one in the world. I invented the job.”

“Oh, all the others were too mundane for you? Too boring?”

A smile makes its way past Sherlock’s control. “Yes, pretty much.”

“I see. So who do you work for?”

“Private clients, and Scotland Yard.”

“Didn’t know the police consulted amateurs, but then you’ve just shown that you’re rather brilliant at what you do.”

Sherlock nods vaguely. He knows he is, but hearing such praise, genuine praise, from another person is unusual. It’s unsettling, even. He studies the doctor from the corner of his eye, but he detects no guile there. The man means what he said, and he doesn’t appear to be a good enough actor to pretend otherwise without Sherlock sussing him out. And he barely even knows Sherlock. Well, perhaps that’s the reason. He’ll soon change his mind, once they’ve spend more time together and the initial dazzle of brilliance has tarnished. Sherlock knows how this goes. He’s been there before. Those not immediately appalled by his directness and seeming arrogance learn their lesson fairly quickly, and then they leave.

“Quite impressive, the place?” the doctor states. They have reached the mansion, it’s overcrowded Victorian facade with its mock-Gothic twirls and Italian pillars thrown into relief by the afternoon sun.

“I’d use another adjective,” mutters Sherlock, causing Watson to laugh again. It’s a pleasant sound.

“Which one? Ornate? Decorative? Eclectic?”

“Hideous.”

The other cocks his head to one side as if to view the monstrosity from another angle. “Yeah, you’re right. It is. Perhaps we should take a photograph and send it to Berlin to shock the Führer. I doubt he’d like it. I was in Berlin in ’36 for the Olympic Games, and their architecture was all built to impress and overwhelm, huge and stark, with barely any ornamentation.”

Sherlock considers this. “Oh, I don’t know. According to what we know of him, he was an aspiring artist before he became an aspiring tyrant. He tried to get into art school and was refused due to lack of skill and aptitude. Lack of taste, too, perhaps, considering what kind of art is ‘official’ now in Germany. He might actually appreciate this building, ugly monstrosity that it is.”

“If that’s true, yes, he might. Should have accepted him at art school, though,” muses Watson, gazing at Bletchley Manor with a grim expression. “It might have saved the entire world a lot of grief.”

Sherlock nods gravely. He doubts it. If not Hitler, somebody else would have stirred Europe and the rest of the world into war again. Still, it’s an interesting thought. What if ...

“Yes, it might,” he agrees softly.

 

–<o>–

 

When they reach Hut 8, the general hustle and bustle of changing shifts has died down. Everybody is settled in their place, and an atmosphere of busy concentration prevails. Sherlock realises that apparently it’s up to him to introduce Watson to his new workplace, with only a vague idea chiefly based on his own deductions as to what the naval officer is supposed to be doing here.

Then again, he and most of the other codebreakers never received much along the lines of training or instruction, either. When he arrived here last year he was told to see Turing and Welchman, was taken up to the mansion and together with a number of other recruits was shown an Enigma machine and given a rudimentary run-down of how it worked. That, and some general information about cryptography, the different colour codes and key words Welchman has devised to organise the huge buzz of German and other intercepts into manageable bits. He’d been asked whether he was colour-blind, which he isn’t. There’d been a test of his German (excellent), some further safety instruction (don’t talk about your work to anybody, not even people from the other huts). And then he’d been allocated to Hut 8 under Turing, and more or less left to his own devices.

Not knowing what is expected of him with regards to Watson, he decides it’s prudent that the other should at least get a general idea of what is going to be his prison for the foreseeable future. He does look fairly unimpressed as they enter the long, cramped construction. They’re miserable shacks, really, these huts. Hot and stuffy in summer, particularly during the night shifts when the shutters are down to enforce the blackout so as not to give German aeroplanes a nice, brightly lit target during their nightly air-raids. In winter they’re cold and draughty. There are coke-burning stoves, but due to coal rationing they’re rarely fed the way they should. The result is freezing codebreakers, most of them only managing thanks to the supply of scarfs and mittens provided by countless women who instead of working in factories sit at home and knit for the war effort – if they haven’t been recruited to Bletchley in the first place.

“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” says Sherlock when after parking his bicycle in the shack in front of the hut, he leads Watson along the central corridor of the building. Linoleum squeaks under their shoes. The air is thick with tobacco smoke and the smell of coffee, paper and sweaty people. Sherlock lets the other peek into the various rooms, lets him gaze at the spartan furnishings illuminated by the glow of green-shaded lights, shows him the stacks of messages to be decoded, the blackboards, the maps, the Banbury sheets, the ingenious way of communication between some of the huts which consists of a wooden tunnel and a tray on wheels that is propelled by a long broom handle.

Watson smiles good-naturedly. “No, it really doesn’t.

“Depending on who you ask – Denniston, for example –, they will tell you that this is one of the most important ventures in this war,” says Sherlock, somewhat derisively. There have been times when he has thoroughly doubted this, bored out of his mind by codebreaking work.

They have reached one of the large nautical maps pinned to the walls. Sherlock casts a glance at his companion, who has halted and is gazing up at the map with a grave expression. Sherlock sees how Watson’s eyes are drawn to the waters around Greenland, how they take in the packs of U-boats gathering there and their prey, the convoys, all marked by little coloured pins.

“It is, you know,” he says quietly. “Without your work here, we’d stand no chance out there.” He turns his head to gaze at Sherlock, and the latter is struck by the intensity of that look. “Tell me what you need from me to help you,” demands Watson fiercely.

Sherlock bites his lip and shrugs, feeling a strange reluctance to have to disappoint the other. “You don’t strike me as a codebreaker,” he begins reluctantly, “so I assume you were sent here because you spent some time aboard a German ship. The officials must have considered the possibility you overheard some of their commands, observed the structure onboard their vessels, perhaps even saw how they operate their Enigmas.

Watson huffs in frustration. “I was their prisoner. They kept me in the sickbay. I certainly wasn’t allowed to swan about the bridge and look over the captain’s shoulder when he issued commands, or chatted with the chaps on the Enigma.” He gazes at the map again, then sighs. “But yes, I did pick up a few things.”

“Ah, there you are, Sherlock.” The soft address spoken with a faint Danish accent and accompanied by a cloud of pipe-smoke causes both Sherlock and Watson to turn. They glance into the bespectacled, well-groomed face of Danish refugee Magnussen, one of Milner-Barry’s people from the Crib Room. Magnussen is known for his brilliant memory. He’s often able to cross-reference important information more quickly than the Wrens in Hut 7 with their vast index of decrypted messages. He’s an excellent chess player, too, almost as good as Milner-Barry with whom he often battles on the boards. He’s also slightly creepy with his penetrating gaze and his hands which are always sweaty due to some medical condition. “Stuart has some codes he wants you to look at. He’s off to the mansion now to meet with the ‘important’ people, and charged me with handing you the messages. And who might this new arrival be?”

Sherlock quickly introduces the two, not envying Watson for the damp handshake he receives. Together, they follow Magnussen to the Crib Room where a number of women are busy sorting through messages to be decoded and leaving them in the trays of the various codebreakers scattered on mismatched chairs around rickety tables. Apart from the shifting of papers, the occasional footsteps of one of the women walking around a table to deposit sheets in a tray, the faint scribbling of pencils and the soft flutter of a butterfly (Aglais urticae, small tortoiseshell) trapped against one of the windows, the room is quiet. The air feels thick and smoky, a feeling of highly concentrated brainwork suffusing it.

Sherlock casts a glance at Watson who takes in his surroundings, before limping over to the window to open it and free the butterfly. The fresh draught causes several people to look up briefly, their work interrupted.

“No wonder you all look like wraiths,” muses Watson as he returns to Sherlock and Magnussen, leaving the window open. “You could cut the air up in slices. Wonder how you’re even allowed to smoke in here.”

Magnussen puffs on his pipe. Sherlock catches him rolling his eyes at the doctor, and suddenly feels angry. Watson is right. These aren’t exactly perfect working conditions, and people like Magnussen aren’t helping things with their constant consumption of tobacco. “You don’t smoke, I take it, doctor?” asks the Dane.

Watson shakes his head. “No, never fancied it. What about you, Mr. Holmes?”

“Oh, he had to give it up when he was ill,” says Magnussen airily. “But before that … how many packets a day was it, Sherlock? One, two?”

“Too many,” mutters Sherlock, suddenly glad that he’s rid of that vice. Mostly rid, anyway. Watson gives him a long, almost concerned glance. Sherlock does not like being pitied. “Can we get to work?” he asks archly. “What does Stuart have for me, Karl August?”

He notices how the other bristles slightly at the use of his first names. Upon arrival in England, Magnussen anglicised his first names, wants to be called Charles Augustus now, perhaps to prevent people from thinking he’s German. Sherlock finds it appropriate to use his Danish names, to repay him for his remark about the smoking. Magnussen leads him over to a table and lifts a couple of sheets from the tray. “Came in this morning. Stuart looked them over and thinks they’re right up your street. We tried the usual cribs, weather forecast and the like. ‘Keine besonderen Vorkommnisse’ and the usual addresses, but they didn’t work. Perhaps your new friend can help.”

With another puff on his pipe, he leaves the two. Sherlock draws up a chair for the officer and indicates he should sit. Watson deposits his stick against the side of the table and thoughtfully puts his briefcase on top of the stack of papers so they don’t fly away in the draught from the window.

“There are a few garderobe hooks near the door,” Sherlock informs him, “in case you want to get rid of your hat and jacket. Better come in civilian clothing tomorrow. Uniforms aren’t often seen round here, for security reasons. Also, as you can see, nobody bothers with formalities anyway.” He indicates his own shirt with the top buttons opened and the sleeves rolled up, and the fact he’s not even wearing a waistcoat or sleeveless jumper over it to cover his braces.

Watson nods and divests himself of the garments. After a moment’s hesitation and a quick glance around, he also loosens his tie before he takes a seat next to Sherlock (Sherlock hasn’t bothered with ties for months now), and rolls up the sleeves of his shirt. He picks up a sheet and glances at the rows of typed letters, neatly packed into five-letter groups. He frowns. “How on earth are you people making sense of that? It could mean anything.”

He glances at Sherlock with both confusion and admiration. Sherlock feels another stab of … something. People don’t look at him that way, normally. All right, they do in confusion, yes, which then quickly turns into annoyance and anger. But the other thing? Its novel. And good. He feels strangely buoyed by it. “Well, that’s where the genius part comes in,” he says, barely containing a smile.

Watson laughs softly. “Care to break it down to a mere dumb mortal like myself?”

Normally, Sherlock lacks the patience to explain anything that’s obvious to him to people who aren’t likely to keep up, anyway, but in this case? Well, Watson is supposed to be helping them, after all. He ought to know at least the basics, even if he’s unlikely to be of any use in the actual decryption work.

“How much do you know about the Enigma machine and how it works?”

Watson shrugs. “I saw one on the U-boat, and have a basic notion of how they function. You type in any letter and it comes out as another letter each time, thus making it difficult for the other side to spot any regularities as you might with other codes and cyphers. I also know that they have three rotors with letters on them, which can be arranged in different combinations and set to different positions. They also have a plugboard to further complicate things. In order to transmit messages the other side can actually read, the receiving enigma must be set up exactly the same way as the sending one. For that, the Germans have all kinds of codebooks containing the key settings, which are changed daily and transferred to the partnering machine in code as well. We managed to retrieve some of these books, which according to your boss Turing helped you to decipher their codes for a couple of days.”

“That’s right,” agrees Sherlock, pleased that the other seems fairly well informed about the basics. “For a cryptographic key, one has to know the Enigma’s initial set up for each day, meaning the choice and order of the three rotors, their initial position (a three letter key chosen by the operator), the ring settings and the plug connections on the Steckerbrett . We do have Enigmas here, not the least thanks to the one you acquired, but because usually we don’t know anything about the key settings, we can’t just use them to decrypt the messages.”

“How do you do it, then? There must be millions of possibilities.”

“Well, there are a few things that help us narrow them down. Firstly, no letter can be encoded with itself. So if for example you type an A on the machine, it’ll never show up as A in code.”

“But how does that help? There are still countless ways the letter could be enciphered.”

“That’s where the codebreakers and particularly the cribs come in. Cribs are bits of plaintext, often guessed at or deduced, that are likely to occur somewhere in the message. What Magnussen mentioned earlier about the weather reports, for example, or certain addresses that head or close each message, such as “An die Flotte”, or “Heil Hitler”. We simply try them out against the cypher, and when we discover letters encrypted with themselves, we discard the message and try another. The Banbury sheets are for that. That way, we can also determine the plugboard settings, as they are reciprocal, meaning that if for example A is plugged to Z, Z would be A in turn. The information thus gained is then fed into Alan’s Bombe machines, which help us narrow down the possible settings until, hopefully, we find the right key.”

“But how do you start, and more importantly, how can I be of help? I have to admit that all this sounds incredibly technical. I’m not sure I’ve understood all of it. And I was never extremely good at maths back at school.”

Sherlock studies the encoded message thoughtfully. “You were aboard one of their submarines. Do you speak any German?”

“What I recall from school and my visit to Berlin, and well, from the war back in ’18.”

Sherlock glances at him and nods. “Of course. You already fought in the first one.” He suddenly feels very young, although there cannot be more than five years between them.

“I understood some of their talk in the sickbay. Several of their men had fallen ill, not seriously, but enough to keep them abed. Their medical personnel were sick, too, some kind of diarrhoea, hence their need of me. I overheard some of their chatting. Struck me as normal blokes, most of them. They had a certain pride, mostly in their officers and how well the U-boat campaign had been conducted so far, but they didn’t occur to me like the fervent Nazis I’d expected. From what I picked up, they were mostly going on about their families back home, same as our chaps, really.”

“But that’s important to know,” Sherlock assures him. “A radio operator thinking about his sweetheart back home may choose her initials when he devises the key settings for the day. The more we can deduce about the people behind the machines, the better. As for these messages here, there are two things we can try. Hand me over the EINS-catalogue over there.”

“EINS-catalogue? ‘Eins’ as in ‘one’?”

“Yes. A while ago, a captured German radio operator revealed that they had been ordered to encipher numerals as full words. After learning this, we set up this catalogue for all possible settings for ‘eins’. So now we’ll check whether we find the word in the code. This message was intercepted at 1:30 this morning, so there is a high likelihood that this number will occur.”

Next to him, Watson huffs. “Doesn’t sound like the most exciting of tasks,” he mutters, weighing the thick tome in his hands.

Sherlock smiles grimly. “Tell me about it.”

 

Chapter Text

They spend the next couple of hours poring over the first message. Still, with the help of the medical officer, the usually boring task turns out to be unusually stimulating. Watson is good at spotting things. After they’ve tried the EINS-catalogue and despite initial success it doesn’t seem to work for the entire message, the doctor leans back in his chair and runs his hands over his face. “What if the people listening in on the Morse code didn’t quite get the message and noted down wrong letters, or left them out? I’m sure that happens,” he muses.

“It does, unfortunately,” concurs Sherlock. “Sometimes the German radio operator sends a faulty message, too. We often get some with missing letters that need to be supplemented during the translation process once we get the plain text. Sometimes we’re already making a guess at what might be missing during cribbing. Sometimes the message remains unbreakable, and we are then provided with others from the same date and source. Once we manage to find a working key, we can read all their messages from the same source that use the same settings. They are usually changed at midnight, and then we start all over again.”

“Spiffing. So as for this message, you think there could be missing letters in there? How do we find out? Perhaps they simply spelled it wrong in one or two instances? That’s possible, too, isn’t it?” Watson asks wearily. “After a long day of typing in messages letter by stupid letter … don’t know. They must have been knackered, especially on a submarine with even less fresh air than in this room.”

“One must be tired indeed to spell ‘eins’ wrong,” remarks Sherlock. “Also, the Enigma is operated by two people, one typing, one noting down the coded letters as they show up illuminated. The third person is the radio operator converting the cypher into Morse code.”

Watson shrugs. “More people, more room for human error, then. Which doesn’t help us, does it?”

“We can still try with the wrong letter,” says Sherlock. “We have some instances where the catalogue almost seems to work.” He doesn’t like to admit it, but he is stumped. He looks around. At a nearby table, two Wrens are taking a short breather. One is applying lipstick in front of a small handheld mirror, the other is asking her something.

“What did she say?” asks Watson, who has been following Sherlock’s gaze, his eyes lingering on the red lips.

Sherlock shrugs. “I wasn’t listening.”

“I tried to, but her accent is so strong that I barely understood her.”

“She’s from Northumbria,” says Sherlock after listening for a moment. “They still use a number of words with Scandinavian roots there, from when the Vikings invaded.”

Watson nods, listening for a moment longer before turning back to their message. “Almost sounds like another language. It was like that on the U-boat. I mean, they were using another language, obviously, but even though my German is fairly decent, I had trouble understanding them. Some of the chaps I heard talking to each other in the sickbay used a kind of dialect that seemed barely intelligible to someone who only learned the language later in life. Not ‘high’ German for sure, not the stuff you learn at school, I mean. Sounded almost a bit like English.”

At this, Sherlock pricks up his ears. “Do you know where they came from?”

“One was from the North. Rostock, I think. Another said something about sailing on the river Elbe, so that would be … Hamburg, perhaps? What else is on that river? Dresden? He had a very strong dialect, a different one from the Rostock chap. I barely understood him. I think he mentioned something about ‘stollen’, which seems to be some kind of cake. He said his Mum always made it for Christmas, or something along those lines.”

Sherlock’s mind is whirring. This might be the clue they’ve been looking for, far-fetched though it is. Still, stumped as they are, any clue might be worth pursuing. He knows some German dialects, some better than others, and the one spoken in Hamburg and parts of Northern Germany is very distinct, the ‘Plattdeutsch’. He gets up and walks over to a shelf where a number of books are stored, mostly dictionaries and what keybooks, notebooks or diaries of captured German servicemen the codebreakers have managed to lay their hands on. There’s one about the development of German through Old and Middle German to the modern language. In it, there is a section on local dialects, too. He takes it and leafs through it thoughtfully.

“What would you say the percentage of men was from the northern parts of Germany to those from the middle or southern parts on that submarine that captured you?”

Watson shrugs again. “Difficult to say. But the majority, I’d hazard. Only makes sense, given Germany’s geographical position. I don’t think a lad from Bavaria would choose the navy as his first option but rather the Luftwaffe or the Wehrmacht. Or the SS,” he adds darkly, his face contorted with disgust.

Sherlock looks up Plattdeutsch for ‘eins’. It’s a letter short, ‘een’. But what if the Enigma operator just typed one letter wrong, and not because he caught the wrong key, but because his mind was distracted by thoughts of home? He returns to his seat and tries it out with a pencil. As far as he can judge, it works. The EINS-catalogue can be applied if one assumes this is what the man wanted to type. The number looks like it’s been spelled ‘eens’ on two occasions throughout the message where there is a high likelihood of the number appearing. The Banbury sheets work, too. There is no instance of letters encoded with themselves. So perhaps it was indeed a ‘Hamborger Jong’ typing in this message. Sherlock is delighted, the thrill of a working crib, the possibility of a solved riddle surging through him. It must show in his face, because Watson gazes at him with a faint smile.

“You love this, don’t you? When a, how do you call it, a crib could be working? And when you can prove to yourself and all around you that you’re clever?”

Sherlock looks at him surprisedly, not sure whether he is supposed to be flattered or insulted. “Yes,” he admits curtly. “While we’re at it, we might even make a guess at the key settings, or rather, the starting position of the rotors as the ring settings are often determined by monthly sheets. Perhaps our lucky streak will hold.”

Only when he stops talking he realises that he has included Watson. We, our … Sherlock doesn’t usually think that way. But then Watson’s input has proven crucial in this case. Perhaps he isn’t quite as superfluous as Sherlock thought at first. Nor as simple-minded.

“How can we guess those?”

“Not guess, deduce.” Watson raises an eyebrow at this and Sherlock sighs. “All right, so yes, some guesswork is involved as well. ‘Informed guesswork’, I’ll call it. And luck. But one can tweak it, as you’ve seen. So, the starting position.”

“The operator’s sweetheart’s initials?”

“That could be any, even if we try and narrow them down by using very common German names first. It’s still a possibility. What do we know about the man?”

Watson scratches his head behind his ear. “Well, if we go by the spelling mistake, if there was indeed one and it wasn’t the radio operator’s or the listener’s fault, he’s likely from Northern Germany, perhaps the Hamburg area. He’s either tired or distracted, hence the misspellings. He’s homesick, or thinking of home, at least, which caused him to subconsciously revert back to his local dialect. Perhaps he has been at sea a long time, last leave is months ago. Would be helpful to look at U-boats that are known to have been out there for a while, if we’re after their positions. So yes, perhaps he’s indeed been thinking of his girl back home, or his wife and kids, or … I don’t know … his childhood dog, or his Mum’s pie, or his favourite football club or something.”

He frowns briefly, then his eyes light up. “Try the last one.”

“The football club?” asks Sherlock incredulously.

“Yes. It has to be a three letter code for the settings, right? If he’s indeed from Hamburg, and interested in football, or other kinds of sport, he’s likely to support either the FC St. Pauli or the Hamburger Sportverein.”

“How does that help? Neither of these clubs is a three letter word,” argues Sherlock, who doesn’t know anything about football apart from the mere basics, and would be hard pressed to name any English clubs. But Watson looks like he knows what he is talking about.

The officer grins at him. “The latter is commonly known as the ‘HSV’.”

Sherlock stares at him, feeling slightly wrong-footed, before once more the wave of adrenaline washes through him at a potentially working crib. No time for jealousy because the other found out something he didn’t know. He glances again at the header of the message where the key settings are encoded. The letters H and V don’t show up there, which increases the likelihood that they might actually be encrypted due to the peculiarity of Enigma of not being able to encode letters with themselves. He notes the letters down, together with alternatives for the other club, like STP and FSP. With the aid of more Banbury sheets, he draws a diagram with possible plugboard settings. He then gives his notes to one of the Wrens, the one with the lipstick, who will pass it on to Hut 11 to be fed into the Bombes.

“In a few hours we’ll know whether it worked and we were right,” explains Sherlock.

“And if not?”

“We’ll start from scratch, or someone else will have come up with the settings by finding a crib from another message from the same source.”

Watson rubs his neck and suppresses a yawn. “Jesus, that must be frustrating. Speaking of which, do you get any breaks around here?” he asks, his voice hoarse. His throat must feel as parched as Sherlock’s. “I’d murder for a cuppa.” Right, same here.

Sherlock glances at his watch. 8:35 pm. They’ve spent over four hours on the message. His official tea-break would have been at eight, halfway through his shift. “Let’s go and see if we can get some in Hut 2, or if not there then in the canteen. The tea urn here is empty. I’ve just seen someone trying to get the last drops out.”

He watches as Watson stands up slowly and stretches carefully. His shoulder seems to be troubling him. He fetches his jacket and cap and briefcase, and almost as an afterthought his stick. Despite wearing a watch himself, he asks, “What time is it?” as they exit the building. Forgot to wind it up, thinks Sherlock.

Dusk has fallen, and people are applying the shutters to the huts’ windows for the blackout. Bats are fluttering through the mild evening air. The wind has turned, and the sharp tang of the brickworks has been replaced by something fresher, the smell of the meadows surrounding Bletchley, with a faint whiff of resin from the mammoth tree and the faintest trace of ripe fruit. Sherlock tells him the time.

Watson’s reaction is one of shock. “Blimey, I was supposed to be at my accommodation at seven. I sent my luggage ahead with the station porter when the promised car that was to get me to the Park didn’t turn up. Hope he did indeed deliver it.”

“Where are you staying?” asks Sherlock.

Watson digs a slip of paper out of his briefcase. “278 Buckingham Road,” he reads, squinting in the dim light, “with a Mrs. Turner. Do you know how far away that is? Is it in walking distance?”

Sherlock’s eyebrows shoot up at this. He’d completely forgotten about the new lodger.

“A mile and half to the south-west from here. If you leave now, you’ll still receive a decent supper. Mrs. Turner likes to coddle her lodgers, and her vegetable garden brings more food on the table than what you’d get from food stamps alone. She’ll latch onto you the moment you cross the threshold, particularly if you’re still wearing that uniform. Her elder son was in the navy, but was killed in ’39.”

“Oh, you know her?”

“Yes. I’m billeted there as well.”

Watson glances up at him and smiles. He seems genuinely pleased. Wait until you find the dead toad, thinks Sherlock, feeling a little guilty that he left it in what is to be Watson’s room. He hopes the other will react with good humour. He doesn’t seem squeamish, can’t really afford to be, as a doctor, so there’s a chance he won’t be entirely furious or appalled. For a brief moment Sherlock wonders why he cares about the other’s reaction, but realises when he considers the prospect of Watson living in the same house that it could have been worse, much worse.

The doctor appears to be thinking the same. “Well, in that case, well met indeed. When will you be back?”

“My shift ends at midnight.” On a sudden impulse, Sherlock nods towards the shed in front of the hut. “If you don’t fancy walking, you can take my bicycle.”

“Ah, thanks, but I’ll be fine. After all this sitting around, a stroll through the evening air will do me good. Just explain how to get there, and that should do it.”

Sherlock does so, feeling a strange sense of … loss at the prospect of the other’s absence. Strange that, he muses. He who usually can’t stand other people’s company actually seems to have not only endured it, but … appreciated it? Perhaps that’s too strong a term, but Watson’s input did cause him to work more efficiently, as well as making the normally tedious task tolerable. What’s even stranger, Watson appears to have enjoyed their shared efforts as well, because he says,

“Actually, I feel more tempted to stay, despite the chance of a late supper. I’d like to know whether these machines actually prove us right.”

“That will take several hours. If I receive word before my shift is over, I’ll let you know. But we are more likely to hear of it in the morning. We have to share the Bombes with the other huts, and considering that Turing said there’s been a problem there might be a queue.”

“Right. I’ll be off, then. Do get yourself something to drink, though. You sound as if you’re parched. And don’t forget to eat your sandwich.”

Sherlock frowns at this. He can’t abide meddling, barely tolerates it from people like Mrs. Turner and especially her sister Mrs. Hudson, who Sherlock admittedly has a soft spot for. But then Watson is a doctor, he is professionally programmed to care and fuss and tell people to eat and drink and sleep. “Is that your medical opinion, doctor?” asks Sherlock lightly.

Watson stands up straighter. “Yes it is. Your stomach kept rumbling throughout our codebreaking efforts. I understand that for you clever chaps it’s mind over matter most of the time, but don’t forget you’re human, after all.”

Sherlock smiles wryly. “There are people who might dispute that.”

Watson cocks his head and shrugs. “Well, they’re idiots, then. Good night, Mr. Holmes.”

“Sherlock,” Sherlock blurts out. It seems important, somehow, to settle this. “We’re rather informal here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Moreover it’s silly to use last names when we’re going to be sharing a bathroom.”

The other smiles warmly. “I’m John. Thanks for the interesting evening, Sherlock.” He touches his cap in a brief salute.

Sherlock gives a small nod. Why is he thanking me? Did he really enjoy it? Did I?  He muses for a moment as he watches John Watson limp into the growing darkness under the trees of Bletchley Park. Yes, he decides. I did. Digging his somewhat crumbly sandwich out of his trouser pocket, he takes a thoughtful bite as he sets out towards Hut 2 in search of tea.

 

–<o>–

 

The rest of his shift passes in a dreary, unexcited fashion. He works on three more messages, one an apparent continuation of the one with the spelling mistakes, the header ‘FORT’ used as an abbreviation for the German term ‘Fortsetzung’, ‘continuation’, fairly easy to decode. The other one seems to be a weather report which he double checks with what weather conditions their own convoys have reported in their missives. At ten past midnight Sherlock passes the last message to a young bespectacled codebreaker from Oxford (not even twenty, read mathematics, under-graduate, passionate chess-player, speaks fluent Greek and Latin, keeps small dog, doesn’t eat meat) whose name he must have deleted.

The Park is dark but for the faint silvery light of the waxing half moon, all windows shuttered. The huts are squat, black shapes, massive and forbidding, like blocks of tar, or rocks. There are plenty of people milling about, though, dark forms under the trees, many on bicycles, even more on foot. Sherlock walks his bike to the checkpoint and then mounts, setting out towards the south-west via small by-roads, the tower of Bletchley church a dark mass to his right.

He overtakes three other cyclists, a group of young women, only one of whom has a working light on her vehicle. They are in fact discouraged to ride with light to enforce the blackout, which doesn’t make cycling very safe despite the rarity of cars. But the fewer hints one can give German reconnaissance aircrafts, the better, and a regular swarm of glowworm-like lights issuing from a nondescript manor in Buckinghamshire would be a dead giveaway that something unusual was afoot.

Sherlock usually enjoys these nightly rides, particularly when like tonight the moon is already strong enough to illuminate the road. The countryside takes on an eerie silence one never finds in London, and the darkened houses scattered along the roads add to the atmosphere of being caught in a strange, quiet world devoid of people. It’s difficult to imagine that only fifty miles away bustling London is recovering from yet another air raid, the flames and explosions of which one can see even from Bletchley, a remote display of deadly fireworks, or that all over the world war is raging with fierce brutality.

Sherlock breathes deeply as he pedals, the fresh air cleaning his head. Whenever he passes underneath a tree overhanging the road, for a moment he rides in darkness and can’t see the ground, which gives him the sensation of floating on his bicycle. The air has cooled, patches of mist shroud the low-lying fields and meadows, making hedgerows and clumps of trees peek out like islands in a silvery sea. Down to Sherlock’s left the line of the small river can be descried by mists rising from it like tendrils of smoke.

Soon after Sherlock has joined Buckingham Road, the nightly tranquility is suddenly interrupted by the sound of a car. Sherlock finds himself caught in a pair of bright headlights when, at a crossroads, a sporty looking model (Bentley convertible?  Sherlock cannot be sure since the car is travelling at great speed and he’s not an expert on automobiles) shoots up the road from the right, the one coming up from Newton Longville. It barely manages to keep to its side of the road, meaning Sherlock has to swerve and cling close to the bank to avoid getting hit.

Idiot drivers, he thinks as he steadies his bicycle, halting briefly to gaze at the car as it speeds towards Bletchley. One would think that petrol rationing took out all those driving for pleasure, but apparently this fellow has connections. Due to the speed of the automobile and his need to control the bike so as not to fall, Sherlock hasn’t manage to catch much of the driver apart from a hat and the white glow of a shirt collar. He does store the shape of the car in his mind, though, and the silvery colour of its hull which along one side seemed to have been slightly splattered with mud. Given the fact its hasn’t rained today and only in shaded places puddles remain on the roads where water has collected in potholes and not dried out yet in the sun, this fact strikes Sherlock as remarkable. He’s definitely going to have a look around town tomorrow to see whether he can find the vehicle again.

 

–<o>–

 

The rest of the ride remains uneventful. Of living creatures he only meets a fox which stops in a field to gaze at him curiously, and an owl which swoops low over the road. The house at number 278 is dark and quiet when he deposits his bike in the shed next to it. Hattie the cat waits for him on the steps leading up to the front door, mewling at him to let her in. The smell of steamed apples greets him as he enters. Apparently his landladies have been preserving the fallen fruit in the garden. Nothing is wasted in these times of privation, not even the damaged apples out on the lawn. Hattie dashes off into the kitchen to look for food while Sherlock ascends the stairs. After a quick visit to the toilet, a wash of hands and face and a brush of teeth, he proceeds to his room, on an impulse halting in front of what is now Dr. W— John’s room. All it quiet in there but for a soft creak of bed springs when the other turns around in his sleep.

As usual after a late shift, Sherlock finds it difficult to quieten his mind enough to fall asleep. He has left the window open to allow for some fresh air, but the sound of the wind in the trees outside the window doesn’t soothe him as it normally does. The bicycle ride has revitalised him, in particular the close encounter with the car. Sherlock cannot stop thinking about it, which isn’t conductive to inviting sleep. Moreover, now that he has settled on his back with his arms behind his head, staring at the dark ceiling, his mind active and his ears attuned to every small sound in the garden and the house about him, he cannot help noticing that not all is quiet in the room next door. The walls aren’t as thick as one would wish for in a house from this period. It was one of the reasons Sherlock got rid of the previous lodger. The man was a notorious snorer. Sherlock is a light sleeper at the best of times, and the continuous noise, only slightly muffled by the wall, didn’t exactly help things.

John Watson doesn’t snore. He isn’t a sound sleeper, though, either. He seems to be constantly tossing and turning in his bed. Sherlock shifts onto his side, one ear pressed into his pillow, staring balefully at the wall. He can do with little sleep, but even he needs to rest now and again, and this noise isn’t helping. There is a faint thump when the other’s bed apparently hits the wall after an especially violent turn. What on earth is the man doing there? Is he jumping about on the mattress like a trampoline?

Things calm down in the other room, but only briefly before the bed noises are replaced by heavy breathing. Sherlock squeezes his eyes shut and wishes he could simply switch off his hearing (and his mind, too, for good measure). Doesn’t the man realise he’s not exactly alone in this house. He doesn’t snore, the breathing is too laboured for that. What is he doing? Realisation hits Sherlock and he growls softly. Surely not. So all right, people do have urges. Not everybody has their libido under such tight control as Sherlock, who simply considers it a nuisance and has long endeavoured to not let it govern him in any way. Useless hormonal drive, inconvenient at the best of times. At school when puberty raised its ugly head he managed to thwart any urges that might arise from hormonal upheaval. Why can’t other people be the same? Why indulge in these messy, useless desires, be enslaved by their own bodies? The earth would be less generously populated by total morons if more people simply abstained from sexual practices of all kinds, but particularly those involving other people. There might be fewer murders and other crimes of passion, too, but Sherlock is perfectly willing to put up with that.

Things are quiet again next door. Sherlock curls in more tightly round himself and hopes to fall asleep during this respite, because if he doesn’t manage now, he knows he’s unlikely to for the remainder of the night despite his exhaustion. But then at least he’s going to repay the other by playing his violin throughout it, so that if he can’t find rest, Dr. Watson won’t, either.

Indeed sleep begins to creep up to him as he lies with this head pressed into the pillow, but just as he begins to feel drowsy in earnest, a strangled cry sounds from the other room, likely partly suppressed, but still loud enough to rouse Sherlock and cause a surge of adrenaline to rush through him. It’s not that he has a lot of comparison as to what a passionate climax is supposed to sound like. Those few times he was forced to resort to self-stimulation in order to get rid of inconvenient, unwanted sexual arousal he did so speedily and efficiently, and quietly, too. Nevertheless Sherlock is quite sure the sound he’s just heard had nothing to do with pleasure. It sounded painful, rather. Like someone gasping for breath after being held under water for too long, a cry of agony.

He feels blood rush to his cheeks in embarrassment at his own mis-deduction. Apparently his neighbour did not engage in untimely masturbation this night, but on the contrary suffered the throes of a nightmare. There is another, louder squeak of bedsprings as the doctor sits up. Psychosomatic limp caused by traumatic experience at sea. No wonder the man is haunted by what he’s gone through. Sherlock sits up in bed as well.

Faint, shuffling footsteps sound from the other room, the door opens as the other limps into the bathroom. Sherlock can hear the light switch, followed by running water. He realises he is thirsty as well. Hasn’t drunk enough during the day, should have done so before he brushed his teeth. The light in the bathroom is switched off. Sherlock decides to wait until the other has returned to his room before he makes a foray to the tap. But the doctor seems to have other plans. The stairs creak as he carefully makes his way down, likely to the kitchen.

Tea, shoots through Sherlock’s mind. He’s going to make tea. The ultimate soothing agent for troubled minds. They are free to make their own, even help themselves to food given the ungodly hours of some of the shifts and the generally uncomplicated attitude the two sisters maintain towards their lodgers. Actually, Sherlock thinks, a cuppa would be just the thing. He’s also curious to know whether his deduction about the nightmare has been correct. The officer’s nerves must be more rattled by his nightly vision than a draught of water alone could settle. Perhaps Sherlock should tell him where Mrs. Turner keeps her secret store of sherry.

He’s out of bed and has covered his pyjamas with his dressing gown in the blink of an eye. When he reaches the landing, he can see a sliver of light from downstairs, and smells the faint tang of sulphur of the match the doctor has struck to light the hearth. A soft clink of china can be heard, too. Carefully avoiding the creaking steps, Sherlock slinks down and moves towards the kitchen. Something soft brushes past his naked feet as Hattie streaks past him, likely in the hope of getting some milk.

“Oh, hello,” she is greeted softly by John. “We haven’t met before.” Through the half-open door Sherlock sees him stoop and reach out towards the cat who approaches cautiously to sniff at his hand, before deciding that he’s her best chance for milk and rubbing her head against his hand. Watson is wearing a striped dressing gown over checked pyjama trousers and a white vest. Even in the warm glow from the overhead lamp he looks pallid, his hair sweaty and curling again behind his ears. It’s sticking up in places where apparently he tossed and turned on the pillow. He looks wretched, dark shadows under his eyes, his face lined with exhaustion. Really bad dream, then. Seeing him so obviously rattled, Sherlock feels guilty of suspecting him of masturbating earlier when in fact he seems to have had a far less pleasant experience.

The doctor rummages in the pantry to retrieve a bottle of milk. After another search, he produces a saucer from one of the many cupboards, places it on the floor and pours a little milk for the cat. Hattie falls upon it greedily.

“Not sure if you’re supposed to have milk,” muses John as he stands and watches her, before stooping again to gently pet her head, “but you look as much in need of a drink as I. Wonder what you’re called.

Sherlock feels this to be the right moment to make his presence known.

“Her name is Hattie,” he says, stepping into the light.

John startles, he grips the rail of the hearth in surprise. “Gosh, I didn’t hear you come. I ... I hope this is all right. Mrs. Turner said I could make myself tea when I fancied it.”

“Then it is all right,” replies Sherlock, realising that he is somewhat awkwardly standing in the doorway. John’s gaze takes in his figure and his no doubt tousled hair. He casts a quick glance at the clock that is ticking audibly on the wall, next to a collection of painted china plates adorned with different kinds of tits. “Got enough in there for another cup?” He nods at the kettle.

“Sure.” The doctor fetches another cup and saucer from the cupboard and places them on the flowery tablecloth. Looking round the kitchen, Sherlock realises he’s been right about the apples. A row of jars sits on another cupboard in one corner, waiting to be labelled the next day.

John is scratching the back of his head, looking a little embarrassed. “Listen, I hope I didn’t wake you. Hope I didn’t wake the ladies, either.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “Don’t worry, they usually sleep like the dead. Mrs. Hudson likes to recount the tale of how she slept during an air raid when the house across the road was struck by a bomb.”

The other looks somewhat relieved, licking his lips and running a hand through his hair. “Good, good. It’s not happened in a while. Don’t know what brought it on this time. I noticed the walls are rather thin round here, so …"

“I’d only just returned from my shift and not yet fallen asleep, so no problem. Nightmare?”

“Yes,” sighs John. “I get them from time to time. I had some after Mary died, but these must have been brought on what happened in the spring. I usually dream I’m drowning, or that I’m locked in a small room with water or fire coming at me. Or I see my friends perish and I can’t help them.” He shrugs. “Unpleasant stuff.”

Sherlock waves a hand. He, too, suffers from nightmares from time to time. Often he can’t recall them in the morning, only a feeling of dread remaining. They were particularly bad in the weeks before he fell ill. Fatigue, Mike Stamford called it, and said that many of the codebreakers and the Wrens working with the Bombes suffer from it. But even then he very rarely woke from a dream screaming, drenched in sweat. Looking at the naval doctor, he suspects that he greatly understated how wretched the dream made him.

The kettle starts to boil (must contain only little water), and John turns off the gas and pours the water into the waiting tea-pot, flowery like so much in this house. Then he carefully carries the pot over to the table and sits down. Sherlock hesitates for a moment before drawing up a chair for himself.

John looks at the cups, the milk bottle and the teapot. “Forgot spoons and sugar.”

“I don’t take sugar with tea,” says Sherlock. “Only with coffee.” He muses about his drinking habits. “Bit strange, really. I prefer tea with milk and coffee just with sugar.” Then he frowns. Is he attempting to make conversation? How odd. But then it’s almost one thirty and he’s sitting in a quaint kitchen with a dishevelled looking naval doctor and an old cat, drinking tea.

John pours the brew. “For me it’s just milk, with either tea or coffee. So we’ll leave the sugar, although I wouldn’t say no to a biscuit.”

“Tins, top shelf,” says Sherlock who habitually raids these tins when he comes home from late shifts and has neglected to eat during the day. John makes to get up, but Sherlock remembers that the doctor is shorter than he and that his landladies always use a stool to reach the shelf. “I’ll get them.”

He does, placing two tins with Jammie Dodgers (made with real jam, not the replacement stuff made from carrots one gets at the stores, praised be Mrs. Turner’s garden) and Digestives in front of the doctor. If you need anything stronger, I know where Mrs. Turner keeps her liquor,” he offers, because despite having calmed down, the doctor still looks like he could do with a stiff drink.

John shakes his head, his hands (the intermittent tremor in his left very visible) loosely lying round his tea-cup. “No, thanks. I don’t drink much, nor often.”

“Family habit?” asks Sherlock before he can censor himself.

The other shrugs dejectedly. He doesn’t seem angry, though. “Yes, you could say so. My Dad took it up after the last war. He was at the Somme, returned in ’17 with only one arm and one eye blind from a bit of shrapnel that hit his face. Every loud noise made him twitch and shake. Shell shock, they called it then.”

He gazes at his hand and balls it into a fist. “Never was the same afterwards. Couldn’t work in his job – used to be a carpenter – and took to the bottle. The rest of the family suffered from it.”

Sherlock notices that John refers to his father in past tense. He’s not sure whether it’s appropriate to ask, but does it all the same. “Did he take his own life?”

John shakes his head while shrugging again at the same time. “He didn’t lay a hand on himself, but I guess the alcohol contributed to his early demise, weakening him. He also died from influenza. Mum married his brother afterwards which didn’t go down well with the rest of the family.”

Sherlock thinks of his own parents. His father never fought at the front, but through his office was concerned with the Great War himself, much as Mycroft is with this one. Even his mother, from what he deduced because nobody saw fit to tell him at the time, did her thing for the war effort, using the connections to the French part of her family to spy on the Germans. He realises he hasn’t seen either of them since he started working at Bletchley, although doubtlessly Mycroft is keeping them informed about his doings, should they be interested.

He pours milk into his tea, then takes a careful sip. It’s strong, just right. John hasn’t skimped on the tea leaves.

The doctor is thoughtfully watching the steam rising from his cup as he dunks a Digestive into his brew. Then he looks at Sherlock. “What about your family? Are they still alive, your old folks? What are they up to? Don’t take it personally, but you seem a bit posh to me, bit public school, if you take my meaning.”

Sherlock doesn’t know whether he should be affronted. Of course the other is right. His family is what can be considered upper class, and yes, he did go to a public school. So he might as well admit it. “What gave me away?” he asks.

“Your accent, and your hair.”

Unconsciously, Sherlock runs a hand through the dark mop on his head. “What about my hair says public school?” he asks with genuine interest. His housemaster at Harrow often penalised him for not keeping his wayward curls neatly parted and pomaded down.

John smiles faintly. “Looks a bit foppish. At my school, all us boys had very short hair, to keep away the lice.”

“You do realise that I’ve left school for quite some time, don’t you?” remarks Sherlock archly.

The other’s grin broadens. Ah, he’s teasing. Probably to soothe his nerves. Sherlock finds he actually enjoys this verbal banter. The doctor appears to have a sassy, witty side which Sherlock appreciates. He’s not easily daunted, either. Sherlock knows he’s rubbish at serious conversation anyway whenever it veers into emotional territory, and usually avoids it at all costs. Humour is all right, though. He can deal with humour.

“Really?” quips John. “Could have fooled me. In any case you look much younger than I think you actually are.”

“How old do you think I am, or look?”

The other cocks his head. “I’d say you’re around thirty. You look like twelve.”

The remark comes with such dry seriousness that Sherlock actually lets out a laugh, startling Hattie who’s been prowling round their legs under the table in thehope of more milk.

“Must indeed be the hair,” he muses. “I’m thirty-four, in fact.”

John nods gravely, smiling, which smoothes some of the lines on his face and creates others, more pleasant looking ones. “It is the hair. But don’t worry, I’d hazard this work here at Bletchley is going to age you in no time. How long have you been here?”

“About a year.”

John nods, reaching for another biscuit before moving the tin over to Sherlock. “Have some as well.”

“I did eat my sandwich.”

“Well done. Now have some sweet stuff as well.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes, but helps himself to some Jammie Dodgers all the same.

“Mike Stamford indicated you’ve been ill?” states John, gazing at Sherlock attentively.

Sherlock waves a hand. “Caught pneumonia in the spring. Nothing serious, apart from the tedium which nearly killed me.”

The doctor nods gravely. “Tell me about it. I was confined to bed for about a month, the only visitor my sister which didn’t help things.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrow as he studies the other. Apparently he’s not the only one with a troublesome sibling. “Tense relationship?”

“You could say so, yes.”

“You had to stay with her after your release from hospital, having no other place to go to. You don’t see eye to eye on a number of things, mostly your parents and your mother’s choice of spouse which she approves of and you don’t, but you also don’t support her lifestyle, and possibly her drinking, considering your earlier remark about the family habit, or vice, rather.”

“She never forgave me for enlisting back in the other war,” says John, “despite herself being the cause of much grief for our parents back when Dad was still alive.”

Sherlock thinks for a moment. “Did she manage to get herself imprisoned?”

“How on earth did you deduce that?”

Sherlock smiles softly. “Actually, that was a guess, but based on how you described her. She seems to support your mother’s decision, so I surmised that she might be supportive of women’s general right to choose their own destiny. Hence my deduction that she might have been active in the suffragette movement, and seeming a passionate and somewhat meddlesome person, I would not put it beyond her to have been one of the women who went on hunger-strike while imprisoned and had to be force-fed.”

“Amazing,” breathes John, causing another warm glow to bloom in Sherlock’s chest. This is getting addictive. He has to be careful not to enjoy it too much lest it be withdrawn. “She was indeed a suffragette. Which would have been all right. You know, I’m all for women voting and all that. But she was one of those going about it the wrong way, using violence. And she wasn’t on hunger-strike.”

Sherlock huffs. There’s always something.

“She did go to prison, though,” continues John, “for attacking a policeman during a demonstration. She’s always been wayward. She’s not married, but sharing her house with a ... friend. Companion, whatever you want to call it. Not that I care, as long as she’s happy. It’s just, I don’t think she is. She’s so full of anger most of the time. I was actually glad to be given this commission here, just to be away from her house, although I would have preferred to be allowed back at sea. Did you hear anything about our message, by the way?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “It hadn’t gone through when I left.”

“What happens to it after it’s been decoded?”

“It is transferred to another hut and translated, then is fed into the index for cross-references like names, vessels, positions. Then it’s wired to the relevant intelligence outlets who decide what to do with it.”

John nods thoughtfully. “Can they actually act on it? Those high ups, I mean. If, say, you decode a message that says so-and-so city is about to be bombed, do you think they’d warn folks and evacuate that place, given how very secret all this here is? Wouldn’t that give away that we can read the German communications?”

Sherlock shrugs. He’s wondered about that, too, and moreover he’s picked up rumours. “It depends, I would say. Sometimes the intelligence people fabricate other possible sources of the information like fake reconnaissance flights, or stories about spies recovering vital information behind enemy lines, or important documents found lying around somewhere nobody expected them. Lucky coincidences, or so they pretend. In other cases the intelligence is indeed not acted upon, or so rumours go. It’s said to have been the case with Coventry.”

“Jesus, really?” asks John, his eye wide. “You think Churchill sacrificed the city to keep all of this here secret? You knew about Coventry?”

“Well, my division didn’t, obviously, since we’re exclusively concerned with Naval Enigma. But those deciphering and translating the Luftwaffe messages knew, I’m sure. And Churchill did, too.”  And Mycroft, because he knows almost everything.

John nods, his expression grim. His gaze is unfocused for a long time as he stares in front of him. Suddenly, he stoops and picks up an unresisting Hattie and settles her on his lap. The cat seems to have been waiting for that because she turns round herself a few times before she curls up and nudges John’s hand into petting her. Her purrs and the ticking of the clock are the only sounds in the kitchen for a while, until John draws a deep breath. “Don’t know if I could live with that knowledge, to be honest. To be able to save so many people and not do it ... It just ... I couldn’t.”

Sherlock shrugs. He’s been called a cold-hearted bastard and emotionless freak, but even he has a conscience. He doesn’t consider himself a morally ‘good’ man, whatever that means. Certainly not as good and brave and selfless as this conscientious doctor opposite him is, but he, too, would be troubled by having the deaths of so many weighing him down. “Well, that’s why you’re not a politician or one of the war-mongers in Whitehall. That’s why you were in the thick of things and took a bullet to save others, and almost lost your life.”

The doctor nods slowly, taking a sip of his tea while stroking Hattie’s thick fur. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. What about you, then? Ever thought of joining up?”

Sherlock laughs dryly. “Can you imagine me in the armed forces?”

John studies him, then smiles and shakes his head. “Not really, no. You don’t strike me as the subordinate type. But didn’t you have to join the Home Guard?”

Sherlock sighs. “Yes,” he replies darkly. “And what a waste of time that was, running around in uniform playing at being soldier. I didn’t stay long, though.”

“Really? How did you get out? I’d imagine there’d be disciplinary action if you just deserted.”

“Only if you were stupid enough to place yourself liable to military law.”

“And you didn’t? How? Didn’t you have to sign a form?”

Sherlock smiles. “Certainly. But when this particular question came up, I just put ‘no’, meaning they couldn’t charge me.”

John laughs. “Jesus, that’s brilliant. Wonder why nobody’s thought of that before.”

“Actually, people did,” admits Sherlock. “It was Turing who gave me the relevant advice. He’d done the same.”

John shakes his head, smiling. “You codebreakers really are a special breed. Still, your dislike of military duties and procedures aside, you do obey commands when you feel like it. This afternoon, you really disliked having me toddle behind you, having to show me around and even endure my company at work.”

“Yes,” admits Sherlock frankly, “at first. But you turned out to be helpful, so in the end I didn’t mind. I should warn you, though. I’m not the most sociable of people. I sometimes don’t talk for days on end and sometimes play the violin at ungodly hours.”

“And you experiment on dead things when you’re bored?”

Sherlock blushes slightly and curses himself for it. Then again it’s only just, he thinks. Punishment for his deed. “You found the toad.”

“Yes. I doubted rationing was so bad round here that the ladies have taken to pickling amphibians, so I guessed it must be yours.”

“Actually, it was a gift from the cat,” Sherlock defends himself. “She likes to bring dead things into the house to feed her humans. She seems to have taken to you, so you might receive some in the future.”

“Oh, no problem, I’ll just dump them in your room, then,” says John with that mischievous grin of his that Sherlock has come to quite ... like? Well, he does appreciate the wry, even slightly dark humour the other seems to share with him. All things considered, they get along well. John seems to be thinking along the same lines.

“Could have been worse, the billet,” he says, looking round the kitchen before gazing at Sherlock steadily. “Much worse.”

“Yes,” agrees Sherlock, “it could.” A thought strikes him. “You should ask Mrs. Turner for a bicycle tomorrow. She still has one in the shed. It belonged to her son. It may need some work to get it running again, but it’s much more convenient than walking, particularly with your limp. There is a bus to the Park, too, but it only runs a few times each day, and for some reason not timed with the shift changes because the timetable was devised by idiots."

“I’ll have a look at the bike tomorrow. Haven’t ridden one in ages. Hope I’ll manage with the leg.” Sherlock knows he will, but he thinks it wiser not to point that out.

“To be honest, I don’t even know what shift I’m supposed to be on,” John goes on. “Denniston didn’t say.I’ll have to ask him tomorrow. What time are you going back?”

“Four p.m.. You could simply tag along, unless you receive other orders, which I doubt you will. Both Denniston and Turing looked rather relieved to have me around to look after you.”

“Right, well, I’ll go there tomorrow morning and ask.” He stifles a yawn. “And if you’re right, I fear you’ll have to endure my tagging along for a while longer. But for now we should try and get some rest. Hope I won’t disturb you again. Just ... I don’t know ... pound against the wall or something to wake me should the dreams start again. Or if I snore or something.”

Sherlock empties his cup. “I will. Thanks for the tea.” He feels strangely reluctant to terminate their nighttime meeting. The tea was good, and the conversation anything but boring. But then John isn’t about to leave the next day, so there might be a chance for a repeat.

“Oh, damn it, I’m covered in cat fur,” curses the doctor as he rises, pushing Hattie off his lap. “You could have warned me,” he adds reproachfully. He takes off his dressing gown and shakes it. Sherlock’s eyes fall on the scar on his left shoulder, close to the collarbone. It’s large and frayed and still an angry red. Exit wound, was shot in the back. Signs of infection and delayed healing. Fascinating.

Noticing his interest, John tenses self-consciously. Sherlock realises he’s staring and really should stop and apologise. Ogling people’s scars definitely falls into the ‘not good’ category. Still, he cannot pull his eyes away. John swallows visibly, and licks his lips again which seems to be a habit of his when he’s nervous.

“Quite a mess, isn’t it?” he says quietly. “I’m lucky I didn’t lose mobility of the arm entirely, but it won’t ever be the same as before. And I can feel the damn wound every time the weather changes.” He dons the robe again, tying it up tightly and with some force. “Still, people will tell you that I’m one of the lucky chaps that made it at all. Many of my mates didn’t.”

“Would you rather be dead like they?” asks Sherlock.

John shakes his head. “Not really, no. But I feel guilty all the same.” He gathers together their cups and saucers and begins to rinse them. Sherlock watches him until the doctor gives him a look over his shoulder. “How about putting away milk and biscuits, Sherlock?”

Sherlock startles at thinly veiled order. Likes to have things in their right places, does John Watson Usually, Sherlock wouldn’t have cared, would have left the tidying up to his landladies who have indeed been complaining about his lack of order with his (or their) things. Sherlock doesn’t mind chaos, as long as he can find what he needs. And the most important thing, his mind, is always tidy. But now putting away the tins and the milk-bottle seem the right thing to do, so he does it. John wouldn’t be able to reach the top shelf, anyway.

They ascend the stairs together, and both stop in front of the bathroom door.

“Wanted to quickly brush my teeth again,” explains the doctor. Sherlock has had the same intention, and says so. “Well, you can go first,” offers John.

“The sink is large enough for two,” remarks Sherlock. “Unless you need the room to yourself.”

John laughs at this. “God, no. I’ve been sharing bathrooms for most of my life. There isn’t exactly a lot of privacy on a battle-ship.”

Sherlock is familiar with shared facilities as well from his days at Harrow, although he doesn’t recall them fondly, particularly having to shower with the other boys and endure their jibes and bullying because of his slight, somewhat disproportionate frame and his late entering into puberty, as if he had any say in the matter. But it’s not like he will be required to strip for John Watson, who, being a doctor, has seen all kinds of strange bodyshapes anyway.

There is something oddly domestic about the two of them standing next to each other in front of the small bathroom mirror brushing their teeth. Sherlock wonders that the proximity of another person doesn’t bother him more, now that he’s been on his own for so long. But John Watson’s presence feels neither like a nuisance nor a threat. It is … good.

 

 –<o>–

 

There are no more disturbances that night. The doctor seems to be falling asleep quickly, and Sherlock, too, dozes off a short while after they both went to their respective rooms. He dreams about bees and silvery cars and rows and rows of numbers, but when he wakes at about seven in the morning, the nightly images quickly fade from memory, leaving behind only vague irritation.

Quickly, he finishes in the bathroom and dresses, then makes his way downstairs, slinking past the kitchen before either of the sisters can catch him. He’s going to have to endure their chatter at breakfast, anyway, but before facing the inevitable he has other plans. In the shed, he digs out the bicycle that belonged to Mrs. Turner’s deceased son. It looks all right, if a little rusty. He checks the brakes, which still work well, then wheels it outside to oil the chain. The tyres need some air, so he pumps them, then sets the saddle at what he has estimated is the correct height for the doctor.

Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he is distracted by the screeching of bicycle brakes on the gravelly driveway. Expecting the postman to have made an early appearance, he is surprised when the person literally leaping from their vehicle is a dishevelled looking Molly Hooper. In an instant he takes in her rumpled clothing which indicates a bike ride at high speed. This deduction is further supported by the hair that has slipped out of its confinement under a scarf, and the oil-stain on her stocking where it brushed against the chain. Her face is flushed from the exertion of the ride, but underneath it’s pale, her eyes shadowed as after a night of too little sleep. There is no trace of lipstick, or any make-up. Likely she was occupied this morning, or distracted, and thus didn’t have time to paint her face or pay much heed to her hair. And she looks ... distraught may be the right description.

In her hurry, she doesn’t bother with resting her bicycle against something but leaves it to crash onto the gravel as she rushes over to him. “Oh Sherlock, I’m so glad you’re already up and about. I was worried I was going to wake you, or give your landlady some wrong ideas.”

Ah yes, Sherlock dimly recalls that in most billets, visits of the opposite gender are strongly discouraged so as to avoid indecent behaviour. Not that Mrs. Turner or Mrs. Hudson have ever had to worry on his behalf. In fact, there have been instances when they not so subtly hinted that they wouldn’t mind if he ‘got himself a gal’, culminating in him informing them rather gruffly that ‘gals’ were not exactly his area, (which, in hindsight, might have given them the wrong idea entirely but at least sufficed to shut them up for the time being). When will people understand that he isn’t looking for a relationship – of any kind?

He hopes that Molly Hooper at least got his point from the previous day and is not trying to invite him to accompany her to another kind of social event. But from her looks, she isn’t. Eschewing small talk and sensing that she might not be interested in it on this occasion, he eyes her keenly.

“Your shift starts in half an hour, you should be on your way to the Park. In fact you were, but something happened to make you come here instead.” He studies her appearance again. “Something unusual and potentially worrying befell at your accommodation that caused you to lose sleep last night.”

She nods, trying to smooth down her skirt and get her hair in order. She is still breathing heavily, and her eyes are strangely bright. Sherlock hopes it’s from cycling in the keen morning air and that she’s not going to start crying. He’s not good with crying people.

“You’re right,” she pants. “Something has happened. I was on my way to work when I found her.” She claps a hand in front of her mouth and right enough, the tears start falling.

Sherlock rolls his eyes. Damn it. Couldn’t she keep it together for just a little while longer? What do people do in situations like these? He takes a deliberate step closer. Is he supposed to pat her shoulder? He’s seen people do that. Hug her, even? Well, she might like it, but hugging is really, definitely, not something he does. Ever.

Well, he can at least try to soothe her from a distance. Moreover he’s curious. “Who did you find?” he enquires in what he hopes is a fairly gentle voice.

Molly sniffs and digs in her pocket for a handkerchief. After blowing her nose noisily and some more sniffing, he looks up at Sherlock with large eyes. “My friend Jenny. In the old quarry. She’s dead.”

 

Chapter Text

Molly’s announcement is followed by another bout of weeping. Sherlock is eager to hear more about her findings (a body, probably fresh, how fascinating, God, let it be a murder. Right, perhaps this is a bit ‘not good’ but who cares?). Yet he feels entirely out of his depth in the face of her grief which seems to prevent her from getting another word out. Therefore, after a minute’s deliberation he takes her by the arm, drags her up the steps and into the kitchen.

There at the table, Mrs. Turner, Mrs. Hudson and John Watson are assembled at breakfast. Mrs. Turner is in the process of pouring tea, while her sister is handing a jar of blackberry jam to the doctor. All three look up in surprise when Sherlock shoves the unhappy Molly through the door.

“Good morning Mrs. Turner, Mrs. Hudson, John,” he greets them before any of them can get a word out. “This is Molly Hooper, a colleague from work. As you can see, she is distraught and in need of tea. Lots of milk, two sugars. Molly, sit yourself down, blow your nose again, and then tell us exactly what happened.”

There is a moment of surprised staring, but then, thankfully, Mrs. Turner’s practical side overcomes her bafflement at the intrusion. Molly is ushered to where a cup and plate have already been set for Sherlock. Mrs. Turner prepares the tea in accordance with Sherlock’s instruction without any questions. Then she beckons to Molly to partake of it. The invitation to tea seems to actually do the trick. Molly draws a deep breath and nods a thank you, sniffing and attempting a polite smile. And she hasn’t even taken a sip. Sherlock never ceases to admire the apparent calming qualities of the beverage and of the ritual surrounding its consumption. Mrs. Hudson seems to consider tea cure number one for a great number of ailments. Given his stealthy expedition to the kettle last night, so does Doctor Watson, despite (or because of?) his medical degree. Sherlock wonders if it might be worth undertaking a scientific study into the properties of tea and biscuits with regards to their effects on the human psyche.

Molly takes a seat after self-consciously brushing over her hair and skirt again, then nods again at the assembly and gratefully accepts the steaming cup that is passed to her by Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Hudson provides a fresh handkerchief. The two sisters exchange a sympathetic glance.

“Have you heard bad news from the front, dear?” enquires Mrs. Hudson gently. Molly shakes her head, slowly regaining her composure after a few careful sips of her tea and a rather noisy use of the hanky.

“No, it’s not that. And I’m very sorry for interrupting your breakfast like this. I should have gone to the police right away, only ...”

“The police?” butts in John. Sherlock sees him tense, and notices how excited he seems to be all of a sudden. Beat to quarters. All men to battle stations. He recognises the feeling because he shares it.

Molly nods. “They will need to be told, but ... actually I’m not sure if I should inform the local police, after all.” She glances at Sherlock. “Because of … work, you know. I’m not sure it’s their responsibility. Anyway, I remembered that Sherlock once mentioned he’s a detective, and I just ... I needed to talk to someone, and he is living closest, so ...”

Pleased by Molly considering him a more authoritative person to address in the case of a dead body than the police, Sherlock almost bounces with excitement. Miss Hooper certainly is no idiot. She could get to the point a bit more quickly, though.

“Yes, this is all very nice, Molly, but would you please pull yourself together and tell us right from the beginning what you found? That would be massively helpful and preferable to your babbling.”

There is the sharp clearing of a throat. Sherlock looks to John, who shakes his head minutely. Sherlock frowns. “Not good?”

“Bit not good, indeed. A little more tact wouldn’t go amiss, Sherlock.”

Sherlock waves a hand and starts to pace impatiently. Molly takes another sip of her tea, draws a deep breath and sits up straighter in her chair. “He is right. I shouldn’t be babbling, and there’s time for bawling later. Right. So this morning ... actually, I should start elsewhere. You see, I’m billeted at Newton Longville, where I share lodgings with two other girls. There’s Sally Donovan who only arrived last week. She’s from Jamaica. There seems to have been some mix-up with her lodgings because she couldn’t be housed with the other Wrens and so ended up at our place.

“And there’s Jenny ... Jennifer Wilson, who I’ve shared lodgings with ever since I arrived here eight months ago. Jenny and I are ... were good friends, and we did a lot of things together after work. Yesterday after our shift we went into town because Jenny wanted to look for new stockings. There’d been a rumour at work that real nylons would be available for a short time and she dearly wanted some instead of often having to draw the stripe on her legs. She had met this fellow, Jim. I think she was hoping she could impress him so he’d ask her out for real, after hanging out with her in London and elsewhere. I haven’t met him yet, only heard her talk about how sweet he is and seen his photograph. He does look very handsome, a bit like Clark Gable only without the moustache. And he seems to be well connected. He got Jenny a whole bar of Hershey’s chocolate some days ago, apparently from some American GI he knows, and the other day he gave her a packet of cigarettes and some extra clothing coupons. Anyway, we were in town and having tea in the High Street after finding that the nylons had indeed been just a rumour, after all. Afterwards we were about to cycle home. Then Jenny met some colleagues from work and wanted to stay longer and perhaps have dinner with them. I was tired after my shift and had a bit of a headache, so I went home without her.”

“Did she return to your accommodation last night?” enquires Sherlock, pacing to and fro excitedly.

“I’m not sure,” admits Molly, looking troubled. “I thought I heard someone in the bathroom around ten, and it can’t have been Sally or our landlady because Sally works the nightshift this week and Mrs. Suffield said she’d slept through the night after having had a bit of port with her tea yesterday evening. Jenny has the room next to mine, and when she didn’t show up at breakfast despite both of us having the early shift today I went to her room and knocked. I thought that perhaps she had returned late and overslept. She didn’t reply, so I went in. Her bed was made, but the jacket that had been lying on it the previous morning when we’d left for work was gone. There were things from her handbag lying on the coverlet of her bed, and more stuff was lying about the room. She’s a very tidy person, Jenny, so I wondered about it because her room looked unusually messy, as if someone had been looking for something in a hurry. Her favourite pink shoes were gone, as was her pink hat, the one she only wears when she’s on a date.”

Molly drinks some more of her tea, brushing nervously at her hair again. “I thought it a bit strange that she hadn’t come last night to tell me she was about to go out again. She usually does that, because she knows I’ll worry if she doesn’t. Normally she comes to say good night, and when she has a date I can hardly get her to shut up about it. I’d not been feeling too well, so I’d gone to bed early, like I said. She’d known about my headache, so I reckoned she might not have wanted to disturb me. And looking at her room, I thought that perhaps she had returned only briefly to fetch something and then gone out with Jim or someone else, and stayed the night.”

“Did she habitually ‘stay the night’ with her acquaintances?” asks Sherlock, recalling the pink woman who had accompanied Molly the previous day and who had seemed rather excited about seeing John in uniform. Gazing at him now in his civilian clothing (dark grey woollen trousers, striped shirt, tie insisted on to look at least a bit ‘respectful’, sleeveless knit jumper in shades of blue that complement the colour of his eyes — what?), Sherlock has to admit that the uniform did make him look taller and more impressive. More dashing, too. Unbidden, the staves of one of the songs Mrs. Hudson loves and has asked him to play on the violin to make up for some glassware that got damaged during one of Sherlock’s experiments come to mind. All the nice girls love a sailor. Well, Jenny certainly did. Sherlock has to admit that he, too, appreciates the aesthetic appeal of a naval uniform.

Molly shrugs at his question. “Now and again. Jenny was popular with the men. She almost always had some kind of boyfriend. She found it so easy to talk to them. And she was very pretty, of course, and very clever. I once asked her how she did it, and she just shrugged and smiled and said I should be more forward and wear more lipstick.” She casts a quick glance at Sherlock and blushes, quickly reaching for her teacup to hide her face.

“Anyway, as I said,” she continues after another sip of tea, “I was a little confused about the state of her room, but thought she had grabbed a few things and spent the night out, and was going to come to work from wherever she’d been. Mrs. Suffield asked me to take her some packed breakfast – she always worries that we girls don’t eat enough –, and so I got my bike and set out to work.

“I was in a bit of a hurry because looking for Jenny and waiting for Mrs. Suffield to pack her food and all that had taken time, so I decided not to take the main road but the way past the old quarry. It’s shorter, but there are a lot of potholes on the path and it’s rather overgrown, and there’s a bit of a climb back to the road. I usually prefer to cycle on the road, especially after it’s rained. But since it didn’t rain yesterday, I thought I should give it a try so as not to be late at work.”

She takes another sip of her tea, the hand lifting her cup trembling slightly. John reaches out and places a comforting hand on her shoulder, rubbing it gently. It seems to calm her because Molly draws a deep breath, gives him a quick, grateful smile, and continues,

“I’d almost passed the quarry which is quite weedy and overgrown with a muddy pond inside with trees and lots of tall plants growing around it. I’d almost passed it, and then I saw her. Or no, actually I first saw one of her shoes. It was still quite misty down by the pond, but one couldn’t really overlook it as it lay in a large patch of rushes, bright pink. I’d recognise that shoe anywhere. She was so proud of the pair, got them from Paris, she said, from a friend she’d had there before the Germans invaded. So there lay the shoe. I stopped and dismounted, and following a narrow path down to the water, I saw her. She was lying face down in the mud. I carefully went closer, looking about to see whether there was anybody else in the quarry but I couldn’t see anyone, nor hear. Only the birds and some dragonflies. A large heron flew up when I reached the water and quite startled me.”

“Did you check her vital signs?” asks John, his face animated while at the same time full of compassion. Sherlock was about to ask the same question.

“Yes. I crept closer and felt for her pulse at her neck. There was none, and she was very cold.” Molly’s hands are shaking again, but she is no longer weeping. John rubs her shoulder again.

“What did you do then?” asks Sherlock.

“I ran back to my bike and came here as quickly as I could. I didn’t want to turn her over or search round the place, because I feared that I’d destroy evidence. I remember you once complained about the police walking all over a crime scene you were called to in London, thereby destroying all the tracks.”

“Very wise and attentive of you,” remarks Sherlock. “The quarry you described, is it the one off the road to Newton Longville?”

“Yes. You can’t see it from the road, though. But there is a small copse of beeches and oaks and ash trees next to the road where the track I’d been following from the village joins the road. Do you want to go there now?” She seems both horrified and strangely excited.

“Of course,” announces Sherlock. “Give me an hour or two. Do not go to the police yet. Wait here until I return and we can discuss further proceedings. Likely we’ll need to inform people at our workplace and have them look into the matter. I will know more once I’ve seen the body.”

“Will you not have breakfast first, Sherlock dear?” asks Mrs. Hudson, who despite Molly’s troubling account doesn’t seem shocked. Then again, she was in London during the first air raids and has seen her fair share of death and suffering. Mrs. Turner looks grieved and worried, but with her usual practicality is pouring more tea for Molly and putting a plate with buttered toast in front of her.

“You have a bite, dear. We’ll look after you.”

Sherlock stares at Mrs. Hudson incredulously. “Have breakfast, now, when a fresh body needs to be investigated? Mrs. Hudson, I certainly won’t be sitting at your breakfast table when there is finally something fun going on.”

There is a sharp intake of breath from the assembly. Molly sniffs audibly. John shakes his head in stern disapproval. “Sherlock, the tact thing we talked about? Work on it, please.” He jerks his head towards Molly with a meaningful gaze. Sherlock swallows. The doctor looks quite angry.

Stepping closer to the distraught Molly who has reached for the handkerchief again, he touches her shoulder hesitantly. “I am sorry, Molly,” he says. She looks up at him and nods.

Sherlock straightens, briefly considers whether he’ll need a jacket but discards the idea, and briskly makes his way towards the door. On the threshold, however, he halts. An idea has struck him. He turns and approaches the table again, his gaze focused on the naval surgeon who again is trying to comfort Molly.

“You’re a doctor,” Sherlock states as he prowls closer. John looks up.

“In fact you’re a naval doctor.”

John’s head jerks up some more, almost as if he were to stand to attention.

“Any good?”

Now he does stand, his chair scraping over the tiled floor. His expression is carefully neutral, but Sherlock can sense the tension in his compact form.

“Very good,” is the curt, confident reply. Sherlock has no doubt that he’s speaking the truth.

He steps closer. “Seen a lot of injuries then? Violent deaths?”

John jerks his chin up defiantly. “Enough for a lifetime, far too much.”

Sherlock cocks his head. “Want to see some more?”

A light comes into the John’s eyes, fierce and excited and dangerous. “Oh god, yes,” he breathes. Sherlock’s face splits into a broad smile.

“Come on, then.” He turns on the spot and dashes through the door, hearing the other man following, his footsteps quick and sure with only the barest hint of an irregularity of gait. There is no sign of the walking stick. Sherlock grins to himself. Of course he’s been right about the limp.

 

–<o>–

 

The roads are virtually deserted when the two men cycle down Buckingham Road towards Bletchley. Only a farmer is about with his horse-drawn cart filled with sacks and crates for the apple harvest. The hooves of the large black Shire pulling it are sounding a measured clip-clop, clip-clop, into the peaceful early morning silence which otherwise is only disturbed by birdsong and the crowing of a cockerel in some nearby garden. Sherlock set out at a good pace, and only after they’ve been cycling for about a quarter of a mile he remembers to cast a look over his shoulder to see how his companion is faring.

To his delight, the doctor is right behind him. He doesn’t look uncomfortable on his borrowed vehicle, and Sherlock is pleased to notice that he calculated the height of the saddle correctly. There is no trace of the other’s injuries, either real or imagined. He is gripping the handlebars tightly with both hands, and he’s pedalling vigorously without any sign of favouring one leg. Sherlock smiles to himself and ducks a little lower over the bars to brace himself against the wind.

Soon, they reach the crossroads where the road to Newton Longville branches off to the right. Sherlock indicates with his arm and they both turn into the lane, which is narrower than Buckingham Road, the surface less smooth, with hedgerows rising to both sides of it and large solitary oaks and ashes partly overshadowing it. Sherlock recalls his night-time encounter with the strange car that occurred at these very crossroads. His heart starts beating faster in a way that has nothing to do with the exertion of cycling.

The car. It came from Newton Longville shortly after midnight. None of the locals in the quaint little village is likely to drive a Bentley Convertible. Sherlock doubts that anybody there has a car at all, apart from the local vet or the doctor, and perhaps that wealthy dairy farmer Mrs. Turner sometimes gossips about because she secretly fancies him. Who would drive to Newton Longville after midnight? They could have been passing through, but past the village there are only other small settlements. The major road south to London runs via Leighton Buzzard and then Aylesbury. Nobody in their right mind would make a detour over bumpy country lanes through Newton Longville in the middle of the night.

Unless they had business there. It’s too early to devise theories due to lack of evidence, but what if the strange car has something to do with Jennifer Wilson’s untimely demise? It seems too strange to be a coincidence. The universe is seldom so lazy. His brother’s words ring in Sherlock’s ears as he slows his bike to study the surface of the road in the hope of spotting some imprint of the sports car’s tyres. But the dusty gravel does not give away much in terms of tracks. There are some traces of bicycles, likely from this morning’s rush of cyclists on their was to Bletchley Park. One distinct mark of a vehicle can be seen in a half-dried puddle, but it’s broad and deep, the profile worn. A lorry. Probably the milk-man, or indeed the waggon from the local dairy on its way to fetch the farmers’ milk.

Sherlock wants to find out more about the strange car, but for now it seems prudent to concentrate on the matter at hand, the body. The thought of it fills him with excitement. So what if others consider this tactless and macabre? It’s not that he enjoys people dying per se. It’s just that their remains are so very interesting, and tell so many stories (and hold still during an examination). And if by his interest in human remains he manages to find out how they died and, moreover, if somebody else had a hand in this who then can be brought to justice, well, isn’t that a good thing?

“Is that the copse Miss Hooper mentioned?”

John has drawn level with him and is pointing to the right. A small forest of tall trees rises over the hedgerow and out of the thinning morning mist that still lies over the fields in places. Many fingered leaves cover the road where the ashes have already shed some foliage. In the dense hedge there is a break where a narrow path joins the road. It seems to have been much broader once, large enough for carts, but now it’s overgrown with tall grasses, stalky thistles and hemlocks and other half-faded perennials. Prickly sloe, hawthorn and dog roses hem it in on both sides, the latter dotted with rosehips like drops of blood. Vines of bramble are reaching across it, dark berries peeking out between their five-fingered leaves, some of which are already starting to turn a bright red colour to announce that autumn is imminent.

“Yes, it is,” replies Sherlock. “And here is our turn. But don’t cycle down the track yet. I’d like to look for footprints and other traces first.”

He slows the bike even more, then dismounts. John brakes, too, and waits on the road. “Are you looking for anything particular?” he enquires. “I noticed you were going very slowly for the past couple of yards, and were studying the ground carefully.”

“I’m looking for signs that a car stopped here. I had a strange encounter with one up at the crossroads last night on my way home. There aren’t many cars about in these parts, particularly now with the petrol rationing. Hearing about the body made me wonder whether the two instances might be connected. The time sounds about right.”

“You think the dead woman could have been travelling in that car?”

“There was only the driver when I encountered it, and no sign of any woman. But he could have dropped her off here. Aha!” he then exclaims. Carefully leaning his bike against the hedge, Sherlock stoops next to the grassy border of the road. There are distinct marks of tyres, and these look both fresh and different from those of the milk lorry. “Pity I haven’t brought a camera,” mutters Sherlock.

“I think I’ve got a notebook and pencil,” offers John, also resting his bike against the hedge and coming over, both hands digging in his trouser pockets. “Ah, thought so. Here you are.”

Sherlock looks up at him, both surprised and genuinely pleased. The doctor turns out to be more helpful than he has anticipated. He accepts the proffered items gratefully. “Thank you.” John beams, and Sherlock cannot help smiling, too.

The first four pages are filled with John’s notes. Addresses, phone numbers, some observations during his journey to Bletchley, almost like a diary. The handwriting is orderly, surprisingly so for a doctor. Medical professionals are notorious for messy, almost illegible handwriting, although Sherlock knows he’s not exactly entitled to complain. His own hand, at least when he is writing at speed, is a leaning, spidery scrawl, with long a- and descenders and little definition of single letters. He’s been asked to write only in block capitals at the Park because even experts on cryptology weren’t able to decipher his handwriting.

On the first free page in the notebook, he writes today’s date, the first of September, and makes a sketch of the tyre imprint he has found in the earth next to the road. John comes and hunches down next to him, careful not to disturb the marks. They’re considerably well defined, enough to make out the profile of the tyre, but not enough to distinguish its make. But at the moment, every little bit of information might be important and therefore should not be overlooked.

“Do you think this was the mystery car you saw last night?” asks John. “There isn’t a lot to go by, is there?”

“I don’t know if it was the same car. But this one seems to have stopped here for a moment. And the marks are fresh, not a day old or the ridges between the imprints of the profile would have dried out more. Look, they’re only just beginning to lighten. Likely, the mark was made during the night when the air was humid because of the mist, which would have been thicker than now. As you can see, the grass is still covered in dew in places where the sun hasn’t reached it yet.”

John leans in closer and runs a finger over a moisture-covered leaf. “I wouldn’t have though of that.”

“Obviously.”

Sherlock sees the other man’s frown. “People generally don’t pay attention to detail,” he explains.

“Perhaps. Guess it’s something you learn in your line of work at the Park.”

Sherlock shrugs. “Some of us were recruited because we had honed the skills beforehand.”

John nods. “What makes you think the car stopped here for a bit? It could have just driven very close to the road’s edge.”

“There are some droplets of oil caught on the leaves of the dandelion over there, and in the cobweb next to it. Apparently the car leaks slightly. They are not present in this concentration anywhere nearby. Also, and what’s far more interesting, there is some trace of cigarette ash over here, where the driver would have sat.” He reaches out and gingerly lifts a fallen leaf. Some small light-grey flakes of ash sit on it.

“Sadly, it’s not enough to determine the type of cigarette. Most of it seems to have been blown away. Still, we know that the driver smoked, and that he indeed stopped here because had he tipped off the ash while the car was moving, we wouldn’t have found so much of it. Pity we don’t have a glass vial we could stow it in.”

“I’ll bring one next time,” remarks John, standing again with a slight groan (leg seems to be hurting him again, or else, his mind tells him that his leg is hurting). Looking at him, Sherlock sees him smile.

“Yes, that would be appreciated,” he quips, and John’s smile broadens.

“Is that why you asked me to come along? To be your fetch and carry person?”

“Yes,” says Sherlock with a wink. “And for your medical expertise, of course,” he adds and stands. “Come on, it’s time we visited the unfortunate Miss Wilson in her new abode.”

John shakes his head, his mirth dimmed. “Sherlock, you really ought to be more tactful. Poor Miss Hooper was clearly stricken by the death of her friend, and you talk about it like it’s the best thing since Christmas.”

Sherlock frowns at him. “What good would my condolences or any coddling do her? Either her or her friend, in fact. Jennifer Wilson is dead, and whatever kind words I may utter to Molly won’t bring her back. The only thing I can do, and which I intend to do, is to try my utmost to find out how she died, and whether anybody had a hand in that. And if that’s the case, I will see to it that they’re brought to justice. Isn’t that kinder and more useful than superficial words?”

John gazes at him for a long time. Sherlock finds his expression difficult to read. There might be slight disapproval, but also an attempt to see his point. Eventually, John sighs. “I haven’t looked at it that way. I won’t say you’re right, but I can see the merit in doing something instead of just talking and holding hands. Still, I also know how important it is to give comfort to a grieving person, even if it’s only some kind words or a hug, or even a cup of tea. Haven’t you ever lost somebody dear to you?”

Sherlock stops in his tracks on his way to his bicycle. He’s never given much thought to that before, if he’s honest. Because there’s never been any need. There are few human beings he really cares about, and all of them are alive and well, as far as he knows. He’s never had any close friends whose loss might grieve him, nor have there been any lovers he’s lost to death. In fact, there haven’t been any lovers so far. He remembers being sad when his grandparents passed away, but he was very little then and the grief is only a vague, distant memory. Moreover granny was ill and so died, and considering the pain she was in near the end her passing should be considered a blessing. And grandpa apparently didn’t want to stay around without her and soon died, too. Sherlock recalls some slight dismay when he learned that his favourite librarian at his college in Cambridge had been killed in a boating accident, but only because she’d been very lenient with him and his tendency to return books late, and then often with annotations. So no, all in all he can’t claim that he’s been overly exposed to loss and heartbreak, a fact he’s always counted a blessing when he could be bothered to think about it. Now, however, under the troubled gaze of John Watson whose losses are written all over his features, he feels strangely incomplete and immature, as if he’s missed out on some important, humanising event. The only time Sherlock truly, deeply mourned someone was when his beloved dog, his childhood companion, had to be put down. He’d been ten when his parents had told him that the dog was very sick, and that Mr. Hodgson the gardener would take him to his favourite pond so he could swim a little because he’d always loved that. Mr. Hodgson returned alone with a sad, troubled expression, and that was about the last time Sherlock truly wept. But he’s not sure whether he should bring it up now. Surely the death of a dog doesn’t compare to that of a human, even though Redbeard meant the world to him as a boy.

So upon John’s question, he shrugs as he retrieves his bike. “I’ve been lucky,” he says.

John gives him a long glance and nods, and doesn’t comment.

 

–<o>–

 

After a brief internal discussion whether it might be wiser to leave the bicycles at the roadside, Sherlock decides to take them along, unsure if they’ll return the same way. They follow the narrow path in silence, walking their bikes in single file. It winds between young trees and hedges half shrouded in dewy cobwebs, descending gently. Threads of gossamer stretch across it and have the annoying habit of getting caught on clothes, hair and skin. The earth smells of moss and decaying plants, and of mushrooms. Sherlock things he can detect a faint carrion tang of stinkhorns from the direction of the copse.

He is walking in front, his eyes glued to the muddy path and weedy undergrowth to both sides of it. There are clear tracks of another bicycle having used it not long ago – Molly, going in the opposite direction of the two men. Of greater interest, however, are the imprints of heeled shoes that show now and again where the ground is especially muddy and not covered in low weeds and grasses. At one instance, Sherlock stops and gestures to John to come forward and hold his bicycle. The clear mark of a lady’s shoe, rather slim and elegant, is outlined in the mud. Quickly, Sherlock draws a sketch of it in John’s notebook.

“Apparently Jennifer Wilson walked down here from the direction of the road,” muses Sherlock. “And it looks as if she was on her own. There are no other footprints anywhere around here to be seen, apart from the one instance where Molly Hooper was forced to dismount because of the brambles that blocked the path. The plants show signs of someone brushing through them with gentle force. Some of the ripe berries fell to the earth in the process and Molly walked over them.”

John gazes back to the spot a few yards behind them where Molly struggled with the brambles. “I didn’t notice any of that.”

Sherlock smiles to himself. “That’s because you see but don’t observe, John.” He straightens, returns notebook and pencil to his trouser pocket and reclaims his bike. “Look ahead. There is another tight spot. The vines are slightly damaged where Molly pushed her bike over them, but more interestingly, there are some fibres caught on the dogrose growing at shoulder-height.”

He walks over. “Pink,” he announces with a satisfied smile as carefully he picks them off the plant. “Not Molly’s. She was wearing a green jacket over her flowery blouse this morning.”

John steps closer to look at the fibres, which Sherlock places between the pages of the notebook. “So Miss Wilson used this path yesterday? But when? Sure she wouldn’t have walked here in the dark, would she? It’s tricky enough now during the day, at least with the bicycles.”

“There was enough moonlight last night for her to see major obstacles, and she was likely familiar with the track. Molly mentioned they habitually used it as a shortcut.”

“Still, why would she want to walk at all? Supposing she came in the car, why not drop her off at her accommodation? Why here?”

Sherlock shrugs. “There are a number of possible explanations. It’s too early to narrow them down to one or two and discard the rest. Come on, let’s find the body. I hope it’ll answer far more questions than footprints and fibres.”

 

–<o>–

 

After about two hundred yards of winding through the undergrowth, the path turns sharply to the right and descends more steeply down an earthy, slippery slope. Molly pushed her bike up here, as can be seen clearly by the tracks she and her conveyance left behind. Carefully, the men climb down. On the bottom, they are greeted with moist air and the smell of clay. Through the slender willows, alders and birches that grow on the level stretch out of patches of reeds and rushes and flowering purple loosestrife, Sherlock can see the crumbling, earthy walls of the old clay pit. Erosion lines where water ran down the sides of the quarry have created fascinating patterns in the clay, which is stacked in layers of different colour, starting with reds and ochres and fading to a light grey near the bottom of the pit where the light of the early sun is reflected on the still surface of a small pond. Its waters are slightly opaque and of an intense light blue, almost turquoise colour, and they are thickly grown with all kinds of weeds and waterplants.

Leaving the path that turns to the left and continues to wind through the trees and bushes a little above the lake, the men approach the water. As they draw close, rough croaks and a flap of wings alert them to three crows that have been sitting near the edge of the pond. Immediately, it is clear what the birds’ business has been: standing out against the greys and greens and blues of the pit, Sherlock recognises the purple-clad body of Jennifer Wilson as she lies close to the water on a bed of crushed rushes and the pink flowers of loosestrife.

Resting his bike against a birch, Sherlock walks over. Jennifer Wilson lies on her front, her outstretched arms and gloved hands almost reaching into the water, her face hidden by her hair. When he saw her last it had been skilfully arranged in smooth waves fastened with hairpins and adorned with a pink ribbon. Now it is slightly dishevelled with a hat lying next to it. Indicates rushing along the path and brushing at the hair to get rid of the gossamer threads. One of her shoes is missing from her stockinged feet. It lies a few yards away, caked with clay. Likely the heel got stuck in the clingy mud near the water’s edge and she walked on and so lost it. Must have been in a rather desperate hurry, then, given how, according to Molly, she loved those shoes. They’re not new, several years old, in fact, but well-kept and only recently polished. She is wearing a skirt of grey and rose-coloured wool with a purple houndstooth pattern and a matching jacket, underneath with she has on a pink blouse with a bow and a frilly collar – the same clothes she wore the previous afternoon when Sherlock last saw her, apart from the jacket, which she must have fetched from her accommodation. Her hat is pink, asymmetrical, quite fanciful and stylish, adorned with silk flowers, pink glass beads, and pheasant feathers died purple, one of which has snapped and almost broken off. The stockings are expensive, nylon by the shine of them (difficult to acquire indeed, even in London), but they show runs where apparently thorns or branches have snagged the delicate material.

Sherlock steps closer. Carefully, he scans the ground surrounding the body. There are a few imprints of rather small, flat shoes. Molly’s, apparently. They lead to the body and away again, showing a depression where Molly hunkered down to feel for her friend’s pulse at her neck. In the mud next to the dead woman’s face, there are tiny marks of crows’ feet, and what looks like the trail of a rat. Other than that, Sherlock can only descry the footprints of Jennifer Wilson herself, first of her heeled Parisian shoes, and then, twice, of her stockinged foot after she’d lost one shoe but took steps forward to … yes, to do what?

By her dishevelled hair and damaged stockings, she came here in a rush, muses Sherlock as he draws closer deliberately until he is crouched next to the body. A brisk walk at least, almost a run. There are traces of somebody slipping on the steep incline and losing their footing. Not Molly, she went up not down. So Jennifer hurried along the path in the moonlit dark. But why? What happened? Did she come in the car? It came from the direction of Newton Longville when it stopped by the wayside, right where the shortcut to her home branches off. So yes, she did, after being met at her accommodation. John’s question is valid: why walk back in the dark at all? Disagreement with the driver? Not wanting to be seen exiting the car by her landlady or the neighbours? Unlikely, if she was met at her place beforehand. What else does the body tell us about the events of last night. And more importantly, how did she die? Apart from Molly and us now, nobody has been in the quarry for some time, at least not on this side of the pond. There are no other footprints anywhere in the vicinity.

Cautious footsteps make Sherlock look up. John is standing close, looking down at the body with a troubled expression. “Poor girl,” he remarks quietly, before gazing at Sherlock. Taking in his look, Sherlock wonders whether this is another tact thing. Sentiment? Should he be more shocked to see a dead body? Should he express some kind of regret or sorrow about her passing? Then again John is a doctor, has served in two wars and likely seen more death than Sherlock. Why does it trouble him so much to see Jennifer Wilson, who he didn’t even know, like this. And why doesn’t it trouble me more? Am I really this cold-hearted, or simply practically minded?

Sherlock shakes himself slightly. Better not think about these matters now. There is a task at hand. Thankfully, John seems to be agreeing. “Found anything of interest?” he asks.

Quickly, Sherlock relates to him what he deduced from her clothing. “I’ve not yet seen anything that indicates what killed her. There are no obvious injuries on her back or neck, nor her hands and wrists – the gloves look undamaged –, or her legs. We’ll have to turn her over in order to see her face. Come and help me.”

Together, they carefully shift the body onto the back. Rigor mortis has already set in, but Sherlock only registers it marginally. His gaze is drawn to her face. Next to him, John exhales loudly. “Good God,” he mutters.

Sherlock nods. Underneath a smear of mud where apparently she keeled over and fell face down into the soft clay at the water’s edge, Jennifer Wilson’s features aren’t pale in death, but retain a faint pink flush. Her eyes are tightly shut and her mouth under traces of dark pink lipstick (freshly applied not long before she died, but smeared, perhaps from kissing) screwed open as if she was crying out or gasping for air. Together with her hands balled into tight fists, she looks as if she died in pain, yet on her front apart from mud-stains no injuries can be seen. There is no blood, not even a tear or rip in her clothing.

Sherlock casts a glance at John who has leaned in closer as if to listen to her non-existent breathing. He feels for her pulse at her wrist, tests the rigidity of the arm, then leans over her face. He seems to be sniffing her. After a moment he nods and withdraws again.

“Any idea how long she has been dead?” asks Sherlock. John is a doctor, after all, and his medical knowledge is far more proficient than Sherlock’s.

“Six to eight hours, I’d say. The night has been quite cold, which would have slowed rigor mortis, but by her state she looks like she’d been running, or at least walking quickly” (Oh, so he noticed that. Quite impressive.) “which on the other hand would have accelerated it. As for the cause of her death ….” He indicates to Sherlock to follow his example and smell her.

Sherlock does so, leans in and looks more closely at the pink spots on her cheeks which are no residual rouge powder but some condition of the skin. And then he notices it. Faintly through the heady, mineral smell of clay and decaying reeds and leaves and mud, he catches a whiff of bitter almonds.

His head jerks up and he looks at John. “Cyanide?”

“Looks like it. Would explain the traces of cyanosis on her skin. We should ask Miss Hooper if she remembers if her face was even pinker when she found her.”

“She didn’t see her face,” muses Sherlock absently, his mind whirring. Cyanide. Poison. Almost instant death through suffocation. That would explain why apparently there are no other injuries on the body. How was she exposed to the poison, though?

He realises that he must have spoken his thoughts aloud because John has begun to search the body carefully. He leans forward and reaches for her half-open mouth, but then hesitates and breaks off a stiff rush. Deliberately, he picks around her teeth, and then nods grimly as a small, broken capsule emerges. He does not touch it or remove it from her mouth with the stalk, just leaves it sitting on the tongue. What the two men can see is evidence enough.

John whistles softly through his teeth. “Never thought I’d see one of these up close. Where on earth did she get this from? They’re definitely not standard issue, and you can’t just walk into a chemist and buy a handful of cyanide capsules. And why did she bite it, Sherlock? She must have been pretty desperate to choose such an end.”

“Why indeed,” mutters Sherlock, gazing at the dead woman thoughtfully. His heart is beating hard and fast. This is even better than he anticipated. Complicated. Utterly fascinating. He steeples his hands in front of him and rests his chin on his fingertips.

“We’d have to wait for the coroner’s report, of course, to be sure,” John continues, “but at least we can rule out murder now. The capsule was clearly self-administered.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrow. “It was, yes. But that does not rule out murder. Not by far. We know too little about Miss Wilson and her circumstances, but she did not give the impression of a suicidal person when I encountered her yesterday. What we’ve learned about her from Molly gives no indication of suicidal tendencies, either. But even you noticed she came here in a rush, likely in the middle of last night judging by the estimated time of her death. Considering all evidence we have so far, she did not merely want to take a shortcut to return home. The path is not a comfortable walk even at daytime, like you rightly pointed out, and she is likely to have used a bicycle to get to work and back, judging from the shape of her calves and general practicality considering the distance of her accommodation to the Park. But she didn’t cycle last night, meaning she had other means of transportation. We need to check whether she cycled home from town and then exchanged her bike for another ride after fetching her jacket.”

“You mean a ride in the mysterious car?”

“Very likely. We need to learn more about her. Well, I believe I know a few things. There was quite a lot to deduce about her yesterday. But I’d like to have my deductions confirmed. We must talk to Molly and her landlady, have a look at her room. Talk to her colleagues at work, too, and find this Jim, her ‘friend’, whatever that term implies.”

“See if he drives a car?”

“Yes, either he or any other of her acquaintances.”

“And if either of them has access to cyanide capsules,” adds John darkly. He runs a hand over his face to brush away a strand of gossamer stuck on his forehead, which he seems to have ignored until now. “Why did she die, Sherlock?” he asks softly. “A bright young woman like her …”

Sherlock shrugs. “There could be a number of reasons. It’s too early to make assumptions. It could be anything from a lovers’ quarrel to the betrayal of state secrets.”

John’s eyes light up at the latter part of the statement. “Do you think she was involved in some kind of scheme? Espionage or something?” Taking in his expression, his barely concealed excitement, Sherlock scarcely manages to suppress a smile. He recognises the feeling, oh indeed he does. The same kind of excitement is coursing through his veins.

“Too early to say,” he cautions, studying the body again. Something is nagging him, has been doing so ever since he first clapped eyes on the still form. Something is not quite right. He straightens up and takes a few paces back to get an overview. He retraces the woman’s steps, trying to recreate her last moments in his mind. “Her paces were wide after she’d come down the slope and left the path,” he tells himself. “She was indeed in a hurry. The toes left a deeper imprint than the heels. She was running. But then, reaching the pond, she slowed down when the ground began to turn muddy. Her shoe got stuck but she still walked on until she had almost reached the water. On this tussock of rushes, she stopped. What happened then? She seems to have stood for a little while, the imprints of her feet are quite deep and have filled with water. What does she do? She must have taken off her hat because it was fastened with pins which likely came loose during her journey through the undergrowth but not enough for the hat to fall off on its own. She ran a hand through her hair several times, judging from its state. At some point she bit the capsule. Where did she keep it? Not in her mouth. The danger of biting it during her run or bumpy walk here would have been too great, and she seems to have chosen this spot deliberately to end her life. Why? What is the connection? At some point she decides to bite the capsule. The poison takes effect very quickly. She sinks to her knees – there are clear marks on the ground and on her skirt and stockings, then falls over onto her front. She is still alive, her arms move forward reflexively to break her fall. But she loses consciousness and dies soon after, in a matter of minutes. But there is something that doesn’t fit … something we’ve overlooked ….”

He draws an exasperated breath and brushes a hand through his hair impatiently, glancing over at John who is watching him with an awed expression. “You’re quite incredible, you know that?” John tells him with a smile.

Sherlock halts his restless pacing, completely surprised and strangely … touched by the remark. He feels blood rush into his cheeks. His heart does a strange, irregular beat. It’s most unexpected, this kind of praise. Nobody’s called him incredible before and actually seems to mean his person, not just his disregard of societal niceties, which have been described in terms of ‘incredibly rude’. He bites his lip. “You think so?” he asks tentatively.

“Sure,” replies John, his expression open and genuine. “I’m certainly not inattentive, nor blind, but I’d never have managed to gather so many facts in such a short time. You’ll have to repeat what you just said, and I’ll write it down. At some point we’ll have to tell the police, you know.”

Sherlock waves a hand. “Later. The fact remains that – wait a moment.” He returns to the body and kneels down next to it, lifting the right hand. It’s tightly balled into a fist, more so than the other. With gentle force, he pries apart the stiff fingers. The purple suede glove is soaked with water and stained with clayey mud.

“What’s this?” asks John who’s drawn close enough to lean over Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock catches a whiff of soap and wool and tea and sweat from cycling. The combination shouldn’t be fragrant, but strangely, it is.

The doctor points at a soggy clump of balled up paper revealed in the dead woman’s fist. Carefully, Sherlock takes it and begins to unfold it. It tears very easily. The paper is cheap like newsprint, or what’s been used for toilet paper since the beginning of the war thanks to rationing. But there are traces of writing on it, the ink blotchy and half dissolved by the water. Sherlock spreads the paper slip out along his thigh. It’s seems to be only a fragment, the torn-off corner of a larger sheet.

“Are these letters?” enquires John. “Can’t make out any words, yet they are clearly grouped together. Hey, this almost looks like one of your Enigma messages.”

“Yes, it does,” replies Sherlock thoughtfully. “The letters have been written by hand, though, not typed. They are leaning and irregular as if they were jotted down speedily. They look like somebody copied them from another message. Not all letters are still readable, but there seem to be two long rows of them, each consisting of virtually the same letters grouped into blocks of five, like typed Enigma messages. Something has been written underneath the two rows, but the ink has almost completely runoff here. I can only make out the letters ‘SA’, the rest is one big blot of ink.”

“‘SA’,” muses John. “Any idea what this means? And why write down two identical rows?”

“I don't know. We’ll try to preserve the paper, though. Do you have a handkerchief.”

John digs in his pockets. “Here.”

Carefully, Sherlock places the paper on top of the square of fabric, which he then folds over and puts into the notebook. Hopefully the cotton and the book’s pages are going to soak up some of the moisture and prevent the paper from disintegrating further.

John watches him with a cautious expression. “Shouldn’t we leave it here, for the police. It’s evidence after all.”

Sherlock snorts. “If we leave it here in the damp, the ink will run even more, making it completely unreadable. Don’t worry, we’ll inform the police soon enough. In fact, we should return home now and fetch Molly. As the person who found the body, she should accompany us.”

“Where? Into town?”

“No, the Park. I doubt Commander Denniston will want this case to be investigated by the local constabulary. After all, Jennifer Wilson’s workplace is supposed to remain a secret, or rather the nature of her work at the manor. We’ll report to him, and leave him to decide who to include in an investigation. I believe he will want to call in the military police, likely some people from London. Let’s hope they’re not going to be complete imbeciles.”

“How are you going to justify our involvement? I mean, what we’ve been doing here hasn’t been entirely legal, has it? One could charge us for destroying or stealing evidence.”

Sherlock gives him a glance. “Don’t worry. Most of the evidence we gathered the police would never have noticed, and even less recognised. We’ll be fine.”

John nods, not entirely convinced by his doubtful expression. “What about your work?”

“This is my work,” returns Sherlock, then he sighs. “Oh, you mean the codebreaking.” He glances at his watch. It’s quarter past ten. “Well, my shift starts at four, that’s almost six hours still to investigate Jenny’s room and have another chat with Molly. And yes, to find Denniston and tell him of Miss Wilson’s death. This means we should not tarry here. I think we’ve seen all we can round here. Let’s follow the path round the pond and see where it ends. We can cycle back to our place on the road, and look for more evidence of the car on our way.”

He walks back to his bike. Realising that John is not behind him, he turns to see the doctor standing with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders drawn up, shaking his head as he gazes at Sherlock.

“What?”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? This is another of your puzzles, only that this time it doesn’t just involve codes and cyphers.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrow. “Problem? You seemed excited, too, just a moment ago.”

“Yes, true. But I’ve been asking myself whether that’s a good thing. I’m a doctor, not a detective or investigator.”

“And yet here you are. At the merest implication of bloodshed and potential excitement and danger, you jumped up and followed. So if my fascination with this case is … let us call it inappropriate, so is yours. And I think you’d be better off if you worried less about it. We can solve this case, John. Find out why she killed herself. Or was killed.”

John frowns. “Was killed? I still believe it was suicide.”

“Was it? We don’t know the motive yet. But I intend to find out.” Taking a step closer to the doctor, Sherlock adds, “And I’d really appreciate your assistance.”

John glances up at him and cocks his head slightly. “As a doctor?” he asks, still with a trace of doubt in his voice as if he hasn’t already proved his usefulness to Sherlock.

Sherlock grins at him. “Yes. You’ve proved to be rather invaluable so far, Doctor Watson. But you’re of even greater worth as a fetch and carry person. I wonder what else you keep in those remarkable pockets of yours.”

“Very funny,” scoffs John, but he is grinning as well. “Don’t expect any magic rings,” he mutters, thus giving Sherlock some indication of his reading preferences.

“Well, I’ve heard they’re quite rare.”

John laughs. He takes his hands out of his pockets. “Well, then, lead the way, Mr. Detective.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The path continues to wind between willows, alders and birches, round tufts of reeds and rushes. Often the ground is muddy where the pond has overflown its banks because of last week’s heavy rains. Even in these places, the only traces visible are Molly’s footprints and the tyre marks of her bicycle. On the far side of the pond and a little elevated over its turquoise surface is a flattened space like an artificial plateau. Decaying brick walls, shards of glass, wooden planks and rusty iron railings indicate that buildings once stood here. Sherlock assumes they were the sheds where the pit workers kept their tools and what machinery they used when the clay was still being excavated. Now the ruins are haunted by crows, with a heron perching on what remains of a gable. Some of the decaying walls show traces of having been scorched by fire. Most of the wooden beams have been consumed by the flames, apparently.

“What a godforsaken place,” mutters John. He casts a glance back over his shoulder in the direction of where Jennifer Wilson’s body lies. Sherlock does likewise, to determine whether she can be spotted from this vantage point. But despite her bright pink clothing, she is well hidden by dense vegetation. There is a faint smell of smoke on the air.

“Someone is burning leaves and hedge clippings,” says Sherlock. “That’s not the smell of the brickworks. The wind’s coming from the wrong direction for that reek to reach us, anyway. The village can’t be far away. Behind those trees, most likely.”

He points towards another copse that borders the quarry on this side. Behind the ruins the path broadens into what must once have been the main road leading into the pit. Trees, bushes and tall plants have begun to encroach upon it, yet the deep tracks made by heavy carts are still visible, as is the gravel consisting of broken bricks and roof tiles used to fill in potholes long ago. The two men mount their bikes again, and navigating carefully round the new puddles on the road, they leave the quarry behind.

The copse is bordered by a hedge of hazels, sloe, hawthorn and dogroses like a bristly wall. Beyond lie meadows and fields. The latter look as if they have been ploughed only recently, clumps of grass still visible in the furrows, the clayey soil dotted with small rocks and pebbles. Sherlock recalls Mrs. Turner telling him about the new regulations her dairy farmer friend complained about. To feed the nation and make it as independent as possible from food imports from overseas, the Ministry of Food has decreed that land that was formerly used for grazing or hay-making must now be made arable to bear crops of wheat and rye, potatoes and turnips and sugar-beet. ‘Dig for Victory’, Mrs. Turner said they call it, and promptly turned her beloved rose garden into a vegetable patch.

Sherlock couldn’t care less, although he does understand the danger of being too reliant on the Transatlantic convoys and their cargoes. His daily work is mostly concerned with their protection. Without decrypting the Kriegsmarine’s communications to learn about the position of their dreaded U-boats, far more allied ships would have been sunk in recent years, losing not only lives, but vital cargo, too. Hitler is trying to starve England out of the war, and so far his top man in the Atlantic, Großadmiral Dönitz, seems to be doing a good job.

“Do you know where exactly Miss Hooper lives?” asks John at Sherlock’s side. They have halted at the edge of the small forest and are gazing over the fields and hedgerows towards the houses of Newton Longville scattered around its small church. A cloud of dark smoke billows up from what seems to be the village green. Sherlock can smell resin on the smoke. Perhaps the villagers have been pruning the yew trees in the churchyard and are now burning the clippings, or else they have dug up another formerly untended spot to create a new field or garden.

“No, I don’t,” replies Sherlock, feeling slightly annoyed at himself for not having asked Molly before they set out. “I doubt it would be difficult to find out in a village as small as this, but I propose we return home to fetch her first and discuss further proceedings. I only hope that her landlady is not going to tidy up Jennifer’s room in the meantime.”

“Well, she doesn’t know of her death yet,” puts in John. “We could split up, if you’re eager to see her room immediately. I can cycle back and fetch Molly, and you try and find her accommodation. Although,” he scratches his head, “people might start to talk if you do. You know, villagers and gossip and all that, and a young man asking about a lady’s lodgings.”

Sherlock waves a hand. “People do little else,” he scoffs. “But in fact your offer is a tempting one.” He thinks for a moment. It actually seems the most expedient solution. Good thinking, John. “Yes, we’ll do it that way. Bring Molly here. She needs to talk to her landlady and tell her what happened. She can show us round the house, too. Her other housemate should be in now as well since she had the nightshift.”

“What are we going to do about their workplace? Both Miss Hooper and Miss Wilson should have been there hours ago.”

“Mrs. Turner has a phone.”

John looks surprised.

“Really? She didn’t tell me when I arrived, and I didn’t see it.”

“She’s not yet used to having one,” explains Sherlock. “It’s fairly new. It’s in the living room.” He doesn’t mention that the brand new telephone arrived shortly after he did, and that he is sure it was ‘organised’ by his brother or one of his underlings as a way of ‘staying in touch’ and basically being able to better spy on Sherlock’s doings. Sherlock is convinced that his landladies have been charged with delivering regular reports on him to a certain number in London. However, the phone has also been established to enable him to contact Mycroft should the need arise. So far it hasn’t, and there has to befall little less than a bomb strike for Sherlock to telephone his brother and ask for help, but he has memorised the number that will connect him to Whitehall directly without having to reveal the exact recipient of the call to the operator. One never knows when the connection might come in handy.

“Tell Molly to call her superior’s office directly.”

John frowns at that. “Can she just do that? Isn’t it supposed to remain secret, what’s going on at Bletchley Park? Or ‘Station X’? Isn’t that how it’s called round here?”

“Yes, quite a fanciful name, but with enough air of secrecy to prevent people from enquiring further. They have a code for emergencies, and a ruse of what to tell the operator. Molly should know it, too. If not, tell her to call this number and tell her story. She’ll be connected to the right people from there.”

He digs out the notebook and writes down the number. John looks at it curiously. “Whose number is that?”

Sherlock makes a face. Normally, he wouldn’t even consider involving the person at the other end of that line, but ever since he’s found the soggy message on Jennifer Wilson’s body, he feels something churning in his gut. There is more to her death than a suicide, he is certain of it. And to properly investigate, he’ll need time off work, and more resources than he commands at the moment. There is a good chance that he will require his brother’s help, loath though he is to ask for it.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replies curtly. “Someone important and influential enough to make the required calls. That’s all you – and Molly – need to know for the time being.”

John takes the number and puts it in the pocket of his trousers, looking doubtful. Then he draws a breath. “Guess I’ll take the road to get back home. I don’t fancy another walk through the wilderness.”

Sherlock nods approvingly. Together they mount again and follow the old road into the village. There are people about on the green where their road meets the main thoroughfare. John waves a hand and sets out at a good speed in the direction of Bletchley, while Sherlock turns the other way and approaches the people who are busy stacking bundles of cut twigs and branches onto a bonfire. Sherlock sees that he was right about the yews which show definite signs of ardent pruning, almost as if someone was trying to shape them into a topiary and failing.

Most of the people milling about appear to be villagers: elderly men and women clad in old woollen jackets and knit jumpers, colourful aprons and headscarves. A few younger women are among them, their work clothes borrowed and ill-fitting in some cases. Some look like city folk with their pale, untanned features and ungainly way of working in rough boots when usually they balance on high heels. One young woman even wears earrings and lipstick. Landgirls, thinks Sherlock, drafted in to work the fields and tend the livestock, now that most young and middle-aged men are at the front.

He dismounts and walks over to the group. “Good morning,” he greets the workers, making his voice sound friendly and pleasant.

An elderly man throws another bundle onto the fire and comes over. Although, he, too, is attired in working clothes, he is immediately recognisable as the village vicar. Or at least to Sherlock he is (wears cross on chain round his neck, stuffed into his shirt to prevent it from dangling in front of him while he’s working, mark on neck from wearing his vestment during yesterday’s sermon, fresh burn caused by hot wax dripping on skin while replacing candles in the church, another wax stain on shoe).

“Oh, good morning, sir,” he returns Sherlock’s greeting cheerfully. “It’s a beautiful morning for a bit of exercise, isn’t it?”

“Quite so,” replies Sherlock, plastering his most pleasant and slightly insipid smile onto his face because it usually causes people warm to him quickly. It makes him look rather stupid, too, but that appears to be part of its appeal. Stupid, harm- and a little helpless. Look like that and people will greet you with open arms. Be yourself ... well, not so much.

He beams up at the vicar. “I seem to have met just the right person,” he declares.

“Oh?” asks the other, “how can I help you?”

“I am looking for Mrs. Suffield’s house. One of my colleagues from work is accommodated there and charged me with delivering a message to her housemate.”

The vicar smiles benignly at him, seemingly not sharing John’s worries about creating gossip. “Oh, dear Mrs. Suffield, she has quite a lively company at her house. Three young ladies, and all so charming. I just wish I’d see them in church more often. You can see the house from here.” He points to the right. “Behind the thatched roof over there, the house with the ornamental brick work in the gable and the large elm tree next to it.”

“Thank you very much,” says Sherlock. In an afterthought he adds (‘dear’ Mrs. Suffield, indeed), “shall I give your regards to Mrs. Suffield? You have been a great help.”

The vicar smiles a little bashfully at this. “Oh yes, please do.”

Sherlock gives him a nod and mounts his bicycle again. Well, this wasn’t very difficult, was it?

 

–<o>–

 

As he cycles towards the house indicated by the vicar, Sherlock considers how to approach Molly’s landlady, and what exactly to tell her. Eventually, she must of course learn of the fate of one of her tenants, and in Sherlock’s opinion rather sooner than later. He wants to avoid gossip making the rounds, though, especially before an official investigation by the police – local or otherwise – has commenced. Also, he isn’t sure whether he is the right person to break the news to Mrs. Suffield. As he has heard repeatedly today, he lacks tact. Then again Molly might be too distraught to repeat her tale to her landlady. John might be a good person to relate their findings. He’s a doctor, and fairly good with people. Apparently he has skills relevant to dealing with them which Sherlock so obviously lacks. Sherlock recalls how Molly seemed to become more at ease under John’s careful ministrations. A hand placed here, a kind word there. Sherlock may be good with codes and cyphers, but he’s never seen the necessity to try and understand people. Perhaps, he muses, he should begin taking an interest in them. It might be beneficial for the Work, should the war ever end and he be able to pursue detective work once more.

When he turns a corner and the house becomes fully visible, he decides to have a look at the landlady first and base the further course of proceeding on the impression she makes. As he approaches, he spots two women in the small courtyard in front of the main entrance and the majestic elm tree. Apparently, one has visited the other to fetch vegetables and eggs, which are assembled in a large enamelled bowl. In exchange, she seems to have brought a bucket containing some kind of sludge which at another glance turns out to be kitchen scraps, probably to feed a pig or some other kind of animal.

Both women look up when Sherlock draws close, slows the bike and dismounts. “Good morning,” he greets them.

They return his greeting rather indifferently, looking him up and down. He does the same, trying to determine which one is Mrs. Suffield. He deduces that she must be the one who received the pig feed because there is a faint smell of pig manure round the house, and he can hear the faint clucking of chickens from what must be a small garden behind the house. The landlady is tall and strong of build. Her greying hair is arranged in waves visible under her headscarf. She is wearing a flowery apron and a pair of men’s trousers stuck into Wellingtons. Her hands indicate that she has handled plums lately (grew up on a local farm, used to heavy labour, perhaps worked in brick factory during the previous war, either recently widowed or took off wedding ring for work, in any case she seems to be doing most of the work round the house, meaning that if her husband is still alive he isn’t at home much, ah, no, not widowed, husband seems to work on the railway, two pair of men’s shoes stand outside the front door, one used for gardening, and one heavily stained by soot and clayey dust from local roads, he walked home from the station after his shift, likely works as a fireman filling the mechanical stokers on the locomotives with coal).

The other woman looks older and more frail, and not as used to physical labour as her neighbour. She is dressed more daintily, too, wearing a Fair Isle cardigan over her skirt and blouse, thin stockings and shoes that are more suited for in- than outdoors (hands of a needlewoman, perhaps former seamstress, avid writer of letters, probably to a son at the front, arthritic, quite shortsighted, has one, no, two cats and a blue budgerigar, stained handkerchief in apron pocket indicates that she looks after her husband who appears to have some kind of disability that prevents him from doing much around the house, or even taking care of himself, ah, his hands are permanently shaking as shown by fluttering curtain in the house next door where the cat is sitting in the window: the husband is in the room behind and just peeked out to see where his wife is).

All these deductions happen in the flash of a moment. The two women seem to have come to the conclusion that Sherlock is worth interrupting their chat for. The older of the two eyes him somewhat suspiciously. Sherlock has encountered these looks before, particularly from people who have lost sons in the war. There is reproach there, and accusation. Seeing him here, able-bodied and unscathed but far away from the many frontlines of the conflict, wearing civilian clothing and a floppy haircut that is a far cry from army regulations, they must believe him to be shirking his duty. That perhaps he is one of the ‘conscientious objectors’ or worse, a deserter. They cannot, must not, know that he is in fact doing his bit for the war effort, only that it doesn’t entail shooting at people or jumping out of aeroplanes or dropping bombs on cities. He squares his shoulder, drawing himself up slightly.

“Mrs. Suffield?” he enquires of the stout, Wellingtons-wearing woman.

She nods, gazing at him questioningly. “Yes. What can I do for you, young man?”

Sherlock decides against withholding the truth. She looks as if she can bear to hear it. He is not so keen about disclosing her tenant’s death to her neighbour, but there should be no problem getting rid of her.

“I’m a colleague of one of your lodgers, Miss Hooper,” he explains. “This morning she arrived at my accommodation with bad and frankly quite shocking news, and sent me here to inform you while she recovers at my landladies’ house. Is there a place where we can talk?” He casts a pointed glance at the other woman who sniffs and picks up the bowl with a pouty expression.

Mrs. Suffield frowns at him. Something in his face seems to convince her of the seriousness of the situation. “Yes, of course. My husband and my other lodger Miss Donovan are just having a late breakfast as they’ve not been back from work for long. Come round the back. I need to feed Adeline, anyway. We can talk there.”

Turning to the other woman, “Thank you for the scraps and the invitation, Mabel,” says Mrs. Suffield. “I’ll be round for tea, then, and bring your Charles the jam he likes so much.”

Mabel nods and forces a smile at Sherlock, and then with obvious reluctance walks to her door.

“Better not tell me in front of her. She’s the greatest gossip in the village,” mutters Mrs. Suffield conspiratorially. She does look somewhat worried, though. Sherlock leans his bicycle against a wrought-iron bench in front of the house and follows her through a small door in a wooden fence next to the house into a surprisingly large garden. Sunflowers, dahlias and tall hollyhocks grow alongside the wall of the house, and there are several old bowls and buckets overflowing with nasturtiums and pelargoniums. The rest of what must have been an elaborate flower garden once has been turned over to the production of food. Rows of beans, their white and red flowers peeking out between green leaves, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, several rows of beetroot are neatly arranged, making up more than half of the space. There are a few apple-trees, formerly surrounded by lawn, patches of which are still visible. But not much remains of the grass as it has been fenced in and partly dug up by a large sow and a litter of piglets which lie in the shade of one of the trees, flicking their ears at flies. A handful of chickens is scratching at the earth.

“The pigs belong to the local pig club,” explains Mrs. Suffield. “Everybody who has some kitchen waste to spare brings it over. We hope we’ll have some pork for Christmas, meat being so hard to come by in town.” She steps into the enclosure and deftly empties the smelly bucket into a through. Wiping her hands on her apron, she returns to Sherlock and shuts the gate behind her.

“What is your message, then? Oh, I hope none of my girls got herself into trouble. I know all three are decent and hard working, but one never knows what kind of people they have dealings with. There are so many strangers in town nowadays, and not all of them of the good kind, if you take my meaning. No offence to you, young man. You don’t look like the nasty sort who leads girls on to some folly.”

Sherlock is tempted to enquire what sort he looks like, but he thinks he knows. He’s considered one of the boffins, the freaks, the weird ones who hardly ever even get to talk to the girls (although the reality at Bletchley Park shows that this is by no means true, even though he himself has never experienced or encouraged interest, Molly Hooper’s infatuation aside). He doesn’t ask, though. Instead, he puts on a sombre expression he hopes is appropriate for the message he is about to convey.

“My name is Sherlock Holmes. As I said, I share a workplace with Miss Hooper. This morning, she arrived at my lodgings in a state of great distress, having decided to consult me instead of cycling to work because of what she had found on her way. Mrs. Suffield, I am sorry to inform you that your lodger Miss Wilson is dead. Miss Hooper happened upon her body in the old clay pit off Bletchley Road. My colleague Dr. Watson who shares lodgings with me also heard her story, and we decided to investigate. Dr. Watson is on his way to fetch Miss Hooper to bring her back here, now that she has, hopefully, calmed down. We will inform the police and Miss Wilson’s workplace in good time, but thought it prudent to tell you first, to prepare you and your household for what is to come. There is going to be an investigation. Questions will be asked of you and all members of your household, and Miss Wilson’s room is going to be searched for evidence.”

He interrupts his speech when he sees her expression. She has pressed one of her hands to her mouth, and her eyes are wide in shock and grief. “Oh my God, the poor girl,” she rasps. “Dead? How? In the old quarry, you say? Oh, I always warned the girls not to take the path through it. They do nevertheless. It’s shorter than the road, you see, when they need to go into town. Sometimes men fish in the pit, and drink, and some time ago the old shed burned down, nobody knows why but there are rumours in the village about the culprit. Do you know what happened to poor Jenny? Oh dear Jesus, she was such a lovely girl. Always cheerful, always dressed up prettily.” She rummages in the pockets of her knit cardigan and produces a slightly grubby handkerchief to dab her eyes with.

“We do not know the circumstances of her demise yet,” Sherlock tells her, deciding not to divulge any information about the cyanide and the fact that some indices point towards Jennifer Wilson having been murdered. “It could have been an accident. She might have tried to take the shortcut through the quarry and tripped and fell. Drowned in the pond, something like that. They police will have to look into the matter.”

Mrs. Suffield shakes her head in dismay. “I knew there was something odd going on when Jenny didn’t come down for breakfast this morning. She sometimes stayed the night out, not just when she was working, if you catch my meaning. The young people nowadays … I told her to be careful, but she laughed and said she knew what she was doing and I needn’t worry. She wasn’t my own daughter, of course, but one does still try to look after these girls as best one can, they being away from home and everything. And she did have a number of young men she went out and about with. They all seemed to treat her well, gave her gifts and what not. And I understand that with the war going on, people try to enjoy life the best they can, especially when they are young. I mean, it’s not that we didn’t, back during the Great War. But oh, this is horrendous. Poor, poor Jenny. And no wonder Molly is heartbroken. They were such good friends.”

Sherlock nods, putting on a sympathetic expression. “Did you ever meet any of Miss Wilson’s other friends? Her male acquaintances, for example?” he enquires.

Mrs. Suffield shakes her head. “Not in person. None of them came round the house. I wouldn’t have that, anyway. I only overheard the girls talk about them, and saw some of the photographs Jenny kept in her room while I was up there dusting.”

Snooping around, thinks Sherlock, and suppresses a wry smile.

“Oh, but I do remember seeing her chatting to a young man who I’m sure wasn’t from the village. They’d met near the church. I was over helping Reverend Hill prepare flowers for the service on the next day, and there was Jenny walking her bicycle with a dashing young man strolling next to her. They were laughing about something, and seemed in good spirits.”

“Can you describe him, or do you know whether she kept a photograph of him, too?” asks Sherlock. “How long ago was this encounter?”

“Oh, only last weekend. Not the one that’s just passed, the one before. I don’t recall seeing a photo of the man. He was certainly handsome, about your age, perhaps. Not very tall and dressed in a dark blue suit. Them fashionable ones, double-breasted and pinstriped. And he had on a dark grey hat. I think he was dark-haired, and clean shaven. I didn’t see him up close, mind you. Oh, but I remember his shoes. Fancy ones, two-coloured brogues, black and white, like in the films. That above all else showed me he wasn’t from round here. I mean, who’d wear shoes like that on these rugged lanes or round the farms? He must have been from abroad, or from London, perhaps. He had a bicycle, too, though, so perhaps Jenny knew him from work. Although, lately there have been so many new people in town. I wonder what they all want here. They can't be working at the brick works or in the clay pits. So many young men among them. One would think they should be all up at the front, defending us against the Hun, like last time.”

She gives Sherlock a meaningful, rather disapproving glance, and he feels the strange need to defend himself. “Not all of us are suited for fighting the enemy head on, Mrs. Suffield,” he assures her, keeping his voice calm and even. “But do rest assured that we are all doing our bit.”

“Oh, you mean in the Home Guard? My Albert joined up, too, him being too old to venture out again, and also because he does important work here. He’s with the railway, you see. Are you also working in that radio factory, then?”

Sherlock recalls that this is one of the ruses the general populace has been told, or indeed been encouraged to believe without being told explicitly, to veil the true purpose of Bletchley Park. Station X, the radio factory. Well, as long as people buy it.

“Yes,” he lies. “Now, Mrs. Suffield, Miss Hooper and my colleague Dr. Watson will be arriving shortly. If possible, I should like to speak to your other lodger, Miss Donovan, and to your husband. And I would also like to take a look at Miss Wilson’s room. Nothing has been touched or changed there, I hope?”

“Well, I had a look around, but I didn’t tidy up as this is the girls’ task anyway. I am not their housekeeper, just their landlady, you understand. Also, the bed hadn’t been slept in, so there was obviously no need for me to make it,” she adds, belying her former statement of not tidying up after her lodgers.

“Her room has always been a bit messy, Jenny’s,” she goes on. “The other two are far tidier.” She sighs. “Alas, poor Jenny. I wonder what kind of trouble she got herself into.”

A thought seems to strike her and she looks up at Sherlock with large eyes. “The police will want to talk to us, too, won’t they, and come here and look ‘round the place?”

“Very likely,” confirms Sherlock.

Mrs. Suffield’s face screws up in worry. “What will the neighbours say?” she mutters, squeezing her handkerchief in the pocket of her apron.

Sherlock cannot help rolling his eyes. “There will inevitably be talk, Mrs. Suffield," he tells her quite mercilessly, “and I think it doesn’t need pointing out that the matter should be kept as quiet as possible, in Miss Wilson’s interest and yours, and that of your other lodgers. Now, if you would kindly show me indoors so that I can talk to your husband and Miss Donovan.”

Clearly agitated, Mrs. Suffield manages to get a grip. “Come on,” she says. “I’ll make you a cuppa. I’ll certainly need one."

 

–<o>–

 

A few minutes later Sherlock is seated at the massive oak table in the large, airy kitchen (big pots and pans for cooking for a large family, some older relative used to live here as well as children, the photos of whom are displayed on top of a chest of drawers with a lace doily and a vase of cut flowers indicating they are remembered fondly; one son in naval uniform, something in the engineering corps, a daughter married with a child of her own, a photo of an old dog, sentiment all over the place; also a collection of small elephant figures and an old box that once contained Belgian chocolates, likely a gift from someone who fought over there during the other war).

Sherlock has a cup of tea and two suspicious looking people in front of him. He finds his assumption that Sally Donovan is the dark-skinned Wren who’d been chatted up by Anderson in the canteen the previous afternoon confirmed. She looks as tired as one would after a night shift of tending to the Bombe machines. The cuffs of her blouse are still stained faintly with the fine spray of machine oil issuing from the monsters, and she seems to have injured her hand slightly while struggling with the plugs.

Mr. Suffield is in his fifties like his wife. He is short, broad, with a round, somewhat grumpy face, grizzled grey hair, and a bushy moustache discoloured from smoking the pipe. Even someone without Sherlock's knack for observation and deduction would be able to see at first glance where he works. A thin layer of coal dust seems to be coating the entire man, and his frame and hands betray a life of hard work feeding said coal to the fiery belly of a locomotive. He looks exhausted and in slight discomfort (back pain after a long shift on a freight train, also suffers from mild gout, lost at the dog races yesterday, bad conscience because he forgot their wedding anniversary and bought a small gift at the station to apologise but hasn’t done so yet because he doesn’t want to in front of the lodger).

Mrs. Suffield has made brief introductions, calling Sherlock a friend of Molly’s with a twitch of her eyebrows that suggests that she suspects the two of them to be more than just friends. Now she is settled at the table as well and nursing a cup of strong tea with what looks like a weekly allowance of sugar in it.

“So, what brings you here, young man?” asks Mr. Suffield. “You work at that radio factory, too?”

Sherlock exchanges a quick, knowing glance with Sally Donovan and nods. “Yes. Your three lodgers are my colleagues. This morning, Miss Hooper confided in me what she had encountered in the old clay pit on her way to work, namely the body of Miss Wilson.”

There is a shocked intake of breath from Sally, and a resigned nod from Mr. Suffield. Sherlock frowns at him, because the reaction strikes even him as somewhat inappropriate. The man notices and shrugs. “I’ve always said that nothing good would come of it, relocating all those city girls to the countryside, away from home, and having them do all this strange work nobody is supposed to know and talk about. And I warned the gals about the old quarry. They should always keep to the roads, especially at night. Did she have an accident, then?”

“We cannot be sure yet,” replies Sherlock, again not mentioning the cyanide. “Doubtlessly, there will be an investigation.”

“I don’t expect much from the local police,” states Mr. Suffield gruffly. Neither do I, thinks Sherlock. That’s why I am on the case. ”Why are you involved, then? Just as a friend?” He puts some stress on the last word, obviously believing him to be Molly’s beau as well and disapproving.

“Molly knows that before the war, I worked in London as a consultant to Scotland Yard and have some experience with matters of this kind. But frankly, I don’t think she knew where else to turn in her distress,” he then admits.

“Yes, I heard Molly mention you,” falls in Sally, her Jamaican accent barely audible. “She said you were very good at spotting minor details and deduced her on the first day she dared address you.” She doesn’t appear to be as disapproving of Sherlock as Mr. Suffield, but rather curious about him. Sherlock wonders what exactly Molly has told her.

“That is correct,” confirms Sherlock. “I hope your brother is going to be promoted from his driver’s post in the RAF soon, as this is of course not why he joined up and journeyed over to England.”

Sally’s eyes widen, and she smiles slightly. “Not bad, but of course Molly could have told you that.”

“I would gladly enlighten you about the deductive reasoning behind my statement, Miss Donovan, but I think we should concentrate on the matter at hand. You, and you, Mr. Suffield, were at work last night. What time did you leave, and how did you travel to Bletchley?”

Mr. Suffield takes a gulp of his tea. “Left at four yesterday morning, walked to Bletchley.” He hesitates briefly, casting a quick glance at his wife before letting out a breath. ”Met some mates in town who’d just returned from their shift .”

Mrs. Suffield looks up, her eyes narrowing. “Oh, I can imagine. Was Charlie there, by any chance?”

“Yeah, he was. But I just had a quick chat with him and his mates, didn’t even enquire after the latest races since I hadn’t bet anyway. Then I spent an hour waiting for the locomotive to take on water and have two carriages filled with bricks added. I was chatting to Larry – the station master,” he adds for Sherlock’s benefit, although Sherlock knows who Larry is. Everybody in Bletchley and vicinity knows Stationmaster Larry. And Larry knows everybody in Bletchley, being the best source of local gossip all round.

“Then I got on the train and we took off to Edinburgh. I went as far as Carlisle where I had a bit of a break, came back on the return train, arrived after dawn today, spent two hours cleaning the machine, had a cuppa at the station, and walked back home.”

“Thank you, Mr. Suffield. Have you, by any chance, noticed any motorcars round here lately?” enquires Sherlock.

Mr. Suffield shakes his head. “There are only two cars in the village, but neither of them has been around much because of the petrol rationing. Mr. Ashton the teacher used to have a motorcycle, but either it’s broken or he doesn’t have no petrol for it, either. I’ve only seen him on a bicycle lately.”

“I heard a motorcar last night, though,” says Sally, “and saw a pair of headlights while I was getting ready for work. You were already abed, then, Mrs. Suffield, and Molly, too. I knocked on her door shortly before ten because I wanted to ask her for some lipstick. She hardly uses hers. But she must have been already asleep then because she didn’t answer. She hadn’t been feeling well with a headache and had turned in early. I knew Jenny was out, and also she only has those bright pink shades of lipstick which don’t suit me. So I went without. Just as I was on my way out of the village, I heard the car again and saw the lights through the houses behind me. It must have been on the road from Drayton because it was going in the same direction as I, and I was cycling along Bletchley Road northwards. They must have turned right into Whaddon Road at the church because they didn’t overtake me.”

Sherlock nods, taking in all the information and sorting through it mentally, storing it away in his mind in what is comparable to a codebreaker’s in-tray so that he can easily access and consider it later at his leisure. “Molly mentioned she heard someone in the bathroom at around ten, and she believes that Jenny must have come back at around that time to fetch her jacket and perhaps some other things from her room, but then went out again. Has either of you ever seen her being driven here in an automobile?"

All three shake their heads. “People would have noticed, and there’d be talk about it,” says Mrs. Suffield. “But since even my neighbour hasn’t mentioned anything about strange motorcars, I doubt it has been around before. Do you believe it is important? That the driver might have something to do with her death?”

She clasps her hand to her mouth. “Mr. Holmes, do you think she could have been murdered?”

“At the moment, we have too little information to rule out either murder, suicide, or an unfortunate accident,” Sherlock tells her. He does not mention what he believes to be the most likely reason for her death.

“Can you recall anything else about Miss Wilson or her recent behaviour that struck you as strange or out of character?” he then enquires. “Did she seem troubled, was stress from work getting to her? Did she stay out longer or more often than before? Anything you can recall might help the investigation.”

Sally shrugs. “I have only been here for a week, so I can’t judge if she behaved differently. I didn’t even see her very much, because we were working different shifts and our paths at the workplace only crossed in the canteen once or twice.”

“She was a nice girl,” recalls Mrs. Suffield. “Not as tidy as Molly or Sally, as I was saying, but always cheerful, even when she was tired. But I recall that during the past weeks she seemed a bit subdued, as if there was something troubling her. They seem to be driving the girls really hard where they work. I mentioned that to Jenny, and she agreed the work was hard, and also that they were sorely understaffed. I’d noticed her falling asleep in the armchair while we were down in the sitting room and listening to some music on the wireless. They play Worker’s Playtime at noontime, and normally she loved to sit and listen with us after lunch when she didn’t have a shift. But that day she was sound asleep, poor thing, and I asked her when she’d woken again if she shouldn’t be taking a day or two off work. But she said she couldn’t, that there were too few people to get the work done. I wondered about that, as there seem to be so many strangers about town lately. But that’s all I know, really. Molly might know more. They often spent time together after work.”

Sherlock nods. “What about her broken engagement, then? I would assume that bothered her, too, recent as it was.”

“Oh, did Molly tell you about that?” asks Mrs. Suffield with some astonishment. Sherlock is about to mention that he noticed the faint tanline on Jenny’s finger the previous day in the canteen, but before he can get a word out, Mrs. Suffield continues,

“Jenny didn’t talk much about it. One day the ring was gone, and I wondered. But I didn’t ask outright. Not my place, you understand. I never saw her fiancé, only a photograph. Such a handsome young man. Looked like Leslie Howard. You know, him from Gone with the Wind,” she explains at Sherlock’s somewhat questioning glance. He has heard about the film, obviously, but not seen it.

“I liked him much better in The Scarlet Pimpernel, though,” Mrs. Suffield continues. “He was in the RAF, I think – Jenny’s fiancé, not Leslie Howard –, or at least she had a picture of him in uniform. Very dashing. But when she didn’t wear the ring anymore I thought that he might have been killed. That’s why I didn’t ask. But then the photo was gone, too, I thought perhaps they’d broken it off when she was on leave last and spent a few days in London. I mean, usually when your beloved is killed you’d keep the photograph and the ring, wouldn’t you?”

Sherlock gives a noncommittal shrug. He believes her to be right. That is indeed what people do, or so he has heard. Sentiment. Still, the former fiancé might be important. Even with his limited and altogether theoretical knowledge of how relationships are supposed to work, evidence seems to point towards Jenny breaking off the engagement. Perhaps her RAF-man harboured some resentment towards her after getting ditched. Sherlock makes a mental note to try and find out his identity.

Sherlock empties his tea and returns the cup to the strongly patterned saucer. “This has been very helpful so far. If anything else comes to mind, do write it down. Now, show me Jenny’s room, please.”

Mr. Suffield frowns at this. “I’m not sure that’d be appropriate, Mr. Holmes. You may indeed be a friend of Molly’s, and a detective like you claimed, but we only have your word for it. Who tells us that you haven’t had something to do with poor Jenny’s death, and now want to snoop round her things to ... how is it called ... destroy evidence?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes and suppresses a sigh. He has actually reckoned with resistance of this kind, and has been mildly astonished that it hasn’t come sooner and more forcefully.

“It’s your house, of course, Mr. Suffield,” he says, trying to keep exasperation at the narrow-mindedness of people out of his voice. “If you insist, we can wait until my colleague Dr. Watson arrives with Miss Hooper so that she can confirm my story. Or we can wait for the police, although that may be hours yet, or even a day. However, every minute that passes in idleness may play into the hands of those responsible for Miss Wilson’s demise. You can accompany me if you want. Actually, I suggest you do. I won’t change anything. Likely I won’t even touch anything. A thorough look around usually suffices.”

The Suffields exchange a glance. Sally leans back in her chair and empties her cup, looking from the couple to Sherlock and back expectantly. She seems rather fascinated but also a little annoyed by the exchange. “Guess I won’t be getting much sleep this afternoon,” she states dryly.

“Nor I,” grumbles Mr. Suffield. “All right then, Mr. Holmes. A quick look only, though, and then we’ll call the police.”

 

–<o>–

 

Sherlock is on his way up the stairs led by Mrs. Suffield and trailed by her husband when there is some noise from the direction of the front door. A rather wind-swept Molly appears with John in tow. Sherlock feels a strange warmth spark through his chest at the sight of him, tousle-haired and red-cheeked from the cycling, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up and his tie loosened, which now he straightens upon entering the house.

Molly seems to have been ‘volunteered’ to help Sherlock’s landladies pick blackberries from the hedge at the rear of their garden to distract her from her present grief. There is a small stain on her cardigan, and some traces of the dark juice remain visible in her cuticles. Seeing Sherlock on the stairs, she draws a deep breath and tries to tame her hair. “You have told them?” she asks, indicating the Suffields.

Sherlock nods. “The essentials, yes. We were about to take a look at Jenny’s room. Did you inform people at work?”

“Yes. I phoned them. We are to present ourselves at the Commander’s office in,” she glances at her watch, “oh, about an hour to discuss further proceedings. All three of us. Mr. Turing and Jenny’s boss will be there, too, apparently. The commander said he will deal with the police and send word to the coroner so that her body is looked after.”

She draws a deep breath again and sniffs slightly, finally giving up on her hair. Mrs. Suffield makes a sympathetic sound, and brushing past Sherlock on the stairs, she hugs her. “Oh poor dear, we just heard the news. It’s altogether dreadful. But come, I’ll make you some tea.”

Molly shakes her head. “Mr. Holmes’ landladies have kindly provided more than I could drink. I’d prefer to try and help him with his investigation. Have a look at her room again and see what she fetched last night.” She gives Sherlock an imploring look. “I’d really like to help.”

“So he really is a detective?” Mr. Suffield wants to know. “I must say he doesn’t look like one, but more like these boffins you see popping up around town lately.”

Sherlock wonders how the man imagines a detective to look like, and then recalls the cheap novels he has seen lying next to the local newspapers on one of the spare chairs in the kitchen, the garish covers of which showed a trenchcoated, sinister looking figure with a Stetson and a drawn gun, a frightened woman half hidden behind him. Well, if that is the image the Suffields have in mind of a proper detective, Sherlock has to admit does not look anything like it.

“Yes, he is, or was, before the war,” says Molly with a hint of defensiveness. “And this is his colleague, Dr. Watson of the Royal Navy.”

At this, Mr. Suffield’s suspicious scowl changes and his face lights up. He seems to be standing a little straighter. John’s formerly relaxed posture changes, too, very subtly, but of course Sherlock notices. He isn’t standing to attention precisely, and he’s of course not wearing his uniform, but still radiates quiet confidence and authority. He steps over to the landlord and extends his hand.

“Surgeon Captain John Watson,” he introduces himself, “pleased to meet you.”

Mr. Suffield shakes his hand. “Our lad’s in the navy, too, a radio operator. He’s currently stationed in the Mediterranean. Where were you serving, sir, if I may ask?”

“The North Atlantic, mostly,” replies John. “Convoy escort duty.”

Mr. Suffield nods gravely. “You boys are having the hardest time out there with the blasted U-boats and everything. What brings you to Bletchley?”

“I am not at liberty to say, sir,” replies John apologetically, “but rest assured that even here in Bletchley we are doing our bit for the war effort. People like Mr. Holmes here and your three lodgers, they are all working hard to keep the Germans at bay. They all do their bit, like your son, indeed like yourself and your wife by looking after these girls.”

Mr. Suffield nods gravely, obviously pleased and touched by the words. Sherlock watches John as he stands at the bottom of the stairs in his calm, unassuming manner. Like this, he would pass as the nice village doctor next door, although underneath this unspectacular exterior, Sherlock suspects he is always ready to leap into action and not bother about his walking stick. Sherlock marvels how easily, how effortlessly he seems to be able to win people’s trust, even affection. Sherlock knows he can beguile others, dazzle or overwhelm them in order to get information. But they resent him for it. John is different. People like John. Molly seems to have taken to him particularly. Sherlock feels another stab in his chest area at seeing her stand close to the officer. This time it isn’t warm and pleasant, but hot and jagged. Is he jealous? Why would he be jealous? He barely knows John, and it’s not as if he and Molly are kissing or even holding hands. This thought unsettles him even more. Why on earth would it bother him if John Watson kissed Molly Hooper, or anybody else?

He frowns and shakes his head to get rid of these unpleasant, unwelcome thoughts. Now is not the time. He can analyse these new, unexpected and unprecedented feelings at a later point. Now, they are distracting, and he cannot afford being distracted when there is such a fascinating case at hand.

“Since we have to be at work in less than an hour, and need half of that time to cycle into town, I suggest we waste no more and inspect the room,” he declares, and briskly moves up the stairs.

 

–<o>–

 

Jennifer Wilson’s room is small but relatively bright and airy, with a large window facing west. It looks as if it had a female occupant before, Mrs. Suffield’s daughter, most likely. The wallpaper is flowery in shades of pale rosé, there are bright pink potted pelargoniums on the windowsill (and two dead flies and a mummified peacock butterfly). Her bed is covered with a patchwork throw, there is a makeshift wardrobe in the corner behind the door, curtained with a plain sheet of bleached canvas. Next to the bed and in front of the window is a desk which has been converted into a dressing table with a mirror and a large assortment of make-up tins and perfume bottles. A washing bowl and a pitcher with water stand there also. On a shelf fastened to the wall opposite the bed Sherlock spots an assortment of children’s toys, old bears and dolls made of cloth, as well as a few puzzles, picture books and sticker albums. One shelf has been emptied to house Jenny’s collection of hats. On a chest of drawers to the right side of the door Sherlock sees a stack of newspapers and magazines, as well as assorted other papers. Three handbags stand there, too. The wallpaper next to the bed has been partly covered with images like a scrapbook. There is a London tube map with a few stations marked with pencil, several postcards from destinations all over England and one from Paris, some nauseatingly sentimental images of couples kissing or doing other couply things, the odd picture of a small dog, kitten or fluffy duckling, an arrangement of pressed violets attached to a card, and a large assortment of stylish photographs, small posters or leaflets of musicians and what appear to be actors clipped from newspapers or collected at cinemas.

Sherlock has little interest in cinema, revues or dramatic stage productions (dull, boring, predictable), but even he recognises some of the faces from advertising displays in London or even Bletchley, where the local cinema seems to be a favourite haunt of the Station X clientele as a distraction from work. Perusing Jennifer Wilson’s collection of photographs, Sherlock notices that she appears to have a certain predilection for Clark Gable, although there are also some British actors, too, most notably represented by an autographed picture of this Leslie Howard fellow.

Overall the room makes a cluttered and somewhat untidy impression, and Sherlock shares Molly’s assumption that Jennifer looked through her things in a hurry. Several pairs of stockings and two lacy pairs of knickers lie on the bed coverlet, as well as a rose-coloured negligé and what looks like the contents of a small handbag or purse: lipstick, some handkerchiefs (two of them monogrammed), a small notebook and pencil, a cigarette lighter, a tin with mints, a packet of American chewing gum. A round box with face-powder has fallen off the bed, opened, and rolled under it, leaving a fine trail on the rug. The drawers of the chest have been opened but not closed properly again, the middle one apparently jammed and stuck in the process. Something pastel-coloured and lacy is peeking out of it. Apparently Miss Wilson stored her underwear or lingerie in the drawers.

Standing in the middle of the room, Sherlock slowly turns, taking in all the details, not yet classifying them into categories on a range from important to boring because one never knows what might be useful later. Distractingly, he is aware of people behind him in the doorway. “Silence,” he demands curtly.

“I wasn’t saying anything,” John defends himself, exchanging a quick glance with Molly and the Suffields who stand around him.

Sherlock turns to him and frowns. “You were thinking. It’s distracting.”

John raises both eyebrows and huffs, ramming his hands into the pockets. “Right, I’ll try and stop thinking. Do you want me to leave, too?”

“Why would I want you to leave?”

John shrugs. “Because I’m such a distraction, apparently.” Sherlock cannot be sure, but he thinks that the other might be teasing him.

“Nonsense,” he states, stepping over to steer John fully into the room by his shoulder. “Four eyes see better than two, despite most people not seeing properly even with their eyes wide open. Take a look around. Anything that strikes you as odd and out of place in a woman’s bedroom, note it down or alert me to it.” He retrieves notebook and pencil from his pocket and hands them over, then turns to Molly.

“Can you recall if anything has been altered since you were in here this morning to check on Jenny?”

Molly joins him in the middle of the room. “No. It looks the same.”

“I told you, I haven’t done any tidying,” pipes up Mrs. Suffield from the doorway. “The girls are expected to pick up after themselves. I do their washing, though, and some of the ironing, what with their work and the nightshifts and everything. Albert, dear, I think we can manage here,“ she then tells her husband. “The water should soon be ready for your bath.”

“Yes, thank you for your assistance, Mr. Suffield,” falls in John before Sherlock can dismiss the landlord in a less friendly fashion.

With a nod at John and a rather more unfriendly scowl at Sherlock, Mr. Suffield withdraws and moves down the stairs. His wife remains hovering in the doorway with an air of indecision, until Molly steps to her and squeezes her shoulder. “We can really manage, Mrs. Suffield. You can trust Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson.”

With some reluctance, Mrs. Suffield nods. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Tell me if you need anything.”

When she is out of earshot, Molly sighs. “I thought she’d never leave. She is a very kind woman, but a bit of a gossip. Still, I think she wants our best. This is hard for her. Can you tell me anything more about what you found out in the quarry? John told me some, because I insisted. Don’t think you need to spare me the grisly details. It’s all right. It was just a bit of a shock this morning, finding her like this. I’ll be fine.”

Sherlock frowns at her. John? On first name terms, are we? After only a few hours? John seems to misunderstand his reaction. “I only told her a few things,” he defends himself.

Sherlock waves a hand. ”We can discuss that later, and fill you in on the details, Molly. We’ll have to report our findings to Denniston, anyway. We don’t have a lot of time, so I’d rather not waste it on relating an account I’ll have to tell again in an hour. Molly, you knew her best, is there anything here that strikes you as out of the ordinary? Any new clothes, make-up? Any gifts? Where does she keep her personal photographs, things that didn’t make it onto her rather eclectic collection on the wall? Is there anything missing?”

“I think there is a box in one of the drawers over there,” replies Molly. “Or in the drawers of the desk. A few she had in her purse, I think. Of her family, you know, and of Michael, her fiancé. Or ex-fiancé, I should say.”

“How long were they engaged, do you know?” asks Sherlock as he steps over to the dresser and begins to wrestle with the stuck drawer. “And how did it end?”

“She was already engaged when I met her here. She seemed to be very happy. I never met him because he was away on duty. But then she visited him in London while they were both on leave, and when she returned she’d taken off her ring. That was … two months or so ago. She said she didn’t love him anymore and that’s why she’d ended it. I didn’t want to ask her, but I think she’d fallen in love with somebody else.”

“This Jim you mentioned?”

Molly shrugs. “Maybe. She was out with a couple of men afterwards, even stayed the night once or twice. But I don’t think it was anything serious. Just distraction, maybe.” She sighs, running a hand through her hair and tugging at her cardigan. “It’s not that I have a lot of experience with these things, dating and all that. Only Jenny … I mean, she was very popular. The men loved to talk to her and dance with her and everything. She was good fun, charming and clever, always witty. She made it seem so easy to win them over. But she didn’t seem altogether happy. She was dancing and joking and having them light her cigarettes, but somehow … perhaps she was missing Michael after all. And as for Jim, I was actually looking forward to meeting him. She said she’d introduce us one of these days, and that I’d like him because he’s so sweet. But that’s never going to happen now, is it?”

At her dejected tone, Sherlock feels strangely compelled to look up from his perusal of Jenny’s underwear drawer, a mixture of lacy, rather fancy and expensive lingerie and sensible cotton bras and knickers, warm and thick and suitable for bicycle rides during autumn and winter, and long shifts in underheated huts and filing rooms at the Park.

“Why does it bother you so much whether men ask you to dance or light your cigarettes? You don’t even smoke, and from personal experience I wouldn’t recommend starting. You are not unintelligent, indeed rather smart, and more thick-skinned and independent than even you think. Why waste you time with fools who only want to get into your underwear? Or are you actively looking for husband material?” Is that why she is so friendly with John. He certainly seems a good match, loyal, reliable, has a wry sense of humour. Doctor, War hero …

Molly gapes at him, then shakes her head. Sherlock is surprised to find her smile slightly. “You know, even though it sounded almost like an insult, I think this was one of the nicer things someone has said to me lately. And it coming from you this is … good. And as for your question, no, I’m certainly not looking for ‘husband material’. I’m still hoping to get into medical school when the war is over, and I don’t want to be bound to anybody who could interfere with that. But sometimes I’d be nice to just … have someone who cares, you know. Or perhaps you don’t, because you’re always on your own and don’t seem troubled by it.”

She sighs. “I’ll have a look at the things on her bed and in the bedside table, shall I?”

Sherlock frowns as he watches her walk over to the window. Something about her words struck an odd chord within him. He’ll need to review what exactly she said in the privacy of his mind. He feels John’s eyes on him. The doctor is watching him with a grave, intent expression. Sherlock huffs, annoyed at his own distractedness. He should be concentrating on the case, not strange remarks.

There is more underwear in the next drawer, stockings, mostly, and some nightgowns, most of them in shades of rose. She really seems to have loved the colour. Some of the garments are fairly new, others show signs of wear and even stains which bleaching or washing didn’t take off because of the delicate fabric which prohibits heavy scrubbing. Also, somebody seems to have rifled through this drawer before, because some of the garments aren’t folded properly anymore. Sherlock finds what caused the drawer to get stuck: an ornamental wooden box containing darning and sewing utensils.

In the uppermost drawer he finds another box hidden under flowery blouses and a pair of silk pyjamas. It contains an last year’s ration book, several used train tickets, mostly returns to London but there are some to Cardiff as well (off to visit family), a small tin filled with condoms and another with aspirin. There is also an envelope in a flat leather purse which upon opening emits a strong scent of perfume (Chanel No 5, likely eau de perfume, judging from the intensity). Casting a quick glance over at the dressing table, Sherlock scans the perfume bottles, but he does not recognise the distinct shape of No 5. He reasons it must have been somewhat out of Jennifer Wilson’s price range, anyway. Either the handkerchief was a gift, or she put some perfume on it at a shop in London. There are fine traces of face-powder on the handkerchief and a small smear of lipstick from where she held it up to her nose. Again a sentimental memento.

At the bottom of the box, Sherlock finds another envelope, bulky and fairly heavy this time. It contains what he has been looking for. When he opens it and shakes it slightly, a ring box falls into his hand. Jenny’s engagement ring is a narrow band of gold with a tiny diamond. A photo of an RAF officer and several photographs of her and the man in front of London landmarks and a few from Brighton are also in the envelope. The man has indeed some similarity with Leslie Howard, but only at first glance, and only for people who don’t bother to look more closely.

“Sherlock,” John interrupts his musings.

“Hm,” replies Sherlock without looking up. He hears an exasperated huff from John and continues to leaf through the photographs.

“Sherlock, it would actually help if you looked up. I think I’ve found our man.”

Sherlock hears a rustle of paper, and when he does look up and turn towards John, he sees the other hold up a small poster in shades of purple, white and black. “JAZZ&DANCE Extravaganza ” it announces, featuring the stylised drawings of a saxophone player in profile in the fore- and several dancing couples in the background. “Jim and the Fix-Its”, it says below. The poster looks homemade, the letters drawn by hand, yet all in all fairly professional. The fact that is is printed in two colours indicates some financial effort behind it as well, or good connections to a printing company.

“The concert is tomorrow evening,” says John.

“Oh God, yes,” falls in Molly excitedly, stepping over to John to peer at the poster. “I remember Jenny mentioning it. Yes, this is Jim, the one playing the sax. Actually, I think it captures him quite well, at least according to the photographs I saw. Jenny said – well, bragged, really – that he was playing in a band.”

“And why didn’t you mention that before?” demands Sherlock sharply, glaring at her.

“It slipped my mind, all right,” she replies somewhat testily, not daunted by his mood. “Since this morning, I’ve had some other things on it, namely the death of my friend. You know, just a short while ago I thought you were all right and actually a decent, feeling human being, saying that thing about me being clever. But now I’m having doubts again. Also, we should be leaving. We need to be at work in half an hour, and I need the lavatory first.”

With that, she stalks off.

Sherlock shakes his head until he sees the disapproving glance from John. “What? Is it the tact thing again? Why don’t you two stop bothering to try and make me into something I’m not?”

“Nobody is trying to make you into anything, Sherlock,” returns John calmly. “It’s just easier to deal with people if you don’t step onto their toes constantly. They might actually begin to like you for a change.” He folds the poster and hands it over to Sherlock, then brushes past him and disappears down the stairs.

Sherlock lets out a breath and stares at the paper in his hand, then at the door through which the other vanished. I’m not here for people to like me, he thinks angrily. I’m here to solve riddles. Then again, a small voice tells him, you wouldn’t exactly mind if John Watson liked you, would you? Because you like him.

Stuffing the poster into his pocket, Sherlock gives the drawer an angry shove and leaves the room.

 

 

Chapter Text

The ride to the park is conducted in silence. They hurry along the almost empty roads which leaves all three of them rather breathless upon arrival. Molly still seems upset, John is watchful and contemplative, and Sherlock is preoccupied with thoughts of the case, planning how to proceed with the investigation.

The sentries at the barrier to Bletchley Park eye them somewhat suspiciously because of their dishevelled state as they dig out their papers, and, reckons Sherlock, because they arrive in the middle of a regular shift. But they are allowed to enter without ado and cycle up to the manor. Sherlock notices a dark car parked in front of it and two motorcycles, one dusty and with clear signs of heavy use (dispatch rider, came from the South Coast, Sussex or Kent, judging from the traces of white chalk all over the vehicle). The other one is fancier and less geared towards regular and speedy rides over rough country roads. Sherlock surmises it also belongs to a dispatch rider, but of a more exalted kind. Someone from London, even Whitehall, perhaps. And as for the car, a black Humber Pullman, it has ‘official visit’ written all over it in its utilitarian, understated style but rather impressive size. Not the latest model, but one known for its reliability and class. Interestingly, it’s also no longer available to buy for the public. For a brief moment Sherlock fears that his brother may have turned up for a visit, but then Mycroft usually gets carted around in a Rolls-Royce Phantom III.

Still, someone from higher up with Ultra clearance is apparently out and about in the Park. Sherlock, John and Molly enter the mansion between the two somewhat drunk looking stone gargoyles guarding the main door. Immediately, they are shoved against the wooden panelling of the corridor to allow two men in double-breasted pinstriped suits and fedoras pass, their nationality clear to Sherlock even before he hears their American accents. The make of their hats, shoes, and the cigarettes they smell of speak as clear a language as their mouths. They are accompanied by a uniformed (British) chauffeur, a meek and mousy secretary, and a harassed and rather annoyed looking Dilly Knox who together with another Bletchley codebreaker Sherlock doesn’t recognise has pulled the shortest straw and has therefore been assigned to provide the grand tour for the Americans.

Apart from the Trans-Atlantic delegation, the corridor and the adjoining staircase are bustling with people. Wrens are flitting about carrying paperwork. Some uniformed soldiers off sentry duty are on their way out, digging cigarettes out of their breast pockets. The chalk-dusted dispatch-rider is standing somewhat forlornly in a corner next to the staircase sipping a cup of tea, slumped against the bannister as if it’s the only thing keeping him on his feet. A girl of no more than fourteen or fifteen is dashing about with a stack of messages under her arm, her recent visit to the sweet shop in Bletchley town visible in the sugar cane peeping from the pocket of her skirt.

Sherlock hasn’t been to the manor in a while, but the hustle and bustle seems normal. It’s the headquarters of Bletchley Park. John, however, looks about in wonder, as does Molly, who probably has only seen the inside of the manor once upon her arrival, when she was invited in to sign the Official Secrets Act.

 

<o>

 

The secretary seated next to the closed door of Commander Denniston’s office doesn’t look up from her typewriter when the threesome approach her. Sherlock studies her from narrowed eyes. He hasn’t seen her before in this place, and yet she looks eerily familiar. Her dark hair is styled in elaborate waves; she wears tasteful, professional looking make-up accentuated by dark red lipstick. The fingernails on her quick-moving fingers are varnished in dark crimson, too. Instead of the usual skirt and blouse (and cardigan) combination most female employees of Bletchley Park wear when not in WRN uniform, she is dressed in a dark costume with a narrow skirt and fitted jacket that gives her an almost masculine appeal despite the feminine cut. The faint pin-stripe pattern of the fabric makes Sherlock think of dark umbrellas and stiff reception rooms, and suddenly he knows where he has seen her before.

He glares at her which, still busy with typing, she does not notice. It’s just like his brother to place his informants so skilfully. As Denniston’s personal secretary, she is right at the heart of things. Sherlock wonders under what name she is registered here, if she is registered at all.

“Commander Denniston will see you in a moment, Miss Hooper, Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes,” the secretary greets them, still typing at record speed. “Please, do take seats.”

On his way to a chair near the wall, Sherlock walks past her and tries to get a glimpse of what she is writing. It appears to be an official letter which she is transcribing from a shorthand note. She finally looks up when she feels him loom next to her. “Is anything the matter, Mr. Holmes?”

“Oh no,” replies Sherlock lightly, but adds in a low voice, “I was just wondering whether spying for my brother in this place pays off.”

She gives him a long, steady glance. “It has its advantages,” she returns evenly, her voice low as well with no trace of irritation at having been found out. “Although I would have preferred being stationed in Germany, or at least France to aid the Resistance. Shall I pass on your regards, sir?”

Sherlock snorts, upon which she smiles knowingly. “I will let him know.”

Footsteps sound from the direction of the door, which is opened to reveal a worried looking Gordon Welchman, head of Hut 6 which Sherlock believes is dealing with the decryption of German Luftwaffe Enigma codes. A cloud of pipe smoke issues out, wreathing around Welchman. With a nod of his head, he invites them into the room.

Sherlock is not surprised to find Turing in Denniston’s office, although he wonders why he and Welchman have been invited since Jennifer Wilson did not work on either of their stations. Hugh Alexander, who is rumoured to take over the supervision of Hut 8 from Turing, is there as well, as is Stuart Milner-Barry, head of the Crib Room in Hut 8.

There is a brief round of greetings, before the three newcomers are invited to seat themselves in front of Denniston’s large desk that is littered with stacks of papers, and houses an ink-well and a large black telephone, as well as some photographs of his wife. The commander himself looks as troubled as his four colleagues. Despite the size and relative grandeur of the room with its elaborate wooden floors and wall panelling and the ornate stucco ceiling, with the amount of people now occupying it, it looks cramped and stuffy, an impression further increased by the shelves overflowing with files and the general bric-a-brac of a busy workplace (at wartime, what’s more).

“Can I offer you some tea or coffee, Miss Hooper, Captain Watson, Mr. Holmes?” enquires Denniston.

Molly looks at the two others nervously. Despite feeling somewhat thirsty from the speedy bicycle ride, Sherlock wants to get on with the case instead of holding a tea-party. But John has no such qualms. “Tea would be lovely,” he announces.

Denniston signs to his secretary who has materialised in the doorway. “Do bring both, Anthea. I assume Gordon and Hugh require more coffee, and I wouldn’t mind another cup myself. See if you can find some more biscuits, too.”

The door closes and Denniston sinks into the chair behind his desk. Folding his hands in front of him and resting his elbows on his desk, he looks at each of the three in turn, his expression grave, until his eyes come to rest on Molly.

“Needless to say,” he begins, “this is a nasty and most inconvenient business, especially with so much else going on at this time. I took the liberty of filling in the gentlemen here on what you reported in your phone call, Miss Hooper. I would like to hear the full account now, if you please. I am sorry for your loss,” he adds in an afterthought. “I gather Miss Wilson was a friend of yours and sharing your billet. Finding her like this must have been quite a shock. Still, the matter needs to be resolved quickly and moreover quietly. It is impossible to completely keep the news from spreading and I’ve already forwarded the case to the local police who will be supervised by a Detective Inspector from Scotland Yard’s homicide division who has the relevant security clearance and has connections to MI5, should they prove necessary. But I must remind you of your strict adherence to the OSA. Miss Wilson’s connection to this place and particularly what we do here at Bletchley Park must not reach the ears of the general public. Remember that if you break parole, you are liable to be executed for high treason.”

Molly swallows at this speech and looks sufficiently cowed. Sherlock suppresses an eye-roll. A brief glance at his four colleagues reveals their equally wry amusement. Yes, security is tight at the park, and yes, ‘Loose Tongues Cost Lives’ as the posters and leaflets scattered all over the place remind one on a daily (well, hourly) basis, but people do take their jobs seriously and it’s in nobody’s interest (apart from that of potential German spies and their allies) to blab about ‘Station X’.

There is a moment of silence, before Hugh Alexander gives Molly a reassuring nod. “As he said, Commander Denniston gave us some information about what happened, Miss Hooper, but I’d like you hear your own version of events, if they’re not too troubling to recount yet again.”

Ah yes, thinks Sherlock, he, the infamous ladies' man, would know how to break the ice and make her feel more comfortable. He chances a brief glance at John. The doctor is watching her with a pitiful expression. Sherlock bites his lip.

Molly nods and just as she begins to talk, Anthea returns with the drinks which she serves quickly and efficiently, before settling down on a chair next to the commander’s desk and readying a notepad and pencil.

“Miss Smith is going to take down your statements,” explains Denniston, “mostly to save you the trouble of having to repeat them over and over again when the police arrive.”

After a careful sip of her sweetened tea, Molly begins to narrate how she discovered Jennifer Wilson’s body in the quarry on her way to work, and her subsequent arrival at Sherlock’s and John’s billet.

“I know it was a break of protocol and perhaps I shouldn’t have told Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, but I really didn’t know what else to do,” she explains, her voice surprisingly calm and steady. “And Sherlock, Mr. Holmes, is a detective and has some experience with the solving of murder cases, moreover he’s extremely observant, and so I thought that if anybody might be able to help, it’d be him.”

“Yes,” says Denniston somewhat gruffly, “we are aware of Mr. Holmes’ past occupation. I take it the two of you went to investigate the body?” He glances at Sherlock and John.

“Yes, we found her as Miss Hooper has described,” John takes up the account, and goes on giving a detailed medical assessment of the body, the position it was found in and the implications of it. When he describes the likely cause of death brought on by the discovery of the cyanide capsule in her mouth, alarmed and troubled glances are exchanged between the codebreakers and the commander.

“Cyanide, are you sure?” asks Welchman, his pipe forgotten in his hand.

“All evidence points towards it,” confirms John, “although we will have to wait for the coroner’s report to be sure.”

“But cyanide is not easy to come by,” muses Turing and the others nod.

“She bit on a capsule such as are issued to agents in the field in case they fall into enemy hands,” explains Sherlock. “There is the possibility that she had relevant links.” Nobody asks him how he can know what such a capsule might look like, for which he is grateful, as he is not fond of recounting certain aspects of his past that entail the acquaintance with providers of all kinds of illegal and dangerous substances. Not all of them were required for scientific experiments.

“You mean she was a spy?” Milner-Barry wants to know, his eyes wide. “God, that would be disastrous, wouldn’t it, having spies infiltrate this place? Just the thing we’ve always feared.”

“Come, come, Stuart, we must entertain the possibility at all times,” cautions Alexander. “Despite the high level of security, we basically rely on people keeping their trap shut, lying to their closest friends and relatives about what they do for a living, and blackening out their windows come night-time so nobody might see how many people work and live around what’s supposed to be a quiet Buckinghamshire town. To be honest, it wouldn’t surprise me if the place was crawling with German and Italian spies already. At least the Americans send official delegations like the chaps poor Dilly and John are giving the tour right now. Still, I don’t think Jenny had any German affiliations.”

“You knew her?” enquires John.

Alexander shrugs. “Well, she was a pretty, spirited thing who liked to have a good time. Devilishly smart, too. After she broke up with her fiancé she seemed in need of some decent company and cheering up.”

“And so you volunteered, eh, Hugh?” puts in Milner-Barry with a faint grin. “How selfless of you.”

“Hey, I didn’t have anything with her, just took her dancing a few times and bought her the odd drink. Oh, and we played chess twice. She was surprisingly adept at it, for a beginner. We got chatting a little, too, and she vented about her ex, some RAF chap. It was all pretty innocent, I assure you. She didn’t talk to me about her work, either. She was in fact pretty strict about that. Not that I wanted her to talk shop on a night out. I’m sad she came to such an end. What is your estimate, Dr. Watson, Sherlock? Do you believe she killed herself? Miss Hooper, you knew her best. Did she show any suicidal tendencies?”

“There was no evidence that anybody forced her to take and bite the capsule,” replies Sherlock. “But she rushed into the quarry in a hurry as was plain to see from the state of her hair and clothes as well as her footprints, and evidence dictates that she was driven to a spot nearby in a car. Balance of probability suggests that she and the driver had some kind of falling-out, otherwise he would have dropped her off at her accommodation and not at a remote quarry in the middle of the night. Still, the question remains where she got the cyanide from, and what upset her so deeply that she felt she had no other option than to end her life by using it. This is what we need to find out.”

“She seemed stressed and unhappy lately,” puts in Molly. “But only when she thought people weren’t looking. When in company, she was her cheerful, bubbly self, trying to get me to date and wear more makeup and what not,” she adds with a quick glance at Sherlock and a blush.

“What would interest me,” says John, “is what exactly she was doing here – if you’re allowed to tell. Perhaps her stationing in this place and the things she was working on might shed some light on why she died.”

Denniston exchanges looks with the four codebreakers. There are some frowns and shrugs. At length Denniston gives a curt nod and Turing straightens from where he has been crouching silently in his chair staring into his tea-cup, and looking as if he hasn’t been listening to the conversation at all. “Miss Wilson was working on the teleprinters here in the manor.”

“She was a clerk, then?” concludes John.

“Basically, yes. But there is more. From what I heard, she had the potential (and indeed the ambition) to be a codebreaker and might have been elevated to such a post in the future.”

Milner-Barry frowns at this. “What have the teleprinters to do with codebreaking? We use the Type-X and the Hollerith machines for Enigma, and the Bombes, of course, to find out the correct settings.”

Turing licks his lips, casts a quick glance at Denniston who sighs. “Anthea, would you please cease your note-taking for a moment. What is being discussed now should not make it into the statement.”

She nods and puts down her pencil. “Would you prefer me to wait outside, sir?” she asks demurely.

Denniston raises an eyebrow, a faint smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. “I very much doubt that anything we might discuss here is news to you, Miss Smith. You may stay.”

She casts down her eyes and smiles as well. “Very well, sir.”

Denniston takes a draught of his tea, then nods briefly at Turing who squares his shoulders. “Enigma is not the only encryption device the Germans use. It is the most widely used one, true, and the one we have found ways to cope with. But there are others, and one is still a great mystery to us.”

Hugh Alexander nods, his expression grave. “Tunny,” he says darkly.

John looks to Sherlock questioningly. The latter has sat up attentively at the word. He has heard it before as a codeword for an encryption method. ‘Fish’ is another. But he never found out more about it. “What’s Tunny?” asks John. “Sounds somewhat ... well, fishy.”

Hugh Alexander grins slightly at the pun.

“You’re quite right, Dr. Watson,” joins in Gordon Welchman who has been puffing his pipe in silence throughout most of the talks. “It is. As Mr. Turing has explained, it’s another encryption device, but unfortunately not one we are familiar with. Actually, our colleague John Tiltman should be here to enlighten you as he has been working on Tunny. But since he’s out and about with the Americans, I’ll try and explain it to you.

“We know how the Enigma machine works, even have one ourselves, and even without the help of our Polish colleagues we were able to extrapolate the workings of Enigma from the cyphers we intercepted. We haven’t yet advanced to that stage with ‘Tunny’. We use this term here to describe intercepted communications encrypted by the so-called Lorenz Teleprinter, the SZ40. The machine had been around for a while before the war, but the Germans modified it with a cypher attachment, or ‘Schlüsselzusatz’, hence the SZ abbreviation. It works somewhat differently from the Enigma machine. I don’t want to bore you with a lot of technical details. Basically, it’s this: while Enigma is a purely mechanical device to encode plaintext which then needs to be transmitted via morse, or even typed messages, to be decrypted by another Enigma machine with the same settings, the Lorenz machine encrypts and transmits messages electronically as short pulses. They can of course also be transferred into morse code and transmitted via radio. This is how we intercept them, anyway.

“But Lorenz doesn’t only replace one plain-text letter by another as Enigma does. It doesn’t use the 26-letter alphabet, but what is known as the 32-symbol Baudot code. Note that the Baudot code output consists of five channels, each of which is a stream of what we call bits which can be represented as no-hole or hole, 0 or 1, dot or cross. It also adds an additional random letter behind each letter of the message using a Vernam cypher. Together, the two form another letter, which then is enciphered. Or, well, that’s at least what we think it does. As I said, we haven’t got a model such as the Germans use. We believe, however, given the complexity of the encryption, that the Lorenz must have ten rotors at least. You don’t have to be a brilliant mathematician to work out the number of possible letter combinations when those of a standard three rotor Enigma already count in the billions.”

“Have attempts been made to use cribbing for Tunny messages?” asks Sherlock excitedly. “Banbury sheets, the EINS-catalogue?”

“Yes. We’ve basically tried all of the known methods,” replies Turing with a hint of frustration. “I keep insisting that trying to break it by hand (or mind) won’t work. It’s a complicated, sophisticated machine we are dealing with, far more complicated than Enigma, and we will need a machine, a digital mind, so to say, to battle it. But at the moment we lack the resources since Enigma keeps us on our toes.”

He looks at Denniston who gives him a warning glance. Apparently the matter has been a subject of discussion or even contention between them in the past as Turing and his colleagues have complained repeatedly about the shortages of funds and staff, both of which are glaringly obvious in the daily operation of the Park. Denniston, Sherlock is sure, is aware or it, but there seems to be little he can do.

“So what happens with these messages if nobody can decrypt them?” pipes up Molly.

“Well, at the moment they’re being intercepted, some (futile) attempts are made at decryption, and then they are indexed and archived for future attempts at deciphering,” explains Welchman. “The trouble is, we have an inkling that Tunny intercepts contain communication from German High Command, meaning it’d be vital for us to be able to listen in on the Führer and his generals. But as much as I loathe to admit it, so far Jerry has one over us when it comes to Tunny.”

Silence falls except for John whistling softly through his teeth. “Good God, and I thought Enigma was dangerous. You guys here really deal with the tough stuff whereas us chaps out at the front just have to point our guns in the right direction.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite so simply,” says Denniston, “but it is true that our work here is as important as anybody’s fighting actively.”

“It’s much more important,” Turing interrupts him, his usually soft and somewhat timid voice stern. “And we are unlikely to ever receive appreciation for it, or thanks.”

“Well, you didn’t strike me as the type of person who’d strut about with the Victoria Cross pinned to his chest,” Alexander remarks teasingly, causing Turing to glare and withdraw in on himself again, busying himself with his tea.

“How does Jenny fit into all this?” Molly breaks the silence. Anthea clears her throat and Denniston nods at her to take up the pencil again.

“Well,” says Denniston, once more folding his hands in front of him. “I would suggest this remains for the police to find out.”

“The police?” Sherlock hears himself interject immediately, tempted to leap from his chair in indignation. “With due respect, sir, but do you not believe that in the interests of both secrecy as well as justice the matter should be looked at by someone other than some plodding local constables with insufficient security clearing and an overworked DI from London, War Office connection notwithstanding? What you need here is a criminal expert, somebody familiar with the workings of this station as well at the procedures of criminal investigation, and who is moreover equipped with sufficient brainpower to make the intellectual leaps required.”

Denniston regards him solemnly over his folded hands, one eyebrow raised. “Is that so, Mr. Holmes? Well, and I assume you know just the right man for the job, don’t you?”

Sherlock grunts in frustration. “I volunteer, sir.”

“Do you now? Unfortunately, Mr. Holmes, your eagerness notwithstanding, may I remind you that you already have a job. Given our shortness of qualified staff, particularly when it comes to good, experienced codebreakers such as yourself, indeed people with ‘sufficient brainpower’, as you describe them, I really cannot give you leave to set out on a wild goose chase which unfortunately may turn out to be nothing more than a suicide due to overwork or some botched love-affair. I do not doubt you are qualified for this investigation, but I simply cannot spare you. We expect an official visit from London in a couple of days, when everything we do here will be closely scrutinised. I don’t have to tell you that the future of this station depends on the good will of Whitehall and the Prime Minister himself. So we have to be on our toes and work as efficiently and successfully as possible during the next couple of weeks. Leave the matter to the experts, Holmes, and see to your own work.”

Now Sherlock does stand up. “But sir,” he insists, “we cannot yet rule out murder or even espionage in the case of Jennifer Wilson. It should be in your interest to see the matter cleared up beyond any doubt, especially with the visit of an official delegation looming ahead. You would have quite some explaining to do when members of your staff working on highly sensitive information suddenly turn up dead and you are not seen to pull all stops to reveal the true reason for their untimely demise.”

Denniston rises as well, leaning heavily on his desk with both hands and fixing Sherlock with a hard glare. “Mr. Holmes, I have been charged with the running of this station, and believe me, I know how to do it. The last thing I need is some funny, overly self-confident boffin from Cambridge to come and challenge my authority. Do as you’ve been told, namely the job you have been hired to do, and don’t waste my or anybody else’s time and energy – yours included – on trivia. If you don’t have anything to add to your statement, you are dismissed. Attend to your duties – I believe your shift begins presently –, and be prepared to be questioned by the police once they arrive. Miss Hooper, Dr. Watson, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me now.”

There is a general clatter of cups and saucers as people rise and return them to the tray, and then one by one first the codebreakers and then Molly and John file out of the room. Sherlock stays behind.

Denniston gives him an exasperated scowl. “I thought I made myself clear, Mr. Holmes. I am aware of your ... connections through your brother, but they will not avail you in this case if you consider playing this card.”

“I am not, sir,” returns Sherlock, forcing himself to remain calm. “But you are making a mistake by not allowing me on the case.”

Denniston sighs, looking weary and twenty years older of a sudden. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Am I?” He turns to gaze out of the window at the hustle and bustle outside the mansion. “As I said, attend to your duties and decrypt these dratted Enigma messages, Mr. Holmes. Do it speedily and do it well. People are dying out there in the North Atlantic.”

Sherlock resists the urge to kick the heavy desk or upset a stack of papers in his frustration as he turns and stalks towards the door. He has almost reached it when Denniston’s voice causes him to halt.

“Mr. Holmes, I really mean what I said,” Denniston adds quietly, still speaking towards the window. “Stick to your shifts and do the work you have been hired to do. However, what you do off duty, in your own spare time, well, that is your own decision, isn’t it?”

Sherlock casts a quick glance over his shoulder. The commander is standing with his back to him, his hands in the pockets of his trousers, the sunlight glinting on the gold braid on his sleeves.

“I understand, sir,” replies Sherlock, resisting the strange urge to salute, and exits the room.

 

<o>

 

Outside, Welchman, Alexander and Milner-Barry are taking leave of John and Molly.

“See you in the canteen, Alan?” asks Milner-Barry.

“In a moment,” replies Turing, signing to Sherlock, Molly and John to follow him. Together, they weave their way through the crowded corridor. Past the gargoyles, they head towards the stretch of lawn under the mammoth tree.

“He didn’t change his mind, did he?” asks Turing as they assemble in the resin-scented shade.

“I have to stick to my shifts,” explains Sherlock dully.

“Well,” says Turing in his clipped and at the same time muddled manner, “shifts can be ... well ... shifted, can’t they? Go and have a word with Magnussen. He has been moaning all day about not being able to attend the Bach concert tonight. He might be willing to swap a shift with you, leaving you free tomorrow.”

Sherlock nods at this. “Thank you, Alan.”

Turing nods a bit awkwardly, casting a glance back at the manor. “Denniston is under a lot of pressure because of the imminent visit. There is also talk about him getting replaced by somebody more efficient.”

“No wonder he’s testy,” muses John. “I wouldn’t want to run a place like this.”

Turing smiles wryly at this and makes a noncommittal sound which to Sherlock indicates that neither does he, despite having been roped into supervising Hut 8, and a whole lot of other administrational matters.

Sherlock watches his codebreaker colleague thoughtfully, his hand feeling the notebook with the slip of paper they extricated from Jennifer Wilson’s hand folded inside it. He deliberately didn’t mention the note out of fear it would be taken away from him before he ever had a chance of looking at it properly. He is still in two minds about whether he should confide in Turing. Feeling John’s eyes on him and the hand in his pocket, he makes up his mind.

“Alan, there is something we didn’t mention to the others just now. We found a message written in Jennifer’s hand. At first glance it looked like an Enigma code, although now I’ve come to believe that it might have to do with Tunny.”

Casting a careful glance about to reassure himself that they are alone with nobody nearby to overhear their conversation, he withdraws the notebook and unwraps the handkerchief. It’s still moist, and to his dismay the message has further deteriorated despite the careful treatment. Most of the letters are barely legible anymore because the ink has seeped into the handkerchief and even blotted the notebook pages it was stored between. The cheap paper has dissolved further.

Turing leans in closer and frowns as he studies the message thoughtfully. “It’s difficult to tell whether it’s Enigma. Have you tried decrypting it yet?”

“There was no time.”

“You have some time now before your shift starts, and if you need longer, well … at least you’re decrypting something. It would help, though, to have the entire message as this is clearly only a small part.”

“Aren’t the messages archived?” enquires Molly.

“Yes, but you’d need to know what to look for. The archive is huge. Ah,” he looks up when someone calls his name. “Got to dash. Keep me informed about this, Sherlock, and good luck with finding out what happened to Miss Wilson. Miss Hooper, if you feel you need to take the day off to ... you know ... deal with things at home, leave will be granted.”

“Thank you, sir, but actually I’d rather stay on and try to help. Moreover work should distract me. No use sitting around at home crying.”

 

<o>

 

After Turing has left, the trio settles down on the lawn with John being annoyingly gentlemanly again and pulling off his sleeveless jumper to spread on the ground for Molly to sit on. Sherlock rolls his eyes at the gesture and at her shy smile and blush. God, can the doctor be even more obvious?

Carefully flattening the message out on the ground in a patch of sunlight, Sherlock opens the notebook again at an empty page and begins to transcribe what he can still read. In retrospect, he should have done that much sooner, he realises. To make out the part where the blotches make the message almost completely unreadable, he carefully holds the paper up against the light in the hope of recognising the initial shape of the letters before their ink started to run. No luck, however. As before, only the letters ‘SA’ can be deciphered.

“Isn’t the SA a Nazi military organisation?” asks Molly, cocking her head to have a closer look at the code.

John nods. “Yes, it is, similar to the SS. One hears horrific things about both and what they’re doing over there. Do you think Jennifer meant that?” he enquires of Sherlock.

“It’s possible,” muses the addressed. “It could be an attempt at a crib. Perhaps Jenny had a suspicion what the message was about and felt compelled to try her hand at deciphering it. But why? Why this message in particular. She saw hundreds of them every day. Why choose this one?”

He stares at it thoughtfully. Something is missing, he knows it is. Some bit of information he needs to make the connection. Or perhaps, as so often, it’s not exactly missing but has just been misplaced, been shoved into the wrong room or passageway of the intricate mental building that he likes to associate with his brain. What is it? What should he be looking for? And where?

“We forgot to ask the commander or the others about this Jim fellow.” John’s statement brings Sherlock back to the present.

“There must be countless Jims or Jameses employed at this place, if he even works here.”

“I’m not sure he does,” says Molly. “Otherwise Jenny might have pointed him out to me in the canteen or elsewhere. But we have the poster. He should be at this concert tomorrow. I’m very confident that it’s him, the man depicted here.”

They gaze at the black and purple print that John has spread out on the lawn.

“It’s right during my shift,” growls Sherlock darkly, loathing his obligations and the inflexibility of his schedule, and having a mind to just neglect them. Then he remembers Turing’s advice. Rising to his feet abruptly, “I need to talk to Magnussen,” he announces. “I hope he’s indeed willing to swap.”

“But that would mean a double shift for you, wouldn’t it?” asks John, looking somewhat concerned.

Sherlock shrugs, despite the small seed of warmth lodging in his chest as the other’s care. Then again, he reasons, John is a doctor. It’s his profession to care.

“Wouldn’t be the first,” states Sherlock matter-of-factly as he brushes grass clippings off his trousers.

John struggles to his feet as well and holds out a hand to Molly. Sherlock looks away. “Your shift starts at four, right, Sherlock? Well, that leaves us time for a quick lunch. Come on, I’ll invite you, Molly. Meet us at the canteen, Sherlock, and we’ll discuss further proceedings.”

Sherlock grunts gruffly as he watches John don his jumper again, then nods and stalks off.

 

<o>

 

He finds the Dane next to Hut 8 in discussion with Milner-Barry, both of them wreathed in tobacco smoke.

“Well, Charles, I’d really like to help you, but I’m already compelled to stay over night. But perhaps Sherlock here is willing to swap.”

“This is the very reason I’m here,” says Sherlock. “Alan mentioned you want to get rid of your early shift tomorrow, Karl August. I can take it, if you take over mine tomorrow. Four to midnight.”

Magnussen eyes him warily, obviously looking for a catch, but then shrugs. “Very good, Sherlock.” For a moment, he looks like he is about to extend a hand for Sherlock to shake, but then thinks better of it. Sherlock would not have appreciated the damp touch anyway.

 

<o>

 

As usual, the canteen is noisy and busy. Mixed with the smell of grease, coffee and cigarettes and the ubiquitous cabbage, today the sweet tang of apples pervades the room. Apparently they are so bountiful this year that they haven’t been rationed, despite the wet and rainy summer that shouldn’t have been conductive to the ripening of fruit. But it looks like apple-pie is on the menu today, and indeed when Sherlock spots John’s silver-blond head and Molly’s light brown waves and steers his course towards them, he sees that both have a plate with pie and something that at least looks like custard on them (likely made of starch and tasting of liquified cardboard, but they did get the colour right).

Molly spots Sherlock first. She looks at him and blushes. Sherlock is convinced that they have been talking about him. At first he feels another stab of what can only be jealousy at seeing them sit next to each other so amicably with their cake and tea, but then he reconsiders. Why would they talk about him? They don’t look embarrassed and guilty enough to assume they have been making fun of him and his no doubt unconventional manners. No, it rather seems that John enquired about him, questioning Molly who has known Sherlock for some time and who, despite his obvious disregard of her attempts at romance, still seems to obstinately be maintaining her infatuation with him. So, John wanted to know more about his strange housemate? This implies interest. And interest is ... well ... good.

“Oh, hello,” says John, smiling up at Sherlock. “That was quick. Fancy some cake, too? It’s surprisingly edible, although the custard tastes a bit dodgy.” Liquified cardboard, thinks Sherlock.

“No, thank you, I am not hungry.” He wouldn’t mind a mouthful of tea, if he’s honest, but he doesn’t want to queue for it.

“Have a sip of mine, if you’re thirsty,” John invites him. Why, muses Sherlock. Has he looked too obviously at his cup? Is John really this observant? Well, apparently yes, in certain matters. “I’ve already had two cups at the mansion.”

Sherlock gazes at him in surprise, and Molly, too, looks from one to the other with a shrewd expression. Inclining his head, Sherlock takes John up on his offer. Drawing up a chair, he sits down and reaches for John’s cup. His tea tastes like Sherlock expected, strong, with quite a lot of what passes for milk in this establishment. No sugar. “Thank you,” he says after a long draught, returning the cup to its saucer with a clink.

John looks at him with an expression which Sherlock finds difficult to define. Fond, might be the right term.

“Any success with Magnussen?” asks John.

“Yes, we swapped shifts. I’ll have to work from four this afternoon to eight in the morning now, and I’ll try to decipher Jennifer’s message inbetween regular Enigma cribbing.”

John pushes his cake towards Sherlock and sticks a fork into it. “If you’re going to work for sixteen hours straight, you’ll need this.”

“Digestion slows me down.”

“And hunger will make you faint, grumpy and will aversely affect your ability to concentrate and think. I’m a doctor and I’ve been around men who underestimate their bodies’ demands for far too long. So trust me and eat.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. Molly is again studying the two of them. This time, her expression is decidedly amused. “You two are like my landlady and her husband,” she states, smiling. But then a shadow seems to pass over her features at the reminder of her billet and the now empty room there.

John reaches out and squeezes her hand briefly, at which she sighs and quickly dives for her tea. Sherlock relents and starts to attack the cake, which turns out to be surprisingly tasty. Even the custard is tolerable if rather bland and lacking in sweetness, but certainly no more dodgy than usual.

“How can we help while you work on the message?” asks John before emptying what Sherlock has left in his cup with one long draught. “I’d hate to sit around doing nothing, and since I haven’t received any particular orders from Commander Denniston or Mr. Turing, I reckon I’m free to assist you however you see fit.”

“I’d like to help, too,” adds Molly. “Officially, I’m on leave today because of what happened. Just got word from the mansion. My shift would be over in a short while anyway. So anything I can do while we’re here, I will.”

Sherlock swallows another forkful of pie. “You know some of Jenny’s friends, don’t you, Molly? Good. Try to meet them when they come off duty this afternoon. Ask them about Jennifer’s doings in recent weeks, particularly over the last weekend. Find out more about this Jim she was seeing. Ask if any of them know someone who drives a silver Bentley Convertible and wears two-tone brogues. Also, you could investigate the archive for Tunny messages. I’ll make you a copy of the transcript we found on Jennifer so you have the note at hand. I doubt you’ll be granted access, but then you are a clerk like Jennifer, so perhaps you can pretend to be from her station. Ask round in any case, but don’t show the message to anybody. We have to be careful. I reckon you will be questioned by the police today, too. Only mention the message if you absolutely must. I don’t trust the officials to not mess this up, so the more we can solve ourselves, the better.”

Molly nods, looking excited and grimly resolved. Sherlock doubts she’ll be any good at swindling her way into the archive, but on the other hand she looks so deceivingly innocent that people might not suspect her of any dishonest behaviour at all and thus humour her whims.

“Do you want me to ask round here, too?” enquires John.

“No, not here. You’re a new face and so may cause suspicion,” say Sherlock, eyeing the doctor thoughtfully. “Originally, I had planned to cycle into town this morning to look for the car that nearly collided with me last night – the same silver Bentley. Have a look for it in Bletchley. Chances are low that it is still in town, but perhaps people saw it last night or earlier. Check at the local garage whether somebody tried to buy petrol. Also, I am sure Molly can make you a list of Jenny’s usual haunts in town: shops, cafés, the cinema. Ask round there whether anybody spotted her with Jim or anybody else in tow. Also, have a stroll round the venue of tomorrow’s ‘Jazz and Dance Extravaganza’, Bletchley Road Senior School. You may catch Jim and his Fix-Its during their rehearsal.”

“Very well, consider it done,” says John, looking as excited as Molly. Sherlock, too, feels the thrill of the case tingling in his veins, despite the prospect of spending the next sixteen hours in a stuffy hut poring over rows of letters. Still, finally, something is happening here. Finally, something fun is going on.

 

<o>

 

The first two hours of Sherlock’s shift pass with regular Enigma work which he finds hard to concentrate on, with Jennifer’s message like a hot piece of coal in his trouser pocket. Still, Sherlock’s tray is full, and there are some codes from the early shift left to decrypt with everybody hoping to get them done before midnight when the Germans change their Enigma settings for the next day and the work begins anew.

At about half past six Sherlock is startled out of a bout of concentrated cribbing on a message which had been checked against the EINS-catalogue by a colleague and found interesting. He thinks he has an inkling about the settings – not exactly as straightforward as yesterday’s football club which proved correct, but perhaps the initials of a girlfriend this time. Just when he is about to test his theory by drawing a diagram of the proposed plugboard connections for the Bombes, he hears somebody call his name.

A moment later, the girl he saw at the manor earlier with the sugar cane in her pocket materialises at his side. She seems to be some kind of errand runner. Sherlock is a little surprised that this way, she is allowed access to most locations at Bletchley Park, at a time when inter-hut communication is strongly discouraged to avoid wagging tongues. But then, he reasons, not all messages can be conveyed from A to B by broom handle.

“Mr. Holmes,” the girl addresses him somewhat breathlessly, “there are three police officers waiting for you outside.”

At this, several heads go up from the various tables in the Crib Room. Sherlock sighs and after stretching and rolling his stiff shoulders, he gets to his feet. Best get this over with quickly.

 

<o>

 

Of the three officers, he recognises one constable who regularly patrols the station (local, likely born in Bletchley, owns a large dog, married with at least two children, keeps chickens, veteran of the Somme where he lost two toes). His younger colleague looks as if he doesn’t get out much from behind his desk. He has a slight limp and is rather thin, his uniform too large for his wraith-like frame (has been ill for a prolonged period of time which prevented him from being conscripted, likes to doodle during office hours when theres little to do, drinks his tea black).

The third man must be the inspector from Scotland Yard Denniston mentioned. He does not wear a uniform but a single-breasted charcoal suit (not bespoke but has been altered slightly for a better fit albeit not recently; wedding ring, but the state of his shirt which has been ironed by someone without much experience at it indicates that he has done it himself, ergo, estranged wife, marriage in trouble, likely divorce pending) and brown tie, with a beige mac slung over his arm. His greying hairs are kept short (almost military cut, another veteran of the Great War), and he wears a grey fedora that shows indications of having been exposed to smoke and soot a short while ago, probably from a bombing raid in London – ah, no, the soot is different from a normal fire, oilier, soot from burning whale or fish oil: crime scene, arson, perhaps.

“Mr. Holmes,” he greets Sherlock, holding out a hand to him, his southern London accent obvious, “thanks for sparing us some time. These are constables Grant and Telford, my name is Lestrade.”

Sherlock shakes his hand briefly. Lestrade takes a look around and then gestures towards the lake, the reedy borders of which miraculously deserted for once but for a couple of lovers clearly only interested in each other.

Sherlock follows the three men out of earshot of the hut. “Commander Denniston informed us about what happened and we have already viewed the body, which is currently being autopsied by the local coroner. We viewed the place where it was found. We have also spoken with Miss Hooper and escorted her back to her billet to question her landlord and landlady.”

Sherlock cannot help raising an eyebrow at this unexpected level of efficiency. The policemen instead of coming to the park first to talk to Denniston did the sensible and expedient thing and investigated the crime scene. Remarkable.

“I understand you and your colleague Dr. ...,” Lestrade looks at the younger of the two constables who leafs through a notebook, “Watson, sir.”

“Watson, thank you. You, Mr. Holmes, and Dr. Watson were asked by Miss Hooper to investigate the body. May I ask why?”

“I am a consulting detective and have worked with the Metropolitan Police before,” explains Sherlock, an echo of John Watson’s voice ringing in his head reminding him to behave civilly. It won’t be helpful to alienate or even anger these policemen. He may have to rely on their good will at a later point.

Now Lestrade raises an eyebrow. “Can’t recall having heard your name before.”

“My work was not credited officially,” states Sherlock, which is true. The credit went to DI Gregson, ensuring his promotion. “Your colleague Mr. Gregson should recall my name,” adds Sherlock, at which Lestrade’s eyes light up briefly in recognition before a frown creases his brow.

“Don’t tell me you’re the strange, seemingly all-knowing fellow he appears to have been consulting on that complicated murder case which earned him his promotion. There were rumours making the round that he had conferred with a magician, others claimed it was an intelligence officer. In any case, the chief superintendent wasn’t happy about it.”

“I am neither. I am simply very observant. I notice things others don’t because I look closely, and I am able to deduce information from what I observe. It’s neither magic nor external ‘intelligence’.”

The two constables exchange a rather disbelieving glance. Lestrade, however, seems intrigued if somewhat doubtful, which speaks for him, Sherlock decides. “You should divorce your wife, detective inspector,” advises Sherlock. “She is clearly seeing another man, otherwise she wouldn’t have done such sloppy work on your jacket. For a trained seamstress, she didn’t repair you pocket-flap very well.”

The policeman touches the flap reflexively, then looks at Sherlock in surprise. “How do you know about my wife?”

Sherlock sighs. “Your wedding ring is at least twenty years old, rather more, and has seen some wear, indicating you didn’t use to take if off when you were still patrolling the streets and got into the occasional scuffle with criminals, for example during demonstrations by suffragettes or union members. But recently you haven’t been wearing it regularly anymore, perhaps because it sits rather loosely now due to your weight loss. There should be a tanline, given that the rest of you is rather tanned despite the abysmal summer. But no, you walked about without your ring for a considerable amount of time. Why? You didn’t take it off for work. You’re a DI now, and have been for some time, which doesn’t require you to do much rough legwork out on the streets anymore. Moreover you didn’t take off the ring when you were still a constable. Not a sign of a happy marriage, it’s sudden lack, I’m sure you’d agree. Then there is your jacket. You had to have it altered because you lost some weight recently, perhaps due to taking up playing football again to compensate for the stressful job (and stressful marriage). Clothes rationing hasn’t allowed you to buy a new one. The stitching on the top button and buttonhole was done with a different thread than the other buttons, indicating it wasn’t carried out by the tailor the suit originated from. Someone with professional knowledge undertook the alterations, though, likely a relative or indeed your wife. Given the indications of sloppiness, it can be assumed it was your wife for whom you are not top priority any longer. Why? Well, because she is seeing somebody else, obviously. It can be assumed that she was initially upset about your long working hours as Scotland Yard is understaffed due to the war, and so searched and found distraction elsewhere.”

Sherlock is aware of the two constables exchanging glances both awed and somewhat uncomfortable. “That’s uncanny,” mutters the younger, looking to Lestrade as if waiting for confirmation that Sherlock has spoken the truth.

Lestrade is studying him from narrowed eyes. “Uncanny is one way of putting it,” he muses. “Pretty disrespectful another. But you’re right with what you’ve deduced. Do you do that at crime scenes, too? Can you look at a murder victim and read their life-story in their clothes and jewellery?”

“Yes, whenever your colleagues granted me access,” returns Sherlock somewhat testily. There have been a number of very fascinating cases he was kept away from. Some, he knows, haven’t been solved to this day. He is not surprised.

Lestrade nods, eyeing him thoughtfully. Sherlock has the distinct expression that he is being measured up. At length, the detective inspector nods. “Very well, then, Mr. Holmes, what can you tell me about the deceased Miss Wilson?”

 

<o>

 

About forty minutes later, constable Grant closes the notebook. Lestrade is glancing at his own notes thoughtfully. Sherlock has given him a somewhat more detailed description of their findings in the quarry than John told Denniston and his fellow codebreakers, where he mostly stuck to medical aspects. Sherlock recounted what they found in Jennifer’s bedroom, too, and what the Suffields mentioned about Jennifer’s former fiancé. Sherlock has not mentioned the note, however, nor anything about the true nature of Jennifer Wilson’s occupation at Bletchley Park. For all the policemen know and are concerned, she was working in a radio factory.

“We will have to wait for the coroner’s report, obviously, but both you and Dr. Watson are positive that she died of cyanide poisoning that was self-administered by way of a capsule, right?” enquires Lestrade.

Sherlock nods.

“Well, sir, the matter is clear, then, isn’t it?” opines Constable Grant. “There were no traces of violence on the body, and she bit on the capsule herself.”

“Suicide, clear as day,” chimes in his younger colleague. “Stressful job, nasty break-up with her fiancé, perhaps some family or money troubles on top of that, or a person dear to her lost in the war. Bound to shake up a girl’s head, isn’t it?”

Lestrade looks doubtful, which increases Sherlock’s regard for him. The detective inspector strokes his chin thoughtfully, glancing over his notes yet again, before raising his head to give Sherlock a shrewd look from dark eyes.

“Yes, this seems to be the easiest explanation. However, it appears to me that neither Miss Hooper nor Mr. Holmes here are entirely convinced by it, isn’t that so, Mr. Holmes?”

Sherlock shrugs. “There is no proof that Miss Wilson was indeed suicidal. She didn’t leave a farewell note, and all who knew her describe her as cheerful, and as someone who enjoyed life as best she could. Also, there is the fact that she was dropped off close to where she died, and that the driver is yet unaccounted for.”

“Lovers’ quarrel, likely,” opines Constable Grant somewhat dismissively. “Had a bit of a tiff with her beau in the car, maybe he broke it up. Girl is stressed and unstable anyway so she escapes to a lonely place and ends it. Seriously, Mr. Lestrade, I don’t think we need to worry too much about this case.”

“Well, gentlemen, this remains to be seen, doesn’t it,” returns Lestrade with some sharpness, indicating to Sherlock that he, too, is quite fed up with the narrow-mindedness of the local police force. Turning to Sherlock, he nods. “Thank you, Mr. Holmes, for your cooperation. It’s not exactly protocol, but I can let you know what the coroner found, if you want.”

“I’d appreciate that, sir,” replies Sherlock, inclining his head and ignoring the scowls of the two constables.

“We will probably be back tomorrow to talk to Dr. Watson, too, and some of Miss Wilson’s colleagues,” Lestrade goes on. “I am not yet sure if this is going to be classified as a murder investigation. So far, there is too little evidence for it. But I can assure you that we are going to treat the matter seriously,” he ends with a sharp glance at his two colleagues. “Well, for now I won’t keep you any longer, Mr. Holmes, as I am sure you have work to do.” He nods towards Hut 8.

The two constables have already taken their leave with a couple of brisk nods and have set out towards the car that is parked in front of the mansion, visible through the trees. Lestrade heads out as well, but more slowly. When he can be sure the two others are out of earshot, he turns and approaches Sherlock again. “One more thing, Mr. Holmes,” he begins, giving Sherlock another shrewd, almost knowing look.

“I don’t know what exactly it is you and Miss Wilson and everybody else are doing here, nor do I want to know since Commander Denniston reminded me more than once that whatever information I manage to gain here has to be treated with utmost care and secrecy. But I have a feeling that it is important, as important, perhaps, as what our boys are doing over in the North Atlantic and in Northern Africa and other places. So whatever happened to poor Miss Wilson may have to do with that. Isn’t this what you believe?”

Sherlock holds his gaze for a while, which the detective inspector endures stoically – more credit to him, since most people find Sherlock’s light grey stare disconcerting and quickly avert their eyes. Then he inclines his head in a small nod.

Lestrade lets out a breath. “Thought so. You believe she was murdered, don’t you? Or rather, that somebody or some event forced her hand to commit this act, isn’t that what you believe? That it wasn’t just a lover’s tiff that upset her so?”

“My beliefs don’t enter into this, detective inspector,” replies Sherlock. “The evidence we have accrued so far points that way.”

Lestrade nods. “The evidence, I see. Well, I hope you are keeping good track of all the evidence, Mr. Holmes. Not keeping anything back from me, are you?”

Aware of the stress the policeman put on the numeral, Sherlock replies gravely, ”Of course not, sir.”

Lestrade gives him a beady look and nods. “Thought so. Very well, Mr. Holmes, I’ll be in touch again tomorrow. If you remember anything you haven’t told us, or if new evidence turns up, do call me. Here is my card.”

Sherlock takes it. “Thank you.”

With another nod, Lestrade turns and slinging the mac over one shoulder, walks off to join the constables. Sherlock withdraws the notebook from his own trouser pocket and adds the card to the coded message. The detective inspector is not a complete idiot, he decides, and might actually be helpful, not just for solving the case, but also considering Sherlock’s potential future career as a consultant with the MET after the war, should it ever end, and moreover should London still stand when it’s over.

But for now, back to work.

 

<o>

 

Shortly before eight and just in time for Sherlock’s break John returns, his shoes and the lower part of his trousers dusty from cycling, his hair ruffled by the wind which Sherlock thinks suits him terribly well as it makes him look young and fit despite his lined face. They meet for tea and a snack (sandwich consisting of dull grey bread – the ubiquitous ‘National Loaf’ – cheese and some pickles) in the canteen.

“I would have come earlier,” apologises John, “but when I arrived about an hour ago, I was accosted by the police who took down my statement in the Wilson case. The DI said he’d spoken with you and Molly already. I didn’t tell him about the note, however, just what medical facts about her death I had observed. Hope that was all right.”

“Yes, of course. Lestrade appears to be a surprisingly able officer,” says Sherlock, “unlike our two chaps from Bletchley.”

“Yes, that’s the impression I got of him as well. And them,” adds John with a grin.

Moving his chair closer to Sherlock’s and leaning towards him, “Did you get anywhere with the strange message?” he asks in a low voice.

Sherlock shakes his head, unable to hide his frustration. “No, I was inundated with work and Mellows and Anderson were literally breathing down my neck as we tried to come up with a crib for some messages intercepted this morning – weather-reports, we think. Our suggestion for the rotor and plugboard settings have been forwarded to the Bombes now, and if they’re correct, we’ll be set for today. I hope to have a look at this other cypher later tonight. What about you, any luck in town?”

John chews and swallows another bite of his sandwich. He seems to be very hungry. Transport, thinks Sherlock. Not everybody neglects it the way he does.

“I found out some things, don’t know whether they’re useful, however. I went to most of the shops from the list Molly gave me and had a chat with the shopkeepers. Most remember Jennifer as a lively, friendly girl who was interested in the latest fashion and seemed to have had a shrewd way of acquiring the extra clothing coupon here and there. She appears to have been considerably well off, too, at least in comparison to most of the other girls who frequent the shops.”

Sherlock frowns, which John notices. “Anything strange about that?”

“Yes,” replies Sherlock thoughtfully. “I don’t think you know, but a considerable number of the women employed here are from upper middle class or even upper class families, particularly those who were recruited during the early days of the war. Debutantes, high-born daughters, even minor nobility.”

“Really? Never thought they’d do something like this,” says John, looking astonished.

“Why not? These women are well versed in foreign languages and mostly well schooled. But it was also believed given their upbringing and high status that they would be better suited for keeping state secrets,” explains Sherlock.

John laughs at this. “How preposterous.”

“I agree, but there you are. Luckily, questions of class aren’t as much an issue here at Bletchley as elsewhere. Not that I would care if they were.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed that there doesn’t seem to be much of a hierarchy or a proper chain of command in this place,” muses John, “which, to be honest, takes some getting used to after where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing in recent years. I like it, though. Anyway, back to Jennifer. She had the local milliner put something on the slate for her not long ago.”

“Likely the pink hat we found next to her in the quarry. It was fairly recent and looked expensive,” mused Sherlock.

“Yes, possibly. She also ordered a new pair of silk stockings last Friday, which according to Mrs. Keating the shopkeeper are due to arrive in two days, on Wednesday.”

“Excellent,” mutters Sherlock, steepling his hands under his chin.

“What is?” asks John.

Sherlock gives him a confused look. Isn’t it obvious?  Given the other’s blank expression, apparently not. “The fact that she placed this order. Don’t you see?”

“Er ... no?”

“Well, the order and therefore her planning ahead decreases the possibility of her death having been a suicide, at least a planned one. Who orders stockings if they have a mind to kill themselves in the near future?”

John looks doubtful at this revelation. “Most suicides are not planned in the long run, but turn out to be spur of the moment decisions out of desperation. She didn’t leave a note, though, which might speak against suicide in general. Unless she was really desperate. Well, all right, she did, in a way. Leave a note, I mean. But she couldn’t hope that many people would be able to decipher it, or anybody, really, if it truly is this yet unbroken code they talked about earlier.”

“Don’t forget the cyanide capsule,” Sherlock reminds him. “They are difficult to get. She must have obtained it a while ago, perhaps during her last stay in London, unless somebody else provided it. Why? Did she plan her suicide after all, or at least wanted to be prepared for all eventualities? Did she perhaps feel guilty about something, feared persecution for treason and the rope, or a firing squad?”

“Perhaps she was indeed a spy, passing on secrets to contacts outside the park. Or a double agent. One never knows. Basically, one has to suspect anybody of espionage at the moment, or at least that’s what propaganda wants to make us believe.” John nods towards one of the many colourful posters scattered all over the Bletchley Park buildings which are a constant warning of the enemy listening in, and of the necessity of ‘Keeping your trap shut’.

“Anyway,” he goes on after a sip from his tea, “according to the shopkeepers, she never showed up in suspicious company. Mostly spent time in town with her friends from work, it seems. The café was a favourite haunt, as was the cinema. The last film she went to watch appears to have been That Hamilton Woman last Thursday.”

Sherlock nods thoughtfully. “Did you find out anything about the car?”

John nods. “The chap at the garage remembered seeing it – if it was the same one, although I doubt there’d be many Bentleys round here, or any cars, really.”

Sherlock sits up excitedly. “What else did he say?”

“Only that he saw it pass down High Street on his way home for his lunch break. He couldn’t remember the exact date, however. Some time last week, he said. But then another fellow who works at the place came over and said that the car actually stopped by on Friday. It was quite muddy and dirty from the rains and the rugged roads round here, so they cleaned it and did a bit of polishing, and also checked oil and brakes.”

“What about the driver? Did he leave a name?”

“No. But I asked about him. The second garage man, a Mr. Fields, said he didn’t look as if he owned the car, but more like a chauffeur or footman, although he didn’t wear livery. Seemed to know a bit about cars, though, because he stayed round and advised them on what to do, which seems to have annoyed Fields a little because he muttered about ‘posh’ idiots and all that. Apparently the driver paid in cash and drove off after the car was clean. I asked the garage lads for a description of the man, but they didn’t remember much apart from his clothes, which were basically a dark suit and a white shirt and dark tie, such as a footman might wear. Smallish bloke, added Fields, with dark-brown hair and a hat.”

“Well, that’s better than nothing,” says Sherlock. He closes his eyes briefly, recalling his nocturnal encounter with the car, once more bemoaning the fact that he didn’t see enough of the driver. It might have been the chauffeur John has described, but also somebody else.

“Does the description ring any bells?” asks John.

“It’s too vague. But at least we know the car has been in town. Anything else?”

“Oh yes,” replies John with some pride. “I went to this school. The band was there, at least in parts, and in the process of setting things up with the help of some women from the local dance club. They were all terribly busy. I caught word that apparently the band’s leader, this Jim fellow, was still missing and they were anxious to begin their rehearsal. Also, they were talking about a friend of Jim’s who’s apparently going to be singing tomorrow night, a late addition to the programme. There was some excitement about that, since she appears to be really good.”

“Did they mention a name?”

“Only her stage-name, I think. She seems to go by ‘The Woman’. Anyway, I got us tickets. One for Molly, too. I’m not sure she’ll be in the mood to go, but she seemed to be coping surprisingly well, and I’d imagine her to fancy some distraction instead of sitting at home all day feeling sad.”

Fighting down the stab of jealousy – whats that about lately, anyway? It’s starting to become immensely distracting – Sherlock nods. It’s in fact the sensible thing to do, taking her along, because she knows Jennifer’s friends. Moreover, six eyes are likely to see more than four.

“Good work,” says Sherlock appreciatively, at which John smiles. He rummages in his pocket.

“Here, got you something,” he says, holding out a small parcel to Sherlock, who frowns.

“What is it?”

John’s smile broadens. “Well, open it. Spotted it in the window at the pawnbroker’s. Thought you might need it. You know, for future detective work.”

Sherlock cannot help the excitement coursing through him as he takes the wrapped box and rattles it carefully. Usually, he is good at guessing gifts (not that he receives many), and although he has several ideas what this could be, there is no way to be certain without unwrapping it. Quickly, he rips off the paper and opens the cardboard box. Inside sits a small foldable magnifying glass, perfect for fitting in a pocket. Sherlock takes it from its box and opens it. It’s not new and has obviously been used, but according to the maker’s label it’s a Zeiss magnifier, a company known for the high quality of their lenses and optical equipment. Sherlock still hopes to acquire a Zeiss microscope some day, although the war has made this difficult, Zeiss being a German manufacturer.

“Well, do you like it?” John’s tentative question breaks through his thoughts, and Sherlock becomes aware that he has been staring at the gift for some time. He feels strangely ... moved by it. It’s practical, but also a thoughtful present from someone who obviously took the trouble of considering what he might like.

“Yes, it’s ... good,” says Sherlock, aware that his voice sounds almost reverent as he holds the magnifier over his hand and studies its details. There is a very faint scratch on one side of the lens, but it doesn’t diminish its utility in the slightest. Sherlock pulls his eyes away and gazes at John. “Thank you. But I’ll repay you, of course.”

John rolls his eyes. “No, you won’t. What part of ‘gift’ didn’t you understand? It was really cheap, too. It’s fine. You can get me a drink tomorrow at the dance.”

“I’ll pay for the tickets, too.”

John shrugs. “If you feel you have to.”

Sherlock nods, retrieves his wallet and begins to count out the money. John raises an eyebrow but takes it, subtracting, however, the value for his own ticket and pushing the coins back to Sherlock, who, rather reluctantly, pockets them.

“Are you done?” he then asks, nodding at their empty plates. John takes a last swig of his tea, makes a face at the bitterness of the dregs, then nods and stands.

“Yes.”

 

<o>

 

Sherlock finds one more Enigma message in the tray on his desk. He sighs as his eyes fly over the orderly rows of letters. Anderson moves up to him and peers over his shoulder.

“Milner-Barry wants you to try the settings we worked out for the weather-reports on this message.”

“Any news from the Bombes?” asks Sherlock.

Anderson shakes his head. “Not yet. They are running a Hut 3 message first.”

Sherlock turns to him, frowning. “This is a complete waste of time, then?”

Anderson shrugs. “That’s what I thought, too, but Milner-Barry was rather strict about it.”

With a frustrated sigh, Sherlock sinks into his chair, feeling the notebook containing Jennifer Wilson’s cypher in his pocket like a heavy stone. He should be looking into that matter, instead of going over a message the settings of which have hopefully already been decrypted. So much for working efficiently in this place.

John has taken a seat at the long side of the table. “I won’t tell if you ... you know, work on another message,” he informs Sherlock in a low voice, accompanied by a conspiratorial wink.

Sherlock cocks his head. “Captain Watson, are you implying I should disobey a command from my superior? You, a naval officer?”

John shrugs, managing to look both innocent and mischievous. “Well, you said yourself that military hierarchy isn’t a big thing in this place. And you, of all people, I hadn’t put down as the subordinate type.”

“And correctly so,” smiles Sherlock. “Here, you can have a look at this message," he says, pushing the Enigma code towards John. “It’s unlikely to be a weather-report, but you could try some of the usual wordings for U-boat intercepts. There are some German language and grammar books over there, on the shelf. As a naval officer, even a medical one, you should be familiar with nautical terms. Try to find German equivalents in the books and then try them out against the message. Perhaps we’re lucky and find a key even without the help of the Bombes. It can be as easy as that, sometimes. Rarely, though.”

“I’ll give it a go,” replies John cheerfully and sets out to find the books. In the meantime, Sherlock pulls out what in his mind is labelled the ‘Wilson Code’ and flattens it out on the table before him.

“Well, now,” he mutters, looking at the worn paper with its ink blotches and creases. “What might you be hiding?”

 

<o>

 

About an hour later, Sherlock’s head jerks up from where he has been sitting crouched over the message with eyes unfocused, wandering the passages of his ‘mind palace’.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Sherlock,” apologises John when he has the other’s attention, “but since I only speak basic German, I could do with your help. Do you know how they might abbreviate terms like ‘Planquadrat’ or ‘Echoortung’? I have an inkling that the message might contain these terms because I think I have found some matching words that deal with positions and depth, but the long versions of the words don’t fit. I could be completely off, of course, but it might be worth a try.”

Sherlock nods and writes down several possibilities. “There are variations, and sometimes not all letters match, either because their Enigma or radio operator or our listening stations made a mistake, or because they put in wrong letters on purpose.”

“Cheers. Getting anywhere with that?” enquires John, pointing at the Wilson Code.

“Not with the actual code. It’s not enough to do anything with it, since we’ve only got the two rows of letters. I’ve been trying to find out what she scribbled underneath. I believe it to be information that either helped her in an attempt to decode it, perhaps the context of its reception, or, what I think is more probable, a reminder of where to find the rest of it. If only we were able to read the rest ...”

As Sherlock utters this, a thought strikes him. Carefully, he picks up the message and holds it up against the light of the spartan ceiling lamp. The outlines of the letters obscured by the runny ink can very faintly be seen. They appear to have been forming a longer word, as well as a few others behind it, one apparently containing a dot. Sherlock frowns, tilting the message this way and that, watching the light play over the rugged surface of the paper. Very faintly, he thinks he can see the imprints and scratches of the nib of Jennifer’s pen which seems to have been damaged slightly.

Excitedly, he places the message on the table again and digs in his pocket for his magnifier. Oh yes, this is very helpful. He quickly casts a glance at John who is bent over his own message and right now stifling a yawn. For a moment, Sherlock is distracted by the lamplight playing on the golden strands of his hair and the delicate shape of his ear, before mentally scolding himself. This wont do, losing concentration over a few filaments and whorls of cartilage. Pull yourself together, man.

Carefully, he scans the paper’s surface through his magnifier, and yes, he can see the faintest of scratches. On a new page in the notebook, he begins to painstakingly sketch what he sees.

 

<o>

 

So concentrated on his case is he that he pays no attention to his surroundings, and much less to the passage of time. Therefore, he is somewhat surprised when next he stirs to stretch his tense shoulder and back muscles and finds the clock on the wall announce that it is a quarter to midnight. Around him, people are getting ready for the end of their shift. John, unperturbed by the increasing movement in the room, appears to have dozed off, his head supported by his right arm, his hand cupping his face.

A strange feeling of warmth spreads through Sherlock as he watches him. Unused as he is to codebreaking, in addition to the eventful day, it’s no wonder the doctor is worn out and tired. Sherlock knows he should wake him and send him home. But with a stab of what he can only determine as selfishness, he does no such thing. Instead, he sits quietly watching the other, and after a moment opens a new page in the notebook and picks up his pencil again.

He has not drawn from life in a long while, not since university. Back then, he had developed considerable skills, taking drawing as an exercise in observation, honing the ability to sit and watch something closely, trying to notice and then render all its intricate details. It was also a good way of overhearing people talk. His fellow students tended to disregard him as a weird loner and yet often taunted him, but when he was drawing, they paid him no attention whatsoever. He seemed to melt into his environments, and they would go on about their amorous pursuits and how they were planning to cheat at their next exam completely indifferent to his presence. He became extremely good at drawing – and listening – back then.

Now, he can only hope to catch a vague likeness of John Watson, drawing after all requiring constant practice. But after a few minutes of concentrated sketching, he smiles at the result, just when John gives a soft snort and stirs.

Running a hand over his eyes and then through his hair, “Oh dear, didn’t mean to drop off,” he mumbles groggily. “How do you people do these long shifts of nothing but thinking?”

“One gets used to it,” shrugs Sherlock, quickly hiding the sketch. It needs some more shading, but he can do that some other time. “You should go home and get some sleep. I need fresh air, too, before the nightshift.”

John gives him a keen once-over. “You need sleep, too. Did you get anywhere with the message? I gave up on this one. Maybe you can use what I’ve tried out, however.”

Sherlock beckons to him to come over and glance over his shoulder. “I managed to draw the traces of her pen’s nib. It seems to have been slightly damaged and scratched the paper’s surface in places. Not all letters could be read that way, as you can see. There was still some guesswork involved as to what they mean. But I am pretty confident this is what she wrote.

“Saturday, Aug. 30, something pm, Knockh., K.,” reads John.

“The last two words likely mean ‘Knockholt, Kent’,” Sherlock informs him. “It’s one of the listening stations on the South Coast. I could not decipher the precise time, but I think we can safely assume that this was the date the message was intercepted.”

“How does that help us?”

“Well, to decrypt it we need the complete text, or at least more of it. Now we know where to look it up in the archive, a task for Molly tomorrow. Jennifer scribbled down these letters and the reminder of the reception date in a hurry, meaning something about them struck her as odd. I assume it has to do with the virtually identical two lines, but it’s impossible to say more without the rest of the message. There is nothing we can do with it tonight, so you might as well get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be another long day, and I must see to my regular job now.”

“Very well,” says John reluctantly. “Let me get you some tea, at least, and something to eat, perhaps. Also, how on earth can you sit through an eight hour shift without needing the loo?”

At this, Sherlock’s bladder which he has indeed ignored gives a twinge. “Actually, I should go there now.”

John shakes his head and smiles fondly. “You codebreakers need looking after like toddlers,” he comments. “One begins to doubt you can tie your own shoe-laces.”

“Perhaps,” replies Sherlock airily as he gets to his feet and stretches, feeling his joints creak and pop. “Although what we do here is not exactly child’s play.”

“Definitely not,” agrees John, gazing critically at his own attempt at decrypting a message, the notes and books which are spread all over the table. “I feel as if my brain has been sucked out of my head and been replaced with cotton-wool. Come on, let’s get some fresh air and you to the privy, before something embarrassing happens.”

 

Chapter Text

After a brief but admittedly necessary visit to the toilet, Sherlock lets John buy him a cup of tea and a bowl of stew (mostly potato, parsnip and carrot, lacks onions, but there has been a shortage of those lately thanks to the Channel Islands and Brittany being occupied by the Germans). Sherlock is still more than mildly surprised that he endures John’s fussing, a trait he normally only tolerates in Mrs. Hudson and her sister, and even in them only to a certain extend. No, to his astonishment he realises he actually appreciates John’s care, particularly because John is both genuine and humorous about it. Never before has someone tried to joke with Sherlock. What humour was formerly aimed at him wasn’t funny at all, at least not in his opinion. It was expressed in hurtful jests and taunts, in jeers and pranks that were geared towards embarrassing and publicly humiliating him, going as far as incorporating ‘practical jokes’ that hurt him physically. People rarely laughed with him, they laughed about him, and not because he had done anything witty, funny or clever, but because he had been tricked into what in their twisted minds they construed as humour or worse, entertainment. He had loathed and feared them for it, particularly back at school where there had been no escape from their malice with even the prefects joining in, and the head of house turning a blind eye on their cruelty. Eventually, Sherlock had learned to harden himself against the rough treatment by his peers until he was able to stoically endure their brand of merriment and avoid falling prey to their more cruel ‘jokes’. By that time he had also found ways of subtly but effectively retaliating, mostly by using his wits instead of his fists. It had made life at school more tolerable, yet it had also isolated him from the other boys to the point of being labelled ‘The Freak’ and shunned.

But this is different. He enjoys John’s gentle digs at his ‘otherness’. Didn’t John even call him incredible and mean it as a compliment? And he’s given him a gift, a very thoughtful, precious and useful gift. Sherlock’s hand curls around the magnifier in his pocket at he spoons up his stew, feeling warm all over which he suspects has little to do with the meal. He carefully avoids looking at John who he knows is watching with a fond but also tired expression. Sherlock is convinced were he to return the other’s gaze, he’d blush even more vividly. So he concentrates on eating, hoping the added tinge to his cheeks appears as if it is caused by his hot meal.

Once again he asks himself what is wrong with him. He isn’t usually like this: emotional, appreciative of another’s attention, jealous when it’s bestowed elsewhere, and blushing – blushing, for God’s sake – like a silly, hormone-addled adolescent. This won’t do. It’s bound to affect the work before long. Perhaps it’s all to the best that John is about to return to their quarters and thus with his absence grant Sherlock some respite from his muddled thoughts and feelings.

 

<o>

 

Well, that at least is the plan. Sherlock finds it difficult to concentrate once he is back in the poorly ventilated hut. It’s impossible not to think of the doctor while sorting through John’s notes. Only with some effort he forces himself to consider the actual content of John’s speculations instead of further analysing the handwriting in order to gain a better understanding of the fascinating enigma that constitutes John Watson.

Eventually, however, Sherlock manages to discipline his thoughts and devote himself fully to work. Although John hasn’t been able to crack the code of his message, some of his jotted down musings are helpful to Sherlock. About two hours later, he has both decoded and translated the message without even having to bother with working out the key settings and rotor positions for a Bombe treatment. Cribbing alone did the trick. The content of the message itself seems moderately important: simple comparisons of depth and speed in various underwater currents from one U-boat to another (U-18, Type IIB, commander Kapitänsleutnant Vogelsang, and U-19, both seemingly of the same flotilla), but without giving their exact positions. From what he has understood of the message, though, Sherlock doubts the U-boats are stationed in the North Atlantic any longer as exchanges intercepted previously from these submarines implied they had been transferred away from their Norwegian post. The nautical data seems more congruent with what is known about conditions in the Baltic, but Sherlock is going to leave the actual analysis of the data to the Naval Intelligence experts at the Admiralty.

What makes the message interesting apart from the actual information it contains, however, are the abbreviations of common German nautical terms that the radio operators used. Sherlock makes a list and adds it to the one they keep with the German grammar books and dictionaries.

 

<o>

 

The rest of the night passes slowly and tediously, as nocturnal shifts often do. The number of people working the nightshift is similar to dayshifts, the staffing calculated so that there is no decrease in output and work efficiency, nevertheless the workplace is much quieter. Nobody is inclined to talk or hum a tune. For long periods of time the only sounds are the scratches and scribbles of pencils on hard surfaces, and the shifting and shuffling of sheets of paper. Occasionally footsteps sound on the worn linoleum floors, accompanied by a creak of wooden boards underneath them. There’s the odd scrape of a chair, or a cough or rustle of cloth, or the greedy draught on a cigarette after it’s been first lit. Occasionally, a soft sigh is heard, or a curse, depending on the respective codebreaker’s progress on his or her message.

Sherlock is used to these soft noises, even though usually he barely registers them with his mind focused on his work. Tonight, however, he feels his attention drift until the sounds become distractions. His thoughts stray to Jennifer Wilson and the fascinating case of her demise. He mulls over her encrypted note again, he wonders about the mysterious car and the elusive Jim, Jenny’s friend. And he thinks about John Watson – far more, he realises during yet another spell of gazing unseeingly at the black cloth darkening the window – than he ought to.

 

<o>

 

At about six in the morning the dark curtains are drawn back and the shutters are removed from the windows which are then cast open for a brief spell to finally air out the stuffy interior of the hut. Clouds of smoke from pipes and cigarettes and the infernal coke stoves drift out (they’re already in operation because the nights tend to get rather cold if one sits at a desk all the time, even though September has only just begun). There is a general stirring and stretching, rising and sighing and breathing, with a number of people stepping outside to catch a few rays of early sunlight and organise themselves a cup of strong coffee to bridge the remaining two hours until the end of the shift and breakfast time.

A quarter of an hour later, the first Enigma messages of the day trundle in, brought by messengers and already pre-sorted and colour-coded according to their reception time and origin. Sherlock’s tray fills up quickly, and after another visit to the toilet and half a cup of coffee pilfered from Milner-Barry’s personal supply, he grimly attacks the stack of messages.

 

<o>

 

When eight o’clock approaches, his head feels like John described his own the previous evening: stuffed with cottonwool. He has worked double shifts before, quite often, in fact, but apparently he still has not regained his old stamina and capacity for concentration and absolute absorption in his work after his illness. He’s exhausted, his shoulders and back are stiff and aching, and he feels the faint throb of a headache approaching.

Gratefully, he relinquishes his post to a young, pale-faced trainspotter fresh out of Cambridge (Peterhouse, read mathematics, builds model trains and aeroplanes in his spare time and has yet to work up the courage to ask out the red-headed clerk with the collection of lipsticks he’s been infatuated with for some time). Sherlock mounts his bicycle outside the hut. The ride to Buckingham Road revives him somewhat, particularly when as he rounds a corner with some speed, he nearly collides with a brightly coloured pheasant that has been promenading along the middle of the road. He curses the stupid creature at it flutters away with an annoyed cackle. At the same time he feels grateful for the rush of adrenaline that washes away some of his tiredness and floods his mind with new energy.

 

<o>

 

Like the previous morning, he finds the inhabitants of number 278 assembled around the breakfast table. This time, he eagerly joins them, smiling at John until he notices the shrewd look Mrs. Hudson gives him. Sherlock forces himself to concentrate on his porridge and toast instead. He is eager to talk to John about their plans for today and what further thoughts he’s had concerning the Wilson case during the night, but of course he can’t, not in front of their landladies.

He finds Mrs. Turner watching him critically as he thirstily gulps down another cup of tea. She and her sister shake their heads after exchanging a worried, disapproving glance.

“You look really tired, Sherlock dear,” tuts Mrs. Turner. “I hope you won’t have to rush off again immediately after breakfast. I’m sure that Dr. Watson here will agree that you need some rest. You boys really work too hard at this factory. It’s all for the war effort, I’m sure, but they really shouldn’t let you do double shifts. I’ll run you a bath after you’re finished here, and then you should sleep for a few hours.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes, at which Mrs. Turner tuts some more and shakes her head gravely. He has to admit, however, that both the bath and the idea of sleep sound tempting. He really is going soft, it seems. Soft in the head, too, crammed full of John-related thoughts as it seems to have been lately. God, is this what normal people have to cope with all the time? How do they manage? This is awful.

“I’ll be around, should the police show up again,” John assures him. “And I agree with Mrs. Turner, you really need a rest if you want to be fit for tonight.”

Sherlock sighs in defeat, before reconsidering John’s statement. “Again?” he enquires. “Do you mean the police has been here, too?”

Mrs. Turner nods. “They passed by yesterday when they escorted poor Miss Hooper home. They came in and asked a few questions about yesterday morning. The detective inspector was very nice and proper, like one would imagine an officer from Scotland Yard to behave, not like our plodding constables from town. He said they might be back should they have more questions. They were very strict about us not mentioning what happened to anybody else. Apparently they want to keep the matter under wraps until they know more, which I believe is very wise. People like to spread all kinds of silly talk round here. Good thing they didn’t arrive in a marked police car. The neighbours would have a field day if they’d recognised the coppers showing up here.”

Sherlock casts a quick glance at John who suppresses a grin, likely sharing Sherlock’s estimation about the identity of the greatest gossips in the vicinity. But John checks himself, apparently considering a grin inappropriate for a sad topic like a young woman’s death. Sherlock, however, finds this trait of the doctor’s, this hint of dark, wicked, somewhat indecorous humour utterly appealing.

“Oh, I do hope they find out what happened to that poor, poor girl,” goes on Mrs. Turner, unaware of the silent exchange between the two men. “Dr. Watson told us how you found her. So sad, to have someone so young and lovely perish like that.”

She sighs as a shadow of grief passes over her face, likely because she is reminded of her son’s untimely departure. Under the sombre gaze of her sister, she takes a sip of her tea, before brightening up again with the startling speed of the indefatigable optimist that Sherlock knows her to be. “I also heard you’re planning to attend a concert tonight, aren’t you, Sherlock dear? How lovely. It’s about time you got out more and started enjoying your time here, instead of only working day in and day out. It’s commendable, how much you devote yourself to the war effort despite not fighting actively, but there are more things to life than serving one’s King and country.”

Mrs. Hudson nods in agreement. “So true,” she says. “I’d have loved to go myself for a bit of dancing, but with my hip ... The way they dance nowadays, it’s so very fast and sporty. Lindy Hop and Jitterbug and how they’re all called. Not like it was when we were young. Anyway, you boys will enjoy yourselves, I’m sure. You’re still young and spritely.”

Mrs. Turner nods, smiling benevolently. “There are bound to be plenty of pretty girls about, from what one hears. All wanting to have a good time, as well they might, what with the war and everything. One has to enjoy the fun while it lasts, that’s what I always say.” You dont, thinks Sherlock, suppressing the urge to roll his eyes when Mrs. Turner suggestively wiggles her eyebrows at John and Sherlock, at which the former blushes. Sherlock heaves a sigh.

How much about ‘girls are not my area’ didn’t they understand when he told them last time? He thought he’d been pretty clear about it. Or had they been confused by Molly’s visit? Well, it’s their problem if they continue to entertain the notion that he is looking for female companionship (any companionship, really, although John’s is turning out to be not only tolerable but … good) and worse, romance. He has other things on his mind, important things. He’s going to attend the dance solely to investigate what he is still convinced is a murder. He definitely isn’t interested in socialising or engaging in romantic activities with nondescript females. And as for dancing ... well, that is a slightly different matter, one which doesn’t bear thinking about right now.

He steals a furtive glance at John and feels a stab in his chest. Surely, now that the doctor isn’t bothered by his limp any longer he’s going to dance. Sherlock doesn’t consider him to be much at home with fast swing and jive, but John looks like he can pull off a decent foxtrot, even a tango or waltz. John with his easy charm and rugged good looks, not to mention the added bonus of his title and his naval background would generally be considered a good catch, and John doesn’t seem above flirting a bit and seems to be actively enjoying the company of women who adore him in turn. And good for him. Why shouldn’t he enjoy himself when he goes out? He’s certainly seen enough pain and darkness and heartbreak in his life and still manages to keep his spirits up.

Feeling keen eyes on him, Sherlock becomes aware of Mrs. Hudson giving him a shrewd look over the rim of her teacup while her sister prattles on about dancing and what she thinks of this new-fangled swing music with its jumps and bounces. “Boys tossing girls high up into the air and catching them again, and swirling them about so that their skirts fly up and everyone can see their knickers. Oh, I’m not sure if that’s good and proper. They do seem to be enjoying themselves, these young folks, as well they might, but one shouldn’t overdo it and get carried away so that they forget all propriety.”

John smiles good-naturedly at this. “Oh come now, Mrs. Turner, don’t tell me you didn’t excel at dancing ragtime, jazz or the Charleston when you were younger. Weren’t they considered wild and inappropriate dances back when you were our age?” He lowers his voice conspiratorially and even has the audacity to wink at her. “I can quite imagine you with fashionably bobbed hair and a glittering flapper dress, dancing all night with a handsome beau before you met Mr. Turner.”

She blushes at this while her sister giggles knowingly. “Oh, Dr. Watson, I think you’ve found me out.”

John laughs. “If you still have some of the old records, we should do a dance in the garden at some point. My sister taught me the Charleston, but I haven’t danced it in a long time.”

“Ooh yes, that would be lovely. Perhaps Sherlock can join in and improvise on his violin if he doesn’t want to dance as well. He certainly has a dancer’s figure and can move very gracefully if he wants to, although usually he prefers to slouch in his chair like he does now.”

Sherlock sits up straight, suddenly aware of John’s eyes on him. In fact, John is regarding Sherlock with a long, appraising glance that sends strange, tingly sparks all over Sherlock’s skin. It makes him feel self-conscious and awkward in a way he hasn’t felt since late school and university, where he found himself the object (victim) of similar gazes and was openly labelled disproportionate, freakish and unattractive. But strangely, John doesn’t seem to dislike what he sees. On the contrary, there is a faint smile playing round the corners of his mouth and even sparkling in his dark-blue eyes. Sherlock isn’t sure – at the moment, under this close scrutiny, he feels that his mind is somehow not working at full capacity, but that may also be caused by his exhaustion – but there might even be a trace of something dangerous there, predatory even. Wanting? Or perhaps, he reasons, when reasoning becomes an option again since John’s gaze has strayed to the safer territory of his hands, all of this is just wishful thinking. Is it? Does he wish for John to regard him that way, as someone beautiful, desirable, even?

Molly Hooper’s futile, superficial infatuation aside, Sherlock is convinced he has never been considered handsome before. He knows he is odd-looking. His face and body are both strangely proportioned. His head is too large, his body too thin and lanky with long legs and a relatively short torso. His shoulders are rather narrow for his height, and despite his lean build his hips are quite broad next to his slim waist, and his posterior is more copious than what seems desirable in a man. His verdigris eyes have been described as alien-looking and off-putting, his lips are too large and feminine, his cheekbones too pronounced, and his unruly curls have a wild life of their own and can barely be tamed even with the strongest pomade (therefore he doesn’t bother with it). No, he definitely cannot be considered handsome or even masculine in the general sense. Not that he ever wanted to be seen this way.

He’s not built the way John Watson is: ruggedly handsome, well-proportioned, a bit on the short side but he makes up for that effortlessly with his charm and his smile and his blue eyes. Unlike Sherlock, whose attractiveness decreases in people’s eyes the very moment they consider him more closely. Sherlock knows that as soon as he opens his mouth, most people who might have looked beyond his unusual countenance are instantly put off by his bluntness, and by the evidence of his superior intellect which many seem to find creepy. He has learned to pretend to be sociable. He can even be charming when he needs to be, which he has found lulls people into overlooking his perceived deficiencies in appearance and character. But having someone look at him and find him beautiful, inside and outside ... well, he cannot recall having experienced that before. For a long time he convinced himself that he didn’t even want to experience it, that he was above these things, adoration, desire, demands of the body and the heart. But now … has something changed? Has he changed? How, and why, and why now?

Sherlock’s throat feels dry of a sudden and the makes a lunge for his teacup to take a gulp. This matter needs introspection. A lot of it. But not now. Dimly, be becomes aware that Mrs. Turner has been going on to John about Sherlock’s proficiency with the violin, and he forces his mind and attention back to the present. John is listening to his landlady’s description with rapt interest, his gaze alternating between Sherlock and Mrs. Turner.

“You don’t say, Mrs. Turner?” he manages to interrupt her lavish account at one point when even she has to stop for air. He looks at Sherlock and smiles broadly at him. “Well, Sherlock, I believe I will have to persuade you to play for me at some point. I don’t recall you mentioned this skill before. I’m not very musical myself. I learned to play the clarinet at school, but never practised enough to become proficient at it.”

“Well, Sherlock here can play lovely music when he wants to,” puts in Mrs. Hudson who has been listening to her sister’s excited description with a fond smile which Sherlock only now becomes aware of (and scolds himself for the oversight immediately), watching their two lodgers carefully. “Although the first time he did play, it happened in the middle of the night and I was woken by it believing the cats were whining and howling again outside. Hattie used to get into all kinds of nasty fights with the neighbours’ cat until she managed to teach her a lesson. But it hadn’t been Hattie or Mrs. Tiger exchanging blows, but Sherlock here sawing away on his violin in the middle of the bloody night. I had to get up and bang on his door a little to make him switch to some real music. Two days later, Mr. Carlson, the other lodger who’d previously rented your room, Dr. Watson, moved out for good.”

She gives Sherlock a pointed look. “Mrs. Hudson, you said yourself you thought he was weird and somewhat unpleasant because he insisted on bathing every day and yet left pomade stains on his pillows,” Sherlock defends his actions. “I do recall you commending me for getting rid of him. You said you were glad he was gone.”

She reaches out to pat his hand. “Of course, dear, I did, although we could have done with the extra rent and food coupons, you see. But now that Dr. Watson has moved in all is well again. Even better now, I daresay. He doesn’t use pomade, so the pillows stay nice and clean. Also, he repaired the chicken fence this morning, and he suggested some poultice for my hip that really seems to be helping, unlike the medication Dr. Mansfield prescribed. I’m still convinced his were mere sugar pills.”

John smiles at the praise. “I’m glad to be of help, Mrs. Hudson. And I don’t think I could have found better accommodation than this place.” His eyes meet Sherlock’s, and the latter feels another bolt of heat shoot through his body, causing blood to rush into his cheeks so that he has to avert his eyes quickly and pretend to need more tea right now.

 

<o>

 

True to his word, John promises to help out in the garden while Sherlock has his bath and nap. Some apples require plucking, and the brambles eating up the rear fence of the garden need to be trimmed and their berries picked to make more jam. After the strange goings on at the breakfast table Sherlock’s head is still whirring with questions, but after a good long soak in hot water during which he mulls over the same thoughts and impressions over and over again without reaching any satisfying conclusion, he finds his transport demanding the rest he has denied it for so long.

His limbs feel loose and relaxed, and his body warm and comfortable from the bath when he sinks into the crisp cool sheets of his bed. He hasn’t bothered with donning his pyjamas as the air is mild. The window of his room is open. A soft breeze smelling of sun-warmed lawn and ripe apples wafts over him and makes the lacy curtain flutter. A soft meow followed by the thump of a compact body announces the arrival of Hattie as she jumps onto his bed, walks in a circle round herself a few times and then curls up next to his feet on top of the edge of the blanket. Normally, he’d chase her away, knowing that inevitably she is going to meander up to his face while he is sleeping. He doesn’t fancy waking up with his nose full of cat hair again, nor open his eyes to be met by her disapproving stare and almost suffer a heart attack from the surprise at her proximity. She used to sleep on his chest when he was sick and he was too weak to care, but afterwards he made sure to get rid of her when he went to bed.

But right now he feels too lazy and comfortable to even stir. He falls asleep to her soft purr underscoring the twitter of tits and finches outside his window, accompanied by the clip of John’s shears as he attacks the brambles, and the whistling of a soft tune as the doctor works. Sherlock is amazed that he can tolerate John’s whistling. Normally, people attempting to pipe a tune annoy him tremendously because his ears seem automatically drawn to all the wrong and discordant notes that creep into their melodies. Perhaps John is exceptionally good at whistling, or else the distance makes his music more bearable. And at least he is able to hold a distinctive tune without too many mistakes. All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor, Sherlock believes he recognises. Yes, he thinks as he drifts off with a smile, and some boys do so, too.

 

<o>

 

He is woken by a soft knock on his door. Drowsily, he tries to turn over, and realises that Hattie has settled between his shoulder blades and is effectively pressing him into mattress. “Get off, Hattie,” he mutters into his pillow, managing to turn his head to see the door opening a sliver and John’s blond head peeking in.

“Hullo, Sherlock, sorry for waking you.” He steps into the room and grins when he takes in Sherlock’s sleeping arrangement.” Walking over to the bed, he deftly picks up Hattie and settles her into his arms, stroking her head at which she begins to purr contentedly. Sherlock turns and scrambles into a sitting position, aware that he must look utterly dishevelled with his hair a complete riot and the weave of the pillow imprinted on his cheek. At least he hasn’t drooled too much, it seems. Normally, he isn’t much concerned about his looks, and surely John has seen people in worse states of disarray in his capacity as a doctor. Still, Sherlock feels a bit wrong footed letting himself be seen like this.

“What time is it?” he rumbles, his voice still sleep-rough while he sits up against the headboard and makes a half-hearted attempt at taming his fringe with his fingers.

“Almost four,” John tells him. “Molly telephoned from the Park. She was here briefly some time before noon on her way over there. I was sorting apples outside, and I filled her in about what you deciphered last night. She sounded rather excited on the phone just now and asked if we could come over. She didn’t want to tell me more about what’s going on. I think she didn’t want others to overhear her. There was a bit of a din in the background. Perhaps she’s found the complete message. I told her we’d be there at five. I thought we could get ready for tonight now and perhaps grab some dinner at the canteen, and head over to the concert afterwards.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” says Sherlock appreciatively, casting back the blanket and getting out of bed. “I need to see what I can do about tomorrow’s shifts, too. Depending on what we find out this evening, I might need a free day tomorrow.”

“You could always call in sick,” John tells him matter-of-factly as he walks over to the window to release a squirming Hattie onto the sill where she sits tense and cackling, watching the birds in the nearby apple-tree.

“That’s not so easy,” puts in Sherlock.

“Well, I’m a doctor,” John shrugs nonchalantly. “If I tell people you’re sick and order bed rest, who’s going to contest my medical expertise?”

“And if I don’t stay abed?”

“Even patients need fresh air,” declares John, grinning as he watches Hattie make sounds at the birds, her tail swishing excitedly, her ears twitching. Sherlock laughs. He’s always considered himself a bit of a rule-breaker, but it seems John Watson is beating him at this game.

John turns, watching Sherlock as he crosses his room to his wardrobe to find adequate attire for the evening.

“How long were you ill?” asks John quietly from where he stands. “When you really were, I mean. Pneumonia, wasn’t it?”

Sherlock straightens and turns to him, aware of the fact that he is only wearing a thin cotton vest and drawers. Suddenly, he feels rather naked, despite knowing that John must have seen countless people in states of greater undress, both in medical situations and … others.

He squares his shoulders after a quick glance at his reflection in the mirrored door of the wardrobe, trying to assess his body with the eyes of a doctor, as John is seeing him now. He knows he is still too thin, despite having always been on the lean side. His collar-bones stand out starkly as do some of his ribs. What muscles he has in arms and legs are defined more by absence of surrounding insulation than by their actual size. Apart from his lower arms, a small vee of chest and his nose, his skin is too pale. Usually even he acquires a faint freckly tan in summertime (or he burns spectacularly). No, he concludes, he doesn’t look too well.

“About a month,” replies Sherlock. “I spent a fortnight in hospital after collapsing at work. Afterwards I was condemned to bed rest here. I almost perished from boredom and from the two ladies’ constant fussing. You can only fluff up one’s pillow so much, I guess. They almost drowned me in tea and concern.”

John nods gravely, but grins all the same. “I can imagine,” he says. “Good thing you stopped smoking, though. It wouldn’t have done your lungs any favours – not that the air in those huts is very conductive to recovering from a respiratory disease.”

Sherlock shrugs. “Sometimes, I still crave it, but I reckon it’s mostly the habit now that I miss, not the actual nicotine, although I do believe that it improved my mental capacities. Smoking, I mean.”

John smiles. “I doubt that, actually, as clever as you are without the aid of poisons. Perhaps you could start chewing gum when the craving gets bad, however,” he suggests, before, abruptly, he pushes himself away from the windowsill he has been leaning against, as if suddenly becoming aware that he has been staring at Sherlock all this time. “Well, I guess you’ll be needing the bathroom first. Knock on my door when you’re done.”

He gives Hattie’s back a swift pat, then with another quick and strangely bashful smile at Sherlock he walks past him and out of the door. Sherlock is left to gaze after him, not knowing what to make of the scene. But then, John Watson is quickly becoming the greatest riddle he’s ever set himself to solve. Enigma and even mighty Lorenz are mere trifles in comparison.

Shaking his head, he busies himself with his clothes again.

 

<o>

 

A short while later, clad in a fresh shirt and, for a change, a waistcoat, with his jacket slung over his shoulder, Sherlock descends the stairs. Mrs. Turner spots him from the kitchen and smiles at him appreciatively.

“Oh, look at you. You look so smart, even without a tie – but I know how you dislike those. Oh, and here is Dr. Watson.”

Sherlock turns to see that John has donned a fresh shirt, too, and is arrayed in a steel-grey three piece suit with a dark blue patterned tie. His hair looks a bit tamer than usual, and is glinting like dark gold in the rays of the sun falling through the open front door. He looks … good. Sherlock secretly hoped that he might don his naval uniform tonight, despite knowing that this would have been hardly practical. He is perfectly happy with the current attire, though, while at the same time wondering why he concerns himself with his housemate’s clothing in the first place.

“Ready?” asks John. Sherlock nods, and together they set out.

 

<o>

 

The ride to the park passes in companionable silence. The roads are busy with many people travelling to and from “Station X”. Two of the official buses overtake them, enveloping them in a cloud of diesel smoke and dust. After a short period of queuing while the sentries check each arrival’s papers, they enter the park and head towards the canteen. Sherlock spots Molly Hooper sitting on the a stretch of lawn next to it, in the company of two other girls he recognises as TypeX clerks from Hut 8, colleagues of Molly.

As she spots the men arriving, Molly quickly gets up, brushing grass clippings from her dress (dark blue one-piece dress with a daisy pattern, new, once worn, more suited for dancing than the usual, more demure skirt and blouse combination, but less daring than the dresses the two other girls wear. The dress of the tall brunette is fashioned of bias-cut rayon colour-coordinated with her burgundy lipstick and is rather tight and low-cut. Like the dress of her friend, it is obviously geared towards attracting men interested in more than dancing tonight). A brief flash of an idea races through Sherlock’s mind as he notices her lipstick, some spark of memory, but it vanishes before he can grasp and reevaluate the thought, and he returns to studying Molly and her companions.

Apparently, both she and the two other women have planned ahead as John and Sherlock and have already donned their evening attire. All three girls have gone to some lengths of styling their hair into elaborate curls and waves, and the case of the shorter, blonde woman, accentuating it with a bow.

“Oh hello, John, Sherlock,” Molly greets them, flushing slightly as she takes in their attire. The two others unabashedly check out the two men as well, which John seems to find flattering since he stands up a little taller after fussing briefly with his hair. Sherlock cannot help rolling his eyes. “Perhaps you already know each other,” Molly goes on, speaking towards the two women, “but this is Sherlock Holmes, and this Dr. John Watson from the Royal Navy. Sherlock, John, these are Jeannine and Mary. They’re from Hut 8 where we work together.”

“Oh,” croons Jeannine the brunette, speaking with a faint Irish lilt, “we’ve seen you around. Pity you’re not in uniform today, Dr. Watson. You created quite a bit of talk when you arrived two days ago.” She winks at John who smiles back good-naturedly.

“It’s not really suitable for dancing, you see,” he replies. “Moreover, I’d have thought that you’d already seen your fill of men in uniform in this place.”

Jeannine giggles. “Well, that’s true. Commander Denniston cuts a lovely figure in dark blue, as do some of the other naval officers. The soldiers aren’t too bad, either. And do you remember that one RAF fellow, with the jaunty head, Mary? Anyway, one never tires of a handsome sailor, eh? How about we try and get some tea or coffee in the canteen and you tell us a bit about your seafaring adventures while we leave the boffins here to chat among themselves,” she adds with a meaningful yet benevolent glance at Molly and Sherlock.

“Yes,” adds Mary, leaning closer to John conspiratorially, “Molly has been dying to talk to Sherlock. She’s been out of sorts since yesterday. Let’s leave them to it.” At this, she deftly takes the bicycle out of John’s hands to deposit it against a nearby tree, to then thread her arm through his, with Jeannine doing so on his other side, and gently manhandling him towards the canteen.

Still holding on to his own bike, Sherlock gazes after them until a soft giggle causes him to turn to Molly. “You should see your face,” she tells him. “You look like they’re about to eat him and you will be required to come to his rescue. They’re a bit direct, I grant you that, and certainly enjoy a charming man’s company, but they’re not dragons about to devour a damsel in distress, just two girls out for a bit of fun. I’m sure he can look after himself. Also, it doesn’t seem to me that he’s entirely unhappy about their company. They’re both smart girls. Mary speaks four languages, even Russian. She’s wasted on the TypeX machines, really. As are we all.”

When Sherlock still stands scowling, Molly steps closer to him and bumps his shoulder lightly. He gazes at her with some irritation. She’s never been so forward before. As if sensing his bewilderment, she takes a step away from him again.

“Come on, cheer up,” she says gently. Glancing up at him, suddenly her expression changes and she looks in the direction of the canteen where the three others have vanished. Cocking her head slightly, her eyes narrow as she regards Sherlock.

Aware of her sudden focus, Sherlock frowns at her. “What?” he demands, more crossly than he intends.

Molly blushes and casts her eyes down. “Nothing.”

“Molly,” he says warningly.

She swallows, looking up at him again with some defiance. “It’s just, that gaze, I recognise it. I guess I’ve looked at you that way, many times. I mean, you’re so perceptive even if you’re rather oblivious of human nature – and feelings – in general. But despite that, you must have noticed that … I mean …,” she draws a deep breath. “That I like you. A lot.” She holds up a hand when he is about to interject.

“No, don’t say it. I know you don’t feel the same way. For a long time, I thought you weren’t even capable, or at least not interested. Not in me nor anybody else. I mean, most people have … dalliances in this place eventually. I know a couple of girls who even got engaged to men here at the park, or who at least acquired steady boyfriends. Comes from working together so closely under so much pressure, perhaps, and not knowing how things are going to end, with the war. Anyway, you never … I mean, you didn’t even have friends until recently. You barely talked to other people, and I know for a fact that others only tolerate you, but don’t like working together with you because they are either intimidated, or insulted, or … I don’t know. They simply don’t know how to deal with you. You’re usually on your own, and you never seemed to mind, although you did look a bit sad when you thought nobody could see you. Or not sad, perhaps. Just … lonely, maybe. Not knowing how to connect with the others.”

Sherlock draws breath to interrupt, but she cuts across him and goes on at nervous speed. “And then he comes along and all of a sudden it’s like someone has turned a switch. You smile more, you eat more, you talk civilly without insulting people as soon as you open you mouth. And you look as if you’re about to explode when other people whisk Dr. Watson away. As if he’s your property, your own personal friend. As if you’re jealous that they get to talk to him, too, or worse, touch him.”

She bites her lip but still manages to face up to Sherlock steadily. “I don’t want to assume anything. But … I mean … you seem to enjoy his company. A lot. And good for you. He’s a good, capable man, and he does look rather fetching. And perhaps I’m babbling complete nonsense now. It’s just as I said. I recognised that look.”

Her blush intensifies under Sherlock’s relentless glare, and she casts her eyes down again and begins to fiddle with the clasp of her stylish yet altogether impractical handbag. “I guess I’ll better shut up now,” she mutters, looking mortified, as if her tongue has run away with her (which likely it has), and she has divulged thoughts she never meant to speak out loud, least of all to Sherlock.

“Yes, that’d be for the best,” he agrees quietly, his head reeling with the implications of her speech. Is he really this transparent? Hell, he hasn’t even worked out for himself what effect John Watson has on him. And here is Molly Hooper, quiet, demure, unspectacular Molly Hooper who has been infatuated with him for some time now, telling him to his face that she observed that he … what? In his confusion, he simply has to ask.

“Are you implying that I am … infatuated with John Watson?” he blurts out. “That’s preposterous.”

“I’m not implying anything,” she returns, facing up to him steadily after apparently having recovered her courage. “I’m just saying that the way you’re looking at him seems familiar. To be honest, it makes you look a bit like an idiot. Besotted, that’s the right term, I think. I know, because I’m sure I’ve looked at you the same way, repeatedly.”

Sherlock is baffled, both at her courage and her directness. Needless to say, he’d never have expected this from her, neither her admittance for her unrequited, rather hopeless feelings for him (and why is he suddenly feeling guilty about those, it’s not his fault or really his problem that she’s chosen him to fall in love with), nor her uncanny, unprecedented ability to read him. Is this how other people feel when he deduces them? He feels uncomfortably transparent of a sudden, like a plaintext message when formerly everything was doubly and triply coded. And her implication that he looks at John the way she used to look at him … good God, he must be far gone indeed if that were the case. He hopes she is mistaken, because if she can read him like plaintext, so, surely, can John.

“You are calling me an idiot,” he states indignantly, to hide his alarm and mounting embarrassment. “Me?”

She bites her lip again, and suddenly she is grinning. “Yes, I think I am. Because you are. Because all men are, that’s what I learned in this place. Because you don’t even seem to realise what’s going on with you. I may not know a lot about love and romance and all that, but I bet I know a lot more than you, and not just from novels and films, but from first hand experience.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrow. This is getting more awkward by the minute, and his head reels from all he has heard. He’s rarely felt so wrong-footed and out of his depth in his entire life, not even during that one, not-quite-deleted-and-inconveniently-coming-up-occasionally instance when he had to kiss a witness in order to make her reveal her knowledge in a jewel theft, the only time he ever kissed another person and which made him decide that he wasn’t going to repeat the experience any time soon, if ever again in his life.

He draws himself up haughtily. “I certainly won’t need any ‘first hand experience’ to know that what you are accusing me of it completely off the point.” One of her eyebrows quirks at this but she refrains from commenting.

“Moreover,” goes on Sherlock, speaking sharply while trying to steer the conversation onto safer, more familiar ground, “all this has no bearing whatsoever on what concerns us at the moment, namely the investigation of Jennifer Wilson’s death. On the phone you announced that you had news. What is it? Did you find the message?”

Molly shakes her head, running a hand through her neatly arranged waves. “No, and that’s what’s odd. I spent a good deal of this morning and early afternoon asking my way round this place. Cautiously, of course, so as not to arouse suspicion. I learned where copies of both the en- and decrypted messages are indexed. Gaining access to this index was difficult. I pretended to work at Jenny’s station, with the teleprinters. Luckily, I’d managed to chat with one of her friends beforehand who’d filled me in a little as to how these things work. Oh, and no, I didn’t tell her about Jenny’s death. I said she’d fallen ill and wasn’t going to be able to come to work this week. I hope that was all right. I just … I don’t think to many people should know about what happened to her, not unless we can be sure that …”

She draws a deep breath.

“That she wasn’t murdered,” Sherlock finishes her sentence. “It was wise of you to tell her that,” he adds. “Good thinking, Molly.”

She gives him a brief smile and continues. “The police are trying to keep the investigation quiet, too, so it wasn’t just my idea. Anyway, I had to play dumb and pretend that we misplaced a couple of messages which subsequently turned up behind a radiator – much like the dead bat we found, you remember? Anyway, I told the clerks who look after the index that we didn’t know precisely what day they were from, only that they were fairly recent, and that I needed to compare the archived messages. At first they didn’t want to allow me access since I don’t have any authorisation to even know about the archive, but I told them a weepy story about how I would get into terrible trouble if my neglect was found out. I didn’t even have to act so much to let the tears come. I simply thought of Jenny and … Anyway, the clerks’ overseer had pity on me and told me to hurry, which I did.

“Before I’d arrived at the park this morning, I’d passed by your house. Perhaps John mentioned it. You were asleep, but John told me what you’d found out about the message last night, so I knew what to look for in the archive. I found the right file containing Saturday’s intercepts from the listening station Jenny had marked on her note, and quickly compared the cyphers, but there was none matching our snippet of code. I checked Friday and Sunday, too, and Saturday of last week. Nothing. One of the clerks saw me leafing through the files and joined me. I was anxious, but she only wanted to help. She assumed I was having trouble understanding their indexing system and didn’t know where to file the messages I’d brought with me. When she opened the Saturday 31st file again, she frowned, and said something was odd there and that it seemed files were missing because she herself had added some long intercepts from Knockholt on that very day. The radio operators in Kent had already reported them as odd and worthy of particular attention, perhaps because they were so long and were sent one shortly after the other from the same enemy source. They were marked for immediate decoding upon arrival here. And now they were gone, without having been deciphered – or at least their decrypts had vanished, too. I asked the clerk who goes by the name of Dotty – Dorothy Myers, she said – whether she was going to report the instance, and she said she had to, but first she was going to have another look through the index and ask around whether anybody else had been at the file. Ultimately, she assured me, Mr. Tiltman was going to have to be informed of the matter, or at least be asked whether perhaps the messages were still with him. Sometimes, she said, the codebreakers were taking longer, especially with the Lorenz messages, and they weren’t returned immediately which didn’t make cross-indexing and archiving the messages any easier.”

Sherlock nods thoughtfully. For some reason, he isn’t suprised by the news about the vanished messages. He’s almost expected to hear that someone had been tampering with them. “And you are sure that ‘Dotty’ was referring to more than one message?”

“Intercepts, she said,” confirms Molly. “Plural, definitely. Why, do you think that’s important?”

“Oh yes. The more messages from the same source we have, the more material we get to work out the specific day’s settings. At least that’s how things work with Enigma codes, but I assume Lorenz to be similar if more complicated. We need to find those messages,” he states grimly.

Molly eyes him with some apprehension. “Do you think that someone … removed them? Stole them, perhaps? If so, why?”

“Because there is something odd about them. Even the radio operators at the listening station thought so. It must have been obvious to the eye, or else they wouldn’t have spotted it, considering how many messages they receive and take down every day. The messages were marked priority. I wonder if Tiltman and his colleagues ever received them, though.”

“But they must have, if copies were archived.”

“Not necessarily. The archiving of the received, still encrypted messages runs independently of the versions we codebreaker receive for our work. I’ll have to talk to Tiltman, and to those who worked with Jennifer on that day. It’s dangerous to formulate theories without all the evidence to hand, but I suspect that someone noticed the importance of the message and let it disappear, and also removed the copy from the archive. It seems that Jenny got wind of this and somehow managed to copy down some information, meaning that with some likelihood she knew that person.”

Molly sucks in a breath. She is pale of a sudden. “Do you believe she was murdered because of this message?”

“Again, too early to theorise. But it’s the best lead we have so far. But as for who is behind it, I’ve no idea. Oh, this is getting rather exciting,” he exclaims, clapping his hands against the handlebars of his bicycle.

Molly huffs. Taking in her stricken expression, Sherlock frowns. “Not good?” he ventures.

She shakes her head and swallows. “No, not particularly.”

He bites his lip. “I am sorry,” he offers quietly. Molly gives a curt nod before giving him a beady glance.

“No, you’re not. Not really. You love this, I know you do. It’s just … she was my friend, so excuse me for not being as delighted about her death as you are.”

“I’m not delighted about her death,” Sherlock defends himself. “I am excited about the mystery, but it needn’t have involved her demise. And it seems there are greater things at work here. Whoever is behind this, both her death and the disappearance of the messages, I doubt they are acting out of patriotic duty for King and country.”

Molly’s eyes widen at this. “You think there is an enemy spy at Bletchley Park?”

“It’s possible. Even probable. And I intend to find out.”

Molly gives him a long glance. “It’s going to be dangerous, isn’t it?”

“Very likely, yes.” He half expects her to nod and state that she’s out of it, but again Molly Hooper surprises him.

“All right then,” she says, and then, “Shall we go and join the others?” asks Molly. “I could do with a drink, and also we need to make sure that your doctor is still in one piece and not covered in lipstick and bite marks already.”

Sherlock scoffs at this, but cannot help joining in her smile. It seems he has underestimated Molly Hooper, has wrongly or at least incompletely deduced her in the past. Well, there is always something .… “Molly,” he therefore says, remaining stationary as she sets in motion.

She turns and glances at him. “Yes, Sherlock.”

He swallows. This is difficult, perhaps because it’s somewhat embarrassing to acknowledge that she’s seen right through him, and that her insight has in fact been not entirely unwelcome as it makes him see things clearer as well. “Thank you,” he manages.

She cocks her head questioningly, and he elaborates. “For helping with the investigation. Your contributions have been good so far, valuable. But I’d also like to thank you for being so frank about … things.”

“Things?”

Sherlock sighs. “What you said before. About you and me. And John.”

She gives a small nod. “You can make up for it by buying me some cake and coffee now and another drink this evening, and by not having a fit when I take your dashing doctor dancing tonight, if he’s amenable. I promise I’ll take good care of him. I’d ask you, but I doubt you dance.”

“Actually,” begins Sherlock.

“I know you don’t,” says Molly, already on her way towards the canteen. Sherlock reckons it’s for the best. Their awkward exchange has lasted far too long. Sherlock slings his jacket over his shoulder and slowly follows her, his head reeling with information, and, strangely, not exactly what she has been telling him about the missing messages. Its going to be a most interesting evening, he tells himself. As he opens the door of the canteen, he reminds himself sternly to concentrate on the case from now on instead of wasting precious mental capacity on pining (is it pining? How does one know if there hasnt really been a precedent in ones life? Anyway, pining seems to be a fitting – if somewhat embarrassing – term).

The resolution flies right out of the window when he steps inside the busy, noisy canteen and sees John with a laughing girl to both sides of him, his face animated and his eyes sparkling with mirth. Damn it all to hell, thinks Sherlock. How on earth is anybody supposed to concentrate with visuals like these? John Watson turns on the charm, shameless flirt that he is, and everybody in a mile’s radius swoons with butterflies in their tummies. And the worst of it … even Sherlock, cool, calculating, unaffected (hah!) Sherlock who for years and years prided himself on being above these mundane, distracting, annoying feelings doesn’t appear to be immune. He’s ensnared like the rest of them, like the Jeannines and Marys of this world.

Sherlock sighs as he stalks closer, just as John looks up and spots him. His merry laughter subsides, and his expression changes to one of quiet fondness. His smile, still present, turns calmer, and, Sherlock thinks, more genuine, private, almost a little bashful. Sherlock is not sure what to make of it, but he decides that he likes it, despite it making his heart beat a little faster – or perhaps because of it.

“The Shepherd’s Pie isn’t altogether bad,” says John, indicating a covered plate that apparently he’s fetched and set aside for Sherlock. “Should still be warm, too.”

Sherlock sits down opposite John and the two women who watch him with amused expressions as he uncovers his meal. “I don’t think I’ve actually seen you eat before,” states Jeannine, “you and the other boffins in the hut. Magnussen seems to live on tobacco alone. Ugh, that pipe of his. And some of the others only subsist on tea or coffee and cigarettes. That’s why they’re all so thin and willowy. That young fellow from Oxford, Liddell, he’s almost transparent in sunlight.”

Mary nods wisely at this. “Maybe they believe digestion slows them down,” she quips, at which Sherlock frowns, because that’s something he’s actually claimed now and again.

“Actually, that is a fact,” he states, and launches into a biological explanation at which the two women exchange bemused glances, seemingly finding all their theories about Bletchley’s boffins confirmed.

“I can tell you that not eating enough slows them down, at least in certain respects,” says Jeannine, causing Molly to blush as she arrives with her tray. “What is your medical opinion, Dr. Watson?”

“Of ‘certain respects’?” asks John innocently.

Jeannine laughs. “That too.”

Sherlock listens absently as they engage in some good-humoured banter. As he picks at his food, he tries not to stare at John all the time and mostly succeeds, a covert glance now and again notwithstanding. John seems to be enjoying himself, although from time to time he gazes at Sherlock, and there it is again, The Smile, as Sherlock has termed it for himself. He treasures every time he sees it directed at him.

Chapter Text

Even though he barely contributes to the lively conversation, being lost in thoughts about what Molly deduced about him, and what she told him about the missing messages, Sherlock finds that time passes quickly. After another round of tea and biscuits and some talk about the latest films and music, it’s time to get ready to head out to tonight’s venue. The women withdraw to the cloakroom to refresh their lipstick and do things with their hair, while John and Sherlock wait outside the canteen with their bicycles. Sherlock quickly fills John in on what Molly has told him about the missing transcript.

“What do we do now?” asks John, fiddling with his tie. “Without it, we’re stuck.”

“We must find out who took it,” muses Sherlock. “It appears to have been stolen, most likely destroyed or forwarded to interested parties, so nobody signed for it officially when they removed it. But whoever took it must have been seen. Even the archive is staffed round the clock. It’s likely that it was taken by somebody working at the place who wouldn’t have aroused suspicion by their presence. Still, we’ll have to ask round whether somebody spotted people at the archive other than the usual staff. Molly can do this. Also, there is a chance that a copy of the original message was stored elsewhere, either before it was forwarded to Bletchley, or when it arrived here and was prepared for processing by the codebreakers.”

“How do we find out about this?”

Sherlock bites his lip thoughtfully. “There are a few people we can ask. I’ll find Turing or Welchman. They may know. Or Tiltman, who’s responsible for the decryption of Lorenz intercepts.”

Tapping his lower lip with his index finger, he glances about until his gaze falls on the mansion peeking through the trees. “There may even be another source, although involving her might mean that we’ll have rather unwelcome attention before long.”

“Unwelcome attention? Of whom?”

Sherlock sighs. “My brother.” He makes up his mind. “John, you and the women go ahead to the dance. I’ll see if I can talk to Tiltman or the others and meet you there. I need to talk to my colleagues about tomorrow’s shift anyway, see if I can swap it.”

“Are you sure? Don’t want me to accompany you?” Yes, of course I want you to accompany me, thinks Sherlock, but he shakes his head.

“It’d be wiser to split up and have you check out the dance hall. You’re good at talking to people and making them feel at ease. Chat up some of the guests, find out what they know about Jim and his band, whether they are local, whether they’ve played round here before, these things. Tell Molly to keep her eyes open, too.”

John nods reluctantly. Sherlock notes this with some satisfaction. “All right.”

 

–<o>–

 

John Tiltman’s office is situated on the first floor of the mansion, in the old nursery. Sherlock cocks his eyebrows in wry amusement when he is bade to enter and his eyes fall on the interior decoration of the office. Apart from the usual desk, hatstand, shelves and filing cabinets, the room sports some rather unusual furnishings. The walls are still adorned with Peter Rabbit wallpaper, and in a corner where once a child’s bed must have stood, two model Great War aeroplanes are dangling from the ceiling, swaying slightly in the breeze that wafts through the open window.

Tiltman is a middle-aged man with military bearing. Memorabilia of wartime services rendered in France and India clutter the room, and his faint accent betrays his Scottish ancestry, although he was certainly raised and educated in England.

“I was expecting you, Mr. Holmes,” he greets Sherlock after the latter has closed the door. “Gordon and Alan mentioned your meeting with Commander Denniston. A pity I couldn’t be there, but I had to play tour guide to a party of our American friends. Do take a seat. Apologies for the clutter. We’re all going to need larger offices soon, if the war drags on like this. This place is about to burst.”

He indicates a chair laden with files, a stack of handwritten notes and technical drawings. Carefully, Sherlock sets them onto the floor and draws the chair to the desk, his eyes briefly skipping over what looks like plans for new buildings at Bletchley Park, and some Bombe-like machines.

Tiltman unbuttons his jacket and sits down in his desk chair. “I was sorry to hear about Miss Wilson’s death. I didn’t know her very well as there are so many girls operating the teleprinters now, but I gather she was bright young lady. Do you have any news about what exactly happened?”

“The police are investigating, and will doubtlessly want to talk to you as well as the investigation proceeds,” replies Sherlock evasively. “So far, most signs indicate either an accident or suicide with evidence pointing towards the latter, but we lack sufficient information to be certain. There is, however, a point of note which may suggest that there is more to Miss Wilson’s demise than stress or personal troubles resulting in unfortunate suicide.”

Briefly, he gives Tiltman an account of the handwritten note they found on the deceased’s body and their enquiries concerning its origin, as well as Molly’s findings as of today. When he has finished, Tiltman rises from his chair and stalks over to the window, gazing out thoughtfully while stroking his chin. Abruptly he turns and gives the two aeroplanes a little nudge so that their cords sway and twist, causing the Fokker to briefly collide with the Albatross before their cords disentangle again.

“I was about to have a look at these messages personally,” says Tiltman, shifting his attention from the planes back to Sherlock. “I remember receiving a memo from Knockholt that stressed the importance of them, as least according to their estimations. They were brought by dispatch rider because at the moment, due to some cock-up in the London area, our direct teleprinter link to Knockholt isn’t working properly. I’ve still got the memo somewhere.”

His eyes flick across the stacks of paper on his desk, but he doesn’t spot what he is looking for, shrugs, and continues. “The chaps down in Kent thought there was something odd about the transcripts, and I believe it must have been pretty obvious because they deal with so many messages every day that they can’t view all of them in detail. Moreover they’re no trained codebreakers. Anyway, unfortunately, I never got round to actually analysing these particular missives because by then the Americans had arrived and Denniston received news about the impending visit from London – I suspect you’ve heard about this by now. This is what you get when you have to toady up to your superiors in order to get sufficient funding. I should have insisted I do the job I was brought here for. Who knows, Miss Wilson might still be alive, and in any case we’d know more about the message.”

He runs a hand through his hair and sighs. “Blimey, what a mess.”

“I might be able to help, sir,” offers Sherlock.

Tiltman straightens and fixes him with a him long, calculating glance. “I’ve heard a bit about you, Holmes. Alan thinks highly of you, as do some of your other fellow codebreakers.”

Sherlock schools his face so as not to betray his surprise. So far, he’s assumed that he was rather unpopular at the Park, barely tolerated by his colleagues. Molly even told him she observed it. To hear others speak his praise is a new, albeit not unwelcome experience.

“I’m only doing my duty, sir, like everybody else round here,” Sherlock replies with a modesty that surprises him as well.

Tiltman smiles to himself. “That’s not what I heard. Done a bit of detective work, haven’t you, before the war?”

Sherlock nods. He wasn’t aware that this information has been spread around, or that anybody should be interested in what he was up to before the war apart from the usual background check, which, however, wasn’t done by people like Tiltman. Mycroft likely provided those who run the GC&CS with all the information they needed about his little brother.

“Well, then this should be right up your street,” Tiltman goes on. “I’m glad you’re looking into the matter and not the military police, or some upstarts from Whitehall. No, it’s best that it should be investigated by someone from the inside, someone working at the Park. The fewer outsiders learn about what we are doing here, the better. The safer.”

“I would like to do more, sir, but unfortunately Denniston refused to grant me leave.”

Tiltman nods thoughtfully. “I’ll see what I can do, Holmes. Alastair must realise that this could be very important because it’s potentially damaging to everything we’ve built up here over the past years and even before, when we were still based in London. If it’s a matter of espionage, and it bloody well sounds like it is … well, we can’t just let it rest, can we? Especially with the Prime Minister about to pay us a visit. We need those messages, and we need to know who took them from the archive. Unlike you chaps working on Enigma and doing rather well there from what one hears, we’re still a long way behind on Tunny, and Winston won’t be happy to hear that we can’t seem to break into the Lorenz messages and eavesdrop on German High Command.”

“Is there any other place where copies of the missing transcript could have been placed?” enquires Sherlock, appreciative of the frankness and openness Tiltman displays towards him. Finally, there’s someone treating him like an adult and not talking around or trying to obscure facts. Security measures are one thing, ridiculous, annoying protocol and strict adherence to chain of command are another, and one that isn’t helpful at all in the present case.

“Not here. But they usually archive copies of each message at the listening stations.”

“Can’t they just resend it?” asks Sherlock.

“They could, if the line was working properly. But like this, we’d have to send a rider. It might be more efficient if you went yourself, because you know exactly what you are looking for. Also, as I said, the fewer people know about this, the better. If we send a rider, we’d have to make it official. And whoever ‘disappeared’ the original transcripts is likely to have their eyes and ears wide open since obviously they don’t want us to work on the messages.”

“This means I’d have to travel to Kent to get them?” enquires Sherlock.

Tiltman’s smile broadens as he takes in Sherlock’s eagerness and excitement, the way he unconsciously is leaning forward in his chair. “Meaning exactly that, Holmes. I suggest you go tomorrow. I’ll see to it that official leave will be granted.”

Sherlock knows he must be smiling like an idiot. “Thank you, sir,” he says with what gravitas he can muster, rising from his chair.

Tiltman nods and getting up as well, he walks Sherlock to the door, holding out his hand for the younger man to shake. “Good luck, Holmes. Keep me informed, all right? Come by tomorrow morning. I’ll see to it that Miss Anthea has the papers ready. I fear you’ll have to organise your own means of transport, however. I don’t know exactly how the chaps down at Knockholt handle security, but we’ll try and provide you with something official to grant you access.”

Sherlock grins at this. “Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem, sir,” he says, his mind already spinning with ideas. They’re likely going to need a car for this venture, at least for the stretch beyond London. It won’t do to show up on foot or bicycle after walking miles from the station along dusty country lanes. He has several ideas where to commandeer a suitable vehicle. He hopes John knows how to drive, and that moreover he can be persuaded to accompany Sherlock, although he doubts the doctor is going to refuse. Oh, this is going to be interesting.

 

–<o>–

 

Sherlock is so deep in thought about the impending journey that he almost cycles past the venue of tonight’s ‘Jazz & Dance Extravaganza’, despite the school being almost impossible to miss with the herd of bicycles parked in front of the functional looking brick building. There are some cars as well, and motorcycles. Sherlock surveys the cars when he parks his bicycle next to John’s, but the mysterious Bentley is not among them.

Music is floating out of the brightly lit hall. Soon, he reckons, the windows will have to be shuttered or otherwise darkened for the black-out. But as long as darkness hasn’t fallen, the hall windows illuminate the court in front of the building. Groups of people are milling about, mostly arrivals like Sherlock: young men in wide trousers, wearing ridiculously patterned ties and fancy shoes, and women in colourful skirts and dresses with their hair done up and their faces painted, especially their lips, obviously heeding the call to not let standards slip, even during wartime. In fact, some of the necklines are plunging rather deeply, and the hemlines are shorter than one usually sees around Bletchley. As dull and provincial the town may seem, at times like this it cannot hide the fact that it currently houses a host of bright, lively young people who need a break from gruelling wartime duty now and again.

The venue seems to be popular, and the band playing well known, judging from the excited murmurs of the newcomers and their eagerness to get inside, their giggles and laughter, and the swaying of hips and soft whistling or singing to the music. Sherlock joins the queue, digging in his trouser pocket for his ticket and rolling his eyes at the young man in front of him who somehow manages to snap his fingers completely out of rhythm with the beat of the music. Sherlock sighs. This is going to be a harrowing evening surrounded by idiots. At least the musicians seem to know what they’re doing, judging from what he can hear.

Normally, Sherlock doesn’t like to be around so many people. They tend to get on his nerves very quickly, even in small numbers. Moreover, experiencing them crammed together like this, the myriad details he notices about them make his head spin, and cause him to lose focus. He’s become better at filtering out pertinent information from unimportant clutter, but still, seeing so many different life stories laid out to him based on how people dress, the state of their hands and hair, and the way they hold themselves, not to mention their accents and dialects and patterns of speech assault his senses. As a child and young adolescent, he tended to be completely overwhelmed by sensory input at times. Things aren’t quite as dire nowadays. But he still doesn’t appreciate crowds. Setting his jaw tight, he tries to focus on the task at hand.

When he is finally admitted into the building, caught in a throng of other new arrivals, he is pushed along a corridor crammed with people holding drinks or cigarettes (or each other for a bit of not quite inconspicuous kissing and groping), until he manages to step inside the hall and breathe again. Apparently the place was built for staging the school’s theatrical and musical productions as well as serving as a venue for sports such as gymnastics. There is a raised stage at the other end of the long hall, and an improvised bar area with chairs and a few tables as well as bar stools along the right hand wall under a row of high, narrow, neo-Gothic windows. The ceiling has been decorated with paper lanterns and patriotic bunting displaying colourful variations of the Union Jack. Sherlock also recognises stylised depictions of Britannia, lions and unicorns. The air smells of cigarette smoke, beer, perfume, pomade and sweat.

Up on the stage, a surprisingly large band is playing, consisting of a pianist, a drummer, a bassist, three trombones, trumpets and different saxophones, as well as clarinets and oboes. It’s a bit of a squeeze to accommodate all of them on the stage. They are all attired in white single-breasted jackets, black trousers and dark red bow-ties. Sherlock’s eyes search the musicians until they alight on the small, rather slightly-built player of the soprano saxophone who is apparently also the leader of the band as it lacks a conductor. He closely resembles the man depicted on the poster John found in Jennifer Wilson’s room. He has the same thin, curved eyebrows and dark, deep-set eyes, as well as the dark, slicked back hair. The size and shape of his nose match the drawing, too. Sherlock cannot be certain because he’s not very familiar with film stars, but he thinks this man bears a certain resemblance with Clark Gable, too, sans moustache and large, flappy ears. He assumes that it must be the mysterious Jim, Jenny’s acquaintance (and perhaps more). He is too far away for any more detailed deductions, however, but Sherlock hopes he’ll get a closer look later.

The band is just finishing a fast-paced piece which seems to have lured many couples onto the dance floor. Sherlock recalls having heard it before playing on Mrs. Turner’s wireless. The music ends and the couples do their last twirls, before turning to the stage to clap and catcall effusively. Sherlock scans the crowd for John and the three women, but his vantage point is not ideal as he cannot survey the entire room properly. Finding himself caught in a throng of newcomers once again, he cannot easily shift position, either. Feeling a stab of frustration, he shifts his attention back to the stage.

The man with the soprano saxophone steps forward and bows slightly. “So, ladies and gentlemen, it seems that this has got you properly ‘In the Mood’ – as this was indeed its title.”

Sherlock is pricking up his ears. The man has raised his voice over the din. It’s rather high-pitched and laced with an unmistakable Irish lilt. Dublin, to be precise, middle-class, with a hint of public school that the speaker almost seems to be trying to eradicate. Interesting.

“For all the newcomers, let me just introduce my little band here once again. My name’s Jim Moriarty, and here are my Fix-Its, and it’ll be our pleasure to get you hot and bothered tonight.”

Excited applause, laughter, and loud hoots and whistles sound from the crowd, almost drowned out by cries of “Oh yes, do come and fix us, Jimmy,” from a group of women who seem to be slightly inebriated.

Jim grins, winks at them, then waggling his finger at the audience, he says, “No, no, not what you’re thinking, folks. Dirty minds, the lot of you. I was talking about dancing.”

A general moan of disappointment and more laughter.

“Come now, come now, I thought that’s what you were here for.”

A murmur of agreement. Jim smiles broadly. “Thought so. Here, let me introduce my boys.” He goes on to name the individual musicians, several of whom seem to hail from America, among them four black players who appear to be rather famous judging by the enthusiastic reception they’re receiving upon their introductions. Jim raises his hands to calm down the applause again. “Tonight, we’ll be playing a number of all-time favourites to get you nice and hot while you polish the dance floor. Some of good old Benny’s famous pieces, and some of our own.”

Loud applause.

“But well also have some quieter tunes for all the little love-birds down here.”

There’s a round of laughter and excited giggles at this, and more applause and whistles.

“Yes, yes, I know,” says Jim with a wide smile. “Even though I heard that some kind of war is on over there,” he points vaguely to the East, to loud laughter and more catcalls from the audience, “it is our official duty to keep spirits up, so that’s what we’re here for tonight, isn’t that right? Yeah, thought so. Do feel free to come up to us if you have particular songs you want us to play, and we’ll do our best accommodate you. Oh, and before I forget, we have a special treat for you tonight. As soon as it’s fully dark, we’ll be joined by a special guest to grace us with a performance. So do stay round and enjoy the evening. And for now, girls grab yourselves a handsome chap, and all those lazy buggers who don’t dance put down your drinks and join in, because it’s time for the ‘Lambeth Walk’.”

Jim bows again as the audience cheers. Several couples form and arrange themselves on the polished parquet of the dance floor. Jim takes up his instrument and turns to his band. He taps out the rhythm, and they begin. The song is well known and even though the band doesn’t feature a vocalist, the lyrics are enthusiastically provided by the audience, who almost scream out the refrain.

His eyes wandering between the onlookers, the dancers and the band, Sherlock makes his way along the wall towards the bar, where he has spotted Molly’s daisy-pattern dress and Jeannine’s dark-burgundy one. Both have drinks in their hands (cider), and are looking at the dance-floor. Sherlock stops short. There, formerly hidden by other swirling couples, are John and Mary, dancing rather closely. Sherlock feels a deep, completely unanticipated and, as he immediately scolds himself, irrational and alarmingly sentimental stab in his stomach area. He remembers Molly’s words and her astute observations, and wonders whether his shock and indeed his jealousy can be read in his face, because that’s what he is feeling. There is no other way of describing it. The two make a fitting couple with their golden hair and smiling faces, they’re a good match in terms of height. Even the colours of their clothes complement each other.

For a brief moment, Sherlock finds himself imagining what he kind of tableau he would create dancing with John Watson. John, rather short, compact, nicely groomed and beautifully proportioned, with his arms round tall, gangly, tousle-haired Sherlock Holmes with his large hands, alien-looking eyes and weird facial features. That’d look odd and indecorous on its own, not to take into account the fact that they’re both men and would likely get into trouble for dancing together.

Sherlock bites his lip. Of course it’s moot to even imagine these things. It’s never going to happen, John and he dancing. Not in public, that’s for sure, and not in private, either. John is not inclined that way, and Sherlock so far hasn’t had any reason to consider where his own inclinations might lean. Back at school, he was aware that there were certain ... occurrences between some of the boys, some more tolerated than others and often conducted in the knowledge of the prefects who, for reasons of their own, decided to either turn a blind eye or report the perpetrators. Sherlock never found out the system behind their actions, but reckons it was based entirely on patronage and the view of personal gain. Later, at university, homosexual activities were not exactly tolerated by the officials, but depending on who indulged in them, a blind eye might be turned. People like Guy Burgess and his circle of friends were more or less openly gay, and dealt with what repercussion they had to face stoically and cynically. Others closeted them away, like Turing.

Sherlock has never consciously felt attracted to anybody before, neither man nor woman. Up until now he considered matters of the heart (or his rather dormant libido) secondary or tertiary to all other concerns. But now, seeing John dip Mary and laugh with her as he swirls her round, Sherlock feels jealousy twist painfully in his gut. It’s with a bit of a shock that he realises that he can no longer shut this side of his away from himself. Perhaps he’s not exactly gay, but then he’s not straight, either. And he’d better get a bloody grip on these alarming, uncomfortable, disturbing emotions, because they are beginning to interfere with his mental capacities by diverting vital energy to unimportant parts of his brain (and worse, his heart, although biologically, this is nonsense, of course, because sentiment is computed in the brain as well; the heart just pumps blood through the body). No, he’s spent his life so far without falling into the same sentimental trap as the rest of the human race, and he’d better watch himself now lest he succumb after all. Let John Watson dance with whom he wants. Sherlock likely wouldn’t stand a chance for a twirl with him even if he were a woman. And as a man … no way. And better for it.

Drawing a deep breath, he steels himself, walking on to reach Molly who is now on her own after Jeannine has been asked to dance by an uniformed naval officer (lieutenant, formerly stationed in the Mediterranean judging by his tan and the way his uniform is slightly bleached from bright sunlight, received formal dancing instructions, likely public school, bit of a gambler).

Sherlock’s deduction is interrupted by a hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Holmes, good to meet you here,” the voice of DI Lestrade announces. “I was trying to contact you at your accommodation, but your landlady said you and Dr. Watson had already left.”

Sherlock turns, glad for the distraction (mainly from his bewildering, unsettling feelings towards the doctor). “Any news? Has the coroner finished his report?” he asks in a low voice, beckoning to Lestrade to follow him into a corner near the bar area where they can talk in relative obscurity while still keeping an eye on the goings on in the hall.

“Yes,” says Lestrade, taking a sip from his pint of dark ale. “You were right about the poison. Cause of death is indeed cyanide poisoning, self-administered. There were no signs of coercion, but, as you had already pointed out, she seems to have arrived at the site of her death in considerable distress and appears to have run part of the way, crashing through trees and bushes.”

“Did they analyse her stomach contents?”

“Yes. It looks like she was out to dinner. There were traces of beef, carrots, potatoes and onions, also something fishy, the coroner thinks soup. And peaches and cream as dessert. Oh, and she drank both champagne and red wine with her meal. Went somewhere posh, it seems. I doubt you’d get dinner like that in Bletchley.”

Sherlock nods thoughtfully. “Anything else?”

“The coroner checked for indication of recent sexual intercourse, but there was none, at least none involving penetration.” The officer blushes slightly. “Not that I thought that she was that kind of girl, but ... it seemed prudent to check.”

“True,” says Sherlock. “Did you find out more about her background? Have her family been informed? Her former fiancé?”

Lestrade sighs. “I’ve telegrammed the family. They live in Cardiff, and will arrive tomorrow. Her ex-fiancé has also been informed, but since he’s currently stationed abroad, we cannot be certain the message has reached him yet and have to wait for his reply. He may be the cause for her suicide, but according to the accounts from her landlady, Miss Hooper and some of Miss Wilson’s coworkers, she was ‘over him’. And he cannot have murdered her, as being away in North Africa at the time of her death is a rather sound alibi, as they go.”

“I don’t believe it was murder, at least not directly. By proxy, perhaps.”

Lestrade’s dark eyes narrow suspiciously as they watch Sherlock. “Why, Mr. Holmes, do I get the impression that you are not telling me everything you know?”

Sherlock smiles faintly. “Because you are not entirely brainless, apparently.”

Lestrade scoffs, but smiles at the same time. “Oh, thank you for the compliment, I suppose. High praise, coming from you.”

Sherlock frowns, and Lestrade explains, “I asked round the station a bit, back in London. Some of my colleagues remembered you. Some not entirely amicably, to put it mildly. Called you an arrogant arse, most of them, and a nightmare to work with. Said you were bloody brilliant all the same, despite your attitude, and almost always right, in an uncanny way. I should count myself lucky that you suffer me to talk to you at all.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Lestrade,” returns Sherlock.

The other grins. “I’m not. I was teasing you. Anyway, about withholding evidence. That’s a criminal offence, you know that, don’t you?”

Sherlock sighs dramatically, sizing up the DI. “You are right, Detective Inspector, I do know more than I let on during our last conversation, but I wouldn’t go as far as charging me of withholding evidence. I am simply trying to avoid it from falling into the wrong – meaning incompetent – hands. I am not at liberty to tell you what exactly this evidence is concerned with, as the information involves details pertinent to my workspace and is subsequently classified.”

He looks around them cautiously, then steps closer to the policeman and says in a low voice, “What I can tell you, however, is that Jennifer Wilson somehow stumbled across what seems to be an important message dealing with ... let us call them international proceedings and managed to copy some of it. The original has since disappeared. There is suspicion that this is due to some deed of espionage. It is being investigated.”

“By yourself?”

“Yes. And others. The matter by far exceeds that of Miss Wilson’s demise, unfortunate though it is. This is all I can tell you at the moment. I generally avoid forming theories without possessing all relevant information, but it seems to me that Miss Wilson indeed committed suicide because of something linked to the possession of, or knowledge of, this mysterious message or the persons involved in its disappearance, if indeed it has not been her doing, either intentionally or accidentally.”

Lestrade looks doubtful. “You mean that either she was some kind of spy and managed to or at least tried to procure the message for the enemy? But then ... what? Was overcome by her conscience and sense of patriotic duty and took her own life out of shame? Or that she was found out and her death was brought about by our agents, by proxy or otherwise?”

“Both versions are possible, as are variations of them. It is also possible that she was no spy after all, only a very conscientious worker. Maybe she mislaid or damaged the message while filing it, tried to recover it and failed. Knowing about or at least suspecting its importance, when she realised how badly she had messed up, she saw no other way than to commit suicide. Her landlady indicated she had seemed stressed and unhappy lately, the latter all the more unusual in a spritely, lively girl as she has been described. She would not be the first to crack under the stress the work places on us, particularly if it came in combination with some personal mishap or grievance. But to be honest, I do not believe that something as trivial as a mislaid message and some sentimental upheaval brought on by a broken engagement has caused her to end her life in such a way. I found the copy she’d made of the vanished message in her hand, half dissolved by the water of the lake. It must have been on her mind during her last moments. Did the coroner find any signs of illness, especially something creeping and potentially fatal like cancer. Was she pregnant, perhaps?”

Lestrade shakes his head. “Neither. I had them check for the latter in particular because sad as it is, it’s not unheard of that some poor girl takes her life because of an unwanted pregnancy. But she wasn’t pregnant, and apart from the fact that she was a little anaemic and underweight which may have been symptoms of stress, there was nothing physically wrong with her.”

Sherlock nods thoughtfully while Lestrade continues. “Hopefully, tomorrow’s meeting with her parents and some reply from her ex-fiancé will yield more insight into her personality.” He gives Sherlock a sharp glance. “But you’re going to keep me informed of your findings. I’m taking a big risk letting an amateur like you in on an investigation like this.”

Sherlock is about to object to the term ‘amateur’, but Lestrade forestalls him by holding up a hand. “That doesn’t call your expertise into question, mind. It just means that you aren’t a policeman or in any other official capacity, which is a fact. The local police force didn’t really consider you an asset, either, nor entirely trustworthy. Found you rather ... I think their descriptions included the term ‘weird’ quite a lot.”

“That’s because they’re idiots,” says Sherlock curtly.

“I’m not going to comment on that. By the way, where is your companion Dr. Watson? I was hoping to speak to him as well, and your landlady said he was going to be here with you. In fact, she said a great deal more. Invited me to tea and everything.”

“John is dancing,” Sherlock replies briskly, only now noticing that while they’ve been talking, the raucous ‘Lambeth Walk’ has ended and the band is playing a slower piece now. Sherlock knows he has heard it before, but he cannot recall the title.

“‘Let’s Break The Good News’,” says Lestrade, who obviously has seen Sherlock listening closely to the tune. “They’re rather good, aren’t they, the Fix-Its. Been to see them in London with the wife when things were still ... better between us.”

Momentarily distracted by the sight of John dancing rather closely and cosily with Mary (must not be jealous, it doesnt mean anything, he is simply trying to blend in as instructed, and even if he isnt, its none of your concern because hes just a friend, if hes even that), Sherlock forces himself to look away from the painful sight and focus on Lestrade again.

“You know Jim Moriarty.”

The other shrugs, taking a swig from his glass again. “Wouldn’t be able to claim that I know him, but yeah, the wife rather likes his music and the odd dancing on a night out. Not that we’ve ever had much time for it, which perhaps lead to things turning the way they are now. But Jim, he’s got bit of a name over in the city. He’s Irish from what I know, and he spent some time over in the States where he learned all this jazz and swing, and made friends with some of the musicians there. Chicago, I think, that’s where he went. Some of the chaps are from over there, did you know?”

“Yes, he mentioned it,” replies Sherlock, watching the band thoughtfully

“Wonder how he managed to get around conscription,” muses Lestrade.

“Perhaps a medical condition. I would like to talk to him, either during a break or after the concert. Jennifer Wilson knew him. According to Molly Hooper, they were friends, although Molly never met him. I talked to her landlady yesterday and she remembered seeing a man of Moriarty’s description talk to Miss Wilson near the church of Newton Longville the weekend before last. It might be prudent to ask the vicar, too, whether he has seen the man, and of course Moriarty himself whether he has been to the village.”

Lestrade looks interested. “That’s good to know. Let me know when you get hold of Mr. Moriarty. I’d like to ask him a few questions myself.” He gives Sherlock a curious glance. ”Actually, I’d been wondering why you were attending this thing. You don’t really strike me as the dancing type, although your doctor seems to have found himself a plucky bird over there. Do you know her?”

It takes Sherlock great effort not to glare at the DI and take him down a few pegs with a well-aimed vocal dart. Inwardly, however, he does preen a little at the mention of ‘your doctor’. What made the officer put it like this? He has never actually seen the two of them together. Has John said anything particular about Sherlock while he was being questioned by the police, mentioned him with special regard, perhaps, praised his methods and mental acuity? Sherlock is intrigued, and determined to find out.

“One of Miss Hooper’s friends,” he informs Lestrade. “Speaking of her, why don’t you go and ask her for a dance,” suggests Sherlock. “She has been standing by herself nursing her drink for a while now, and could do with the attention. Moreover, that way you can talk to her quietly and inconspicuously. They are playing rather slow pieces at the moment, meaning you won’t get out of breath too easily.”

Lestrade rolls his eyes. “Thanks for that. You know, I see why my colleagues don’t like you, although personally I almost admire your lack of social mores. You just say what you observe, don’t you, without thinking of the consequences?”

“I am stating facts without sugar-coating them,” confirms Sherlock. Cocking an eyebrow, he challenges, “Problem?”

Lestrade shrugs, emptying his glass and placing it on a windowsill. “Not really. It’s both offensive and strangely refreshing at the same time.” He nods to Sherlock. “Until later, Holmes.”

Sherlock watches him straighten his jacket and approach Molly. She looks surprised when she recognises him, then blushes when apparently he asks her to dance with him. They are too far away for Sherlock to understand what they are talking about, but Molly looks pleased. She looks up searchingly until her eyes land on Sherlock, and she flashes him a quick smile. He inclines his head.

“You can buy me a drink,” lilts a voice next to him. Jeannine has appeared beside him, stroking a strand of hair behind her ear. Sherlock turns to her and frowns.

“What happened to your lieutenant?” he asks.

She makes a face. “Turned out to be a bit of an idiot. Good dancer, yes, but grabby, sweaty hands and bad breath. A fancy smart uniform doesn’t really cover everything. Don’t suppose you fancy a round on the dance floor, do you? You look like you’d be good at it.”

Sherlock is, in fact. Very few people know that he absolutely loves dancing, and that he is quite adept at it. He was one of the few boys who actually enjoyed the lessons at school, even though he was careful never to disclose this to the others. He didn’t want to provide them with even more ammunition to harass him. But yes, he loved it, moving to the music, getting lost in the sensation. Sometimes when he plays his violin, he begins to sway and even dance to the music when it really grips him. These are some of the few occasions when he feels his ever active, ever running mind at rest. His body takes over, either his fingers or his legs, or both, along with the rest of his limbs, and he is at peace, not having to think but allowing himself to feel for as long as the piece lasts.

The trouble with dancing is, of course, that usually it involves the presence or even proximity of other people, which is why Sherlock never pursued it afterwards despite there having been ample opportunity both at Cambridge and later in London. He did attend a concert now and again, but it wasn’t the same, sitting around listening passively and inevitably noticing the musicians’ mistakes, or the minuscule way their instruments were out of tune. Briefly, Sherlock even considered taking up ballet, but by that time he was already too old for it and wouldn’t have easily found a place at any ballet school. Thus, dancing very much decreased to a fond and distant memory, something he knew he enjoyed once but which was unlikely to be repeated. He doesn’t even know whether he truly remembers the steps. Moreover back at school during the lessons he mostly danced the female part because of the ever-present lack of girls and because unlike the other boys he didn’t mind, as long as he was able to dance.

Jeannine is looking at him expectantly, and he shrugs. Why not? he thinks. Its not that theres going to come any opportunity to dance with the person you really want to. He seems to be having a good time with Mary, so why not at least pursue an activity you enjoy with a tolerable partner? He extends his arm to Jeannine, who, looking faintly surprised yet pleased at the same time, takes it.

The band is playing one of the slower pieces, a simple foxtrot, and Sherlock gets into the flow easily. Jeannine’s dancing skills are adequate if not particularly honed, but she seems content to be swept along, clinging to Sherlock’s arm and beaming at him.

“My, my, who’d have thought, Mr. Holmes? You are full of surprises.”

“I am?” he asks in genuine surprise.

“Oh yes,” she replies. “Looking at you and how uncomfortable you seemed to be with our banter back at the canteen, he wouldn’t have pegged you as a chap who knows how to show a girl a good time.”

“I’m not,” returns Sherlock brusquely and honestly. They’ve just completed another turn which has brought him into full view of John dancing closely with Mary, who is beaming at him in a rather besotted fashion. John is smiling at her, too. Sherlock swallows and leads Jeannine into another turn so as not to be able to see more of this miserable display, and moreover prevent her from noticing the cause of his discomfort.

She does, of course. Women’s intuition or whatever uncanny sixth sense they possess to read people’s emotions even when those people are careful to conceal them.

She nods into the direction of her friend and John. “Oh, don’t say that. You’re a good dancer. In fact, I’m feeling a bit inadequate. But it’s plain to see that your interests lie elsewhere.”

Sherlock looks at her sharply. This is getting intolerable. First Molly and now Jeannine, a virtual stranger. Is he really this transparent to read. Damn it, he must be more careful.

“What do you mean?”

Jeannine smiles mysteriously. “You’re unusual for a fellow with your looks and your brain. I’ve dated a number of men, and most were after getting into my knickers, which I didn’t mind, because, well, some were rather worth getting into their drawers as well, if you take my meaning.”

Her eyes widen. “Oh God, you’re even blushing, that’s so sweet. I bet you’ve never done anything like it, have you? Dancing, I mean, like this. Or getting into knickers or drawers. You don’t have to answer. It’s rather obvious. But I ask myself why? I mean, Molly’s really fond of you. She talks about you all the time. And she’s a brilliant girl. Clever, pretty, not as shallow as some of the others. Interested in weird things like dead creatures. You’d be a good match, and any normal chap would be interested. But you’re not into girls, are you? Or into anybody, really, unless he’s short, fair-haired, with a doctor’s degree and a naval background. I saw how you were watching him chat and flirt with Mary, who really encouraged it, to be honest. She can be extremely charming. No wonder your doctor fell for her. Oh dear, don’t look so alarmed. She’s not going to eat him alive. Let him have a bit of fun. I don’t think he has the tiniest inkling what you think of him, which is just normal. Men don’t catch these things easily, unless perhaps they’re as observant as you. You have to be a bit careful and school your features a bit better, though. You’re virtually green with envy when you watch them dance. But I can tell you that your dashing doctor thinks very highly of you. While you were still outside with Molly, he wouldn’t shut up about you. He praised your cleverness over and over again.”

Sherlock frowns at her. “He did?”

She winks at him. “He did. Give him a little time. And who knows, perhaps he shares your ... inclinations. I’ve dated some soldiers who definitely had experience that way.”

Sherlock draws himself up. “I am not inclined ‘that way’,” he protests. “I don’t think I am inclined either way,” he then adds quietly.

Jeannine regards him gravely. “Sorry if I was too forward. I didn’t mean to insult you, or assume things that may not be the case. Still, I think it’s safe to say that you like him. A lot. And even if you’re not interested in any hanky-panky, you wouldn’t mind a dance or two, would you? With him?”

Sherlock gives a tight nod. “No, I wouldn’t,” he admits quietly. And because he feels he needs to clarify a few things, he adds, “It’s new to me, this kind of thing.”

Jeannine cocks her head. “What kind of thing? Being interested in another human being? Having a friend?”

Sherlock swallows as he steals another glance at John. “Both,” he says softly.

Jeannine grips him a little tighter, her expression almost sad as she nods. “I see. I’ll have a word with Mary. I’ll tell her that the doctor is already spoken for. She won’t mind, I’m sure. It’s not as if there aren’t a number of other handsome chaps around.”

Sherlock looks up in surprise. Jeannine laughs. “I will require a drink or two for my services, and a bit of information. Who is this handsome grey-haired man Molly is dancing with?”

“He is from London,” replies Sherlock briefly. “You should ask her about him.”

“Oh, I will. Also, since you’re so good at deducing people – at least that’s what Molly keeps saying –, tell me about those two over at the door, the tall one with the spectacles and his red-haired friend? Worth pursuing, either of them?”

Sherlock regards them, glad for the reprieve. He finds it difficult to concentrate, but with the clear task of deducing the two men at hand, he forces his mind to operate efficiently without wasting thoughts on John Watson and his own confused feelings regarding the doctor. The two men look boring, both are employees of Bletchley Park, the bespectacled one is a codebreaker from Scotland, and the other a technician, also from up north, Sheffield, Sherlock thinks, but he cannot be certain at the distance. The one with glasses wears an engagement ring, the information causing Jeannine to sigh, but Mr. Ginger, as she calls him, seems eager for some female company in the way he surveys the dance floor, his eyes lingering on shapely legs and swaying hips. Jeannine watches him with a predatory smile after Sherlock has told her all he can read in the man from a distance, likely deciding to make some advances later.

“Come on,” she then tells Sherlock, just when his thoughts begin to drift to her recent revelations again, ”the music is about to end. Let’s get to the bar before everybody else does.”

She gracefully swirls in Sherlock’s arms when the last notes of the current piece are playing, before extracting herself and grabbing his hand, pulling him along to the bar. Sherlock doesn’t resist, his mind still swirling with her insights. How can it be that two people now have been able to read his innermost thoughts and feelings much better than he himself seems to be able to? What is this gift? As skilled as he considers himself to be when it comes to deducing people, he seems to be lacking in the emotional department, particularly when it comes to gauging his own feelings, it seems. Dangerous, dangerous. He definitely has to improve his abilities as well as his self-control in this realm. Not just to avoid the potential embarrassment of being this transparent, but also to guard himself against possible legal consequences. Should he really harbour homosexual tendencies, unacted upon though they may be, this is not something he’d want other people to know about. Neither Molly or Jeannine reacted aversely to what they believed to have read in his behaviour. They seemed to find it endearing if a little sad and pathetic (which in his eyes it is as well), but should their assumptions prove true (he still isn’t sure about that himself, needs more time to truly consider the matter and look at all the evidence dispassionately) and this knowledge land in the wrong hands ... potential disaster might be looming on the horizon. And worse, it might not only affect him, but John Watson, too.

Sherlock draws a deep breath. He must guard his feelings better from now on. Lock them away safely, swallow them down. They’re not helpful to anybody, least of all himself. There is a case at hand, a potential murder that needs to be investigated. A bloody war is raging. Sherlock Holmes’ muddled feelings towards another man are the least of anybody’s concerns. Get a bloody grip, Holmes, he tells himself firmly. So far, youve managed all your life without any emotional entanglements. You can manage the rest of it without them, too.

“What would you like to drink?” he asks Jeannine as he takes off his jacket to cool himself.

 

–<o>–

 

The band plays one more piece, something exuberant and very fast which makes Jeannine laugh and tap her fingers against her glass of cider. “‘Life Goes To A Party’,” she tells Sherlock. “I love this one. It feels like kicking Hitler right in the balls whenever I hear it, because it makes me feel alive and happy, and not minding the war. It makes me believe that we can actually win this.”

Sherlock is not entirely convinced about the effect of the music, but it certainly has a lot of drive, and inspires some rather daring dancing. He is tempted to ask Jeannine to join him in another round when the piece draws to a close. Jeannine who apparently has noted his interest bumps his shoulder amicably.

“I can always ask the band to play it again, although I might not have to. It seems to have been incredibly popular. They might play it once more anyway. Oh, there’s Mary and John. Gosh, look at him. Your doctor looks ready for a bath.”

Indeed, as Jim and his fellow musicians excuse themselves and announce a short break to get some refreshments, John and Mary join the other two at the bar. Mary looks happy, her eyes sparkling. She brushes some sweaty curls out of her eyes. “Oh, he’s quite a good dancer, this one,” she tells Jeannine conspiratorially “Let me have a sip of your drink. I’m parched.”

John seems to be in good spirits, too. “I’d get you one, but the queue is rather long right now,” he says as he gets out of his jacket as well, rolls up his shirt-sleeves and loosens his tie. “Should have done this before,” he mutters as he runs a hand through his sweaty hair.

Mary shrugs. “I’ll share with Jeannine. I saw you managed to get old Sherlock here to do a round with you. Told you he’s not as dull as people say.”

John looks up at Sherlock with a strange expression. “Didn’t know you danced,” he says.

“Occasionally,” replies Sherlock stiffly.

“Oh, don’t let him deceive you,” chimes in Jeannine. “He’s good at it, very much so. I think the little foxtrot we danced was rather wasted on him. I have a mind of asking the band to play something more challenging later so that he can show us his real skills. A waltz, perhaps, or, even better, a tango,” she gives John a meaningful glance, which, however, seems to go unnoticed. Likely, thinks Sherlock, John doesn’t know that traditionally, the tango is danced by two men. “I may require your services later to find a suitable date. You’re rather good at deducing who’s a potential sweetheart and who’s an idiot. Or who’s already spoken for.”

She winks at Sherlock, then hooks her arm round Mary’s and draws her away to where Molly is talking to Lestrade, both of them looking rather hot and sweaty from dancing, too.

You are giving dating advice?” asks John incredulously, both eyebrows raised.

Sherlock shrugs, feeling slightly stung by the way John put his question. “I simply schooled her in what to look for.”

“And you’re not interested yourself?” John enquires, his gaze lingering on the three women and particularly Jeannine who does cut a striking figure with her clingy dark red dress.

“In Jeannine?” Sherlock wants to know.

“Jeannine, or any of the girls. I mean, Molly’s really taken with you, and you and Jeannine certainly make a nice couple.”

Sherlock clears his throat. “Not really my area,” he replies stiffly, uncomfortably, hoping that John won’t pursue the topic any further. This is neither the time nor place for this kind of conversation.

But John isn’t ready to give up just yet. “Are you referring to Jeannine or Molly, or girls and dating in general?” he needles.

“The latter,” says Sherlock, his voice brusque. John gazes at him for a moment, then shrugs. “You don’t know what you’re missing out on, mate,” he states, clapping Sherlock’s shoulder amicably. Sherlock has to use considerable self-control not to lean into the touch, which seems to linger, more than a normal clap should have. It’s rather a squeeze, with John’s hand resting where on Sherlock’s upper arm where the shirtsleeve leaves the waistcoat, and he can feel its warmth and slight moisture through the fabric. It’s ... good. Sherlock wouldn’t mind if it went on a little longer.

Sadly, John releases him, reaches around him for Sherlock’s virtually untouched glass of cider and takes a long draught. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Sherlock draws his eyes away from his throat (get a grip, get a bloody grip!). “Not at all. You can have the rest.”

Gratefully, John takes another swig. “I saw Lestrade in here. Did you manage to talk to him?”

Quickly, Sherlock fills him in on what he discussed with the detective inspector. “We may also have to go to Kent tomorrow, if you’re amenable.”

“Kent?” asks John, before realisation dawns on him. “Oh, you mean because of the message?” Immediately, he looks excited. “Great, I’m in if you want me around.”

“Of course. Can you drive?”

“Yes. But we don’t have a car, do we?”

Sherlock smiles mysteriously, which seems to intrigue John even more. “Oh, leave that to me.”

Gazing to where Molly has been talking to Lestrade, he notices that the policeman has left her and is on his way towards the stage. Sherlock touches John’s shoulder. “Come on, I think we should follow him. I bet he is about to talk to Jim. I wouldn’t want to miss this for the world.”

 

–<o>–

 

Jim and his fellow ‘Fix-Its’ have withdrawn to a quiet spot near the rear entrance of the hall where they now stand smoking, sipping on their drinks and talking quietly. A few young women are loitering in the corridor, apparently waiting for them to come in again, among them Jim’s ardent admirers from earlier. Sherlock and John brush through them as they approach the door, gaining some questioning and not too friendly glances. Outside, Sherlock hears Lestrade address Jim by introducing himself and stating his credentials as a policeman. “Mr. Moriarty, could I have a word with you? It concerns a friend of yours, Miss Jennifer Wilson,” he then says.

Even in the sparse light falling out of the doorway, Sherlock can see how Jim’s face pales at the mention of the name. He motions to his fellow band members to withdraw and beckons to Lestrade to follow him into the small, walled courtyard where the school’s caretaker keeps some bricks, wooden planks and other building materials for repairs. Jim is nervously blowing smoke from his cigarette. He looks up briefly in a wary, skittish fashion when he spots John and Sherlock approaching. Lestrade nods towards them. “These are Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, who are assisting the investigation of this case.”

Jim frowns. Sherlock sees how his hand holding the cigarette is trembling very slightly. Jim seems nervous, or rather, he appears to be expecting bad news, which, reasons Sherlock, doesn’t have to be indicative of his direct involvement in Jennifer Wilson’s demise but simply the fact that he is to be questioned by a police officer, and one from Scotland Yard, what’s more. It’s not difficult to put two and two together and conclude that Jennifer Wilson has attracted some kind of trouble.

“Mr. Moriarty, thank you for sparing some time,” Lestrade tells him. “My apologies for accosting you during a concert, but there is an urgent matter we require your assistance in.”

Jim takes a long drag on his cigarette and brushes a nervous hand through his slicked back hair. “You said it concerns Jenny. Is anything wrong with her?” he asks, his voice brittle and high-pitched, lacking the confidence he displayed on stage, his Dublin lilt even more prominent. “I was expecting to see her here tonight. Normally she comes and says hello. But she hasn’t been round today.”

Lestrade draws a deep breath. “And she won’t be. Mr. Moriarty, I am sorry to have to inform you that Miss Wilson is dead.”

Sherlock has been watching Jim closely, and he sees what colour was left in his features drain away. He looks stunned, his eyes huge in his pale face, his cigarette forgotten in a corner of his half-open mouth. For a brief instance, Sherlock wishes he hadn’t discarded the ash he found where the strange car was parked near the quarry, because now he could have procured a sample of the ash of Jim’s cigarette to compare them. But the thought is eclipsed by the picture of Jim standing motionless in utter shock and horror. Sherlock shifts his concentration completely on the musician and his reaction. He decides that unless Jim is a very good actor indeed, greatly surpassing his presentation skills when he is up on stage and projecting his artistic persona, his surprise and moreover dismay at the news look genuine. Jim swallows and removes his cigarette, staring at Lestrade, John and Sherlock in turn.

“Dead?” Jim manages to rasp. “But when, and how?”

“She died the night before yesterday, or in the early hours of yesterday morning. The coroner said he couldn’t be entirely certain, and Dr. Watson confirmed the approximate time of death,” explains Lestrade calmly and soothingly, holding out a hand to Jim as he takes a few halting steps towards the wall to sag against it, dropping his cigarette to run both hands through his hair and making rather a mess of it. Lestrade draws a small notebook and a pencil from the inner pocket of his jacket.

“Mr. Moriarty, I need to ask you some questions. Do you need a moment, or do you feel up to answering?”

Jim stands for a while staring into space before he visibly steels himself and raises his eyes to look at Lestrade. “Go ahead,” he mutters.

“Thank you. Where were you Sunday evening, and during the following night?”

“We were playing at the Windmill Theatre all weekend as a guest band. You can talk to Mrs. Henderson the owner, or Mr. Van Damm the theatre manager. They can confirm it, as can countless guests since all our performances were sold out,” Jim says with a slight air of defiance and also of pride, which don’t quite match his brittle voice and the way he is holding himself.

“Good, I will,” replies Lestrade briefly. “Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes saw and examined the body first, after Miss Wilson’s housemate and friend Miss Hooper had found her in a quarry close to where they are accommodated. Mr. Moriarty, can we get you anything, a drink?” asks Lestrade concernedly, because the musician still looks like he is about to faint. John steps closer to him, to steady him should he sway and threaten to fall.

Jim shakes his head weakly. “No, no, no drink.” He looks at Lestrade and lets out a quivering breath. “The quarry? Oh, I told her not to take this way, especially at night. She laughed at me, said she knew her way around even in the dark and that it was so much shorter.”

“You knew her well, then?” falls in John.

Jim sighs, looking truly shaken and grieved. “We were friends, even though we didn’t see each other frequently. I’ve known for her some years. From before the war. I met her when we played in Cardiff some years ago, in ’38, I think. She was a regular at my shows in London, and even came to Brighton and elsewhere to hear us play. Sometimes she brought her fiancé along while she still had him, and over time we started chatting because she’d always come up during a concert and ask us to play a certain song. It turned out she knew a lot about Jazz. It was so easy to talk to her. She helped organise this venue here. Said we should come and play at Bletchley which I hadn’t heard of before. She hadn’t been to London a lot recently. Said she was so busy at work – not that she ever disclosed where exactly she was working. How did she die?”

“Cyanide poisoning,” replies Lestrade. “Evidence suggests it was self-administered.”

Jim’s eyes widen in shock, and he starts patting his jacket for his cigarettes. He extracts a new one from his pack, but doesn’t seem able to light it because his hands are shaking so badly. John has mercy on him, takes the lighter from his fingers and lights the fag. Jim gives him a grateful glance and after inhaling deeply from his cigarette, he asks, “Self-administered? You mean suicide? But why would she ...? I mean ...”

“This what we are trying to find out, Mr. Moriarty,” says Lestrade. “You said you were her friend. Did she ever disclose to you any problems she may have had and which contributed to thoughts of suicide, or directly lead to her taking her life?”

Jim shakes his head. “No, not that I can think of. She always seemed very confident, and competent in running her life. Organising things, keeping track of them, she was really good at that.”

“When did you last see her?”

“The weekend before last. I was in town to view this venue, and visited her in the village where she lives. Lived. Beautiful little church. Lovely. But she didn’t seem different from before.”

“You mentioned she seemed busy recently. Did she appear stressed to you? Troubled? Did she ever mention anything about her work to you?”

“No, never. Only that it was secret. I didn’t ask. We talked about music, or shows in London. Or films. Or the latest fashions and how the war messes up normal life and makes it difficult to get nice things, like silk stockings. She did seem rather tired when I met her last, and I remember asking her about it, but she said she had to work extra shifts.”

Lestrade nods thoughtfully, noting down the words. “You said she visited your shows together with her fiancé while they were still engaged. I take it you knew about the break-up. Did she ever mention it to you? Did she seem particularly upset when it was over?”

Jim nods sadly, drawing on his cigarette. “Yes. She came up to me and asked me not to play a certain song one night back in London because it reminded her of Michael. ‘Night and Day’, Porter, that was the song. We played something funny instead, ‘Run, Rabbit’ or something like it, and she came and thanked me afterwards. She danced a lot that night, with a number of different men. I think she wanted to get over Michael as soon as possible, and I was glad to help her with that.”

“You were never romantically involved with her, were you?”

Jim laughs wryly at this, the laughter turning into a soft cough. “Oh dear, no. She was a brilliant girl. Pretty, too, but not exactly my type. And I wasn’t hers. Bit too small, she once said jokingly, bit too Irish. And I said she was too Welsh for me. That’s how we were with each other, you see. We were just friends. Good friends.”

He swallows, staring into the distance. “She’ll be missed,” he states softly around another swallow and a deep sigh.

“I am sure she will,” John tells him quietly. Jim looks up and gives him a grateful glance. Once again, Sherlock is stricken by how effortlessly John seems to be able to make people feel at ease. Is this why he himself is so taken with him? Because he doesn’t judge, simply takes people the way they are and tries his best to accommodate them?

Sherlock is also rather impressed by the way Lestrade has been handling the conversation so far. His questions have been precise and skilful and have yielded a great deal of information, but he has steered clear of trying to unsettle the other or intimidate him, grief-stricken and nervous as he is, with a sensitive, rather delicate character.

“Mr. Moriarty,” falls in Sherlock now, keeping his voice calm and soothing, “did Miss Wilson indicate that she was currently in a romantic relationship?”

A tiny spark lights in Jim’s dark eyes, a brief glimmer that vanishes almost immediately. “I’m not sure,” he says. “As I mentioned, I hadn’t seen her in a while, and we talked more about this concert and its organisation than personal matters. I couldn’t ask her about her work, anyway, and I’d not been around London much because of the air raids, so there was little gossip to exchange. But I did hint that this concert might be a good opportunity for her to meet somebody new. Actually, I said it quite clearly, winked at her. Normally, she would at least have joked about it. She always teased me about my American friends and that they were so much more handsome than British men. But that day she didn’t. She just smiled, and said that she wasn’t interested in meeting someone new at the time. That made me think that there already was someone, you know. Someone serious, I mean. Someone she was truly interested in, not just some fling like those she had after splitting up with Michael. And why not. I mean, she was young and clever and pretty, and she went out to have fun. But this seemed different.”

He sighs again, drawing on his cigarette thoughtfully. “Interesting,” muses Sherlock. “She never indicated who this mysterious new partner or love-interest might be?”

“No. And I didn’t ask, despite being curious. Even though she normally talked quite freely about these things, the way she reacted I thought it would be an intrusion. Also, I was hoping she would disclose more about her new beau tonight. And if there wasn’t anybody I had a mind introducing her to Charlie, our pianist. He is rather head over heels for her – oh God, I’ll have to tell him. Oh shit, oh shit. He won’t be able to play any more tonight if I do.” Again he rakes a hand through his hair, looking rather desperate.

“Save it for later, then,” advises Lestrade calmingly. Jim stares at him in distress, then nods slowly.

“I was really looking forward to seeing her tonight,” Jim goes on after gazing absently into the gloom for a while, before training his eyes on Lestrade and giving him a sharp, piercing glance. “You are going to find out who did this to her, aren’t you, Detective Inspector? I can’t believe she took her own life. Jenny wasn’t ... she wouldn’t have. Someone hurt her, I know it.” He looks at John and Sherlock imploringly.

“We are doing our best, Mr. Moriarty, rest assured,” Lestrade tells him. “As I said before, I am sorry to spring this information on you like this. Thank you for your cooperation. For now, I think it would be best if we returned inside. Do you think you will be able to continue?”

Jim takes a last, long drag on his cigarette and flicks it away over the wall. He nods. “Yes, yes, I’ll manage. The music will help me ... I think I’ll play something for Jenny. Will you keep me informed?”

“We’ll likely approach you again with more questions,” Lestrade tells him. “Since the circumstances of her death remain mysterious and questionable, would you please keep what information I have given you to yourself for the time being. You may inform the members of your band like your pianist, but only if he enquires after her. Tell him that she fell victim to an accident. That’s not too far off the truth. Everything else needs to be investigated further. How long are you going to stay in town?”

“Only until tomorrow. That, at least, was the original plan. We are staying at the Shoulder of Mutton in town.”

Lestrade writes this down. “Good. I will be round tomorrow morning, likely with more questions.”

A rap on the wooden doorframe makes all four men turn and look up. One of Jim’s fellow saxophonists stands there (alto sax, the player is one of the black musicians from the States). He gives the others a questioning glance, before taking in Jim’s pale countenance. “All right, Jimmy?” he asks concernedly.

Jim nods and with a sigh, pushes himself away from the wall which he seems to have required to steady himself. “Yes, Ray, I’m fine.”

Ray nods slowly. “The Woman has arrived. Told her to meet you back here to talk about her pieces. Also, the chaps in there are getting restless.”

“All right. Let’s give them something to swing to, then. You’ll excuse me?” he asks Lestrade, John and Sherlock. The three take their leave and return to the hall, which is noisy, hot and stuffy in comparison to the draughty courtyard.

Lestrade flicks through his notebooks with a thoughtful expression, his brow furrowed. “Do you think his surprise and grief at the news were genuine?” he asks.

“Yes,” muses John, and Sherlock nods as well. “He would have to be an extraordinary actor to fake those emotions,” he adds. “I don’t think he has told us everything he knows, but there is no evidence of him being involved in her death. His alibi is sound, his entire band are witnesses, as are countless people who heard him play on Sunday evening.”

“I agree,” says Lestrade. “The only thing I wonder about is whether he really didn’t know about her new flame, if there really was one. I’ll make sure to ask him again tomorrow, and put a little more pressure on him, too, if required. Poor kid, though. Wonder if he’ll manage to pull himself together enough to play again tonight. He seemed pretty rattled. And who’s that Woman the black chap mentioned?”

“A vocalist of some fame,” explains John with a shrug. “Yesterday, someone said she was an opera singer from the States. Boston, I think. But nobody seemed to know for sure. They only mentioned her name with awe. Must be really good, then.”

Lestrade chews the end of his pencil thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, I’ve heard the name being talked about before, in London, if I remember correctly. I seem to recall she was involved in some kind of scandal. Caused the marriage of a rather well-known politician to break up. I thought she was some kind of high-class consort, not a singer. In any case she’s someone who operates in other circles than these.” He makes a gesture to indicate the hall. “Posh ones, you know what I mean. Not some sleepy little town like Bletchley.”

“Perhaps she is doing Jim a favour,” muses Sherlock while the three of them watch the musicians return and begin to shift their seats and instruments around a little to make room in the middle of the stage. Looking up, Sherlock sees that someone has clambered up into the rigging above the stage and is arranging the lighting so that a bright beam falls onto the vacated spot.

“It seems we’re about to find out,” says John, staring raptly at the musicians taking up their seats again and picking up and beginning to tune their instruments. Conversation and laugher die down and there is a rush at the door when those who stepped outside for a smoke (or a snog) stream into the hall again and arrange themselves along the walls and around the dance floor. Slowly, the lights in the room are dimmed until the stage is the only illuminated spot. Jim steps forward, the light catching on his white jacket and blood red bow tie.

“Welcome back,” he greets the assembly. His voice sounds full and confident once more (perhaps, muses Sherlock, he is a good actor after all), although a closer look betrays the paleness his features have retained from the conversation during the break, and the faint air of dishevelment and fidgetiness he carries. “Now you’ve managed to catch your breath and rest your legs a little, and of course use the time to partake of the not too shabby brew they produce here, we’ve returned to get you nice and sweaty once more. Girls, grab yourselves a boy, and boys, get a girl, because it’s Swing time again.”

Loud hoots and cheers sound. Jim raises his hands to calm the crowd. “Moreover, I have a special treat for you. It’s my great pleasure to announce a special guest to sing for us tonight. Some of you may have heard her, some may have heard of her because her name and fame have travelled faster than she herself today. So, dear people of Bletchley, especially for you, here is the incomparable, the exciting, the dangerous Irene Adler, more commonly known as The Woman.”

An excited murmur spreads through the hall, there are more whistles and clapping. Jim holds up his hand once more. He looks grave and composed when he fixes the audience with a long look. “To honour a special friend who sadly can’t be here tonight but who loves this song dearly,” he says while a shadow of sorrow passes over his face, “the Woman will perform for us ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’, accompanied by our very own Charlie on the piano. So please, a big round of applause for our special guest.”

With that, he steps aside. From the corner of his eye, Sherlock sees John stand up straighter and whistle softly when Irene Adler glides onto the stage.

 

Chapter Text

If Sherlock were to describe Irene Adler with one word, ‘striking’ might be the adjective of his choice. She is not particularly tall, but moves with the grace and self-assurance of a trained dancer, no mean feat in her high, narrow heels. It endows her with a commanding presence that makes her stand out in any crowd. Dark-haired and pale-skinned, her lips bright scarlet complimenting the red sleeve-less bias-cut silk dress that clings to her slender frame, she immediately takes over the stage when two beams of stage lights swing over to her and accentuate her against the dark, murky background. Rapt silence rules in the hall, broken suddenly by the first notes from the piano.

The song is slow and sentimental, strangely befitting Jennifer Wilson’s death overshadowing the event. To the side of the stage, Sherlock can dimly make out Jim Moriarty. He is standing very still with his head bowed, now and again touching his eyes. No, decides Sherlock, his shock and dismay don’t appear to be fake. He would have to be a very good actor indeed to play his grief so convincingly, especially now when he can assume that nobody is paying any heed to him, enthralled as they are by The Woman’s performance.

John, certainly, only has eyes and ears for her. He is staring at her wide-eyed, his mouth slightly open. Almost everyone else appears to be similarly affected. Sherlock has to admit that she is a good singer. She has a deep, dark, alto voice, but with a wide range that speaks of years of professional training. Even though she sings with an English accent, there is a faint trace of something foreign to it which Sherlock can’t quite place. He’d need to hear her talk to narrow it down. It doesn’t sound American, though, rather European. Her surname is German or Austrian, and he wonders if she or her ancestors arrived in the United States from there – and if so, when, and why.

Behind him, a woman sniffles loudly. Sherlock hasn’t really paid attention to the lyrics of the song, but he has caught the main drift. Something about deep and abiding love. Sentiment. He’s about to scoff in derision when his eyes fall on John again and he feels the habitual stab in his stomach area. Sentiment indeed. And apparently not even he is immune to its poisonous snares.

To distract himself from his own confusing emotions, he lets his eyes wander through the room. Some members of the band have joined Jim in his corner. All have sad and sombre looks on their faces. Ray is standing with his arm round Jim’s shoulders and handing him a handkerchief, most likely to dry his eyes and blow his nose, both of which look rather red and blotchy. He surmises that Jim has informed his fellow band members about Jenny’s death, and they appear to share his grief. The longer he watches the band leader, the more Sherlock is convinced that he told them the truth, and that he had no hand in her demise.

Casting a glance at the people behind him, his attention is caught by the flame of a cigarette lighter. Some newcomers have arrived and are standing in or near the doorway. One, a tall man in a light-grey, double-breasted suit and a dark hat with a white hatband is lighting a cigarette. The light catches on the ring he wears on the little finger of his left hand. Not a wedding ring (wrong finger), it rather looks like a signet ring. Sherlock can’t make it out clearly, but it bears either a stone or another piece of decoration. Someone with considerable means, then, upper class or at least upper middle, rather the former, though. His bearing and the details Sherlock can make out of his clothing over the distance and in the poor light of the audience area seem to indicate a traditional bespoke tailor. The suit is new and fits well, and has all the markings of a Savile Row piece, something Sherlock’s brother might wear even though this suit’s cut is more modern and fashionable with its wide, pointed lapels and light colouring. The dark tie sports an asymmetric, almost gaudy pattern. Moreover, the man’s clothing doesn’t adhere to wartime regulations of fabric use and number of pockets and buttons, and was certainly not bought with coupons. What strikes Sherlock more than the suit, however, is the hat with its distinctive colouring. It certainly is unusual, particularly in a small town like Bletchley where people are wont to dress inconspicuously and practically. Still, Sherlock is certain he has seen it before, although he can’t seem to recall in what context. The man himself doesn’t look familiar.

Sherlock half-turns towards him and pretends to search for something in his pockets so as not be caught staring at the man over his shoulder. From the corner of his eye, he continues to watch him. He is still young enough to be drafted into the armed forces (late thirties, Sherlock estimates), and his bearing betrays a history of military service. Ah, the way he holds his left arm ... there are clear signs of an injury there, of permanent damage, even. The arm appears to be almost stiff. What Sherlock can see of the man’s haircut doesn’t point towards recent military service, however. The hair is too long for that, partly visible under the hat. He is wearing a thin moustache, too. When he turns his head slightly to blow out a cloud of smoke, Sherlock sees a scar disfiguring his right cheek. Over the distance it looks like a cut, by shrapnel, maybe. But no, Sherlock decides. It’s too clean for that. It rather appears like one made by a blade, the scar very visible for such a relatively small wound, indicating that it didn’t heal well, although it does not look frayed from stitches. Unsanitary wartime conditions, or was it kept from healing deliberately? Sherlock would need to see it up close, but he is almost convinced that the scar was fabricated. It’s the mark of a rapier or a similar fencing weapon such as used by certain student associations. The scar is a “Schmiss”, a mark of valour, meaning the man was part of a student fraternity, and that very likely he studied abroad where this type of fencing was practiced, namely Germany or Austria, or other states of the former Austrian Empire. Sherlock wonders whether the ring is related to this, too, and decides to investigate.

The newcomer has been watching The Woman perform with the same kind of enraptured fascination that seems to have taken hold of the rest of the audience (apart from Sherlock). No, not exactly the same kind, decides Sherlock after watching his expression intently. While the other listeners are standing lost in the music and the lyrics, some slightly swaying to the rhythm or even drying their eyes or clinging to their partners, with a few gazing at The Woman’s striking figure with fascination, desire or slight envy, the man’s eyes on her are harder. He looks possessive, jealous of everybody else in the room who sees her like this. Are they a couple? Does the man wish them to be?

Sherlock observes Irene Adler closely and catches when her eyes sweep the audience and detect the newcomer, recognition lighting them. Ah, so they do know each other. She does not show any indication whether she is pleased to see him or not, and her eyes do not stray to the hat-man again. Sherlock isn’t sure whether out of disinterest or whether she is deliberately avoiding him.

When she ends her song and bows to the assembly and their thunderous applause, whistles, catcalls and demands for an encore, the man takes another long drag on his cigarette and stands a little straighter, as if to make his presence known. And indeed, when Irene raises her head again after bowing to the audience, she glances searchingly towards the door until her eyes find the hat-man, who she gives the smallest of nods, as if to indicate that now she’s finished her song she has time and leisure (and the inclination) to acknowledge him on her own terms. Even over the distance and in the relative obscurity of the dimly lit room, Sherlock thinks he can perceive the tension between them. Power-play. How fascinating.

Sherlock smiles faintly to himself. Interesting, most definitely so. Both of them are, particularly because they seem so out of place in sleepy Bletchley. More suited to London, New York or Chicago both in attire and bearing with their suave, stylish, sophisticated appearance, Sherlock wonders what made someone like The Woman agree to a performance in a place like this when she could be on stage in the big opera houses of the world, war or not. And as for her acquaintance, Sherlock is not entirely certain whether his appearance leans more towards landed gentry or nouveau riche. Is he Adler’s lover? Neither of them is wearing a wedding or engagement ring, but there appears to be a certain familiarity in the way they are communicating wordlessly over the distance. Sherlock watches their silent exchange keenly and with great interest. Something has stirred his suspicion. Something is strange about the two of them. He can’t decide whether it has any bearing upon their case. Likely not. Still, he is intrigued, fascinated, even. After all, he loves riddles, and Irene Adler and her mysterious scar-faced, ring-bearing friend are posing a particularly juicy one.

“Sherlock, is anything the matter?” The quiet question – and even more than that, the gentle hand suddenly resting on his shoulder – startle him out of his musings, causing him to turn sharply to John who is watching him with a slight frown.

Sherlock gazes at the hand in surprise, which John notices. He withdraws it, causing Sherlock to sigh internally. He wouldn’t have minded had it stayed. “No, nothing is the matter,” he replies. “I think I’d like to have a chat with The Woman, though. She is interesting.”

John laughs softly. “I would go for a different description. She’s bloody breathtaking. That voice. And she’s got the looks to match, and the brains, too, I bet.”

He looks back towards the stage where The Woman is talking quietly to Jim and the pianist, apparently arranging for another song to be played. Sherlock follows his gaze, takes in his bright eyes and elated expression, and frowns, jealousy once more stirring in his gut. You’ve got to get this under control, he admonishes himself. This is getting ridiculous.

“Thank you, dear folks of Bletchley, for this warm welcome,” Adler addresses the audience now. Her voice is low and measured, but with a sharpness and precision to it that speaks of elocution lessons. Even without the use of the microphone, she manages to command the entire room. Sherlock has to admit he is impressed. “You are very kind. The last song was for a dear friend who sadly cannot be here tonight. May she have her favourite music around her all the time wherever she is now.”

Sherlock’s frown deepens. John turns to him. “‘Dear friend’?” he whispers. “Is she referring to Jenny? Did she know her, or is she just repeating Jim’s words?” Ah, so he picked it up, too.

“I don’t know,” replies Sherlock softly. “But look at her sombre expression. I would hazard they were acquainted, perhaps through Jim and his band, if Jennifer was a regular guest at their shows and Adler performs at their events with some regularity as seems likely, given her familiarity with the men and especially the pianist.”

John nods. “You think she knows about her death?”

“Very likely. The question is, did she learn of it from Jim or another member of the band, or did she know about it beforehand. I think we definitely need to talk to Miss Adler after her show.”

John smiles at this, looking positively excited. “Brilliant.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Why don’t you ask her for an autograph,” he suggests archly, not even trying to keep the disdain out of his voice. “Who knows, if you’re lucky, you might even get her lipstick on you.”

He has just noted the speck of colour near John’s right ear where obviously Mary’s mouth has come into close contact with his neck. Accidentally? Not likely.

John looks at him questioningly, then reaches up to touch the spot. “Oh,” he says, but doesn’t look embarrassed or displeased. “I wouldn’t mind adding some of The Woman’s lipstick, if she felt so inclined,” he announces cheerfully, then catching Sherlock’s dark expression, he slaps his chest playfully. “Come on, cheer up. Perhaps you should try it yourself. You might enjoy it.”

“Not interested,” huffs Sherlock, wishing they would change the subject.

John sobers up and looks at him gravely. “So you said,” he mutters, thoughtfully, as if something has occurred to him just now. “Anyway, I’d gladly volunteer for chatting her up after the show, although judging from the crowd in here I might not be the only one. Do you think it’s important? Should we inform Lestrade?”

Sherlock looks around and spots the detective inspector write something down in a small notebook. “I think he is already on to it.”

He falls silent when Irene Adler speaks up again. “Since you’ve all been so lovely, here’s another song for you, something a bit quicker this time. Dancing is strongly encouraged, because ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schön’.”

Applause surges up loudly at the announcement of the popular song, which appears to be a favourite of many in the audience given their enthusiastic reaction. Even Sherlock has heard it before, because Mrs. Hudson loves it. What catches his attention now, however, is the way Adler pronounced the German words. In recordings by Americans, the ‘schön’ is usually pronounced as ‘schen’ because they don’t bother to speak the Umlaut properly. Not so The Woman. She pronounces the word like a native speaker would. Perhaps, muses Sherlock, she is indeed German or Austrian, such as her surname indicates, and not just descended from immigrants from one of these countries. Given the troubled times and the persecution many Germans face in their own country because of their faith, political inclination or sexual persuasion, or whatever else is deemed undesirable and un-Aryan by the Nazis, Adler might well be a fugitive. Or a spy, a tiny voice pipes up, although in that case she would have hidden her German roots and changed her name, wouldn’t she? Anyway, to Sherlock she gets more and more interesting the longer he watches and considers here. He cannot even bring himself to feel jealous any longer. He really wants to talk to her, watch her reactions to questions concerning her acquaintance with Jennifer Wilson from up close. And if John gets bedecked in lipstick in the process, so be it. He can always wipe it off afterwards.

Something tingles in the back of his mind at the thought, but it’s too wispy to grasp, and he doesn’t pursue it because the song starts in earnest now. A number of people have started to dance. John and he are jostled about. They withdraw to the relative quiet closer to the bar, where, to Sherlock’s delight, the strange man with the scar has also arrived. He is smoking again and has ordered a Gin and Tonic which he is sipping slowly while watching The Woman like a tiger his prey. Sherlock sidles closer to catch a whiff of the cigarette. Expensive tobacco. Would have to be purchased in London or ordered abroad. Did the man journey from London just to hear The Woman perform (and watch her as if she is his possession and his alone)? Does he even hail from London? Difficult to say. His shoes are clean without any traces of dust or mud that might have given Sherlock a clue. The lack of dust and soot on his suit rule out a train journey. He did not cycle here, either, or his right trouser leg would either be crumpled from rolling it up, or stained from the chain. He doesn’t come across as the cycling type, anyway, not with his arm, which looks considerably impaired in movement. No way he could handle the bars. Could he drive, though? Sherlock isn’t sure, but believes he could manage. Perhaps he has a chauffeur. Wonder what car he arrived in? A thought strikes him. Wonder if it’s a silver Bentley Convertible, although that would make the chauffeur less likely.

While John gets them something to drink, Sherlock become aware of Lestrade making his way over to the bar. “She’s pretty stunning, isn’t she?” he states, nodding towards the stage.

“Sherlock doesn’t think so,” comments John, handing a glass to Sherlock. Beer. Of course. He doesn’t particularly like it, but decides to humour John after he’s been considerate enough to get him a drink. And he is thirsty, so he takes a sip and schools his features against making a face at the taste.

“Oh?” Lestrade looks astonished. “Why not?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “She is a talented singer and performer, and she cuts a striking figure on stage that speaks of charisma and self-confidence. She appears to be intelligent, too, with the kind of quick wit that recognises opportunities. She has the tenacity to grasp them, too, judging from her dress, shoes and make-up. She has been doing well, despite the troubled times, which speaks of more than mere talent. Satisfied?”

John and Lestrade exchange a glance and begin to laugh. Sherlock feels slightly wrong-footed. “There is nothing funny about it.”

John claps his shoulder, hard enough for him to almost spill his beer. “Yes, there is. You described her as you would a suspect. Guess women really aren’t your area.”

“Oh, I don’t know, perhaps he just isn’t taken in by their outward glamour like the rest of us poor buggers,” muses Lestrade with a twinkle in his eyes. “Anyway, I’ll definitely try and have a word with Miss Adler. She mentioned Wilson’s absence, albeit in a roundabout fashion. Did you notice? ‘Course you did. Anyway, I’d like to know if they were acquainted, and if Adler knows anything about her whereabouts the night before she died. I also wonder if she knew about her death before she came here tonight.”

Sherlock nods in approval. It’s what he would like to ask her as well. He hopes that Lestrade will allow him to tag along again, like he did with Jim.

All three fall into thoughtful silence while listening to the remainder of the song. Sherlock catches John stealing glances at him from the corner of his eyes, which does funny things to his insides but leaves him clueless as to why he does it. Is he waiting for cues by gauging Sherlock’s behaviour? Or does he simply enjoy looking at him. Sadly, Sherlock can’t devote as much time as he would like watching John in return because he has to keep his eyes on the mysterious, chain-smoking hat-man instead. He has switched from Gin and Tonic to Whisky now, and judging from his dark expression, his mood has dropped as his level of blood alcohol has risen. He seems mightily put out about something, and impatient to be gone. He does not give the impression like he is enjoying either the music or singing in the slightest, while still eyeing The Woman as if she is his possession, and a highly priced one, too.

When she sings the refrain once more, her eyes meet the hat-man’s, and Sherlock thinks he sees an exasperated expression cross her features, like she is fed up with the man’s strange antics. One of her eyebrows cocks almost in mockery, or in challenge, Sherlock isn’t quite sure over the distance. Whatever it is, it causes the man to empty his glass with one gulp, to immediately order another Scotch. Sherlock sincerely hopes he won’t be driving tonight.

The song ends, and again mayhem breaks loose. The Woman smiles and bows, and throws a kiss to a shrieking young woman who has almost climbed onto the stage in her excitement. Hat-man glowers at the gesture, downs his Whisky again and makes to approach the stage himself.

“Any idea who this fellow is?” John asks Sherlock softly. “You’ve been watching him for a while now.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “I don’t know, but I intend to find out. He knows Adler, that’s for sure. And for some reason, he isn’t happy about her performing here tonight. Let’s see if we can catch either of them, or better still, let them withdraw to a private spot and try to eavesdrop on their conversation. Hat-man certainly looks as if he wants a quiet word with her.”

“Or not so quiet,” muses John, looking excited at the prospect of eavesdropping. “He seems furious.”

As she leaves the stage accompanied by a member of the band, several people approach The Woman, apparently hoping for autographs or simply a glance and a word. She smiles and waves at them, but does not stop to talk to any of them. In the meantime Jim has stepped up to centre stage again and is addressing the audience, announcing more songs to come and that couples should get ready for a number of quick pieces to exercise their legs. Soon, the dance-floor is filled again, and the music begins.

Sherlock gives a huff of frustration when due to the commotion in front of the stage and the many moving couples, he briefly loses sight of hat-man, only to catch him again near the side door they passed through to interview Jim. Sherlock motions to John, and together they make their way over, cautiously stepping into the corridor. From the left, steps are leading down from the stage. Behind them is a small room where during normal school days when the hall is used as a gym the students can change, and some extra mats and other pieces of sports equipment are being stored. This evening, the room serves as a rest-room for the band and storage for the cases of their instruments, their coats and hats, and other gear as well as a few bottles of drink and glasses.

For now, however, the small room appears to have acquired yet another function: that of a battle-field. As they approach slowly down the corridor, the raised voice of Irene Adler can be heard. She sounds annoyed. Her American accent is much stronger now that apparently she is not paying attention to it.

“Would you be so kind as to tell me what all this is about, Seb? First you inform me you won’t come, and then you show up and stand their glowering at me all the time. I wonder what your problem is. I told you I was doing Jim a favour. What’s wrong with that? And don’t give me that ‘You’re better than having to perform in this small place’ shit. I perform where I want to, and to whom. And if you’re not okay with that, well, that’s your problem, not mine. I’m not your property, and if you want to end this, then fine, we’ll end it right here and now. It’s not that I don’t know that you have other ... let’s call them acquaintances on the side. As, perhaps, have I. So let’s stop behaving like jealous children when their favourite toy has been touched by another.”

A low growl sounds from the man. Sherlock can’t see either of them because he doesn’t want to draw any closer to the open door to prevent being spotted, but from the sound alone he can tell that hat-man, Seb, is anything but pleased. “Oh, you think this is so easy, do you, Irene?” he returns, his voice icy (he sounds the way he looks: upper-class, his accent clipped and posh, definitely public school, likely Eton, faint trace of somewhere abroad, perhaps mainland Europe).

“Actually, yes,” returns The Woman. “I don’t remember us entering into any kind of agreement. It was nice while it lasted, but to be honest, Seb, you and your possessiveness are getting on my nerves.”

“Oh, are they? But my money and the things it could buy you don’t, right?”

“I didn’t invite you to buy me clothes and jewellery and perfume. Moreover, you were well recompensed for your ... investment. We’re even, I’d say. Or if you insist, I can pay you back, But then, you’d have to pay me back, too, and I’d imagine this to be much harder than handing over a few bucks.”

“We’re not discussing this here,” growls Seb.

“No? I thought we were. Aren’t we right in the middle of a discussion now? Still, if you want to go and calm down first, or have another drink or three, do. I’ll call you later.”

“No, you’re coming with me now.”

“The hell I will. Hey, let go of me.”

A slap sounds. Sherlock isn’t sure who struck whom. Behind him, John growls softly, and then he is pushing past Sherlock and striding into the room, a brief glance at his face revealing grim determination and barely controlled anger. Obviously, John Watson reacts strongly to women being wronged, although to Sherlock Irene had the upper hand in the exchange, and certainly does not seem the type of person who needs a knight in shining armour to dash in and rescue her. Then again, who’d mind being rescued by Captain Watson? Curious, Sherlock follows them into the room.

“Miss Adler, is everything all right?” John is addressing her now, having planted himself squarely between her and Seb, who looks furious at the interruption and who, notes Sherlock, sports a bright red cheek. “Has this man been molesting you?”

Irene looks John up and down and smiles. “It’s fine. Just a little misunderstanding. And who might you be?”

“I’m John. I’m with the organisers and we’re trying to look after the artists a bit, see if they need anything, and prevent people from accosting them during breaks. We’re only a small town here, but we’d like to make you feel as comfortable as you would at a more exclusive venue, you see. It’s a real honour having stars like yourself and Mr. Moriarty and his Fix-Its perform here tonight.”

Sherlock has to keep himself from staring at John. He truly is full of surprises. Sherlock would never have expected him to lie so smoothly and confidently, to be such a consummate actor. He himself, he has to admit, couldn’t have done it any better. Pride wells up in him, and admiration, an unusual feeling. If Irene Adler or her companion are finding anything strange about John’s performance, they’re not letting it show. On the contrary, The Woman smiles at John benignly.

“That’s really sweet of you, John. If you’d be so kind, I’d love a drink. Let me accompany you to the bar. I’m sure it’ll be all right,” she forestalls his next words. “My fans here are very well behaved – most of them, anyway,” she adds with a nasty glance at Seb, “and some kindly asked for autographs, which I’d be happy to give them should they ask again. Shall we go?”

She holds out her arm for John, but Seb steps forward. “Not so fast, Irene. We’re not done here yet.”

“I believe you are,” falls in Sherlock from the doorway. “The lady made it very clear that your conversation is at an end for now, and that she has other plans. Moreover, it is obvious that you have overstayed your welcome.” Going with John’s lie, he adds, “Also, we cannot have people molest our artists. You are welcome to return to the hall to listen to the band, or you are free to leave. The decision is yours. Make it quickly, though. We do not want any further trouble.”

Seb gives him and the other two a furious glance. “We’ll talk later,” he tells Irene Adler, his finger raised in a threatening gesture. She only cocks a perfectly plucked eyebrow at him and hooking her arm round John’s, saunters out with him. Seb stares after the two, looking ready to leap at John and tear him apart. Sherlock takes a step towards him, draws himself up to his full height (not unimpressive despite his slender frame and narrow shoulders), and nods towards the door. Seb lets out a frustrated growl, before ramming his hands into the pockets of his trousers and stalking out of the room. Sherlock follows close behind, which seems to rile the man even further.

He makes no move to stay in the hall where the band is playing a fast piece that has most of the audience dancing passionately, skirts flying up and girls being tossed into the air. Seb barely gives them a glance as he ploughs through their ranks towards the door. He does, however, look out for The Woman, slowing down briefly when he spots her at the bar, standing close to John with a hand on his shoulder, laughing at something he said. Sherlock feels the familiar stab of jealousy, albeit less strongly now, particularly as he recognises Lestrade hovering nearby, apparently ready to join the couple and ask the mysterious (and feisty) Miss Adler a few questions. As much as he’d like to be involved in her questioning, at least as a spectator, Sherlock feels that in this he has to trust the doctor and the Detective Inspector, and rely on their notes and recollections afterwards, because something tells him that it’s more important for now to not let Seb out of his sight.

The man seems undecided for a moment, before with another frustrated, angry huff and a last glowering look at The Woman and John, he reaches for his silver cigarette case in the inner pocket of his jacket. Forcefully, he withdraws a stylish, long cigarette and lights it with an engraved lighter bearing some kind of coat of arms, Sherlock thinks. He cannot see it clearly. He does, however, get a closer look at the ring the man wears on his little finger. It is adorned with a dark stone that is engraved as well. Sherlock has been right about the signet ring. The coat of arms seems to be the same as on the lighter. He’d have to consult some books on heraldry to find out more about it, or, he thinks with disdain, ask his brother who has a great store of knowledge about British peerage.

“I can call you a taxi, sir, if you need transport to the station or elsewhere,” offers Sherlock.

The other turns to him and scowls. “I have a car,” he states haughtily, as if the mere suggestion of him having to travel by train with the other mortals is an insult in itself.

“Very well, sir,” says Sherlock, playing up the helpful underling. “Shall I inform your driver to bring it round, then? Which one is it?”

“You can make yourself scarce,” growls Seb after a long drag on his cigarette. With that, he blows a cloud of tobacco smoke into Sherlock’s face and turns to leave. Sherlock takes a deep breath before he can help himself, feeling the familiar rush when the nicotine enters his lungs. He appreciates the high quality of the tobacco before scolding himself about his relapse. The craving is still there, it seems, and he wonders whether it’ll ever go away.

He waits a moment until Seb has almost violently shouldered his way out of the hall before he follows quietly, winding his way through the dancers. Once outside the building, he has to briefly stand on tip-toe to look over the heads of the people milling about outside: some late-comers trying to find a place to put their bicycles, and a number of couple who seem to be using the dark of the blackout for clandestine activities. Others are fetching their bicycles to leave.

Seb is standing to the side of the building finishing his cigarette and looking a little undecided how to proceed. He glances towards the entrance, causing Sherlock to press himself into the shadows. The hand not holding the cigarette is briefly balled into a fist, but then he relaxes, flicks away the butt, and squaring his shoulders, stalks off down the road. Sherlock slips out of his hiding place to follow him. The moon is almost full and casts a silvery light over the darkened houses. Music and laughter from the hall can be heard over the street. Somewhere, a dog barks and is shushed by its owner.

Seb walks along the front of the school buildings to then turn right into a side-street. Sherlock creeps after him until he can look round the corner. He catches his breath, feeling his heart thud heavily in his chest. I knew it, he thinks triumphantly. I bloody knew it.

Waiting in the side-street glinting dimly in the moonlight is the silver Bentley. Melting into the shadow of one of the corner posts of the wall surrounding the school buildings, Sherlock smiles to himself as he watches Seb unlock the door and get into the car on the driver’s side. Sherlock strains his eyes to catch a glimpse of the numberplate. It could all be a coincidence, he knows. This man and the fact he drives a car like this could have nothing whatsoever to do with Jennifer Wilson’s death and the mystery of the strange message that ended up in her hands. But as his brother is fond of saying with regard to coincidences: ‘The universe is rarely so lazy.’ Most certainly it hasn’t been lazy in this case, either. Sherlock wishes he’d managed to keep the sample of cigarette ash they found on the road where the car Jennifer Wilson appears to have been driven in stopped for a while close to where she died. Did she arrive with Seb the hat-man? The hat ... yes , thinks Sherlock excitedly when he recalls his nightly encounter with the Bentley. The driver was wearing a hat, fedora-shaped. And it had been dark of colour, not a straw hat. A dark hat, with a white hatband.

Wild excitement rushing through him, Sherlock draws a shaky breath. What to do now? Inform Lestrade to reel hat-man in for questioning? No, he can’t leave now. So far, Seb is just sitting in his car, but he might leave any moment. No, Sherlock needs to do something now. He bites his lip. Another cloud of smoke is issuing from the open window of the car. Seb has lit another cigarette. Sherlock cannot see him clearly because the car’s folding top is up. He seems to be waiting, perhaps considering to go in yet again, or else to pass some time to then drive to the front of the building to catch The Woman when she leaves. Well, there is no knowing when that is going to be the case. Ah, he ignites the engine. Sherlock ducks deeper into the shadows, watching the car roll quietly and without headlights towards the road, turning left to move towards the entrance where it halts on the opposite side of the road, the engine still running.

Pretending to have taken a piss outside and adjusting his trousers, Sherlock walks back towards the hall. Presently, the car’s engine is switched off. Ah, so Seb is prepared to wait for Adler to come out. Sherlock is torn between staying outside to continue watching him and going back inside to inform John and Lestrade of what he has found out, and also to talk to The Woman, now that her ... friend’s involvement with Wilson has been established – didn’t she even mention it when she accused him of having others on the side? Was she referring to Jennifer? Was she jealous? And how do the cyanide, self-administered, and the coded message play into what could simply be a lover’s tiff?

No, he decides, he needs to stay here, as much as it riles him. And perhaps, he thinks with another rush of fey excitement, he can do even more. Straightening his shoulders, he briskly crosses the road and approaches the car, pretending to just have come from inside. Seb recognises him and rolls his eyes.

“I’ve told you to piss off,” he snarls.

Sherlock clears his throat. “Apologies, sir, but you cannot park your car here. Moreover, there is no need to wait. Miss Adler plans to stay longer and has communicated that she might even sing again. If you want to stay, you’ll need to move the car to another location.”

Seb glowers at him. “Get lost,” he spits.

“In a moment I shall, sir,” simpers Sherlock. “But I’m going to have to call the police if you don’t comply. But then you seem to enjoy parking in unusual spots, don’t you,” he adds, his voice devoid of deference of a sudden but sounding clipped and precise and slightly intimidating. “Not quite as remote as Sunday night’s location, is it? I wonder what business you had in Newton Longville and its quiet roads.”

Seb frowns at him. “What? Are you drunk? What are you babbling about, man?”

“Your rendezvous with Jennifer Wilson. No wonder Miss Adler is cross with you. Affairs never go down well with one’s lover, do they?”

Pleased by the flicker of recognition at the mention of Jenny’s name and the expression of shocked surprise on the other’s face, Sherlock presses on. “Tell me, when did you last see Jennifer Wilson?”

Seb swallows before his anger seems to be getting the better of him. “Listen, fellow, I don’t know what you’re talking about. If you’re one of Jenny’s exes and this is about jealousy, you can piss off right away. She was sleeping with half of Bletchley, from what I heard. As for when I was seeing her or not, it’s none of your concern. I’m telling you for the last time, piss off, before I punch your pert little nose in, bloody boffin.”

Drawing himself up from where he was stooping towards the driver, Sherlock glances down at him, smiling dangerously. He has to admit that he is enjoying this tremendously. If only he knew the man’s full name. Ah, but this should be easy to find out. Surely John and Lestrade have asked The Woman about her acquaintance.

“You really don’t want to get involved in a fight with me,” states Sherlock confidently.

“Why not?” scoffs Seb derisively. “Because you’re a professional boxer? I’d flatten you with one arm only. And I shall, if you don’t get lost right now and leave me in peace. Tell Jennifer she should choose her paramours more carefully. I can barely believe she got involved with someone like you. You look like a real freak.”

Slightly irritated by his referral of Jenny in present tense, Sherlock narrows his eyes at the man, “I would tell her,” he returns, “if she were still alive.”

Now Seb looks startled. “What are you talking about?”

“Jennifer Wilson was found dead near her accommodation on Monday morning. And all evidence points towards you having been the last person to see her alive on Sunday night, when you fetched her from her home and drove her close to where she was found by her housemate.”

Seb is staring at him incredulously. “Dead?” he mutters, and to Sherlock, inconvenient as it is, his surprise and even dismay seem genuine. He really didn’t know, he thinks. Damn it, of course it would have been too easy had this idiot had a hand in her death. Which he may still have had, but if so, it wasn’t intentional.

“Would you like to talk to the police right away, or wait until tomorrow?” asks Sherlock briskly.

“The hell I will,” growls Seb, having obviously recovered from his shock. With an angry, forceful gesture, he starts the engine. Ramming it into gear, he accelerates so abruptly that Sherlock has to jump backwards so as not to be hit by the car as it speeds off along the road. Cursing under his breath at his own stupidity (shouldn’t have told him, should have proceeded with more guile, lured him back inside), he runs across the road to find his bicycle. There is no way he can keep up with a roadster, but a quick glance at his watch tells him that the 11:29 to Oxford is about to come through and that the car will likely have to stop at the railway crossing, giving Sherlock time to catch up and then at least try and follow for a bit, to see the direction Seb is heading out of Bletchley.

He is almost level with the Bentley when the train has passed and the car accelerates again. Because of the number of cyclists on the roads (due to the shift change at the Park), the Bentley has to wind its way through flocks of people, going at a moderate pace which surely must frustrate the driver. They reach the main crossroads where the road to London branches off. Sherlock expects Seb to take it, but instead he continues along Buckingham Road, going faster now so that Sherlock can barely keep up. He curses his weak lungs and the fact that he hasn’t yet regained his full strength.

Past the road to Newton Longville they go, past Sherlock’s accommodation, soon leaving the last straggling houses of Bletchley behind. Seb accelerates even more to mount a small hill, and Sherlock finally admits defeat, rolling to a halt halfway up the incline, completely winded and gasping for breath, his arms and legs shaking like jelly, sweat trickling down his back, and into his eyes out of his hair. He brushes it away with an angry gesture. Stupid, he scolds himself. Seb must have noticed he was being chased. He might have chosen the direction deliberately, to confuse Sherlock. He might even take a turn somewhere and drive back to Bletchley, arriving there long before Sherlock can make it back. True, Sherlock managed to gain some information from confronting the man, but he went about it clumsily. Hopefully, John and Lestrade have been more cautious and successful with the woman.

Looking back down the hill to where Bletchley lies nestled between fields and meadows and clumps of trees, all dark and peaceful, lit only by silvery moonlight which catches a cloud of steam from another passing train near the station, Sherlock brushes his sweaty fringe out of his eyes and turns around his bike. Best return to the music venue and rejoin John, and hopefully talk to The Woman, and perhaps have another chat with Jim Moriarty.

 

–<o>–

 

When he reaches the hall (no sign of the Bentley or its driver anywhere in town), Sherlock is in for another disappointment. Even though the band is still playing, it is plain to see that the event is winding down. A small number of couples are still dancing, courtesy of the band who appear to have agreed to play a round of encores, but most people have left already, or are in the process of taking leave and fetching their coats and jackets, or their bicycles. The bar is already closed. There is no sign of either John, Lestrade or The Woman. Molly and her friends appear to have left as well.

Letting out a frustrated huff, Sherlock surveys the room. Just as he turns to leave, he hears somebody call his name. His eyes fall on Mary who is dancing rather closely with a fair-haired man Sherlock recognises from the Park. David something, from Hut 6, another of the crossword champions drafted in by Turing, and otherwise completely boring and unspectacular. Sherlock can’t even be bothered to deduce him. Well, but at least Mary seems to have shifted her interest to him and not John, which is something.

“Are you looking for Molly or John?” asks Mary, causing David to frown slightly.

“Yes. Have they left?” He hasn’t encountered any of them on the road.

“Molly left about half an hour ago. She’s staying with Jeannine, I think. She didn’t want to cycle all the way to her place, and Jeannine has a room here in Bletchley, lucky girl.”

“What about John?”

Mary smiles mysteriously. “Oh, he left with the singer, Miss Adler. They seemed to be getting on really well. Lucky chap. She’s rather stunning.”

“Is she?” growls Sherlock before he can stop himself. Mary winks at him, completely misunderstanding his reaction. “See you around, Sherlock,” she says, before resting her head on David’s shoulder again and letting him whisk her away into another turn.

Sherlock stares at them, feeling hollow and immensely tired of a sudden. Speaking to Jim has lost all appeal. There is nothing left for him here. Scowling at the dancing couples, he lets out a derisive huff and leaves.

 

–<o>–

 

On his way back up Buckingham Road, he tries not to think about where John might have gone with Irene Adler. Did he simply act gentlemanly and fetch her a cab or escort her to the station? Sherlock didn’t see his bicycle outside the school when he fetched his own. Or does she have accommodation in town? Did John join her at her place? Have they withdrawn to a quieter, more private spot for another drink and more talking? Or have they advanced from talking to other activities? She gave the impression she enjoyed that. And John ... John has an easy way with women. They like him. He’s confident and attractive and a captain and a doctor, and he can be kind and caring and funny and he’s not exactly bad looking even without his uniform and ... Stop it, Sherlock commands himself. Just stop it. John is a grown man who may indulge in bit of fun if he feels so inclined. He doesn’t owe you anything, least of all his fidelity. You barely know him. You met him mere days ago. You may get on well, he may even like you despite ... well ... yourself. But that’s it. Nothing more, and dwelling on ‘what ifs’ and ‘might bes’ is wrong and dangerous and completely off the point. So just stop it.

 

–<o>–

 

Easier said than done, thinks Sherlock when he arrives at their accommodation and – no surprise – finds that John’s bike isn’t in the shed yet. The house is dark with the windows shuttered for the black out, but even though it’s after midnight, his two landladies are still awake because he can hear them rummaging in the kitchen from where the sweet smell of blackberry jam is drifting outside. Frustrated as he is, both about the matter of John and The Woman and his own cock-up with the driver of the Bentley, Sherlock feels no inclination to go inside. He doesn’t want to talk to them and endure questions about where John is and why they didn’t return together. He doesn’t feel tired, anyway. Or rather, he is tired from chasing after the car, but he knows that with so many thoughts rushing through his head, he can’t possibly consider sleeping yet. A petty, vengeful side of him feels tempted to stay out in the garden all night to wait for John to return, likely with his hair mussed up by long-nailed, claw-like hands and his clothes a bit ruffled, and crimson lipstick on his neck, and confront him about his nightly pursuits.

Yes, that’s exactly what he’s going to do, he decides as he angrily shoves his bike into the shed and then stalks into the rear part of the garden where he plonks himself down on the old, slightly rusty wrought-iron bench under the apple-trees. The night is fairly warm and there is little wind and no sign of rain. He could stay here all night listening to the chirping of the crickets and the soft hoot of an owl in one of the high ash-trees that border the garden. At least here he can smoulder in peace.

As he sits, trying hard not to think about John Watson and failing, he hears the sounds in the kitchen die down. The window is closed behind the blackout screen and the door shut. Soon after, however, soft music begins to wind through the trees. Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Hudson have apparently got their old gramophone going and are playing records. Brilliant, thinks Sherlock, briefly tempted to fetch his violin and play something experimental, discordant and rough to counter the insipid romanticism their choice of music implies, and to give voice to his own frustration. But he finds he cannot be bothered to get up.

His stomach gives a low rumble, and his throat feels dry from cycling so much, but most of all he craves a cigarette now. Not just because of the nicotine, but also for the burn it would create in his lungs and which would nicely complement the strange burn in his chest which he is certain has little to do with his physical exertion tonight. It would also distract him, and give his hands something to do. Perhaps he should fetch the violin anyway, to occupy himself and loose himself in music of his own choice and his own creation.

He hears a faint whisper in the grass followed by a soft purr. He sighs. “Hello, Hattie,” he mutters as the cat leaps up onto the bench and rubs her head against his arm. He knows that if he chases her away she will return and weave around his legs making noises until he picks her up, so he reaches out and settles her on his lap, stroking her head. It feels strangely comforting.

“Don’t befriend people, Hattie,” he tells her softly, bitterness suffusing his voice. “They’ll always leave you for a pair of shapely legs and red lips.”

Hattie mewls softly and licks his hand as if to disagree. Sherlock pets her ears and sighs, leaning back his head and closing his eyes, trying to empty his brain of all thought.

The squeal of bicycle breaks interrupts his solitude. Hattie stiffens and then leaps off his lap. She slinks towards the front of the garden to study the arrival. Sherlock knows who has come, and feels his heart leap in his chest. Apparently he isn’t staying the night, after all (doesn’t mean he didn’t get intimate with her – shut up, just shut up). Still, John has returned. He’s here. All is well (ish).

“Oh, Hattie, it’s you,” the doctor greets the cat. Over his shoulder, through the trees Sherlock can see his dark silhouette as he stoops to pet the cat. “You need to be careful. I almost ran you over. Do you know if Sherlock’s already here? Oh, I see, his bike is.”

For a moment, Sherlock is tempted to not betray his whereabouts to John because he’s still angry with him for abandoning him for The Woman. Then he scolds himself a sentimental, jealous idiot and rises from the bench. “I’m here, John,” he calls softly.

There is a brief flash of white when John’s teeth catch the moonlight as he smiles. “Oh, good,” he replies, making his way over to Sherlock. “I wasn’t sure where you’d gone. You’d suddenly vanished.” Oh, so he noticed. Sherlock feels some of the cold, tight feeling in his chest dissipate, dissolve in warmth. Nevertheless, he thinks that repartee is in order.

“Interesting you noticed,” he quips when John sinks down onto the bench next to him, Hattie in tow. Sherlock remains standing. John gazes up at him. Sherlock isn’t sure what he reads in his face and hopes it’s dark enough for John not to see his own features too clearly.

John’s eyebrows draw together in a frown. “What do you mean?” he asks evenly.

“Oh, nothing. It’s just that you seemed very focused on The Woman. It’s a true marvel that you managed to pay attention to anything else in the room. Or anybody.” He knows he sounds bitter and petty, but he can’t help it. He kicks away an apple for good measure before he steals another glance at John who sits watching him quietly, a faint smile playing around the corners of his mouth and crinkling the skin at his eyes. Sherlock glowers. Why on earth is he smiling?

“Are you angry that you didn’t get a chance to talk to Irene?” he asks gently.

Sherlock snorts derisively. Irene, indeed. First names. How quaint. “Yes,” he admits, because it’s part of the truth, albeit by no means the chief problem.

“I can tell you everything she said. I took some notes, as did Lestrade. She was pretty candid about that fellow we encountered with her, the hat-man. His name’s Moran, Sebastian Moran. He was a colonel in the army and got wounded in Egypt. Highly decorated. Posh bloke, too, some Lord, father has a seat in the House of Lords, that kind of fellow. Apparently he and Irene were in a relationship until she terminated it, which he took badly. Seems to be the jealous kind, Moran. For her, it wasn’t anything serious, or so she said. She met him in London and enjoyed his advances because they involved lots of luxury goods, and introductions to people who know people. But she soon tired of him and his possessiveness, she said, and because he started following her around wherever she went. We asked her about Jennifer Wilson, too, and she admitted she knew her through Jim and his band. She seemed truly saddened about her death, of which she had learned from Jim only this evening, hence her choice of song. I don’t know if she and Jenny were friends, but those few times they met, they seemed to get along well. Shared the same kind of humour, Irene said, and a similar taste in men.”

Taking a seat next to John because this is actually interesting enough to distract him from his own muddled feelings, he laughs wryly. “Similar taste in men indeed,” he remarks. “I had a little chat with Mr. – or Lord – Moran outside the venue after he’d fetched his car. He knew Jennifer Wilson, too. Apparently they had a brief fling. One of the women ‘on the side’ Adler referred to.”

“Blimey, really?” asks John, adequately surprised. “What else did he say?”

“Not much apart from insults and threats. I asked him about the night of Jenny’s death. There is a good chance that he was the last person who saw her alive. The silver Bentley, it’s his. He drove it tonight, and likely was the driver Sunday night, too. I recognised the hat. Also, he smokes a lot, and even though I unfortunately didn’t keep the ash we found on the road for a comparison, I am almost convinced it was from his cigarettes.”

John stares at him wide-eyed. “What happened after you confronted him with the news of her death? Did he give the impression that he knew?”

“No, he seemed shocked, but immediately turned defensive again. When I suggested he speak to the police, he drove off forcefully, almost running me over. I pursued him on my bicycle as far as I could manage, to see which direction he was going. I lost him up the road where it begins to rise more steeply. He left in the direction of Buckingham, but he may have turned round later. I didn’t see his car again, however, when I went back into town to see how you had fared with The Woman. Unfortunately, the two of you had already left.”

He gives John an reproachful glance. John rubs the back of his neck. “Yes, sorry about that. I should have left a message or something. After talking to Irene and seeing that it was getting late, we asked her if she had a room in town. She said she preferred to return to London. Originally, her plan had been to come with Moran and spend the night at his place, but she wasn’t eager to see him again that evening. Actually, even though she made it seem like she could handle him well, I think she was grateful for our interruption. So I cycled to the station to have a look when the last train was due, then returned and Greg – DI Lestrade – and I accompanied her. We had a bit of time left before her departure, so we spent half an hour at the Shoulder of Mutton having another drink. They’re good company, both of them. Well, then I waited until she and Greg had boarded the train, and cycled back home. Sorry that you had to make the trip twice.”

Sherlock feels he can’t look at him right now, although he admits had he observed more closely, he’d have noticed the lack of lipstick and the general order of John’s clothes. He smells like himself, too, and not of Adler’s rather strong perfume (Chanel?) which surely would have rubbed off on him had they been intimate. He could have washed, of course, and wiped away the traces of their tryst, but no, he still smells of Mrs. Turner’s soap and sweat, and a bit of smoke and beer from the dance hall and the inn in town. Sherlock feels his ears burn with  shame. Groundless, his jealousy has been. He’s made a complete fool of himself.

“Lestrade is going to look into the matter of Moran and try and find our more about him. What’s the plan for tomorrow, anyway? You said something about Kent, and driving?”

Drawn out of his reverie, Sherlock nods. “If I can get leave from work, we’ll investigate the missing messages.”

John nods, looking excited. “Brilliant.” He runs a hand through his hair to dislodge a moth that has landed there, then suddenly he smiles to himself as he listens to the music. A fast, lively piece is wafting through the trees, somewhat scratchy from the gramophone. “Glenn Miller, isn’t it? Didn’t know our landladies listened to this kind of music,” comments John, tapping his feet to the rhythm. “They played it tonight as well, Jim and his Fix-Its. ‘Life Goes To A Party’, I think it’s called. It’s good. Poor Jim, though. He looked really shaken after we talked to him. I think he really liked Jenny.”

Sherlock nods thoughtfully while watching John guardedly. He looks relaxed and happy, smiling slightly and nodding to the music. Suddenly, he frowns slightly, and Sherlock catches him steal a glance at him from the corner of his eye. Sherlock quickly looks away, his heart beating so loudly all of a sudden that he is convinced that John can hear it, and see the flutter of his pulse in his neck. He becomes aware of how close they are sitting together on the narrow bench, their legs and shoulders almost touching. He can feel the warmth emanating from John’s body. His throat suddenly feels very tight and dry.

John, too, seems to be noticing the change in Sherlock’s bearing. He looks at him again, openly this time, and then the corner of his mouth twitches up in a soft but warm smile. And then he’s on his feet and walking around until he is standing in front of Sherlock. He holds out his hand in invitation. Sherlock blinks and stares at the hand, and blinks again.

John lets out an exasperated sigh. “Are you coming?” he asks gently.

Sherlock looks up at him. “Coming?” he croaks, his throat so damnably dry that he can’t seem to utter any words. “Where?”

“Here, to me. For a dance.”

Sherlock is certain he is staring at John like a complete imbecile. “A dance? Here? Now?”

“Yeah. Here and now. Unless you don’t want to.”

Sherlock is still staring. “Why?”

John huffs again. “Because we’re here, and neither of us is tired enough for sleep yet. Because it’s a fine night, and there’s good music playing, and I feel like dancing and Hattie’s a bit too small for it, and you’re here, and because I have it on good authority that you secretly enjoy it even though you try to keep it hushed up, and that moreover you’re good at it. Up, now, Mr. Holmes, and give me your bloody hands.”

At the stern command (whilst spoken in jest and with a teasing undertone), Sherlock rises to his feet. He feels strangely light and floaty. This is unreal. The whole exchange has been. John wants to dance with him? With him, really? It must be a trick of his mind, or of the moonlight. Perhaps he’s dreaming. But no, John snatches one of his unresisting hands and draws him further under the apple-trees so as not to be encumbered by the bench. The touch and the pull feel definitely real enough. He places his right hand on Sherlock’s back near his shoulder blades, nudging Sherlock to put his left on his right upper arm, whilst arranging their other hands so that Sherlock’s right is lightly resting in his left. Sherlock swallows hard as he gazes at his feet.

“Relax,” murmurs John, rubbing his back in a soothing gesture. His hand feels very warm. Sherlock hopes his own hands aren’t too sweaty. He can hear the smile and quiet encouragement in John’s voice. Why is he not more troubled by this? It’s not allowed. They’re both men, they shouldn’t be dancing, especially not in a setting that has all the markings of a romantic one: solitude, moonlight, a garden, music. But John seems perfectly at ease. Sherlock wonders if he has done this before. Not exactly dancing with another man, perhaps, but ... well ... other things. With a man. Has he? He realises that thoughts like these aren’t exactly improving his situation, already compromised as he is by John’s sudden proximity and touch. His face must be burning, and his heart is beating so fast and wild that he is convinced John notice.

“All right?” asks John as he sways slightly with the rhythm, waiting for the right point to start dancing.

Sherlock manages a nod, stealing a glance at John from hooded eyes. The other smiles brilliantly and as if on cue, sweeps Sherlock away in a fluid movement. Sherlock almost lets out a surprised sound, but then he finds that he is smiling as well, and gripping John a little tighter, and they’re dancing, dancing, and Sherlock loves every bit of it. This is different from the awkward dancing lessons at school where he played girl to boys who didn’t even want to touch him. It’s different, too, from the few times he danced in formal settings, to get close to witnesses, or simply to, well, dance, with strangers. This now, this is what dancing should always be like. Despite their different heights and the uneven, apple-strewn ground, they’re well matched. John certainly has plenty of experience when it comes to dancing, and Sherlock for once enjoys being led and held and twirled around. Soon, both are out of breath, but it doesn’t matter. The piece ends and another begins, and they simply continue.

During a particular wild passage, John slips on an apple. Sherlock catches him, and John grins up at him roguishly, apparently not minding one bit that he is pressed flush against Sherlock’s body (Sherlock doesn’t mind, either).

“Oops,” mutters John, taking a step back again, and then he laughs and twirls Sherlock around into another turn, and Sherlock feels as if his heart is beating out of his chest. He loses all notion of time. They could have been dancing for hours, days. He doesn’t want it to end. Remotely, he notices that he isn’t even tempted to deduce John: the way he moves, how he looks like up close, his scent, the feel of his bicep through the fabric of his shirtsleeve, and that of his hand clasping Sherlock’s. For now, Sherlock’s mind is at rest. His body has taken over, and it feels like heaven, a relief and tranquility only drugs managed to achieve in the past.

All too soon, however, the music peters out when the record has reached its end. Sherlock lets out a long breath in preparation of their separation, and the return to reality. But then either Mrs. Hudson or Mrs. Turner do a marvellous thing. They exchange the Glenn Miller record for one of their favourite Ivor Novello compilations. The music begins anew, but now it’s slow and sweet and sentimental (tooth-rottingly so, thinks Sherlock, but who the hell cares).

John casts a quick glance towards the house, then looks up at Sherlock again and raises an eyebrow. Sherlock is not sure whether in invitation or challenge. He simply nods, because he doesn’t want their dancing to end. Neither does John, apparently, because he smiles and steps a little closer to his partner. The hand on Sherlock’s back draws him towards the other, and soon they are dancing closely in a slow Foxtrot while someone sings about giving somebody oceans and mountains and starlight. Sherlock thinks he doesn’t need any of that. He’s content as he has rarely been before in his life.

Looking at John, he feels his heart leap. The doctor has closed his eyes and is smiling. Sherlock wonders what (or whom) he is thinking about. His deceased fiancée perhaps? Or another man he danced with long ago? John’s head sags forward until it rests against Sherlock’s shoulder, and for a brief moment, Sherlock allows himself to bury his nose in John’s hair and breathe in its scent. Then the other stirs and steps back a little, lifting his head and blinking up at Sherlock.

“Sorry,” he mutters, his voice slightly hoarse. “I got carried away a little. I’ve a lot of fond memories of that song,” he adds wistfully, but doesn’t elaborate.

“It’s fine,” replies Sherlock, his voice equally hoarse and a little unsteady. Because it is. All is fine, as long as this night and the dreamlike moonlight and music don’t end.

But apparently John has been reclaimed by reality already. The song ends, and even though The singer croons on with another, John gently disentangles himself from Sherlock. “Suppose I should get some sleep now,” he states almost apologetically. “Busy day tomorrow, isn’t it? With going to Kent and everything.”

Sherlock nods, running a hand through his hair. “Yes, we should call it a night.”

John gives him a lop-sided smile. He reaches out and runs his hand down Sherlock’s arm in what might have supposed to be a manly, friendly shoulder clap, but turns into another gesture entirely. Sherlock feels goosebumps rise in the wake of the hand. “Thank you for the dance, Sherlock,” says John. There is a graveness in his eyes that seems at odds with his smiling mouth.

“You’re welcome,” replies Sherlock, cringing internally at how formal his voice sounds. “Any time,” he adds, to make up for the formality, causing John to grin, now with his eyes as well.

“Good night, Sherlock.”

“Good night, John.”

Sherlock watches him as he heads towards the house. He lets out a long breath, then walks a few steps to the bench and sinks onto it, resting his elbows on his knees and burying his head in his hands. Bloody hell. Or rather, shit, blast and bugger all. As if things weren’t complicated enough, here he goes and falls into the same trap as the sorry rest of humanity, after having successfully managed to avoid said pitfall all his life. Now he’s well and truly buggered (right, well, interesting choice of word). Because there is no denying it any more. He has completely and utterly fallen in love with John Watson. What a bloody mess.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Eventually, the record ends and silence reigns in the garden apart from an owl hooting softly in the distance and the whisper of wind in the trees. Sherlock does not know how long he has sat on the bench, his head in his hands, trying to get to grips with the fact that he is emotionally compromised. He, Sherlock Holmes, who so far has deemed himself above the rest of sorry humanity, has succumbed to the same chemical defect as every love-struck fool since the dawn of time. It’s intolerable. It’s ... strangely wonderful.

Perhaps he can at least make a case-study out of it, monitor himself and record the changes his mind and body go through whenever John Watson is nearby. So far, he has noticed a flutter in the stomach area and acceleration of his heartbeat. Palpitations, isn’t that the term? Is that even scientific, or something straight out of a Jane Austen novel? And why on earth hasn’t he deleted Jane Austen? Her writings are hardly relevant for his work, either here at Bletchley or back in London. Or no, wait, it was for a case that he read some of her works, wasn’t it? The allegedly rediscovered first draft of Emma which was stolen and which he retrieved from the would be burglar. The document turned out to be forged, of course. Wrong ink, wrong paper, although the penmanship had been skilled and almost authentic. Interesting case, altogether.

Not relevant now, he decides. But palpitations, yes, definitely. Unfortunately. Shortness of breath, too. Dilation of pupils, very likely. Would require a mirror to check. Feeling of warmth, even slight outbreak of sweat, particularly on the palms and round the collar of the shirt.

With a shock that sends another wave of heat through his body, he wonders whether his unprecedented emotional state has any adverse effects on his mental capacities. He begins to recite the periodic table of elements in his head, including some of their isotopes. He then counts to one hundred in Greek and recounts approximations of π. To his relief, he notices no major decline of his mental facilities. He sighs. At least being in love hasn’t made him a complete idiot yet.

On the contrary, he feels revived, full of energy. During yesterday’s shift, wasn’t he able to work speedily and efficiently even with John at his side? So what if his eyes strayed to him now and again, and his thoughts even more frequently. He did get his tasks done, and moreover made some progress on Jennifer Wilson’s cryptic message. If he can keep being emotionally compromised at a bare minimum, won’t it be possible for him to function despite being in love? Normal people seem to manage that feat, too, don’t they? Why on earth should he, the world’s only consulting detective, fail in this task?

Drawing a deep breath, he sits up straight, stretches, then turns on the bench to gaze in the direction of John’s room. It’s dark, but the window is open under the half-drawn blackout-cover. A white, lacy curtain hangs out, swaying slightly in the breeze, waving like a ghostly hand and beckoning to Sherlock. He watches it for a while, then swallows. Being in love is one thing. He believes he has arranged some peace with his new circumstances (or at least an armistice between brain and heart). In theory. As long as John isn’t around, Sherlock has convinced himself he can carry on with his work at a level satisfactory both to himself and his employers. But dealing with John, meeting him in the morning, looking him in the eye, talking to him, perhaps even touching him ... Sherlock has no idea how he is going to fare in these situations. There hasn’t been a precedent in his life, and for once he wishes there were, if only to provide him with a somewhat firmer ground to base his expectations on. Like this, he is floating as lightly and freely as the damned curtain upstairs.

He sighs and leans back against the bench. He is well and truly buggered, he realises. Not in the literal sense, thankfully. Although that could potentially be … No, he tells himself firmly. Don’t think along those lines. This kind of thinking would open an entirely new and awfully deep can of worms, and Sherlock decidedly doesn’t want to deal with them right now. The physical aspects of this entire love conundrum have so far been of even less interest to him than the emotional ones. Women have never held any attraction to him, neither have men, generally speaking. However, if he is completely honest with himself, there has been the odd occasion when his gaze lingered on a handsome male form. Does that mean he is homosexual? Is he sexual at all? So far, the mere thought of his active involvement in any kind of intercourse has appalled and, frankly, frightened him. So, is he … what? A little gay and otherwise not interested? That seems to be it. He isn’t sure whether there is a term for that, and doesn’t care if there were. Fact is, taking John into the equation changes things entirely. Or does it? Perhaps it’s time to pry into the can of worms after all, just a little. He can always close the lid again, and seal it, too, if necessary. Or at least put a heavy book on top of it.

So ... he is in love with John. Wants to spend time with him, likes his quick wit, his dry, somewhat wicked humour, his care and compassion, his solid strength and confidence. And his looks. And his smell. And the feel of his hands on Sherlock’s body. Right, well, this is physical desire, isn’t it? Sherlock feels his heartbeat accelerate just imagining it, reliving those moments when John swirled him around in his arms. Yes indeed. His trousers feel a little tight, too, and he shifts his seat on the bench. Interesting. Is this is long dormant libido stirring? Does he want it to stir? For years, he was relieved about the fact that it barely made an appearance, and if it did, he could deal with it quickly and efficiently, and moreover without the need of involving another person. And now ...? Does he want John this way? Sexually? The thought of having to touch somebody else or worse, being touched has always appalled Sherlock. But with John ... it could actually be pleasurable.

The dancing was surprisingly good, even, if he is honest, arousing. He enjoyed it tremendously and was sad when it ended. Could he endure more of John’s affections? More touching? Kissing, perhaps? He finds himself smiling like an idiot at the mere thought. Ah ... all right, that answers the question. So touching and probably kissing, a definite yes. John looks as if he is good at it. Sherlock tells himself he has deduced that John is a good kisser. Would he want to kiss Sherlock, though? Now that’s where things start to get really difficult. Apart from the fact that Sherlock is ... well, Sherlock, there is the undeniable problem throwing shade on any potential romantic endeavours with John, namely the sad fact that they’re both male.

Now, John has proven himself to be willing to bend the rules now and again. He even appears to be enjoying it, despite being used to a strict hierarchy and chain of command (perhaps, muses Sherlock, that’s the reason for his delightfully rebellious streak). But would John act unlawfully to a degree that could send him to prison? Maybe he would risk it for himself, but not, Sherlock is convinced, if by his actions John brought misfortune to another man. Unless the man made clear that he didn’t care, that he was as reckless as John ... So there is a valid possibility that John would. Moreover, the ease with which he invited Sherlock to dance and his wistful expression that hinted at memories of a past lover, perchance even a male one, seem to indicate that ... how did Mrs. Hudson call it when referring to a friend of hers from school? Ah yes, she’d turned out to ‘swing both ways’. Is John Watson so inclined as well? Sherlock has certain suspicions based on his behaviour and some remarks John has uttered. But he cannot be certain. He needs more data, and vows to watch the other even more closely in the future.

Still, even if John is attracted to both women and men, the big question remains whether he’d be attracted to Sherlock. Sherlock’s track record is not good in that respect. Well, there is Molly who is infatuated with him, but Sherlock believes she is not so much taken by his looks and certainly not his personality, but rather his intellect. Which is fine. He values this attribute of his above all others, and of course it speaks for her as well. In a way, what she feels for him must be a kind of admiration, which is flattering. But she does not love him as a person, but more as an idea of something to aspire to herself. She is wasted in her current position, would make an excellent codebreaker herself instead of being condemned to working as a mere clerk. She is ambitious, and Sherlock and everything he embodies is something to work towards.

Apart from Molly, he knows of nobody else who has ever shown even the slightest romantic or even blatantly sexual interest in him. His unusual looks combined with his curt and brutally honest, abrasive personality usually took care of potential suitors, putting off even the more daring candidates. Bletchley Park is the first place where people actually suffer him to work with them and seriously value his input. Despite his initial misgivings about his work here, fired by his resentment over having been forced to leave his beloved London, he has to admit he likes it. He likes the work – most days, at least –, he enjoys the genuine approval of his colleagues. He would not go as far as calling any of them friends, apart from Molly, perhaps. But they are tolerable, and they not only tolerate him, but actually value his contributions. And then there are his landladies, true angels, both of them, albeit very chatty and sometimes overbearingly coddling ones. If anybody loves him, albeit not romantically but rather maternally, it must be them.

A mewling sound next to his feet announces Hattie’s return. Sherlock scoops her up and settles her on his lap. “And you, too. You truly love me, don’t you? If only because I’m the one idiot who pets you regularly.”

Hattie purrs and rubs her head against his chin, which Sherlock takes as a yes.

“Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Turner have all but adopted me as their son,” he muses softly to the cat. Hattie walks in a circle for a while and then settles down, nudging his hand to keep stroking her.

“And no wonder, given what happened to one of Mrs. Tuner’s own.” Sherlock strokes the cat’s back thoughtfully. “I can’t be that intolerable if they like me, can I?”

Hattie gives a soft mewl and kneads his thighs with her claws. Sherlock plucks her paws off his legs and turns her over onto her back, then proceeds to ruffle the fur under her chin. “Do you think John likes me, too?”

Hattie yawns, then licks his hand. “What kind of an answer is that?” complains Sherlock, and then he grins because he notices he is being ridiculous, silly. The things thinking of John does to him ...

“He did dance with me, and moreover instigated it. Even the slow dance,” he tells the cat. “One wouldn’t do that if one didn’t like the other, at least a little. I mean, he touched me, voluntarily. Or perhaps he pitied me. Still, why would he do that? Pity implies care, doesn’t it? Ah, but then he’s a doctor. It’s his profession to care, and perhaps it’s in John’s nature, too, otherwise he wouldn’t have chosen said profession. Are there uncaring doctors? There must be. Oh, why is this so dreadfully complicated? I’m sure it’s far easier for you cats.”

He picks up Hattie and holds her so he looks directly into her eyes. She glares at him in return, hanging limply in his hands, before beginning to struggle to be let down. Sherlock does so. “Thanks for your input,” he grumbles as she stalks away haughtily.

Slowly, Sherlock gets to his feet as well. It’s getting late, midnight having passed a good while ago, and the night air is beginning to feel a little chilly. Moreover he is unlikely to gain any insight into John Watson’s regard of him by sitting out here in the dark. Stifling a yawn, he stretches, and with a last glance at the darkened garden, now that the moon has moved on and is hidden by clouds, Sherlock returns to the house.

His landladies have retired, too. The house is dark and quiet as Sherlock slinks up the stairs and into the bathroom to use the toilet, and for a quick wash and brush of teeth. Afterwards, he yields to the temptation to halt in front of John’s closed door, and even to the urge to very gently run his fingers over the painted wood. Then he scolds himself an idiot and sentimental fool and hurries on to his own room, lest John hear him and find him fawning in front of his room like the love-struck softie he is turning into.

His room is dark, the blackout-curtain drawn, and he pulls it up and flings open the window to air out the room. He remains standing at the window for a while, listening closely to try and catch a sound from next door. But no noises issue from John’s room. He appears to be sleeping peacefully, nor does he snore loud enough for Sherlock to hear. He sighs, scolds himself for doing so, yet cannot help imagining how John might look in slumber. With a jolt, he remembers that he has actually seen him in that state, and has evidence to prove it. Fetching the drawing from his notebook, he takes it to the window and gazes at it in the dim light of the stars, feeling warmth spread through him. Even if John turns out to only regard him as a friend and there will never be more between them – as it should be, he doesn’t want to get John into trouble by suggesting an illicit relationship –, he will always have this: the drawing and the memory of creating it, of studying John’s features so closely that he believes they are forever imprinted in his mind, locked away in a special room that’s now reserved for John.

Returning the drawing to his notebook, he finally gets ready for bed, where he falls asleep surprisingly quickly. But he only sleeps for about an hour before a harsh sound wakes him. Groggily, he sits up, rubs his eyes and listens. He can’t be certain whether it was part of his dream, but it almost sounded like a scream, muffled by a pillow or similar. His suspicion that it has come from John’s room is confirmed when he hears a creak of bedsprings followed by footsteps and the dull thud of the window being shut. Then there are more footsteps. John’s door is opening, and a soft curse sounds when apparently, John slips on the rug that’s covering part of the corridor’s floor and which is notoriously slippery.

Unable to contain his curiosity, Sherlock gets up and moves to his door. He opens it a sliver to peer through. John is limping towards the bathroom, looking dishevelled in his pyjama bottoms and cotton undershirt. He hasn’t bothered with donning a dressing gown. The scar on his left shoulder is visible. It’s much smaller than on his front, but also shows signs of delayed healing due to infection. His hair is sticking up in places. He shuffles into the bathroom without turning on any lights. Sherlock hears him use the toilet and then wash his hands and likely his face, too, judging by the length of time the water is running.

Sherlock closes his door quickly when John returns lest he see him. He isn’t fast enough, though, because a soft knock sounds when he has only retreated a few steps. Feeling his face heat and his heart beat in his throat, he opens the door, embarrassed at being found spying on John. The other, however, doesn’t seem troubled by it. He does look exhausted, the bags under his eyes even more prominent than usual in his pale face that contrasts the gloom of the corridor. His hair is a mess, despite a half-hearted attempt at taming it with some water, using his fingers as a comb.

He gazes up at Sherlock, clears his throat. His voice is hoarse, though, when he says, “Sorry for waking you. I had another nightmare. Not pleasant at all. Sorry. The walls are really thin, aren’t they?” He looks as awkward and embarrassed as Sherlock feels. He shrugs. “Sorry.”

Sherlock nods. “Yes, they are. But it’s not a problem. I’m a light sleeper. The birds would have woken me soon, anyway.”

John cocks his head as he studies him. “You generally don’t sleep much, do you?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “Sleeping is boring,” he replies with an attempt at levity. And it works. John smiles faintly.

“So are eating and breathing for you, right? What a pity they are necessary for human existence.”

“Indeed. Complete waste of time. Clearly a fault in human engineering.”

John’s smile broadens and Sherlock’s heart leaps. “Anything else you consider a waste of time?”

“A great number of things, unfortunately.”

John’s eyes narrow. “Yes, I can imagine,” he says, causing Sherlock to frown. What’s that supposed to mean? He is about to ask when John draws a deep breath. “Ah well, I don’t want to keep you here. Should try and fall asleep again, at least for a few hours. What time do we have to be at the Park?”

“At eight,” replies Sherlock, not wanting him to leave. “Do you ... er ... need some water, or tea?” he then enquires awkwardly, recalling how hoarse John’s voice still sounds.

John clears his throat again and swallows, but shakes his head. “No, I drank some water from the tap just now. It’s fine. But ... thanks. I don’t want to keep you. Long day ahead, and even if sleeping is boring, you should—”

“I really don’t mind,” blurts out Sherlock, interrupting him and chiding himself internally for sounding so eager. “If you have trouble falling asleep again after a nightmare, and your behaviour indicates that this is the case, I may know something that helps.”

John frowns at him but looks curious. “Don’t tell me you’ve concocted some kind of sleeping draught from those pickled creatures you keep on your – and my – shelves.”

Sherlock laughs softly. “I lack proper equipment in these quarters to achieve such a feat,” he replies modestly. “I was rather thinking of playing you some music. You said you wanted to hear me play the violin. I’m wide awake now – in fact I’ve barely slept at all. I’m not likely to fall asleep any time soon. You tossing and turning in bed would keep me awake. So I might as well play for you, if you want.”

John looks intrigued, but casts a doubtful glance down the stairwell. “Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Hudson, they won’t mind if you start playing in the middle of the night?”

“They are sound sleepers and their bedrooms are on the other side of the house, with some thick structural walls between them and us. And they are used to me coming and going at ungodly hours, and making music, too, when I can’t sleep and need the distraction to calm my thoughts. Usually, they don’t mind if they do hear me, as long as I play something decent and not too discordant.”

John thinks for a moment before he nods. “Very well, then, maestro. Let me hear what you can do.”

Sherlock beams at him before he can help it. Dashing into his room and slipping on his dressing gown, he grabs his violin case and walks to John’s room, stopping in the doorway. John has also donned his dressing gown and is standing with his back to the window, a dark silhouette against the sliver of starlit garden that shows under the blackout-curtain. He clears his throat and makes a gesture to invite Sherlock into the room. Sherlock notes how neatly his clothes are put away, some on coat-hangers and some lying folded over the back of the desk chair. The desk is tidy, too, writing utensils to one side, a stack of what looks like novels on the other. John has moved the pickled toad to the windowsill, perhaps to study it in the light from the window. Sherlock is oddly touched by that.

“Well, come in,” John invites him. “You know the room, I take it?”

“Yes, I used it as a laboratory when it was unoccupied,” Sherlock says, stepping fully into the room and closing the door behind him. The gesture feels oddly intimate, and he is aware that his heartbeat has accelerated. Perhaps he should have brought a notebook to collect observations on his body’s behaviour in John’s proximity. But then of course he’s going to need both his hands for playing the violin. He’ll have to commit his observations to memory and write them down later.

“What were your experiments about?” John wants to know. “You didn’t work on any cases here, did you?”

“Only cold ones,” admits Sherlock. “But I read chemistry at Cambridge. I’ve always been fascinated by science, and I took to studying natural poisons found in the Buckinghamshire countryside. You’d be surprised what you can find the in the hedgerows and in the woods and fields. Also, I looked into the chemical consistency of the bricks they produce here, and analysed soil samples and the like. One never knows when these things might come in handy during a murder investigation.”

John gazes at him with a strange expression. Sherlock isn’t sure whether he is impressed or believes Sherlock to be a lunatic. A bit of both, perhaps. Eventually, John laughs softly. “You are quite extraordinary, aren’t you?” he mutters, as if speaking to himself. Then clearing his throat, he moves to free the chair of his clothes. “Er … do sit down. Or do you prefer to stand?” He licks his lips as he looks up at Sherlock, then rubs the back of his neck and smiles a little sheepishly, as if he’s embarrassed.

“This is a bit awkward,” he says.

Sherlock swallows. Yes, this is awkward. Exceedingly so. He is very much aware that he is in John’s bedroom in the middle of the night and that both of them are in a state of, well, not really undress, but neither of them is properly attired right now. John is certainly used to being around other people in their sleepwear and has had visitors in his bedrooms at some point in his life, but Sherlock definitely isn’t used to any of these things. It’s a novel situation in his adult life. But, strangely, not an entirely unpleasant one. “I usually stand when I play.”

John nods and steps back. “All right, great. Fine. Just … er … feel at home, then. Well, you are at home. Make yourself comfortable, that’s what I mean.”

Sherlock casts a quick glance at him as he places the case on the chair and opens it. John seems nervous. Why is he nervous? He’s only supposed to listen and to fall asleep eventually. Sherlock has all reason to be nervous. He’s about to play. It’s been a long time since he last played for an audience deliberately and voluntarily, and he hasn’t had a lot of practice lately. He doubts that John is a harsh critic when it comes to solo violin performances, certainly not as harsh as Sherlock is of his own skills, but he doesn’t want to disappoint him, either. He wants to impress him. John has just called him extraordinary. The word has lodged in Sherlock’s chest like a warm, glowing ember. He wants to feed it with more praise from John, make it spark and flame.

“I’m rather out of practise,” he warns John while preparing the bow. John has settled down on his bed, a pillow in his back against the headboard, the blanket covering his legs.

He gives Sherlock a gentle smile. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” he says when Sherlock retrieves the violin from the case and begins to tune it.

Sherlock takes his time tuning the instrument, both to consider what to play for John and to get a feel for the violin again. Even though his arms and fingers remember how to hold the instrument and will surely recall what to do to coax music out of it, Sherlock wants to get this right. When he is finally satisfied with the tuning, he casts a glance at John. “Any particular wishes?”

John shrugs. “No. I don’t know what you can play, anyway. Something soothing would be nice. Not the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ or a bit of the ‘Carmina Burana’. That’d be rather counterproductive to my sleeping efforts, I think.”

“Quite, yes,” agrees Sherlock, and cannot help adding. “The latter is a choral piece, anyway, accompanied by woodwinds and percussion. And the ‘Ride’ wasn’t written for solo violin, either.”

John smirks at him. “I know, smartarse. I couldn’t think of another example of fast, arousing music, though. Just play something nice. ‘Greensleeves’, perhaps, if you can. I’ve always liked that one.”

Sherlock smiles. He anticipated that John would ask for this piece. “As you wish,” he says, and begins to play. It goes better than he thought. He can plainly hear he is out of practise, but to John’s ears his playing efforts appear to be all right. He sits with his eyes half closed, a peaceful expression on his face as he watches Sherlock sway to the music.

When the piece is finished, he lifts his head and claps. “Beautiful,” he says appreciatively. “But then, I expected nothing less from you.”

The words cause warmth to bloom in Sherlock’s chest once again. He bows. “Thank you. I first heard this version of the piece in a performance of The Fat Knight by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1929. My parents took my brother and me to the opera to celebrate his investiture at Whitehall. I wasn’t keen on the singing, but I liked the instrumental pieces.”

John chuckles. “The Fat Knight. Sounds like a funny piece.”

“It’s Shakespearean,” explains Sherlock. “The protagonist is Falstaff. It’s also called Sir John in Love.”

At this, John’s face takes on a strange expression. Sherlock watches him cast down his eyes and licking his lips. “How fitting,” says John quietly, as if speaking to himself.

Sherlock doesn’t know what to make of his words, until it dawns on him. Of course. It makes sense now. John’s wistful expression during their dancing, his contemplative words now. John has fallen in love, likely with Irene Adler, or perhaps with that Mary woman he danced with so energetically and enthusiastically. The warm glow in Sherlock’s chest dissipates and leaves a cold feeling in its wake. Stupid, stupid, he scolds himself. How could he have ever even contemplated that John might return his disgustingly romantic feelings, even a little? Still, looking on the bright side, things are easier this way. There is no danger of either of them ending up in prison if they simply remain friends and colleagues. Bad luck for Sherlock, falling in love with someone unavailable, but then he never expected to fall in love in the first place. He will come to terms with this, find a way to deal with his feelings for John. Perhaps he will pine a little, for a while, until his rational mind has asserted control over his wayward heart again and the chemical equilibrium of his hormones has been restored. Until then, he’ll simply have to be careful not to let his feelings show. Sherlock believes he can manage that. He is a good actor, after all.

John clears his throat, apparently aware of the strange atmosphere that has developed. “Speaking of Vaughan Williams, can you play ‘The Lark Ascending’? It’s one of my favourite pieces.”

Sherlock swallows. “Yes,” he says, his voice slightly hoarse. “Yes, I can.”

He lifts the violin to his shoulder again and begins to play. Soon, he gets swept away in the music, like so often when he is fully immersed in a piece. This particular one lends itself well to experimentation with its impressionistic elements. The cadenzas have a meditative quality. Sherlock plays with his eyes closed, his bow mimicking the flutter of bird’s wings in flight or the broad sweeps of pastoral British landscape the music seems to suggest. Dimly, he is aware of not always getting all the notes right, but it’s been a long time since he’s played this piece. He hears no sound of protest from John, however. In fact, he hears nothing from his audience, nor is Sherlock in any state to monitor John’s reaction.

When finally, the piece is finished and Sherlock comes back into himself, a sniff sounds from John’s direction. Sherlock turns to him to see him rubbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his dressing gown. “Sorry,” says John a little gruffly. “This piece always gets to me. Thank you, Sherlock.”

Sherlock inclines his head. “It wasn’t perfect,” he says modestly.

John cocks his head as he watches him. “It was for me.”

They exchange a long glance until, fearful that he will give himself away, Sherlock casts down his eyes. “I would like to play all night, but it seems the music isn’t really working towards sending you to sleep.”

“No, not exactly. But it helped disperse the memories of my dream, so I thank you for that. I agree, however, that we should try to get some rest now. Otherwise, if our landladies find you in my bedroom in the middle of the night, they might get the wrong idea.”

Sherlock knows John’s statement, accompanied by a slight smile, was uttered in jest. Nevertheless he feels a hot stab in his chest area at the reminder of his illicit, dangerous feelings for the other. He clears his throat. “Yes, indeed.” Then with an attempt at levity, he adds, “Well, I could always claim to have come to fetch my toad for an experiment.”

At this, John bursts out laughing. “God, yes. But I’m not sure that statement would convince anybody of the inoffensiveness of our nocturnal activities.”

“That’d be their problem,” states Sherlock. “I am not aware that playing music at night or fetching vital ingredients for an experiment is indecent in any way, even if it involves two men in the same room at night, both only attired in nightwear.”

“Well, I’m not sure a pickled toad could be considered decent under any circumstances, but you are right. Anyway, I’m much obliged to you for your impromptu concert, and look forward to a repeat. During daytime, perhaps, and with more clothing on,” he adds with a wink.

“Any time,” says Sherlock as he begins to stow away violin and bow. “Thank you for listening.”

“My pleasure,” says John. He rises from the bed and begins to peel off his dressing gown. Then he comes to stand in front of Sherlock, gazing up at him gravely. “Really. It was a pleasure. You are … quite amazing.” He gives Sherlock a quick smile, then turns, almost as if he’s said too much. “Good night, Sherlock.”

“Good night, John,” replies Sherlock, swallowing as he watches John hang up the gown. The warm glow in his chest is back, and it stays as he lies in his own bed, his heart beating quick and strong. This entire encounter has been strange and unreal and quite wonderful, despite the implication of John being in love with someone else. Sherlock sighs and closes his eyes. He’s been called ‘extraordinary’ and ‘amazing’, all in the course of one hour. That’s quite something, isn’t it?

 

–<o>–

 

Sherlock almost oversleeps the next morning. He is thankfully woken by Hattie making a racket outside his door, immediately followed by a soft knock. John’s head peeks in next to Hattie’s, who he has swept into his arms. “Good morning. It’s almost seven,” he greets Sherlock. “I thought you might want to grab some breakfast before we have to leave.”

Sherlock grumbles, not quite awake, but manages a gruff “Morning” in return. Five minutes later he is washed and his teeth brushed. A quick sweep of his hand over his chin shows that his stubble isn’t noticeable enough to warrant a shave, so he forgoes that, but spends a moment trying to tame is hair, which eventually he gives up as a lost cause. Back in his room he considers what to wear. He hasn’t received word from Turing or Tiltman yet concerning his papers for Knockholt, but Tiltman had seemed fairly certain that he was going to get some official documentation to allow him access to the listening station and its archive. This means that Sherlock’s original plan of disguising himself as his brother and commandeering his car in London to lend his act some credibility might not be required after all. Still, some more impeccable attire than his usual gabardine trousers and woollen sleeveless jumper over a subtly patterned shirt might be required. He opts for a dark grey three-piece suit with narrow pinstripes, and packs a tie and even a hat, just in case disguise might be required after all. He also packs a briefcase with the notebook, writing utensils and enough money for a return journey to Kent for two passengers, and some extra to spend on food and drink. Surely John will require sustenance if they are going to be out on the road all day.

At the breakfast table, he tries not to let his eyes linger on John too long and too obviously. It’s difficult. Even though the lack of sleep shows in John’s lined features and the bags under his eyes, the dark blue three-piece, double-breasted suit he is wearing is doing marvellous things to his figure by accentuating the broadness of his shoulders. The colour also brings out the dark blue of his eyes. He has also packed a hat and a briefcase, and has even polished his shoes.

“I didn’t know what to wear,” he tells Sherlock when after a quick bite, they step out of the house and ready their bicycles, “but since this is supposed to be an official – or at least official looking – visit, I thought I’d put on something appropriate. I’m not required to don my uniform, am I?”

Yes, of course you are, thinks Sherlock, but then scolds himself and shakes his head. “This should be fine. We’ll pass by the Park and hear if Tiltman has got some official papers for me. Those should make things easier.”

“What about the car?   You mentioned something about driving.”

“We may not need it. We’ll see at the Park, or in London at the latest, depending on how good the connections to Kent are.”

John nods and they set out at a leisurely pace. Soon, they meet other cyclists on their way to the Park, and they conduct the rest of their ride in silence.

 

–<o>–

 

Tiltman looks as if he has slept at his desk. His suit is creased and his face tired, and he’s wearing the same shirt as the day before. John exchanges an amused glance with Sherlock when he spots the Peter Rabbit wallpaper of the codebreaker’s office. Tiltman appears to be in a hurry. He is standing at his desk when they enter, his suit jacket already buttoned, but he smiles when he hands Sherlock an envelope.

“I’ve arranged two days leave for you and Doctor Watson, Holmes. Should be sufficient to get you to Kent and back. I’ve wired Commander Wilcox, the head of Knockholt Station. He expects you. Should you experience any delay, let him know. They’re based at Ivy Farm. It’s in the centre of the village, not far from The Three Horseshoes, the local inn. Call us or telegraph if there are problems and we’ll forward the message to Ivy Farm to ensure a secure connection.”

Sherlock takes the letter and thanks Tiltman.

“You’re expected back here for your shift at midnight tomorrow night. You’d better make it back by then, otherwise Denniston is going to be after my head. He wasn’t happy about giving you leave, but agreed in the end after I’d convinced him of the absolute necessity of looking into the matter of the lost message. And I wasn’t exaggerating, Holmes. The matter is bloody important. We’ve had another sweep of our archive here and the duplicates of the message and several others of this day appear to have been stolen. If that doesn’t reek of espionage, I don’t know what does. So good luck to you both.”

With these words and a grave, troubled expression, he ushers the pair on their way. John lets out a huff when they descend the staircase of the mansion, weaving through clerks and dusty motorcycle couriers. “Do you think he’s right about the spy?” he asks in a low voice.

Sherlock shrugs. “It seems the likeliest explanation. I think we’ll know more when we actually see the message that’s been lost.”

“Unless someone at Knockholt ‘vanished’ it, too,” muses John, looking grim.

Sherlock nods. “That’s always a possibility. Come on. There’s a train to London in about twenty minutes. If we hurry, we can catch it.”

 

–<o>–

 

Because the train is quite full, the are forced to share their compartment with, as Sherlock informs John in a low voice when they are seated next to each other, two elderly ladies returning from visiting relatives in the country, their bags backed with groceries they were apparently given by their well-meaning family to alleviate the shortages of rationing. One used to be a cook, Sherlock can tell from her hands, and one has recently been widowed. Then there is a young man ready to enlist in the navy, and his friend, already a naval engineer, on his way back to Portsmouth, according to the ticket that is peeking out of his pocket. He is animatedly telling his friend about life in the navy. Sherlock casts a glance at John who is watching them with a wry smile, obviously both amused and irritated about their enthusiasm.

“I hope all goes well for them,” he tells Sherlock quietly when the two sailors have stepped out into the corridor for a smoke (after one of the ladies complained about them smoking in the compartment). “They’re so young, and so naïve.” He shakes his head.

“Were you not like that when you enlisted?” asks Sherlock, acutely aware of how John is leaning over towards him and how their legs are touching on the narrow seat, despite there now being enough space with the sailors gone.

“Back in the Great War, perhaps, although even then I knew it wasn’t going to be the big adventure everybody had been talking about back in ’14 and ’15. I enlisted quite late, towards the end. I would have been too young before, anyway. And I really went because most of my friends did, too. The chaps of my rugby team, and many from my school. We were like one of the Pals battalions, although by that time most of those were officially disbanded.”

He draws a deep breath and gazes at the floor. “I think only three of the group made it, including myself. Four are still unaccounted for, the others fell. That was tough. And things weren’t any better at home.”

He looks at Sherlock and shrugs. “I’d seen what the war had done to my old man. Before joining up, in a way, I had this vague idea of heroically avenging his suffering at the hands of the Germans. But then when I was actually in the trenches and saw that the poor buggers weren’t any better off than us, that thought vanished really quickly. And then it was only about keeping my pals alive. Not that I was very successful in that regard. But it made me want to become a doctor. I was lucky to be made stretcher bearer and then aide to the medic quite quickly, probably because they noticed that I was good at that kind of stuff, and not so eager to actually shoot or bayonet people. Then after the war, I wanted to become a doctor. My family lacked the funds to get me into university, so I looked elsewhere. Both the army and the navy offered training. I was pretty fed up with the army at that point, so the navy it was. And I haven’t regretted my decision, or hadn’t, anyway, until this dratted new war came along.”

One of the elderly ladies tuts at this and gives him a disapproving glance. “This is not very patriotic, this kind of talk, young man,” she tells him reproachfully.

John lifts his chin as if in challenge, but his expression remains calm. “To be honest, I don’t care any longer about patriotism. Being proud of one’s country and defending it against attack – or, in my case, protecting food convoys in the North Atlantic –, that’s one thing I approve of. But patriotism can turn dangerous very soon, as can be witnessed in Germany right now.”

“So you don’t countenance striking back at the Germany with all we have, to take revenge for our cities they’ve bombed? Marjorie here lost her house in the Blitz, and my Larry was killed in a bombing raid. If I could, I’d hop on the next plane and bomb the life out of Germany.”

“I can understand that, and am sorry for your loss,” replies John, still speaking calmly, but Sherlock can see how his hand flexes around the top of the briefcase in his lap. “But bombing cities full of civilians ... that doesn’t seem right to me.”

“The Germans didn’t ask whether it was right to bomb Coventry or London,” chips in the other lady, Marjorie.

“Yes, true. But wouldn’t our actions make us as bad as them, were we to attack simply to take revenge? Where would that end? Personally, I’d love to drop a bomb on Hitler and Goebbels and the rest of their High Command, but I wouldn’t want to hit any civilians in the process.”

“But they’re all Nazis,” says the other woman with conviction.

“Are they?” asks John. “To be honest, I can’t imagine that. I mean, from what one hears, all those who dare oppose the government face major discrimination or are even jailed and executed. Who’d dare to voice their opinion freely and openly under those circumstances? I was captive on a German submarine, and what I witnessed there wasn’t a vessel filled with glowing supporters of the Nazi cause, but just ordinary chaps like ours, homesick, worried about their dear ones, interested in girls and football and looking forward to shore leave. Their captain was a bit of a hardliner, but the rest ... they weren’t the monsters we want them to be. Anyway, I fully support the need to defeat this enemy. The alternative is unthinkable. But we shouldn’t forget our humanity. Otherwise we’re no better than those we are fighting. Also, look at how things developed after the Great War, the ‘War to End All Wars’. Germany was beaten down, was made to pay exorbitant reparations that crippled its economy and caused dangerous upstarts like Hitler to rise to power. We should be careful not to make the same mistake again.”

With that, to end the argument, John turns toward the window and falls silent. The two sailors return and squeeze into the compartment, climbing over the many bags of groceries the two ladies have stowed on the floor. Sherlock sees how the hand resting on the briefcase clenches and unclenches. He is still upset about what was spoken about. Sherlock feels tempted to reach for the hand, but resists, of course.

He watches John’s profile, takes in the hairs curling at the nape of his neck. He thinks about John’s words. In the past, Sherlock never concerned himself much with political issues. His task at Bletchley Park is clear. He has heard about some of the evil going on in Germany and further east, about concentration camps and major discrimination of Jews and whoever is termed ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, or dares to oppose the system. But he has never spared a thought for the rest of the population, and how they might be faring under what is plainly a dictatorship. What would he do, what would anybody here do if caught in a similar dilemma, not knowing who to trust, not daring to speak up out of fear of persecution? Sherlock recalls his thoughts the previous evening, his confusion about his sexual orientation. If truly he is homosexual (and watching John like that doesn’t really helps setting him straight), then in Germany, he could be on a train to a camp. Here in England, it would only be prison or some kind of medicinal treatment to ‘heal’ him. Bad enough, surely, but not life-threatening.

He shakes himself slightly. None of these thoughts are very helpful right now. He’d better devote himself to the case at hand. John Watson has turned out to be a greater distraction than Sherlock anticipated. He must manage to be in love with him and concentrate on the Work at the same time. To achieve this, he settles back against the headrest and closes his eyes, sorting through everything they have learned about Jennifer Wilson and her acquaintances during the past days. Sherlock wonders whether they’ll have time to pass by Scotland Yard on their way to the station where their train to Knockholt departs. Should be either Waterloo or London Bridge. He’ll have to enquire at Euston. He also considers calling at his flat, if it’s still in existence and not fallen prey to German bombs. Normally, his mail is forwarded to Bletchley, but occasionally, mailings are overlooked and warrant some investigation. Moreover, Sherlock is curious to see if any clients have called since he’s been away. His last case in London, before he was carted off to Bletchley, caused a bit of a stir in the upper circles of Kensington, and even though he did not feature largely in the press, his name did get mentioned, and is surely remembered.

 

–<o>–

 

Euston Station is brimming with travellers, mostly army personnel on leave, and groups of children with small suitcases and cardboard labels round their necks about to be evacuated to the countryside. There have been no bombings since summer, but one never knows when the next raids are due.

Weaving their way through the crowds, Sherlock steers John towards a ticket counter to enquire about their connection. The harassed looking woman simply hands him a printed timetable for the Southern Railway and tells him to pick his own connection.

“I wouldn’t take those from London Bridge, though,” she advises him. “They’ve taken quite a hit during the Blitz and most of the station is either destroyed or patched up in a rather unsafe way. I’d try Waterloo for Kent, if I were you. The connection will take longer, but at least you won’t run the danger of bits of roof falling onto your heads while you’re waiting for your train.”

Sherlock thanks her and rejoins John who has been studying the morning’s papers at a kiosk. Sherlock informs him about their connections.

“How do we get to Waterloo?” John wants to know as they exit the station. “It’s a fair way. Shall we take the Tube?”

“If it’s running, we could, although I’d prefer alternative transportation,” replies Sherlock. “There may be buses as well. Before the war and the petrol shortages, I would have taken a taxi.”

John grins at that. “Of course. Not one for public transport, are you?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Not really. Too many people in too small a space. Too much sensory input. When I was younger, I had real difficulties switching it off. Deducing people, I mean. Now I can filter it a bit better, but using the Underground is still challenging. But how about we walk for a bit. I’d like to pass by my flat to see if there’s any mail, and if it’s still there, even.”

John gazes at the moderate traffic, mostly pedestrian. Sherlock studies his surroundings as well. Many buses have been roped into the war effort, and there isn’t enough fuel to have all of them running, anyway. Private cars are few, as are cabs. A number of buildings show signs of bomb damage, many more are boarded up with sandbags and heavy blackout shutters to protect the windows. Sleepy Bletchley feels like a different, bright and peaceful world in comparison.

“Whereabouts is your flat?” asks John.

“Montague Street, next to Russell Square,” Sherlock informs him, nodding southwards, before crossing the road at a quick pace.

John grins at that, jogging to keep up with Sherlock’s long strides. With wry amusement Sherlock notices that there is no sign of his limp. “Nice area, Bloomsbury,” he remarks. “You could almost have been neighbours with Virginia Woolf.”

“Who?”

John rolls his eyes at him. “The author. Never heard of her? Bloomsbury Circle? Mrs. Dalloway? To the Lighthouse?

Dimly, the name rings a bell. Sherlock shakes his head, however. “If I ever did I deleted it.”

“Deleted it?”

“Of course. Only way to keep one’s mind tidy and efficient, and free of distractions. Mine is constructed like a palace, you see. I store information in various rooms and passages of my mental edifice, and if I want to retrieve a memory, I simply follow the paths to the relevant room, and perhaps on to a shelf or box or other piece of furniture in that room. However, to be able to reach pertinent information quickly and effortlessly, one has to keep this construct free of useless clutter, like a real building. No use having to climb over stacks of irrelevant literature or other rubbish in order to reach something required for the Work.”

John frowns at him. “It sounds interesting, but if you completely delete certain things, doesn’t that leave you with great gaps of knowledge? And might not that knowledge be pertinent to a case one day?”

“Maybe. But of course one can always add new things, change the layout of the palace. It’s not a fixed structure. Tell me, what on earth would I need to know about that Woolf person in my line of work at Bletchley?”

“Not there, perhaps, but for your detective work, surely a general knowledge of contemporary literature would be helpful. Do you ever read for pleasure?”

“Tedious,” grumbles Sherlock.

“Really? Are there no books you enjoy, apart from chemistry textbooks and accounts of famous murderers, perhaps?”

Sherlock thinks for a moment. It’s been a while since he last read a book simply for the sake of it, as a distraction. The last one was when he was forced into prolonged bedrest by his illness. He doesn’t recall what exactly he read there, however. Could have been that book with the dwarves and the dragon, the one with the elaborate maps Sherlock enjoyed poring over, trying to imagine what lay outside their borders.

“There are a few,” he concedes. “Mostly those I read as a child, such as Treasure Island. I liked the one with the dragon and the dwarves, too. It had maps, which is always a bonus, and hinted at greater things with its runes and hints and ancient languages.”

The Hobbit?” asks John. “Yes, that was a good one. I hope the author is going to write a sequel.”

“He is working on it,” says Sherlock, recalling his encounter with said author at Allen & Unwin Publishers a while ago.

They walk in silence for a while, heading south along Gower Street. “Does your sister read the works by Woolf?” enquires Sherlock.

John nods. “Yes. That’s why I know a bit about the author and her circle of friends. Harriet has been a great admirer of her work for a while, and of her unconventional lifestyle, too. There are rumours she had a relationship with another woman,” John adds in a low voice, barely audible over the din of traffic.

“Your sister is a lesbian,” states Sherlock matter-of-factly. John looks shocked for a moment, likely by his bluntness, before giving a brief nod.

“She is fairly open and out about it, too. I keep telling her to be more careful. I mean, she shares a house with her ... companion, Clara. If you see the two of them together, you’d think they’re an old married couple. Bickering all the time, but being surprisingly affectionate with each other, too. So far, they haven’t raised suspicion. Guess it’d be different if it were two blokes. With women, people always assume they're just close friends, not ... inverts.”

For a brief moment, Sherlock thinks John looks wistful, almost sad. He wonders whether he is thinking of his dead fiancée or some other lover. A male one?

Then John snaps out of his strange mood and shrugs. “Harry was very distraught when she learned about Woolf’s suicide earlier this year.”

“Suicide?” asks Sherlock. Suddenly, Virginia Woolf has become a lot more interesting. Now he remembers why her name sounded vaguely familiar. He must have read about her demise in the papers. “How did she die?”

“Drowned herself, by all accounts, after leaving a farewell letter to her husband. It took them a while to find her body in the river Ouse.”

“It couldn’t have been murder?” Sherlock wants to know. John smiles and shakes his head. “Unlikely. She was depressed, seemingly, and saw this as the only way out. Harriet greatly admires her work, always told me to try and read it because it’s so modern and unusual – which was rather the reason I didn’t read it. I’m more of a Treasure Island and Hobbit person, myself. You know, adventure and all that, and a bit of escapism, too. I was pretty impressed by T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I don’t need to read about our stark reality when I’m on a bloody ship in the middle of the freezing North Atlantic, hoping not to get blown out of said waters by a German submarine. But as for you, I’m surprised you’re reading that kind of stuff. Adventure tales.”

Sherlock frowns at him. “Why?”

“Because you’re so scientifically minded. I mean, you delete stuff you don’t think pertinent to your work. But maybe that’s just for show. How you present yourself to the world, I mean. I’m beginning to suspect that inside, you’re a big soppy romantic, like the rest of us poor buggers.”

John’s remark is accompanied by a wink and a grin, and an amicable nudge with his elbow. Sherlock is shocked, both by John’s bold claim, and even more by his reaction to it. He feels a blush creep up to colour his cheeks and curses his traitorous body and the fact that John, with some uncanny ability hitherto unknown to Sherlock, seems to be able to look right through him, able to read plaintext where Sherlock has been careful to encrypt his inner workings for most of his life.

“Hah, got you there!” quips John, beaming at Sherlock. “You’re blushing.”

“It’s the exercise and the warm weather,” lies Sherlock, squinting up at the damnable sun that just now, when he would have needed some bright sunshine, has the nerve to hide behind clouds. “Remember, I’m used to sitting behind a desk in a darkened room most of the time.”

“Liar,” laughs John. “You cycle to work every day, and your dancing yesterday showed you’re quite fit. Our leisurely walk here shouldn’t get you hot and bothered. But don’t worry, I won’t dig any deeper into the mysterious workings of your heart if it flusters you so much.”

“Thank you.”

They walk in silence for a while, dodging other pedestrians on the pavement. To distract himself from his companion, Sherlock takes stock of the damage that has been wrought since last he passed down this street. University College has sustained considerable damage, it seems, like many of its neighbouring buildings. The Great Hall looks as if it has taken a direct hit and has been mostly reduced to a pile of rubble. Not much teaching going on there now, anyway, with most of the students and many of the professors busy with the war effort. Or dead. Considering the fact that so many British men are in actual danger of getting shot or blown up, Sherlock and his fellow codebreakers truly have an easy time in Bletchley.

“Still,” John’s voice pulls him out of his musings, “I’d imagine it’d to be rather practical, this deleting thing. Not just to get rid of – how did you call it? Useless clutter?”

Sherlock gazes at him. “Of course it is useful. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.”

“Can you delete people as well?”

Sherlock nods. “Most of the time, yes. I wouldn’t have managed to get through school or university without the ability. My peers and their attitude towards me weren’t exactly friendly.”

John watches him thoughtfully. “Yes, I can imagine.”

Sherlock’s lips narrow and he looks away. “Doesn’t mean I share their opinion,” John goes on, speaking gravely. “I meant what I said last night, you know. I haven’t met anyone like you before.”

“You called me extraordinary,” blurts out Sherlock before he can censor himself. John smiles softly.

“Yes, I did. Because it’s true. At first I thought that you were a bit of an arrogant sod who treats the rest of humanity as far below him because you’re so brilliant and clever. But you’re not always like that. You can be surprisingly funny, even silly. Human, you know. And kind, too, when you remember your manners. Those boys at your school, they must have been utter idiots not to see that.”

Sherlock regards him, looking for signs of John trying to trick or tease him, but there are none. He is tempted to tell John that by now he has his own wing in Sherlock’s mind palace. Their dance alone occupies an entire room. But he thinks that this would be rather inappropriate and reveal too much of his true feelings for this extraordinary, brilliant man.

“You’re in no danger of being deleted for now,” he offers instead, trying to sound matter-of-fact. John lets out a bright, happy laugh.

“I very much hope so.”

Sherlock gazes at him and feels his face turn into an equally bright smile, almost of its own volition. What is this? Is John flirting with him? And he, is he flirting back? And why is there a funny feeling in his stomach right now?

“I wonder what they’ve done with all the exhibits,” muses John as they turn left into Montague Place and pass by the northern entrance of the British Museum, thankfully distracting Sherlock from his musings. The museum, too, has been damaged in the Blitz, although not as badly as the UCL buildings. Sherlock, who actually witnessed part of the evacuation of its treasures before the air raids started, gazes at the boarded up entrance and the two majestic stone lions guarding it, themselves half covered in sandbags and tarpaulins.

“Many of the items are stored underground,” he explains, “in Tube tunnels and deep cellars and the like. Not ideal conditions, but at least that way, they are safe from bombs and looters alike.”

John nods thoughtfully, studying the damaged building to their right which despite its state retains much of its impressive grandeur. “I wonder how many historic artefacts and contemporary works of art considered ‘entartet’ have either been stolen or destroyed by the Nazis. I heard they burned books en masse, and the people stood by and cheered. As much as I defended the general population back on the train, there are some things I don’t condone. And worse than watching the burning of books and doing nothing, they’re also letting parts of the population be treated like ... I don’t know. Traitors or something. Only because of ‘race’, which is utter rubbish, by the way. There is no such thing as a race based on religious beliefs. I mean, each of us could convert to Judaism, but that wouldn’t change our biological design.”

“Well, the Nazis are using questionable science to bolster their claim for superiority,” offers Sherlock. “And don’t believe for an instant that the Germans are the only ones capable of that, or have even invented it. Look at the Americans and how they treated – and still treat – their native population, or even closer to home, regard British colonial efforts abroad.”

John nods darkly. “Yes, I know. My uncle fought in the Boer War, and my granddad against the Zulus. Grandpa was deeply troubled by what he saw down there, so much so that he tried to hinder Uncle Charlie from going to South-Africa to fight against the Boers. Granddad always said it wasn’t our war to fight. But I’m surprised. You are interested in politics, after all.”

Sherlock snorts. “I wouldn’t call myself ‘interested’, but some things I find useful to retain. Moreover, in order to correspond with my brother whose entire life comprises of politics, I find it helpful to at least have a general idea of historical and current developments.”

John studies him thoughtfully. “Your brother ... he’s a politician, then?”

Sherlock snorts. “If you asked him, he’d tell you that he occupies a minor position in the British government.”

“Which is an understatement, I take it.”

“Obviously. He is the British government. Who do you think was instrumental in retrieving Churchill from his self-imposed exile and reinstating him in office when a leader figure was needed for the war effort instead of Chamberlain? Who engineered the abdication of Edward in favour of his brother’s ascendancy to the throne? Mycroft pulls the strings – and not just behind our government. He has numerous connections abroad, too. I think his current endeavour is to get the Americans to actively support us against Germany.”

“He made Edward abdicate?” asks John, looking both wary and impressed, the latter almost against his will. “Because of his affair with Wallis Simpson?”

“I doubt it. Mycroft couldn’t care less if the future king had an affair with a twice-divorced woman. Edward being sympathetic of the Nazi cause, however ... that was more of a problem.”

John thinks for a moment. “What does your brother look like? He doesn’t happen to be a tall, thin chap with a receding hairline and a disapproving face who wears a pin-striped suit and always carries an umbrella, despite the weather?”

Sherlock frowns at him. “I wouldn’t exactly call him ‘thin’, but the rest of the description is spot on.” Realisation dawns on him. “Of course,” he growls, and kicks at a stone on the pavement. “You have met him, haven’t you? Likely he briefed you personally before you were sent to Bletchley Park.”

He stops short and rounds on John, towering over him as he pins him with a keen, unforgiving look. Surprised, John halts, too, gazing up at him with a questioning, almost worried expression. “Sherlock, what—?”

“Oh, I can see it now,” Sherlock interrupts him forcefully, suddenly angry. “I should have known. I should have been more attentive. Nobody befriends me just like that. It doesn’t happen. Yet here you are, pretending to enjoy my company, making lively conversation, even complimenting me. I should have grown suspicious a long time ago, even before the dancing and the night time concert.”

“Sherlock, what the hell are you going on about?” asks John, looking utterly confused.

“No need to pretend any longer, Doctor Watson,” hisses Sherlock, stabbing his finger at John’s chest. “I understand everything now. Mycroft set you up for this, didn’t he? He is always keen to spy on me, and in the past has installed others in the places where I work and live to ‘watch over me’, as he calls it, which is simply a euphemism for having informants who keep him updated about my doings. And how fitting is this: a damaged naval surgeon in need of a new occupation, a capable doctor a bit down on his luck but affable and friendly enough to worm his way into my good books. Not a bad actor, either, having managed to fool me for so long. So, Doctor Naval Surgeon Captain Watson, what is in it for you? A good pension? The promise of promotion? You can drop the act now and tell me.”

During his speech, John’s stance and expression have changed. He has drawn himself up and stuck out his chin. His gaze on Sherlock is harder now, no longer surprised, but confident and unwavering, as if he, too, is spoiling for a fight. “Is this really what you think of me? That I was sent to spy on you? Why on earth would I do that? I’m not interested in any extra money, nor a promotion. But you are right, I was offered both. By your brother, too. He wanted me to do exactly what you just said, wanted me to keep him informed about your doings. Nothing indiscreet, he said, nothing I’d be uncomfortable revealing.”

Sherlock jerks his head up, his eyes burning. “Hah, I knew it.”

“I turned him down.”

“What?”

“I turned him down. Quite vehemently, too. When he insisted it would be for both yours and my best, I said I wasn’t interested because I didn’t know about your best and that mine certainly didn’t comprise of spying on people for money. Basically, I told him where he could stick his money and his promotion.”

Sherlock blinks, feeling wrong-footed. “You did? How did he react?”

John grins grimly. “At first, he looked mildly surprised, then mildly angry. Quite the poker-face, your brother. He didn’t show a lot of emotion. Still, I think it’s fair to say he was startled by my reply. He then changed tack and began to threaten me, began revealing things about me and my family that he read from a small notebook. He knew almost everything about me, even things I’d rather not want spread about. He was pretty intimidating.”

“And yet you told him ... what?”

John shrugs. “Well, when he saw that even though I was a bit unsettled by his knowledge, I kept refusing, he changed his tune yet again. He kept going on about the large addition to my pension and the promotion, and about my prospects as a doctor after the war, and also about the fact that with his help, I wouldn’t have to worry about Harry getting into any trouble. At some point I got really angry and told him that I wasn’t interested and resented him trying to threaten me, and that he could stick his promotion where the sun doesn’t shine.”

There is a defiant yet amused spark in his dark-blue eyes. Sherlock feels his anger at the perceived deception dissipate and his admiration for this remarkable man increase. He chuckles softly. “I would have loved to have seen his face.”

“Well, it wasn’t that spectacular,” says John modestly, then laughs as well. “Although at some point he looked like he was chewing on a slug or something equally disgusting.”

Sherlock snorts, and raises his hand to his mouth to hide his giggles. Oh, the mental image is brilliant. He thinks he knows exactly what he brother looked like in that moment. Drawing a deep breath to calm down and then biting his lip, Sherlock gazes at John from under his lashes. “John, I am sorry. I ... I shouldn’t have attacked you like this. Mycroft and I ... we have a somewhat strained relationship.”

“I’d never have guessed. Siblings, eh? Always troublesome.”

Sherlock smiles. “Always. Still, I don’t entirely approve of your behaviour.”

“How so?”

“Well, next time my brother offers you money to spy on me, do take it. We can split the fee. Also, some extra gold braid would look lovely on your uniform.”

John laughs brightly at this, and Sherlock is relieved that their quarrel has apparently been settled so quickly and effortlessly. He feels foolish for having doubted John. Of course, he could have been lying about his encounter, but the way he’s described Sherlock’s brother sounds very genuine. Sherlock even wonders whether or not Mycroft was a little impressed by the staunch doctor. Sherlock certainly is. It is no mean feat to oppose the British Government and walk out unscathed. Sherlock also wonders what details about John’s past are so juicy that he wants to keep them secret. His father’s death? His sister’s homosexual relationship? John’s own service records? Is there anything in there that’s questionable, even damaging to John should it become public knowledge? Sherlock is curious, and wonders whether he could contrive of a way of catching a glimpse of his brother’s notes on John Watson. Or would that be more than bit not good? Should he rather keep observing John and hoping to be able to deduce his secret eventually? Or ask him, even?

“Lovely, eh?” asks John with a wink and a mischievous grin.

Sherlock blushes. “Dashing. Impressive, I mean. Because of the promotion.” Good God, is he stammering? That won’t do.

John studies him, his expression sobering. A slight, lopsided smile remains, however. “Yeah, I think I get it.”

Sherlock gives him a quick glance but doesn’t comment. He is embarrassed by his own behaviour and is glad to end the conversation. They have reached the end of Montague Place. Ahead lies Russell Square. To Sherlock’s relief, the small park looks fairly intact. Some of the tall trees seem to have suffered damage, and the iron railings that once kept the garden a private, enclosed space for the sole use of the inhabitants of the surrounding buildings have been partially removed. Likely, they have been melted to make guns, tanks or battleships. Because the weather is fair and it’s almost lunchtime, a considerable number of people can be seen milling about under the trees and sitting on the grass. The chatter of children and the barking of a small dog sound from a thicket of bushes close to where a bit of railing still stands, bent a little out of shape as if something heavy has fallen on it. Sherlock thinks it might have been a tree, felled, perhaps, by a bomb dropped nearby.

John stops and listens, then smiles. “I think they’re playing football – or rather, they’re looking for their ball which has been swallowed by the greenery. Lucky chaps. I wish I could play now as well, haven’t in ages.”

“Shouldn’t they be at school?”

John grins at Sherlock. “Spoilsport.”

Crossing the road and stepping over to the thicket, he tries to peer through the branches, searching for the ball. Sherlock ambles over and looks as well. Not much can be seen. However, the voices of the children have turned excited, almost awed.

“Don’t touch it,” Sherlock hears one, a girl, by the sound of it, say. She adds something else, but her words are swallowed by the babble of the other children and the racket the dog makes. There’s a rustle of foliage, then a splash. “Hey, Spot, get out of there. You’re getting all muddy,” cries one of the children, and the others begin calling the dog to return from wherever it got itself into.

Something begins to tingle in the back of Sherlock’s mind. Why a splash? There is a fountain in the park, but not near the fence. A puddle, then. But in a thicket? There should be no impression deep enough to hold a large amount of water, particularly considering that it hasn’t rained for a few days. Unless … Some of the bushes have broken branches, their leaves brown and crumpled. Something heavy must have hit them.

Sherlock gazes towards John. He, too, has straightened up again, looking tense. He half turns to Sherlock, his expression alarmed. “What the—” Then he understands.

Sherlock takes a step forward, calls to the children, “For God’s sake, leave the bloody dog and step away from—” while at the same time John yells, “It’s a bomb, get away!”

Then his eyes widen in shock, even horror when a metallic clank sounds from inside the thicket. “Shit.”

 

Chapter Text

Several things happen in the next second. Just as Sherlock realises that the bomb is actually about to explode and wonders about the radius of damage it’s going to cause, and whether John and he are inside it, something heavy collides with him, tackling him to the ground. The very moment his left shoulder and upper back hit the kerb and the impact knocks the breath out of him, the explosion goes off. The shockwave smacks his head against the pavement and the resounding boom makes his ears ring. For a moment, he is dazed by impact and shockwave, and deafened by the noise.

When he becomes aware of his surroundings again, he notices several things: his head and shoulders as well as his upper back hurt like hell, he’s covered in leaves, branches and clumps of earth, and something heavy is lying on top of him. Presently, the something groans and begins to stir. Light shines into Sherlock’s eyes and he closes them quickly against the stinging rays, to open them again carefully after a moment. He realises that apparently John is lying on top of him after tackling him to the ground, and that he held up his briefcase over both their heads to shield them against the blast and the debris.

“Are you all right?” asks John, and Sherlock tries to focus on his face, hovering only inches over his own, his dark-blue eyes full of worry. Leaves and twigs are sticking in John’s golden hair. A stone or some other small piece of shrapnel has cut a narrow red streak across one cheek and the top of his ear. Sherlock draws a deep breath, winces when something in his chest twinges at the movement, then lets out a sigh.

“Yes, I think so. You?”

“Bit shaken, but otherwise fine.” John shifts to the side and Sherlock immediately mourns the loss of contact.

“Did you hit your head?” John wants to know, his eyes roving over Sherlock’s face and body with what to Sherlock looks more than professional, doctorly concern. Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking, though.

He tries to lift his head, groans at the pain, and lowers it to the ground again when a wave of dizziness threatens to engulf him. He closes his eyes. “Yes.”

“Shit. Sorry, Sherlock.”

“Nonsense. You tried to protect me from worse injury.” He opens his eyes again slowly and gazes around, moving his head gingerly. “Actually, I think you prevented me from getting hit by that bit of iron fence over there. It would have struck me had I remained standing where I was.”

John looks at the fallen over section of railing, now bent even more out of shape, taking in its pointed spikes. He whistles softly before sitting up and holding out his hand to Sherlock.

“Do you think you can sit? I’d like to check you for signs of concussion. Can you move your arms and legs all right? Anything wrong with your vision? Your pupils look all right. Do you think there’s any damage to your spine or your shoulder joints? We hit the ground quite forcibly – or rather, you did, and my weight added to the impact. Sorry again for that. You cushioned my fall and took the brunt instead.”

“Nonsense,” says Sherlock, turning onto his side with another groan, before slowly pushing himself up into a sitting position. “My back and shoulders hurt and will likely be bruised, but appear to be fine. I may have bruised or cracked a rib or two. Breathing hurts. But there is nothing you could possibly do about that.”

He closes his eyes again and reaches up to pinch the bridge of his nose when another wave of dizziness strikes. He feels John shift closer to him and carefully sling an arm round his shoulders. Sherlock resists the urge to lean against him fully, but only barely. He’d even have an excuse now.

Around them, noise and commotion are growing. Bells sound from afar, getting louder. Someone seems to have called ambulances and probably the fire brigade, too. There is a faint smell of gunpowder and charred wood. Also, and only now Sherlock truly becomes aware of it, there are people yelling and running around. Someone not far away is moaning with pain, and others are crying. One of the children is calling the dog, crying “Spot, Spot,” in a high, desperate voice, until someone calls the girl and apparently hugs her, because her voice is suddenly muffled by cloth.

Sherlock feels John tense next to him. The hands that have been probing gently at his neck, shoulders and the back of his head after brushing leaves and twigs out of his hair are stilling.

“Oh my God, the children,” rasps John. Sherlock feels him swallow. “They were closest to the explosion. Sherlock, will you be all right if you stay here for a bit? I want to check how they fared. More than likely, there’s going to be need for a doctor, and I want to help, at least until the ambulance arrives.”

Sherlock opens his eyes. Of course. John is a doctor. Of course he’d feel compelled to help. Sherlock, too, although he certainly considers himself less altruistically inclined than John, understands that simply sitting around while other people might have been hit worse than he might be a bit not good.

“Help me up, John,”

John frowns at him, looking concerned. “Are you sure? You have a light concussion, and I think you grazed some skin on the back of your head. You should sit down on the steps over there, across the road, out of the sunlight, and rest.”

Sherlock shakes his head and immediately regrets it. He stifles another groan. “No, I want to help. You might need an assistant if many people are injured.”

John sighs, but holds out a hand, carefully rising to his feet and then pulling Sherlock up with him. Sherlock sways a little, leaning onto John again, but soon the dizziness recedes and he steps back, taking a few deep breaths. John picks up their briefcases and his hat and gives everything to Sherlock. “Don’t overdo it. If you feel unwell, tell me, all right?”

“All right.”

John gives him another critical once over, brushes some debris off both their suits, then dives into what remains of the thicket. Walking cautiously, Sherlock follows, curious what he is about to see and feeling guilty for this curiosity.

The scene they behold makes clear how lucky they have been. What must have been a small indentation under the bushes – deep enough to hold some rainwater but too shallow to be recognised as the site of a bomb strike, thus ensuring that this unexploded device went unnoticed all these months and subsequently wasn’t defused and removed – has been deepened into an earthy crater by the explosion. Torn up bushes and the remains of a medium sized tree litter it. It is free of human remains, which Sherlock considers a good thing, although a small part of him mourns the opportunity to study those leftovers more closely. In front of him, John stoops to pick up something, which he holds up for Sherlock to see. It’s the burst remains of a football, strips of leather torn apart at the seams. Across the crater, a couple of shaken-looking but resolutely acting women have rounded up the children and are looking after their worst injuries, which appear to consist of scrapes and bruises, mostly. One boy holds his arm strangely. It’s either broken, or his shoulder has been dislocated. Sherlock assumes it’s the latter.

John strides over to the group, introduces himself and states his medical credentials, at which the women look relieved and begin to explain about the children’s injuries.

“Has anybody else been hurt?” Sherlock hears John enquire. The women shake their heads.

“We were all far enough away, luckily. It must have been a small bomb only. Sadly, one tends to find lots of them that haven’t exploded. They even found some in Buckingham Palace.”

John nods. “UXBs, yes. It was hidden under the bushes so nobody saw it. I believe ambulances are on their way, but anything I can do now to help, I gladly will.”

“I think Johnny here is worst off. That arm of his.” She points at the boy of ten or eleven who sits on the ground, leaning against her legs, his face pale, dirt on his cheeks, his hair dishevelled and his shirt torn. His knees are skinned, some blood trickling down one shin, and he seems to have lost a shoe, probably when the blast of the explosion knocked him off his feet. His expression, however, is defiant, as if he’s struggling to hold back tears.

John kneels down in front of him and introduces himself. “Hello, my name is John, too. I’m a doctor, and I’d like to have a look at your arm. May I?”

“It hurts,” says Johnny softly.

“I know. And it might hurt a bit more when I examine it. But you’ve been very brave so far. Can you move it?”

Johnny shakes his head.

“Does your shoulder hurt?”

“Yes,” breathes the boy, his eyes filling with tears. He scuffs at them angrily with his other hand, smearing mud over the bridge of his nose. John pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket.

“Here. And don’t hold back the tears. Sometimes, it’s better to cry.”

“My dad always says that boys don’t cry.”

John shakes his head. “If something hurts, or if you are very sad, or even if you are very happy, boys are allowed to cry as well as girls. Even grown men cry, and are allowed to. Have you ever been to a football match?”

Johnny shakes his head. “I’ve only heard them on the wireless.”

“Which team do you support? Chelsea? Tottenham?”

The boy snorts with disgust and John grins faintly. “Arsenal, of course.”

“Of course, my apologies. Now, you can bet on it that if Arsenal win – or if they lose –, a lot of their supporters, and even the players themselves, they cry like babies, despite being all grown up. There’s no shame in that. So, Johnny, I’m going to set your shoulder now. It’s going to hurt, but only briefly. If you feel like crying, you do that, all right?”

Over his shoulder, John looks up at Sherlock who has stood by feeling a little helpless and out of place while at the same time relishing the chance to see Doctor Watson in action, and admiring every moment of John’s quiet confidence and the easy rapport he has established with his young and troubled patient.

“Sherlock, could you help me here for a moment? The women are busy with the other children.” He motions for Sherlock to come over, which he does, carefully kneeling down next to John to the protest of his ribs. The bells have stopped now and the commotion has died down. The two women have begun to herd the other children towards the firemen and the nurses who have arrived in the ambulance.

“Johnny, this is my friend Sherlock.” The term ‘friend’ applied to his person causes warmth to bloom in Sherlock’s chest, unused as he is to such a moniker. “He’s going to hold you so that you don’t jerk when I set your arm, all right? And you’ll hold on to his hand with your left one, yes? Sherlock, get behind him so he can lean against you and try to hold him in place without hurting him.”

Sherlock frowns at this. He’s never held a child in his life before, nor wanted to. Moreover, who in their right mind would entrust him with the care of a child? Well, John does, apparently. He is about to protest when he meets John’s gaze. With a sigh, he does as the doctor has instructed. Johnny grips his hand fiercely enough to hurt. John balls up the handkerchief and tells Johnny to bite on it, which he does, looking scared now. Sherlock squeezes his hand in encouragement.

Gingerly, John takes hold of Johnny’s arm. “I’ll count to three, then I’ll pull on the arm and fit the joint back in its socket.”

The boy, deathly pale now, nods weakly. “You’re very brave, Johnny,” John tells him. “Now, ready? One ... two ...”

He doesn’t wait until three. A quick glance is all the warning Sherlock gets to hold on to the boy as he jerks in pain and clenches Sherlock’s hand forcefully. It only takes a few seconds before he goes limp, crying in earnest now. Gently, John removes the handkerchief and runs his hand through the boy’s hair.

“All done now, Johnny. You know, you’ve been a lot braver than many men whose joints I’ve had to set over the years. And a lot of them were soldiers or sailors. And they cried like babies, some of them, so there you go.”

Johnny nods, sniffing.

“Do you live close by? Your arm will need to be bandaged and you won’t be able to use it for a while.”

A commotion beyond the crater announces the arrival of some of the children’s relatives, mostly their mothers and some grandparents since the fathers are likely away at the front (or dead). Scooping up the boy who is trembling slightly, likely from shock, John carries him over to the ambulance crew and explains about his shoulder. And elderly woman rushes forward and is greeted with a weepy “Granny” by Johnny. John gives him a pat on his good shoulder.

“You’ll be all right, Johnny.”

“Thank you,” says the grandmother, and Johnny pipes a small “Thank you, Doctor John.” John gives him a salute, before asking the ambulance crew whether they need his help to look after the others. Apparently they do, since doctors are in short supply at the moment, and so John begins to clean and treat cuts and scrapes, and also bandages Johnny’s shoulder.

Sherlock stands by and feels rather useless and out of place, until he notices that one of the women is rushing around in distress, apparently looking for somebody. She is dressed like a secretary and has apparently just arrived from work. She appears to be looking for her daughter, accosting the bystanders whether they have seen Anne. She asks about a dog, too, but nobody seems to have seen either. But Sherlock recalls hearing the girl call for Spot earlier.

Seeing that John is still busy, he returns to the site of the explosion. Listening closely and trying to shut out the voices of the people of whom more and more seem to be arriving now from the surrounding houses, apparently either trying to help, to assess the damage or out of curiosity, his ears catch the sound of soft, muffled weeping. Following it, he dives under the rhododendrons and holly bushes. Next to the trunk of a large ash that has remained standing despite its relative proximity to the blast, he spots the girl. She is kneeling on the ground, hunched over, her shoulders shaking. What he can see of her looks unhurt apart from some scratches on her legs. The hem of her skirt is torn and dirty, as is her knitted cardigan, but there are no serious injuries to be seen.

Carefully, Sherlock draws closer, until he can see the reason of her distress. In front of her lie the remains of a small dog. It’s difficult to see what it was. Some kind of terrier, thinks Sherlock. It seems to have been close enough to the explosion to be partly torn apart.

He deliberately steps on a twig to alert the girl to his presence. She looks up, wipes at her eyes, then points at the dog. “He wouldn’t come when I called him,” she says miserably.

Sherlock steps closer, feeling awkward and wishing he possessed John’s ability to ease other people’s suffering. “They have a mind of their own, dogs,” he offers.

She cries a little. “But now he’s dead. Do you think he was in pain?”

Sherlock gazes at the remains. The dog seems to have died instantly. Sherlock shakes his head. “No, he wouldn’t have noticed a thing. He didn’t feel any pain.”

The girl looks up at him with large eyes, apparently trying to determine whether he’s telling the truth. Sherlock returns her gaze steadily. “Will he go to heaven?” she wants to know.

Sherlock doesn’t believe in heaven, neither for humans nor for animals. But apparently the girl does. He remembers what his parents told him when his own dog, Redbeard, died. “I don’t know,” he replies. “But I’m sure that wherever he is now, there’ll be balls for him to chase and lots of bones to gnaw.”

“And socks, too?” asks the girl hopefully. “He always loved to worry old socks.”

“There’ll be plenty of them.”

She sniffs again, looking at the remains of Spot, then nods, as if that’s an afterlife she wants for him. “Will you help me make a grave for him?”

Sherlock nods, recalling how they buried Redbeard in the garden so many years ago, and the vigil he kept at his grave for several nights, until his brother came with a blanket and a cup of cocoa so that he wouldn’t catch a cold.

“Yes,” he says.

 

–<o>–

 

They have just finished putting some stones onto the shallow grave when Sherlock hears John’s voice calling him. The girl, whose name is indeed Anne, has put a stick on top of the small cairn, claiming that Spot would have loved to fetch it. She stands staring sadly at the grave when the rustle of leaves announces John’s arrival. Picking up the briefcases, Sherlock straightens from his kneeling position next to the grave, sways slightly when another wave of dizziness rushes through him, then turns to watch John make his way through the bushes towards him, followed by Anne’s mother.

“I was wondering where you’d gone,” says John, stepping over to him while the woman embraces her daughter who tells her about Spot, and how Sherlock helped bury him. Sherlock brushes his earthy hands on his suit that could do with a good brushing and cleaning, dusty as it is from the explosion and John tackling him to the ground. He notices that John is watching him with a strange, soft expression. Fond seems to be the right term for it. Warmth spreads through him, and he smiles involuntarily. His smile, however, soon morphs into an expression of pain. His head has been throbbing continuously. He takes a step, sways, and curses under his breath. Apparently he has hit his head harder than he thought. Immediately John is at his side, his fond expression replaced by a worried one.

“Are you feeling dizzy?” he asks concernedly.

Sherlock nods, inhales sharply at the stab of pain. “Yes, sometimes. When I move too quickly, particularly my head.”

Anne waves a good-bye and thank you to him, and he raises his hand in a brief salute.

John nods. “Didn’t you say your flat was around here somewhere? I’d like to have a closer look at you. You have a concussion, and I’d like to determine how bad it is and also check that scrape on the back of your head. You’ve bled all over the collar of your shirt and jacket.”

Sherlock raises a hand to the back of his head and touches the wound gingerly. The tips of his fingers come away tinged red. He looks at them with surprise. He hadn’t even realised that he has been bleeding all this time. “I won’t go to hospital,” Sherlock informs John stubbornly.

John raises an eyebrow. “Oh, do remind me who the medical professional is around here. If you’re not fit to continue the journey, you bloody well won’t, and if that means I have to tie you down to a bed somewhere to prevent you from running off, so be it. And if your condition worsens, that bed will be in a hospital.”

“That won’t be necessary. I’m fine, John. Also, we need to get to Knockholt today. We mustn’t delay any further.”

“No, you’re not fine. I agree that our mission is important, but not enough to risk your health over it. Come on, let’s go to your place. I’d like to see how badly your ribs are damaged, too, and disinfect the wound on your head.”

Sherlock sighs, but suffers to be led away by John. Actually, he enjoys his proximity, his injury an excuse to put his arm round his shoulders and to lean on him while walking.

A group of people has gathered near the site of the explosion, mostly inhabitants of the surrounding houses and a few passers-by. A police constable has arrived, too, and is talking to the bystanders and taking notes. Sherlock recognises his landlord Mr. Chandler in the small crowd, wearing his habitual grey work coat, flat cap and glum, disapproving expression which makes him look much older than his fifty-two years. If possible, Mr. Chandler’s face turns even more disapproving when he spots Sherlock. They are not exactly on friendly terms. Even though Sherlock (or rather, his brother) pays his rent regularly and has reimbursed Mr. Chandler for all the damage that has so far occurred in the flat (mostly due to Sherlock’s experiments and the one time he had to bash in a window because he had lost his key after a fall into the river and had climbed in via his bedroom window), Mr. Chandler doesn’t approve of Sherlock in general. Both his sons have been lost in the war, one killed and one still missing in action, meaning that the sight of a young, able-bodied man like Sherlock strutting about out of uniform rubs him up the wrong way. In a rather uncharacteristic effort to preserve the peace and to prevent Mr. Chandler throwing out his chemistry equipment, Sherlock has told him that he is also doing his bit for the war effort. Of course he could not inform his landlord about his true occupation at Bletchley Park. Mr. Chandler took his attempt at a defence badly and only the promise of rent paid for a flat temporarily free of a troublesome tenant swayed his attitude slightly in Sherlock’s favour.

“Mr. Holmes,” drawls Mr. Chandler, ambling over and studying Sherlock’s somewhat dishevelled state with an aloof, critical expression. “And what important business brings you back to your old haunts?”

Sherlock sighs, feeling John tense next to him in rightful indignation on his behalf, which touches him.

“Good day, Mr. Chandler,” he replies, as civilly as he can muster. “I am on my way to Kent and was just passing by to see whether there is any mail.”

“I do forward your mail, you know,” states his landlord indignantly. “As agreed. Had to go to the post-office twice this week alone.”

Sherlock resists the urge to roll his eyes, and bites his tongue against a sharp retort. After all, the man shouldn’t complain. He is being paid for his services, and handsomely, too.

“I take it you are Mr. Holmes’ landlord,” butts in John. “In that case, would you please oblige us by opening the door to his flat. Mr. Holmes was hurt in the bomb blast while he was warning the children playing at the site, thus saving them from grave injury or even death. I am Dr. Watson of the Royal Navy and need to see to his wounds.”

Mr. Chandler squares his shoulders as he looks John up and down. John returns his gaze steadily and even raises one eyebrow as if in challenge. Sherlock hides a smile. This is John in full captain mode, and it’s marvellous to behold.

At length, grumbling a bit, Mr. Chandler obliges. They cross Montague Street and approach one of the dark brick houses with their whitewashed basements and pilaster-lined front doors. Mr. Chandler opens the door, lets them pass through, then begins to shuffle up the steep staircase. Sherlock’s flat is on the second floor. His dizziness has abated a little by now and he could manage the steps by himself, but he doesn’t tell John, not wanting to end their connection and the feeling of John’s sturdy warmth at his side.

Mr. Chandler unlocks the door, casts a disapproving glance round the flat, then steps back to let them pass inside. “You really need to air out these rooms, Mr. Holmes, and dust occasionally. I am your landlord, not your cleaner. What mail came that was too inconvenient to forward is on the desk. Good day.”

With that, he stomps down the steps again, muttering under his breath.

“Lovely chap,” comments John, grinning. “Have you tried to blow up your place with one of your experiments, or why is he so ill disposed towards you?”

Sherlock cannot help smiling, too. “Well, I didn’t blow it up exactly, but I may have set the kitchen table on fire on one occasion – or a few – and damaged a window, too. He doesn’t approve of my violin, either, nor my profession, nor anything about me, really. Mostly, I reckon, he resents the fact that I am alive and his sons aren’t.”

“Died in the war?” asks John as he steers Sherlock over to the desk in front of the large windows overlooking the southernmost edge of Russell Square. Sherlock nods.

He lowers himself to the desk chair and begins to rifle through the stack of papers that has accumulated on the table. They’re mostly periodicals and some catalogues. All his regular mail seems to have been forwarded indeed. One large parcel is there, too, likely containing the new Bunsen burner he ordered a while ago.

John has stepped over to one of the windows and drawn back the curtain. Light floods the rather dingy room with its dark, Victorian wallpaper and the long rows of bookshelves lining the walls. Sherlock doesn’t possess much in terms of furniture. There is the desk, a sofa that was already in the room when he rented it, an armchair in front of the old fireplace. The walls are either covered with maps or prints depicting details of animals or plants, or hidden behind bookshelves. Many more books, newspapers and periodicals are stacked haphazardly throughout the room in leaning piles. A large folder with sheet music for solo violin lies next to the window on a rickety side table. There are other odd bits and pieces peeking from shelves or sitting on the desk, such as a collection of bullets, framed and labelled, some fossils, a flat wooden box containing the samples of London’s soils which Sherlock needed for his monograph, another box with samples of tobacco ash he’s always meant to write an article about. On the dusty mantelpiece sits the Persian slipper he used to keep his cigarettes in when he still smoked. There is also a knife holding some old letters in place. Next to the mantel, high up on the shelf lives another box he hasn’t touched in a long while. It contains a syringe and a small vial with a seven per cent solution of cocaine. Interestingly, he hasn’t thought of that box ever since he began working at Bletchley. Apparently being forced to rack his brain about codes and cyphers day in day out is the best antidote for addiction that he has encountered so far.

Stealing a glance at John who stands with his back to the window gazing about the room, he wonders what the other thinks of his abode. His flat is not furnished to entertain guests. The only people he used to receive were clients and occasionally members of the police force – or, even more rarely and definitely unwillingly, his brother. Therefore, his living room largely functions as a library, a place for research, not relaxation. The adjacent kitchen has rarely seen the preparation of food, but has rather been used as a laboratory for his chemical or forensic experiments. His bedroom is tiny and rarely used as Sherlock often falls asleep on the sofa in the living room. The bathroom facilities are shared and situated on the first floor.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” comments John after a while.

“Nice? That’s not how I would describe it,” returns Sherlock dryly. John laughs softly.

“All right, yes. Nice is not the right term. It’s ... interesting. Messy, yet functional. I bet you have your own system of filing things, and know where to look whenever you need a particular book or paper. Quirky, too, and a bit odd. Much like its inhabitant, I’d say.”

“Oh, I’m ‘functional’, then?”

John grins. “Most of the time. Your mind is so sharp and quick. I wonder what you’d be like when you’re not in full command of your faculties.”

“What do you mean?” asks Sherlock sharply.

John licks his lips, hesitating briefly as if measuring his words. “I mean what you’d be like if you switched off your brain for once, just let yourself feel instead of think. If you yielded control.”

Sherlock frowns at him. “I try to avoid that,” he says truthfully. The very thought scares him. The only times he allows himself to let go are when he is lost in music while playing the violin (or, more recently, while he was dancing with John). Sometimes, something similar happens when he is fully immersed in his mind palace. Formerly, the cocaine has had a similar effect, but he doesn’t really want to touch that stuff again, although he doubts he will ever be able to completely shake off its siren call.

John gives him a long, thoughtful glance. “I know. Have you ever ... I don’t know” – Sherlock steels himself for the question – “been drunk?” He lets out a breath. This is less personal than he thought John’s enquiry was going to be.

“No. I don’t see the point.”

John studies him, then the corner of his mouth quirks up in a smile. He doesn’t seem surprised, or think Sherlock ‘unmanly’ or some such rubbish because he doesn’t engage in the favourite pastime of many. “Thought you’d say that.” He turns to the window.

“You can see the damage the bomb has wrought from here,” says John after a moment, perhaps to steer the conversation back to less personal topics. “It has torn quite a crater into the ground. I wonder why nobody noticed it before. It must have lain there for a while. The last raids were in June, I think.”

“It was hidden under the bushes,” says Sherlock. “Probably it fell at night-time and therefore nobody noticed it. I reckon the dog found it, started digging, perhaps, and then the children went looking for him and, well …”

John nods. “It’s a marvel that none of the children was hurt worse than a dislocated shoulder.”

Sherlock watches him, his pale face, his grave expression. “Thank you for shielding me against the blast,” he says gravely. “Without your timely intervention, I would have received worse injuries.”

John turns to him. “I should have kept a hand under your head to ease the impact.”

“Nonsense. You would have broken your knuckles or fingers in the process.”

John studies him. “Without your warning, I wouldn’t have made the connection of there being a bomb. I felt that something was amiss, and then you went all tense suddenly. You felt it too, didn’t you? Then you called out, and it clicked, literally. So I guess we saved each other, and the children, too.”

They exchange a long glance that is fraught with something Sherlock cannot define. At length, John breaks the connection and casts down his eyes. “Pity the dog died, though. Did you help the little girl bury him?”

Sherlock nods. “There wasn’t much left of him and what was left wasn’t pretty, but she didn’t shy away from his remains. She asked me whether the dog was going to heaven.”

“I hope you told her that he will.”

“No. Why lie to her? But I said that he was going where he can chase after and destroy things to his heart’s content, and she seemed to approve of it.”

John smiles at him warmly. “That was kind of you. See, you’re not as cold-hearted and arrogant as you often pretend to be.”

Sherlock shrugs, regrets it and winces. John steps over to him. “Let me have a look at your head again. I suppose it’s moot to ask if there is any tea or coffee to be had here?” His eyes shift to the kitchen, the table of which is still occupied by Sherlock’s last experiment, all the glassware now covered with a layer of dust.

Sherlock blushes slightly. He’s not the most attentive of hosts. “There should be tea in one of the cupboards. I don’t have any fresh milk, obviously. If you’re lucky, some powdered milk still lives in the tin next to the tea.”

“‘Living’ being a somewhat ominous description,” quips John with a smile as he crosses over to the kitchen and begins to fill the kettle and then struggles with the cooker. The gas supply has always been a bit erratic in these parts. Mr. Chandler claims that it has been disrupted by the bombings, but it was already unreliable before the Blitz. When finally the water is set to boil, John returns to Sherlock who has begun to leaf through some of the women’s magazines and periodicals that have accumulated on his desk.

John cocks an amused eyebrow. “Interesting read, Vogue?”

“Oh yes. One never knows when knowledge of women’s fashion, make-up or underwear might come in handy in a case.” Something stirs in the back of his mind at his words, a reminder of something important he wanted to look up, but it’s too vague to grasp amid the throbbing pain in the back of his skull.

John laughs softly. “And I thought women weren’t your area,” he states. “Particularly in their underwear.”

“They aren’t, unless they are clients, victims or perpetrators of a crime,” replies Sherlock.

John gives him another of his long, thoughtful glances, before he steps closer and indicates that Sherlock turn his head towards the window. “Let me have a look at the back of your head. Do you happen to have any iodine round here that is safe to use?”

“Yes, but rather not use it on me. I’m allergic and tend to develop a nasty rash after exposure. I must be very careful when I use it for experiments. There is ethanol in the kitchen, however, in case you need something to disinfect the wound.”

“All right, thanks for telling me about the iodine. Best take off your jacket, waistcoat and shirt. There are bloodstains on the collars, and I need to see if or how badly your ribs, neck and spine are damaged.”

Obediently, Sherlock strips off his upper garments down to his vest, shivering a little in the cool air of the flat which hasn’t been heated for some time. Part of the shiver, he knows, is also due to him exposing himself thus to John. He has seen him in his pyjamas before, and other states of déshabille, but somehow, this feels more intimate, mostly because there is a high likelihood that John is actually going to touch him. Sherlock hopes that he can muster enough control over his body so as not to betray how much these touches excite him.

Swallowing hard, he watches John take off his jacket, too, and roll up his sleeves, to then wash his hands thoroughly in the kitchen. John studies the towels hanging there suspiciously, but decides that they are safe to dry his hands on, but not enough to clean Sherlock’s injury. For that, he pulls another handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and wets it with the ethanol. Sherlock draws a deep breath and releases it slowly when John steps behind him and tells him to bend forward slightly to give him better access to the head wound.

The cut turns out to be minor and has already clotted over. Carefully, John washes what blood has seeped into Sherlock’s hair and run down his nape with the dampened handkerchief. The sharp smell of highly concentrated alcohol wafts through the flat and stings in Sherlock’s nostrils. Sherlock keeps very still during the treatment, and his eyes closed. Usually, he hates people touching his hair. Visits to the barber are a chore he tries to keep to a bare minimum, preferring to have his hair cut by Mrs. Hudson who adores the task. John standing close to him and carefully running his hands and the cloth through his curls, however, is surprisingly pleasant. Or not surprisingly, since it’s John.

“The cut should heal well on his own,” says John quietly. “It won’t need stitches. You’ve got quite a bit of a bump and bruise there, though. How’s the headache? Do you think you need any pain medication?”

“No. I used the last aspirin in an experiment, anyway.”

“Aspirin isn’t advisable in your state, anyway, not with the bleeding barely under control.”

“I don’t need any medication. As long as I don’t make any sudden head movements, the pain is bearable. If it is indeed a concussion, it’s light. We should move on and get to Waterloo, John.”

“In time, yes. Could you stand, please? I’d like to see if everything’s all right with your back and your ribs.”

Slowly, Sherlock rises to his feet, holding on to the edge of the desk. Deft fingers begin to wander along his vertebrae, apparently feeling for swelling or irregularities. His breath hitches when John pushes up his vest to run a hand over his ribs. The doctor’s fingers are dry and warm and gentle, despite their prodding. Sherlock’s skin feels strange and tingly in their wake. Goosebumps are rising all over his skin. There is nothing he can do against it. His wilful transport is not obeying his commands, it seems. His heartbeat is elevated, his breathing fast and shallow. Despite the cool air, he feels warm all of a sudden. He even squirms slightly when John’s fingers reach his flank. John chuckles behind him. “Someone is ticklish, it seems.”

Sherlock is glad his back is turned so John can’t see his blush. “You surprised me,” he states gruffly, horrified at how hoarse his voice sounds.

John huffs out a laugh. “Is that so?” Then, thankfully, his voice turns professional again.

“There is a bruise here,” John presses slightly and Sherlock draws in a sharp breath at the stab of pain, “but nothing seems broken. You’ll have to move gently for a while, and not overdo the cycling. Every deep breath is likely going to hurt for a few weeks.” He rolls down the vest again.

“Are you sure you’re fit to travel, Sherlock? Be honest, please.”

“Yes, I am. If things get worse, we can still go to hospital.”

John sighs and steps back. Sherlock mourns the loss of contact. “Kettle’s boiling,” says John. “I’ll make the tea. Why don’t you freshen up a bit and put on a new shirt – and give me this one so I can try and rinse out the blood stains?”

Sherlock approves of this plan. He feels he needs a moment away from John’s proximity to reorganise his mind palace after the recent earthquake (not the fall but rather the touching). In the privacy of his bedroom, he sags against the door and stands for a moment, just trying to breathe without wincing and to calm his racing heart. He is proud of himself of not falling to pieces entirely when John touched his skin, although certainly, the doctor must have noticed the goose-bumps that rose in the wake of his fingers. If he did, he may have thought they were brought on by the cool temperature in the flat, hopes Sherlock. Under no circumstances must John know that Sherlock is so infatuated with him that even a medical examination leaves him flushing and trembling as if he’s never been touched before.

Which … well … is true. Sherlock has been examined before, in hospital during his illness and by Mike Stamford after his release, and before during his army physical. Yet those were impersonal, medical exams. He endured them and was glad when they were over. Other touches he always discouraged, in the few cases they were offered. And now … how is this going to end? He must learn to control his bodily reactions to John, lest he betray himself and cause awkwardness for all involved. Surely, John doesn’t want to know how Sherlock is pining after him. It would make him feel guilty or downright appalled. Sherlock couldn’t bear either. Keep calm and carry on. Isn’t that what the propaganda poster he remembers seeing in a shop window in Bletchley was suggesting? Well, then.

Ten minutes later, arrayed in a fresh shirt under his waistcoat, the collar of his suit jacket free of blood-stains once again, Sherlock steps out of his bedroom to see that John has cleared away a space on the kitchen table large enough for two teacups, with Petri dishes for saucers. He is pouring tea from the old chipped teapot Sherlock hopes he has rinsed thoroughly beforehand. John has unearthed some teaspoons, too, and the tin with milk powder.

“I found some biscuits, too, but I didn’t trust them,” he says when he draws up a chair, sits, and begins to spoon powdered milk into his tea. Sherlock sits as well.

“That’s wise. I think I got them from a client a while ago, as a thank you for retrieving their stolen jewels.”

“They paid you in biscuits?” asks John incredulously.

“No, they did pay handsomely. I bought most of this equipment with the remuneration.” He indicates his chemical laboratory on the table. “The biscuits were an added bonus. Apparently the lady of the house thought I needed ‘feeding up’, as she put it.”

John takes a sip of tea. “Well, you do. I’ll have a word with our landladies back in Bletchley to give you extra rations. Seriously, Sherlock, no wonder you caught pneumonia. You’re rather underfed. I bet you’ve always disregarded your body’s needs and concentrated on brainwork only. Many of your colleagues at the Park look unhealthy, too. Drink your tea. I’ll buy you some lunch when we get to Waterloo.”

Sherlock smiles at his doctor and John’s stern expression over the rim of his teacup. “Are you always this strict with your patients, doctor?”

“Yes, particularly when they’re stubborn idiots like a certain consulting detective I know.”

Sherlock chuckles at this, winces slightly, and concentrates on sipping the tea. It feels heavenly in his parched throat. They sit and drink in companionable silence. Normally, Sherlock would consider simply sitting around a waste of time, but for now he is content to just watch John when he isn’t looking. John seems very interested in the various oddities stacked around the flat. Sherlock studies his profile and feels his heart swell with affection. John doesn’t seem to be appalled by his mess. Despite being neat and tidy himself, John is fascinated by the many strange things that at some time have caught Sherlock’s interest. Sherlock loves him fiercely for it.

After a brief visit to the toilet downstairs, Sherlock returns to find John rinsing out their tea-cups and then drying his hands on a clean-ish towel. The domesticity and the ease between them in this setting is not lost on Sherlock. He who can endure other people’s company only in small doses and who so far has resented every housemate back in Bletchley (apart from his landladies), and roommate at school or university, feels a wave of warmth spread through him while watching John Watson standing at his sink drying cups with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his jacket slung over the back of the chair with his hat perched on top of it. A sudden, fierce wish that this scene shouldn’t be a one-off lodges in Sherlock’s heart. This isn’t just about him finding John attractive, he realises, it goes deeper. The thought both scares and excites him.

John must have felt Sherlock’s gaze on him because he turns and smiles wryly. “Almost done. Not sure I entirely trust this towel, though. What did you do to it? Those yellow stains ...”

“Nitric acid. The black ones are silver nitrate. But it has been laundered since. Ready?”

“Yes, let me just pop down to the bathroom. Wish I had some more time to look round your bookshelves. You’ve got quite an impressive collection of medical publications here. At least that’s what I gathered from a quick browse.”

“You’re welcome to peruse them any time. Perhaps after the war – should it ever end in our favour and this flat still exist then—”

“And the two of us still be alive,” adds John.

“And that, yes. Perhaps then, you could come and visit. I am certain I could do with your medical expertise on my casework. Some coroners are just not thorough enough, or are simply idiots not fit for their profession.”

John gives him a long glance as he rolls down his sleeves and buttons his cuffs. Sherlock isn’t sure what it means. John seems to look sad of a sudden, or perhaps not sad, but ... grave. Serious. Sherlock wonders whether he has communicated more of his desire to keep John at his side, if possible perpetually, than he intended. And John ... he doesn’t seem put off by the invitation, but wary nevertheless. Sherlock sees him swallow slightly, before he nods.

“I would like that,” says John gravely.

 

–<o>–

 

By the time they step out of the house and walk towards Russell Square, more police and what looks like army personnel have arrived, likely to search for more bombs and to dispose of the remains of this one. The children have gone, as have the ambulances. John muses whether they were sent from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Sherlock believes it to be likely, unless they were from Great Ormond Street, which is even closer.

“I was trained at Barts, you know,” says John as they walk across Russell Square towards the tube station situated near its north-eastern corner. The small park looks tranquil and actually rather beautiful with the sunlight filtering through the canopy of leaves overhead and glittering on the waters of the fountain that, surprisingly, is still working. With the bombsite and its devastation behind their backs and the rest of the greenery of the park still intact and even remarkably well looked after, it’s easy to forget about the war and the destruction it has wrought.

“You met Mike Stamford there. That’s why he knew you when you arrived in Bletchley,” states Sherlock.

John smiles. “Yes. Hadn’t seen him in years. Somehow, we lost contact. He used to be a good friend of mine back in the day. Strange how sometimes, even though people are dear to you, you drift apart. You promise to write or call. You do a few times, but then ... sometimes important events interfere, but sometimes you realise that you have less and less to talk about because you have less and less in common.” He shrugs and sighs.

Sherlock glances at the ground as he walks. “I wouldn’t know,” he admits darkly. “I never had anybody I would call a friend and who’d want to keep up correspondence with me, unless you count relatives, and even they aren’t exactly eager to write, much less to call. But I guess that has saved me a lot of postage over the years,” he adds, knowing he sounds bitter despite pretending he doesn’t care.

He feels the weight of John’s gaze upon him. Looking up briefly, he sees the other watching him with a grave expression, a mixture of pity and something Sherlock can’t define. Then, to his surprise, even shock, he feels something brush against his hand, fleetingly, almost shyly. Looking down in alarm, he sees John shift his briefcase back to the hand that has just touched Sherlock’s. Sherlock swallows, flicks his eyes to John who is looking ahead, but licking his lips at the same time.

Feeling bold, even reckless Sherlock returns the gesture, letting his fingers brush against John’s hand and even linger briefly there before withdrawing them. The corner of John’s mouth twitches up in a smile. He draws a deep breath and swallows. “Well, good for you for saving all that money on postage. You can spend it on the letters you’re going to send to me when I’m back at sea.”

He flashes Sherlock a grin. Sherlock frowns. The thought of John leaving is highly unpleasant. “Who says I’ll write?”

“I do. You have no idea how dull and boring things can get on a battleship if one’s not being shot at by the Germans for a bit of action, or there isn't a storm or icebergs to avoid. And you, too, could do with some distraction from codebreaking. Also,” he expression turns grave again, “I wouldn’t want us to drift apart. It’s difficult enough to keep up correspondence when you’re stationed in the middle of the bleeding North-Atlantic, and I know that I’ve used it as an excuse for not writing in the past. But I’d like to make the effort. These past days – although it’s a bit not good to say that of an investigation into a young woman’s death – have been some of the best of my life.”

Sherlock swallows again. He feels the same. Moreover, if his understanding of what John has just said is correct, John has implied that his happiness these past days may also due to being in Sherlock’s company. He may not return Sherlock’s romantic feelings (the mere term makes Sherlock want to scoff, but there is no better description to what is going on inside him), but it seems obvious that he regards Sherlock as a friend, and a dear one, too. If that is all Sherlock can have of him, he won’t ever complain. It’s more than others have ever offered him.

“Yes,” he agrees. “Let’s hope there won’t be any need for written correspondence for a while,” he adds, at which John smiles.

“Perhaps you can convince that almighty brother of yours that my staying at Bletchley is vital for your work or something. I’m sure he has the right connections.”

“Indeed he has, question is, though, whether he’d do me a favour.”

“Couldn’t you solve a case for him in exchange, if he insists on you paying him back? I’m sure there are many peers of the realm who’re hiding some scandal or other.”

Sherlock smiles. “Very likely there are, yes. But I doubt Mycroft would want them exposed – unless a public scandal is helpful to his machinations. But let’s not talk of him right now.”

John laughs. Nodding towards the underground sign on Southampton Row, he says, “Let’s hope the Piccadilly Line is running.”

 

–<o>–

 

They get to Leicester Square without problems, but find that the Northern Line has been suspended. The escalators aren’t working, either, forcing them into a long climb over crowded staircases up to street level. By the time they step out onto Charing Cross Road, both are winded. John is limping slightly – his other leg for a change, making Sherlock wonder whether he sustained more than a few scratches and bruises while protecting him from the bomb blast. Sherlock’s cracked ribs are hurting, and his headache is pounding so badly that John looks at him concernedly and asks him whether he needs to sit down. Sherlock is tempted to lean against him again, but decides against it, as it might be looked at askance in such a public place. Instead, he holds up his hand when he spots a taxi.

Sinking onto the seat with a sigh, he feels John’s worried gaze on him. “You’re very pale. Are you feeling nauseous?” he asks quietly, handing Sherlock a handkerchief (how many does the man carry with him?) to brush away the cold sweat that has gathered on his forehead.

“No,” says Sherlock. “Just the headache. I’ll manage, John. As long as we don’t have to walk all the way to Kent.”

John smiles wryly, concern still lingering in his features. For a moment, he looks tempted to squeeze or pat Sherlock’s shoulder or even his knee, judging from where his eyes linger for a moment, but apparently decides against it and turns to look out of the window as they leave Trafalgar Square and head towards Waterloo Bridge.

 

–<o>–

 

John insists on paying the cab fare. The Southern Railway timetable Sherlock picked up at Euston Station tells him that they have about half an hour until the next train to Knockholt is due. John steers him towards the second class waiting room and orders him to sit down and wait there while he tries to get some food. Sherlock obliges, seating himself on one of the benches and busying himself with deducing the other passengers.

A short while later John returns carrying a paper bag with sandwiches, a copy of The Times, and two bottles of dandelion and burdock. 

“Spam or cheese?” asks John as he sits down next to Sherlock, holding out two sandwiches. “I got us a bar of Cadbury’s, too, for dessert.”

Sherlock chooses the cheese-and-pickle sandwich despite not feeling very hungry. Between bites and sips from the drink, he quietly tells John about his deductions. John smiles and is suitably impressed, which pleases Sherlock.

“Good to see that your brain is still functional after the blow it received today,” says John after Sherlock has explained how he deduced that the two young women with the two children are on their way to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey to look after the grave of the husband of one of them.

“How on earth can you know that, unless you guessed?” asks John, breaking off a piece of the chocolate and handing it to Sherlock. “I mean, I can tell that one of them appears to be in mourning, but why the brother, and why Brookwood? Shouldn’t they be across the road to catch a train to that place? I thought the Necropolis trains had their own station.”

“They did, but it was damaged badly during the Blitz and was closed a few months ago. Mourners and funeral guests as well as bodies are departing from this station now, either on special trains, or regular ones at reduced fares. I doubt they are going to reopen it. A pity, really. I rather liked the idea of the dead having their own trains. I found it particularly fascinating as a child, and once went here on my own. First time I saw a dead human body.”

“Really? How old were you?”

“Nine. My parents threw a fit because I had run away from home. My tutor had a really hard time afterwards. I think he was sacked, even though it wasn’t really his fault that I managed to trick him.”

“Why? Did you drug his tea?”

Sherlock grins. “No, the coffee.”

John stares at him incredulously, then bursts out laughing which he quickly stifles behind a hand because one of the two women bound for Brookwood is glaring at him. “You must have been quite a handful as a child.”

Sherlock shrugs. “So people say. I wasn’t like my brother, always fitting in. I was bright and inquisitive and too clever for my own good. Wilful, too. Not a good combination. My nannies and tutors tried their best to both educate and control me, and they all failed and ended up fearing and loathing me. Eventually, I was carted off to Harrow. Not that that changed a thing.”

John studies him and nods. Then looking at the two women and the children again, he says quietly, “Well, what about them, then? How did you deduce what you just told me about their destination?”

Sherlock draws a breath and launches into an explanation. “The one not in mourning just bought reduced fare tickets for the lot of them, and got a printed timetable of the service in her handbag. You can see the edge of it peeking out. One of the children, the older girl, has been drawing a picture of what looks like a policeman. If the father of the children had fallen in the war, it’s very unlikely he’d be buried at Brookwood. It’s far more probable that he was a policeman, and has been dead for a while, since before the war. Watch how the younger girl is eyeing the two Bobbies patrolling the station. Note her sad expression. She is missing her father, but has only very vague memories of him, likely tied to the uniform and particularly the helmet. Now, the two women: they’re sisters, so much is plain to see. The one in mourning is wearing an engagement but not a wedding ring, meaning it’s unlikely the children are hers. Her fiancé fell recently. Note how her make-up is slightly smudged round her eyes. She refreshed it after a weeping bout not long ago, meaning the pain is still fresh. The other woman, the mother of the two girls, is wearing two wedding rings, one of which has been altered to fit her – her husband’s, obviously. For her, the journey to Brookwood is a regular one, although not from this station – hence the timetable. If you look closely at the bag standing next to her feet, you will note it contains a bottle with water and a small garden fork to clean the stone and tend the flowers. Probably they are going to buy or pick some when they reach Brookwood.”

Sherlock draws a breath and leans back against the backrest of the bench. John huffs out a laugh next to him. “Amazing, really. Now that you’ve pointed out all these little details, I notice them, too, of course. But I wouldn’t have made these connections that quickly.”

“It is something you can practice,” says Sherlock meekly. John smiles at him.

“Yes, perhaps. But one needs a brain like yours to draw the conclusions so fast and join the dots. That’s where your genius comes in.”

Sherlock feels himself blush, as he tends to at John’s compliments. John’s expression is open and friendly, so his words feel genuine. Sherlock swallows as he pulls his eyes from the other’s face.

“Thank you,” he mutters.

Thankfully at this point, the platform for their train is announced and they gather the remains of their lunch and hurry towards the steaming locomotive.

 

–<o>–

 

The journey is uneventful but for a signal failure near Elephant and Castle that delays their train by almost half an hour. Sherlock distracts himself with deducing their fellow passengers and helping John with The Times crossword. He is slightly surprised at himself that he endures the delay and the impending boredom so easily. Normally, he would get fidgety and grumpy. He blames the change on John’s company and positively revels in it.

Eventually, the train moves again and they leave the straggling outskirts of London behind. Brick and mortar and smoking chimneys are replaced by hedgerows, fields and meadows, and rows of narrow houses make way for rows of apple-trees or hop-fields.

Sherlock watches John gaze out of the window. The doctor is humming to himself, and listening closely Sherlock recognises the notes of ‘The Lark Ascending’. Again the strange, tight feeling lodges in his chest, a warm weight like a hot stone, and a fluttering, lively thing caught in a too-narrow space at the same time. This must be love, then, he thinks. Not exactly an experience he would have chosen for himself, but now that is it undeniably there, he may as well try and make the best of it all the same. He sighs and closes his eyes, trying to rest his sore head so that the jostling of the train doesn’t aggravate it further.

He wakes with a start, feeling disoriented for a moment. He didn’t intend to doze off, but apparently his body had a different idea. Staring blearily at John who has gently shaken him awake, “What time is it?” he mumbles, feeling embarrassed by his weakness. He needs to have a proper word with his transport in the near future. This kind of conduct is unacceptable.

“Knockholt’s the next stop. Unless you want to go all the way to Canterbury. It’s a nice place, I hear.”

Sherlock groans as he stretches carefully. John is watching him concernedly. “Head any better?” he asks.

“Not really. You shouldn’t have let me sleep with a concussion,” he says reproachfully.

“I was watching you carefully, even monitoring your heartbeat. There was no danger.”

Sherlock looks down at his wrist. Has John held it all the time he was asleep to feel his pulse? And he slept through that? Idiot. Couldn’t he at least have stayed awake for parts of it?

He clears his throat. “Well, all right, then. You are a doctor, after all.”

“Thanks for remembering,” replies John with an easy (and dare he say, flirtatious) smile.

They alight at the small, well-kept station with its hanging baskets and neat signage. John frowns as he looks about until he spots a porter. After a quick enquiry, they know that it’s a two mile walk into the village proper. John gives Sherlock a doubtful glance.

“Do you think you’ll manage?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Yes, Doctor Watson. If I faint along the way, you’ll have to carry me.”

John laughs. “A fanciful notion, don’t you think?”  

Sherlock curses his traitorous body for pumping blood into his cheeks at that. He casts down his eyes. John’s words have hit closer to the truth than he dare admit. He can’t even think of a clever retort, other than pushing his briefcase at John. “Carry that, then,” he says haughtily, and stalks off.

 

–<o>–

 

They walk at a leisurely pace, and given the fair weather, it’s surprisingly pleasant. There is little traffic on the narrow road that winds between hedgerows. About half way, just out of Halstead village (no more than a string of houses along the main road), they pass by a plum tree laden with fruit. John takes off his hat and plucks some of them into it before offering it to Sherlock, who takes some gratefully. They walk on, chewing plums and occasionally spitting out a stone. When Knockholt Pound village, their final destination, comes into view, Sherlock asks a question that has been occupying him ever since John informed him about his medical care of him on the train.

“How did the fellow travellers react to you holding my hand for about half an hour?”

John shrugs, spitting out a stone. “Mostly, they didn’t even notice, I think. That one man gave me a pointed look. Not sure what he was thinking, but he seemed to be a bit of an idiot, anyway, so I didn’t really care.”

“What man? The one sitting opposite me? The retired clerk from Southwark with the nicotine stains on his fingers, on his way to visiting his pit bull breeding sister?”

“Er ... I meant the one with the ugly red and lilac tie.”

“That’s the one I just described.”

“Right, well, he gave me a nasty glance and muttered something I didn’t catch. That woman sitting to your other side enquired after you because you looked so pale. She seemed quite worried. So I explained about the bomb and you saving the children, and also about me being a doctor. The woman was impressed, and even Ugly Tie seemed somewhat mollified.”

His animated expression suddenly changes into something fierce. “You know, it really shouldn’t matter. I shouldn’t have needed to explain. Why do people even bother if I hold another man’s hand in public? Perhaps I just felt like it. It’s none of their business, and it shouldn’t be the Government’s business, either.”

Sherlock is surprised by the sudden outburst. “Did you?” he asks before he can censor himself. “Feel like it?” he clarifies when John looks confused.

John stares at him. His eyes narrow slightly. “Well, you do have a concussion. I had to look after you, didn’t I?”

He holds Sherlock’s gaze, and then, deliberately, he adds, “And even without these reasons, I wouldn’t mind holding your hand again. I didn’t mind the dancing, I didn’t mind your night-time concert and the fact that both of us were only wearing pyjamas. In fact, I enjoyed all of that. I’d hold your hand right now if you wanted me to and I wasn’t carrying these two briefcases.”

He kicks away a stone as if to emphasise his point.

Sherlock’s head is spinning. “Likewise,” he manages at length. “Not about the briefcases, obviously. But the rest. I ... I enjoyed those things, too.”

John gazes at him, and now he’s the one to blush. “Good. That’s ... good.” He clears his throat and licks his lips as both of them gaze ahead, avoiding the other’s eyes as if fearing they’ve already said too much.

 

–<o>–

 

“Do you know where this listening station is?” asks John as they approach the village green bathed in afternoon sunlight. The rest of their walk has been conducted in silence, both of them lost in thought.

“According to Tiltman, it’s near the Three Horseshoes Inn, which you can see over there. Let’s try out the lane leading past it to the left. I can see some wireless masts behind the trees. The village is small. If we don’t find Ivy Farm right away, we can always enquire at the Inn.”

John gazes about the peaceful village. Chickens are milling around on the village green, a magnificently plumed cockerel watching over them. The war seems far away but for the propaganda poster outside the Inn reminding people of the nightly blackout.

“How long do you intend to stay?” John wants to know. “I had a look at the timetable at the station, and the last train back to London leaves at around seven. Given that it’s already half past four, unless we find the station right away and what we’re looking for in their archives really quickly, it’s going to be a close-run thing. And considering your injuries, I’m not sure if travelling all the way back to Bletchley would be a wise decision. You need some rest, and so do I. I don’t fancy legging it back to the station in a hurry. I bet we walked more than two miles to get here.”

Sherlock thinks for a moment. “I was granted leave until the day after tomorrow, so we might as well spend the night in London or even here. This would leave us ample time to search the archive and even talk to the radio operators who took down the message, if they’re on duty today, or, if we stay here, tomorrow morning. What if we enquire about accommodation at the Inn, and ask for directions to Ivy Farm at the same time?”

John looks at him thoughtfully, then nods. “Sounds like a good plan.”

 

Chapter Text

The innkeepers, a middle-aged couple consisting of a burly, laid-back man in his fifties and a wiry, energetic woman of similar age, don’t even try to hide their curiosity about John and Sherlock when they ask for directions.

“Oh, it’s just round the corner, down Ivy Lane,” says the woman, Mrs. Cook. “You really can’t miss it. The village has become quite busy ever since the army moved into that house. Some soldiers are now stationed here round the clock, and there’s a number of young women billeted all over the place. Some are staying at our inn, too. Lovely ladies, and so hard working, although I haven’t got a clue what exactly they’re up to at Ivy Farm. Nobody ever tells us a thing,” she finishes somewhat disappointedly, giving John and Sherlock an expectant gaze as if hoping that they might illuminate her.

“Do you happen to have free rooms for the two of us for one night?” asks John, dodging the unspoken question, while Sherlock looks round the saloon bar. It still bears the marks of a coaching inn from a time before railways. The interior is rustic but cosy with its exposed dark beams and Inglenook fireplace. Obviously, it’s a popular location, judging by the scattering of memorabilia from village events and local sports clubs on the walls. A few elderly men of the local Home Guard are sitting in a corner nursing their pints. They are watching the new arrivals with a mixture of curiosity and light suspicion.

“We only have one free room at the moment due to the girls billeted at our house,” says the landlady. “It has two beds, however, if you don’t mind sharing a room.”

John casts a quick glance at Sherlock, who nods his approval. “We don’t mind. It’s just for the one night, anyway.”

Mrs. Cook eyes them curiously, taking in their lack of luggage. “We didn’t plan on having to spend the night here. There was a delay in London,” John feels compelled to explain. “First a bomb going off in Russell Square while we were passing by. My colleague here got injured,” he points at Sherlock’s head, “and then there was a delay on the train.”

“Oh dear,” exclaims the woman, gazing at Sherlock worriedly. “I hope it’s not serious.” Sherlock resists rolling his eyes. If he’d been seriously injured, he surely wouldn’t be standing here. Why do people so rarely think before they talk?

“A few bruises and a light concussion,” explains Sherlock, slightly rankled by John referring to him as his colleague, despite knowing it’s for the best. They’re going to be sharing a room tonight. Better not invite any suspicion that they’re anything but colleagues. Not that there is anything to be suspicious about, despite what Sherlock feels and John’s strange words that may or may not hint at him feeling drawn to Sherlock as well. Sherlock reminds himself firmly not to get his hopes up. But still … they’re going to share a room tonight. The thought makes him almost dizzy with both elation and trepidation.

“Will you be needing a doctor?” the landlady wants to know.

Sherlock shakes his head, winces slightly, and points at John. “He is a doctor.”

Mrs. Cook beams at John. “Well, then all is well. I can arrange for some toiletries and towels, in case you haven’t brought any.”

“That’d be splendid,” says John. “Thank you.”

Mrs. Cook insists on showing them the room, which is situated on the first floor. One window is overlooking the main road and the village green. The other, framed by trees, shows a bit of garden to the side of the building. What used to be a lawn and flower beds have been turned into a potato field framed by rows of leeks and onions. The room is small and plainly furnished with two beds and bedside tables, a chest of drawers with a mirror, a pitcher with water and a large washing bowl set on top of it. There is a chair standing in front of it, and an old oak wardrobe occupying most of the left-hand wall. A flowery border covers the upper part of the walls which otherwise bear a plain, slightly faded wallpaper with a geometric pattern. The wooden floorboards creak at every step. The ceiling is low with exposed wooden beams running through it. Sherlock almost hits his head on the low-hanging porcelain lampshade. Heavy blackout curtains have been added to the thin white cotton ones, but are now drawn back to allow some sunlight into the room.

Over the two beds hangs a print of a Victorian painting showing Jesus walking down an English country lane with a lion on his left and a lamb on his right side, and with all kinds of field and woodland creatures looking on. Sherlock frowns at the absurdity of the picture until he catches John’s expression. Obviously, the painting stirs some memories in his friend, because John is smiling slightly as he studies it. Sherlock concludes that a relative he was fond of must have possessed a similar rendition, if not the same print.

“Very nice,” comments John, turning to the landlady. Mrs. Cook looks pleased. “There’s fish and chips for dinner tonight, or sausage and mash, if you fancy some meat, and apple-crumble for afters.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Cook,” says John. “I’ll have the fish, and Mr. Holmes here—” he looks at Sherlock expectantly. Sherlock sighs. He isn’t hungry, but assumes that John will insist on him eating a decent meal before night-time.

“Fish for me, too,” says Sherlock. John smiles, and the corner of Sherlock’s mouth twitches in an answering smile. After all, he quite likes fish and chips, and if eating them makes John happy, he’ll gladly oblige.

“I don’t know how long our errand to Ivy Farm is going to take us,” John tells the landlady.

“Dinner is served from six,” she informs him. “There is a bathroom down the corridor which you’ll be sharing with the other guests. There is also a privy next to the saloon bar downstairs. I’ll put your toiletries on the dresser.”

John thanks her and she bustles off. “Let me quickly pop into the bathroom, and we can be off to the farm.”

Sherlock nods. He steps over to the window and looks out across the peaceful village, before turning and studying the two beds standing about five feet apart, a brightly coloured woven rug separating them. He wonders if he’s going to be able to sleep at all tonight with John so close. But then, with his concussion he isn’t supposed to be sleeping, is he? Well, John will know.

Moving over to the bed closer to the door, he picks up John’s briefcase. Although Mrs. Cook said she’d provide toiletries, Sherlock is convinced John has at least packed a comb, judging from his tidiness and seemingly endless supply of handkerchiefs. And there it is, together with more hankies. Sherlock takes the comb and stands in front of the mirror, where he tries to tame his hair a little. A chuckle from the doorway makes him turn.

“They have a will of their own, haven’t they, your curls,” remarks John. He has washed his face and hands and has also flattened his hair. He rearranges his tie as he steps next to Sherlock and gives his appearance a critical look in the mirror. To Sherlock, he looks marvellous, as always.

“Yes, they have,” replies Sherlock, giving up on his hair. “I barely stand a chance at taming them.”

“Leave them. They suit you. Although perhaps you should wear a tie as well, and a hat. Makes you look more respectable and less like a brilliant but somewhat scatter-brained student.”

“Oh, I look brilliant, do I?” quips Sherlock.

John laughs. “Sometimes, yes.”

“And at other times?” asks Sherlock, withdrawing his tie from his own briefcase.

John swallows, obviously surprised by the question. He licks his lip, but then lets out a breath almost like a sigh. “I’ll wait for you downstairs.”

Sherlock watches him leave, not sure what to make of his remark and his reaction. He gives his hair a last brush, before donning the hat and winding the tie round his neck.

 

–<o>–

 

Late afternoon sunlight warms them as they make their way down Ivy Lane, a narrow road with a wall to one side and driveways branching off the other.

“I wonder that Mrs. Cook spoke so freely about the station,” muses John. “I mean, isn’t it supposed to be secret, like Bletchley Park?”

“Certainly. But this village is even smaller than Bletchley. Of course people will notice if there is an increased military presence and requirements for billets. I don’t know what they’ve been told, though. I assume they believe Ivy Farm houses military personnel to watch and guard the coast against invasion, and to monitor the skies to warn against new bombing raids.”

“Yes, that sounds plausible. Oh, I think we’re here.”

They have reached a gate in a low brick wall that is guarded by two soldiers. They look rather bored, smoking and chatting, but stand up straight when John and Sherlock approach. Sherlock hands them their papers and the letter from Tiltman.

“We have an appointment with Commander Wilcox,” he says after telling the guards their names, and in John’s case, his naval and medical credentials. “We were meant to arrive earlier, but were delayed in London.”

“Commander Wilcox is on his way to London,” says one of the soldiers. “He left around noon. Mr. Kenworthy from Denmark Hill Station is in charge of this place at the moment. The commanding officer is Lieutenant Chambers while Commander Wilcox is away.”

“Would you inform Mr. Kenworthy of our arrival?” says Sherlock. “Tell him also that our errand is quite urgent.”

“We’ll let him know you’ve arrived. Your papers are in order. Wait here until we’ve heard back from him and Lieutenant Chambers.”

He opens the gate and lets them step inside. The other guard wanders off towards the house that can be seen at the end of the gravel driveway. It is built of red brick with white window-frames in its gabled dormers. Behind it rise two wireless masts while a third is apparently in the process of being constructed. Other building activities are obvious on the grounds. What seems to have been an orchard has been cleared to make room for several Nissen huts which are half finished. In front of the house space has been made to park two military jeeps and several motorcycles for the couriers. Bicycles are visible in a shed to the side of the main building.

“Quite a lot of activity,” remarks Sherlock casually.

“Yeah, the place has grown in recent months,” says the remaining guard, a young man from Epping with a brother in the navy and a sweetheart in Maidstone. “We started here earlier this year with only six people, and now we already need these huts to house more. Lots of pretty birds coming in, though, so that’s nice.”

Sherlock resists the temptation to roll his eyes, but John grins and promptly engages the soldier in some light conversation while Sherlock observes the activities in front of the building. The men charged with setting up the huts seem to be about to finish their shift, packing up their gear for the day, while a small group of young women is standing to the side of the main entrance, smoking, sipping coffee or tea, and obviously enjoying their break. The wind has died down and the smell of lavender from the thick bushes framing the driveway to both sides permeates the air.

A persistent hum from the lavender catches Sherlock’s attention and he kneels down next to one of the bushes. Honey bees and bumble bees hang in the flowers that the latter particularly enjoy visiting.   Sherlock watches them with fascination. They appear to be strangely slow as they move from stem to stem. A few are even sitting on the ground. Carefully, Sherlock picks one up, worried that it is exhausted and he has nothing on him to revive it. It only reacts sluggishly to his touch, as if dazed. His interest is piqued, and he wonders whether the lavender has caused this state and if so, which components of the plant and its flowers may have so incapacitated the bee. It might be worth further study.

Two pairs of approaching footsteps cause him to carefully return the bumble bee to a plant and rise to his feet again, wincing slightly when his head, neck, shoulders and ribs protest at the movement. The guard has returned, accompanied by a thin, middle-aged, bespectacled man with a narrow moustache and receding hairline, who is dressed casually in woollen trousers and a Fair-Isle sleeveless jumper over his somewhat crumpled shirt. His tie is askew, and he hasn’t bothered rolling down the sleeves of his shirt and buttoning the cuffs to welcome the visitors. Sherlock thinks he looks very much like a codebreaker in his somewhat dishevelled attire, combined with an intelligent, intense expression.

“Mr. Holmes, Captain Watson, my name is Harold Kenworthy,” he greets them, shaking their hands in turn. “Commander Wilcox informed me of your arrival. You are here to research something in our archives, am I correct?”

“Yes,” replies Sherlock. Kenworthy nods at the two guards who resume their positions at the gate, then beckons John and Sherlock to follow him back to the main house. When they are out of earshot of the guards, he says, “You’re from Station X, yes?”

Sherlock nods. “I’m a codebreaker there. Captain Watson has been assigned to assist me and to liaise with Naval Command. We have recently encountered what we believe to be a strange Tunny message – or parts thereof – under mysterious circumstances.”

“Yes, Mr. Tiltman stated as much in his telegram. He also mentioned that you couldn’t find the message in your own archive any more. That’s ... unusual. Normally, they are indexed meticulously.”

“We suspect that it has been removed unlawfully,” says John.

Kenworthy looks surprised. “But by whom?”

“We don’t know yet.”

Kenworthy stops short and straightens his glasses, gazing at John and Sherlock with a hint of alarm. “Don’t tell me that there’s a spy at loose at Station X?” His expression grows suspicious as he studies the two men.

“We cannot rule it out,” says Sherlock. “I hope you don’t believe us to be the spies?”

“Your description matches the one Tiltman sent, and I know he’s very meticulous. Your papers are in order, too. But one can’t be too careful.”

“Have there been any strange goings on at your place recently?” John wants to know.

Kenworthy shakes his head. “Not that I know of. The station has grown rapidly these past few months, ever since part of my division was moved here from Denmark Hill. Lots of new personnel, particularly Wrens and other women operating the teleprinters and taking down the messages. We have an ever growing group of motorcycle couriers, too. It’s rather difficult to keep track of everybody, that’s why the Military Police are charged with security so we don’t have to occupy ourselves with that on top of everything else. From what I heard, it’s quite similar at your place.”

Sherlock nods, thinking about how much Bletchley Park has grown since he arrived there, with new buildings being planned and erected continuously.

“This message you are interested in, when exactly was it intercepted here? Do you know?” asks Kenworthy. “And how did you come to know of it at all, if it has vanished from your archive? From what Tiltman wrote, it doesn’t look like he ever received it.”

Sherlock gives Kenworthy a brief account of the circumstances of finding Jennifer Wilson and her partial transcript of the message. He also describes how he and John pieced together the time and date of the intercept.

“Miss Wilson worked on the teleprinters, so she would have been one of the first people at our place to actually see the message. Something about it must have struck her as odd, or else it’s unlikely she’d have taken note of it at all, considering how much Tunny traffic arrives at our station on a daily basis.”

Kenworthy nods thoughtfully. “We receive even more here, and we usually forward selectively as well, otherwise you chaps would be swamped in Tunny intercepts, and from what one hears you’re already more than busy with Enigma. Give me the exact time and date, and I’ll try and find out who was on duty back then and received the message here. Our girls are sharp and clever. Some of them are assigned to monitoring particular enemy sources. That means they get to know the habits of the transmitters quite well. Often, they can tell when something is out of the ordinary, which in turn makes things interesting for you codebreakers. Those messages are the ones we take particular care to forward immediately, and which we send via motorcycle courier as well as teleprinter.”

He gives Sherlock a wry glance over the rim of his spectacles. “Not that much progress is being made on Tunny, from what one hears. I don’t blame you chaps, mind. You’ve got your hands full with other things, I know. Back at Denmark Hill, we also tried our hand at decoding Tunny, but to no avail. That’s why we handed it over to Tiltman and his people.”

Sherlock nods. Kenworthy seems very well informed about the goings on at Bletchley Park, given that the place is supposed to be an absolute secret. But then, he reasons, Kenworthy himself seems to be pretty involved in the inner workings of the GC & CS. “Indeed. But who knows, perhaps this message we’re looking for will provide us with a way into Tunny. This, at least, is what Tiltman hopes, and maybe that’s also what Miss Wilson suspected, and that’s why we’re here.”

Kenworthy gives him a tight smile. “Very well, then, Mr. Holmes. Let me show you our humble abode.”

 

–<o>–

 

Kenworthy leads them into the hall of the main house. It is less grand than the mansion at Bletchley Park, and still retains traces of its former purpose, that of a large farmhouse turned modest and slightly whimsical country abode some time during the past century. By now, what seem to have been parlour, sitting and dining room have been transferred into functional offices. One large room on the ground floor, featuring a decorative Victorian fireplace, has been taken over by the listening station proper. At a long table in the middle of the room, six women are sitting listening to Morse Code and noting it down. Others are monitoring non-Morse transmissions on teleprinters. Across the corridor in a room similarly furnished, Sherlock can see rows of teleprinters and some typewriters, also mostly operated by women. The constant clicking and whirring of the many machines fills the air.

“Here is where we receive what is then forwarded to Station X and elsewhere, and hopefully deciphered,” explains Kenworthy. “Here, the only thing we see and hear is complete and utter gibberish. We live in the hope that you chaps can make sense of it all.”

“We’re working on it,” replies Sherlock. “We’ve become rather proficient with Shark, the Enigma traffic we receive and decipher from the North Atlantic, but so far Tunny has remained a mystery – from what I heard. As I said, I haven’t been working on Tunny decryption.”

Kenworthy nods thoughtfully. “The archive is upstairs. Do step carefully. There are wires all over the place. It’s a perpetual building site.”

 

–<o>–

 

The clerk looking after the archive, a young woman of no more than twenty with a predilection for doodling animals and chewing on her painted lips stands to attention when Kenworthy enters with the two men in tow. She hails from somewhere up north judging from the material of her knitted cardigan (Herdwick sheep wool). Sherlock supposes Kendal or thereabouts, because a half-eaten morsel of mint cake is sitting on the saucer of her teacup that she’s placed on the corner of her narrow desk.

“Good evening, Miss—”

“Williams,” she replies, her Cumbrian accent thick. “I only started here three weeks ago.”

“Miss Williams, splendid. These two gentlemen were sent from Station X to research a certain message that is missing from their archives. Please be so kind as to show them to the right section.”

“We need the transcripts from last Saturday,” says Sherlock. “August 30th. Preferably those from the day before as well.”

She nods to them to follow her. “We don’t usually get requests like these,” she muses as they wander along rows of drawers, and of shelves stacked with folders labelled with no system apparent to Sherlock at first glance. “At least not as long as I’ve been here.”

“So nobody else has enquired after these documents in recent days?” asks John.

She shakes here head. “No. Not while I’ve been on duty, anyway.”

John exchanges a quick glance with Sherlock, indicating that he’s been thinking along the same lines: no enquiry could mean that they are indeed a step ahead of whoever removed the transcript from the Bletchley archives, either to view the full message or to ‘disappear’ it.

“But we can always check the ledger whether anybody took out or studied anything,” goes on Miss Williams. “Oh, that reminds me, I forgot to ask you to sign. You need to do that anyway if you take anything out. Here we are. August 29th and 30th. Please be reminded that the documents must stay here. You may take notes, however. If you need a typed copy, I can make one, although that will take a while.”

“Thank you, Miss Williams. We’ll let you know if we require your assistance,” John tells her, flashing her a bright smile that does strange things to Sherlock’s stomach. She flushes slightly and smiles in return, the lipstick stains on her teeth showing. “I’ll be at my desk.”

“Wonderful. Thank you.”

She turns and wanders off down the aisle. John watches her for a moment before glancing at Sherlock and frowning. “What?” he asks with faint irritation, obviously surprised by what Sherlock is certain must be a scowl on his own face.

“You were flirting with her,” he hisses.

John shrugs. “I was being friendly and polite. It usually makes people feel at ease and more disposed towards doing others a favour.” He cocks his head. “And even if I was flirting, why would that bother you? She’s a pretty thing.”

“She’s only half your age,” returns Sherlock scathingly. He knows he is being petty and ridiculous, but he can’t help it.

John grins. He is obviously amused by Sherlock’s reaction. “So what? Perhaps I like younger women. And I repeat, why are you taking offence at my – hypothetical – flirting?”

“Because we are here on an important mission with no time to waste on such trifles as your love-life.”

“Ah, but we do have time to look after weary bumble bees, do we?” Ah, so he watched me when I rescued the bee. That’s strangely ... touching. “And anyway, to me, my love-life isn’t a trifle, thank you very much,” teases John.

Sherlock blushes. “They happen to be very fascinating creatures, bees.”

“So are women, you know.”

At Sherlock’s deadly glare, John laughs, clapping Sherlock’s shoulder amicably.

“My apologies, Sherlock, I didn’t mean to tease you. I really wasn’t flirting with her, just being friendly, as I said. And I will keep doing that, so you better get used to it and not get jealous every time I smile at another human being.”

“I wasn’t jealous,” splutters Sherlock indignantly, although in truth, that is exactly what he was and they both know it. “I’m just concerned about wasting time on trivialities. You take the 29th, I’ll take the 30th. Here are the first letters of the message Jenny scribbled down. Very likely they are the key settings, so look for those in particular.”

He withdraws a folder from his chosen day. It only covers the first shift. Sherlock sighs when he sees the amount of messages it contains. “This is going to take a while.”

 

–<o>–

 

About forty minutes later, Sherlock lets out a small sound of triumph. He has finally found a message with the exact opening letters. John steps to him and peers over his arm.

“Sent from Athens to Vienna,” he muses, reading the plaintext header added by the clerks at the listening station. He points at the row of letters at the beginning of the document.

“HQIBPEXEZMUG,” he reads. “Are those the key settings?”

“Probably. It’s what Jennifer Wilson wrote down, at least. Were this an Enigma message, this part of it would be the key settings transmitted in code. They are shorter for Enigma messages, but from what Turing and the others said about the Lorenz cypher, the machines used to create it are far more complicated than the Enigma.”

John nods thoughtfully, squinting at the text which looks little different from an encoded Enigma message with its neat rows and columns of letters that make absolutely no sense whatsoever, even though one is tempted to read them as plaintext and look for meaning by simply rearranging them anagram-style. “That’s a bloody long message,” muses John.

Sherlock nods. The message is long indeed. At least three thousand letters, likely more. Was this what caught Jenny’s attention when she received it via her teleprinter? Long messages mean greater chances of working out a crib, unless one gets a short and straightforward weather report. But this does not look like a weather report, more like a campaign description or a detailed account of a mission.

“Take it to your new friend Miss Williams and ask her to type us a copy or, better still, two.”

John rolls his eyes at the remark but grins. “With pleasure. What are you going to do? Search some more?”

“Yes. I have a feeling that the length of the message wasn’t the only reason for both the women here at Knockholt marking it ‘urgent’ and Jennifer Wilson paying particular attention to it. There must be something else. Also, remember that Jennifer wrote down two rows of letters, similar but with variables. Perhaps it’s more than one message we are looking for.”

He leafs through the folder that contained the intercept, then whistles softly. “Oh,” he breathes, as his heartbeat accelerates at the rush of adrenaline coursing through him. John halts and turns back to him.

“What have you found, Sherlock?” He steps closer, close enough for Sherlock to feel his breath on his cheek. Sherlock holds up another message for John to see. He skims over it briefly, before gazing up at Sherlock who beams at him with bright excitement.

“They’ve already made a copy?” asks John, looking at the identical header. “Ah, no, the following letters are different. And it seems to be slightly shorter. What is it, Sherlock? What’s got you so excited?”

“It isn’t a copy, John,” says Sherlock, talking quickly and waving the document in John’s face. “Although I hazard it’s the same or at least a very similar message. Look at the time it was intercepted. That’s only a short while after the other. And it also went from Athens to Vienna, from the very same source. And look at this: a brief intercept from the same source noted down by a radio operator here at Ivy Farm, this time in Morse, so it seems to have been urgent and the original source didn’t want to be bothered with using a complicated cypher and encoding technique. The time indicates it was transmitted in between the two messages.”

John’s eyebrows rise into his hairline when he sees the short intercept. “That’s plaintext,” he whispers in wonder.

Sherlock nods excitedly. “It is. It’s an unencoded Morse message. It’s in German, of course.”

“What does it say?”

“‘Nachricht nicht vollstaendig erhalten Stop Bitte um erneutes Senden Stop’,” reads Sherlock, hoping to impress John with his pronunciation and translation skills. “That means the original recipient didn’t get the full message the first time round and asks for a resend.”

“And that’s the second message.”

“It is.”

“But why does it looks different? The letters apart from the header aren’t the same.”

“Remember how Enigma works. Every time you press a letter, the rotors move by one position and you get another letter. That’s what makes it so fiendishly efficient.”

“Right, yes, okay. And a letter can’t be encoded with itself. I remember that. So this Lorenz cypher machine, it works in a similar way?”

“We don’t know how it works exactly because none of us has seen one yet, whereas we have an actual Enigma at the Park and can set up our Type-X machines like them – after we’ve found the right settings. But the Lorenz is far more complicated. Turing tried to explain it in Denniston’s office, you may recall. It may use double encoding, or perhaps random letters are added to each one you type, and then they’re encoded as a pair. Most likely it has more rotors, too. Turing estimated ten. They may move at different speeds, meaning that while one rotor moves one position at each letter typed, some of the others may rotate more quickly, or skip letters. We just don’t know for certain, and that’s why Tunny has proven so resilient to any attempts at breaking it.”

“Yes, I remember bits of what they said, but I didn’t understand half of it.”

“So far, people like Tiltman have tried to work backwards, attempting to reconstruct the machine from the encoded messages we intercept, without much luck, apparently. Perhaps Turing is right, and the Lorenz code can’t be broken by a human brain at all. We already use the Bombe machines to help us calculate and try out key settings. Perhaps a quicker and more powerful computing machine must be invented to decode Tunny. Still, even to construct such a thing I believe we need to know how Lorenz works, and what exactly we’re up against. And in that light, I think what we’ve found here is remarkable, John. Remarkable. We have the same message, twice, and a long one, too. But what’s so precious about this one is the fact that the German radio operator has made one big – maybe even fatal – mistake for them.”

“And what is that?”

Sherlock beams at John. “He didn’t change the key settings, John. He was lazy, or perhaps he was a in a hurry or there was some other factor that prevented him from changing the settings – standard procedure after every transmission, and for good reason. He should have altered them, but he didn’t. He didn’t. Oh, this is gold, John. Have copies made immediately, and then we need to find Kenworthy again and hopefully a telephone. Tiltman must learn of this. From the amount of text – and variables – he’s getting from these two messages he might be able to construct a crib.”

John watches Sherlock with a fond expression. “Oh, you mean you want to leave all the fun of deciphering this message to Tiltman?”

Sherlock snorts, smiling broadly at John. “I didn’t say that. Have Miss Williams make copies for us as well.”

John grins and salutes. “Aye, aye, sir.”

 

–<o>–

 

It’s almost eight o’clock and dusk has fallen when they finally prepare to leave Ivy Farm. Sherlock has spent almost half an hour on the phone with Tiltman, explaining their find and waiting until copies have been typed and the motorcycle courier is on her way to Bletchley. Afterwards, a proud Kenworthy leads them to the radio operator who intercepted the messages and who has just started her shift.

“Miss Kepple here was on duty that day and monitoring the messages that came in from this particular source.”

The young woman, like the archivist, not much older than twenty and a keen tennis player judging from the musculature in her right arm and her tanlines, looks up from her teleprinter and smiles at John and Sherlock. “I’m glad that our work here finally seems to be leading somewhere. We sit here day in, day out either listening to beeps and bobs, or looking at the teleprinters spewing out complete gibberish.”

“You can be assured that your work here is very important, Miss Kepple,” John assures her, and she beams at him. “What struck you about this particular message? I take it you marked it for further investigation.”

“Yes, indeed. As Mr. Kenworthy said, I’ve been assigned to monitor that particular source because he had been very busy lately and we’ve been told to look out for long messages in particular as they seem to be important to whoever gets them after us. Now that day, Saturday, the source – we called him Herr Schneck (as in ‘snail’) because he always types so slowly – was very busy and sent several messages, this very long one amongst them. I wouldn’t have thought it odd hadn’t it been for the fact that Daisy, who was listening to the Morse transmissions at the time, told me that she’d intercepted an unencrypted Morse message from the recipient of Schneck’s messages asking for a resend. That’s not standard procedure at all. I kept my eyes peeled for that resend, and noted that it was slightly shorter. Also, the header seemed to be the same. It could have been an accident, but we are told to report anything that looks out of the ordinary. So I did. Mr. Kenworthy wasn’t in at the time, but Commander Wilcox said he’d forward the message.”

“Thank you very much. Is your colleague, Daisy, here as well?” enquires Sherlock.

“She has already finished her shift, but she will be back tomorrow morning.”

“We may come back then, although I think for the time being, we have learned all we need to know. One more thing, though,” he adds, addressing Kenworthy. “Do you know when Commander Wilcox will be back?”

“According to my knowledge, not before next week. He has some business in London, but I wasn’t informed what it’s about. Seemed important, though, because he left on rather short notice. Lieutenant Chambers may know more.”

“Thank you, Mr. Kenworthy. We will have a word with the Lieutenant tomorrow.”

Sherlock turns to John. “Dr. Watson, I think we are ready to leave.”

John nods. “Indeed, Mr. Holmes.” Under his breath he adds. “I’m bloody starving. I hope Mrs. Cook at the inn hasn’t fed our dinner to anybody else.”

They take their leave of Kenworthy and Kepple and step out into the gathering dusk. The bees have retired for the night but some bats are out, fluttering about the houses. Next to Sherlock, John draws a deep breath and rolls his shoulders. Then he smiles at Sherlock. “Come on, let’s grab some food.”

 

–<o>–

 

The saloon bar of the Three Horseshoes is busy with locals and a few soldiers stationed in the village – too busy, actually, for Sherlock’s liking. His head is throbbing painfully and his entire body feels sore. He is tired. He is also hungry and very thirsty, but would have preferred a meal in the quiet privacy of their room or even the dark garden than spending time in the noisy, stuffy room that smells of ale and cigarette smoke.

Despite his headache, he is eager to start work on the message, the typescripts of which seem to burn like hot coals in the inner pocket of his jacket. Apart from the lucky coincidence of having two messages from the same source with the same key settings, something else about the missives keeps nagging him. His aching brain won’t allow him to make the connection, but there is something. He can almost grasp it, and he longs for some peace and quiet to dive into his mind palace to search for the missing link. He knows it’s in there. It’s something he has thought before and filed away as not relevant for the issue at hand. He simply needs to track it down and revisit the idea.

But first he has to sit through dinner, apparently. John is rather insistent that he settles down at a table in one of the corners while he sets out to fetch them drinks and order meals. He soon returns with a pint of ale for himself and something clear and golden for Sherlock, who eyes his glass doubtfully.

“It’s apple-juice,” explains John, noticing his expression. “Because of your concussion I won’t have you drink any alcohol tonight.”

“Thank you. Juice is fine. I don’t particularly like beer or ale, anyway.”

John grins good-naturedly at that as he slides onto the bench next to Sherlock. “Yeah, because you’re a posh, snooty public school boy. I suppose champagne or expensive wine are more to your taste.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Just so you know, I loathe champagne. As for wine, it can be acceptable, but I don’t usually drink much alcohol, anyway.”

“Bad for brainwork?”

“Yes.”

John eyes him with interest. “Have you ever been drunk? Ah no, I remember you saying that you haven’t. That’s quite remarkable for someone your age, you know.”

“Remarkable, or shocking? But I spoke the truth. I haven’t been drunk, at least not in the way you are implying, for ‘fun’ at some social event or other. However, I once rendered myself somewhat inebriated during an experiment with different concentrations of ethanol. The effects were such that I did not long for a repeat.”

John laughs. “How old were you?”

“Twelve. I had stayed at school during the half-term holiday and utilised the science facilities during one weekend. My chemistry tutor was not pleased, neither were the headmaster or my parents. But I’ve never been drunk when I was forced to socialise. Pointless waste of time and money.”

“But you’ve been tipsy, right?”

Sherlock frowns at him. “Why are you so interested in my past encounters with alcohol?”

“Because I’m trying to imagine you under its influence. So, have you ever been tipsy?”

Sherlock sighs. “Yes, I reckon I have. When I was sixteen, I had a bit too much punch at a family Christmas. It was awful. My unbearable Holmes cousins talked me into trying it, but I had barely eaten all day, so it didn’t take much to show effect. I loathed it, and rarely touched alcohol afterwards.”

John takes a sip of his ale and grins at him. “I bet your lisp is more pronounced when you’re not paying attention to keeping it under control, or when you’re compromised by drink.”

“I haven’t got a lisp,” returns Sherlock indignantly, the sound of the last word exposing his lie rather embarrassingly.

John laughs. “Oh yes, you have. When you’re tired or inattentive, it’s quite noticeable. Oh, don’t be like that. I like it. It makes you human. Also, I think it’s quite adorable.”

“Adorable?” asks Sherlock scathingly, aware of the blood shooting into his cheeks. How does John manage to make him lose composure so easily? Hopefully, John will think his blush is due to the stuffy warmth of the room.

John, who should be the one to be embarrassed, for some reason isn’t. He holds Sherlock’s gaze and says, deliberately, “Yes, adorable. Cute, in fact.”

Sherlock bites his lip. “I’ve never been called cute before,” he admits. John is teasing him, he knows that. He should put a stop to it. And he will, he vows. In a while.

“That’s a sad omission. I think we can agree that most of the people you spent your childhood and adolescence with were proper idiots.”

Sherlock laughs. “Yes, you are correct with your assessment,” he agrees, raising his glass to John, who takes his own and clinks them together.

Shortly after, their meals arrive. Sherlock wonders where Mrs. Cook found the fat to actually fry the chips and battered cod, but he doesn’t care. The meal is glorious, particularly compared to the mostly bland, cabbage and turnip-heavy fare served in the canteen at Bletchley Park. His two landladies are decent cooks who are trying to make the most of rationed provisions and the yield of their garden. But this is something else. It’s rich and greasy and altogether decadent and delicious.

“Hope the breakfast tomorrow is going to be as good,” states John while spearing a large piece of fish with his fork.

Sherlock only nods, his mouth full of chips and mushy peas.

 

–<o>–

 

After the meal, John melts against the backrest of the bench, folds his hands over his stomach and sighs happily. “That was glorious,” he voices Sherlock’s thoughts precisely.

Sherlock feels full and drowsy, too. His headache has abated somewhat.

“Do you want another drink?” he asks.

John nods. “Another ale would be good. I don’t think I can get up right now, though. I’m too full. They must have thought we were near starvation, otherwise they wouldn’t have given us portions like these. But I’m not complaining.” He closes his eyes.

Sherlock watches him for a moment, thrilled by how content he looks, then moves over to the bar to get another ale and an apple-juice for himself. The landlord is involved in a lively conversation with two men of about his age, both local farmers judging from their build, the state of their hands and their accents. Sherlock stays to listen for a bit. Apparently, both are now accommodating women from the city, either employed as Land Girls to help with the harvest, Wrens, army personnel or girls working at the listening station.

“One of mine is even driving a motorcycle,” says one farmer. “That’s her job, apparently, delivering messages. You wouldn’t have found that sort of thing back in the day when we were young, eh, Barney? They barely rode bicycles then.”

“On the other hand, with most of our lads away fighting Jerry, who’s supposed to do the work?” puts in the other farmer. “I’ve two of them Land Girls, and even though they took a bit of learning at first, they are good workers. And one is a debutante, my Hilda said. Posh girl. But she mucks out the stables better than any lad I’ve had working for me before the war.”

Both men interrupt their conversation when Sherlock orders the drinks. They turn to him and eye him somewhat suspiciously. “Not wearing uniform, young man, I see,” says one.

“They didn’t have one that suited me,” replies Sherlock archly, tired of the implication of him shirking his duty.

“Oh ho, is that so? Not fancy enough for you, were they?”

“He and his colleague over there are here on official business,” says the landlord, obviously eager to preserve the peace.

The farmer with the motorcycle courier billeted at his place takes a swig from his ale and frowns at Sherlock. “You’re one of them government boffins, then, as are holed up at Ivy Farm? Never seen you around here.”

“We come from London,” replies Sherlock curtly. “But Mr. Cook is correct. Our errand is such that we may not disclose it publicly. Rest assured, however, that my colleague and I, who, by the way, is a naval surgeon assigned to assist me, do our bit for the war like the rest of the nation.” With that, he snatches up the two glasses and stalks off, resisting the temptation to deduce the two farmers and show them where his talents truly lie.

“As I said, one of them boffins. Doesn’t look like he could even lift a rifle, anyway,” one of them muses, loud enough for him to hear.

The other farmer chuckles. “Or a pitchfork. Here’s to the strapping Land Girls. They at least know how to work.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes.

John looks up at him with a questioning expression. “Were they giving you trouble?” he wants to know when Sherlock places his drink in front of him.

“Not really. Just the usual prejudice at seeing a man my age out of uniform.”

“You weren’t given any white feathers, then?”

“Feathers?” asks Sherlock as he slides onto the bench next to John.

“For cowardice. It was a thing during the last war, when lads refused to join up. There was a friend of mine who was a few years older and we were in the same Rugby team. While most of us others were eager to join up, or, like me, felt duty-bound to ‘avenge’ their fathers’ misfortune during the campaign, he absolutely refused to be part of it, even when conscription was introduced. He hated any kind of violence unless it was the regulated kind you got on the Rugby field. We teased him about it, because for most of us, given our age, going to war wasn’t really an option yet, so we envied him for the chance and didn’t understand why he refused to take it. Soon, it went further than that, though. Women in the streets handed him feathers to mark him as a coward, and even his own mother put pressure on him. His brother was in Flanders, and his cousin, too. He was told repeatedly that he was a failure, the black sheep of the family if he remained home. I felt really sorry for him.”

“What happened? Did he join up and get killed?”

“He did yield to pressure in the end. Couldn’t dodge conscription forever, could he? Joined up in ’16 and experienced the last month at the Somme before moving on to Ypres and Passchendaele. He quickly rose through the ranks and was soon made Captain and then Major. Despite his initial refusal, he seemed to have a talent for fighting. The men admired him and would follow him anywhere. Like on the Rugby pitch, really. He was a born leader.”

John’s voice has gone quiet, his expression sad, almost wistful. Sherlock wonders what happened to his friend since he obviously mourns him.

“Did you ever see him again?”

“Yes, when he was on leave the following year. He’d changed. Become quiet and withdrawn and didn’t want to talk about what he had seen in the trenches even though we were all eager for adventurous stories. He only said that it was a war, and that there was no adventure in it. He didn’t even want to play Rugby anymore, which struck me as odd as he’d so loved the game before. When he was next giving leave, he decided to stay in Flanders and not come home. I think seeing how everybody there just got on with their normal lives was too much for him. He felt he didn’t belong anymore.”

John takes a sip from his pint, staring at the table thoughtfully and absently tracing a whorl in the wood with his finger. Sherlock watches him quietly, wondering whether John has felt likewise upon returning from war: disconnected with his surroundings, unable to enjoy what he used to like because of the atrocities he has seen at the front.

“The next time we met was over in France after I’d joined up, too, back in ’18 (since I couldn’t enlist earlier due to my age). He was on leave in Étaples when I arrived there, but we only managed to meet a few times before he was deployed to the front again. I lost track of him after, until I encountered him in the field hospital where I received part of my training as a medic before I was sent to the front. James had been severely wounded during an offensive at Ypres, his one arm damaged beyond repair and half his face burned off. I barely recognised him, and was shocked to find him in that state, delirious with pain that the morphine couldn’t entirely subdue. His physical injuries weren’t the worst, however. They said he was suffering from some kind of shell-shock that had robbed him of his will to live, but I believe his depressed state was caused by something else. He was blaming himself for what had happened, and for the fact that he was alive when so many of his comrades weren’t. He’d lost most of his company, chiefly consisting of new recruits, boys like myself. I don’t know exactly what happened. The official reports said that he made an error of judgement and misinterpreted the orders he’d been given, which lead to him sending his men over the top too late, missing the element of surprise which meant that the German defenders had their machine guns ready, and their flamethrowers and gas grenades, too.”

John takes a forceful, almost angry swig of his ale.

“I’m disinclined to believe these reports, though,” he growls. “James was an excellent commander, and experienced in trench warfare, too. After all, he’d been stuck in their bloody mud holes for half the bloody war. He refused to disclose what really happened, even to me, but from what I gathered he interpreted the orders correctly, and held back because the sortie was too dangerous in the first place. He sent a runner to inform his commanding officers that any attack in that place was likely to fail. The German defences were too strong. But his advice was disregarded, and new orders to attack were issued with the expressed warning what the consequences of disobedience would be. I don’t know whether he bowed to these orders in the end or whether, as he implied, his Sergeant-Major blew the whistle to unleash the attack (the man was subsequently killed, so nobody could ask him afterwards). Anyway, all blame was heaped on James, unjustly, if you ask me. And it destroyed him. He did return to England and for a while lived as a total recluse at some sanatorium in Scotland. He died from a morphine overdose in ’31. To this day, it’s not clear whether it was suicide, and accident, or whether one of the relatives of the men who got killed under his command contributed to his death.”

John sighs, staring into his ale. “Even if it was the latter, I don’t think James had had much will to live left. I wrote to him a few times, but only got one short and polite card as a reply.”

“He was a close friend of yours?” asks Sherlock.

“Yes,” replies John shortly. He empties his glass with one long draught before getting to his feet and making his way in the direction of the back door of the bar, likely in search of the privy.

Sherlock watches him leave, fascinated by another glimpse of John’s past, and saddened by his obvious grief. How many people dear to him has this man lost already? It’s a marvel to Sherlock who has so little experience with grief (and a great number of other things) that one can suffer so many bereavements, see so much death and destruction, and can still be as stout-hearted and often cheerful and optimistic as John Watson. Sherlock admires him for it.

 

–<o>–

 

John takes a while until he returns. “I really needed some fresh air,” he explains, standing in front of their table. “When you come back inside, it feels like you’re hitting a wall what with these blackout curtains and the air so used up and stuffy in here. Do you want to stay? I feel rather tired, to be honest.”

“I could do with some peace and quiet, too,” admits Sherlock. “I’d like to work on the message for a bit before I turn in.”

“All right. Let me just enquire about breakfast tomorrow. The drinks and meals went on our slate. Mr. Cook said we can pay for everything in the morning.”

 

–<o>–

 

Each of them carrying a cup of tea Mrs. Cook insisted on making them as a nightcap, they ascend the stairs to their room. The bathroom at the end of the corridor seems to be occupied. Presently, a young woman in a bathrobe, a towel wrapped round her hair vacates it, giving them a curious look. John nods to her, then enters their room. The blackout curtains have already been closed and the room is pitch dark. John switches on the overhead lamp.

As promised, Mrs. Cook has organised towels, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and a shaving kit for them. Sherlock places his tea-cup on the bedside table of the bed closest to the door and fetches a towel and the soap. John deposits his cup next to the further bed, takes off his shoes and sinks onto the bed with a sigh.

“Wake me when you’re done in the bathroom,” he mutters and closes his eyes. Sherlock watches him fondly for a moment, the warm glow he has come to associate with John suffusing his belly. It touches him that even though they haven’t known each other more than a few days, it feels like they’ve been friends for ages, the way they are at ease with and attuned to each other. It’s a completely novel feeling for Sherlock, and he knows he’s going to miss it forever when their association comes to an end, as inevitably it must at some point. A weight settles on his heart and he swallows. Better not to think about a future separation, but to enjoy John’s company as long as he can.

“I’ll be quick,” he promises.

The corner of John’s mouth twitches up in a smile. “Take your time. I’ll have a nap.”

“Your shoulder won’t thank you if you try and sleep like this, with your braces still on. And your jacket will be badly wrinkled tomorrow.”

John utters a low growl and opens one eye to glare at Sherlock. “Spoilsport.” He extends a hand to the other. “Help me up, then. I think the mattress is trying to swallow me.”

Sherlock obliges and pulls him into a sitting position. “Admit it, you only want to watch me undress,” quips John, and blushes immediately. His words seem to have come out unthinking.

Sherlock stares at him, blood shooting into his cheeks as well. Is he really this obvious? He swallows and averts his face, pretending to inspect the towel and trying to come up with some witty repartee to at least save some of his dignity. “Well, I have already seen you in your pyjamas, remember?” he manages. “Or do you intend to sleep naked tonight?”

John looks up at him, his expression still somewhat embarrassed but also amused and slightly calculating. “Oh, don’t know. I could. It’s warm enough. What about you? Brought any pyjamas?”

“Of course not. Underwear will have to suffice.”

John nods. “That’s what I was thinking. Right, then.” He gets rid of his tie and then proceeds to strip off his jacket and waistcoat. Sherlock watches him for a moment, before dropping soap and towel onto the bed and beginning to do likewise, quickly and efficiently stripping down to his trousers and vest, the braces dangling from his waist.

John gazes up at him briefly and grins. “There was a bloke on my last ship who insisted on wearing braces and a belt at the same time. The lads never let him hear the end of it, ridiculed him mercilessly. I once asked him about it, and he said that as a boy, he’d always been given his elder brother’s trousers to grow into, and on more than one occasion they’d slipped down over his arse because they were so large. So, he said, he was making sure that wouldn’t happen again.”

Sherlock chuckles as he picks up soap and towel again.

“At my school, the other boys delighted in hiding my clothes when I washed or took a bath. Sometimes, they took my towel, too.”

“Lousy brats,” comments John. “What did you do?”

Sherlock shrugs. “At first I despaired, and tried to cover up with anything I could find. But eventually I stopped bothering and simply returned to the dormitory naked. It caused quite some stir the first time it happened, and afterwards that particular kind of malice ceased since its effectiveness had worn off. The boys then worked on finding other ways of getting at me, until eventually they stopped altogether and simply shunned me.”

John gazes at him with a mixture of outrage and pity. “I’m sorry you had such a hard time at school.”

Sherlock shrugs. “It’s long over now.”

John watches him and nods, his expression one Sherlock can’t define. Then with a groan he stands and starts to pick up his clothes.

“You’d better claim that bathroom before someone else does,” he advises, and Sherlock nods. With a last glance at John who has begun hanging up his clothes in the wardrobe instead of throwing them over a chair like Sherlock has done, he waits until the other starts to unbutton his trousers to leave the room.

In the small bathroom, he splashes cold water into his face and then undresses completely for a quick wash. He decides to brush his teeth later as he’s still got to drink his tea.

A soft gasp sounds at the door when he is pulling up his trousers again. He realises that he’s forgotten to lock it. The door is shut again immediately and a female voice enquires how long he is going to take. “Almost done,” he replies, and pulls the vest over his head.

Another young woman is waiting outside, wearing curlers in her hair and a silk dressing gown over her pyjamas that betray her wealthy upbringing and look rather out of place in the rustic inn. She looks familiar, and he recalls seeing her at Ivy Farm. She, too, recognises him.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were in there. Dotty said she was finished, so I assumed ... anyway, I’m sorry.”

Sherlock waves a hand and makes to move past her, but apparently she’s not finished. She cocks her head and studies him, her eyes roaming over his bare arms and shoulders and his chest in a way that sends a prickle of unease down his spine.

“You’re one of the men from London who came to the Farm today, aren’t you? Lizzy Williams from the archive told me all about you two. She seemed quite taken with your companion, the doctor.”

She looks Sherlock up and down once more and smiles. “But you’re not too bad, either, are you? Tall, dark and handsome.”

Sherlock frowns at her. “Your fiancé had better not learned of this kind of talk,” he says, nodding at the engagement ring on her hand.

She sighs dramatically. “Can’t a girl at least enjoy the view for a bit?” she asks, her eyes sweeping over his collarbones and neck. Sherlock feels exposed, unused as he is to find himself the object of admiration, even desire.

She laughs, seemingly sensing his discomfort. “Oh, dear, you really are rather cute. My apologies, I didn’t intend to make you this uncomfortable. You boffins are all the same, aren’t you? Even the dashing ones. Hope you didn’t use all the hot water.”

With that, she winks at him and, to Sherlock’s utter surprise and mild shock, leans in to peck him on the cheek. Then she brushes past him and effectively pushes him out of the room. The door closes in his face and the bolt slides shut.

Bewildered, scrubbing his cheek with his towel, Sherlock returns to his room, only to find the door open and John standing in front of the Jesus picture, studying it and sipping his tea. He is only wearing his vest and drawers. In the light of the small lamp on his bedside table, by now the only illumination of the room, the backlit hairs on his legs look like golden down. Sherlock cannot help but stare for a moment, until he manages to drag his gaze away.

“Bathroom is occupied at the moment,” he tells John, who nods.

“Yes, I heard you talk to the girl. Second person to call you cute, eh?” he quips with a wink at Sherlock.

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Shut up.”

John turns to him. “Most blokes I know would have taken her up on her not very subtle offer. Oh, you’ve got some trace of lipstick on your cheek still. Or did you put on rouge?”

Sherlock snorts. “Not tonight. As for taking her up on her offer, as you so blithely put it, she is sharing a room with another woman,” says Sherlock gruffly, raising the towel to give his cheek another wipe.

“I’m pretty sure you’d have found a nice, private spot.”

Sherlock holds his gaze for a moment. “She is engaged.”

“And nevertheless clearly interested.”

“Well, I wasn’t,” says Sherlock curtly, fetching his tea and taking a draught as if to signal that the conversation is at an end. He can still feel John’s eyes on him.

“Have you ever been? Interested, I mean,” asks John quietly. “In anybody?”

Sherlock’s hand hesitates halfway of transferring the cup to his mouth. Were John as observant as Sherlock he’d have read his brief twitch as a definite answer. Sherlock drinks again, swallowing audibly. His heart is beating hard and fast in his chest. This is dangerous territory, brittle and slippery like new ice after a light frost.

In the end, he decides to answer honestly yet dodge the question as best he can. “What good is being interested if that interest is not returned, or worse, met with rejection and disdain?”

He chances a glance at John who is watching him with a grave expression. “Sometimes, it can be difficult to define whether somebody returns your affections, you know. It’s like a code, most of the time.”

Sherlock nods and sighs. “Exactly. I prefer to stick to deciphering those I have an actual chance of finding the plaintext for. Speaking of which—”

Walking over to his jacket, he withdraws the copies of the messages from the inner pocket and waves them at John. “How about we give decoding these a try, before we’re completely tired out? Or do you want to sleep now?”

John shakes his head. “No, I’m fine for now. The tea was a lifesaver. Let’s have a look at them.”

Fetching the quilt from his bed, he wraps its over his shoulders and comes over to Sherlock who has spread out the two messages on his coverlet and has sat down next to them. John draws up the chair and sits down opposite him, then reaches for the lamp to hold it so that they can see enough.

“Do you still have my notebook?” he asks. Sherlock nods and gets up to fetch it and a pencil.

They spend the next hour poring over the message with either John or Sherlock taking notes. Sherlock tries every trick in his repertoire, but the messages resist each and every attempt at cribbing.

“At least if we knew what this campaign was all about,” muses John. “If we had some ... don’t know ... place-names or something, or hints what the weather was like. Or the names of the commanders and the companies involved. That’d help, wouldn’t it?”

“Perhaps, yes,” agrees Sherlock, pinching the bridge of his nose. His headache has worsened again, likely from sitting bent over on the mattress. He has been yawning continuously for the past fifteen minutes. A gentle touch to his shoulder makes him look up.

“Get some sleep, Sherlock,” says John quietly. “You really look done in. I’ll watch over you for a bit to see if there are any problems, but I doubt there will be. Your concussion is only light, and I think the sleep would be more beneficial to you than staying awake most of the night.”

Sherlock is too tired to argue. He returns to the bathroom to use the toilet and brush his teeth. As soon as he sits down on his bed again to discard his socks and trousers, he feels tiredness crash over him like a dark wave. Not long after his head has hit the pillow, he falls asleep, not even hearing when John returns to their room, gets into bed and switches off the light.

 

–<o>–

 

Sherlock wakes with a start, to almost complete darkness. To his surprise, once he’s regained his bearings, he can see a sliver of moonlight filter into the room. John must have drawn apart the heavy blackout curtains a little to alleviate the oppressive darkness. He has also opened the windows a fraction to air the room. A faint touch of cool night air wafts through the room. Sherlock can hear the soft hoot of an owl in the distance. Something is rustling in the potato plants in the garden.

But these are not the only sounds he hears. John is tossing and turning in his bed. He is completely entangled in his sheets. His hands are clasping them so forcefully that even in the dim light, his knuckles show white. His breath comes in heavy gasps that almost sound like sobs, and they are broken by soft cries of “No”, and other words Sherlock can’t make out. His hair is tousled and sticks to his forehead that is covered in sweat.

It’s clear to Sherlock that John is suffering another nightmare, and a nasty one, too, by the look of it. His heart clenches at the thought of John suffering so much agony. He wants to help, alleviate his pains somehow. But what to do? Wake him? Would that be advisable? Sherlock doesn’t know.

John cries out again, in between fighting an invisible enemy – or battling against drowning, Sherlock surmises. Again Sherlock isn’t sure what he’s saying, but the agonised hiss almost sounded like his name. He makes up his mind and slips out of bed, almost losing his footing on the rug between their beds. Carefully, he pads over to John who has curled in on himself with his back to Sherlock’s bed, looking like a giant, rumpled caterpillar in his cocoon of sheets.

Sherlock walks round the bed to its other side and stoops over John. There are tear-stains on his face, which is crumpled in misery. Sherlock calls him softly, but John doesn’t react. Cautiously, Sherlock touches his shoulder. When this also doesn’t elicit a reaction, he grips it more tightly and shakes John, continuing to address him calmly.

“John, John, wake up, John. You’re dreaming. Wake up.”

John lets out another sob as a shudder passes through his body. He turns and swats at Sherlock’s hand, then suddenly grips it with an iron clasp as if it’s a lifeline.

“S’lock,” he croaks, and stops writhing. His eyes fly open, and for a moment he looks utterly disoriented. Sherlock realises that he should have switched on some light to help him get his bearings. He sits down on the mattress and reaches out with his free hand to lay it against John’s cheek to ground him.

“John, it’s me, Sherlock. We’re in a room at the Three Horseshoes in Kent. You have been dreaming, but it’s all right now. It’s all right.”

John is shaking, his left hand still clasping Sherlock’s right so tightly that it’s going to leave a mark. Sherlock can feel the tremors running through his friend’s body. He shifts his touch from John’s cheek to his nape and holds his head gently but firmly, so that John is forced to focus on him.

“It’s all right, John. You’re safe."

John draws a deep, shuddery breath and closes his eyes briefly. Then he struggles into a sitting position, peeling off some of the entangled sheets, and to Sherlock’s utter shock, launches himself at Sherlock, burying his face in his neck. He clasps his shoulder and collarbone with his right while his left still holds on to Sherlock’s hand. He is trembling in earnest now, shaking against Sherlock’s chest, his breath coming in hard, humid gasps that fan over Sherlock’s exposed skin and raise goose-bumps in their wake.

Sherlock sits very straight and still, not daring to move, nor knowing what exactly to do with his free hand. With a jerk, John releases his other to hold on to Sherlock’s right shoulder, too, as he presses himself closer as if trying to crawl into Sherlock’s chest. Hesitantly, Sherlock raises his right hand, lets it hover briefly over John’s nape, before very gently placing it there and cradling John’s head like a fragile treasure. Slowly, he sneaks his other hand up until it lies on John’s sweaty back. Sherlock begins to rub gentle circles on the damp fabric of the vest. That’s what people do when they try to offer comfort to the distressed, isn’t it? Pat their backs, whisper nonsense? He feels completely out of his depth.

It seems to work, though. Gradually, he feels John relax against him. The painful grip on Sherlock’s shoulders eases – he is sure that John’s fingers have left bruises – and John’s panting breaths become deeper and steadier. His shaking subsides to a faint shivering which, Sherlock reasons, might be caused by the draught and the fact that John has sweated profusely during his violent nightmare.

Sherlock, too, is shivering slightly, he notices. But it’s not due to the cold air, but rather to the fact that he is holding John Watson in his arms. He is only offering comfort, he knows, but the intimacy of their embrace is not lost on him. He can feel John’s heartbeat, the wild staccato gradually slowing to a less desperate rhythm. He can smell traces of toothpaste on his breath, and sweat and soap and starched sheets on his skin. His hairs are tickling his chin and throat, and the faint stubble on John’s cheeks and chin has rasped across his collarbones. John’s sweaty hair is curling in his nape under Sherlock’s fingers, and is sticking up wildly in other places. Sherlock notices all these details and myriads more, and feels overwhelmed by all the sudden, precious information concerning John Watson. He wants to save and catalogue and store it all, but finds that he can’t concentrate. Something is overriding his information-processing faculties, compromising his mind. He reckons it’s because John is warm and alive as he sits pressed against Sherlock, so very alive, and he smells so good, and Sherlock wants to simply enjoy his proximity for once and not analyse the way his hair curls or the rate of his pulse.

Interestingly, Sherlock feels his own heartbeat elevate. Suddenly, there is a lump in his throat. He knows he shouldn’t, but he does it anyway: for a brief moment, he allows himself to bury his nose in John’s hair and inhale, trying to commit the scent into the most secure vault of his mind palace where it will never, ever be deleted. Because this, this moment, out of pure selfishness disregarding John’s distress – he wants to keep it forever. Very likely he will never be this close to John (or anybody else) again, and he wants to treasure each and every second.

To his utter surprise, John doesn’t object. When his breathing has returned to normal and even his shivers have ceased but for the occasional tremor, he remains in Sherlock’s clumsy embrace, seemingly content to rest against him. Sherlock allows himself to indulge in their closeness for a little longer, but then feels compelled to break the mood.

“Feeling better?” he asks quietly, his voice nothing more but a deep murmur in the darkness.

John sniffs, sighs and nods. He sighs again and begins to disentangle himself from Sherlock, rubbing his shoulders briefly before dropping his hands. Sherlock mourns the loss of contact, but knows it’s for the best lest his body betray him entirely. Even now, his stomach feels like something alive has lodged in there, and, worse, a considerable amount of blood seems to have been diverted to his lower regions.

“Thank you,” rasps John, his voice hoarse from crying out earlier. “Sorry for waking you.”

“Anytime,” mutters Sherlock.

John raises his head, and despite the relative darkness, Sherlock knows that he is gazing at him. He swallows and shifts his eyes to John’s. They are still sitting very close, close enough for Sherlock to feel the warmth of the other, as well as each time John exhales against his skin. John is watching him steadily, and Sherlock feels exposed of a sudden. Has John realised that his embrace was not altogether altruistic, that he enjoyed it? And if he knows, does he mind? They have been dancing round each other constantly these past few days (and with each other, too, never forget that). Then there were John’s strange words today, his admission that he likes Sherlock and enjoys spending time with him. There’s his constant, amicable teasing. And Sherlock, despite often feeling wrong-footed and out of his depth, enjoyed all of that. The attention, the teasing, the witty digs at his peculiarities. He feels that John, despite only spending a few days in his company, knows him better than anybody, because nobody else ever bothered getting to know him, deemed him worthy of attention and deeper investigation.

Sherlock is convinced that he, too, knows things about John Watson that nobody else does. John trusts him despite trusting few others – hell, he even defied Mycroft Holmes – and he doesn’t mind letting Sherlock witness what could easily be perceived as weakness or a flaw of character. Neither of them are perfect, both are outsiders in their own way. And thus, Sherlock feels, desperately hoping that it’s not just his wishful thinking, they are perfectly suited for each other.

And here John is, only inches away from Sherlock, looking weary and dishevelled but calm once more, and strangely expectant. Sherlock feels tingly all over, tense like a bowstring. The longer he sits in John’s proximity, the more he feels his thought processes are being compromised (and no wonder that, with all the blood flowing elsewhere). His eyes have long grown accustomed to the dim light. He can see John’s dark eyes watching him, and catches how his tongue shoots out to wet his lips yet again.

Sherlock’s eyes are drawn to the spot John’s tongue has just touched. He swallows again, his heart beating so forcefully that he is certain John can see the pulse in his throat. Unconsciously, he licks his lips as well, only becoming aware of the action when John’s eyes drop to his mouth. He, too, is tense now, as if barely supressing excitement, or fear. But no, John Watson is brave, he wouldn’t be afraid of this. Or would he? Sherlock wishes he had more – any – experience with situations like these. Even more, he wishes that John would finally do something to break the spell, because otherwise he is certain he is going to burst.

But John is strangely hesitant, reluctant, even. Sherlock feels both disappointment and exasperation grow in him, and decides to take things into his own hands. It might be the stupidest, most ill-fated and catastrophic decision he has ever made, but in this moment, it feels like the only possibility to resolve the situation.

Letting out a short huff, he checks John’s eyes for the last time, only to find an expression there he can’t place. Sherlock makes up his mind. Leaning forward, feeling as if his heart is going to jump right out of his throat and his stomach is full of coiling serpents, he closes his eyes and presses his lips to John’s.

 

Chapter Text

Softness, some moisture, a faint scar on John’s upper lip, a surprised exhalation from John which could be a gasp or a sigh and which Sherlock can feel against his lips, a taste of toothpaste with hints of their meal lingering, faint stubble, hesitation, withdrawal, but then answering pressure – oh Dear God, he is not appalled, he is kissing back. All these things Sherlock registers while his lips linger on John’s, uncertain and trembling at first, then with more confidence when the other doesn’t immediately reject him.

These are the impressions Sherlock can label and somehow catalogue amidst the myriad details storming his mind. The rest of him is preoccupied with trying to withstand the tumble of emotions rushing through his body. His brain barely manages to cope with the influx of new, precious information about John – and indeed about himself – given that it is utterly, completely compromised by his body reacting to and revelling in the novel and unexpectedly pleasant stimuli.

His lips feel tingly like a limb reawakened after falling asleep, his chest is constricted, he can’t breathe, he is hot all over, a strange, fluctuating heat as if his blood has been replaced by molten metal that is being pumped through his body. Something in his stomach is doing strange, wild things. He dimly recalls that poets have likened the sensation of being in love to having butterflies in the tummy. His must be pretty large and powerful butterflies, then – Ornithoptera alexandrae or Attacus atlas, his brain supplies during a moment when apparently it tries to rationalise what is happening. Or not. Imagining actual insects moving about in one’s belly is utterly ludicrous and more than a bit gross. Poets are idiots, anyway. There must be another explanation. Perhaps there was something dodgy about the fish. Food poisoning, that could be it. But then food poisoning doesn’t feel this wonderful, or shouldn’t, at least.

Sherlock isn’t sure he can feel his extremities any longer. But who cares? His lips touching John’s are all that matters now. They’re the very point where the fire that burns through his veins was ignited, more powerful than cocaine or the rush of adrenaline after a successful deduction, a solved riddle. They’re the source of the onslaught of sensations creating havoc inside his body, taking prisoner most of its functions and, worse, Sherlock’s brain, to render him helpless, completely at their mercy.

What surprises Sherlock is that he doesn’t mind. The more John takes control of the kiss, the more Sherlock surrenders. And John does take control, Dear God, he is actually, actively kissing Sherlock back. It’s slow and careful at first, as if he is unsure as to what is allowed, but progressively, it becomes more determined. His lips are moving against Sherlock’s and there is pressure, measured and confident, exactly the right amount to come across as competent yet not forceful. He has tilted his head just so that their noses aren’t bumping against each other any longer and oh, oh, Sherlock thinks he understands why people enjoy this. He understands, and immediately craves more: a deeper touch, a closer connection.

Sherlock loses himself in the sensations, something he doesn’t often allow himself to do. His body is on fire, but his mind quietens, like when he is playing a particularly engaging piece of music on his violin, or that time when he was dancing with John. The dancing was a revelation, but this, oh, this is far more intimate and intense. Even though his heart is hammering madly in his chest and he needs to draw breath rather badly but doesn’t know how with his mouth occupied, Sherlock has rarely felt so calm in his entire life. John’s lips, their gentle pressure, have shut down his ever-active brain and quieted its demands for intellectual stimuli. Because stimulus is there - more, Sherlock feels, than he can handle - but it’s of a different, baser, more primal kind. And for once, Sherlock actually prefers this state of existence. Little by little, he allows himself to relax into the novel activity. Relax, and even indulge, his lips becoming more active of their own accord. All the while he is hoping fervently that John isn’t going to come to his senses any time soon and terminate the kiss.

Thankfully, John has other ideas. Suddenly, his hand is there, resting lighting against Sherlock’s cheek before John’s fingers slide into the curls at his nape. His thumb begins to trace Sherlock’s sharp cheekbone as if it’s something fragile and altogether precious.

Automatically, Sherlock leans into the touch, letting John’s fingers cradle the side of his face and play with his hair. The touch is light, almost reverent, so much Sherlock registers. There is nothing forceful or demanding there, just a gentle caress that feels tender, and dare he say, loving. It’s also functional, because John uses his hand to carefully bend Sherlock’s head to a better angle. The pressure of his lips increases, too, as he carefully moves them against Sherlock’s, sometimes drawing back minutely to vary angle and pressure, exploring Sherlock’s lips with light pecks and small nibbles.

Sherlock can feel a soft exhale fan across his skin. How on earth does John manage to kiss and breathe at the same time? What kind of biological marvel is that? He is feeling lightheaded and dizzy from lack of oxygen. John’s nose briefly rubs against his own, and he remembers. Silly. Brain seems to be even more compromised than he is aware, the way it fails to monitor basic functions.

He sucks in a greedy breath through his nose, feels sweet air fill his lungs, and launches into the kiss with renewed vigour. There is a brief break, a faint huff as of laughter. John is amused, it seems. Sherlock reckons it’s because of the breathing thing. Apparently relieved that Sherlock isn’t going to suffocate any time soon, John is encouraged to continue. His actions become more daring. Suddenly, Sherlock feels something warm and wet touch his lips. So far, only the faintest amount of saliva has been involved in their activity. Their mouths have remained closed. So what is ...?  Tongue, his brain provides helpfully. John’s tongue. At my lips. Wanting to be let in. Oh.

Oh, oh. Sherlock isn’t sure he is ready for this. The only kissing encounter he endured so far never reached that stage, and he was extremely relieved about it. Sticking his tongue into other people’s mouths never seemed something worthy of pursuit, and the thought of having others do it to him – gross and entirely unappealing. There is the hygienic aspect, for one, although he wouldn’t mind exchanging saliva and germs with John. With strangers, though? Urgh, no, thank you. But John ... John is offering to kiss me that intimately. John, wanting to be that close to me. Damn, damn, damn. This is ... good, isn’t it? And terrifying. Definitely terrifying. But still good. Perhaps I should …

His body reacts before he can make up his mind. At the next cautious stroke of John’s tongue against his bottom lip, his mouth opens of its own accord, as if to put a stop to Sherlock’s hormone-muddled thoughts and let actions speak. John’s tongue slips in and touches Sherlock’s. It feels like a bolt of electricity, like when Sherlock tried his hand at electro-galvanisation back at university and received an electric shock that made his hair stand up and his fingertips over-sensitive for a while. Sherlock’s brain short-circuits when a rush of ... something shoots through his body right into his groin.

Shocked and positively terrified, he jerks back, breaking the connection and leaving them sitting a few inches apart from each other but still close enough for him to feel John’s fast, shallow breaths on his face. His own lungs seem constricted. Despite his panting breaths, he feels he isn’t getting enough oxygen. His heart is still beating far too fast, hammering in his chest. He feels hot and cold at the same time, which is odd and utterly irrational and unscientific.

John withdraws his hand from Sherlock’s cheek. For a moment it hovers next to his face, uncertainly, as if seeking permission to remain, until John drops it. He, too, looks somewhat dazed, only slowly coming back to his senses. His breathing is elevated, his pulse beating visibly in his throat. His cheeks are as flushed as his lips, which he now licks as if to catch the lingering taste of Sherlock, who feels a stab of affection at the sight. John’s eyes are deep and dark as he watches Sherlock, although presently, they sharpen and narrow, as if something he sees worries him. Eventually, he drops his gaze. He licks his lips again, nervously now, and clears his throat. His expression has changed when he looks up again to meet Sherlock’s eyes. His features are composed and apprehensive at the same time.

“Sherlock, I’m sorry,” he says quietly.

Sorry? Sherlock doesn’t understand. Is he sorry that he kissed back, even initiated a deepening of the connection? Is he sorry that he enjoyed kissing Sherlock – because he did, Sherlock is convinced. He may not have much experience with kissing, but even he understands that if John Watson had been unwilling to be kissed, had been repulsed by Sherlock’s clumsy attempt at touching his lips to the doctor’s, he would have recoiled immediately, offering some flimsy excuse to soften the blow. And he hasn’t done that. He hasn’t. He kissed back, and it was his tongue that ventured beyond Sherlock’s lips, not the other way round. Ergo ...

Still, Sherlock reasons, John has just woken up from a nightmare. He was emotionally compromised, perhaps had been somewhat overwhelmed by the situation. And Sherlock was there, offering comfort. Perhaps it was a natural, inevitable reaction, to feel drawn to the person hugging you after a bad dream. Ah, but you don’t stick your tongue into their mouth. That’s not done, normally.

Oh damn, have I taken advantage of him, despite the tongue thing? Sherlock feels sick all of a sudden. Have I abused his troubled state for my own pleasure? Ah, no. He could have stopped me any time. And he didn’t. He didn’t. He liked it. He wanted it to continue. With tongues. And I spoiled it, idiot that I am. I was overwhelmed, spooked into aborting the kiss. Stupid. Stupid. Now he’ll think that I don’t want him, and worse, that he messed it up. Damn, damn, damn.

John’s concerned enquiry snaps him out of his painful reverie. “Sherlock, are you all right?”

Sherlock draws a deep, shuddering breath, swallows twice, then draws back his shoulders and sits up straight. “Yes, fine. I’m fine.” Liar.

“Sure? You looked a bit ill of a sudden,” says John, reaching to switch on the lamp on his bedside table, but then obviously remembers that the blackout curtains haven’t been closed and decides against it. Sherlock is grateful for the relative darkness. He knows he must look a wreck, if his outward appearance only partly mirrors the way he feels. And he’d rather not have John see what havoc their activity has caused in Sherlock.

“Sure,” rasps Sherlock, swallowing again. “I should be the one to apologise, really. I ... I don’t know what came over me. I shouldn’t have ... You were having a nightmare and I was trying to offer comfort and I just ... just ... I’m sorry,” he finishes lamely. He drops his hands in his lap, to then use them to scoot his body down the mattress to increase the distance between John and himself, to be able to think, which he can’t do properly with John still so close and so warm and smelling so good, and with Sherlock recalling the way his tongue tastes and feels against his own.

John sighs and runs a hand through his hair, giving Sherlock a sideways glance, before hanging his shoulders. He seems to be thinking for a moment, chewing his lower lip, before looking at Sherlock again who sits awkwardly, his hands twitching in his lap.

“Are you sorry you kissed me?” asks John quietly.

Sherlock cannot prevent his breath hitching at the bluntness of the question. He swallows, absently tracing a scar on his thigh he received when he fell off a tree as a child. He could lie. He is good at it, usually. He could tell John that he didn’t mean it, that he just wanted to be friendly, that he was distracted. He’d come up with the right words, he is certain. And what then? John would look at him with one of his grave, sad expressions, and nod, and then he’d get up and go to the bathroom to put some distance between them, and when he returned, Sherlock would pretend to be asleep. The next morning, they wouldn’t talk about it. Not then, and not ever. The lingering glances would remain, laced with regret and sadness. Things would become stilted and awkward between them, because of course John would know that he lied. Their friendship, the easy companionship and precious affection that has developed between them in this short time of knowing one another, it would suffer, eventually be destroyed. Sherlock would lose the only friend he’s ever manage to make, the only person who truly likes and bothers to understand him, who even, dare he hope, loves him.

The gravity of his situation pulls at him. This is his choice, like two ways diverging at a crossroads. Denying his attraction would be one turn and the outcome is clear. It would be painful, but the pain would be gentle, creeping, ultimately bearable. The other way, however ... he cannot foresee where it leads. Heartbreak may linger on this path, too, more dark and powerful, perhaps, than denying their mutual attraction and never acting on it again. But there could also be bliss. For a moment, Sherlock allows himself to imagine the two of them together, sharing a life: John in his flat, reading a book while Sherlock plays his violin. The two of them running through a London unmarred by war, pursuing a criminal, John beaming at him, his face flushed with the excitement of the chase. John looking over his shoulder while Sherlock works on an experiment, or even a crib, a piece of codebreaking, his hand resting lightly but confidently on his shoulder. John pecking him on the cheek as he leaves to attend a patient, or before he retires to bed. And as for bed ... Sherlock doesn’t dare to venture there yet, even in his imagination. But this is a possibility, too. A shared bed, as stealthily as this could be managed. Would he want that? He isn’t sure. The mere thought almost overwhelms him because of the many things it entails. Nevertheless, Sherlock knows that the mere chance that John Watson may want to share a bed with him, for whatever activity, even one as mundane as sleeping, floods him with a deep sense of contentment.

Sherlock becomes aware of how his heart has begun to ache at these fleeting images of domesticity, something he never knew he wanted, he who always valued and indeed craved independence, who spoke scathingly about ordinary people’s desire to have someone to share their lives with. He is just like them, he realises. He might not have minded spending the rest of his life in solitude. But now that he has glimpsed a vision of the alternative, he recognises that sharing it with John would be utterly preferable. And he needs to let him know, or else his one and only chance of a shared existence will pass.

He draws a deep breath, his mind made up. “No,” he murmurs. He can’t look at John, not yet. The scar has healed well. It’s only a faint white line now. But he remembers how much it bled after he’d torn open his leg on a broken branch, and that he’d been scolded for ruining his good trousers.

John lets out a huff that could be a sigh or a brief, relieved laugh. Sherlock chances a glance at him, to find John watching him.

“But if I offended you, or ...,” Sherlock swallows, “or took advantage of you, I’m sorry for that. It wasn’t my intention.”

“For the record, you didn’t take advantage. If I hadn’t wanted it, I’d have told you.”

“So you did?” blurts out Sherlock. “Want it?” Want me?

John nods. “I thought that much was rather obvious. And not just because of my kissing you back. I was rather convinced I’d been quite forward in hinting at my ... affection for you. I mean,” he laughs softly and nervously. “I mean, to put it frankly, I’ve been flirting with you rather shamelessly, haven’t I?”

“I guess so,” says Sherlock in a small voice that sounds unlike him. “The thing is ...”

“Oh, don’t tell me you’re unused to people flirting with you,” scoffs John, although he doesn’t sound truly angry. “I’ve seen them do it. It happens all the time. Molly, Jeannine, the woman outside the bathroom.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “That’s different.”

“How?”

Sherlock lets out a breath, looking at his legs again, pale in the dim light, still too thin and scrawny despite the cycling. “Because they don’t mean it,” he says quietly.

“And you think I do?” asks John, looking at him with a shrewd expression.

Sherlock feels a stab in his chest. Oh God. What if John has only been playing with him? What if he doesn’t mean any of what he has done? What if it’s just been a game to him, or worse ... what if John is the spy? What if he’s been trying to charm his way into Sherlock’s good books to become privy to his work and all the secrets this entails? He could be working for Mycroft after all. Worse, he could be working for the enemy, could be a German spy. Sherlock prides himself of being highly perceptive, and moreover always rational, uninvolved, an outside observer keeping his emotional distance. Until John Watson came along and wrought havoc with his rationality and emotional detachment, dragging down his perceptive abilities with him.

Some of Sherlock’s distress must have been visible in his form, because suddenly there’s John’s hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. Sherlock’s head spins round and his eyes fix on it. He tenses. Carefully, John lowers his hand again.

“I didn’t mean to spook you,” he says calmly. “Whatever you’re thinking right now, Sherlock, it’s not true. I’m neither working for your brother – I did tell you about our encounter and how I turned down his offer, remember. You can ask him if you need confirmation. Neither am I a German spy.”

Sherlock eyes him with shocked surprise. Apparently he voiced his musings out loud. John’s hand is back at his shoulder, rubbing very carefully and gently, the touch feather-light and yet reassuring.

“I did mean it,” says John gravely. “Both the flirting and the kiss. Not sure if I went about it the right way, though,” he adds with a self-deprecating smile. “It’s been a while for me, this whole business.”

“Kissing?” asks Sherlock. John’s head twitches in a nod.

Before Sherlock can stop himself, he adds, “Or kissing a man?” This question has been on his mind ever since John told him of his friend James with that strange, sad and wistful expression on his face – ever since they danced, really, and John bore a similar look, as if thinking of a lost love.

Now John is the one to look surprised, even shocked. He recovers quickly, though, cocking his head slightly to give Sherlock a long, calculating glance.

“Both,” he admits at length. He looks at Sherlock curiously. “There are few things you miss, aren’t there?” he adds appreciatively. “At least when other people are concerned. What gave me away?”

Sherlock shrugs. “The way you talked about your friend, James. I wondered what happened between you, at Étaples or elsewhere. Whether it was just friendship or ... something else.”

John laughs roughly. “Mostly, it was ‘just’ friendship, although I wouldn’t use the diminutive. Friendship is a precious thing, you know, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. But James and I, we’d been very good, very close friends even before the war. We were teammates, of course, but we also did things apart from Rugby, like going fishing and playing games, doing other sports. For a few years, the two of us and some of the other lads were the terror of the neighbourhood because of all the pranks we pulled on the older folks. We nicked fruit in people’s gardens, ‘borrowed’ old Harlow’s cart-horse for playing Knights of the Round Table – not that the poor horse cooperated much, she was rather lazy – went boating on the river in other folks’ boats ... good times,” he says with a deep sigh.

Sherlock’s chest feels tights after the descriptions of what seems to have been a happy (if somewhat naughty) childhood. He imagines John as he must have been then: a short shock of blond, sun-bleached hair crowning a sun-tanned, tooth-gapped face grinning widely as they run from an orchard, pockets full of cherries, their knees skinned, and their fingers and noses dirty. This John still exists, Sherlock knows, somewhere inside the careworn doctor and soldier who has seen so much death and experienced heartbreak in so many forms. It shows when John is excited, when he senses adventure, when a boyish smile breaks through his lined face like sun through a bank of clouds. Sherlock loves this John dearly, and hopes to see him more often.

“During all these activities, James, being the oldest, looked after us younger boys (and girls, for Harry and one of her friends usually accompanied us, and Mary, too, sometimes). He was a bit more sensible than the rest, and took care we didn’t get into too much trouble. And somehow, he seems to have considered me to be the person who needed the most looking after. I was a bit reckless, then, I admit. Still am, to a degree. I nearly drowned on one occasion, and on another was almost run over by a train but for James pulling me off the tracks. He was like a brother, you know. At first. I think he considered me as something similar. He only had siblings several years his senior, and he didn’t get along with them very well. But there were times when I caught him looking at me strangely. These occasions grew more frequent after the War had begun. As for myself, my view of him changed also when I grew older and more ... you know. There was Mary, of course. I’d been in love with her since I was about fourteen and started to get interested in girls and all that stuff in the first place. But there were times when ...,” he runs a hand through his hair and licks his lips.

“I haven’t told this to anybody else, ever,” he says, looking at Sherlock keenly, almost imploringly, his voice slightly hoarse, betraying his apprehension. Sherlock sits up straighter, as if to show that he is worthy of hearing John’s long-kept secret and won’t betray it. John looks uncertain, perhaps wondering whether he’s already said too much. Even Sherlock knows that they have ventured into subjects that are not talked about, not even among close friends. John seems to trust him, though, and Sherlock silently vows never to betray that trust. But he needs to know. Curiosity is gnawing at him.

Does John want me to ask? he wonders. Will he answer, candidly, as candidly as he has spoken so far, if I do? Sherlock makes up his mind.

“Did you love him?” he wants to know, after they’ve sat in a somewhat tense, expectant silence for a while, only interrupted by the soft, mournful hoot of an owl outside the window, the whisper of the wind in the trees, and the soft creak of bedsprings when one of them shifts. It’s a strange mood, enhanced by the darkness. Sherlock wonders if they’d be having this conversation had John switched on the light. Likely not, even though the thought is irrational. But there is something about his cocoon of darkness that feels incredibly intimate, lowering boundaries and enticing the spilling of deepest secrets.

The darkness seems to be working its spell on John, too. He looks at the murky floor for a while, before he straightens his shoulders with a sigh and nods. “Yes. Mostly as a friend, though. As I said, he was a like an older brother to me. I looked up to him, wanted to be like him, especially after my dad had become ... like he was when he came back from France. As for ... romantic love, or even ... desire. I don’t know. Without the war, or the extraordinary situation we were in which seemed to amplify feelings and make them more ... desperate, maybe not. I don’t know. I felt close to him, closer than anybody else. Even Mary, in a way. I dreamt of him a few times. In ways you shouldn’t dream of your best friend, if you catch my meaning. So I guess, yes. I did love him. Like I loved her, but differently still. It’s difficult to describe. I’ve never been particularly good with words, and talking about these things, I find it hard.”

He shrugs a little helplessly, running his hand through his hair again. It sticks up funnily. Sherlock resists the temptation to reach out and smooth it down again.

“It’s complicated,” John goes on. Apparently a dam has broken, and he feels the need to let it all out, as long as this strange mood and the intimate darkness last.

“To this day, I’m not sure about how I felt. I do miss him, though. These past few days have brought back a lot of memories, both happy and sad. In a way, you remind me of him because you’re so confident at times, so brilliant at what you do. And you’re so very human at others.”

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say to that. His throat feels tight. John’s words have touched him. Instead of replying, he hesitantly reaches for John’s hand and squeezes it once. John gives him a small smile.

“With James, nothing really happened,” John continues, as if feeling the need to clarify. “There was one evening, back in Étaples, however.” He swallows, nods to himself, his hand in his lap clenching and unclenching a few times. Then, after visibly steeling himself, he continues without looking at Sherlock.

“We’d met a few days earlier, shortly after I’d arrived at Étaples. We’d seen each other a few times in the days following, usually during mess, and had managed to catch up, although as I’ve mentioned before, he seemed so changed, silent and withdrawn. Years older, he seemed, and not just in appearance. He hardly smiled anymore. But I know he was happy to see me, he told me so several times, and even seemed to make an effort, when I was around, to be more ... sociable, I suppose. But one evening he received orders that his company was going to be reinforced by a batch of green boys from up north and sent back to the front. I know he was afraid. For the lads, and for himself, too. He didn’t say so, but it was plain to see. That evening, there was some kind of musical performance going on. A French singer from Paris was there, rather famous although I don’t remember her name. Some distraction to keep up morale. All the lads were eager to see her. James and I and some of the boys from my company went, too. Afterwards, we still had a little free time before we had to report back, so we idled at the beach. The other lads had stayed behind trying to get autographs, or to ogle the lady some more. I don’t remember how exactly we got talking about women, but somehow, we did. I recall James asking about Mary, and I told him that I was hoping for the War to be finally over soon so that we could get married. At this he looked really sad. At first I thought it was because he didn’t believe that the War would be over in the foreseeable future, or that he was afraid I wasn’t going to make it home alive. But we talked some more and it somehow transpired that ... I don’t know how to describe it. I think he was sad that I was about to marry at all. He said some strange things. I told him that of course we’d still be friends and that one day he’d find someone, too. He replied that he wasn’t looking. But he was looking at me, all the time. And then I understood. I remembered those dreams I’d had about him, and somehow, one thing led to another and we ended up kissing.”

He looks up and studies Sherlock keenly, as if to gauge whether he is shocked or appalled. Sherlock is neither. He is very, very curious, however, and despite a twinge of jealousy, rather enthralled by the account.

“It was stupid, of course,” goes on John, his formerly soft and wistful voice hard of a sudden. “Not the kissing, don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret that. Not in hindsight. Fact was, however, that I was engaged. She never learned of it, but of course I felt guilty. No, it was stupid because we were right there at the beach. Not exactly in plain sight, we’d taken care of that, but still. Of course there were pickets, and lots of other soldiers milling about, and of course we were interrupted. Was for the best, perhaps. I don’t know. Fortunately for us, the chap who saw us was a good friend of James’, and he didn’t report us. I don’t know exactly what happened to him, but I think he got killed not long after.”

He shrugs and lets out a long breath as if a weight has lifted from his shoulders. Sherlock assumes it’s because he has finally mustered the courage to tell somebody what seems to have been weighing on his heart (and conscience) for a long time.

“But that was it. We never again ... neither there nor elsewhere. Had we not been interrupted ... I don’t know. Maybe we would have ... done more.”

“Did you want to?”

John thinks for a moment. “Yes,” he admits, and it sounds forceful and confident.

“And I’m rather convinced so did he. We never raised the subject again when we met, never talked about it. But evidence suggests he was in love with me, had been for some time. And I think he felt ashamed of it, like I did. Not that he felt drawn to me in particular, rather because I was a man. His family are very ... conservative, quite religious, too. Even though James never seemed to care much about religion, I don’t doubt that he worried about these things, a lot, in fact. Perhaps this contributed to his depressed state after the War. I don’t know. He never got married, though, and to my knowledge never had a partner or lover after the War, either male or female.”

He looks at Sherlock again to study his reaction. Sherlock makes sure to keep his expression neutral. Both at his school and later at university, homosexuality was a not very well-kept secret. He never cared about who went to bed with whom, as long as they left him in peace. Which they did. As for his own romantic or sexual proclivities, up until now he never had reason to investigate them. He knows he isn’t attracted to women, although he does find intellectual exchanges with some of them tolerable, even stimulating at times. With men it’s been the same so far, although if he is completely honest, there have been times when he did catch himself admiring a male form, if simply for its aesthetic value. All this changed when John Watson came along. To this day, Sherlock can’t pinpoint what about John has affected him the way it has. But he knows that he doesn’t just admire John’s looks. There is a deeper, more intimate draw towards the other. And the kissing was good. Terrifying, but good.

“It doesn’t bother you?” asks John.

“That you like men as well as women? No, why should it?” replies Sherlock. “Each to their own. And in case you’re worried that I’m going to report your predilection to the authorities, you should know by now what my opinion of said authorities is.”

John looks relieved. He even huffs out a short laugh. Sherlock gazes at him thoughtfully, chewing his bottom lip. He is not usually a timid man. John has described him as rude and forward – both true. But this talk about emotions is difficult for him, and to bluntly question John about his sexual history may be considered extremely intrusive and more than a bit not good. Despite the fact that John has been very frank and forthcoming so far, there certainly is no need to push him even further. Still, Sherlock needs to know.

“Did you ever ...,” he steels himself and continues, “have intercourse with a man?”

John’s look is answer enough. “Just once,” he says, quickly, as if admitting something dark and shameful which he wants to get out and be done with. Sherlock does not see it that way, although he does feel another stab of jealousy at the confession. “Some time after Mary died. I .... sort of ... I wanted to know what it was like. I felt so guilty about everything. I mean, I had cheated on her with James, to a degree. At least that’s what I considered it to have been. Because of that kiss. And because the way I felt about him. I was wondering whether I was really attracted to men or if it had just been James. So when I was at medical college I was out with friends one night and we had a few drinks. There was this one chap who was extremely charming and rather handsome. One of the others knew him. For some strange reason, he seemed rather taken with me, and I liked him, too, and one thing led to another – you know what it’s like.”

Sherlock doesn’t. John glances at him briefly and nods to himself.

“Oh, right, perhaps you don't. Anyway, it wasn’t ... I mean, it was just kissing and a bit of groping and ... those things. No ... you know ...”

“Penetration?”

John blushes. “Yes. I don’t even remember his name, and never saw him again after. It wasn’t serious, that’s what I’m trying to say. Just fooling around, although we were careful not to be seen.”

“Did you like it, though?” Sherlock wants to know, despite the envy he feels for the unnamed stranger who’d been so intimate with John.

John shrugs. “I was half drunk. I don’t recall much of it, apart from the guilt and shame I felt the next morning.”

He blushes some more and licks his lips. “But ... yeah, what I do remember was ... good. He obviously knew what he was doing. Still, I stuck to women ever after, because it’s easier. Less dangerous, too, if you take precautions not to get them pregnant. Not that there have been many, despite a certain reputation I have acquired in the Navy. And nothing serious, not after James died, and even before, after Mary’s passing. I ... in a way I felt I was done with love and all that. Despite the occasional flirt here and there. Love and war, you know, they don’t mix well.”

He sighs, picking at a loose thread in the blanket. “Such has been my conviction for many years. And it was easy to live by, out there in the North Atlantic, tucked away on a warship. Even though there were plenty of strapping lads about, I never felt tempted once. The thought never even crossed my mind. I mean, I’m a doctor, and they were my patients, and some of the other officers were my friends. There’s always been that divide, and that was good.”

He glances at Sherlock and smiles sheepishly. “And then I get shot and almost drown – again– and am sent to bloody Bletchley.”

Sherlock raises an eyebrow. “So?”

John laughs softly. “So I arrive there not knowing what to expect except excruciating boredom, but almost immediately I run into an old mate from university who gives me a tour of the place. And then in the canteen, of all places, I lend my pen to some smartarse boffin, fiercely intelligent, more than a bit rude and arrogant, looking like he’s straight out of public school with ridiculous curls and weird eyes, and I watch him while he deduces my entire life story by just looking at my bleeding fountain pen, and I know that I am well and truly, well, buggered.”

Sherlock gasps softly at the expletive, which sounds like an innuendo in this context. Then the implication of what John has said hits. Sherlock blinks. John has described him. He is who unsettled John that way, has made such a deep impression at their very first meeting. He has felt drawn to John from the beginning – mostly, though, because he seemed marginally more interesting than the other people at the Park. But apparently for John, their encounter has had an even more immediate and earth-shattering effect. Sherlock doesn’t believe in something as trite as ‘love at first sight’, yet maybe the notion isn’t as far-fetched as he’s always had reason to believe. Sherlock doesn’t know how to deal with the possibility that John may have been attracted to him after a very short time, during which he nevertheless noticed some of Sherlock’s less admirable qualities. He blinks some more.

Eventually, he feels John’s hand on his shoulder again, shaking him slightly. “Sherlock, are you all right?”

Sherlock jerks back into his body, becoming aware of his surroundings once more. John’s hand is still resting on his shoulder, warm and comforting, his thumb absently stroking Sherlock‘s nape. It feels good. “What? Yes,” he snaps. “Fine. I’m fine.”

John is looking at him concernedly. “You were sitting very still without breathing, only blinking. Was this brought about by anything I said?”

Sherlock draws a breath. Ah, yes, he forgot to do that. “No. Yes.” He swallows, evading John’s kind, worried eyes. “This is new to me, this kind of thing.”

“What, people flirting with you and meaning it? People being fascinated by you, liking you?”

Sherlock nods. “Yes, all of that. You kissed me back, John.”

“Yes, I did. I hope you enjoyed it. Because I did. At first, I could barely grasp that someone like you wanted to spend time with me.”

“Someone like me?”

John huffs and rolls his eyes. “Someone brilliant and clever and, frankly, gorgeous. Oi, Sherlock, stop the blinking thing. It scares me. Look at me. There you are. Yes, gorgeous. I know I called your hair ridiculous, and I know I’ve teased you rather mercilessly about your looks, but to be honest, that was just to prevent myself from blurting out how ... well, beautiful you are. When I first saw you, I could barely believe my eyes. I mean ...,” he makes a rather helpless gesture with his hands, fluttering them in front of Sherlock’s body.

“What?” asks Sherlock, more sharply than he intended. John words have rattled him, caught him unawares. He doesn’t know how to deal with what appears to be praise and admiration, and not for his intellect, but ... the way he is. His looks, even. John has called him beautiful. That indeed is unprecedented.

John laughs, before sobering up and looking at Sherlock gravely. “I mean that when I clapped eyes on you, I thought you were the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. You looked like a work of art."

Sherlock scoffs. “Yes, likely some misshapen piece of Cubism, or some Dadaist monstrosity.”

John laughs. “I was rather reminded of some Renaissance sculpture or Pre-Raphaelite painting. With your locks and your mouth you look like you’ve walked straight out of a Botticelli or Burne-Jones. And as for Cubism or Dada, don’t their defenders claim they suggest a new way of perceiving the world, a new form of ‘reality’. You seemed more real to me than anybody I’d seen so far. And that was before you even opened your mouth to say something brilliant.”

Sherlock is sure he is blushing beetroot red at the compliments. “Usually, the moment I open my mouth people are put off.”

John flashes him a smile. “I’m not ‘people’.”

Sherlock swallows hard as he watches him. “No, you’re not,” he agrees quietly. Biting his lip, he asks. “You really mean what you said about me?”

John nods. “I do. Although I feel I’m at a disadvantage now. I’ve bared my heart to you, told you some of my secrets – things I’ve never told anybody else before now –, and yet I know so little about you in return.” He looks at Sherlock expectantly.

Sherlock feels another wave of heat rise into his cheeks. “There isn’t much to know,” he says, drawing a deep breath to prepare himself for spilling some of his own secrets. It seems only fair.

“I didn’t lie when I said women aren’t my area. I’ve never been involved with one, only ever kissed one because it was necessary for a case. I didn’t enjoy it – well, the case was all right, only the kissing wasn’t. I’ve never been in love, never wanted to be. My experience with ... physical things is nonexistent. I know the theory, of course, but lack knowledge of all practical application. I am sure you noticed that when we kissed.”

John gives a small nod, but there is no trace of ridicule in his expression, as might have been expected when hearing the confession of a man of Sherlock’s age that he’s never been properly kissed before.

“Did you enjoy it, though?” John wants to know. “The ... er ... practical application?”

Sherlock swallows and nods. “Yes, despite it being quite overwhelming. What I just said, John, about never having been in love before ... it’s different now, I think.”

At this, John laughs happily. “That’s good to hear.” His expression turns serious. “Is that what you are, then? In love?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes and makes a gesture of both exasperation and surrender. “So it would appear. All the signs are there. I didn’t want this to happen. In fact, it is hugely inconvenient, with the war, and my work, and now this case we’re investigating. I would very much prefer my mental faculties to remain unaffected by sentiment. But here we are.”

“Yes, here we are,” repeats John quietly, gravely. “It’s dangerous, you know that.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t want to get you into any trouble.”

“Likewise. Although I daresay both of us actually like a bit of trouble now and again.”

John doesn’t smile. He shakes his head instead. “Not of this kind. If anyone finds out, we could end up in prison. And there are worse things. Attempts at ... curing people like us.” He sneers the word ‘curing’, his face bearing an expression of utter contempt.

“People in love?” quips Sherlock. “If there were a cure for that, don’t you think it had long been patented?”

John’s expression remains serious. “You know what I mean. Inverts. Homosexuals. I’ve heard of cases when men were given hormonal treatment to suppress their ... urges. You don’t want to go through that, believe me.”

Sherlock lets out a long sigh. “I was not suggesting we start walking hand in hand from now on, or kiss in public. Not that I would mind either. Fact is, though, that I don’t even know what I’d mind and what not. As I said, I have no experience with these things. Romance, if that’s what this is.”

John smiles fondly at him. “I would rather hope so. But I’m all for taking things slowly,” he agrees. “That is, if you want this at all. Whatever this is, romance or no. With me.”

Instead of answering, Sherlock reaches for his hand and squeezes it. John bumps his shoulder against Sherlock’s, before they both resume their former positions, with a hand’s width of blanket between them, all prim and proper.

For a while, they simply sit next to each other, enjoying the silence and the company, each lost in his own thoughts. To Sherlock, everything feels unreal, still caught up in the strange spell the night has woven around them. Here he is, with John, who ... loves him? How can that be? How is it possible that over the course of half a week, his life has changed so dramatically, brought on by the appearance of John Watson? And more importantly, how is it that Sherlock doesn’t mind? That he allows himself to be swept along by this wave of new things, new feelings? That he permits dreaded sentiment to influence his decisions? He is taking a huge risk, he knows that. Hurt is looming on the horizon. Eventually, this bliss will end, as all things must. Didn’t his brother once tell him that all hearts would be broken one day? Sherlock knows he tried to warn him against the very situation he finds himself in now, having entered it fully willing. He can only hope that day is still far off.

Meanwhile, John’s thoughts seem to have taken a brighter turn. Suddenly, he lets out a soft chuckle. “I can’t believe I’ve told you all this, that we actually spoke about ... well, feelings and stuff. Even sex. Remarkable. I have never done this before. I always dreaded it, in fact. But with you ... I somehow feel that normal rules of society don’t apply, or any rules, really. It’s refreshing – no, more than that. It’s exhilarating and a huge relief. You’re extraordinary. You always seem to be doing your own thing, voice your thoughts freely, often without considering the consequences and whose toes you might step on. It’s wonderful, you know that? So I guess I just returned the favour and was frank with you. And it felt good, not having to keep things to myself all the time.”

Sherlock nods in fervent agreement. “I appreciate that. However, now that we’ve done it, we need not repeat it.”

“I hope you are referring to the baring of our hearts and souls, and not the activity preceding that.”

“Quite so,” confirms Sherlock. John gazes at him and smiles happily. “Good. There is one advantage to this, you know.”

“Which is?”

“Kissing a man won’t leave you covered in lipstick.” With a smirk, he nods towards Sherlock’s cheek the woman outside the bathroom pecked him on earlier. Sherlock raises his hand to rub at the spot, quite certain that he managed to wipe the red colour away with the towel (or his pillow).

John laughs. “It’s all gone, don’t fret. I was teasing you again. As long as it doesn’t land on one’s clothes, it usually comes off all right.”

Oh. Sherlock’s head whips round to him. “What did you just say?” he asks quickly.

John frowns. “I was talking about lipstick,” he replies slowly, clearly not following Sherlock’s leap of thought.

Sherlock stares at him unseeing. Oh. Something clicks in his brain, something that has been hovering on the edge of his thoughts for some time, always too elusive to grasp. Lipstick ...

His eyes widen as he stares ahead, his hands clenching into the sheets. Absently, he hears John’s questioning “Sherlock?” but the voice is dim and muffled, far away as if John were under water.

“Sherlock, what’s the matter?”

Sherlock snaps back into himself, staring at John. “The lipstick,” he mutters breathlessly.

“As I said, you got rid of it.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “Jennifer Wilson,” he says emphatically.

John frowns at him, clearly startled about the leap of thought and at a loss to make a connection. “What about her?”

“She was always wearing pink lipstick, only pink, no other colour. Matching her clothes, obviously. The lipstick in her purse, and those in her room. They were all shades of pink, mostly even the same make.”

John nods thoughtfully. “Yes, I remember. What’s so remarkable about that? She obviously loved the colour.”

Sherlock grins at him excitedly, leaping to his feet and beginning to pace the floor in front of the beds. “I didn’t pay enough attention to it back when we found her – unforgiveable, really, but not even I get everything right all the time. There was a small lipstick stain on the collar of her jacket, close to her ear. I seem to recall that a tiny spot was on her earlobe as well. And it wasn’t pink. That’s why I noticed it at all, although I didn’t understand its significance back then, being distracted by the cause of her death and her message. But the reason I saw the stain at all was because it wasn’t pink, thus contrasting the fabric of the garment.”

“Right,” says John slowly. “I ... don’t really understand what’s supposed to be important about that, but it looks as if you’ve got more. So out with it, before you burst from sheer excitement.”

Gladly, Sherlock obliges. He loves this part, laying out his deductions, even though before John stepped into his life, few people actually appreciated them, were willing to listen or, moreover, tolerated his showing off. But John is gazing at him with eyes shining with admiration, and Sherlock’s heart leaps.

“In one of Jenny’s drawers, I found this envelope containing a handkerchief smelling of perfume. Chanel No. 5, Eau de Parfum to be precise. Not her scent, mind, and one rather beyond what she’d been able to afford. It seemed a sentimental memento at the time, possibly a reminder of when she went to Harrods or Selfridges and tested the perfume, wondering whether she’d ever be able to afford it, or receive it as a gift, a token of love from her fiancé when they were still together. He seemed to have hailed from a wealthy family, would have been able to buy her expensive things. Her engagement ring indicated that. Anyway, I didn’t pay any further attention to the handkerchief at the time – another mistake, perhaps. It’s the little things, you see, always the little things.”

John nods, looking both awestruck and confused. “What’s all that to do with lipstick?”

Sherlock grins at him broadly. “Don’t you see, John? It’s obvious, isn’t it? The handkerchief was obviously a woman’s. Fine muslin fabric, lace trim, no monograph, however, which did strike me as odd at the time, because most of her other hankies bore her embroidered initials. So the handkerchief wasn’t Jenny’s originally, none of those she brought from home, but must have been a gift. Could have been from her fiancé or another man, yes, or perhaps she bought it somewhere. But bear with me as there is another explanation. Because there was more. God, how could I not have paid more attention to the find back when we checked her room? The hanky had been used. There were traces of face-powder and lipstick on it. Someone had wiped their face and mouth with it. Now, you may wonder, and rightly so, why Jennifer would keep it in that state and not wash it after using it, or after lending it to someone else and receiving it back. To preserve the scent of perfume? Unlikely. The entire envelope smelled of it. If she wanted to keep the scent, she could easily have kept the envelope on its own. No, the perfume, the fact she preserved the handkerchief in its used state, despite there being make-up stains on it suggest something else.”

“And what do these facts suggest?” enquires John dutifully.

Sherlock beams at him. “Sentiment, of course. As I said, it must have been a memento, or rather, a token of love. Jenny lend it to someone dear to her and retained it in its used state, or else it belonged to someone else all along, they used it and Jenny secretly kept without the person knowing, to be reminded of them and time spent together. Isn’t that what people do when they’re in love? Isn’t it considered romantic?”

John nods thoughtfully. “Yes, it is. But who was it? Someone wearing Chanel and make-up, all right, I get that.” John shrugs, before his eyes light up. “You mean Jenny received or retained it from a woman?”

Sherlock whirls round to him and fixes him with a fierce gaze. John’s eyes widen as they take him in. For a brief moment, Sherlock wonders what he must look like, standing there in his vest and drawers, his hair a fluffy mess around his head, his eyes wild and his cheeks likely flushed with excitement. Despite his dishevelled appearance, however, John seems to appreciate the view.

“Yes, of course from a woman. Someone wearing Chanel and apparently wealthy – or shrewd – enough to afford it. But more importantly, lipstick stains, John. From red lipstick, a dark crimson.”

“That’s not an unusual colour. Half the women at the Park wear lipstick of that shade.”

“That’s true, it isn’t unusual. It does, however, rule out that the lipstick and make-up stains on the handkerchief were from Jenny herself. Moreover, we’ve encountered that particular shade in connection with Jennifer Wilson before. As I mentioned before, I recall seeing traces of the same or at least a very similar lipstick – crimson, not pink – on the collar of Jenny’s jacket when we found her in the quarry. Even had she been wearing red herself – which she didn‘t –, by its position, the stain could not easily have been caused by her own lips. Quite some contortion would have been necessary for her to touch her lips to that spot. And the tiny touch of lipstick on her ear ... almost impossible, even if her ear touched her collar to receive the lipstick stain from there.”

John frowns. “Well, it could have been caused by someone leaning in and, don’t know, kissing her cheek, perhaps?” he muses. “Or nuzzling behind her ear?”

Sherlock claps his hands together gleefully. “Yes, precisely.”

John thinks some more. “You mean Jenny ... she had a female ... friend.”

“More than a friend, I’d say,” corrects Sherlock. “We know she had a string of male lovers. That wasn’t a secret. Half the Park knew, and she obviously didn’t mind having a bit of a reputation in that regard. She even seemed to encourage the fact that people saw her in that light, happy to flirt left, right and centre. After breaking off her engagement, she did not seem to have had another serious, committed relationship, but rather revelled in her freedom – that, at least, was how she made it look. Even with Moran, their acquaintance doesn’t seem to have been more than a brief fling, for her at least. Likely, she courted him for his money and ended their relationship when he got too clingy and possessive, clever girl that she was.”

“Yes, it was wise of her to dump that idiot quickly,” comments John darkly, before giving Sherlock a thoughtful glance. “You mean she did have a serious relationship after all, but not one she was able to flaunt publicly, because her lover was a woman?”

Sherlock nods, leaning against the chest of drawers containing the washing bowl. “Think about it, John. It would make sense. I have an inkling that Moran somehow suspected he had a competitor. Perhaps she left him for this lady. Perhaps—”

Another thought strikes him, again fuelled by data filed away for future reference, sitting on one of the shelves in his mind-palace but not yet sorted properly because it didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Now, Sherlock feels the pieces fall into place.

“We need to go to London first thing tomorrow, John,” he says in a rush, tempted to throw on his clothes and dash to the station right away.

“London? I thought you wanted to talk to the lieutenant at Ivy Farm, and the radio operator.”

“All right, yes. We may dispense with questioning these persons if we can get a hold of Commander Wilcox in London. But I may need to use their telephone, in case the innkeepers haven’t got one. I’d prefer a fairly secure line, anyway, to call Lestrade. He can meet us at Waterloo after doing some research for us, and accompany us.”

“Accompany us where?”

“Wherever Jim Moriarty resides,” says Sherlock. “Jim, and the Woman. In fact, I have an inkling that we may find the Commander and Miss Adler at the same place.”

“What makes you think that?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Don’t you remember your conversation with the soldier at the gate yesterday evening? Because I do, and I wasn’t even listening.”

“Yeah, because you were playing with the bumblebees,” quips John fondly. “But now as you say it, I do recall we were chatting about women, and the chap said something about film stars and famous ladies, and ... shit, you’re right. I think he mentioned that Wilcox had tickets to see some beautiful singer one of these nights, and he was somewhat sorry that another of his mates had been the appointed driver to take him to London, and not himself. So you think Wilcox and Adler ...?”

“We haven’t got enough information to draw any conclusions that they’ve even met before, and therefore should keep speculation at a minimum. Wilcox may simply be interested in music, or else he heard about Adler’s performance and arranged to see one while he is in London on official business – whatever that entails. We do know, however, that Jennifer Wilson knew the Woman, either through Moriarty or Moran. And I think that neither of those three have told us everything they know. It’s time to ask some more private questions, I daresay, about their respective relationships with the unfortunate Miss Wilson.”

“And what about Wilcox? How does he fit into all this?”

“It remains to be seen. We have no proof that he did indeed leave to see the Woman, only chatter from his underlings. And even if he is going to attend one of her performances, as I said, it’s in no way suspicious. But we shouldn’t rule out any possibilities. Did Wilcox know about the message, for example? Because that still remains a mystery. Why wasn’t Kenworthy informed, if the radio operator thought it so remarkable? Why wasn’t it forwarded to Tiltman right away? Did Jenny spot its significance from a brief glance only, or was she informed in advance, and told to hold on to the message? Yes, I am aware that this would make her a potential spy. Did she forward it and talk to someone about it, casually – her lover, for example, even though it’s strictly against Bletchley Park policies and violating the OSA, in fact? Is that why Jennifer bit the capsule? Because she realised her mistake and feared being prosecuted and convicted for treason? Who provided the cyanide in the first place? Or did she kill herself because of her affair, out of guilt or fear of exposure? Even if she wanted to keep a potential lesbian relationship a secret and someone who knew tried to put pressure on her, what we know about her doesn’t make me believe she would take her own life because someone threatened to expose her affair. It doesn’t fit with what we know about her character. Was she trying to protect someone else, perhaps? Jennifer Wilson was clever, strong-willed and independent. She would have found a way to talk herself out of this particular scrape, had circumstances required it. No, something must have befallen her that rattled her so thoroughly that she didn’t see any other way out than to end her life – and nevertheless make sure that the message would be found.”

“How could she do that? She couldn’t know that Molly would come across her in the quarry.”

“Actually, I believe she relied on that. She knew it was a favourite short-cut from their billet. She likely had memorised Molly’s shifts, too. I think it’s highly probable that she counted on being found, and found by Molly Hooper in particular, her friend who knew her better than most and whom she trusted. But what drove her to kill herself in the first place? Shame and guilt because of an illicit relationship? A bad conscience over a stolen message? Perhaps, but neither seem strong enough. No, something else must have happened that night, and it has to do with the message.”

John bites his lip thoughtfully. “We assumed that she had a quarrel with whoever drove her that night. It could have been Moran because of the car, or his driver. Who knows ... maybe she mentioned the strange message to whoever shared that ride with her, and once she understood the implications – namely, that she may have committed treason, she fled the car, ran into the quarry and killed herself. Didn’t you establish from the footprints and the state of her clothing and hair that she must have arrived there in a hurry, and therefore must have been pretty desperate? But that could mean that she knew more about the potential contents of the message or its importance for the codebreakers than we anticipated. It doesn’t explain, however, why she had that cyanide capsule on her, and where she got that from in the first place. Wait, did we ever establish whether Moran has an alibi?”

“Only his own words, which I don’t trust. That’s why we need to talk to Lestrade. I hope he has managed to reel him in for further questioning. Moreover, even if Moran doesn’t have one, his possible presence in the car doesn’t explain the lipstick.”

“You mean you believe Jenny was driven by her female friend? But didn’t you say a man was driving the car when it almost ran you over that night?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “I saw a figure wearing a hat and what looked like male clothing,” he says slowly, trying to recall the event as clearly as possible. “I think I recognised the white collar of a shirt and the lapel of a dark suit. It could very well have been a woman driving the Bentley, her hair covered by the hat and her features shadowed. And she could have been attired in male disguise, too.”

John nods. “And you think it was Adler?”

Sherlock makes a noncommittal sound. John has followed his reasoning pretty well without him laying out all his theories, and he is delighted. John is more intelligent than he lets on. “As I said, we don’t have enough information, and I’d rather not lose myself in speculation and half-baked theories as they cloud one’s judgement. But yes, she is a definite possibility, chiefly because of her acquaintance with Moran. They, too, were in a relationship – in fact, they were officially together at that time –, meaning there is a good chance she was familiar with using his car.”

“Perhaps she’s the spy,” muses John. “After all, she has a German surname.”

Sherlock snorts at this. “Don’t you think that’d be a little too obvious?"

John shrugs and grins. “Don’t know. Perhaps that’s her true disguise, you see. Being as obvious as she can and relying on people expecting her to be all secretive and clever. A double bluff, so to speak.”

“That’d never work,” mutters Sherlock, although truth to tell, he is somewhat intrigued by the possibility.

John smiles at him. “Knew you’d say that, because for you, being clever and being considered so is all important. And rightly so. I mean, you should have seen yourself during your great reveal about the lipstick right now. You were almost glowing and floating half a foot above the floor.”

Sherlock knows he is blushing. ‘Glowing’ indeed. “I just stated facts, and my deductions based on them.”

“And were enjoying yourself tremendously, particularly with me as an appreciative audience. Don’t deny it. I enjoyed looking at you, too. That’s when you’re most luminous, you know, when you’re in your element being brilliant. I could watch you all night, although I’d actually prefer to do something else.”

Sherlock swallows. “And what would that be?”

John beams at him. “Kiss you. Right now, I’d like to kiss you rather badly.”

Sherlock blinks a few times, before pulling himself together and straightening up. “You want to kiss me because I said something brilliant?” he asks, needing clarification because the situation threatens to overwhelm him once again.

“Yes. And also because you look delectable, standing there.”

“In my underwear?”

“Yes, in your underwear. Oh, and there is no reason to be self-conscious. I know that for some strange reason, you consider yourself ungainly. Let me tell you once and for all that you’re wrong.”

“Evidence would suggest—”

“Bugger the evidence. What evidence are you referring to, anyway? What some snotty boys at your school told you ages ago? Haven’t we established that they were idiots?”

“Yes, but the fact remains that my proportions are—”

“Just perfect in my eyes. And that’s the end of this discussion. How about that kiss now?”

Sherlock swallows as he studies John’s expression, open and honest, and just a little bit exasperated.

“I ...,” he clears his throat and pulling back his shoulders, draws himself up. “It would be acceptable,” he declares a little stiffly, trying to hide his excitement and trepidation.

John stands and moves over to him, raising a hand in a soothing gesture. “We can stop any time, all right? If I do something you don’t like, you tell me and I’ll stop. Same goes for me. Acceptable, too?”

“Yes,” says Sherlock, his eyes fixed on John’s lips. Why is his voice so hoarse of a sudden?

“Good,” says John. The next moment, he has drawn Sherlock‘s head down to him and is kissing him. As before, the touch is gentle yet confident. He waits until Sherlock relaxes before he steps closer and deepens the kiss, his left hand holding Sherlock’s head in place and his right coming up next to Sherlock to rest lightly on his hip. Sherlock doesn’t know what to do with his arms until cautiously, he sneaks them round John’s back.

Like this, they stand for a while, kissing slowly yet thoroughly, trying out various angles and different degrees of pressure. It feels experimental. Sherlock approves. Whenever his mind permits, in between moments of utter distraction, he tries to catalogue John’s reactions to their activities, and to file them away for further analysis.

Eventually, John leans back a little to rest his forehead against Sherlock’s. “Thank you,” he says softly, a smile in his voice. “Was this all right for you?”

Sherlock nods. “Very. You?”

“More than all right. Would you like to try French kissing again?”

“French kissing? Oh, you mean the tongue thing?”

John laughs. “Yes, the tongue thing.”

Sherlock thinks for a moment. “Very well,” he says at length.

John laughs again and then surges forward to capture Sherlock’s lips in another kiss, harder and more passionate this time. And there’s his tongue. Sherlock is better prepared for its intrusion, nevertheless he jumps slightly when it touches his own. What on earth do the French have to do with this? his mind queries before it goes blissfully blank and silent and shuts down completely for a while.

“That’s quite ... good,” gasps Sherlock about two minutes later when they break apart for breathing purposes and because his legs have begun to feel strange and wobbly. He thinks he is a little aroused, too. John definitely is, and the realisation sends a bolt of fire through Sherlock’s body. John doesn’t seem embarrassed.

“I’d use another, stronger adjective,” he says happily, apparently unconcerned about the blatant signs of arousal his body is displaying. “You’re a quick study.”

“It’s not that difficult,” says Sherlock.

“No, it isn’t, although there are people who for some reason don’t seem to get the hang of it. But with that mouth of yours ...”

“What about my mouth?”

“Well, let’s just say you know how to use it, and not just for voicing your opinion or brilliant deductions.” He blushes. “Oh, blast, sorry, that sounded rather ... sorry.”

“What do you mean?” Sherlock wants to know, until it dawns on him. “Oh. Well, I haven’t used it for ... that, obviously. Not sure I intend to, either. It seems to be rather ... unhygienic.”

John bursts out laughing and can’t seem to be able to contain himself, almost doubling over as he bites into his hand to stifle his giggles. Sherlock watches him until, he, too, feels compelled to join in.

“I can’t believe we’re talking about that,” wheezes John. “I can’t believe we talked about any of those things we did. I mean ... that’s not what blokes do. Men don’t talk about feelings and stuff. It’s considered unmanly, you know.”

“Men don’t usually kiss each other, either. And I never cared about being seen as ‘manly’.”

They gaze at each other and burst out laughing once more, until the distant toll of church bells causes them to sober up. “Three in the morning,” observes John. “Oh dear, perhaps we should try and catch some more sleep, especially you. How’s your head?”

Sherlock frowns. He still feels a dull ache, but nothing like the throbbing, heavy pain of the previous evening. “Much better,” he replies, “although some more lying down might be advisable. There are so many new things I need to sort into my mind palace, I may need the rest of the night for that.”

John smiles at him. He reaches out to gingerly run his fingers over Sherlock’s forehead and along his temple, stroking back a dark curl. “You do that, but don‘t forget to sleep some more as well.” Standing on his toes, he presses a chaste kiss to Sherlock’s cheek. Drawing back, he looks at him with fond gravitas.

“I’m glad we talked about ... things. Not that it makes anything easier, but it’s preferable to the constant dancing round each other.”

Sherlock nods. “I should warn you. I am likely to mess things up, more than once. I doubt I’ll be good at this, the kissing aside, perhaps.”

“We’ll see how it goes. In my experience, these things are never smooth or straightforward, so don’t fret. We’ll make it work, somehow, if you want to continue. If not, if tomorrow morning you decide that you’d rather not ...” He shrugs. “I’d be disappointed, of course, but I’d get over it, I suppose. We’ll simply continue to be friends, all right?”

“All right,” says Sherlock. He doubts that he’ll have changed his mind in the morning, despite the prospect of entering into a relationship with John terrifying and exciting him in equal measure. But when has he ever been afraid of trying out something new, and something potentially enthralling and interesting at the same time? Oh, this could turn out to be an adventure unlike any other. And he’d be an idiot not to embark on it.

He hesitates briefly, before leaning in to kiss John’s forehead. John smiles up at him. “Good night, Sherlock.”

“Good night, John.”

 

-<o>-

 

They take turns in the bathroom. Sherlock locks himself in after John has used the toilet and left again. He sits on the closed lid for several minutes, trying to achieve some measure of order in his thoughts and emotions before rejoining John in their room. His mind palace has been rocked to its very foundations, he feels. New rooms will be required, a new wing, even. Old convictions long held will need to be re-labelled or discarded, like unwelcome weeds sprouting from the masonry. And then there’s the case. He’s going to have to sort through several rooms worth of boxes and drawers to find all relevant information again. Unforgivable, really, to have forgotten about the lipstick for so long. Or not forgotten, precisely. The memory was there all the time. Doubtlessly, there are other details he has labelled wrongly or stuffed into the wrong file or cabinet. The lipstick thing had been nagging him all the time, he just didn’t recognise its importance. And there are more issues clamouring for his attention. So ... work to be done.

First sort through all John related things because they’re the most pressing, and truth to tell, he won’t get any decent work done with them floating around without further analysis. And then, once his body has calmed down a little, on to the case. As for sleep, well, that’s overrated anyway. He can sleep on the train again if his treacherous body insists on repose.

Quickly, he washes his hands and returns to their room, trying not to glance at John as he lies blinking sleepily at him from under a mop of tousled hair, the blanket drawn up to his chin. Sherlock lies down on his back, only to turn onto his side almost immediately after. Across the divide between their beds, he watches John drift off into slumber, a faint smile tugging at his mouth. Sherlock’s heart aches at the sight. Even if they were to revert to friendship in the morning, attempting to delete the kisses and the confessions, he knows the damage has been done. From now on, John Watson will be wrought into the very fabric of his mind palace, and he doubts he’d be able to extricate him again. He hopes he won’t ever have reason to.

 

Chapter Text

Despite the urgency of major renovations of his mind-palace and the new revelations in the case keeping him awake for an hour or two (he loses track of time fairly quickly), at some point during the night, Sherlock falls asleep. He awakes to a soft scraping sound. Extracting himself from his pillow, turning towards the noise and blinking in the sudden brightness issuing from the window, he is granted the altogether marvellous sight of a half dressed John Watson shaving in front of the mirror on the dresser.

He is already wearing his trousers, the braces dangling from the sides, but his torso is bare. Obviously, he has just washed (slightly reddened skin from scrubbing, hair curling from moisture in his nape). The towel is still slung over his shoulder – unfortunately the left one, covering the scar. Sherlock would have loved a closer look at it, particularly the scarring round the exit wound. John hasn’t yet combed his hair, but judging from the faint smell of toothpaste, he’s brushed his teeth.

As Sherlock watches him, his eyes tracing John’s spine, his well-proportioned shoulders and upper arms, he feels blood rush into his cheeks ... and other parts. Oh, interesting, although not entirely surprising. Their conversation and activities of the previous night flood his mind and he swallows, imagining he can still feel the pressure of John’s lips on his, the rasp of his stubble, the texture and slickness of his tongue, and how his hand feels in Sherlock’s curls. A tightness in his throat makes him swallow. John said they could still change their minds and step back from ... whatever it is that has developed between them. As if that were so easy. As if it were even desirable. Even though he is positively terrified of what embarking on a relationship with John Watson could entail, Sherlock does not want their close association, the affection and mutual trust to end. He wants to wake up to John doing his morning routine every day, he realises, and the thought does strange, warm things to his insides.

He must have made a sound, because John turns to him, his face still partly covered in shaving cream, and smiles warmly.

“Good morning,” he greets Sherlock.

“Morning,” comes the hoarse reply while Sherlock struggles into a sitting position. The soft mattress doesn’t seem to want to relinquish its hold on him. John is still watching him with a mixture of fondness and a sparkle in his eyes that speaks of planned mischief.

“What?” asks Sherlock gruffly, to hide how he is still affected by his sentimental cravings that feel so unlike him, and yet so right and good.

John laughs. “You look adorable. Your hair is an utter mess – whatever did you do last night to get it into that state? And you have a nice pillow pattern imprinted on your cheek. Oh, don’t make a face. You’re still the most beautiful man I know – actually, you look utterly delectable right now.”

Ah, so apparently John is not thinking about terminating their relationship. Sherlock feels his blush deepening. He swallows again, unused as he is to genuine compliments. For once, he is lost for words. He rubs at his cheek instead, causing John to laugh again.

“I met Mrs. Cook on my way to the bathroom earlier,” he says. ”She told me breakfast will be ready in about half an hour.”

“And when were you going to wake me?”

“When I was done shaving. You needed the rest. How is your head, by the way? Does it still hurt?”

“A little,” replies Sherlock after a brief evaluation of his physical state. The sleep has been refreshing and helped alleviate his headache. “It’s much improved, however, and should not incapacitate me like it did yesterday.” Gingerly, he touches the wound on the back of his head. It is still tender and sore, but appears to be healing well.

John watches him. Then, apparently convinced that his patient is indeed on the mend, he laughs softly, leaning towards the washing bowl to rinse the blade. “Even with a slightly scrambled brain, you managed to think up some major break-through in the murder case and perhaps found a way to decode the message. It’ll be splendid to witness what you’ll be capable of once you’re fully functional again.”

Sherlock snorts, but is secretly pleased by the praise, which lodges like a warm glow in his chest. “We’ll see,” he says modestly.

His stomach rumbles and he frowns at it. He doesn’t appreciate his transport making these blatant claims for attention. His frown deepens when he notices what is going on in the region below his belly. Ah, so that’s why his drawers feel a bit tight and there is a hint of chafing. Interesting. This hasn’t happened in a long while, a fact he appreciated. A dormant libido meant less hassle and time-consuming remedy of the situation most mornings. But now ... he chances a glance at John who has resumed shaving. It’s only natural, or so he’s read, and John is a doctor. He’ll understand, and won’t be bothered by natural bodily functions in his friend and potential romantic interest, will he? Also, it should be flattering for him because doubtlessly, unconscious thoughts of him brought on this inconvenience. But it’s still embarrassing for Sherlock who has always prided himself on being able to control his body, on not being enslaved to its baser functions like the rest of humanity.

“Are you planning to stay in bed for the rest of the morning?” quips John, half turning to Sherlock and giving him a glance out of the corner of his eye while he scrapes at his throat. Sherlock watches him how he stands, his head drawn back and his throat exposed. It doesn’t help his situation at all. On the contrary, it makes it even more dire.

“Do you know if the bathroom is occupied?”

“Yes. That’s why I’m shaving here. One of the girls is taking a bath. It’s going to take a while, she informed me. There’s still water left in the pitcher, if you don’t mind washing here. It’s somewhat unfortunate because of the toilet, though. I was lucky to slip in before her bath was drawn. There’s the outhouse downstairs, but I guess you wouldn’t want to rush down there in your underwear.”

Sherlock grunts in agreement. Hoping that his arousal is going to abate on its own, as it usually does after a while when he concentrates on other things, he casts back the blanket, giving his groin and somewhat tented drawers a stern, disapproving glance, before getting to his feet. With a groan he stretches, and rotates his head and shoulders to assess how much residual tension remains.

“All right?” asks John, his face half hidden by the towel as he turns to him.

Sherlock nods, trying to turn so that his arousal isn’t blatantly obvious. Still, John seems to have noticed some discomfort in his bearing. His eyes search Sherlock’s figure for any visible sources of pain, his expression one of doctorly, friendly concern with just a hint of something else. Then he notices Sherlock’s arousal. To Sherlock’s relief, he does not seem troubled or even disgusted, instead he quirks an eyebrow and grins.

“I’ll be done in moment in case you need any ... alone time.”

Sherlock snorts derisively. His cheeks, he is sure, must be flaming crimson. “Thank you. Usually, the situation resolves itself.”

“Really? How?”

“I ignore it and it goes away.”

John’s eyebrows draw together in a frown. “That can’t be very ... satisfying, can it? Can be unhealthy, too, if you do it all the time.”

Sherlock shrugs. “I’m not interested in satisfaction, but a timely cessation of the situation. If it’s really persistent, cold water will do the trick.”

“Not a helping hand?” teases John.

Sherlock glowers at him. “Rarely.” He swallows, looking at the floor. This is somewhat shameful to admit to someone as obviously passionate as John. “I don’t ... usually. It doesn’t occur often. My ... libido appears to be fairly low and mostly dormant. Actually, this is the first time this has happened in months, and truth to tell, it’s embarrassing. I hate when my body does these things. It shouldn’t. It’s supposed to obey commands from up here” – he taps his temple. “Not ... down there.” A hand fluttering near his crotch.

John laughs. “Well, actually ‘down there’ is governed by ‘up here’, too, you know.”

Sherlock glares at him. “Of course I know,” he snaps. “It’s still embarrassing. I wish I wasn’t enslaved to hormones like everybody else.”

John shakes his head, his eyes gleaming with well-meaning mirth. “No, it’s not. Embarrassing, I mean. Or else it shouldn’t be. It’s natural, and as your doctor and somebody who has spent most of his life sharing quarters with other men let me tell you that it happens to everybody, and to many of them far more frequently and ... er ... prominently than you. So don’t worry. I’m not appalled or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. In fact, I find it almost flattering, if I pretend it happened because of last night.”

Sherlock draws himself up. “Yes, well, I think we can safely assume that you are the one to blame.”

John grins happily. “I can live with that.” His expression sobers to an almost pensive one as he looks up at Sherlock. “You haven’t changed your mind, have you? About ... us?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “I haven’t.” He casts a quick glance at his tented drawers. “Obviously. I think it prudent to reiterate my warning, though. I don’t know how these things work, and am therefore highly likely to spoil everything.”

John smiles at him warmly. “We’ll work it out together.” Leaning forward, he tenderly kisses Sherlock’s cheek. “Let me just put on the rest of my clothes and I’ll leave you to ... think away your situation. I’d offer a helping hand – oh dear, don’t start the blinking thing again, Sherlock. I’m not going to grope you here and now. That’d be a bit too soon, if it’s ever going to happen. Remember, I’m all for taking this slowly. And cautiously. We must not be found out.”

Sherlock nods. He hesitates for a moment, before leaning in and kissing John’s forehead in return. John smiles at him and steps back, depositing his towel over the back of the chair after picking up his vest, shirt, tie and waistcoat. Sherlock is still too stunned to pay attention to his scar, but he doesn’t mind. There is some likelihood that he will get another opportunity to study it in the not so far future. The thought makes him giddy.

 

–<o>–

 

John dresses quickly, and picking up his hat and briefcase, as promised, he leaves Sherlock to his own devices. Luckily, the unfortunate arousal has somewhat abated by then, and Sherlock washes, brushes his teeth, shaves expediently and throws on his clothes, and then attempts to force his hair into submission, with vague success. By the time he is finished and steps out of the room, the door to the bathroom is ajar, steam and the scent of perfumed soap wafting along the corridor, and he quickly enters to use the toilet.

He finds John downstairs in the saloon bar, sharing the breakfast table with three young women, one of whom is the cheek-pecker from last night. She winks at Sherlock when he approaches the table, her red lipstick contrasting her white teeth as she smiles.

“Look who’s here. Good morning.”

“Morning,” rumbles Sherlock.

Some twittering sounds from the other two women. “Is this tall, dark and handsome you mentioned last night?” asks one, a shopkeeper’s daughter from Whitechapel who sews in her spare time, judging by the state of her fingers and the expertly altered collar of her dress.

“Yes. Tall, dark, handsome and not interested, sadly.” Cheek-pecker makes a face.

“Or already spoken for,” suggests the third (oldest of the trio, almost thirty, Oxford graduate, linguistics, aspiring author), who looks a little disappointed. “The good-looking ones always are.”

Sherlock chances a tiny glance at John, who studiously avoids looking at him but who can’t entirely prevent a smile from playing about his lips.

“Ah well,” sighs the first. “Let’s hope there’ll be some bacon and real coffee for breakfast at least. That’ll make things bearable.”

“That, and chocolate,” says the second woman, and the three of them laugh. “Bloody war, everything good is rationed or has disappeared altogether. Bacon, chocolate, and silk stockings, and bananas.”

“And men,” adds the third, “but if I can choose between them and chocolate, I’ll take the latter. No offence, gentlemen.”

John laughs. “None taken. The appeal of chocolate is completely understandable. Personally, I’d love some bananas and other exotic fruit, and I’d die for a steak. Haven’t had one of those since the war started.”

All three girls sigh at the mention.

 

–<o>–

 

Even though neither chocolate nor silk stockings make an appearance at breakfast, the meal turns out to be good and plentiful. The coffee is strong. Mrs. Cook hasn’t skimped on the beans. Miraculously, a rasher of bacon is served for each guest, together with a small portion of scrambled eggs, and there is plenty of toast and home-made blackberry jam, and even some real butter.

The three women and mostly John keep up some light conversation. John enquires how long they have been working at Ivy Farm. None of them have been there long, but so far seem to be enjoying their work. Sherlock covertly asks about Commander Wilcox, but the three barely know him, only mention that he seems to be away a lot, causing John and Sherlock to exchange a quick glance. They, in turn, are all rapt with attention when he mentions that he is a naval surgeon, and enquire whereabouts he has been stationed. Sherlock mostly sits by and listens and watches, careful not to keep his eyes glued to John all the time. Eventually, the women take their leave and set off to begin their shift. John leaves to use the privy, and Sherlock goes to settle their bill.

“I hope everything was to your satisfaction,” says Mrs. Cook.

“Yes, thank you.”

She looks at him shrewdly. “You did sleep well, didn’t you?”

His eyes narrow. Is it obvious in the shadows under his eyes? Or did she hear any of their activities last night? They did keep their voices down, but their getting in and out of bed and Sherlock’s pacing might have been heard downstairs. The floor creaked, after all, and the walls dividing the rooms aren’t that thick.

“My colleague had a nightmare,” he says, truthfully, “which woke me up as well. It took him a while to calm down again. Affected by his experiences in the war, you see.”

Her face takes on a concerned, sympathetic expression and she nods solemnly. “Ah yes,” she says knowingly, “my husband has them, too, from time to time, back from the other war.” She sighs. When John returns, she gives him a warm, understanding and somewhat pitiful smile that leaves him a little puzzled.

Sherlock enquires after train times. Mrs. Cook informs him that a train is due to depart in half an hour, and another in about two hours’ time. “My husband is going to give old Reverend Walters a lift to the station later this morning, he can take you, too, if you don’t want to walk.”

“That’d be splendid,” says John.

“We need to make some phone-calls from Ivy Farm first,” Sherlock reminds him, “but I am confident we will be back in time for the later train.”

“I shall inform my William so that he’ll wait for you.”

 

–<o>–

 

At Ivy Farm, John and Sherlock are greeted by an enthusiastic Kenworthy. “I’ve just spoken with Mr. Tiltman on the telephone,” he tells them in his office. “He has forwarded the messages to one of his colleagues who said they showed definite promise. They were very excited about it, and have also started an investigation at your place as to why the messages vanished from the archive, who handled them and everything.”

An idea strikes Sherlock. “When you speak with him next, ask him check whether both messages are gone from the archive or just the first. If both are gone, then whoever took them was aware of their significance and how their length may aid with decryption. That would mean whoever took them knew exactly what they were looking for and is likely familiar with codebreaking techniques such as cribbing. If only the first is missing, then our thief may not be that well versed in codebreaking but simply took what they were told to.”

Kenworthy nods and notes down the request. “Anything else I can assist you with, Mr. Holmes?”

Before Sherlock can reply, John puts in, thoughtfully, “There is something about these messages that I don’t understand. I’ve been thinking about it on and off.”

Sherlock turns to him. John licks his lips self-consciously. “What is it?” asks Sherlock, suddenly excited.

John shrugs. “If I understand correctly what happened when the messages were sent was that the German radio operator types this long coded account. The girls said he’s always slow. They call him Mr. Snail or something. So perhaps he’s either new to his task, hasn’t typed much or simply isn’t that quick with his fingers. Or he’s overworked and tired. Or he’s simply lazy. I mean, imagine it. After a long campaign, you get asked to type this long-winded report and encrypt each sodding letter. You’re unlikely to be enthusiastic about it. You’d much rather have a break and a smoke and a cuppa, or whatever the Germans drink instead of tea. And it gets worse. You finish, looking forward to hanging out with your mates and to finally have some time off duty, and then you receive a reply that your novel of a message didn’t get through and that you have to write it all again. No wonder he didn’t change the settings. I’m sure he was wishing he could write the repeat message in shorthand to save him time and effort. I almost feel sorry for the chap.”

“John,” whispers Sherlock, staring at him in awe. John has just summed up what has been bothering him about the messages as well, and, conductor of light that he is, has accidentally hinted at the crux of the matter which so far has eluded Sherlock. Impulsively, without overthinking their situation, Sherlock grabs him by one shoulder and the nape of his neck and presses a kiss to his forehead, before he whirls away and starts to pace excitedly. “John, John, you are brilliant.”

“I am?” asks John hesitantly, his left hand half raised to his forehead, his cheeks flushed.

“Yes, of course you are, don’t you see? Shorthand.”

“What?”

Sherlock looks from John’s puzzled expression to Kenworthy, who doesn’t seem to be quite following, either. God, is he surrounded by idiots again? How can John be so brilliant and not be aware of it, not make the connection?

“Shorthand, John. That’s what he did, the radio operator. That’s why the messages are different in length. Oh God, this is even better than having two identical messages. It’s ... it’s a veritable treasure trove for codebreakers.”

Apparently, Kenworthy has caught on. “Do you mean he used abbreviations, Mr. Holmes?”

Sherlock spins round to him. “Yes, yes, of course. He couldn’t have used actual shorthand, obviously, but to save time and effort, he very likely abbreviated common words and expressions. It’s a frequent thing in the naval weather reports we work on, and often occurs in other missives, too. And if it’s true what the women who intercepted this particular operator’s messages say about him – which I don’t doubt, they seemed to be able to judge his character well from his typing alone, good feat of observation and deduction, that – he was either untrained or lazy, like Dr. Watson just said. So either way, he would have tried to save time and effort wherever he could.”

Kenworthy glances at his notes – taken down in actual shorthand – which likely John glimpsed to make the connection – and begins to smile softly. “I think you are right, Mr. Holmes. I think ... I think I need to telephone Tiltman right away. His colleagues need to learn of this. “Good work, Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson. Good work indeed.”

The two of them exchange a glance. John beams at Sherlock. There is pride in his eyes. Sherlock wants to kiss him again, properly, but this time, he restrains himself. Might be a bit not good, kissing in front of a witness, although Kenworthy didn’t seem to mind his previous display of appreciation and affection. John, too, averts his gaze, clears his throat, and reaches up to straighten his tie.

“Before you make this call, Mr. Kenworthy, could I telephone Scotland Yard?” demands Sherlock. “As you may remember, apart from the disappearance of the messages, we are also investigating a murder, and need to schedule a meeting with the police for when we are passing through London later today. Oh, and please inform Mr. Tiltman that he must arrange another day of leave for me. In all likelihood, we will have to spend the night in London, perhaps even longer, meaning I would miss my next shift and probably the one after, too. But, I suppose the information we have provided so far will warrant the leave.”

“I’ll definitely put in a good word for you, Mr. Holmes. Here, you can use the phone. I trust you remember what to tell the operator to ensure a safe connection? Good.”

D.I. Lestrade doesn’t seem surprised by Sherlock’s phone-call.

“I was actually hoping to meet you in Bletchley yesterday,” Lestrade tells him, a little reproachfully. “Miss Wilson’s parents arrived from Cardiff mid-morning. They are leaving tomorrow, taking her body with them because they want her to be buried in Wales. They were shocked and heartbroken as is to be expected. I questioned them about her background and whatever they could tell me about her ex-fiancé and her other relationships, but they didn’t know much. Apparently their daughter, while keeping regular contact via telephone calls, the occasional telegram, and letters, did not keep them up to date of her romantic entanglements after her separation from her fiancé. They did not know anything about her work, either, thought she was some kind of secretary at a radio factory. Actually, they still believe that. In accordance with the OSA, nobody informed them of her real occupation, and nobody ever will, I suppose.”

“Yes, that’s the official version of what we do at Bletchley Park,” says Sherlock. “Did you learn anything of use, then? Did you manage to talk to Moran?”

“Not yet. I was fairly busy with the Wilsons. Buckingham police called at his place, however – posh manor some miles from the town – and were told by the butler that he had driven to London, where his family owns a place in Kensington. I was about to pay him a visit there today.”

“Excellent. Dr. Watson and I are on our way to London. It should take us about three hours to get to either Waterloo or London Bridge, depending which train runs first, and whether there are going to be delays. We have some new information regarding Jennifer Wilson that may interest you. I’ll tell you once we are in London. I need to talk to Moran again, as well as Irene Adler and Jim Moriarty. Find out if the latter have performances tonight. It is likely that The Woman is singing somewhere, and perhaps Moriarty is playing, too. Also, try and find out whatever you can about Commander Wilcox of Ivy Farm Listening Station, Knockholt, Kent.”

“Whoa, Mr. Holmes—”

“Do it,” interrupts Sherlock impatiently. “I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important and likely related to our case. We will meet you at Scotland Yard.”

Lestrade splutters a little in indignation at being so overwhelmed, but Sherlock simply hangs up on him. “Thank you, Mr. Kenworthy. If Tiltman or one of my superiors at Bletchley Park feel the need to discuss the matter of my extended leave with me personally, they can leave a message for me at Scotland Yard. Good day.”

“Good day, Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson. Thank you, and good luck with your case. I’ll escort you down to the main door.”

John dons his hat again and steps out of the office, Sherlock and Kenworthy following. When they have reached the hall, Kenworthy looks around, waits for two women carrying stacks of paper to pass, then asks quietly. “Is anything the matter with Commander Wilcox?”

“We don’t know yet. Has he been to London frequently?” Sherlock wants to know.

“Not frequently, but occasionally, yes. From what I’ve heard, his wife lives there, even though they are going through a bit of a rough patch. Impending divorce was mentioned. Truth to tell, I haven’t talked much to him apart from work-related things. Guess there’d be plenty organisational matters to see to in London. And of course he is required to liaise with the War Office to get this place set up properly. We’ve grown so fast in such a short time, it’s been hell to plan and organise, and to acquire the backing we need. And I certainly can’t complain about the commander in that regard. He worked damn hard to get this station set up, and from what one hears, pulled a few strings to get us the equipment and staff we need and everything. He has connections, you see. I never asked, grateful for what he could get us. We’re much better set up here than we were at Denmark Hill.”

Sherlock nods thoughtfully. “I see. I’d appreciate if you carefully asked around your station. Perhaps your staff know more about the commander. Anything noteworthy you hear, let me know. Send a telegram to either Bletchley Park or to Scotland Yard, to my hands or those of Detective Inspector Lestrade. He can forward messages to me. Thank you for your help.”

Kenworthy smiles. “I have to thank you. If you are right about these messages, we may just have taken a huge step towards decrypting the Lorenz cypher. This gives me hope that we may win this horrible war yet.”

John nods gravely at this. “As we must,” he says.

Kenworthy sighs. “Yes, as we must.”

 

–<o>–

 

“You kissed me.”

“What?”

They are walking down Ivy Lane, and John’s words have just pulled Sherlock out of thoughts coursing round the two nearly identical messages. He is highly tempted to pull out their transcripts for a closer look.

“You kissed me in front of Kenworthy,” repeats John, “and you addressed me by my first name.” His voice is even, but gazing at him, Sherlock can see some underlying tension in his form. He recalls the event, and feels blood rush into his cheeks.

“So I did,” he admits. Frowning at John, he asks, “Did you mind?”

John looks at him, smiles briefly, before his expression turns grave again. “No, I didn’t. But Sherlock, we have to be more careful. I doubt Kenworthy is going to report anything. I don’t think he really noticed, caught up as he was in what you were saying at the time. But behaviour like this could be dangerous in other places if witnessed by different people.”

Sherlock bites his lower lip. Truth to tell, he didn’t pay attention to his actions, swept along in the rush of excitement. Now he realises his mistake. He swallows. “I’m sorry, John. It won’t happen again. I didn’t think.”

John chuckles. “That’s not something one hears from you very often.”

Sherlock ducks his head and snorts out a laugh, too. “Indeed. I did warn you, though. I told you that I was likely to mess up. All this,” he gestures between them, “it’s new for me, and frankly quite scary. I don’t know the rules or protocols of romantic entanglements, and ours is fraught with danger on top of all the usual pitfalls. I am sorry.”

“There is no need to apologise, Sherlock. We’ll just have to look out for each other, yes? And be discreet, very discreet, all the time. As much as this galls me.”

Sherlock nods, feeling like an idiot. He knows all this, and yet he got carried away by sentiment. He. Inexcusable. He vows to take more care in the future.

John bumps his shoulder playfully, and his sombre mood brightens at the other’s cheeky smile. “That said, when we’re in private, you can kiss me as much as you like,” says John, his voice low. “Just for the record.”

Sherlock smiles at him in return. “Duly noted.” He thinks for a moment, then clears his throat. “I would appreciate some warning before we engage in any ... activities,” he announced, cringing inwardly at how formal and awkward his voice sounds. “Just so that I can prepare myself and don’t end up completely overwhelmed.”

John nods. “Of course. I shall state my intent clearly before I touch you romantically. That acceptable?”

Sherlock inclines his head. “Apologies for being this difficult,” he mutters.

John’s shoulder bumps his again. “It’s fine. Actually, all this talking about things ... it’s good. Takes getting used to, but I think it works. And like I said, it’s kind of new to me, too.”

“So usually it was kiss first and talk later for you?” asks Sherlock.

John grins. “Or kiss first and not talk at all, at least not about ... relationship things. Sometimes it was good that way, and sometimes ... I wish there had been more talking. Oh, looks like our transport is here.”

A battered old lorry from the late ’20s is parked in front of the inn. Mr. Cook is helping a frail, elderly man wearing a cassock and an old-fashioned wide-brimmed hat climb onto the passenger seat.

“I hope you don’t mind sitting in the back, gentlemen,” says Mr. Cook. “It not a long drive.”

“That’ll be fine,” John assures him. Glancing over the vehicle, he steps a little closer to the landlord. “Hope you don’t mind me asking, but how do you manage to procure the petrol? I thought it was strictly rationed.”

Mr. Cook grins at him conspiratorially. “We have a special ... understanding with the army chaps at Ivy Farm,” he replies, sotto voce. “We give them extra food rations because my brother has a farm and we’re never short of eggs and things, and they provide us with the odd spare canister of petrol now and again.”

“But isn’t army petrol dyed to prevent civilian use? There are high fines if you’re caught, I heard.”

Mr. Cook’s grin broadens. “Oh, there is no dye in our petrol. Come and have a look.”

He picks up a stick from the ground, opens the tank, dips it in and holds it up for John and Sherlock to see. Sherlock is intrigued. “How do you get the colour out?” he wants to know, running several potential chemical solutions through his mind. “A simple filter wouldn’t get rid of the dye. Do you use charcoal to filter it? Aspirin? That should break down the colour.”

Mr. Cook chuckles. “Oh, none of that. It’s much simpler. Our good English Loaf does the trick.”

Sherlock frowns at him. “Bread? What has bread got to do with it?”

“Well, it isn’t rationed, and it’s comparatively cheap – cheaper than Aspirin, anyway. Also, it’s a very good filter because it’s so dense.”

Sherlock nods, impressed and intrigued. “Brilliant,” he mutters, resolving to replicate the experiment once they’re back at Bletchley as he and John take seats on the open loading area between sacks of apples.

Mr. Cook wrestles with the engine, and then the lorry lurches into motion. Sherlock groans softly when they are jostled about and a stab of pain reminds him of his concussion and his bruised ribs. John gives him a concerned glance. Sherlock shakes his head slightly to indicate he’s all right despite the pain.

Nevertheless, after they’ve left the outskirts of the village behind and are rattling along the winding country road, and after reassuring himself that they are alone on the road and neither Mr. Cook nor the vicar can see them in the rear mirror (the apple sacks be praised), John shifts closer and draws Sherlock to him, lifting his hat to press a quick, chaste kiss to his temple. Sherlock allows himself to briefly lean into the embrace. He wonders if this is how things are going to be between them now: furtive glances and stolen moments, always avoiding being seen by unfriendly eyes. Very likely yes, he knows. He sighs. John strokes back his curls and places his hat back on them. For the rest of the journey, they sit with their shoulders and legs touching whenever a dip or bump in the road jostles them together, each lost in thought.

 

–<o>–

 

The next train due for London is bound for Waterloo Station. They hurry on board and miraculously find a compartment empty but for a portly woman reading in Bradshaw’s Railway Guide (Scottish edition), a caged parrot occupying the seat next to her. John seems fascinated by the bird, which in turn takes an interest in him and starts to whistle, and then talk. The woman (from Canterbury, fishmonger’s wife, travelling to London to visit her sister and return the parrot who she looked after while the sister was in hospital) tries to shush it unsuccessfully, until John assures her that he doesn’t mind. They strike up a conversation about illnesses and modern methods of treatment (with the parrot commenting the odd phrase), which once more shows John’s proficiency as a doctor, and his easy rapport with people (and animals).

Sherlock would have liked to study the messages in peace, but he finds himself distracted and indeed entertained by the conversation, the noisy parrot with its constant “You don’t say?” and “Goodness, my heart” being actually quite funny.

John, too, exits the train with a broad smile. “How do we get to Scotland Yard?” he asks as they step out of the station. Sherlock raises his hand to hail a passing taxi.

“I don’t fancy walking,” he explains.

John nods, looking relieved. “Me neither.”

 

–<o>–

 

Sherlock has been to Scotland Yard twice before to give his statement after successfully solving a case. He had high hopes for further collaboration with the Metropolitan Police after working with London City Police force on a few cases. Unfortunately, the war disrupted things. Therefore, it is with some pride and a welcome buzz of anticipation that he steps into the building and gives the desk sergeant their names and states their purpose. It feels right and good to almost be invited here, to enter in semi-official capacity.

John and he are led to Detective Inspector Lestrade’s office by a young constable. The station is busy despite obvious wartime shortages of staff and equipment. Furthermore, the building sustained bomb damage – Sherlock recalls reading about it in the papers back in May – and gives an impression of somewhat improvised but orderly chaos, much like Bletchley Park. Sherlock’s eyes roam over filing cabinets and stacks of files, posters with wanted offenders pinned to the walls, and several large maps of London and vicinity with markers for crimes stuck into them. He yearns to be allowed access to these cabinets, to have a look at the various cases, cold and recent, to offer his particular skills which he knows are sorely needed. But all in good time. For now, he is on a case, and it’s a good one.

They reach Lestrade’s office, the door of which is open. The officer is in the process of buttoning his jacket while emptying his mug of coffee (cold, judging from his grimace).

“Good day, Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson,” he greets them, donning his hat and reaching for his mac which he throws over one arm. Then he picks up a large envelope. “I’m actually glad you could make it. I have news for you. We can discuss everything in the car.”

Sherlock appreciates his efficiency. “Where are we going?” John wants to know.

“Kensington,” replies Lestrade as they descend the stairs. “Sebastian Moran’s house. Ilchester Place, near Holland Park.”

“Is he actually there?” Sherlock wants to know. “Did you call ahead?”

“We did, yes. We don’t have a warrant as yet. There were no grounds on which to issue one, meaning we have to be careful. His manservant was vague about his whereabouts. But even I could tell he was lying on the telephone, so I decided we would pay the gentleman a visit regardless. I have a feeling that Mr. Moran has been avoiding us, and I’d like to learn the reason for it.”

John smiles grimly, dislike plainly written on his features. “I really wonder what Jennifer Wilson or the Adler woman saw in him. I mean, they’re both intelligent, resourceful ladies. Either surely had their pick of men, and yet they chose to associate with him. And I don’t believe either of them were after his money. Both have their own income, and whatever he could buy them can’t have been worth the time wasted on him. He seems an utter moron.”

“His family has some influence, apparently,” shrugs Lestrade. “Here, I’ve brought you something to read.”

Lestrade hands the envelope to Sherlock. It contains a slim file. He flicks through it as they wait for Lestrade’s car to arrive, driven by a young policeman who Lestrade dismisses after he has brought the car to a halt. “I prefer to drive myself,” he explains. Sherlock approves. That way, they will be able to discuss the case openly without having to worry about another person overhearing confidential details.

John climbs into the back, holding the door open for Sherlock who, already engrossed in the file, absently clambers onto the back seat next to him. The file is interesting, certainly, and despite being a slim volume, contains some important information about their suspect (not yet confirmed as such, strictly speaking, nevertheless it feels right to label Moran just so). Sherlock has to commend Lestrade and his team on their speedy research. A tiny alarm bell sounds in the back of his head. Finding out so much about Moran so quickly either indicates very expedient police work, or meddling by certain people Sherlock would prefer to stay out of this case. The file reeks of Mycroft Holmes pulling some strings, as he always does. Still, Sherlock can’t resist the temptation to peruse it.

He finds some of his deductions about their prey confirmed. Sebastian Moran hails from a wealthy family with considerable property in Northern Ireland on his father’s, and in Buckinghamshire on his mother’s side. Moran’s maternal grandparents are old landed gentry. Sadly, the file does not contain an image of the family’s coat of arms. Sherlock wonders whether it’s the same he glimpsed on Moran’s signet ring, but he reckons it should not take much effort to find out if they match. He is rather convinced they will. Moran has one sibling, an older sister, who, according to the rather detailed family tree contained in the file, is married to a rich industrialist in the United States. Moran’s father has been deceased for almost twenty years. The file is sketchy about the cause of death. There is a reference to a newspaper article stating that Lord James Moran perished in a riding accident during a fox hunt on his estate near Belfast. A police investigation due to suspected foul play is mentioned as well. This piques Sherlock’s interest. He makes a mental note to try and acquire more information on the matter.

Moran himself is not married, nor has he ever been. He is four years older than Sherlock, born in 1903. After undergoing private tuition until he was old enough to attend public school, Moran went to Eton where he was captain of the Rugby team and the Fencing Club, but appears not to have made a name for himself due to his academic achievements. After a two year stay in the United States with his sister’s family in New Jersey, he went on to read history and law at Oxford, where he switched Colleges during his first year, moving from Merton to Christ Church. No reason is given in the file. Again, Sherlock makes a note to investigate, although this may require him to ask his brother who studied at Oxford at about the same time as Moran, and at the same College, at least for a while.

Once again, Moran’s feats at university seem to have been of the sportive and boisterous rather than the intellectual kind. He was part of the Christ Church rowing team and was even set to row in the 1927 Varsity Boat Race on the Thames, but dropped out due to measles.

Sherlock finds little information about the years after Moran’s graduation from Christ Church with an unspectacular degree. There is some indication that he spent time abroad, both in Europe and further afield, and lived in Northern Ireland for a while managing the family estate there, until he joined the army in 1930, where he quickly rose from lieutenant to major, but on what merit, the file leaves out. Sherlock suspects that at least one of the commissions was bought rather than earned.

What piques Sherlock’s interest, however, and makes him smile grimly as he finds his deduction confirmed, is an attached note mentioning Moran spending several months (two terms) in the German city of Bonn during his university years. Apparently he went there to improve his German, staying with a German friend and alumnus of Bonn University for most of the time, participating in student activities and sporting events. Sherlock is convinced that said friend introduced Moran to a student fraternity where he received the scar on his cheek, the Schmiss, the distinguishing mark of honour of an arms-wearing student fraternity.

Sherlock hums softly to himself as he considers this bit of data. He is by no means well versed in current politics. That is his brother’s metier. But he is not unaware of the major political ideas of the time. From his own university years and sojourns abroad he knows that some societies and fraternities are hothouses for both revolutionary left- and extremely conservative, right-wing ideologies. Now Moran does not strike him as an innovative, revolutionary thinker. His background is conservative, old money. As for his political leanings, Sherlock is tempted to place him rather right of the centre. But how far right ... now that is the question. It is too early and indeed dangerous to draw any definite conclusions from the information he has, but what if Moran got certain ideas in Germany? Even though during his stay in Bonn Hitler and the NSDAP had not yet become the ruling party in Germany, it is well known that their despicable ideology had been rampant before their rise to power, falling on fertile ground in a country ravaged by unemployment, inflation and the resulting hunger and hardship in the population, a people demotivated, even humiliated by the loss of the Great War and resulting reparation payments. There is a valid possibility that Moran learned of and even established links to fascist groups, and has retained a fascination with their ideology – like many of his compatriots, including the former English king no less. Sherlock can’t be certain, without further information, but if Moran has indeed connections to the German right, connections he retained despite the war while upholding the image of a staunch patriot and wounded war hero on the home front, this would make him excellent spy material for the Germans. And for the British as well. He could be a double agent. Or not.

Sherlock hums excitedly. John looks at him questioningly and he gives a small shake of head. He’ll explain his theories later. As yet, they are still too unformed and vague, not bolstered by enough facts. John’s eyes linger on him for a moment before the doctor smiles to himself. His hand on the seat next to him twitches, as if he is fighting the temptation of placing it on Sherlock’s knee. Sherlock licks his lips. As much as he’d like John to put his hand there, he surmises that the touch would wreak havoc with his mental faculties. And he needs those right now to study the rest of Moran’s file.

John seems to understand. He moves his hand to his own knee. Sherlock lets out a long breath while perusing the last pages of the file. They give insight into Moran’s war efforts. He served in various locations before the war and during, and received his ‘Blighty’, the injury that sent him home, during the ill-fated evacuation from Dunkirk when his arm was hit by a sniper’s bullet. Ever since his recovery, he has been working for the War Office in a minor capacity, apparently not too eager to return to the front but rather enjoying the London nightlife. The file contains no mention of his amorous affairs. Sherlock surmises there have been plenty, though, apart from Jenny and The Woman.

“I’ve only had a cursory glance at the file myself,” explains Lestrade. “Interesting read?”

“Quite, yes,” nods Sherlock. “A number of points require further investigation. If possible, I should like to ask Mr. Moran some questions.”

“I’m sure we can arrange that, should he be at home,” Lestrade assures him, and then curses under his breath when a taxi in front of him breaks suddenly. Luckily, they are not travelling at great speed. Due to several partial road blocks along Knightsbridge caused by building and repairing works, traffic is jammed and only proceeding at walking speed.

“Have you found out anything about Adler’s and Moriarty’s present whereabouts?” Sherlock wants to know when they pass Harrods, its large ground floor windows boarded up and protected by sandbags.

“I know where they live, yes, although neither appear to be at home at the moment. I had officers check. We also know that Adler has a concert scheduled for the Windmill Theatre tonight, and that Jim and his Fix-Its are playing there as well. Hers is a special performance or something, according to the announcement. Moriarty and his band appear to be regulars there. What he told us about playing there the night Wilson died is true. We have plenty of witnesses, and the stage manager of the Windmill confirmed it as well.”

John’s head perks up at the mention of the venue. “The Windmill Theatre? Isn’t that the ‘Revudeville’ with the naked girls? Some of my mates from my last ship wouldn’t stop talking about it. Apparently they went during their last shore leave and were rather impressed. Definitely had a good time. I thought they were pulling my leg about the naked girls, though. Nudity on stage? Seriously? Is that allowed?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. Lestrade grins. “They call them tableaux vivants, living tableaus. They’re not moving, so they’re not performing, officially, making it semi-legal to show them. I’ve heard the owner and stage manager of the Windmill have a kind of special understanding with Cromer, the Lord Chamberlain who censors these things. It’s controversial, for sure, but it’s popular, with good artists performing and pretty girls to look at, and it gives people something to think about other than the war. So what’s not to like, eh?”

“Not sure thinking comes much into it,” mutters Sherlock. Lestrade snorts and John chuckles. Sherlock frowns at him. He doesn’t like the idea of John being surrounded by naked women, artistic or otherwise. It might remind him why he has been dating females ever since his sexual experiment with the unnamed stranger, and might give him cause to reconsider his association with Sherlock. Inexperienced, awkward Sherlock, brilliant, true, but undeniably male, with all the difficulties that entails. John’s love life could be a lot less complicated were he to switch to a woman again.

Sherlock chances a quick glance at John, who seems oblivious of Sherlock’s dilemma. He does, however, turn to Sherlock and smile at him, and now he does place his hand so that for a brief moment, his pinkie brushes against Sherlock’s thigh. As usual, Sherlock’s heart leaps, and he has to clear his throat and look away.

“Oh, by the way, a telegram arrived for you, Mr. Holmes,” Lestrade’s words pull him back into the present. “From your work place.”

He rummages in the pockets of his jacket, then hands Sherlock the slip of paper. Sherlock reads it quickly and smiles.

“Tiltman sends his thanks,” he informs John. “And is pleased to inform me that our leave has been extended until tomorrow afternoon, but that we are to report back to BP in person at four pm tomorrow. Apparently further leave cannot be granted without personal intervention by Commander Denniston. So we’d better have solved this case by then.”

Lestrade nods. “I’d appreciate that. You’ve been a great help already, that’s why I pulled some strings to ensure you may continue to work on it. But this is not the only case I am investigating, and truth to tell having to travel to Bletchley and back twice now in as many days has not exactly reduced the pile. There are too few officers around right now, and sadly, crime hasn’t abated, despite the war and everything.”

Sherlock frowns at that, wondering how far the influence of someone like Lestrade extends. He is just a D.I., unlikely to be in a position to call in favours with this superiors. With a sinking feeling, keeping in mind the quite detailed file about Moran, Sherlock once again wonders if the leniency shown by officials has its origins higher up. The stench of his brother’s meddling becomes ever stronger. As much as he enjoys working on the case and all it entails, under no circumstances does he want to be beholden to Mycroft Holmes’ favours, because his brother is wont to call in payment for said favours eventually, a payment that is going to consist of boring mingling with the upper classes and trying to untangle their sordid little affairs.

“On the phone, you mentioned that you have some new information about Wilson?” Lestrade’s question interrupts his thoughts. “Out with it.”

Sherlock gives him a condensed account of his lipstick deduction, the possible implications of the evidence and his subsequent reasoning. He only hints at what he gained from Moran’s file and how it might fit with what else they know so far.

Lestrade whistles softly when he has ended his account. “That does shed some new light on Miss Adler’s involvement, if your suspicions prove true. Still, when confronted with Wilson’s death, she did not seem as upset as a potential lover might. Remember, Dr. Watson, we talked with her for over an hour while waiting for her train, and I accompanied her all the way to London. She was tired and somewhat rattled by her tiff with Moran, as far as I could tell, but she did not appear to be in mourning.”

“She seems a consummate actress, though,” puts in John and Sherlock nods.

“Yes, this is the impression I have of her as well,” he says. “Who knows, perhaps Jenny’s death wasn’t news to her that night, after all. We must talk with her tonight. Is anybody stationed at the Windmill during the day?”

Lestrade shakes his head. “I would have liked to, but we don’t have the manpower at the moment. The officers on patrol in the area have been told to keep their eyes peeled for Adler, Moriarty and Moran, though. Performances at the theatre start at 2:30, but I don’t know for what time The Woman is scheduled. Well, we’re almost there. Let’s see if our man is home.”

They have reached a quiet street of large, red-bricked houses, their rears overlooking Holland Park. The Blitz seems to have wrought little damage here, and apart from some signage for the nearest air raid shelter, nothing reminds of the war. The area is wealthy – John would call it ‘posh’ – with the houses retaining their neo-Georgian grandeur behind large lime trees in well-groomed front gardens. There are even a few cars parked along the pavement, large vehicles that usually come with chauffeurs. John makes an excited noise and touches Sherlock’s arm briefly when his eyes fall on a silver Bentley Convertible standing in the drive between two of the houses. Sherlock recognises the number plate. It’s Moran’s car.

Lestrade slows the car as they advance down the street.

“Park it so that it blocks the Bentley,” Sherlock advises him. Lestrade smirks and does just that, stopping his car so that it mostly stands on the pavement, obstructing the Bentley’s exit from the drive. The three men get out. While Lestrade and John head towards the front door, Sherlock makes a detour to the silver car. It shows signs of recent cleaning and polishing, indicating that it wasn’t used recently but likely received the treatment after Moran’s arrival from Buckinghamshire the previous day. A few heart-shaped leaves from a nearby lime tree have fallen on its closed roof, further proving that it hasn’t been moved for several hours.

Meanwhile, Lestrade has rung the bell. After a short wait, the door is opened by what looks to be the housekeeper, a wiry, middle-aged woman wearing glasses and a disapproving expression, her bobbed, greying hair laid in rigid Marcel waves that were fashionable twenty years ago. Lestrade isn’t put off by her scowl, greets her friendlily, and enquires after Sebastian Moran.

“Lord Moran is absent and unavailable, I am afraid,” comes the cold answer. “Make an appointment by telephone before you call next time.”

Sherlock joins the two men and gives the housekeeper a long, pointed glance from over their heads. She hails from somewhere upriver, Windsor or Richmond, perhaps, and has been in the service of the family for a long time, hence her apparent loyalty and willingness to lie. Unmarried, broken off engagement many years ago, likely when her fiancé returned from the Great War a changed man. Very strict with the other servants and indeed herself, as indicated by her prim dark dress and overly correct hair (not a single strand out of line), her large and prominently worn set of keys for all important locks in the house, and her watch, likely a gift from the family for her long services, her only adornment instead of jewellery but worn on a chain around her neck as if to underline her insistence on punctuality.

She is about to close the door in their faces, but Sherlock steps forward, placing his foot on the threshold. “Oh, I don’t think there’s going to be need for that. Unless you have developed a habit of smoking your master’s rather distinctive cigarettes in his absence, the fact you smell of fresh cigarette smoke indicates that he is not absent, but here in this house, and that he has charged you with lying on his behalf to try and keep unwelcome visitors at bay.”

Her eyes narrow as she jerks up her pointed chin defiantly. “Well, if that were the case you should respect his wishes. He is not feeling well and therefore told me to send away unbidden callers.”

“It’s almost as if he was expecting something of that kind,” muses Lestrade. “I did call ahead, in my official capacity as a Detective Inspector of Scotland Yard. I would like to talk to Mr. Moran about one of his acquaintances in Buckinghamshire who unfortunately has died recently.”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“No, but if your master continues to evade us, I will have one issued on the grounds of him being a murder suspect.”

The housekeeper pales slightly. “A murder suspect?”

“Indeed. One of Mr. Moran’s former acquaintances was found dead earlier this week, and there is a strong indication that he was the last person to see her alive. So can we come in now? If he is feeling poorly, he’s in luck. This here is Doctor Watson of the Royal Navy. He can look after his medical needs. And we don’t intend to stay long, anyway.”

After a moment’s indecision, the woman steps aside, looking worried. “Wait here. I will inform him of your arrival.”

The three men are ushered into the stately entrance hall where they wait while the housekeeper’s quick footsteps echo on the smooth floor as she disappears down a corridor leading further into the house. Sherlock takes a cursory glance at their surroundings, a mixture of neo-Georgian interior architecture – a patterned marble floor, high stucco ceiling and pastel silk wallpapers, set off with elements of contemporary Art-Deco design, shown by the geometric chandelier and wall lights illuminating a broad flight of stairs which lead to the first floor. To Sherlock’s surprise, the paintings hanging between the wall lights are not of the traditional, naturalistic kind he would have expected in the abode of a spawn of landed gentry, but like the Art Deco elements, they are modern, even edgy and somewhat provocative: there is a cubist still life which could be either by Picasso or Braque, and some Expressionist art reminiscent of Macke or Kirchner. Interesting. Sherlock wonders whether Moran acquired these himself, perhaps as an investment. What he has learned about the man so far, however, did not suggest Moran taking much interest in the arts, or being a shrewd, farsighted businessman. Also, collecting art branded ‘entartet’ by the Nazis does not fit with someone who Sherlock suspects is a sympathiser with their cause.

Ah, a closer look at the furnishings suggests that the art and the Art Deco overhaul of the hall are not Moran Jr.’s doing. Obviously, the townhouse is mainly inhabited by a woman, his mother, most likely, as evidenced by the faint scuff marks of modest heels and a walking stick on the carpet running down the staircase (the housekeeper is wearing flat shoes), and a somewhat old-fashioned but clearly beloved parasol in the umbrella stand.

All these deductions are flashing through Sherlock’s while he watches John take a long look around, a mixture of awe and resentment on his face. “Wonder what the rest of the house looks like when this is only the hall,” he mutters. “You could house an entire family in this room alone.”

Lestrade stands with his hands in the pockets of his trousers, seemingly unimpressed by the surroundings. He nods, though, and smiles grimly. “I know places in the East End where you have two families in a room this size, but with a ceiling that’s much lower. Seeing this and knowing the other, you understand where the communists get their ideas from.”

“Yes, but their system doesn’t work, either, does it?” muses John.

“Of course it doesn’t, because you always have people abusing the system for their own personal gain. I’m all for workers’ rights and everything. My old man worked down at the docks and was active in the Union for a long time. He was excited when news came from Russia that they’d got rid of their Tsar and were establishing a nation where everybody has the same rights and wealth was going to be distributed fairly and equally. But that’s not what really happened, of course. From what one hears, over in Russia, people are starving. And those who dare to speak up are sent to Siberia.”

John nods darkly. “Yes, I know. Even though he’s officially our ally and we should be thankful for the Russians keeping the Germans occupied on the Eastern Front, I have the feeling that in truth, Stalin isn’t much better than Hitler.”

Lestrade nods and they fall silent for a while.

“Perhaps we should have manned the back door,” mutters John. “In case he considers bolting.”

“Well, if he intends to scarper, he must do so on foot, since his car is blocked by mine,” states Lestrade with a grimly satisfied smile. “And if he runs, I’ll have a warrant for him in no time. It could be construed as an admission of guilt, you see.”

“I doubt even he’d be that stupid,” puts in Sherlock. He recalls his previous encounter with Moran. “Then again …”

The clatter of flat shoes announces the return of the housekeeper. “Lord Moran will see you now, but he demands that you be quick as he expects a visitor.”

“Well, the duration of our stay depends entirely on his cooperation,” Sherlock tells her airily. He brushes past her, striding down the corridor into a high ceilinged, tastefully furnished if somewhat gloomy drawing room. Even though it also shows traces of Lady Moran’s interest in contemporary design in the Bauhaus tea-set on the low coffee table, the decorations are more traditional. Paintings and photographs of hunting scenes adorn the walls, next to several taxidermied heads of large game, likely hunting trophies. The photos are too far away to see the people depicted there clearly as they pose with their prey, but Sherlock thinks he spots Moran in some of them. He also recognises several African antelopes like oryx, kudu and springbok, a bison and a moose, as well as several stags, their glass-eyes glinting in the dim light. In front of the ornate fireplace lies a tiger skin, and in one corner of the room a stuffed bald eagle perches on a pedestal. Several hunting rifles are displayed on the walls, looking out of place in this townhouse. Over the fireplace hangs a selection of fencing swords, a cavalry sabre from Napoleonic times proudly presented in their midst.

Despite the fair weather, the large windows that would normally overlook a garden bordering on Holland Park are partly shrouded by heavy curtains, rendering the room in twilight and shadow. Beams of light are made visible by curls of smoke issuing from one of Moran’s ubiquitous cigarettes, the smell of which lies heavily on the room. He must have smoked a considerable amount in a short time, Sherlock thinks when his eyes fall on the silver ashtray. A sign of nerves, perhaps.

Moran himself is standing at one of the windows, gazing out through a gap in the curtains, smoke swirling round him. He is wearing a double-breasted dark suit with broad pinstripes, and black shoes that have not been polished today, but show signs of walking on dusty ground. The suit, too, is slightly creased in the back from sitting somewhere for an extended period of time, such as in a car. Is he wearing yesterday’s suit? Unlikely. Moran seems a vain man and one, moreover, who owns more than one suit. He would have changed, and would have had someone look after his shoes had he stayed at his London abode all day yesterday. Where did he spend the night, then? According to what Lestrade said, Moran was not at his Buckinghamshire estate the previous day, but had already left for London. His car hasn’t been moved today. He arrived yesterday, but left the car here and went out again. His features look tired: sallow skin and shadowed eyes. He shaved in the morning, but hurriedly and not very thoroughly, and used too little pomade to keep his hair in order. Some strands have slipped and are falling over his forehead.

Moran does not turn to them immediately when the housekeeper announces Lestrade. He does, however, tense slightly. As if to brace himself, he takes a deep drag on his cigarette, then turns. His eyes sweep over the detective inspector, his mouth twitching haughtily, before they fall on Sherlock and John. Sherlock notices the effort it takes for Moran to keep his expression haughty and somewhat condescending, when in truth their appearance surprises and indeed unsettles him. He recognises them immediately, of this Sherlock is certain.

“Who are you?” Moran asks sharply, eschewing any formal greeting. Next to Sherlock, John bristles visibly.

“And a good day to you, Mr. Moran,” says Lestrade.

“Lord Moran,” Moran interrupts him haughtily.

“Apologies, Lord Moran. These are my advisors in this particular case: Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes.”

“Advisors?” sneers Moran. “No official capacity, then, I see. In which case I ask you to leave. I have no objections to talking to the police, but I refuse to have amateurs standing by – particularly if these amateurs are two men who on Tuesday night accosted me under false premises, pretending to be volunteers associated with a musical venue I frequented.”

Lestrade stands his ground, narrowing his eyes at Moran. “Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson are both experts in their respective fields, and by no means amateurs. Both have been instrumental in investigating the death of Miss Jennifer Wilson, who, as I have on good authority, was an acquaintance of yours. It’s about her that I wish to ask you a few questions.”

Moran scowls at the trio, sucks on his cigarette again, then squares his shoulders. “Be quick, I have an appointment in half an hour.”

“Certainly,” says Sherlock, stepping forward. “Unfortunately, our conversation was interrupted on Tuesday night. I asked you whether you had been with Jennifer Wilson on Sunday and dropped her off close to her accommodation in Newton Longville, but you preferred to drive off instead of answering. Could we have an answer now?”

Moran glowers at him darkly. Next to Sherlock, John draws himself up and takes a step closer to his side, as if ready to defend him should Moran try anything nasty. Sherlock’s heart swells at the realisation.

“The last time I saw her was two weeks ago,” states Moran angrily. “We met here in London, had tea at the Ritz, followed by a stroll through Green Park. There she told me, out of the blue, that she was ending our … association. Didn’t give me a reason, but she didn’t have to. I knew there was somebody else in play. She always had someone on the side.”

“As did you,” puts in Sherlock. “You were already closely acquainted with Miss Adler while still conducting a relationship with Miss Wilson, weren’t you?”

“So what? There is a war going on, in case you haven’t noticed. We’re likely to be blown up any minute. So what’s wrong about living a little? Jenny knew there were others, and she was fine with it. That’s not why she ended our thing.”

“Well, at least you should extend the same courtesy to her, then,” replies Sherlock archly. “You know, the opportunity to ‘live a little’ in these troubled times, as you so aptly put it. What reason did she give for ending your ‘thing’, as you call it?”

Moran snorts angrily, taking another drag from his cigarette. “She didn’t give a reason, just said it wasn’t working. She didn’t even seem upset. Bloody ungrateful, that’s what she was, after I’d invested so much in her, taking her out and buying her things. One can expect some loyalty, right? It’s different for women, anyway. As a man of a certain standing, a certain eligibility, you’re expected to entertain several interested parties. Not that I ever intended to marry someone like Jennifer Wilson. But she should have been grateful for my attention, instead of abusing me for my wealth and entertaining other men on the side.”

“It shouldn’t be different for women,” returns Sherlock hotly. “There shouldn’t be a double standard.”

He is angry, and he knows he must try and control it. But there is something about Moran’s bloated arrogance and ignorance that riles him tremendously, particularly in comparison with what he has learned about Jennifer Wilson during this investigation, namely that she was clever, resourceful, well-beloved by her friends, dutiful, yet quite wasted on her work. In terms of intellect, she could have been a codebreaker. Should have been, in fact, if indeed she was the one who understood the significance and the potential of the Lorenz messages first. She was the clear opposite of Moran. John is right: why on earth did she choose to associate with him? He is so far below her in intellect, so opposite in temperament. Wealth and social status alone couldn’t have been what attracted her to him. By all accounts, she wasn’t that shallow, nor did she need financial support. So why … why waste her time on someone like him? Why indeed …?

Unless it wasn’t her decision. Unless she was ordered to get close to him. Unless her work at Bletchley was only a cover for her real occupation. How did she come by the cyanide capsule? Aren’t those issued to field agents only? Was she a spy, then, after all, instead of a common, undervalued clerk operating a teleprinter day in and day out? And if she was a spy, why would she have been ordered to engage with someone like Moran? Is there really more to him than the spoilt offspring of old money?

Sherlock steeples his hands and touches the fingers to his lips as he studies the other thoughtfully, a gesture, he is pleased to notice, that unsettles Moran slightly, after he reacted to Sherlock’s outburst with a derisive snort. Now he seems to fear that Sherlock is on to something. Sherlock would be lying if he were to say he doesn’t enjoy watching Moran steam a little. Walks a few paces, before forcefully extinguishing his cigarette in the half-full ashtray on the side table. With the fag gone, however, Moran doesn’t appear to know what to do with his hands. He solves the dilemma by lighting another cigarette from a golden case. Sherlock suppresses a cough when a cloud of smoke billows up. How on earth did he ever manage to smoke himself, and even enjoy it? It’s altogether revolting now. Well, one addiction gone for good, it seems. He casts a quick glance at John who stands stiff and alert, watching Moran pace agitatedly, his expression grim and disapproving, and the one hand Sherlock can see clenching and unclenching. John looks ready to land said hand in Moran’s face. Sherlock almost hopes he’ll get his chance.

Meanwhile, Lestrade has opened a small notebook and has begun to write down what has been said so far. Once again, Sherlock is positively surprised by his efficiency. He decides to strike into the blue, hoping to unsettle Moran even further and gain some insight into his true dealings – and his true loyalties. Recalling his German lessons back at school, Sherlock asks, secretly pleased about his lack of accent,

“Herr Moran, warum erzählen Sie uns nicht ein wenig über Ihren letzten Verweil in Deutschland?”

 

Chapter Text

Moran’s eyes narrow dangerously in a way that tells Sherlock he has understood his words perfectly. Pulling himself up to his not unimpressive height, Moran takes a step towards Sherlock. To his left, John twitches, also shifting closer to his friend.

“Whatever I did in Germany the last time I was there – or any time, really – it none of your concern, Mr. Holmes.” Sherlock’s surname is spoken disdainfully.

Sherlock raises his chin so that he can look down his nose at Moran. They are of about the same height, although the other is broader and more strongly built than Sherlock, his wide shoulders accentuated by his double-breasted suit. Sherlock isn’t intimidated by Moran’s clear attempt at doing just that. On the contrary, he feels confident that he has the upper hand. Time to put that bloated moron in his place.

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so certain of that, Mr. Moran,” he returns conversationally, stressing the ‘Mr.’, knowing that his refusal to use Moran’s title will rile the other even further. And indeed: Moran’s lip twitches, and his eyebrows draw together dangerously.

“You see,” goes on Sherlock, “these are dangerous times. Anybody who maintains ties with the enemy inevitably comes under close scrutiny, sooner or later. And rightly so, wouldn’t you say? After all, we cannot have traitors in our midst, can we?”

Moran snorts derisively. He looks really angry now. John steps even closer to Sherlock, and a quick glance towards him shows that his fists are tightly clenched. His entire body is tense and alert, ready to leap forward in Sherlock’s defence. His expression is very, very calm. He looks utterly menacing.

“I don’t know what you are talking about, Holmes,” growls Moran threateningly. “I don’t have ‘ties with the enemy’ and am certainly not a traitor. In contrast to you who I’m sure wouldn’t even have passed muster, weak and gangly as you look, and unmanly,” he adds nastily, “I have served in this war, with distinction, and have the scars to prove it.”

He raises his scarred hand, his eyes glinting dangerously.

“Not everybody has to fight to do their bit for the war effort,” interjects John, his voice carefully controlled. Sherlock can tell he is really angry. Moran ignores him.

Sherlock gives his opponent a faint, condescending smile, which causes a brief look of confusion to flit over his features. “Oh, I can see that you have scars to show your allegiance. Your true allegiance, even. Isn’t what you suffered with your hand more commonly known as a ‘Blighty One’? It’s what soldiers did in the trenches during the Great War, you know. If they wanted to render themselves unfit for further service and make sure they were sent home to recuperate, away from the hell of mud and cold and death, do you know what they did? They just raised their hand over the top, hoping for a German sniper to take good aim. Some were unfortunate, of course, and succumbed to trench fever and infection and died. Or they lost their hand or even the entire arm to gangrene. But still they survived when many of their comrades didn’t, and they were sent away from the frontlines to recover in the peace and tranquillity of the English countryside.”

“Are you implying I’m a coward who rendered himself unfit for service?”

“That is for you and your conscience to decide, Mr. Moran,” declares Sherlock airily. “According to your official records, your arm was hit by a sniper’s bullet during the retreat from Dunkirk. Lucky hit, I’d say, so early in the war. Took you right out of action and back home. Lucky you, that only your hand was injured. Snipers are so very unpredictable. Normally, they’d aim to kill an enemy officer, wouldn’t you agree? You could have been hit in a spot much worse. Interestingly, though, the injury on your hand doesn’t look like the bullet of a sniper rifle tore it. Different calibre, and it also would have left more damage. The scar is fairly clean and even, especially the exit wound. There is scarring, but not extensive, not as much as one would expect from a rifle hit. Doctor Watson here will certainly confirm my observation, as he has seen plenty of similar injuries during his service in two wars. He will confirm that this wound looks a lot more like a bullet wound from a small calibre hand gun, and a fairly clean one, too. The fact that the hand sustained further damage was rather due to infection and a incompetent surgeon than the original injury. Could have been a sniper who hit you, by accident or your own instigation. Could have been your own service weapon. Busy, confusing thing, a retreat, isn’t it? Many people scrambling onto boats, chaos everywhere. Who’d take note of an officer hiding briefly, shooting his hand and then emerging, bleeding and crying for help—”

Sherlock is interrupted by a furious growl, and braces himself for an attack. Moran certainly looks ready to hit him. His face is red. He is breathing heavily through his nose. His unscarred hand is balled into a tight fist, the knuckles of which are showing white. He looks like he is restraining himself from attacking Sherlock with considerable effort.

“Liar,” he hisses. “Lies, all of them. I don’t know what you are trying to achieve here, but wrongly accusing me of things I haven’t done won’t help you in any way. I have plenty of witnesses who saw how I received my injury. And what is even your point? Have you come to insult me? Piss off, all of you. I’m done with you lot.”

“But I am not done with you, Mr. Moran,” says Sherlock sternly. “We haven’t addressed your sojourns in Germany and indeed your German affiliations yet. One of your other scars shows the latter only too clearly.”

He nods towards Moran’s face. Reflexively, Moran raises his hand to touch the indicated cheek and the scar of the Schmiss with a confused expression.

“Are you still in contact with your friends from Bonn University?” Sherlock wants to know. “I am certain a little research will unearth a lively correspondence, and a recent one, too. You visited the Rhineland as late as 1939 for the Cologne Carnival, I see. You seem to have had a good time, as your collection of memorabilia over there indicates.”

He points towards a glass case next to the stuffed eagle. It contains a collection of drinking vessels – Sherlock recognises some hand-painted, narrow ‘Kölsch’ glasses, pewter goblets, and an earthenware beer mug in the shape of a goat, and colourful bunting. A small porcelain figure of a goat is there, too, and what look to be medals and a fraternity ribbon.

“I wonder how many of the little mementos are marked with the Swastika underneath. I also wonder how many of your fraternity brothers have been supporting the National Socialist Party ever since – or even before – their rise to power.”

“Are you accusing me of being a Nazi, or sympathising with them?”

Sherlock shrugs. “I am merely recounting my observations, and my deductions based on them. You wouldn’t be the only sympathiser of their ideology in this country. Even our abdicated king had Nazi friends.”

“But I don’t,” spits Moran, stepping so close to Sherlock that their noses are almost touching. Sherlock feels the urgent need to take a step back, but stands his ground.

“Can you prove that?” Lestrade wants to know. He has lowered his notebook and is giving Moran a calculating gaze.

Moran spins round to him, his shoulder accidentally hitting Sherlock in the chest, sending him reeling backwards. He stumbles to catch himself, but then is dealt a savage shove from Moran’s sudden and all but accidentally outstretched arm. Sherlock staggers backwards, trips over the head of the tiger rug on the floor, loses his balance and falls down. He manages to break his fall with his arms, nevertheless his head gives a dull throb at the impact, and for a moment, he is stunned.

He sees, however, how Moran, clearly over-reacting, dashes forward towards the door, apparently in an attempt to leave. But he doesn’t get far. John steps in his way and holds on to his arm, dragging him back towards the fireplace. Moran spins round, aiming a blow at John which he evades by ducking. He doesn’t release the arm. Moran makes a sound like a wounded boar and tries to hit John once more, again to no avail.

“Mr. Moran, will you desist,” Lestrade’s voice cuts sharply through the heavy breathing of the two opponents. “Or I will arrest you for assault. And I will insist of an investigation of your wartime records, which may indeed lead into one for espionage and fraternising with the enemy, should enough evidence be revealed.”

“Fuck you,” cries Moran, the remark jarring in its obscenity. He kicks out at John and tries to hit him with his free hand. Sherlock is convinced they are witnessing the true Moran now, no longer the image of the cultured war hero and easy-going gentleman he tries to project. Struggling to his feet, his spine, shoulders and particularly his head hurting, Sherlock steps towards John and Moran. John has managed to hold him in place while at the same time trying to dodge his blows. One catches him across the ear, but apparently not with its full impact. Lestrade has approached, too, deliberating how to catch and immobilise Moran from behind.

Suddenly, Moran aims a vicious kick at John’s knee, unfortunately the one of his weaker leg. John hisses in pain, staggers and steps back a little. His leg gives out, which causes him to sway and almost lose balance. Moran shoves him backwards against the wall next to the fireplace, rushing towards him, and then, to Sherlock’s horror, a high ring of metal echoes through the room, followed by a cry of pain. Moran has drawn one of the swords from the arrangement over the mantelpiece and has dealt John a fierce stab with the blade.

An agonised cry of “John,” echoes through the room. Sherlock barely recognises his own, high-pitched, terrified voice. He can’t see John clearly, Moran’s bulky form is blocking the view. Sherlock can’t assess how much damage he has done. John is still alive because his legs are moving, trying to kick at Moran’s, but he can’t get to his feet. What is plain to see, however, is that Moran is ready to strike again, to rid himself of the nuisance that is John Watson once and for all.

Sherlock acts instinctively. Sprinting toward Moran, he deals him a blow with his shoulder that makes him curse and sway and momentarily lose interest in John. The next instant, Sherlock has grabbed another sword and swept it from its fastening on the wall.

Moran, hearing the metallic scrape, spins round to him, and, his experience as a fencer showing, immediately assumes a defensive pose. Just in time, because Sherlock stabs at him, trying to force him away from John who is still slumped against the wall next to a potted aspidistra, holding his right shoulder with his left hand, specks of crimson dotting his fingers.

The blood, more than anything, fuels Sherlock’s rage. It’s been a long time since he has last handled a blade. He took up fencing at Harrow and continued it off and on during his years at university. The blade in his hands is heavier than the ones he is used to, and his shoulders are still stiff and tense from his fall the previous day. But his body remembers the poses and movements, and his anger at Moran drives him with a force that surprises him in its fierceness.

Moran, however, is an experienced fencer himself. He parries Sherlock’s attack almost effortlessly, only conceding a little space by stepping back into the room, avoiding the tiger head. His eyes are glinting dangerously, strands of his formerly slicked-back hair are falling into his forehead, and the corner or his mouth is lifted in a faint, mocking smile. He seems utterly convinced of his superior skills. Sherlock is determined to wipe the smirk from his face.

“You want to settle this like gentlemen, then?” teases Moran snidely. “Not certain you are one, even though you look like a public school brat, but have it your way. I, for sure, am glad to oblige.”

He really appears to be looking forward to a duel, his eyes scanning Sherlock for apparent weaknesses. Sherlock glowers at him as they measure up one another. Quickly, he shrugs off his jacket. He does not entirely believe his opponent is going to be fair and honourable in this fight, but at least Moran doesn’t attack while Sherlock is shedding the garment. Instead, he gets rid of his jacket as well, rolling his neck and loosening his shoulders, before assuming position.

From the corner of his eye, Sherlock sees movement in the doorway. The housekeeper has appeared, wondering what is causing the din. Lestrade is rushing towards here, ordering her to lead him to the telephone, hopefully to call for reinforcements. John seems to be back up on his feet again and has moved away from the wall. Sherlock can only discern him as a shadow in his peripheral vision. But he is standing, and moving, meaning his wound can’t be too dire. Moreover he is a doctor, he’ll know how to treat his own injuries.

Thus buoyed by relief and new confidence, and outraged about John’s hurt, Sherlock attacks. At first, Moran seems content to let Sherlock drive him into the middle of the room, simply parrying or turning his blows. He is a skilled fencer, strong yet agile, his height and long arms giving him good reach. He is also quick on his feet, surprisingly so for a man of his bulk. Sherlock is slightly superior in agility, but he lacks practise, strength and stamina. He makes up for that with fervour and cunning.

When Moran decides to stop playing around and attack, Sherlock is prepared. He anticipates most of his opponent’s movements and manages to parry or evade them. And he can’t deny it. He’s enjoying the fight. Not just because Moran is a dangerous, narcissistic, fascist moron who must be stopped, but also because the thrill of the duel is pumping through his veins, he is high on adrenaline, more so than he ever achieved with cocaine. Oh, he has missed this. Solving intellectual puzzles day in and day out is one thing. But this, oh, this is something else. It’s dangerous and invigorating. It’s utterly brilliant.

Unfortunately, it’s also exhausting, and after several minutes of fierce, quick duelling, Sherlock finds himself panting and sweaty, his arm aching and trembling slightly from the weight of the sword. Moran is breathing heavily, too, his face red and sweaty and his carefully arranged hair an utter mess. Still, he looks fitter than Sherlock feels. If he wants to win this, or end it in a way that leaves him mostly undamaged, Sherlock needs to think, and think quickly. He can’t win this by skill or endurance. Guile and trickery are his only assets.

To underline just how dire his situation could soon get unless he thinks of a good trick soon, their next exchange of blows ends with the tip of Moran’s blade stabbing through the fabric of Sherlock’s left sleeve and grazing his bicep. He hisses in pain. Moran laughs nastily.

“Next time, I’ll hit you further to the right,” he pants.

“You wish,” returns Sherlock, and attacks. He doesn’t want to kill Moran. Oh no, this one must be secured for questioning. But a graze or two would be nice, for the way he treated Jennifer Wilson and countless other women, and for what he has done to John. A kick in the balls would be good, too. A fierce kick, if it can be managed.

But Moran seems to have other plans for his adversary. Sherlock is convinced that he meant what he just implied. If he has the chance, he will kill. He looks determined and desperate enough, anyway. Suddenly, what has started out as an almost playful exchange of blows and a display of fencing skills has become deadly earnest.

Sherlock feels a frisson of fear the next time Moran attacks with a clever riposte which Sherlock finds hard to parry. There is fierce determination behind the blows now. Finesse has been replaced by brute strength and dark cunning. This is no longer the gentle, orderly strictly regulated kind of fencing they both know from public school or university. This is duelling for real, with the aim of taking the opponent’s life, or at least severely wounding him.

The first of a quick series of blows almost knocks the sword out of Sherlock’s hands, and the barrage that follows drives him backwards until his foot hits a piece of furniture – an armchair. Elegantly evading the next strike, he dodges the chair and positions himself so that it is between them, calculating his next actions.

He can’t win this through skill alone, and even trickery has abandoned him. Moran is simply better: more experienced and practised, and stronger and more enduring, too. But Sherlock has superior foresight and wit. He needs to find Moran’s weak spot and strike at that. And if it’s not a physical aim, the better. Moran is vain and arrogant and proud. Could Sherlock work with that? He thinks he can.

Moran, irked by circling Sherlock round the chair, his reach not sufficient enough to hit him, growls menacingly, before leaping onto the seat and stabbing at Sherlock, who pirouettes out of the way to deal Moran a cut to his back, neatly parting the silk of his waistcoat and the fabric of his shirt so that blood wells out. Moran hisses with pain, jumps from the chair and hacks at Sherlock with brute force, all skill and finesse abandoned.

“You’re dead, fucking pervert,” he snarls. Grabbing one of the ornate Art Deco vases from the mantelpiece with his free hand, he hurls it at Sherlock, while at the same time lunging at him again when he tries to evade it. The tip of his blade pierces Sherlock’s right thigh. He staggers backwards with a cry, narrowly avoids stumbling over the dratted tiger again. Hitting another armchair and losing his balance, he falls into the seat. Immediately, Moran is onto him. In his rage, he comes too close, so that Sherlock’s unhurt leg deals him a fierce kick in the groin area which, sadly, only hits his upper thigh. It keeps Moran at bay for a moment, however, long enough for Sherlock to sort himself out and parry two quick lunges of Moran’s sword.

Sherlock’s thigh throbs painfully. He isn’t sure how much weight the leg will bear, but decides to risk it. Pushing himself out of the chair with one arm, he hurls himself at Moran, who in turn is forced backwards. Sherlock chases after him, intending to drive him with his back against the fireplace, when his leg gives way. It saves him from a fierce swipe of Moran’s sword but almost conveys him to the ground. The hand stretched out to soften his fall lands on the stuffed head of the tiger and slides off, causing Sherlock to tumble onto the striped rug.

His heart clenches with genuine fear. He’s at a clear disadvantage now. It’s only a matter of time until one of Moran’s blows hits his aim, and hits well. The next instant, his weapon is swept from his hand with a cunning stroke. Sherlock rolls out of the way of another which hits the rug next to his shoulder. The next one will hit true, he knows. And right enough, cool metal touches his throat. Moran’s heavy foot lands on his chest, pinning him to the rug and squeezing the breath out of his lungs. Sherlock, winded and immobile, can only stare up at him as he pants for breath. Down the blade of his sword, the tip of which rests at Sherlock’s throat, Moran looks down at him with dark glee. Game over.

Sherlock swallows, which causes the blade to bore even deeper into his skin. He never expected to make it long past thirty, but to die at sword-point ... he didn’t anticipate that. He thinks of John, of how little time they had together. He is glad he kissed him when he had the chance. John will be sad with him gone. John, who has experienced so much grief in his life already, is about to lose another dear person. Sherlock never intended to add to his grief, never imagined anybody would possibly be sad with him gone, but it looks as if he has little chance to prevent it. Unless ...

A shot rings out. Both Sherlock and Moran jerk in surprise. Moran half turns towards the sound, and freezes in shock. Sherlock can’t see clearly, but he recognises John’s shoes and the legs of his trousers close by. He is doing something. A small wad of paper falls down onto the rug next to Sherlock’s head. The acrid smell of gunpowder fills the air, and Sherlock can hear the quick scrape of metal, and then the click of a gun being cocked.

“Step away from him and drop your sword, Moran, or I’ll shoot you,” comes John’s voice from somewhere behind Sherlock’s head. It’s utterly calm, and utterly frightening. Sherlock feels the tip of the blade pressed against this throat waver. It pricks the skin slightly, drawing a drop of blood.

“I mean it,” adds John. Sherlock can’t see his expression, but he is convinced it would be awe-inspiring.

“You can’t kill me,” returns Moran, trying to sound haughty and confident, which is marred by the fact that he is still breathing heavily.

“I can, and I will,” replies John. “And very likely, they’ll even commend me for it, if what Mr. Holmes found out about your allegiance is true – which I don’t doubt.”

The blade wavers even more. Moran doesn’t remove it, though. John steps closer. “But I won’t kill you, Moran,” he goes on, still speaking in a menacingly calm, almost gentle voice “I’ll just shoot you, and shoot you where it hurts most.” Sherlock is convinced John is grinning by now, a thin, dangerous smirk. He wishes he could see it.

It works its magic on Moran who likely is experiencing one of his treasured flintlock pistols aimed at his crotch right now. Suddenly, the sharp pressure against Sherlock’s throat is gone. The heavy weight is lifted off his chest when Moran removes his foot and steps back. The sword clatters onto the parquet floor when Moran casts it away.

Drawing a deep, slightly pained breath, Sherlock pushes himself into a sitting position. A hand is extended to him, John’s hand, and he grabs it. John helps him up, the gun and his eyes still trained on Moran who is inching backwards. Sherlock feels a strong urge to lean against John. He smells of blood and gunpowder, and the scents Sherlock normally associates with him, soap and wool and clean sweat. It’s both comforting and exciting.

“You all right?” enquires John quietly. Sherlock nods. “You?”

“Yes. He didn’t hit me badly. Oi, Moran,” he then calls to their adversary. “Stay where you are. We’re not finished with you yet.” The pistol in his hand twitches. Moran’s eyes fall to his crotch where John is aiming the gun. He swallows. Sherlock smiles with grim satisfaction.

“Don’t even think about picking up your sword again, Mr. Moran,” comes Lestrade’s sharp voice from the doorway. About time, thinks Sherlock as he turns to him. He looks hot and sweaty, and is flanked by three police constables and a sergeant, who, likewise, seem a bit flustered. Two are in the process of rearranging their belts and helmets. Obviously, there was a problem with the telephone and Lestrade went to fetch them personally, likely from Kensington High Street Police Station, and crammed them into his car to drive them here. Sherlock is amazed that apparently, his duel with Moran took that long. It didn’t feel like it.

At the sight of the policemen, Moran’s shoulders slump. He eyes the French windows briefly as if considering a last effort dash to try and evade capture, but the sergeant, a bulky, ginger-haired Northerner with a silhouette like a carrot, is already on his way to block this route. Moran lets out a breath, before straightening up again and haughtily pushing the hair out of his forehead as he faces Lestrade stoically.

“Lord Sebastian Moran, I am arresting you for allegations of treason, and for assaulting two gentlemen associated with the Metropolitan Police. I would advise you to accompany us quietly, otherwise you risk bringing even more charges onto yourself.”

Moran’s reaction is a gaze of pure poison at both Lestrade and John and Sherlock. Sherlock wonders whether he believes his friends and associates in high places will get him out of this mess.

“You will be sorry for this,” he hisses, straightening his clothes and reaching for his jacket. The wound in his back isn’t bleeding profusely and doesn’t seem to bother him much, although he winces slightly when he puts on the jacket.

Lestrade shrugs. “I doubt it. You, on the other hand, may not be so lucky.” He nods to two of the constables who step next to Moran and take hold of his arms, while the third gets out a pair of handcuffs. Moran struggles briefly, obviously unwilling to let himself be restrained, but then suffers it. Lestrade proceeds by informing him of his rights.

A metallic click next to Sherlock reminds him that throughout the exchange, John has been pointing an ancient pistol between Moran’s legs. Now he is lowering the gun and lets out a long breath. His arm, Sherlock notices, is trembling slightly from the effort. Gunpowder stains his fingers and even part of his face. He has shed his jacket and waistcoat and has taken off his tie, which apparently he has used as a makeshift bandage because it can be seen inside the open collar of his shirt. His shirtsleeve is stained with blood, although the bleeding itself seems to have been staunched. Still, the wound must be painful.

Following Sherlock’s concerned gaze and indeed the movement of his hand that reaches out of its own accord to touch John’s upper arm gingerly where the fabric is soaked with crimson, John shakes his head gently. “It’s fine. No great damage done. Just a graze. It looks much worse than it is.”

He raises a hand and turns Sherlock’s face into the light, exposing his throat by loosening the tie and opening the collar of his shirt with sure yet gentle fingers. It takes Sherlock great effort to keep himself from both trembling and leaning too much into the touch.

“That’s just a scratch too, thankfully,” says John. “But I need to have a closer look at your leg. Can you put any weight on it? It’s difficult to see how much the wound is bleeding because of the dark fabric of your trousers. We’ll need a—”

He is cut short by a hateful snort. “I knew it,” spits Moran as two of the constables lead him away, his face a mask of loathing when his eyes fix on Sherlock and John. “So that’s why you lost all reason when I attacked him. You’re fucking perverts, the two of you. Poofters. You’re the real criminals. This disgrace of a country is far too lenient with you. You should be sentenced to hard labour for your deviancy as they did in the old days. Or better, be sent to a camp, or hanged. At least in Germany they know how to treat scum like you properly.”

Lestrade steps to him. “This is enough, Mr. Moran. You are in plenty of trouble as it is, without Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes adding charges for libellous accusations.”

Moran spits, narrowly avoiding to hit Lestrade’s shoe. “This country is finished, anyway. You’ll be starved out of this war before long, and even your American friends won’t be able to help you. And then you’ll suffer the same fate as Poland, France and Scandinavia.”

His right arm twitches violently despite the handcuffs, almost dislodging the young constable holding on to him, who luckily keeps a strong grip on him regardless. Sherlock wonders if unconsciously, Moran attempted to raise his hand in the ‘Nazi Salute’.

Before Moran can utter anything else and voice his true allegiance openly, however, the other constable, fed up with his antics, deals his side a forceful blow with his elbow, leaving him winded. He receives a stern glance from Lestrade and blushes.

“Sorry, sir”, he mutters. Lestrade nods towards the door. “Get him into the car and out of my sight. Sergeant, I see you’ve been taking notes. Excellent. If Mr. Moran spews any further nonsense, record each and every word. He’s already in deep, but if he starts spouting Nazi propaganda, he’ll dig his own grave very quickly. Off with him.”

John, Sherlock and Lestrade watch as Moran is dragged off. The Sergeant brings up the rear, while the third constable remains behind with Lestrade, taking stock of John’s and Sherlock’s injuries and securing Moran’s sword.

Next to the door, Moran’s housekeeper is standing by, watching the scene with a pale, drawn face. “I didn’t know,” she mutters when, upon Lestrade’s invitation, she hesitantly steps into the room “You must believe me, Inspector, I didn’t know,” she assures Lestrade, wringing her hands. “I was aware of Lord Moran’s visits to Germany, yes, and knew he had friends there. But I’d never have thought he’d support their leaders and their despicable politics. I have been with the family for a long time, and they never showed any indication of having this kind of wretched allegiance. Lady Moran certainly doesn’t. She’s a staunch Tory through and through, and friends with Mr. Churchill. She’ll be disgusted. She’ll be outraged. And so am I. I have two nephews who are fighting the Germans. I would never have thought that Lord ... Mr. Moran could have been working for them.”

The last word is spoken with an expression of utter disgust. Lestrade nods. “I believe you, Mrs. Flint. You and the rest of the household will be asked to give statements and likely to function as witnesses in the trial, particularly Mr. Moran’s valet, who you mentioned has his day off. I will need his home address, or any other means of contacting him. As soon as he returns – in case we can’t get a hold of him beforehand –, please let me know, because due to his close contact with his master, he’ll likely be considered a chief witness, particularly if he accompanied Mr. Moran on his last journey to Germany. But this only serves to ensure that justice is done. You yourselves have nothing to fear. For now, as you can see, Dr. Watson is injured, and Mr. Holmes needs some looking after, too. Please show them to a bathroom, and refer to Dr. Watson for the materials needed to treat their injuries.”

Mrs. Flint snaps back into her stern, efficient professional persona. Brushing at her (still) neat hair, she nods at the two men. “Of course, of course. Please follow me, sirs. Will you be needing assistance, Mr. Holmes? I can call for a footman to help you upstairs?”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Flint. We will be fine,” John assures her. “I’ll require something to disinfect the wounds with – but no iodine for Mr. Holmes, alcohol will do – and clean bandages, as well as hot water and towels to clean the injuries. I don’t think any stitches will be required, but if you’ve got first aid supplies on hand, I’d be grateful.”

Mrs. Flint nods. “As you wish. Please follow me.”

“Will you be needing an ambulance?” Lestrade wants to know. John shakes his head. “I think we’ll manage. I’ll let you know.”

Lestrade nods. “I’ll accompany the officers to their Station, and let my people know what happened. This is much bigger than expected. I’d be obliged if you stayed here until I send another car round to fetch you – or would you prefer to go to hospital?”

Sherlock shakes his head quickly, and John a little more reluctantly. “Will we be required to give a statement today?” he wants to know.

“Yes. As I said, I’ll send someone round. Could take a while, so get patched up, all right."

“What about the Windmill?” asks Sherlock.

Lestrade rolls his eyes. “You can barely stand upright, your shirt-collar and your sleeve are stained with your blood, and yet you’re considering going out to the theatre tonight? You’re out of your mind, that’s what you are, both of you. Fighting a bloody duel in the middle of bleeding Holland Park. I can’t believe it. I really can’t.”

He points at Sherlock and John, having obviously talked himself into a small rage. “The paperwork for this case is going to be a bleeding nightmare,” he growls.

“But if Moran turns out to be a traitor, it may earn you a promotion, Detective Inspector” points out Sherlock. Lestrade glares at him.

“You’re a menace, both of you. Get out of my sight before you bleed all over the bloody tiger rug.”

He spins round, ramming his hat onto his head. But in the doorway, he turns and gazes at the two men. “But apart from the extra work you’ve caused me, thank you, chaps. You may be completely round the bend, but you’re still bloody good detectives. We could use you round here, really. If you could ever be persuaded to play by the rules. At least most of the time.”

With a brief salute, he leaves. John grins at Sherlock, and the grin causes funny quivering in his insides. “You know, I think he has a point. Come on, lean on me. Let’s get you patched up.”

 

–<o>–

 

The bathroom is on the first floor. Sherlock manages the stairs with John’s help, relishing his closeness as he leans on him. The wound on Sherlock’s leg throbs painfully, but has almost stopped bleeding.

Mrs. Flint leads them into a surprisingly large, modern bathroom, newly decorated in the Art Deco style with black, white and turquoise tiles and shiny silver taps. Sherlock can’t see any personal items that would hint at its usual occupant, and thus concludes that it must be intended for guests. Impressive, nonetheless. As they enter, a footman appears carrying fresh towels and what looks like bandages, as well as a small bag which appear to contain first aid supplies. A maid is already present in the room and has filled a bowl with hot water.

Letting John and Sherlock enter the room in front of her, Mrs. Flint stands hovering in the doorway. “That’ll be all, Mandy,” she tells the maid, who curtsies and departs. “Will you be requiring mine or Stephen’s assistance?” she then enquires of John, who shakes his head.

“No, I will be able to look after our injuries myself, thank you.” Gazing at his blood-stained shirt, he makes a face. “I don’t suppose you could provide us with fresh shirts and vests, though? And my jacket and Mr. Holmes’ trousers need cleaning and mending, if they’re still salvageable.”

Mrs. Flint nods. “Of course, sirs. I’ll see to it presently. Undergarments can be organised, that shouldn’t be a problem. As for the suits, we can clean and mend them, although the blood will be difficult to get out where it has soaked into the wool. If you prefer, I could call Lor— Mr. Moran’s tailor.”

Sherlock nods immediately. “Yes, do that, please. Tell him to bring two new suits, navy wool for Dr. Watson, something dark – black or dark grey – for me.” He tells her their sizes, at which John’s eyebrows rise.

“As you wish, sir. Would you like something to refresh yourselves, too? I could have tea brought up?”

“Yes, please,” both Sherlock and John reply immediately. For the first time since their arrival, Mrs. Flint’s stern face thaws into a faint smile. “Very well. Some sandwiches, too, I’d suggest.”

John nods as his stomach gives an audible rumble. Sherlock’s own responds in kind. Mrs. Flint gestures to Stephen the footman to see to the refreshments. When he has left, she steps a little closer, looking worried again. Sherlock sighs, wishing to finally be alone with John.

“That’ll be all for now, Mrs. Flint,” he tells her.

“Of course, sir. It’s just ... ”

“I don’t think you’ll have reason to worry about your position, whatever happens to your master,” he reassures her, wondering what makes him do it. In the past, he wouldn’t have bothered. But looking at John’s approving expression, he sees that it’s the right thing to do.

“Depending on the severity of his conviction, there will be some scandal, but it will blow over quickly as there are more important things to worry about right now. Moreover, I am convinced that Lady Moran will see to it that the family name receives no irreparable damage, given that she is friendly with the Prime Minister himself. And you have only been doing your job, and doing it well. It would have gone worse for you had you refused to let us enter the house. You aided the police, and are now helping us.”

Mrs. Flint looks relieved. “Thank you, sir. Ring the bell if you need anything.” She curtsies and leaves, closing the door behind her.

Next to him, John lets out a long breath, sagging against the wash basin. “God, I thought she’d never leave.” He looks at Sherlock gravely. “It was a good thing to reassure her.”

Sherlock nods and smiles, sinking onto the rim of the bathtub with a sigh. He looks up to find John gazing at him with a strange expression. The doctor shakes his head as he studies Sherlock’s dishevelled state.

“I still can’t believe it,” he mutters. “I can’t believe that you, bloody stupid idiot that you are, actually fought a duel on my behalf. With actual swords. You ... you’re a complete lunatic.”

Sherlock swallows, unable to determine whether John is angry. John lets him stew for a moment longer before rushing over to him and capturing him in a tight embrace that must be painful for his shoulder. Since his head is being pressed against John’s chest, Sherlock is suddenly enveloped in this smell. Wrapping both arms round John’s sturdy form, he presses his nose into his unhurt shoulder and breathes deeply, feeling the adrenaline finally ebbing away and beginning to tremble ever so slightly. One of John’s hands comes to rest on the top of his head, playing with his tousled curls, the other is rubbing smoothing circles over his back.

“You beautiful, beautiful man,” whispers John, his voice tight. He swallows once, twice, then kisses the top of Sherlock’s head. “For a moment, I thought I’d lose you. I was sure he’d kill you. Oh God, Sherlock, never do that to me again.”

Sherlock holds him tighter. “I’ll try. Thank you for your timely intervention,” he replies, his voice muffled by fabric.

John chuckles. “You really need looking after, don’t you? Had he hurt you more than he did, I really would have blown his balls off.”

“I believe you.”

John kisses his hair again, then releases him, looking down at him gravely. “Come on, let me have a look at your leg and your arm, and then you can help me with my shoulder.”

Sherlock grins up at him. “So you want me to drop my trousers for you?”

John slaps him playfully on the head. “Yes, you git. Off with them. They really look rather a mess. I doubt they’ll manage to save them. My jacket is worse. But Sherlock, I can’t buy a new suit. I haven’t enough coupons left since I had to buy so much civilian attire when I was send home to recuperate.”

“Don’t worry. I have coupons to spare, and if they don’t suffice, I’ll talk my brother into paying for the suits. We’ll need something to look presentable tonight, anyway, for when we go to the Windmill. Most of my clothes are in Bletchley. Perhaps we can charge whatever the tailor brings onto Moran’s account, anyway. I’m convinced his mother will be eager to lessen the damage done to the family name by her traitorous son. Judging from the way Mrs. Flint refers to her, she appears to be a formidable woman. Pity she has such a moron for a son.”

John grins and nods, helping him to his feet again. Sherlock sways slightly, holding on to John’s shoulder. John gazes at him and licks his lips.

“All right if I help you undress?” he asks quietly.

Sherlock swallows and nods. The intimacy of the situation is not lost on him, despite his inexperience. There is nothing to be nervous about. John has seen him in his underwear before, and it’s not as if they’re about to engage in any amorous activity. Nevertheless, the moment John’s fingers begin to undo his tie, the knuckles brushing over the tender skin on Sherlock’s neck, he feels his heartbeat pick up and his breathing become shallower. He swallows and has to look away from John’s intense, concentrated expression, particularly after noticing his dilated pupils and how the pulse beats visibly in the doctor’s throat.

With fingers shaking slightly, Sherlock begins to unbutton his waistcoat. John reaches up to brush it from his shoulders, followed by the braces, his hands smoothing over Sherlock’s collarbones, shoulders and upper arms far longer than strictly necessary. His touch is gentle, almost reverent, but to Sherlock it seems like his fingers are scorching his shirt and the skin underneath when he unbuttons the shirt and gently takes it off to inspect the cut on Sherlock’s upper arm. The wound is very light and has barely bled. It doesn’t even need bandaging. Sherlock almost wishes it were more severe so that John would continue to touch him. Sherlock wants to kiss him very badly, but knows that if they start that now, they’d better lock the door and tell the household not to show up for a while.

John seems to be similarly affected. He doesn’t meet Sherlock’s eyes, but licks his lips repeatedly. Eventually, he takes a step back and clears his throat awkwardly. Waving a hand towards the buttons down the front of Sherlock’s trousers, he licks his lips again.

“You ... er ... you’d better do that yourself.” His voice is hoarse, and no wonder. Sherlock is visibly aroused – as is John –, and unlike this morning, he doesn’t feel embarrassed about it. Still, having John’s hands anywhere near his crotch is likely to cause embarrassment very, very quickly.

Sherlock nods, swallowing tightly. “Yes,” he mutters. “I wouldn’t mind, though, if you did it,” he blurts out. It seems important to clarify that.

John chuckles softly, finally raising his eyes to Sherlock’s. He reaches out and very gently, brushes an errant curl from Sherlock’s forehead. “I know. I know, Sherlock. But this isn’t the right time or place.”

“No, it isn’t,” agrees Sherlock, and taking a deep breath, begins to unbutton his trousers.

John turns round and sorts through the first aid kit while Sherlock strips down to his vest and drawers, depositing the soiled trousers and the shirt over the rim of the bathtub. John looks around for a place to sit, and finds a low stool under the sink. He sits down, then beckons to Sherlock.

“Can you place your leg on mine without aggravating the wound?” asks John. Sherlock tries putting his foot on John’s thigh, hisses a little at the discomfort, and then sighs when John begins to gently run a damp towel along his leg to clean away the blood that has run down it.

“You were lucky that he stabbed you in the rectus femoris and missed the femoral artery. The wound isn’t deep, therefore a tight bandage should do the trick. You shouldn’t put any weight on it, though, and put it up to rest, but ... well, given the case at hand and your general attitude towards matters of your body, I know that this advice is going to fall on deaf ears. So just promise me not to overdo it, all right? Tell me when it gets too uncomfortable, or if you feel it start to bleed again.”

“Yes, doctor,” replies Sherlock, glad that John has reverted to a more professional mode. Sherlock is distracted enough as it is. John’s hand with the towel is still resting on his thigh, and indeed has crept further up Sherlock’s leg than strictly necessary. It feels hot, and yet the skin on Sherlock’s leg is standing up in goose-bumps as if from cold. As before when John treated his head injury, Sherlock relishes his light, gentle yet sure and confident touches. For a brief moment, he allows himself to imagine how these might feel like in another, more intimate context, before chastising himself.

John chuckles softly, obviously reading the signs of arousal Sherlock’s body displays all too easily. “Having fun?” he teases.

Sherlock snorts, but then reconsiders. “Actually, yes. You?”

John looks up at him. He shakes his head disapprovingly, while at the same time smiling broadly. “You are unbelievable, you know that. But ... I would be lying if I claimed I didn’t enjoy it, too. The thrill of the case, the danger, the ... the sheer extraordinary brilliance of your deductions. Also, you looked spectacular during the duel. If I hadn’t been so worried about you, I’d ...” He swallows and ducks his head.

“What?”

“Nothing. It’s just ... you’re not the only one who thrives on this kind of danger. I wish this dratted war was over and we could do this every day.”

“Me fighting duels and you threatening to blow people’s testicles off?” quips Sherlock.

John laughs happily. “Yes. All of it. Well, I’d prefer having to do a little less patching up in the aftermath, perhaps, and more privacy afterwards.”

“Oh indeed? To do what, Dr. Watson?”

John shifts the towel to his other hand and rests the fingers of his left hand on the inside of Sherlock’s thigh. Sherlock can’t help twitching at the contact. John notices and grins, pushing his fingers further up until Sherlock can no longer keep his leg from trembling. He is staring down at the hand, transfixed, the pain of his injury forgotten. His drawers feel very tight.

“John,” he whispers hoarsely, not sure whether to issue a warning or an encouragement. Both, perhaps.

John, too, has been looking at the hand. Now he stirs and withdraws it. “Bandages,” he croaks, quickly turning to fetch them. Sherlock lets out a long breath and tries to compose himself, glancing down at his tented drawers critically. Two erections in one day. And all because of John Watson. No wonder he feels lightheaded and queasy, with all the blood flowing south.

“This may sting a little,” says John. The sharp smell of surgical alcohol permeates the air. John dabs at the wound to disinfect it, before covering it with gauze and binding it with a bandage.

“I may need your help with my shoulder,” he then says, stripping off his braces and beginning to unbutton his shirt. Sherlock draws several deep breaths in an attempt to disregard his arousal, as he usually does. It’s difficult with John so close.

“Let me,” he says, reaching out to undo the rest of John’s buttons and stripping the shirt off his shoulders. The vest underneath is soaked on the right side. John has balled up his tie and stuffed it under one of the straps. The wound has bled more profusely than was visible from the outside. Sherlock tsks disapprovingly.

“We should have treated you first, John,” he says gravely. “Give me the scissors. I’ll cut off the vest. It’s spoiled anyway. You’re right, I’m not the only reckless idiot around here.”

John grins lopsidedly. “You just admitted to being an idiot, though.”

Sherlock glares at him. “I think we have firmly established by now that we are both idiots, at least when it comes to disregarding our safety. Wait, I’ll cut through the fabric,” he chides John when the doctor tries to shrug off the remains of the vest and grunts with pain. “Hold still. There. It’s opened again. Give me that towel.”

“Is it deep?” John wants to know. “I can’t see it clearly from here.”

“Not very, but fairly long, and positioned so that it’s likely to open with every forceful movement. You’ll have to wear a sling. Also, I think stitches would be advisable.”

John nods. “Clean the wound, please, so that I can have a better look. Have you ever sewn up a wound?”

“Yes. Not very proficiently, but it held. Do you really trust me to do it?”

“Of course I trust you,” comes the immediate response, quick and sure and surprisingly forceful. “Even though we’ve not even known each other for a week, I trust you with my life, Sherlock.”

“And I you with mine,” replies Sherlock earnestly. John reaches up and grasps his hand, squeezing it. “Clean the wound as best you can with the water and then with alcohol, and then ring for Mrs. Flint. There’s needle and thread in this pack, but they’ll have to be sterilised.”

Sherlock does as instructed. Mrs. Flint and the footman are already on their way bearing a tea tray and a plate of sandwiches (egg and cress, cucumber, and spam) and some biscuits. John tells her how to sterilise the equipment. Sherlock wishes he could do it, even says so, but John reminds him that appearing in the kitchen in just his vest and drawers might cause some disruption with the kitchen staff.

Smirking at Sherlock over the rim of his tea-cup, he adds, “Not that you’d care about the kitchen maids’ reaction, right? After all, you walked naked through Harrow’s hallowed halls.”

“Brilliant use of alliteration, John,” returns Sherlock, which earns him a swat from John’s hand as they sit in their underwear, Sherlock on the rim of the bathtub and John on the low stool, sipping tea and eating sandwiches, their knees and calves touching. To any outsider, they must look ridiculous if somewhat dangerous with their bandages and blood-stained shoulder. But Sherlock feels perfectly, profoundly happy. In fact, he can’t remember when last he felt this way, if ever. Despite his injury, John appears perfectly content, too, now and again stealing glances at Sherlock and smiling gently to himself. Sherlock wishes the moment could last forever.

 

–<o>–

 

It doesn’t, of course. Soon, Mrs. Flint returns with the stitching tools and stays, assisting Sherlock when, following John’s instructions, he stitches up the wound and bandages it. Mrs. Flint makes a sling for John’s arm.

“Luckily, you’re left-handed, sir,” she remarks. John nods.

The housekeeper invites them to move into an adjacent bedroom so that they can sit down more comfortably while waiting for the tailor to arrive, and they oblige after taking turns in the bathroom to use the toilet and wash. She also provides them with dressing gowns and fresh underwear. Sherlock wonders briefly whether they’re now attired in Moran’s vests and drawers, although the make and materials of the garments indicate that they don’t belong to him but were likely kept for visitors.

“Shall we take your clothes, launder and mend them?” she enquires. Sherlock has given some thought to the matter, and shakes his head. “No, leave them as they are. They may be needed as evidence. Just put them in a bag and hand them over to Detective Inspector Lestrade or other members of the police when they call again. Don’t clean the swords, either, and leave the drawing room as it is. Lestrade will be in contact with you soon.”

Mrs. Flint nods. “In fact, he has phoned already, enquiring after you, sirs, if you are well, and how soon you’d be able to come to Kensington Police station. What shall I tell him?”

“We’ll telephone him and let him know when to send a car. When will the tailor arrive?”

“Should be any moment now, sir.”

 

–<o>–

 

The tailor is a Savile Row individual whose brother opened a ready-to-wear business some years before the war. Sherlock recognises his name, and when Mr. Norton hears his, a spark of recognition lights his eyes. Sherlock is convinced he is familiar with his brother, even though Mycroft habitually has his clothes made at another establishment. Ah, but his coats ... Sherlock surmises that he might buy his winter coats at Norton and Sons.

“I have brought a small selection of suits in the colours and sizes specified, Mr. Holmes,” Mr. Norton announces, nodding to his two assistants to begin unpacking and spreading the garments on the bed. “If alterations are required, we may be able to do small ones here. Shall we begin with his gentleman?”

“Yes, please, dress Dr. Watson first,” says Sherlock. John raises an eyebrow at him, and Sherlock hides a grin, before sitting back to watch John being outfitted in a plain navy three-piece suit. The colour accentuates his eyes, and the jacket, a single-breasted design with fashionable, slightly pointed lapels fits him perfectly. Sherlock commends himself on estimating his measurements so precisely. The trousers are a little too long, and Mr. Norton hands them over to his assistant to alter the hems accordingly. John suggests wearing his old braces (despite some blood-stains on one), but Sherlock insists on getting him new ones, also choosing a silk tie with a geometric pattern of black, grey and gold to go with the suit.

For himself, since his waistcoat and jacket are undamaged and unstained, he only selects a new pair of plain, dark trousers, knowing that he’s going to need his full allowance of clothes coupons to pay for John’s suit.

Mr. Norton accepts his rations book, and doesn’t protest when John adds a substantial tip. “Will you be needing anything else, gentlemen? Coats? Hats? Scarves?”

“No, thank you, Mr. Norton. If we do, we know where to find you.”

The tailor nods. “Very well, sir. Please give my regards to your brother, Mr. Holmes.”

“If I see him,” replies Sherlock. He knows that it’s only a matter of time now before he’s going to have to face Mycroft. He’ll have heard of the Moran matter, given that he has eyes and ears all over the city, and indeed the country. Sherlock half expects a black car to come for them even before Lestrade manages to send one, and is somewhat surprised when the DI arrives with his own, about an hour after the tailor has left. During that time, Sherlock asked for the household staff to join them in the spare bedroom and recount their impressions of their master and their work in his service.

“You two look rather worse for wear,” Lestrade greets them when they meet in the entrance hall, Sherlock limping and leaning on John, who is carrying his right arm in a sling. “Will you be all right, or do you want me to call at a hospital?”

“We’ll live,” replies John. “As long as we can keep Mr. Holmes here from dashing off again or picking another fight.”

Sherlock sighs dramatically, winking at John. “I’ll try and behave.”

“Good,” says Lestrade. “Moran is in custody now. His solicitor has joined him, for whatever good that may do him. Slimy chap, the solicitor. Moran’s also asked to make a number of phone-calls, which we refused. Apparently he wanted to inform a few of his friends of his ‘misfortune’, as he calls it. I believe he wants to warn a few of his chums, or else call in favours. How did the household staff react?”

Sherlock gives him a brief account of Mrs. Flint and those servants they spoke with. “Moran doesn’t seem to have been very popular here. Most of the staff seemed happiest when he was away at his Buckingham Estate and this house here was solely occupied by his mother, whom they hold in high regard. Dr. Watson took notes of their statements.”

John hands a notebook to Lestrade, who takes it with a surprised but grateful expression. “You know, should the two of you ever find yourselves out of work, I’d gladly take you on the squad.”

“Oh, I don’t think we’re suited for police work,” muses Sherlock.

Lestrade huffs. “Too mundane, eh? Too many rules and paperwork? Perhaps you should get yourself a mask and a cape and haunt the city like one of those American comic book heroes. That bat fellow, for example. One of my sergeants reads them all the time.”

John grins at that. “Yes, Mr. Holmes would look impressive with a cape.”

“Shut up,” laughs Sherlock. Secretly, though, he likes the idea. He is also touched by Lestrade’s invitation to associate with the Yard. He’s always wished to aid the police in a semi-official capacity. Now, it appears, he has a true friend on the force. Sherlock is delighted.

Lestrade exchanges a few words with Mrs. Flint, informing her that he will be back the next day to talk to the household staff at length to take down their statements. He also asks her to tell Lady Moran about her son’s present whereabouts, and to fetch John’s and Sherlock’s bloodied clothes to take with them to the police station.

“What happens now?” asks John when they are sitting in the car and Lestrade starts the engine.

“I’ll take you to the station to take down your statements. I doubt you’ll want to face Moran again. Should his mother show up, you may be present when I talk to her. Otherwise, I’d advise you to rest. Since this deals with matters of treason, I had to inform Whitehall and your brother, Mr. Holmes.”

Sherlock frowns. “You know him?”

“Yes. After my return from Bletchley, I had an ... interesting encounter with him. His car fetched me from the station. It was a bit creepy, to be honest. How of earth did he know which train I was on? Anyway, he seemed to know a lot about the Wilson case already, and asked me at length about your involvement.”

Sherlock feels a mixture of alarm and resignation. “What did you tell him?”

“The truth, of course. Listen, I know men of his ilk, and I know that you don’t want to cross them. And as I said, he seemed to know an awful lot already.”

Sherlock snorts derisively. Lestrade shakes his head. “To be honest, I’d be glad if he took this Moran mess out of my hands. It’s going to become ugly if lawyers and people in high places are involved. And I’m just a plain copper. I don’t fancy dealing with people of that kind. Moreover, I’ve already got a case.”

“Moran may have been involved in her suicide,” suggest John.

“Yes,” muses Sherlock softly, “but I don’t believe it was him who saw her last, the person who drove the Bentley that night. When he has calmed down, I need to talk with him again. But I doubt we’ll learn much more from him that’ll help us with Jennifer Wilson’s death. He is a bully with a very low opinion of women and their abilities. His maids lived in constant fear of his lewd remarks and, worse, his grabby hands. But Jennifer seems to have seen through him, used him for her own purposes as long as it suited her, and then got rid of him. And good for her.”

“So you don’t think he somehow engineered her suicide as a form of revenge?”

“No. He clearly resented her for taking the initiative and ditching him, but ultimately, he didn’t care about her enough to waste any more energy on her. He is more interested in Irene Adler. The fact that she ended their association seemed to bother him far more than getting abandoned by Wilson. We really need to find her and talk to her tonight.”

“So you still want to go to the Windmill?” Lestrade wants to know.

“Yes, of course.”

“You can barely walk.”

“They have chairs there, I am sure.”

Lestrade shakes his head and sighs, staring at the road ahead, muttering something about “Bloody lunatics” under his breath.

“Also, I have my doctor with me,” adds Sherlock in an attempt to mollify him. Lestrade gives him a wry glance over his shoulder.

“Yes, you have. Unfortunately, you doctor is as almost as reckless and foolish as yourself. I’ll accompany you to the Windmill tonight, and I’ll hear no word against it. You need somebody responsible with you, otherwise there’s a good chance the bloody thing will burn to the ground as soon as you set foot in it. You’ll behave. No provocations, no sword-fights, no bloody duels. Otherwise you’ll spend the night in a cell next to Moran. Understood?”

“Understood,” Sherlock and John reply simultaneously, before grinning at each other. John licks his lips, and Sherlock believes he knows what the other is thinking. Sharing a cell with John Watson wouldn’t be too bad, since sharing any room whatsoever with John is good.

When Lestrade is concentrating on the traffic again, Sherlock reaches for John’s hand that has been resting on the seat between them and squeezes it briefly. John smiles, his eyes twinkling. Sherlock smiles as well, feeling floaty and light and altogether happy. This is the life, he thinks. This is what I always wanted, without even knowing precisely what it was that always eluded me in the past, what always seemed to be missing. The fact that he is attracted to John adds another, unfathomably thrilling and scary dimension to the fact that John is precisely what he’s always longed for. A friend. Even if they decided never to pursue a physical relationship, simply to have John around would be enough, Sherlock knows. He could spend the rest of his life like this, happily solving cases and catching criminals with John’s stalwart presence at his side. The draughty huts, the rows of garbled, coded letters, and the whirring of the Bombe machines at Bletchley Park seem a lifetime away. He knows that the stark reality of the war will reclaim them soon, but for now, he wants to relish every moment of his freedom and unprecedented companionship. He’s never been in love before, probably never will be again, and come what may, he’s going to enjoy it as long as it lasts.

Next to him, John hums softly, gazing out of the window, his knee slightly resting against Sherlock’s. Sherlock swallows against the sudden lump in his throat when his chest constricts at the beauty of the image. Then he smiles to himself and resting his head against the window, closes his eyes.

Chapter Text

Kensington Police station is uncharacteristically busy. When they arrive, a harried looking desk sergeant is trying to ward off two men. Sherlock recognises one as a reporter from the Daily Mail, a slimy, rather despicable creature he encountered on a previous case and who didn’t leave a good impression with him – one as bad as the tabloid he works for, in fact. The second man is his photographer.

“No, you can’t talk with Mr. Moran,” the sergeant tells them fiercely, leaning onto his desk and glaring at them. “I don’t even know how you learned he is here, but you better forget it quickly and don’t blab about it. And if you don’t leave now, I’ll have you arrested.”

The two men mutter something about impairing the freedom of the press, but move to the side to let Sherlock, John and Lestrade pass. Sherlock sees a flicker of recognition in the reporter’s eyes.

“Mr. Holmes, what a pleasure,” he calls.

“No, it isn’t,” returns Sherlock, trying not to limp too much as he walks past.

“Oh, come on, Holmes. We heard you’re involved in the Moran business. How about an exclusive interview to state your view of events? Is it true that Lord Moran attacked you, or did you land the first blow?”

The camera is lifted into Sherlock’s face, a flash-bulb already screwed in and ready to go off. John is faster, though. He reaches out and quite forcefully pulls the camera out of the surprised photographer’s grasp.

“You heard the desk sergeant, gentlemen,” he tells the Daily Mail people calmly, but with unmistakable steel in his voice. “Remove yourselves. I don’t know who informed you about this matter, but it wasn’t done in agreement with the police, nor any of the parties involved. Desist, and leave. Now.”

The reporter – Sherlock isn’t certain of his name ... Rowlands? Riley? Yes, Riley, he thinks – sniffs angrily, glowering at John. “We have a right to be here, and to report matters of national importance. The public has a right to learn the truth – about Lord Moran, and about the two of you.”

“What do you mean?” enquires Sherlock sharply, feeling a stab of ice in his gut. Riley refers to Moran as ‘Lord’. The fact he got wind of the matter in record time suggests that someone of the Moran household informed him. Apparently Moran is not entirely friendless when it comes to his staff. Somebody blabbed. Somebody who overheard Moran’s parting words and accusations towards Sherlock and John, perhaps?

Sherlock casts a brief glance at John who stands firm, still holding the camera, and holding it so that he could open the back and remove the film in an instant. He seems wary and battle-ready, but unperturbed by Riley’s words. The photographer, a pale, lean man in his mid-fifties (from the East End, served in the Great War as evidenced by the shrapnel scar on his cheek, passionate about his craft because he spends many hours in the darkroom) is eyeing him cautiously. Obviously, the film contains material from a previous assignment he doesn’t want to lose. Meanwhile, two policemen have joined the small group, ready to interfere should the need arise.

“I mean that you’re always involved in shady business, Holmes. And now apparently you’ve dragged a naval officer into it as well, keeping him from serving at sea, by the looks of it. You know what the people think of those who shirk their duty.”

“Well, I don’t see you wearing uniform,” quips John.

“He was found lacking at muster,” snarls Sherlock. “Weak lungs, or so he pretended. Well, one gets those from smoking too much, isn’t that right, Riley? You rendered yourself unfit for service, didn’t you? I’m sure you staged quite a show for the officers at muster, pretending to be oh so eager to serve, family honour and all that, but sadly, sadly, there was this cough. Anyway, you seem to have found your true vocation: making up sensational stories. I remember the one about a chap called Brook whom you branded as a criminal mastermind but who turned out to be a hapless actor instead. Who tipped you off this time, Riley? One of the maids? A footman?”

“I won’t reveal my sources, Holmes,” spits Riley. “And I don’t ‘make up’ stories. I report the truth.”

“Haha, for the Daily Fail? Yeah, for sure,” snorts John. “That’s one Nazi propaganda tabloid and no mistake.”

“We’re impartial,” insists Riley.

“Really? Since when?” returns John hotly.

“Mr. Riley, whoever informed you about what may or m