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Against the Rest of the World

Chapter Text

Against the Rest of the World

 

A small sound filters through the hazy edges of my consciousness. Thoughts begin to stir, registering information faster than I can consciously separate and connect properly: heavy object/firm impact/repeated sound, jingling/metallic/multiple objects, friction of rough fabric repeated at regular intervals/slightly longer every other repetition. The information coalesces: footsteps/keys clanking/rustle of standard-issue army trousers worn by someone with heavy thighs and a slight limp because he was once shot in the knee cap: my gaoler. I am awake, pull my eyelids apart. The keys are at the lock; he always chooses at least one wrong key before managing to fit the correct one into the lock. Idiot.

They’re all idiots; nonetheless they did apprehend and imprison me, but only because I had a fleeting moment of idiocy myself. Otherwise how could I have ended up in a makeshift prison cell in Antalya? At least it’s on the water. I keep telling myself this, babbling information I already know as though I have become soft in the brain. As though I am in any position to comfort myself in this situation! Perhaps I am developing schizophrenia. That would be interesting at least. What is decidedly not interesting is being trapped in a cinder block bunker in a slum of a city in Turkey with which I have not the slightest passing familiarity, chained to its bricks and so bored I cannot keep track of the days.

This is a slight exaggeration: I have been in this cell for precisely thirty-one days. A month. Or at least, a month if it were January, March, May, July, August, October, or December. Are those the months with thirty-one days? I think so. Never could be bothered to remember that. What’s the point, when one could just look at a calendar? Would say I had deleted it, but having been bothered to learn it in the first place is highly debatable. John would know. No. I breathe and switch off that thought. Back to the original topic.

All right, thirty-one days in this cell. Nine hundred and twelve days since the Fall. I would call it my death, but as that statement is fallacious in the extreme – although, if my captors have their ways, that could change soon enough, and what a tedious confusion that would be for everyone at home when (if) my corpse turns up in Antalya? Mycroft would probably sort it out, once he’d figured it out. Only he could figure it out. I wonder if he’s gaining weight again.

I wonder if he’s gaining weight again? Really, I ask myself, of all of the random questions it could occur to you to ask about Mycroft at this particular moment in time, your first consideration is his weight? Why not wonder if he has dissolved the parliamentary system yet, instating himself as supreme dictator of the realm, started a war with Iran, died alone in the bath, anything of slightly greater importance? Perhaps I have started to go mad in here. I always thought I would die of boredom one day. Perhaps this is it: the boredom will drive me mad and then kill me. Perhaps it will come with interesting hallucinations, at least.

The keys are shaken and shifted in my gaoler’s hand. He’s not really a gaoler and this is hardly a proper prison, but the term suffices for how I need to think of him. He’s got the correct key at last. Why is he here now? What time is it? Is it time to feed me again? Will they give me water? My chains are just long enough that I can relieve myself, but that is as far as their mercy has extended. I am thirsty. The air is acrid and dry in this irritatingly low-ceilinged box. I can taste the bitterness on my tongue. There is a small window (much too small to fit through; it measures precisely sixteen centimetres by eleven centimetres, or so I gauge) and no matter when I have been sleeping I can usually discover the time of day by the light. So far my captors do not control the rising and setting of the sun and it has not occurred to them to cover the window so thickly that I would not be able to tell. Perhaps I am overestimating how important it is to them that I know what day it is or how much time has gone by. Perhaps that only matters to me.

It does, somehow. I have kept track of every day since I left. Had to leave. Chose to leave. However you put it, I keep track.

The tumbler shifts and slides into place; the doorknob turns and the door opens. The gaoler pushes it to and inserts himself into the doorframe. “English Man,” he says, in his best impression of a sneer. (This is what he calls me.) This is followed by something muttered in Turkish. Regrettably, Turkish is not a language I speak. If I had only been taken prisoner in Germany or France. Rudimentary as both my German and French are, one can often make do with rudiments and body language. My captor is holding a plate of something greyish. Ah. The usual, then. I have deduced that it is some form of bulgur wheat porridge, wholly unseasoned. Am surprised I have not yet taken scurvy from the lack of essential nutrients. Will endeavour not to take eating for granted in the future. John would be so pleased. (Switch off line of thought.)

I look up. Have learned not to provoke this man if it can be avoided. (Cannot always be avoided.) He is stupid but short-tempered. Or rather, stupid and short-tempered. These traits frequently go together, to my constant exasperation. Too stupid to observe, too stubborn to be taught. He is holding the tin plate of the tasteless gruel and seems to be waiting for something. Me to provoke him, possibly? (Should I oblige?) I decide to wait.

He gives up, seemingly disappointed, and grunts, “Dinner.”

I unfold myself from my seated position, ignore the stiffness in my knees and hold out my hands for it in silence.

“No clever comments?” His voice is gruff, edged with something else. He has something else to say. Something important. Is trying to provoke me into speech. Interesting. “Nothing to say about cooking?”

I can’t remember if I have ever mentioned the appalling cuisine, at that. I don’t think I have. “Not today.” I raise an eyebrow, accepting the spoon by its handle. “And you? No clever comments about my situation today?”

His small, beady eyes are shadowed by a pair of absolutely enormous eyebrows. Despite having seen them at least once per twenty-four hour period since having arrived here, they never cease to startle and almost alarm me. These are set close to the tiny bridge of a nose which expands suddenly and bulbously, attached directly to the moustache below. This is like a third, even huger eyebrow, only stiffer and uglier yet. The mouth is always pursed, deep lines framing the mouth, running from nose to jowl. Not a handsome specimen, I’m afraid. His English is guttural, heavily accented, but quite functional, to my relief. I think this is why he is on constant duty: none of the others speak English, and as we have established that my Turkish is nonexistent, it would be difficult to either question or ridicule me in it. “I have message for you,” he says.

“A message?” I repeat carefully. Am waiting for him to leave before ingesting whatever amount of the meal, such as it is, that I can manage today. I don’t like to let them see me eating it. Feels somehow shameful.

“Yes. From Yilmaz.”

Yilmaz is the head of this particular group. He was who I was after when I was apprehended. This, therefore, gets my attention. My focus sharpens, the gruel forgotten. “What?”

The gaoler pulls a small piece of paper out of his trouser pocket and unfolds it, frowning as it he reads it, likely attempting to translate it into English. “He say, you know man called She – Shee-Field,” he says, stumbling over the name. “British soldier.”

Scottish, in fact. And yes, Jack Sheffield. A chance companion met in this underworld web of chasing after the iniquitous. A former soldier of the Black Watch turned intelligence. I met him in Hamburg seven months earlier and he’d sent a scrap or two of useful information my way twice in the intervening months. Smart man, very abrupt and very efficient. In exchange for some information he’d given me when we met, I’d served as back-up for a brief operation of his in the area. Bombing in the S-Bahn system, very nasty business, but he’d pulled it off. “Yes,” I say, as the gaoler’s eyes are fixed on me, waiting for confirmation. “I know him.”

He folds the slip of paper up again and tucks it back into his pocket with a decided air of triumph. “He is injured.”

“Oh?” Am careful to disguise any concern. “How so?”

“Bomb,” is all I get. “He is in hospital.”

“Where?”

“Edinburgh.”

“Which hospital?” I ask, hoping the information will continue.

I get a shrug. Perhaps he doesn’t know. “Yilmaz, he say maybe you want to visit your friend.”

“He’s not my friend. Just someone I know.” What new game is this?

The gaoler’s small eyes rest on mine for a moment. He sighs. “Yilmaz, he say he tired of feeding you. You no good for information. You know nothing. You go today. Go to Scotland and see Shee-field.”

I try to process this. What can Yilmaz’ motivation possibly be, save to get me out from under his nose? Is he up to something new? Redundant question, of course he is, but am I not safely dispatched at the moment? Oh – I understand: they are moving camp and I am the suddenly-unwanted baggage. Easier to let me go. They probably found information connecting me to Sheffield somehow and targeted him on purpose so that I would want to see him. Perhaps I should not have downplayed our acquaintance like that. Is he really injured and in the hospital? If so, I’m sure he’ll be fine, and if he’s too badly injured to be saved, there is nothing my presence will do to for him. So: the question is now, what is Yilmaz up to and where are they going?

I look up at my guard dog. “You’re letting me go?”

“Yes.” He nods at the plate. “Eat, English Man. Long way to Scotland.”

They really want me to go to Scotland. I wonder if there is more to this than just wanting me out of the way. (How can I possibly know?) “Is someone buying me a plane ticket?” I quip, just to see what sort of reaction that will get. “It’s a long way to walk.”

The blow comes quickly, causing me to drop the plate. It splatters over the floor as the left side of my vision blooms red, my face throbbing. “Funny man,” he says sourly, turning back toward the door. “Be ready in ten minutes, then you go.”

I cough, spit blood onto the floor and ignore him as the door clanks shut again.

***

I am led to the edges of the compound by the same man, who is behaving as though he is about to make a daring escape rather than obeying a command to release a prisoner. It is hardly assuring. “English Man!” he hisses, just above a whisper. “Stay low!”

I make my crouched stance even lower, knees protesting as we duck into the shrubbery. “Why? I thought they told you to let me go.”

The gaoler glares back over his thick shoulder. “Yes, but Yilmaz, he say he maybe take shot at you for fun. For memories.”

Ah. That would be payback for when I tried to shoot him back in Yemen. “And you don’t want to get shot,” I say dryly. “I see.”

He grins, exposing the missing first premolar on the upper left side of his mouth. “Almost at wall. Stay low.”

I watch his back advancing through the bushes and grit my teeth, breathing deeply. “Right.”

At the wall, he throws up a rope. It is caught on the other side and held taut. My captor gestures at it. “Go quick,” he says. “Probably, he shoot while you climb.”

Perfect. I glance back over my shoulder and consider my options. The nearest window of the compound is over sixty metres away. Is Yilmaz that good a shot? Possibly. Anger would disrupt his accuracy, however. A feint, then. I grasp the rope and begin to climb at an average pace. The month of stillness has taken its toll and I can feel my body responding slower than usual as it is. The instant my head appears above the foliage, I grip the rope with my knees and slide suddenly down a metre and a half, the shot ricocheting off the stone wall above my head. I count to five, clutching the rope, then begin an all-out climbing sprint. I can only climb so quickly; must rely on his annoyance in having missed to distract him while I haul myself to the top, which I do, hand over hand, as fast as I possibly can, yet agonisingly slowly. Bullets are screaming against the stone, my knuckles scraping themselves bloody. I must not panic but it is difficult; can hear my breath ragged in my skull. I get a knee over the wall, pull myself up and slide down the other side in cautious relief, well aware that there may still be a trap at the bottom.

I let go of the rope and drop into a defensive pose, elbows out, low to the ground. There is only the guard holding the rope. We look at each other. (Will he shoot me?) Apparently not. He jerks his head toward the gravel road. “Çik disan,” he grunts.

I have no idea what the words mean but the meaning is certainly clear. I nod and set off at a rapid pace, willing myself not to look back. The wall is too high to shoot over; none of the windows are high enough for a sniper, and I should be well out of range by now. Yilmaz is extremely wily and I would not put it past him to have stationed people further down this road. After five hundred metres, I begin to relax, though do not slow my pace at all. After a thousand, I exhale deeply and force my thoughts to settle long enough to take proper stock of my situation.

I am attired in beige army fatigues two sizes too big, flimsy rubber sandals that more or less fit but are rubbish for walking in, a thin, greyish cotton t-shirt, and a keffiyeh checked in black and white. I have nothing else: no money (Yilmaz’ men took my wallet with my bank card and the two hundred Euros I had in cash), no phone (it was only a disposable mobile that didn’t function outside Saudi Arabia anyway), no food, no water, no transport, and no way to get it. I consult my extremely small internal list of emergency resources. I could call Mycroft in dire need, but that would necessitate having to explain the not-being-dead bit sooner than I had anticipated, and given the precautions I have taken to avoid exactly such a circumstance, I would rather not do this. Not Mycroft. Jack Sheffield is, if the gaoler can be believed, in the hospital in Edinburgh and hardly well-placed to help. There is Katrin Reger, my former landlady in Berlin. She could possibly help, but I don’t know her all that well and don’t know how willing she would be. No: I can rely on myself. I will find a way. I always have.

***

The compound was located west of the city limits, but not far. If my sense of smell has not become completely deadened in that tiny cinder block box, I can smell the sea. I recall having seen that the Port of Antalya was west of the city; perhaps this road leads toward it. What I need primarily is to get to a bank, but even more than that, I need to get out of Antalya. Yilmaz’ operation is more than I can take on alone at the moment, weakened from a month of imprisonment and fully without resources. I will need to return to somewhere slightly safer and tap into my widely-placed network of informants for further information, then return with a better plan. Underestimated the extent of Yilmaz’ spies, evidently.

The soles of the sandals are so thin that I can feel the stones cutting into the soles of my feet. A sign looms up in the distance saying something with a picture of a boat and a number two. Two kilometres to the port. Good. What I really need, besides a trip to the bank and to flee the country, is access to the internet. And water. I notice the heat for the first time, check the position of the sun. About four in the afternoon, perhaps five. I will need hydration soon. I think back, yes, they gave me about half a cup with the morning dosage of bulgur porridge. Not enough in this heat.

A rumbling car engine approaches from the rear distance. Hitch-hiking to the port would be lovely, but it could be Yilmaz’ people sent to follow me. The motorway is raised from the plains on either side, just enough to conceal myself from passing traffic. I press myself into the side of the rise, some small, prickly plant scratching my face and arms until the vehicle passes. The vibrations have suggested another two coming from the other direction, so I wait until they have passed, too. Cautionary look around. The coast is clear, for now. It takes another twenty-five minutes to reach the port, during which time I am obliged to conceal myself several more times as the traffic thickens.

Finally the docks come into view. There is a small outdoor market just beginning to close on the side of the boardwalk where the private and commercial boats are moored. I slip into the small crowd still perusing the stalls and successfully lift a smartphone of some sort. An iphone. (Tell me it’s not locked.) I gain some distance at its (former) owner and scan his face and body for any clues to go by should the phone be passcode-protected. I also succeed in lifting a small bottle of water, then wander casually to the east end of the docks to inspect the cargo ships.

There are a number of choices. What I really need is a shipping manifest for each one, preferably with a destination listed. I am hardly attired as someone who works on one of the ships, so I make every attempt to look like a gawking tourist. A very poorly-dressed one with a bruise and cut on his left cheekbone, albeit. Perhaps they’ll take me as an aging graduate student-type with a propensity for fist-fights. I inspect the ships. Impossible to deduce the cargo from the outside, and quite impossible to deduce the destinations. What I want is a mid-size cargo ship just large enough not to get lost in but not too small to hide in, bound somewhere relatively close. One ship catches my eye, the Damocles. Greek name; Greece would be nice. I pull out the stolen phone and search the ship’s name. Ah, finally: a listing for the Port of Antalya. There it is: Damocles, cargo classified except to those with professional accounts for this website, bound for the Port of Kyrenia in Cyprus. Cyprus would be perfect. I enter a shipping time calculation. One day, eleven hours from Antalya, departing at eleven tonight. I can conceal myself that long. I hope.

***

I dream of John that night, a gentle dream of home and domestic peace. Disciplined as I have kept myself by day, my mind has its way when I let down my guard and sleep. Sometimes I know even while dreaming that it’s a dream, but not this time. Baker Street: home. More of a home than the house I grew up in or any place I lived afterward. Baker Street is tea and toast, garish Victorian wallpaper, fires in the small fireplace in autumn and winter, unthreatening arguments. Having someone to bicker with. I remember when that was new, marvelling privately at the fact that there was someone there, and then someone still there to bicker with. It was extraordinary in its very ordinariness: the way he took my oddities in his stride and accepted them as part of his own daily routine. Oh, he protested, but never in any real way. The sight of a severed head in the fridge or a congealing (forgotten) spleen in the oven might garner a sharp remark or rebuke, but he was never about to go pack his things and leave. How quickly I became accustomed to that, almost taking it for granted. No: I did take it for granted. Not him, per se, but his presence. Possibly him, too, I acknowledge. He never complained, not really. And there was no time to prepare myself to lose that, no time to see how deeply my roots had extended into his territory, or his into mine; no time to retract them delicately and create a safe separation. For self-preservation, not for a desire for the space. There was no time, and then when that terrible phone call took place, I realised what an idiot I am after all, realised how little I know about some very important things. John could have told me that. John always knows about those things, the parts he refers to as my astonishing gaps in knowledge.

In the dream, I must be there, or perhaps I am merely observing, as one does in dreams. John is moving about the kitchen, buttering toast, humming to himself. He opens his laptop at the kitchen table, peers at the screen while munching on the toast, then closes the lid, gets up and makes tea. Did the kettle boil? It must have done. The scene shifts and he is sitting in his chair, looking toward the fireplace. Is the fire lit? I can’t quite tell. Nothing much else happens, but not long after that, he turns his head toward (me? My chair?), and just when his eyes fall on me, I wake with a start.

I am shivering; I notice that first. I am lying on a metal bench built into the side of the cargo hold of the Damocles, screened by a swath of canvas that was dangling from the ceiling. The hold is full of wooden crates. Most of the crates bear Turkish lettering, but a few are labelled in Greek, which I can read at an elementary capacity; some sort of mechanical part. Nothing corrosive is all I really care about. The bench is cold. I had taken off the keffiyeh to use as a pillow; now I wrap it around my shoulders and try to stop shivering. I listen for a few moments, but all I can hear is the magnified underwater sounds carried through the metal hull of the ship. I risk checking the time on the stolen smartphone. Eleven minutes past four in the morning. Still a long way from Cyprus, then.

A good job I don’t snore, at least not according to John. He pointed this out while we were in Dartmoor, sharing a room. I didn’t tell him that he does snore, nor that it’s only mild and that I found it rather soporific, almost pleasant. (Should I have told him that? How would he have reacted?) I catch myself and firmly turn my thoughts away from John again. It’s too difficult to be constantly thinking about him. It was hardest at the beginning, when I missed him so much it amazed me, missed him the way I would miss a limb. He had become essential. I don’t know when that happened, precisely, but I was lost. It hurt like a physical wound. I had never realised how powerful sentiment could be, nor how deeply I – I, of all people – could be so affected. The irony didn’t escape me, either; that in doing what I did to save John’s life, I lost John. After two and a half years, I can only assume that he’s moved on by now. Found another flatmate, or found a girlfriend to move in with. Another portion of what I refuse to think about is how much more the latter bothers me than the former. However, I did what I did for reasons not of my own choosing: to save John. Now all I can do is see it out. For however long it takes.

I never thought it would take this long. I close my eyes and try to find my way back into sleep, lulled by the rolling of the ship, despite the cold metal bench and the lack of pillow or blankets. I have slept in worse places. I will not think about John but I cannot bring myself to hope that the dream won’t return.

***

It doesn’t. I dream of being captured, of Yilmaz’ henchman Emir taking my watch, wallet, gun, bag containing my clothes and jacket, then my shoes. The humiliation, and the hot midday sun, the sharp stones digging into my knees when they cuffed my hands behind my back and beat me for refusing to give a name.

I wake from that dream suddenly, too. It is mid-afternoon this time. I have not slept so long or so deeply since before the imprisonment. There are voices at the far end of the cargo hold, shouting above the sound of the water. I catch fragments only. I need to relieve myself. When the voices leave, I find a way to do it discreetly, then finish the rest of the water in my small bottle. Check the smartphone. The battery is very low now and there is no internet connection. I close my eyes and try not to think, not about anything. No data, nothing to consider. How dull. Thinking will have to wait until Cyprus. It should only be about half an hour from the Port of Kyrenia to Nicosia. I wonder if I can hitchhike. Then I will need to find a bank, then buy some clothes and shoes. And a plane ticket. I need to check on Jack Sheffield, too. The hold has grown warmer. I doze, half thinking through wholly hypothetical plans that I cannot complete without further information, half still trying not to think at all.

Several hours later the engines change and the ship reduces speed. The crewmen are shouting again; they must be Greek. I have been to Greece several times and I find that Mediterranean people are terribly excitable, prone to shouting. I don’t mind. The hull bumps against the quay. I unfold myself and prepare to find a moment, weak on my legs after thirty-six hours at sea, to make my daring escape onto dry land.

In the end it involves waiting a few hours more, until the crew has gone ashore. The quay turns out to be offshore, rather too far to swim. I quietly inflate a dinghy and steal down the gangway with it, half expecting to the shot as I row myself toward the shore with as little splash as possible. It is still daylight, perhaps about seven in the evening; I am quite visible.

Neither shot nor shout echoes over the harbour, however. I drag the dinghy ashore and abandon it with the oars inside. I turn to face Nicosia and begin to think about how I can find a lift, exhaling deeply.

I’ve done it. I have escaped from Turkey.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

 

Downtown Nicosia: bewilderingly loud, stimuli hitting too quickly after a month with so little information to think over. I feel as though I am re-emerging into the world again, wholly unprepared. I feel naked and exposed without money, without basic clothing, food and water. The truck driver who picked me up on the motorway left me outside the Barclay’s on a street proclaiming itself in Greek to be John Kennedy.

Before I left London over two years ago, the last thing I did was to ensure that I would have access to funds. Distasteful as I find the subject in general, I am well aware of the importance of money and was also aware of the fact that my funds would be frozen when I was proclaimed legally dead. Normally I don’t touch the trust that was left when my father passed away, but having a suddenly-empty bank account would have looked suspicious, so instead I removed a large portion of the trust and divided it into separate accounts. One was a numbered account at Barclay’s, which I had Molly set up as power-of-attorney (access was revoked as soon as the account was opened), the other I opened myself under my false German identity in Berlin. I committed the list of countries which both banks operate in to memory. Between Barclay’s and Deustchebank, I am more or less guaranteed to have access to one or the other wherever I am. Deutschebank does not operate in Cyprus, but Barclay’s does, and added to that, the Barclay’s account was opened with customised security/access options. Molly was given very clear instructions and she followed them well. This account was to be accessed by one person only, someone bearing my specific physical description. There is a photo attached to the account. I am required to give the account number and answer certain security questions at random from a list of twenty they were given. No identity is to be required. This was a sticking point, but Molly was gently firm and in the end, they reluctantly agreed. Possibly something to do with the opening deposit balance. The way people worship money is truly ridiculous, but in this case it worked to my advantage.

I have lost at least a stone of weight since the photo was taken, but my face has not changed much apart from various lacerations and bruisings of late. The gaoler’s farewell blow to my face has subsided a little during the voyage in the cargo hold, but still throbs in reminder. Surely Barclay’s won’t toss me out as a down-and-out. I push open the glass door and go inside.

The bank is quiet; that air of hushed, cerebral awe that always surrounds financial institutions. There are no customers waiting in the queue; Barclay’s is likely not a popular banking option on the island of Cyprus, after all. I go to the counter and ask the teller in halting Greek if she speaks English. (They ought to, at an English bank.) She frowns but nods, asks if she can help through a heavy accent.

I explain that I need access to a numbered account. She asks for my card and I demur, directing her to pull up the account first. She does so and I see her eyes scanning the screen, frown deepening. She asks me to wait. Good: she is required to fetch a superior officer for this transaction. That was part of the agreement, too. A small man in a sharply-cut suit comes back with her and addresses himself to me. The teller retreats out of hearing range. I am pleased with their compliance so far. I repeat myself and prompt him to begin the verification process. He does so, reading silently through the list of questions.

“Please state the family name of your mother prior to marriage as well as her place of birth.” Dark eyes flick up to mine as if in challenge, as if daring me to get it wrong.

“Weston; birth place, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.”

He nods approvingly at this, goes back to the list to choose a second question. I note in passing that his hair has been artificially coloured and that the upper right incisor has been recently crowned. Left-handed. About to get a divorce. “What building is located at the coordinates 51.5010° N, 0.1420° W?”

“Buckingham Palace.”

“Correct.” His eyes move again, as though trying to find something harder. “Name the centralised computer system used by New Scotland Yard.”

I smile slightly. “Home Office Large Major Enquiry System.”

The small man looks up and smiles briefly my way. “How can we help you today?”

I relax imperceptibly and give him a list of my requests. A new access card. Some cash, in Euros and Cypriot pounds. A recommendation for a travel agency and a hotel nearby. Would prefer to just purchase plane tickets online but I no longer possess a credit card and ordering one would be useless at this point in time. The entire transaction takes another thirty minutes and I depart in search of everything else. Something besides the pocket of too-large trousers to store the cash in. Trousers that fit. Shoes. Everything.

I have never been to Nicosia before, just studied it on maps. The accents I hear on the streets are different than the accents of Athens, where it was that I learned the little Greek I know. The first stop is in a clothing shop on the corner. I detest shopping, particularly for such mundane things. I avoid making conversation with the clerk by means of a smile, one of my nicer ones, then cross the street to look for a pair of decent shoes. Hunger is beginning to manifest rather severely. Such an inconvenient thing, these physical needs. I am my mind and its functions; this need to be constantly eating and hydrating and excreting and covering my flesh with acceptable fibres – so dull. After the shoes I decide to find a hotel to change in before going in search of food and the travel agent.

The following morning I pay for the flight in cash, pack my newly-acquired things in a newly-acquired bag, and catch a taxi to the international airport in Larnaca to fly to Berlin.

***

Germany is familiar. This feels almost like coming home. I take a bus from Tegel International to the flat in Charlottenburg which I haven’t seen in months, literally. As I’ve lost the key, I will need to see my landlady in one of the ground-floor suites. I hope she’s in. The local time is just past nine in the evening.

She is. Her face looks surprised to see me, and I see instantly that she has gained two pounds and changed her reading glasses. An elegant woman, even in her sixties, neatly turned out in a skirt and blouse. “Hans!” she says in surprise. “Was für eine Überraschung!

Hans Walther; my German pseudonym. I’ve surprised her. I smile and excuse myself and explain that I’ve been travelling. I keep things to the point. For one thing, I simply don’t have the vocabulary for an extended conversation with her, though she does speak passable English. I explain about having lost the key.

She tuts and says she’ll have to make me a copy in the morning; businesses are, of course, closed by now, then goes to fetch her own copy to let me in.

I explain about needing to go out and find something to eat and ask if I can keep the key overnight. This does not go over smoothly, but I am wearing my most persuasive expression and eventually she agrees. “Vielen Dank, Frau Reger,” I say, gracing her with another smile. I promise to make the copy myself and have hers back by ten the following morning. She accepts this and says good night.

I carry my bags up to the fourth storey and open the door with caution. I have always been careful about coming and going here, and have never had reason to believe that my identity has been discovered, nor the secret of my not being dead revealed, but it can never hurt. I have crossed paths with many villainous people in the past two and a half years and one can never really know how far the intelligence extends until it’s too late. I wait the requisite thirty seconds, then switch on a light. Nothing. Silence meets my ears and I exhale cautiously.

I wonder sometimes, if I will ever be able to truly relax again, to sleep without waking every couple of hours to check parameters, listen for sounds that don’t fit. Wait for the thudding of my own heartbeat to subside while I reassure myself that I am alive to see another day, that no assassin is standing over my bed, or “bed”. I have also slept in a lot of places in the past few years. I unpack quickly, change out of the clothes I bought to suit weather in early February in Cyprus, which aren’t exactly fit for February in Berlin. The snow on the ground was light and slushy, but I was cold on the bus. I change into heavier trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and a jacket, then find a coat at the back of the closet and pull it on. I have not had socks on my feet in months and the sensation is strange. Shoes and scarf next, then I leave again.

There’s a rather good Thai place on Stuttgarter Platz, five minutes away. I pull on the gloves that were still in the pockets of the coat as I emerge into the evening and attempt to acclimate myself. Berlin, I remind myself. Germany. German. Charlottenburg. I know this area. The language is vastly more familiar. I like German; it makes sense. A logical language with flawless grammatical systems and few exceptions. Relatively easy to pronounce, with none of the vagaries and strings of silent consonants of French. I even find it rather pleasing to the ear. Can hear my feet echoing wetly on the cobblestones of the pedestrian section of Wilmersdorferstrasse, puddles of snow and water splashing my shoes. The DM store, Germany’s favourite drugstore chain, is still open. The restaurant will still be open; if memory serves they are generally open until at least eleven. I still miss the Chinese at the end of Baker Street. Among many other things.

Winter. Even mild winter, this is a bit of a shock; the cold air clings to my lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. I note that I am shivering. Body has not yet adjusted to the season, which is reasonable, I suppose. The server shows me to a table (my favourite, in the window) and I run through the mental list of where I have been. I left Berlin in October when a contact notified me of activity within a group I was watching in Saudi Arabia. The connection to Moriarty was a small-time operator known for training terrorist cells for export to Los Angeles. Odd to find that sort of activity in Saudi Arabia, but my contact’s information packet included the data that the operator’s brother was involved in the oil trade, and that the operator himself had been deported from The Sudan. I tracked him to his squalid flat in Riyadh, waited until he was alone, then shot him through a window. There had already been a great deal of instability in the upper circles of his management; the chaos of his sudden death created a sufficient breakdown in security that the local police were able to track down most of the others. All those that had counted, at any rate.

My soup is delivered. Its familiar taste and warmth are strangely comforting. I had just been about to leave Riyadh when an officer in the Saudi police contacted me to ask about one of the members they had taken down. It seemed that, under interrogation, he had let it slip that he’d been spying on the cell trainer’s organisation from another organisation. That was how I became aware of Yilmaz and his group. I cross-checked with Jack Sheffield, who was in Beijing at that point. He referred me to someone else for details, another former Black Watch soldier-turned-spy, Hamish Duncan. Duncan told me that he'd heard of Yilmaz’ operation and that it was bigger than it looked and to be careful, but he hadn't known more at the time. Later, he was able to send me something by encrypted email that showed a direct connection between Yilmaz and someone in England, something related to human trafficking. I pushed for more information on the English end and the very lack of clear answer was the answer I needed: Moriarty. The trails always died the instant they hit British soil. In a way, the very lack of confirmation had become a confirmation. I tracked Yilmaz to Yemen, to a dusty compound on the outskirts of Sana’a. He was careful and his security was extremely thorough. It took weeks to formulate a plan, and the plan failed. By the time I was captured, it was early January. I had barely been aware that Christmas had gone by. The third one now, since my departure from England.

I eat the massaman curry and hope briefly that it won’t be too much for my body to handle after the month of gentle starvation and a diet of bulgur mush. I was careful in Nicosia earlier and there have been no repercussions thus far. Never mind. Christmas, that’s where I was. I think of our last Christmas at Baker Street: Mrs Hudson and her bloody antlers, that disaster of a party, John insisting on decorating, John and his ridiculous winter jumpers, John making mulled wine and forcing me to drink some. Of course, there was the whole business with the Adler woman and her phone, her fake death, but somehow that’s not what I remember now. There is no way to avoid thinking about John when I think of home. When I think of anything. He’s there, in all of the memories that count.

The server takes my plate away as I muse, drinking my jasmine tea and gazing out the window. This street is close to the S5 line of the S-Bahn, so there are still people out walking, though Germans typically go to bed early. At least in Charlottenburg, which is quiet, particularly in winter, it seems. The lindens are mostly bare, a few coppery leaves left clinging and covered in heavy, melting snow. I settle the bill and knot my scarf around my neck before heading back out into the cold evening air.

As I walk, I try to remember the solitary life I once led before John, before Baker Street. It all seems a blur now, as though I were only half-alive. John brought colour into everything. I wonder how he is. During that phone call, from the roof of St. Bart’s, seeing him below and knowing what I had to do – it hit me all at once, what our friendship had become to me. And his steady refusal to believe me should have irritated me, but all it did was make it that much harder. I know that he wept. I saw him, by my (empty) grave. I remember feeling that I should go to him, yet I knew what an irrational thought that was: my being thought dead was the only thing preserving John’s life. That thought had sobered me, strengthened my resolve, and I left London the next day. I wonder how long he mourned me, how long it took him to find a new direction in his own life. Would he have left Baker Street? I assume so. Mrs Hudson probably found new tenants. Does she miss us, I wonder?

And John? Does he miss me, still? Does he ever think of me? Or would he have lumped my apparent suicide and all of the rest of the life we once shared into the part of his life that compromised his post-traumatic shock of returning to England after Afghanistan, something too horrifying to think of, banished to the realm of nightmares. We certainly got into nightmare situations sometimes. Does he miss it, or has he settled into a life he’s told himself he prefers – wife, children, house, car. John can’t drive, but perhaps he’ll have learned by now. To impress his wife. Perhaps it’s she for whom he makes tea and toast, or perhaps it’s the other way: instead of playing wife to me, someone makes tea and toast for John and picks up his socks and books and puts them away in their proper places. I can’t bear this line of thought. It’s too much, to think of being all alone out here, anywhere but home, while John carries on with his version of “normal” life, the life I kept him from while keeping him by my side. All I really want, after all this time (nine hundred and fifteen days and counting), is to go home, go back to my former life of consulting, with my consultant doctor by my side.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Something Mycroft used to drone, usually sarcastically. It has proven decidedly true for my part. I wonder if it has for John. Or does he just not think of me at all, having closed that door permanently? It is torturous to think about, especially as I, despite my best efforts, think of him constantly. Miss him, want him constantly. He was the partner I’d never wanted, never looked for. I hadn’t even had any intention of involving him in the work; I only asked him to come along that first time to spite Anderson and annoy Donovan. To prove that I could find my own assistant. Besides, there was something about him that intrigued me from the start. So rigid and upright, yet so surprisingly warm and gentle at the same time. The softness in his face when he’d asked about my marital state that first dinner together; the unflinching, uncompromising steadiness of his shot at Jeff Hope only a few hours later. I knew by the end of that night that it was a done deal; he just walked into my life and I just accepted him. As he accepted being there. Accepted me.

Being out of England has served to make me feel very isolated in all the usual ways a person feels isolated when out of their home environment: the inability to communicate, lack of familiarity with local customs, local stores and currency, even local weather. Not knowing anyone. For me it has also served as an unpleasant reminder of my earlier years, when I was terribly solitary and not by choice. I grew into solitude, learned to embrace it and actively prefer it. I have never fit in. Always the oddity, the socially unacceptable, the freak. Donovan was hardly the first to give me that name. It was only John who ever let me forget that I was abnormal, John who just accepted me and met me where I was. Unique. He was always unique that way. And having learned to adjust my patterns to accommodate him, having come to accept his constant presence even when I might have preferred a spot of solitude, it seems I became quite addicted to it. So difficult, even after nine hundred and fifteen days, to be without it again. I miss him abominably. Every day. I thought it would go away, eventually, but if anything, the constant craving for him has only grown.

I unlock the door to the flat with Frau Reger’s borrowed key, wait the customary thirty seconds, and lock the door with a feeling of mingled relief and fatigue. I pull the coat and scarf off, bend to unknot the shoelaces, and remove everything else but the pants, wander to the dresser and take out an old t-shirt. Perform some mild ablutions and take myself to bed. I’ll think about tomorrow in the morning. Right now, I’m so tired.

***

To my surprise, I sleep for precisely nine hours, waking promptly at eight. I am instantly awake, my mind racing forward. I said I would get the key copied and returned by ten. There should be just enough time. I shower quickly, sparing a fleeting thought of gratitude for efficient German plumbing that has kept the pipes in good condition even after a four-month absence, hot water supplied instantly. There is a locksmith just around the corner on Kantstrasse that I have walked by many times before. The key is made in less than five minutes, leaving ample time to purchase a new phone, again. I have spent a good deal of money on phones, signing contracts under false names with practised ease. I left the stolen Turkish phone in the hotel room in Nicosia. This one is registered to Hans Walther, with my proper Berlin address and everything. I could practically become Hans Walther and stay here. I like Berlin. I could learn German. But that’s hardly the point. I check the time and make my way back to the apartment. Germans are particular about time. Frau Reger is awake (probably has been since dawn) and waiting. She offers coffee and on a whim, I decide to accept. Starved for company, I suppose.

She switches to English (relief) and asks me about my travels. She also proclaims it a little early for a snack, but goes on to assume I’ve eaten breakfast (I haven’t) and offers a slice of cake. Ah, German tradition: Kaffee und Kuchen, coffee and cake. Usually an afternoon activity, taken around three, but a mid-morning slice of cake never goes amiss. I accept it and make up wild stories of exciting foreign travel in the Middle East. She begins to talk about Jerusalem and her desire to see it, and I decide not to mention that I didn’t exactly go to the tourist destinations. After forty-five minutes of this, I take my leave and go upstairs to see if my internet connection is still functioning. It’s time to do some work.

Both laptop and internet still function. I run search after search on new terrorist activity in southern Turkey, try Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates as well (Yilmaz has contacts everywhere in the region). I also check the Damocles, just to see if anything was reported about a stowaway, even the stolen dinghy. Nothing. What sloppy port security! No wonder terrorists are running rampant through the world. Though this time the sloppiness was to my advantage, obviously. I start making lists, typing data into cognitive patterns. After awhile, I check my various email accounts, all under foreign names, of course. I still check my own as well, which I encrypted heavily after my so-called death, just to avoid setting off any security flags for Mycroft and his lot to catch. Nothing, of course, and I realise the futility of checking, but somehow it makes me feel more like myself again. One grows tired of being an alias all the time. I email Hamish Duncan and ask for news of Jack Sheffield. After a bit, I decide to try to call Sheffield.

It rings four times and goes to voicemail, just the phone’s pre-recorded message. I decide to leave one. “Sheffield. This is Walther. Checking in from Berlin, heard a rumour that you were injured. Please check in when convenient, at this number or by email.” I ring off, then thoughtfully search his name and various hospital names in Edinburgh. Nothing.

Yilmaz’ group is the last, at least the last group I have been able to connect to Moriarty’s operation. I go over my compiled information. In the first year it took me ten months to track down all of Moriarty’s assassins except for Sebastian Moran. I was correct in thinking that Moriarty would have had more than three assassins in London. They were all pulled out of the region roughly the same time that I left, making it much more time-consuming to find them all. I tracked the heavyset Irishman, the one who had been masquerading as a maintenance man right inside the house, back to Belfast. I tracked the Russian woman next, receiving her name from one of the homeless network, and caught up with her in St. Petersburg. Moriarty’s lapdog and principle sniper Moran had already taken out the Albanian and the Greek, leaving Lestrade’s shadow and Sebastian Moran. Who had, of course, been assigned to kill John. I caught the Brit who’d been following Lestrade, an ex-CIA-gone-rogue named Carl Jenkins in Manchester. It took months to catch Moran, though. He was everywhere and I went everywhere trying to catch up with him. I did, at last, in the métro in northeast Paris. A dive of a station (aren’t they all, though – Paris repels me) called Barbès-Rochechouart. I caught up with him in the swarming mob, waited until the noise of the approaching train was at its loudest, then seized him by the shoulder and shot him twice in the back. The crowd was so thick that his body didn’t even start to fall, not immediately. I pulled close to his ear and murmured, “Compliments of John Watson.” Then I retreated as best I could against the tide moving into the train, pressing back into the stairwell long enough to see his body fall, get trampled under the flood of foot traffic, and not rise again. I left the gun in one trash can and the gloves I’d been wearing in another, and left Paris that night.

Thinking of this, I spontaneously pick up my new phone and dial John’s number. I do this occasionally, probably far too often. I just have to know. Have to check. It rings three times and goes to voicemail. He hasn’t changed his voicemail message since I left London. I find that strangely comforting. Just his practical, no-nonsense, everyday voice explaining his lack of availability and directing the caller to leave a message. I listen to the message again and hang up before the beep. I remember calling that night, after having killed Moran. He’d answered, to my astonishment. My hands had shaken.

“Hello?” John’s voice, steady and exactly the same as ever. It was the first time I’d heard it since leaving seventeen months prior.

I’d held the phone, listening hard, heart pounding and unable to speak. That was the point, wasn’t it? Not to speak?

“Hello?” John said again. A small sound as he probably held the mobile away from his face to see if it was still connected. “Hello?” A third time. “Is someone there?”

I waited a moment longer, then made myself press the button to disconnect. Perhaps it had been the overload of everything, of having killed in public for the first time, of having it be John’s killer that I’d finally caught, and then hearing John’s voice after so long, but I put the phone down on the covers of the anonymous hotel room bed in Saarbrücken, where I’d fled, trying to fight off waves of emotion threatening to pull me to pieces. I never cry, unless as an act, but I cried then. I deleted it in the morning, or tried to, but some things refuse to be deleted altogether. Now, I find myself half-relieved that John hadn’t answered. (And half-disappointed, of course.)

I shake myself, tell myself to focus. Check my various email accounts. There is a message from Hamish Duncan, very short. It reads: Sheffield in Royal Edinburgh Hospital. Confirmed injury, condition unknown. If further information is found, please relay. HD

I wish there was a way to check the patient roster online to confirm that Sheffield is there. Duncan is a reliable source, though. The fact that Yilmaz knew of Sheffield’s injury is highly suspicious; the fact that they presumed that I would go directly to Edinburgh to check is still more suspicious and suggests I should do anything but that. Or rather, go but be extremely careful. Approaching the hospital would be dangerous. I will need Sheffield and Duncan both if I am going to take down Yilmaz’ entire ring, and if he was directly behind Sheffield’s bomb, I owe Yilmaz some payback. Sheffield is an ally, a good man. If he is still alive.

I make my decision: I will go to Edinburgh. Perhaps the day after tomorrow. That should give me adequate time to fully recuperate from my imprisonment. Meanwhile, there are still tedious errands to run. I lock the laptop again, get my coat and head out. The bank is still open (should have left earlier; the queues are rather long now) and I get a new card for the German account. I find somewhere to eat dinner, buy a plane ticket, and purchase a bit of food for the apartment. By the time it’s all finished, I take the S-Bahn from the Zoologischer Garten station back to the Charlottenburg stop on the S5. I reach the top of the stairs and stop.

I can see smoke in the direction of my building from blocks away, revolving police lights, and I hear sirens. Police, ambulance, or fire? I feel uneasy, coldness dropping into the pit of my stomach like ice. Perhaps it’s nothing to do with me.

I step around the icy puddles and carefully, quietly make my way back to the flat. When I arrive, I realise with instant dread that I was wrong: it was indeed my building. My flat. A crowd has gathered outside the building on my quiet sidestreet of Windscheidstrasse. I slip in amongst them and stop, staring with horror at the building. A fire, or perhaps an explosion, leaving a gaping hole exactly where the fourth-storey, north side flat used to be. I can see stars twinkling in the sky where my flat was. The fifth-storey flat is gone, too, but apart from some fire damage, all the other suites seem to be intact. My flat was targeted. I listen peripherally to the people talking, catch the words eine Explosion, eine Bombe and know that it was no mistake.

I take rapid stock of my situation. I have my new phone, my wallet and everything that should be in it, and the clothes I am wearing. The laptop – surely they could not have got past the heavy layers of encryption and security I had installed. Surely they just let it burn. I back away from the crowd and make my way to Kantstrasse, upset and trying to calm myself. Get into the crowd. Get back on the S-Bahn. Go to the opposite side of the city and find a hotel. Cancel everything with your current name attached. RIP Hans Walther. Close the bank account and transfer the funds somewhere else. Change the name on the phone contract. Buy a new laptop.

And then get out. Get out of Germany. If they followed me from Turkey, I am officially out of my depth. Get to Sheffield. I need help.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

 

I wake with a start, heart pounding, hands clenched between my knees. It’s cold, even though I went to bed wearing everything I still own, coat included. Correction: the room is not cold, but I perceive cold nonetheless: fear. I must control it, calm myself. Breathe slowly. It works, sort of. I blink, go to check the time and realise that I turned the phone off to disable the GPS, in case it was the phone that gave me away. What could it have been? Was I followed from Turkey? Or were there spies here in Berlin? Much as I hate to consider it, it is the mostly likely option. I was here in Berlin for just over four months before my adventures in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and then Turkey. Who was it? The phone company? Someone at the bank? My landlady? She didn’t seem any different but Germans have a sangfroid that could rival the steeliest of Brits. Perhaps they got to her. My eyes adjust to the dark. I cannot tell what time it is. The sky is black outside the window. I don’t have a watch; Yilmaz’ men took that and I never replaced it, relying on the phone and my own senses for time. In the morning I will take the phone to a branch of the phone company and have them cancel the account, unlock the phone, and disable the GPS. I can rely on maps without GPS perfectly well.

There is a small glow of something digital coming from the small table near the window. Ah. A clock. I get out of bed and go to it, turning it to face me. Three thirty-four in the morning. I move the curtains slightly, looking out over Tempelhof. I search my memory for the street name. Kaiserin-Augusta-Strasse. Close to the U-Bahn. I remember everything that transpired after the fire yesterday, fleeing on the U-Bahn rather than the S-Bahn (typically more crowded at night, easier to hide), changing lines, selecting the Tempelhof area at random. Tempelhof: south central, not far from the airport. I booked the flight through Schönefeld, not Tegel, just to be on the safe side. If I knew where my own security breach had been, I could correct it, but it is impossible to guess. I thought I had been careful enough. Evidently not.

The room is quiet, nothing stirring. I should try to sleep some more. I move to the small bathroom and pour a glass of water first. My face looks gaunt in the mirror, dark shadows under my eyes. I think the wrinkles around my eyes have deepened. Losing weight never makes a face look younger, after a certain point. I grimace and shut the light off and go back to bed, lying open-eyed in the dark and trying to consciously slow my heart rate.

***

I am no less jittery when I wake again, four hours later. I asked for a wake-up call but I wake before it comes. I spot a plastic bag on the table near the window, the small collection of groceries I had purchased yesterday and forgotten about entirely in my flight from Charlottenburg. I am terribly hungry. I take out a salami sandwich and eat it ravenously, following it with an apple and some sparkling water. The rest gets left behind; I have no need for excess luggage at this point. I leave the small hotel and find an outlet of my phone store on Tempelhofer Damm. I recall that there is also a Deutschebank further up the street. The phone contract is cancelled, the phone unlocked, and the GPS deactivated and removed (at my insistence). Next, the bank. I wire the bulk of the funds to the numbered account at Barclays, withdraw the rest, and close the account to the teller’s pained look. Next, a cab to the airport. I skulk in the little shops and boutiques until the final boarding call is announced, flying under the passport I had made during yesterday errands. Luckily my passport falsifying man in Berlin was still in business. There were other passports, but the rest are locked in a safety deposit box in Leipzig and who knows when I will be able to collect them? The box was registered to its own account under a different name than Hans Walther. Surely it’s safe there. This passport – and, incidentally, the only one I now have – proclaims me to be a native of Galway, James O’Meara. I didn’t choose the name and couldn’t care less, as long as it gets me onto the plane. It does. No alarms go off as they scan it, no burly security men tackle me to the cheap carpeting. I board the plane and scan the rows quickly, checking for familiar faces from behind the sunglasses I bought in one of the boutiques. Nothing stands out, but that data is irrelevant. Obviously if I knew where the leak was, it wouldn’t have happened. I think of Frau Reger and her Kaffee und Kuchen with a pang. She was no Mrs Hudson, but she was someone. Someone that I knew. Someone that I cared for in a small way. I take my seat and wait for take-off. She might have been the spy, I remind myself, and make an effort to delete her.

It doesn’t quite work. Ever since John, I’ve lost my ability to delete people altogether. He made me start caring and now that the doors have been opened, it seems I will never be able to entirely shut the taps off again. But I can at least not think about her. I turn my face to the window and watch the ground dropping away during take-off. I don’t mean to fall asleep but I do despite myself.

I’m disoriented when I wake. Tired and bewildered and confused. I’m in a plane. (Where am I going?) It takes me slightly too long to remember. Edinburgh. Relief. I have not lost my mind quite yet. I remind myself that prolonged malnutrition can have a negative impact on mental acuity. Curse Yilmaz and his (many) henchmen. My body is weak and my mind is dull-witted. I am in no condition to be playing Bourne, but there’s nothing for it: I cannot return to England until I’ve caught up with Yilmaz’ ring and made sure it was the last of the endless taproot of Moriarty’s legacy. I look at the ground below. I discern that I woke because the engines shifted to begin the descent. Rolling green fields punctured by dusty smudges of darker vegetation and rock spread before my eyes. Scotland. The closest I’ve been to home since I left. A wave of yearning wracks me for a moment; for that moment I am in its grips, a victim to this paralysing homesickness. Ridiculous sentiment. The scorn doesn’t help; it only serves to make me loathe myself a little more. I grit my teeth and close my eyes, willing myself to snap out of it. It’s just that I’m tired. So very tired. Nonsense. No time to be tired. You can sleep when you’re dead, I think, then remember with a touch of dry amusement that I am dead, at least officially.

The humour helps. I am able to focus again. The green fields are closer now; I estimate that we will be on the ground in approximately six and a half minutes.

I have never been to Edinburgh, and my lack of familiarity will handicap me even further if Yilmaz’ people are waiting for me. With no baggage to claim, I walk directly out to the taxis, choosing one with a driver who appears to be of Scottish birth. Caucasian, accent thick as molasses. Thick as haggis. (Revolting thought.) Bad teeth, typical of his generation. Being native-born doesn’t mean anything; he could just as easily be a spy as the Middle Eastern driver behind him in the rank. Nevertheless, it puts me slightly more at ease. I caution myself against the feeling of ease. I felt more or less comfortable in Berlin: safe, anonymous. I must never make that mistake again. I stayed there too long. Four months before I left for Saudi Arabia. I shouldn’t have gone back, but after the month in prison I just wanted somewhere safe to go. Nowhere is safe. I knew that. Should have known that, at least.

Self-recrimination will get me nowhere. Lesson learned: I will not repeat the error, after what it cost me this time. I lean forward to the cabbie. “Take me to a store where I can buy a computer. Somewhere relatively central, please.”

“Right, then.” The cabbie starts off, begins whistling. “Where are yeh flying from? Only I notice you’ve got no baggage.”

I resist the urge to correct his grammar. “I didn’t fly in. I was just seeing someone off.”

“Someone special?” Blue eyes glance at me in the mirror and I’m reminded unpleasantly of Jeff Hope. Same age, same style of tweed cap.

“No. Just a colleague.”

“And now you’re going laptop shopping?”

I would prefer not to converse, but refusing to speak could look suspicious. I must make an effort to adhere to social custom. I shrug casually. “Mine broke down this morning and I was already out of the office.”

“Right, fair enough.” Mercifully he subsides into silence. After five minutes he pulls up alongside a Maplin’s. “This do?”

I glance at it. “Yes, thank you.” I pay him and get out while he’s saying something about the futility of technology, close the door on his words.

Inside, I select a laptop at random, then track down an employee to ask about a USB internet connection. They also function as carriers for several major mobile networks, so I register the phone in a prepaid (read: anonymous) service, then leave them a small fortune in payment (in Euros, which they accept without question) and carry my purchases onto the pavement to look for another taxi. It takes a few minutes but eventually one comes. I scan the driver again. A Sikh in a turban and an air of solemnity. I decide he’s all right and ask how far it is to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

“Not far, sir. Five minutes.”

“Can you take me to a small hotel somewhere about a ten-minute walk from there?”

He looks puzzled. “There will be hotels closer, sir.”

“Ten minutes by foot would be perfect,” I say firmly and close the door. It’s only then that I notice the return of English as the default language of my environment. Relief. Turkey was the worst; I speak no Turkish whatsoever. I speak more Arabic than I do Turkish, at least if you count the ability to count to twenty, request a location, and introduce myself. Hello, thank you. Nothing complex. Still more than I could say in Turkish. Edinburgh feels achingly familiar, despite never having been here. Familiar chain stores that I never thought I would be pleased to see again go by, familiar-sounding street names and buildings. So close to home, yet so far. I have no idea where the next stop will be. I need to find Jack Sheffield and form a proper plan for dealing with Yilmaz’ operation.

The taxi stops outside a small hotel proclaiming vacancy. It looks nice, cared-for, just large enough to avoid having my every coming-and-going noticed. “Will this be all right?” the driver asks solicitously.

“This will do. Thank you.” I pay and get out.

Inside the room I set up the laptop at once and, after connecting the internet, spend an hour just memorising Edinburgh. The hotel is about the requested distance from the hospital. I take note of public transit lines, banks, the airport, central areas, the area around the hospital. I notice after awhile that I am famished again. I check the time. Five in the afternoon. When did I eat the sandwich? Around twenty past eight this morning, I think. Oh. Time to eat. I wonder if hospital visiting hours are over. Something like this never would have bothered me before, but I am desperate to avoid attracting attention of any kind at the moment.

I search the hospital’s patient inquiry line and dial. Would Sheffield have had himself registered under his own name? Come to think of it, I have no idea whether Jack Sheffield is even his real name. Likely not. After all, he knows me as Hans Walther, a name which I must shed entirely. I’ll have to tread carefully. I take a breath and dial.

After two rings the phone is answered by an electronic response system which puts me on hold. After twenty minutes, I disconnect in annoyance and call back. This time a person answers, a distinctly flustered-sounding nurse or receptionist of some sort. “Royal Edinburgh Patient Inquiry,” she says, voice quavering.

I pause, frowning. Why is she so upset? “Hello, I’d like to inquire after a patient,” I say slowly, wondering if this will work.

She exhales into the receiver. “Er – the patient’s name and wing, sir?”

“I’m not sure of the wing.” I debate telling her I’m not actually sure of the name, either, but decide not to. “He was brought in after an – accident involving an explosion. The name is Jack Sheffield. He’s a friend and I’d like to visit, if possible.”

She takes another long breath. It sounds like she’s trying to calm herself. It’s not working. “I’m sorry,” she says, voice trembling still more. “I’ve just checked and he’s here, room E-314, but – you see, there’s been an – an incident.”

“An incident?” I repeat, feeling cold.

“We don’t know how it happened or why, but something’s gone wrong with all of the machines, it just happened in the past half hour, we don’t know why – ” She stops babbling long enough to take another shuddering breath. “The patients, they – that is, many of them have been – have been – affected. I don’t know if your friend was one of them. We’re still assessing. I don’t know – they’re saying it could have been a terrorist attack, everything’s in confusion at the moment, so perhaps you could ring back – ”

I listen with growing horror, feel my pulse begin to pound in my ears again. “Thank you,” I say numbly, and press the button to end the call.

It was no feint. This is no accident. They’ve got to Sheffield.

I realise I am shaking. The hunger is gone, leaving behind a feeling of hollowness that cannot be filled with food. I should go to the hospital and see if he can be saved. At this point surely I am the closest operative in the area, from any organisation. Well, any ally organisation. (Do I count as an organisation unto myself? Bugger that. I count.) I should go. Must think first, must not make any irrational moves. Did the timing of this incident have anything to do with my arrival today, in Edinburgh? Was it all calculated, or is this coincidence? I am wary of coincidence. John would tell me not to be paranoid, but in this case I think it’s rather warranted. John: no. I close my mind off that subject. I need all the focus I can muster.

I am reluctant in the extreme to leave this room, truth be told. I feel physically weaker than I have in longer than I can remember, and I am nervous, jumping out of my skin at shadows now. Except the shadows are real and I have genuine cause for fear. I must control it. If they know I am here, they will find me in this small, anonymous hotel just as well as on the street. For Sheffield’s sake, I should at least try. And my own – I need his cooperation.

It’s decided. I close the laptop and leave it on the desk, but take the USB internet connection with me, just in case. I have the area committed to memory and set out at a brisk walk, as though wholly familiar with these streets. The coat I am wearing is bland and indistinct; I bought it that way on purpose. It is far too short for my liking and decidedly outside of my normal style. I bought it in Berlin in early autumn, choosing it precisely because it was unlike my old coat. I wonder if Molly still has my old coat. I miss it. The street is quietly busy. This is a university area, never fully abandoned. It should make me feel slightly safer, but doesn’t. Or should it? I once shot a man in rush hour in the middle of a subway platform. What’s to stop someone from doing the same to me? I avoid walking too close to any high walls or alcoves and force my shoulders to relax.

I round a corner and then another, and then the hospital comes into view. It is a large, multi-building complex, the central one turreted and made of old stone. I walk toward it, keeping my pace deliberately casual, fighting the instinct to charge inside and find my ally and pull him out. I walk up the long drive toward the visitors’ entrance. The moment I step off the pavement and onto hospital property, I know that something is wrong. Something crackles in the depths of my hearing before anything registers in my brain to connect the sound to what is about to happen.

The epicentre of the explosion comes from the heart of the main building, the gabled roofline blowing outward in a fire cloud of smoke and stone. The sounds follow, the initial blast so loud I think for a split second that my eardrums have imploded. Instincts are still functioning; my legs have begun to move even as I was gaping upward. I am running all-out, as fast as I can go in the direction I came. The noise is growing, thundering, rock dust and burning pieces of building raining down around me. I can feel my voice scraping in my throat, feel the panic rising in a chokehold. Several more explosions follow; the hospital will be levelled to the ground. I will not make it, I will not get far enough away in time. I can register the foundations giving way, hear the scream of a heavy section of roof sheering away against stone, car alarms screeching all around. People are screaming and running all around me. We will all be buried.

I cannot breathe; the smoke is in my lungs and I am coughing, lungs and eyes searing as I run. Something strikes me on the head and the warm drip of blood streams into my vision as I run. I stagger, gasping, onto a busy street corner, at my wit’s end. I have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, no one to turn to.

The thought hits me like a thunderclap. I don’t have no one. And while I don’t have his number, it has just occurred to me belatedly that I am back on British soil. I whirl around, searching every building on the corner, looking for a camera. I turn to the nearest one, not aware that I am wide-eyed and covered in blood and dust, looking like a maniac, that people are still streaming past me in hordes from the hospital. I look directly into the camera and shout, above the noise of the explosion and the cries of the crowds, waving my arms. “Mycroft! Mycroft Holmes!”

I wait, hoping desperately, unaware of being jostled on every side. Every pore of my body, every cell of my brain is fixated on the camera. And then it happens. Out of the corner of my fading vision, I am peripherally aware of ten or twelve other cameras suddenly swivelling to point at me. This and the profound feeling of relief are the last things I experience before something hits my head and everything goes black.

***

I open my eyes to a blank white ceiling. I blink at it a few times, waiting for clarity and remembrance to return. It doesn’t. This is cause for concern. I search furiously through my memory – what is the last thing I remember? Oh: it begins now, coming in fragments, then flooding my brain. Berlin. The fire. Edinburgh. The hospital explosion. I survived, then? I remember, though this part is hazy, standing on a street corner and shouting Mycroft’s name. Outing myself, essentially. Oh God. What have I done? Where am I? Who found me?

“Working it out, are you?”

Never in all my thirty-seven years have I been so glad to hear that dry, drawling tone. “Mycroft,” I croak in relief. I try turning my head to see him, and only then become aware of all the bandaging on my head and face. It’s stiff and there is pain when I move. I look at my hands, some bandaging there, too. Never mind that. Will take stock of my injuries later. I am still alive, and Mycroft found me. I manage to turn my head far enough to see him.

He is sitting in a chair, umbrella leaning against the wall beside him. Doing his best to appear unconcerned, but the line between his eyes gives him away. His eyebrows are arched, fingers interlaced over one knee, which rests over the other. His expression is pointed; he is waiting for me to say something else. “Sherlock,” he says, voice absolutely even. We could be meeting over a cup of tea in his study.

(But we’re not, are we?) “Where am I?” I try clearing my throat; my voice is still scratchy.

“Water?” Mycroft asks, ignoring my question. He uncrosses his legs and goes somewhere out of sight range. I hear the sounds of him filling a cup from a glass container, about a litre in volume judging by the sounds it makes. “The discomfort in your throat would be due to the intubation. There was an oxygen feed.”

What? This is slightly alarming. I make a greater effort to look around, but all I see are white walls, no windows. (Has Mycroft had me committed at last? He always used to threaten to do that. Or, alternately, if he has, perhaps he is a figment of my imagination. That would be interesting.) “Is this a hospital?” Fragment of alarm registers; hospitals: association: not good.

Mycroft glances around. “This? No. Why, were you hoping to wake up in a hospital? You certainly seemed anxious to get to the Royal Edinburgh, at least until it blew up.”

His words hit me a like small blow, though I can’t quite work out how or why they’re painful at the moment. “Were you watching?”

“No. I reviewed the footage later.” Mycroft sits down again, coming back into my line of sight and recrosses his legs. “I had no idea you were alive until you put yourself in front of that camera and shouted my name.”

Our eyes meet and he does not look away. The moment grows somehow poignant. He is expecting answers, I realise. Real ones. Long ones. And perhaps he deserves to hear them. “I had to, Mycroft,” I say quietly.

His steely gaze does not waver. “Explain.”

“I will. Tell me where I am, first.”

“Still in Edinburgh. The Swiss Consulate General.”

“Swiss? Why Swiss?”

“It’s secure. I know someone who works here.”

Of course he does. Mycroft knows someone useful in every major city in the world and then some. “How long have I been unconscious?”

“You were found on a Tuesday. It’s now Thursday.”

I half-panic for a moment; have I lost track of my count of days? No, I can figure it out. I think: the morning I woke in Nicosia and returned to Berlin was nine hundred and fifteen, then I left Berlin two days later, so the hospital explosion happened on day nine hundred and seventeen, making today nine hundred and nineteen. Somehow this is reassuring to know. “What happened?”

“I rather think that a full explanation is going to be heavily reliant on about two and a half years of back story from your side,” Mycroft says, very dryly, with one of those smiles that isn’t quite a smile. More of a grimace, really

“I’ll explain, I said,” I say. “Just tell me what happened from when I called out to you during the explosion.”

Mycroft levels me with his gaze at me for a moment, then decides to respond. “I was alerted within thirty seconds of your shout,” he says. “My people are very good. They had already run a facial recognition scan and made a positive identity by the time I had logged into the video feed about a minute later. I gave the order for a helicopter to leave at once, as the footage also captured you passing out in the midst of flying debris from the explosion. I didn’t want you to be trampled in the rush, or buried under rubble. That was quite the bomb.”

“I want to hear all the details of it later.”

“That can be arranged.”

“Go on, meanwhile.”

“We found you – ”

“We?” I interrupt. “You were there, yourself?”

Mycroft gestures at himself with a slight air of exasperation. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“But you went to the scene of the explosion to look for my body?” I sound incredulous; it’s difficult to believe.

Something very subtle shifts in Mycroft’s face, like a door opening and then closing again just as quickly. Nothing outward changes, but there is a certain stillness to him now. “Sherlock,” he says quietly. “I had already believed you dead – dead at your own hand, mind you – for two and a half years. Receiving information simultaneously that you were, in fact, alive, and in terrible danger, was something of a motivator. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it is difficult enough to lose something – someone – once. Twice would have been…” he trails off.

I find that my eyes are fixed on his, unmoving. “Would have been what?”

He glares now. “Painful,” he snaps. “Is that what you want to hear? Are you trying to ask if I mourned you, Sherlock? I did. Are you satisfied?”

This has become heated very quickly. I understand and retreat from that front, but my pressing need for information is pushing to take precedence; I’m too impatient to deal with this yet. “I’ve said I’ll explain,” I say again. Then add, “I’m sorry. I – shouldn’t have – ” pushed you to finish that statement is what I want to say, but instead I leave it and say, “Just keep going. Please. So you found me?”

“Half buried in rubble,” Mycroft says stiffly. “Bleeding, bruised, and concussed, and beyond that, half-starved. Suffering from both malnutrition and dehydration. They only just removed the IV about an hour before you woke. And they’ve assessed that you’ve been exposed to quite a bit of violence in recent weeks.”

His look is insistent; he wants confirmation or denial. I look away. “Accurate,” I say, exhaling at the ceiling.

“Sherlock – ” Annoyance, tinged with concern.

“Go on,” I say, cutting him off again.

Can practically hear his jaw gritting, but he releases his breath and accedes. “We brought you here. It was close and I needed to be assured of your security, considering recent events. Of which all that I have to go on is the moments leading up to the hospital explosion. On the helicopter I backtracked through the CCTV coverage of the area, found you on the approach to the hospital and backtracked to the hotel and before that, a taxi. The trail goes cold there. I don’t know where you’ve been, how long you’ve been on British soil and right under my nose, or what on earth has happened to you in the last weeks, months, or even years. I don’t know why you faked your own death and let everyone who cares about you believe you dead.”

He sounds unusually emotional. I chance another look at him. “I had to, Mycroft” I say again. I sigh. This is going to take some time. “I wasn’t given a lot of say in the matter. If we’re going to do the whole explanation now, can I have something to eat first?”

The intensity in Mycroft’s face relaxes slightly. “Of course,” he says. He pulls out his phone and says something in French. I only catch éveillé, faim, and carte. He shuts off the phone and directs a pointed stare my way. “Go back to the rooftop of St. Bart’s. Explain what happened that day. Why and what and how you did what you did. Don’t stop talking until you’ve reached why you were going to the Royal Edinburgh on Tuesday.”

I think of Jack Sheffield for a moment, then firmly resolve not to think of him. Something deep within throbs a pang of sorrow, of guilt, of loss. And the ever-gnawing fear is still there. If they killed Sheffield because of his very small link to me, that chance alliance formed on the road, that slight acquaintanceship, what more would they do to my real friends? I rub at my eyes with bandaged hands, still tired. It’s hard to believe that even here, I am secure. My belief in Mycroft’s powers and connections verges occasionally on the classic younger brother complex concerning the godlike powers of his older sibling, but in Mycroft’s case I think it’s fairly deserved. Still. After having lived like this for so long, it’s hard not to feel twitchy. Mycroft is still waiting for me to begin. I think, trying to organise my thoughts into the most condensed telling possible.

A soft knock comes on the door and Mycroft goes to answer it. A black-suited, obviously-MI5 stands outside and hands Mycroft a folded menu in silence. This is slightly amusing; Mycroft has the MI5 screening my menu deliveries. I should be all right here, then, unless they blow up the entire Swiss Consulate, which is quite possible. It’s much smaller than the Royal Edinburgh. Mycroft passes me the menu and waits as I glance at it. “The meatballs. With mashed potatoes.” I just want something substantially filling; everything else is secondary.

Mycroft takes the menu back and goes to the door. “Il prendra les boulettes de viande avec les pommes de terre.” The door is closed again with a soft thunk and Mycroft assumes the same position as before as though the interruption had never happened. “Do you want to eat first or can you talk and eat at the same time?”

I shrug. “As you like.” I fidget a little. I wasn’t mentally prepared to go into all of this. I wasn’t going to do that until it was all finished, but I went and got myself in the way of a bomb meant for my acquaintance and possibly also myself. I think of Sheffield for a moment. He was a good ally. A good man, and terrifically competent. All business, but he had a dry sort of humour that resonated with me, and he was good about passing on bits of information he thought I might find relevant. I’d returned the favour when possible. “Moriarty,” I say. “You know that he’s dead, I presume?”

Mycroft frowns but nods. “Yes, of course. His body was found on the rooftop not long after yours was found on the ground. Nobody has ever been able to understand. The powder burns on his fingers and the ballistics show that he shot himself. There were no pressure marks on his skin, no defensive wounds, nothing to show that you induced him to it physically, although I suppose you could have goaded him. But the time of death showed that he definitely died before you, by at least ten minutes.”

It’s my turn to frown. Oh: Molly would have adjusted the time of death on the other body, the body that was meant to be mistaken for me, on all of the reports. “Right,” I say, “except that I wasn’t dead. That was me on the sidewalk, but I wasn’t dead. Afterward, Molly switched me out for a body that looked reasonably like mine. We wigged it and everything.”

Mycroft is listening intently. “All right, that part isn’t difficult. How did you survive the fall itself, if that was you on the sidewalk?”

I sigh and explain about the truck, jumping onto it and from there to the ground. Obvious. How has no one figured this out yet? “And before you can ask why again, I’ll tell you. Moriarty had snipers in place, ready to shoot my people if I wasn’t seen jumping.”

“Your people.” Mycroft wants names, clarification.

“John. Mrs Hudson. Lestrade.” For a moment I wonder if he will be hurt that he wasn’t one of Moriarty’s targets, but we were never close.

Mycroft has possibly never listened to anything I’ve said in all my life with this intensity of focus. “Go on,” he says, and he doesn’t interrupt once except to ask small questions for more detail here and there.

The food comes and I inhale it, barely tasting it. Mycroft absorbs that detail, too, filing it away somewhere, and asks a question about something that happened in Brooklyn, where I spent some time in the first year. We get through all of it in about three hours, with all of the questions and clarifications, one interruption for tea, and another from a middle-aged, francophone male nurse checking in on me. We go through Belfast, St. Petersburg, that town whose name I never did know somewhere close to St. Petersburg, Prague, that place with the name I couldn’t even pronounce in my head in the Czech Republic, Avignon, Paris, Salzburg, the town in Romania, that other town in Georgia, Odessa, Hamburg, Leipzig, Berlin, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, Berlin again, and Edinburgh. I leave out over fifty places that I’ve forgotten about, never knew the names of, or stayed in only for a night or two. Mycroft picks for more detail, but it’s not as if I kept a diary while I was away. And I’m still away.

We finally reach the end of it, more or less. Mycroft asks if I’m hungry again. I’m fine for the moment and tell him so. He leans back and stretches, looking tired and old. The hair on the top of his head is even more sparse. He will be bald within the decade. “Sherlock,” he says, looking at the floor, avoiding looking at me. “I realise this isn’t finished, but…”

Alarm bells begin immediately. “But what?” I demand, voice sharper than I had intended.

Now he does meet my eyes, reluctant. “You’re in no fit condition to continue like this,” he says quietly, aware that I will object and saying it anyway. He is avoiding telling me that he is going to try to prevent it, prevent me from leaving again, and he is doing it by pointing out the current problems with my transport. Low blow, that. He gestures vaguely toward my body. “And it’s not just your body that’s exhausted and at the breaking point. You were babbling nonsense while you were unconscious. You sounded like a trauma victim, which you may well be. I think you were having a nightmare at one point. They had to restrain your legs because it looked like you were running; you were thrashing and in danger of hurting yourself. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Of course I understand what you’re saying,” I snap crossly. “What are you implying?”

Mycroft sets his jaw. “I’m pulling you out of this. It’s time to go home and let someone else play Bond.”

“No. Absolutely not. It’s not finished. I’m not ready.” I work to keep my voice absolutely calm, though I’m well aware that Mycroft has all of the power that I currently lack. I went into this alone; my chance acquaintances formed on the road were bonuses, along with the network of contacts I built up along the way. I can certainly go back to doing this all alone. And Hamish Duncan might still be of some help.

“Sherlock, hear me out. Even the greats, the double-O sevens and the best of MI5 take breaks from the field. Especially the same mission, which this more or less has been for you. We keep our MI5 agents on the same mission for a maximum of six months, and that’s with deep undercover field work. And when they come back, they’re required to go through rigorous physical and psychological assessments, because this sort of thing can damage a person in many ways. No one, least of all me, doubts your competence, but you are not a spy. You don’t have the training for this. And it’s been far too long. You’re already jumpy. Are you aware of how many times you’ve looked at the door since you’ve woken up, how many times your eyes have checked the corners of the ceiling for cameras, that you stop speaking when you hear a sound outside, despite knowing that we’re in a windowless room in the safest possible embassy, with an agent at the door?”

I am silent, look at my hands. The answer is no. I wasn’t aware. (Appalled by this.)

“The paranoia will only get worse,” Mycroft says. He is being gentle; he knows this is difficult to hear. His very gentleness is uncharacteristic and I don’t like it on him, somehow. “I’ve seen it in agents who have been away for too long. It’s as though the whites of their eyes have grown permanently larger and they have difficulty sleeping for the rest of their lives.”

My silence continues. This line of thinking has already occurred to me. I recall the last few days, between Antalya, Nicosia, Berlin, and Edinburgh, the growing panic, the ever-present fear that had begun to stalk my thoughts uncontrollably.

Mycroft notes my reaction and grows even gentler. “You don’t have to do this alone, you know. There are agencies upon agencies in our government and others – you know this, of course – whose very existence is based upon doing the sort of work that you’ve been doing. You’re a detective, the best in the world. But you’re not cut out for this.”

“I’ve been doing it,” I say defensively, shooting him a look. “And I don’t need a psychological assessment, thank you.”

“I know you have been doing it,” Mycroft says, ignoring my last phrase. “And it sounds like you’ve been very effective so far. But tell me, Sherlock: how many people have you killed along the way?”

I flinch and look away. “I don’t know.”

“A lie.”

Grit my teeth. “Twelve confirmed. Maybe more.”

A moment passes. He looks very serious. “You’re not a k – an assassin, Sherlock.”

“Evidence would suggest otherwise,” I say, my mouth dry again. I reach for the water glass and hope that he won’t notice that my hand is shaking.

He sees it, of course, his eyes following, but mercifully he chooses not to comment on it. “Yes, and I’d really rather get you back into chasing down criminals and justice on the local rather than international scale.”

“Mycroft.” I glare at him and he returns the gaze steadily. “Don’t be obtuse. They just blew up a hospital because someone I met and worked with twice was linked to me. If they find out I’m alive after all, what more would they do to the people I actually care about? I can’t come back yet, it’s too risky for them. That’s the entire reason why I had to leave, don’t you see that?”

“I do,” Mycroft insists. He shifts in the seat and I hear his spine crack. He winces. “I really do. I just think it’s time you passed the reins to someone else. By all means, stay in hiding. You don’t need to ‘come back’, as you say. But I’ve made my decision, and I suggest you don’t try escaping from here. For one thing, you’re still far too weak to get far; secondly, now that you’re back in Britain I shall be able to track your movements absolutely everywhere if I choose to do so, and you know that I would in a heartbeat if you disappeared. And third, you wouldn’t get past the doors. Between my people and the Swiss secret service, you’d simply never stand a chance. But I will tell you this: you have the full range of my resources in helping you with this. By all means, continue tracking Yilmaz and his people, but do it remotely. I’ll place the very best people in the field. You can control everything if you wish to stay involved, but I will not have you running back to Turkey to track this man down. My decision is final.”

He is still speaking quietly but the steel in his voice is unmistakeable. Mycroft is, without a doubt, the most powerful person in Britain, despite what he claims. I give in with bad grace. “Where are you taking me?”

My brother stands and straightens his wrinkled suit jacket. “Home, Sherlock. I’m taking you back to London.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

 

The silence in the room has grown thick between us. Mycroft is still standing and looking down at me, waiting for a verbal compliance with his dictum.

What can I say? I went to him for help, and that help was always going to come on his terms. The truth of what he has observed about my condition is unavoidable. I know he is right, maddening as it is. What option do I have? I went running to the one ally I had made in the chase for help and got him killed. Mycroft is indestructible and invisible as far as the wider world is concerned; he works in the shadows. No one will ever get to him. I am being forcibly pulled into that protection whether I want it or not, and as he says, it is unlikely that I could escape from this facility even fully healthy. I am attired in only white shorts and a plain white t-shirt, obviously medical garments but at least they spared me the indignity of a robe. I have no idea what has been done with my other clothes, the coat I was wearing, my shoes, my wallet, my phone. I am at Mycroft’s mercy. And I asked to be there by shouting his name, by finally giving myself up to his army of silent vigilants. I feel my mouth tightening a little, but all say – all I can say is, “When?”

Something seems to relax in his shoulders, barely perceptibly. “As soon as you’re fit,” he says, and puts his hand on the doorknob.

“Mycroft.”

He stops, looks back over his shoulder. “Yes?”

I hesitate. “Thank you.” I do my best to keep it from sounding grudging. After all, he did interfere at the right time, for once. I needed him, genuinely needed him and all of his power and resources, and he came, and physically pulled me from the rubble himself. That, at least, deserves thanks. I’ll deal with his hands-off approach to Yilmaz later.

A short laugh, just an exhalation through his nose. “Don’t thank me yet. It’s not over.”

“But you came.” It’s quiet but firm.

He stills for a moment, not looking at me, then nods. “Yes, Sherlock. I’m glad you called for me.”

He says this as though I made a polite telephone call from a luxurious office somewhere, booking an appointment through his secretary. He is making to leave again, but I have to ask. “The others,” I say.

He stops. “Which others?”

“John.” I manage to say it without inflection. “Lestrade. Mrs Hudson.”

“What about them?”

I see that my hands are trembling and endeavour to keep them still. “Are they all right? Nothing has… happened to any of them?”

“All perfectly all right. Mrs Hudson is still living at Baker Street. No current tenants. Lestrade was cleared about a month after they proved Moriarty’s suicide. He is still a detective inspector. Recently divorced, for the second time.”

“It took a month?”

“It took awhile for the papers to clear. Police processes.” Mycroft gestures vaguely with his umbrella, still facing the door. He puts his hand on the knob, as though deliberately unaware of his omission.

“And John?” My voice comes out sounding normal. Even. (Good.)

A tiny sigh, almost invisible. “John is working at a small clinic in Westminster. He’s fine.”

I sense his hesitation. “And…?” I don’t receive an immediate answer and this makes me sharper than I might have been. “What aren’t you telling me, Mycroft?”

Mycroft straightens his shoulders and turns around to face me, his face sober, his words direct. “John is engaged,” he says shortly.

Three words. Only three, but they hit me like a physical blow. For a moment I can’t breathe. Then I hear the inhalation, dragging over my vocal cords and into my lungs, only to seep out again, leaving a vacuum. I cannot speak.

Mycroft is watching, his eyes intent but not unkind. “It was announced about two weeks ago, I believe,” he says quietly. “It’s fairly new.”

I don’t hear his words and at the same time, they’re all I can hear. Saying anything more is too much. Who doesn’t even matter. Someone. Anyone. Anyone other than me. Not a hint of an appropriate verbal response to this, not a shadow, crosses my brain. No words rise to my tongue, no acceptable platitude. Mycroft would see through it, anyway. I need him to leave.

He watched me a moment longer, an expression of something approaching worry crossing his face. “Well,” he says eventually, “I’ll be back in awhile. Push the button by the bed if you need anything. Your phone is in the drawer just beside you, there. I put my number on it.” He waits a moment, then opens the door and leaves.

The silence in the room, the very air seems to be weighing on my chest like a stone. I feel like a slate wiped blank. The part of my brain that is still functioning in a rational manner is reminding me that I have half-expected this, told myself that John was with someone all this while, that he had moved on. It wasn’t as though I expected him to spend the rest of his life waiting for me to come back. I couldn’t communicate with him to tell him to wait, to hold himself back. For me.

I don’t recall the moment that I became aware that the way I thought of John had changed. There wasn’t a moment. It was always and never, a realisation that never dawned but always was, somewhere in the back of my consciousness. Our first dinner together, that conversation – he had to have felt that there was something between us that it warranted addressing, asking about, and I closed the door firmly to all of that. It wasn’t as though I didn’t know that the possibility existed, but perhaps I still thought myself incapable of wanting something like that. It isn’t black and white when that changed. John changed everything. I remember thinking that I should have thought him plain, stodgy, dull. At face value I found him pleasant, if average-looking, yet his inner luminosity drew me to him like a moth to a light. His protestations to my behaviour in general should have made me think him unadventurous and resistant to everything about me – yet I never did think that. He complained, as though feeling expected to react that way, and then he followed me unhesitatingly. He chose words that portrayed him deliberately as unadventurous and conservative, yet there he was, jumping over rooftops, coming after me when he realised I was alone with my would-be killer, shooting him across a twenty-meter gap with unhesitating and deadly accuracy. John was dangerous exactly because he lulled one into thinking him a peaceful homebody who liked making tea and doing the Times crossword, and he is all of that. But he is also the fiery, adrenaline addict who can’t sleep when his life gets too dull, who craved me as much as I came to crave him, and all of that was there in our first meeting: his attempts to be regular, non-traumatised, socially acceptable, mine to shock and intrigue him. We fit instantly. I, who never thought I would fit with anyone and never looked for it. We belong together. And now he is engaged.

I turn on my side and stare at the far wall. I never thought that anything could feel as terrible as this does. This is what comes of sentiment, of having allowed myself to become close to another person. I built it up too much, spent two and a half years trying not to allow myself to imagine our eventual reunion, what I would say, what he would say or do in response. Every spare moment, and everything I did between the spare moments was meant to preserve that opportunity. To keep John alive, to keep his would-be killers away from him, so that our life could continue. At first I would tell myself that I wanted nothing but for it to continue exactly as it had been, but the longer my exile from London went, the more I yearned for him. I would catch myself imagining possible scenarios of that first conversation upon my return. Would I find him at his clinic? At home? (Would he still be at Baker Street, or somewhere else? The locations varied in my imaginings.) He was always alone in these, somewhere private where no one else, no intruder could observe. I found it impossible to imagine him any other way than angry, but only at first. The anger would eventually dissipate and then I would have John back, and perhaps in his relief and joy at seeing me alive again, we could finally undo that first dinner conversation. I could eat my own words at last and never turn him down again.

Too late. It’s too late for all of it. Perhaps if I had worked faster, avoided those two detainments (the first in Odessa, the second in Antalya), found Moran quicker. Or if I had given up the hunt after I tracked Moran to Paris. The problem was that I never knew whether Moriarty would have safeguarded his plan, ensured that if Moran was gone, someone else would take his place and kill John. I thought it best to eliminate every branch of his organisation that I could find. Yilmaz’ group is the last, as far as I know. But meanwhile, I’ve lost the very thing I was fighting to save all this time. John is lost to me. Nothing will ever be the same again. He will never live with me again, not if he’s getting married. I will never be the most important person in his life again. And he will never do any of the things I once imagined he might, upon seeing me again.

I close my eyes. I wish now that I had died. It could have happened so many times, so many ways. I could have let myself be shot climbing over the wall of Yilmaz’ compound outside Antalya. I could have been caught and executed on the Damocles, my body dumped overboard, never to be found. The gaoler could have beaten me to death in the cinder block prison cell. It could have happened countless ways. I could have just died in the fall. I could have saved John’s life, spared myself two and a half years of hunting and being hunted, in exile from everything and everyone I prize, and made my permanent exit from John’s life then. Now I have to face the rest of my life without him. I saved him for someone else.

***

Mycroft says little when he returns later, eyes moving over me like a scalpel. The male nurse comes with him and checks me over, relaying his thoughts in French to both of us, but mainly Mycroft. (Even Swiss nurses report to Mycroft. This is ridiculous.) He says that I am fit to fly, though he would advise waiting another day or two.

Mycroft frowns at this. “Pourquoi? Il n’est pas en danger en plus, correct? ” His words are flawless but his accent is ridiculously English. After having spent over two years trying to get by in other languages, I’ve become painfully aware of how difficult it is to shake an accent. Mycroft probably isn’t even aware that he has one. (Idiot.)

The nurse agrees with him but says, “Oui, mais il a eu un choc extrême. Il faut qu’il évite les situations dangereuses pour l’instant, et avec son travail…” He trails off and looks at me. There is no doubt that my work does generally engender dangerous situations. This is as unmistakeable as the fact that the nurse knows exactly who I am. He must have a higher security clearance than had previously occurred to me, though I realise belatedly that it should have. Mycroft would never allow just anyone to treat me.

Mycroft looks at me, too, his face inscrutable. “Je vais prendre soin de lui.

I would roll my eyes but instead continue staring at the far wall. Mycroft taking care of anyone usually means their swift and silent disappearance of one sort or another, whether by transfer to another department, firing, or death. “I’ll be fine,” I said dully, in English.

Accordingly, after refusing dinner, I am given clothing (new things; Mycroft chose them, telling me that the things I had been wearing were too damaged to keep. MI5 is probably all over them now). I am walked to a helipad on the rooftop, surrounded on all sides by agents, Mycroft behind me. The pilot and Mycroft exchange words while I am strapped into place like a doll. I feel limp, utterly uninterested in everything. Unengaged. (I wince. Wrong choice of words.)

We lift off and Edinburgh shrinks away. Mycroft points silently at the smoking rubble that took up an entire square block, the ruins of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. I look it and see only another place where I should have died.

***

We don’t speak all the way to London. Perhaps this is Mycroft being tactful. As observant as he is, and as unguarded as I have been about my reaction to his news, he has surely deduced what he already suspected about my feelings on the subject, anyway.

Something tightens in my chest still more upon seeing London from the air. It is twilight; the city is alight and alive, the Thames glittering in reflected light. Somewhere in that midst is John. John and his fiancée. London is ruined for me. (How can I stay here now?)

Coming home wasn’t supposed to be like this.

***

In the car, I don’t ask where we’re going, where Mycroft is taking me. To his London flat, I expect. Somewhere where he can watch me constantly and prevent me from returning to the streets and getting into trouble. (Or escaping back to Turkey, as he likely thinks I am wont to do. Strangely, I no longer want to. I should: John is not necessarily safe yet. Just because he is marrying someone (else) does not mean that I no longer wish to keep him safe. Not at all. But it’s too soon to go charging back out. The Swiss nurse is right. I need a bed and some more walls to stare at, at least for a few days.)

My deduction is correct: the car arrives at Mycroft’s flat in Belgravia. As we pull into the drive, he looks at me and finally breaks the silence. “For the moment, I thought this would do,” he says. “You don’t mind?”

“I don’t care.”

He sighs and unfastens his seatbelt. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”

A swarm of agents surround the car on my side and then open the door, ushering me rapidly into their huddle and swooping me inside. I am reminded of a group of waiters discreetly removing a dead mouse from a crowded restaurant, except the street is empty of cars or pedestrians. No one will see this, my carefully-cloaked return to London. How anticlimactic. Not that I wanted theatrics; I wanted to just reappear in my own daily life, walk back into everyone else’s lives with as little fuss as possible: a silhouette at the door, a quick explanation, then back to work, back to normal. Except for John, of course. That was the only revelation I cared about.

I am left mercifully alone in an upstairs bedroom, security lights blinking at the windows and doors. They will be aware of every breath I take. There are probably cameras everywhere. I should look but can’t be bothered, and anyway, with Mycroft one might as well assume being watched and listened to at all times. Let him watch, then. There’s nothing to see. I pull off the non-descript jacket his people provided, step out of their shoes and walk to the bed. Curl tightly on my side and try very hard to think about nothing whatsoever as the daylight fades outside the window.

***

In the morning someone (bland neutral tones, precisely polite: government employee, likely secret service of one sort or another) knocks and asks through the door if I’d like breakfast. I send him away, only to have Mycroft take his place a few moments later.

“Sherlock,” he says, mouth too close to the door, “this is pointless. Come down and eat. I’d like to discuss a few matters with you.”

I sigh and turn onto my back, stretching. At some point in the night I must have pulled the blankets over myself; my legs are tangled in them. I am still fully dressed. Oh. I push myself up and stalk over to the door, pulling it open. “What matters?”

Mycroft’s eyes travel over me, taking in the wrinkled clothing, my disorderly hair. His eyebrows lift, unimpressed, but all he says is, “Let’s discuss it over breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.” Nevertheless, Mycroft waits expectantly. Pointedly. When I don’t make a move to follow him, he pinches the bridge of his nose and says, “I did say I would see to your health, Sherlock. You’ve still recovering. I know you don’t need me to explain the importance of nutrients to the human body. It’s this or you go back on an intravenous drip. Your choice.”

He would do it, too. I scowl. “Give me a minute,” I say, voice still scratchy with sleep.

His shoulders release slightly. “All right,” he says, terse. “I’ll see you downstairs. And I will send someone back up to get you if I don’t see you within ten minutes.” He turns and leaves.

I close the door and survey myself in the mirror. I look terrible. My face is horribly pale, almost greyish, deep blue-ish circles under my eyes. The wrinkles there are more pronounced than ever. I look old and tired and sad. I still have a wad of bandage taped to the right side of my face around the temple and the edge of my cheekbone and there is an uncovered scratch running from the left side of my nose almost to my jaw line, a crusted line of dried blood. The trousers and shirt I was wearing are creased beyond belief. I strip them off, checking the closet in the corner. I am entirely unsurprised to find a range of my usual style of clothing in my sizes hanging there. I choose something neutral, try to dress without jostling any of the wounds and burns too much, and attempt to organise my hair into a semblance of normality. Shower later, definitely.

Mycroft is seated at his immense dining room table, a table which could seat ten and likely very rarely seats more than one. I know my brother; he would always prefer to meet on his professional territory, neutral territory, or the other person’s territory, the latter only being if he thought his visit sufficiently frightening to cancel out whose territory it actually was. He is holding the Times open in front of his face but folds it and lays it beside his place setting when he hears me. He gives me a cursory smile and indicates the only other place that’s been set, to his left. “Have a seat.”

Since this is hardly optional, I do it with minimal drama. “Going to tie me to it?”

“I don’t think that will be necessary.” Mycroft is blandly calm. “Breakfast?”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m sorry, let me rephrase that: breakfast.” Mycroft glances back over his right shoulder and the man who was trying to conceal himself as part of the wood panelling comes forward. Mycroft waits for me to say something, watching pointedly.

I sigh. “I’ll have whatever he’s having.”

“Very good, Mr Holmes. Coffee or tea?”

“Coffee. Black, two sugars.” Tea at breakfast makes me think of John, which is the last thing I want to think about. Coffee is neutral.

Evidently Mycroft’s breakfast is the same every day; the butler doesn’t even ask, disappearing silently in the direction of the kitchen. Mycroft directs a slightly acidic smile at me. “I didn’t know you’d changed your opinion of black pudding.”

My stomach turns just thinking of it. “Is that what I just ordered?”

The smile widens. He is trying to being light-hearted. (Waste of time.) “No. Apologies. Just a little joke. You’re surprisingly trusting of my taste in breakfast.” Mycroft contemplates me for a moment, then adds, “Ah. I see. You just don’t care.”

“Mmm. What did you want to discuss?” I ask.

He leans forward and loses the stupid smile. “Strategy.” His fingers steeple in front of his face and suddenly he’s all business again. “I want to discuss where you would like to work, how you plan to direct the operation, your contacts in Asia Minor, where you would like to live, how you want to handle security and publicity regarding yourself, all of that.”

“Publicity?” I repeat, frowning. “No publicity, Mycroft. I’m staying in hiding.”

“Yes, of course, but we need to plan for the possibility of you being recognised,” Mycroft says. “We’ll always need a Plan B.”

“I’ll keep myself out of sight,” I say. “No Plan B. I’ll just hide in plain sight. I do it all the time.”

Mycroft wavers, clearly hosting some manner of internal debate, then acquiesces. “All right. Fine. Now: where do you want to live? I’m sure Mrs Hudson would be very happy to have you back, if you’re willing to allow her to know that you’re alive.”

I hesitate, contemplating this. I can’t possibly last more than a week at the absolute maximum here in Mycroft’s flat, being force fed and supervised every waking and sleeping minute. I think of Mrs Hudson. It would really be better for her not to know that I’m alive, but then again, she can also be incredibly discreet when she wants to be. If she carried on as though still living by herself and I took precautions to only enter and exit in disguise or under the cover of darkness, it could work. I could use her kitchen door, accessed by the back alley. Is this too dangerous for her? Only if she speaks about it, and Mycroft will likely debrief her so thoroughly that she wouldn’t dream of it. The yearning to go back to Baker Street is magnetic, as much so as the desire to not be in Mycroft’s space. Any safehouse he would arrange would be just as bad as living directly with him. Baker Street is the best option. “All right,” I say. “Baker Street.”

“I’ll need to brief – ”

“I know.” I cut through his warning tones, thinking of Mrs Hudson. “I’ll come with you when you do it.”

“Sherlock, she’s an old woman. She’s likely to faint or go into cardiac arrest if you just walk in out of the blue.”

“You’ll call and let her know that you’re coming first,” I counter. “And don’t be ridiculous. Mrs Hudson is stronger than you think.”

Mycroft concedes this with a shrug. “Heaven knows she survived you for all that time. Have it your way.”

“Thank you.”

This irks him. (Good. I vastly prefer his irritation to his prissy smiles.) “Will you work from Baker Street, then? If so we’ll need to make adequate arrangements.”

“I’ll let you know what I need,” I say as breakfast is served in silence. I look at the heap of breakfast meats and think that if I consume that much processed protein at once I’ll likely be ill. I wait for the staff to withdraw, then state, “No surveillance within the flat.”

He frowns at this, as I knew he would, and challenges it. “Sherlock – ”

“You already have surveillance outside. Don’t even pretend otherwise. You can put your cameras on every door and window of 221B but if I find a trace of wiring inside, I’ll disappear.” I deliver this calmly, watching him. “I want my privacy, Mycroft.”

His lips tighten. “Do you really think you’re in any condition to be setting conditions, Sherlock?”

“I don’t care. If you’re willing to lend me your resources and work with me on this, I would appreciate it,” I say, eyes boring into his. “But it’s my operation. You said so yesterday. I won’t be managed and controlled.”

His mouth twists again, but he is rubbing his chin, a sign of serious thought and I know that he is about to agree, if reluctantly. (Of course reluctantly. It’s Mycroft, and it’s me. This is how we are.) “Fine,” he says eventually, very grudgingly. “But you will keep me informed, Sherlock, or I will find you if you decide to play lone wolf again.”

“Is that a threat?”

He smiles grimly. “A promise.”

To my own surprise, despite everything, I feel the corners of my lips pulling into a small smile.

***

Predictably, Mrs Hudson weeps. Copiously. She clutches at my shoulders and swats me. Mycroft went in first, allowing her to brew a pot of tea which he then administered to her after the shock of his news. He spoke to her awhile, then called me in. She is full of questions, I can see, but she doesn’t want to ask them in front of Mycroft. He gets the hint after awhile and leaves, saying he’ll be back later with a host of technical people and equipment. Laptops and increased satellite access, mostly. A phone which he promises has been secured, even from him. (We’ll see about that.)

The door closes and Mrs Hudson gazes at me from across her kitchen table. “Oh, my dear,” she says plaintively, her motherly eyes drooping softly at the corners.

I try to find a smile for her. It doesn’t quite come out right.

“You look a mess,” she says, tsk-ing. “Your hair is much too long, you never used to let it grow out so far, and your face – oh, Sherlock.”

I let her take one of my hands and pat it with both of hers. “I’m all right,” I say.

She shakes her head, the distress quite evident. “I can’t even imagine – your brother said something about chasing after killers halfway around the world. Is that where you’ve been all this time?”

“Yes.”

She takes this in and mulls it over, still looking quite upset. Processing what that must mean I’ve been up to, realising all of the things she doesn’t want to know and won’t ask. (Relief. I would hate to have to explain that to Mrs Hudson. Throwing a man from a first-storey window onto her dustbins is one thing. Shooting one in the back in broad daylight in public is something else.) She pats my hand again. “I’m just glad to have you back,” she says, with a firmness that clearly states that she is not going to probe for details, doesn’t want to hear them. We understand each other perfectly, then.

John’s name is in the air between us. I cannot be the first one to say it. “So,” I say, clearing my throat and trying to sound brusque. “Mycroft said that my things are still here?”

She nods. “I never did have the heart to give them away. I never had any tenants after you and – ” She catches herself and stops. One hand flutters toward her face, seeing mine.

(I wonder what my expression is doing. Hastily attempt to arrange it into something acceptable. Possibly unsuccessfully; I can’t see what my face looks like, can I?) I say nothing; what can I say?

“Does he know?” she asks, almost whispering. “That you’re – ”

“No.” It comes out sharper than I intended.

“Sherlock – he – ” Mrs Hudson stops herself.

Is she trying to find the words to tell me of his engagement? “What?” It sounds flat, uninflected.

“He would want to know,” she says, nodding to underscore her sincerity. “He’s going to find out anyway, isn’t he? I mean – once all this is finished…” She trails off uncertainly.

“No.” I stand, pushing the chair back, and walk toward the back stairs that lead up to our – to the flat. “I’m not going to tell him. And neither,” I add, forestalling her protest in warning tones, “are you. You gave Mycroft your word. Absolute secrecy.”

She wrings her hands miserably, fingers kneading together on the surface of the table. “Oh, Sherlock, but – but won’t you want him to know, when it’s safe? He was your… your best friend, and… oh, I don’t know, the two of you, but – you loved him, I know. And he loved you.”

Her words cut to the quick. “No,” I say, needing to be farther away from her. I turn away in the doorway and speak with my back to her. “Not any more. I’m not going to tell him. I’m not going to see him again.”

I glance back, daring her to challenge this. Her eyes fill with tears, but she just nods, and lets me go without protest.

I almost wish she hadn’t, but it will be better this way. A clean break this time. No more waiting and hoping and dreaming feverishly of something that was apparently never going to happen. I go upstairs in silence.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

 

Baker Street is quiet and cold without John.

There is no escaping this thought. I stand at the top of the stairs in the kitchen, move to the doorway leading to the sitting room. Home. I am home.

The thought doesn’t quite register. The silence is so silent that it seems to make white noise against my ears as I turn my head. Home, I think again, reminding myself. This is home. I look around, verifying that it’s just as it used to be and it’s no use trying not to think of John. He is in every memory of every inch of this space, indelibly. I will have to rearrange the furniture or something. Yes. This seems like a good idea. I already owned his armchair before we met, but rarely sat in it. I remembered thinking in passing how odd it was that he should have made a beeline for it almost the instant he set foot in Baker Street for the first time, setting the Union Jack cushion firmly into place as though it had come with the chair and settling in, the chair I had only come to possess because the previous tenants of the previous flat had left it behind. I should have realised: it was John’s chair all along. It just needed John.

(Is this a metaphor for my life? Metaphor: not really my area. I prefer facts, solid things that can be pulled apart, analysed, proven. And yet.) This line of thinking is useless. I make myself stop looking at his chair and lay my jacket over the back of it, fingers lingering on the rough wool blanket that always lay across the top. The cushion is gone, though. I wonder if Mrs Hudson took it. (Would she do that? Why would she do that?) I puzzle over this for a moment, then give it up as a lost cause and wander through the rooms. My space, my own, and private. I am not so naïve to think that I am entirely safe here, but I feel safer here than anywhere in the world. I am ninety-nine percent certain that my flight from Scotland would not have been noticed. This thought reminds me of something else. I take the phone Mycroft gave me out of my pocket and slide the back off. Going to the kitchen table I take it apart and examine every bit of it through my spare magnifying glass which is still in the drawer with the silverware. No signs of tampering or extra wiring. I check all the settings and disable the wireless. That would be too easy for Mycroft. When I am satisfied that the phone is not bugged, I log into one of my many coded email accounts and find the last number Hamish Duncan had sent me and dial it.

The clicks and delay suggest that Duncan is certainly not in Britain. When he finally answers he sounds drowsy. “Hello,” he says, not providing a name.

“Duncan?” I say. “This is Walther.”

A moment while he places the name in his memory. “English chap,” he says. “Tall. Dark curly hair. Met in Leipzig that time. Bit of trouble.”

“Yes. That’s me.”

Another pause. “You’re not calling from Germany.”

“No. Is your phone secure?”

“Who can ever be sure?” I hear the shrug in his tone. “Better than email, at least.”

He waits. I clear my throat. “Listen, have you heard about Sheffield?”

Duncan makes a noise of assent. “Yeah. Just heard the other day. Got himself blown up, it seems. You know anything about it? No one in our group has got a clue.”

I pause. “I think you’ll recall that I got tangled with Yilmaz’ operation, which I had stumbled into in Riyadh. You warned me about them. By that point it was too late to change my mind, though. I ended up tracking them back to Sana’a and got myself captured.”

This produces a thoughtful silence, then Duncan speaks again, sounding much more alert than he had a moment ago. “You were interrogated.”

It’s not a question. “They already knew that I knew him. I never said a word.” I glance around the sitting room. “You were right to warn me about them, but I was working on my own and I suppose my cover was blown at some point. They took me to a compound near Antalya, but they’ve moved since then. I’m tracking them but have nothing to go on.”

Duncan processes this. “Sherkan Yilmaz,” he says. “One of the most dangerous men I’ve come across, and I’ve never even met him personally.”

“I have reason to believe they targeted Sheffield because they discovered somehow that I knew him,” I say. “I also have reason to believe that other associates of mine may still be in danger. I need to find him.”

“Other associates?” Duncan sounds as though he is frowning. “I thought you worked alone.”

“I do. Personal associates.”

Static crackles over the line. “You’re not still in Turkey, are you?”

“No. I’m calling from England. I’m not in the field myself at the moment. Sorry for waking you, by the way.” It’s an obvious ploy to ask where he is, but he probably won’t take the bait.

He doesn’t. “Right,” he says, ignoring my light verbal probe. “I’ve got a few people in the area. I’ll ask around. Sheffield was one of the good ones. I wouldn’t mind helping you with that.”

This is precisely what I was hoping he would say. “I’d appreciate that. I may have access to some field agents from another organisation as well.”

He pauses. “Another organisation? Who are you? Some kind of double-oh seven or something?”

I almost smile. “Not exactly. Is this the best way to reach you? Is there a better number?”

“No, this is still current. How can I contact you? I tried to reach you when I heard the news about Sheffield but that number isn’t in service any more.”

I try to remember which of my phone numbers he would have had. Probably the temporary phone I’d had in Saudi Arabia. Fortunately I hadn’t had any phone numbers stored on it, nothing that could have led Yilmaz’ people back to anyone I know, including Duncan, when they took it from me. I give Duncan my new phone number, as it will have been blocked when I called. “I’ll be in London for the time being,” I say, hoping very much that Mycroft’s secure line is as secure as he assured me it was. “Let me know the instant you hear anything. And incidentally, the alias of Walther is no longer live.”

“Right. What should I call you, then?”

I hesitate a moment, then say it. “Holmes.”

When Duncan speaks again, which he does after a short but loaded silence, his tone is one of distinct respect. “Mr Holmes,” he says. “An honour. And welcome back, sir. We all thought – well, you would know what we all thought. Anything I can do.”

I permit myself a slight smile. “Thank you. I’ll let you know.”

We disconnect. I feel slightly better. Hamish Duncan is a bit of a Lestrade, only sharper. He works methodically yet efficiently, and based on both his and Sheffield’s vague allusions, he has shadowy contacts in pockets all over the globe. Sheffield was one of the best field agents I met and he recommended Duncan highly. I cannot simply trust Mycroft’s people in the field; if I can’t be there myself, I need someone that I trust, as far as trusting goes. One of my own contacts, not just faceless intelligence agents.

Duncan’s response to me makes me happier than it should. There it is: the need for validation, for an audience, for appreciation. For someone to see what it is I do, who it is that I am, and understand it well enough to appreciate it and recognise it. I have missed this. That was always one of the best things about John. He always appreciated it, always understood that it was something just past his own ability to comprehend, but he would ask, wanting to understand it, wanting to know how the process had worked this time, that I should have arrived at the conclusion I did.

Thinking of John hurts. Deflates the small burst of pride/sense of identity/sense of being restored to something resembling my proper place in the universe. (Who am I without John?)

***

I am myself. I am myself and I would be with or without John to give me context, make me real. I was myself before I met him and despite all of the other names, I have been myself since I lost him. This is the answer and I know it, but perspective is lost inside this vortex of crushing dullness. Every girlfriend he ever had before was a false alarm, someone who ultimately couldn’t compete with my demands on his time. I liked to think couldn’t compete with me for sheer interest/intrigue, either, but perhaps this was an incorrect projection on my part. Left to his own devices, would John have always settled into the version of life he has thought of as normal, preferable, acceptable? If he had come back from Afghanistan, wounded without and within, damaged and traumatised, would he have settled back into the person he thought he was supposed to be, had I not happened to him? Would the arms of some (bland, normal, acceptable) woman have soothed away his nightmares, the easily surmountable challenges of daily domestic life satisfied his hunger for the adrenaline, eventually cured his ridiculous limp, the intermittent tremor in his left hand? I never thought so. Always told myself that his determined pursuit of women was a twofold thing, an attempt to balance his innate attraction to me, and a secure repository for dealing with his unspent need to physicalise his desire. How many times did I tell myself within the past nine hundred and twenty days that if I had said the word, found a way to reverse that first dinner conversation, it could have happened. That he would have contentedly given up the string of failed girlfriends and been satisfied to take (or accept?) what he really wanted all along.

Was this all inaccurate, a false extrapolation of my own latent and belatedly-deduced desires? His attraction was undeniable, though I’m sure he would have given denial a valiant go. The way he would look at me, particularly when he thought I wasn’t watching or couldn’t see (the very secrecy made this suspect behaviour), the frequency with which he would touch me. How often I relived every one of the touches I could remember; they were innumerable, routine. Part of the way we related. John was always very tactile; he used touch to communicate, especially when he seemed to find words inadequate or unnecessary (unsure which, precisely). Passing behind me at the kitchen table, a fleeting (but warm) touch on the shoulder on his way to the clinic, handing me something, uncaring that our fingers touched (I was always hyper-aware; was he?), unhesitatingly touching my arm/elbow/hand/shoulder/hip to steady me, reassure me, pull me back into the present or alert me to some breach of acceptable social conduct on my part. Touches for no reason, at least none discernible to me. My hair. My coat sleeve. The back of his knuckles against mine as we walked somewhere, or in a restaurant, a taxi. Both deliberate and unaware, but never shrinking from it. Never avoiding it, never consciously holding himself back or telling himself (or me) that it wasn’t all right for two men in a platonic relationship to be touching that much. I did it, too, of course. Pushing his limits to see how far I could go, just to amuse myself. (So I thought at the time. I think of asking him to reach into my jacket pocket for my phone/wallet/notebook/some other object, numerous times. Just to annoy him, to wind him up. Or was it because I wanted him close, to see if he would do it if I asked? Told. I never asked.) And one could make a solid argument that he liked this, liked being directed to come close to me. He always made some sort of (expected) sound of annoyance and then immediately did it, no matter what I asked. Never shied away when I deliberately put myself in his personal space, testing to see if he would resist it. If he hadn’t wanted to be that close to me, surely he would have said something to assert his space.

(What if he hadn’t made that sound of annoyance? Just came over and slid his hands into my jacket, shirt pocket, trouser pocket, and hadn’t put up the mask of false annoyance? How would I have reacted? Probably frozen, unable to formulate a response in time, unsure of what I wanted. The fantasy is always easier than the reality. Besides, I didn’t know (consciously) that I wanted it then.)

I spend the next ten hours or so lost in these thoughts, staring at the sitting room ceiling. Familiar pose. Familiar lassitude. (Unfamiliar figurative fracture of the cardiac muscle.)

***

Mrs Hudson is not happy with me. (Conflicted about this; she feels guilty for not being happier but can’t get over the part about not telling John.) I don’t tell her that he’ll find out inevitably once this is all over, Yilmaz is dealt with, and the media has itself a circus over my return and not-being-dead-ness. What he does then will be up to him. (Still wonder how he’ll react. I know he’ll be angry that I didn’t tell him I was back. He’ll be angry about all of it. Probably stubbornly refuse to understand any of it.)

(Will he feel conflicted? Will he realise that he’s chosen something less than what he wanted?)

(Will he change his mind? Will he have lost his attraction for me, buried away into some corner of his being that he doesn’t think of or acknowledge any more? Probably. But what if he does? God, I hope he does. Change his mind, that is.)

I growl aloud in frustration. I must stop thinking about it. Have taken up smoking again, finally (the sheer bliss of it after so long, only slightly tainted by the twinge of disappointment that feels like John’s permanent voice lodged in my inner consciousness). Just to give myself something to do with my hands, the heady blur washing like a sweet flood through my mind as the rush hits. (Hate my fingers smelling of tar after. Wouldn’t dream of switching to low-tar. If you’re doing to do something you shouldn’t, you might as well do it. Low-tar cigarettes are for people who are trying to pretend that they’re not really smoking.) No: I inhale deeply, feel the burn at the back of my throat, in my lungs when I hold it too long, consider the sticky droplets of tar clinging to my alveoli in a black mist, every fibre of poisonous carcinogen separating and burying itself into the soft pink sponge of lung tissue. Feel slightly sick, exhale again. Mrs Hudson tuts audibly from the kitchen (what is she doing in there? Just fabricating some excuse to be up here, to check on me? Yes) but doesn’t say anything concrete. One cannot argue with one of those little sounds, quick suction of tongue to the alveolar ridge and release, so distinctly disapproving. Can feel her projecting concern on multiple levels. She both wants and doesn’t want to offer food. Knows I would reject it and be annoyed to be fussed over. (We understand each other perfectly.)

She comes into the sitting room, shoulders carrying her specific disapproval regarding indoor smoking instead of John for once. “Sherlock,” she says, the reproachful concern coating her tone. “Have you been there all night? Your bedding’s all where it used to be, I could make up the bed for you if you’re not wanting to…”

What time is it? I glance out the window. Mid-morning. Day nine hundred and twenty-one. “It’s fine.”

One hand comes up to rest on her hip. She’s lost weight since I left London and her cheeks have sagged a little further. “Have you eaten?”

I shrug. She’ll know how to take that.

She does. She sighs, goes back into the kitchen and brings something back, stooping to drop it (them) on the coffee table. “For later, then,” she says. “I’ll be downstairs.”

She goes and I turn my head. Smile before I can help myself; it’s a sheaf of take-away menus from local restaurants (two unfamiliar: new?) After an hour or so (lost track of time checking my email) I order a take-away curry and leave the box on the worktop in the kitchen for her approval later.

***

Days nine hundred and twenty-two and twenty-three move by slowly. I emerge from Baker Street on nine hundred and twenty-two and return with entirely new bank accounts opened under my own name and dire threats regarding confidentiality. All it takes is a reference to the accounts manager’s infidelity (dull, predictable) and he is stammering his assurances. (How I love having the English language to communicate my findings again! Makes some things so much easier.) I also return with significantly less hair, cut so short that it doesn’t curl (probably the product; we’ll see tomorrow, I think darkly) and parted on one side. Wire-framed glasses (non-prescription), tweed suit, brown shoes (dislike). A smart newsboy cap (matching brown tweed) completes the disguise perfectly; such simple changes yet I am all but unrecognisable now. I change my gait, purchase a briefcase (brown leather) and assume the tight, pinched look of a harried accountant or city boy.

I suppose I could wear false noses or something, but that almost seems like cheating. So much more eloquent, this: changing a walking pattern, redistributing the weight over the soles of my feet to change the way my feet in their brown shoes fall onto the pavement, bend my knees a little more than usual, shorten my strides. Keep arms stiffly by my sides, hands out of my pockets. (This is the hardest one to do consistently; had not previously realised the extent to which I evidently enjoy putting my hands in my pockets.) I will have to form a new habit. (Hear John’s sarcastic internal voice: Okay, Spock. Wince. Try to find a new subject to think about, quickly. I should do this, invent an automatic redirect for John-related thoughts. Yilmaz. Yes: sobering.)

Duncan has not been in touch, but presumably he is digging. If Yilmaz has gone to ground somewhere, he could be extremely difficult to find. Countries like Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen – these are essentially closed territory to outsiders. Impossible not to stand out, difficult to invent legitimate-sounding covers. Problematically, the Arabic of those countries uses a very specific accent/dialect, so even if one of Mycroft’s people is an Arabic-speaker by birth, he (it would have to be male; in that culture it would be all but impossible to get a female agent into anywhere Yilmaz would be holed up) would stand out as an obvious foreigner, anyway. This will be difficult. Mycroft is working on satellite surveillance of the area, but apart from heat signatures, there’s little for him to go on other than looking at every single human. I directed him to search the outskirts of every city or town in the region, as Yilmaz has shown a preference to staying close to urban centres but not directly in them. His compound in Saudi Arabia was just outside Riyadh; the scattering of huts they were camping in close to Sana’a was less than a ten-minute drive from the city, and the compound in Antalya was just beyond city limits, too, close to the port. Strategic locations: not so far past any city border to appear as anything other than a suburb, always close to a major highway or other exit (such as the water). I suppose Mycroft and his monkeys must have some other methods to make the hunt more efficient; Mycroft is nothing if not efficient. I do wonder if he appreciates the extent of Yilmaz’ paranoia, however. This is an individual who somehow caught me – me – trailing him and successfully captured me. That had only happened once before, that dismal town near Odessa. Those were Moran’s people, though, when I was hunting him. They knew my face, knew who I was. Knew I was alive. When I escaped (still a rather inventive bit of engineering on my part, as I recall), I made sure not to leave a one of them living. The only way to bury a trail is to bury those on it, one could say.

***

The days pass this way: empty, restless, trying and failing not to obsess over John, enduring Mrs Hudson’s sighs and half-hearted attempts to fuss. She doesn’t try to bring John up, though. (Not verbally, at least.)

Finally there is a break: on day nine hundred and thirty-two since my exile began, Duncan texts. I check the time: just past six in the morning in London. The text is short but invaluable:

25.184510, 51.613527
Al-Wakrah. Close to Doha,
Qatar. Back-up in Abu Dhabi.
Security very high. Suspected
explosives. Extreme caution
recommended. HD

I read it twice and call up the coordinates on the map. Frown at the location (remote, very close to the Persian Gulf – fits the profile) and then email Mycroft the coordinates on the double-encrypted email address he gave me. After a second’s thought, I then dial his private number.

He picks up on the second ring. “Sherlock.” He was awake already. (Obviously.)

“I thought you said this number was untraceable.”

“Not to my phone.”

Grit my teeth. “Any other exceptions I should be aware of?”

“None. No exceptions, that is.” Mycroft shifts the phone; he is sitting down. I deduce from the slight creak as he sits that he is at his office in the Diogenes Club, rather than his government office: leather wing-back chair, squeaks in front right joint. “What is it?”

“I just emailed you some coordinates. The email you gave me. Need you to check it out.”

Mycroft’s tone shifts from reassuring/patronising to intent/focused at once. I appreciate this about him. Despite his many faults, he can at least be counted upon to react accordingly when needed. “Is it Yilmaz?” he asks, direct to the point.

“A contact believes so.”

“A contact?”

“Someone I met last year. Trustworthy. I think.”

“I’d rather verify that myself.”

“I know, and you’re not going to. I have no idea where he is, or even whom, really. I have no way of knowing whether he uses his own name or an alias. I don’t know what country he’s in. And I already got one contact killed just for having known me.”

“Sheffield,” Mycroft says, considering. “Yes. All right. I understand. You can trust this information?”

“I have no reason not to. I met the contact through Sheffield and he said he’d like to help track down Sheffield’s killer. He’s been looking since I contacted him two weeks ago.”

Can hear Mycroft’s pen scratching something. “Where are the coordinates?”

“Qatar,” I say. “Close to Doha. Close to the Gulf.”

“Qatar.” Mycroft’s voice is flat. “That’s difficult to access. Very difficult.”

“Yes,” I say dryly, “which I assume is why he set up camp there. I imagine if he wanted every intelligence agency in the world to be able to track him he’d have thought more carefully about his location.”

“That will do,” Mycroft says placidly. “All right. I’ll have satellite access within thirty minutes. Supposing we can confirm that it is indeed Yilmaz and his operation, what would you like me to do?”

This surprises me slightly. (Never actually thought he would allow me to direct the operation.) “Bring him in. Alive. I need to question him.”

“And if he offers significant resistance?”

Yilmaz’ type are the sort who would bite the pill or self-ignite rather than give away information if they can help it. Still, it’s worth a try. I need to know if he knows about John, about the plan. Moriarty’s grand plan, sure to be set into swift and merciless action should Yilmaz finally discover who I am, if he hasn’t already. I am certain that he has been working at finding this ever since he let me go. (Wonder if they interrogated Sheffield to get it. Yes. They must have done. If this is the case, then he was certainly killed for having refused or stated his ignorance, meaning that I owe it to him all the more to see to Yilmaz’ demise. But first I need to know if Moriarty’s plan had or still has fail-safes.) “If he offers resistance, offer more back,” I say shortly. “Unless he kills himself, and please do try to avoid having that happen – I don’t know, knock him out or something – and take him alive. The rest can die if they’d rather. Their call, and yours.”

“No, yours,” Mycroft says firmly. “I’ll send a car for you once we have the target in view and you can direct the operation from here.”

Again, I am surprised by this. I suppose this is him upholding his end of the bargain: I allow him to know where I am and what I’m doing; he gives me the full weight of his not-inconsiderable armada of resources and allows me to give the orders, albeit under his watchful gaze. “Thank you,” I say, a touch stiffly. “I would appreciate that.”

“It could take several hours,” Mycroft warns, ignoring this. “Given the expense of satellite technology, we will need to confirm for certain that it is Yilmaz’ operation. There are untold numbers of paramilitary groups squatting in unused factory buildings around the world, particularly in that corner, which is still quite closed to us, as I’m sure you discovered for yourself. Once I have satellite access, I’ll send in a few agents to confirm in person.”

“Which agents?” I frown. “The dialect is very particular there, Mycroft, you can’t just send in anyone who speaks Arabic.”

“Yes, Sherlock, I’m aware of that,” Mycroft says. He is pinching the bridge of his nose; I can hear the way it subtly shifts the timbre of his voice. “I have an agent from Riyadh who spent ten years in Bahrain, where I’m told the dialect and accent are undistinguishable from that of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and the other is from Al-Ain. I do know what I’m doing, Sherlock.”

I relax slightly. Still. “I know that. But one misstep could be fatal to more than just that agent,” I say, still sharp.

“Which is why we will do everything in our power not to make any,” Mycroft responds. “I’ll be in touch.” He disconnects.

***

It takes twenty-five hours before he calls. I am on my feet before the first ring has finished. “What?” I demand, adrenaline spiking.

“Operation confirmed,” Mycroft says. “The car will be outside in four minutes.”

I press the End button and tear into the bedroom to finish dressing, already attired in my navy version of the accountant outfit. Comb and smooth down my short hair with product and pull on my coat, stoop to tie the brown laces of the detested brown shoes and check through the peep-hole to confirm that Mycroft’s car is there before racing across the pavement and into it. Four minutes precisely. The driver (one that I recognise from Mycroft’s household staff) and I don’t exchange a word during the eight and a half minutes it takes to drive to Mycroft’s office building.

Anthea meets me as silently as usual and leads me to a fortress in the basement which I have never seen before. It is a bunker of a room, lacking any touch of Mycroft’s standard luxury: concrete floors, metal chairs, bare light bulbs. However, what it lacks in décor it makes up for in technology. The entire room is aglow with the blue-white hum of computer screens, CCTV monitors, speakers, high-grade headsets, wiring running everywhere. I count fourteen agents in my first visual sweep of the room, Mycroft standing in the middle as though commanding a war room. No jacket, just his waistcoat, sleeves rolled up, Patek Philippe watch glinting reflected light from one of the many screens. He glances over, gives Anthea a microscopic nod and she departs wordlessly.

He walks over and begins explaining what I’m looking at, which screens shows what. The central focus is the largest screen mounted on the far wall, live-streaming satellite imagery, the geographic coordinates displayed in the lower right corner. Al-Wakrah, I presume. The photographs change every ten seconds (costly technology, indeed), angle shifting as the satellite drifts. An oblong rectangular building made of corrugated tin fills the screen, heat signatures in red splotches, moving as the photos change. I count eleven people. When Mycroft finishes talking, I look around and notice that all fourteen of his agents are watching me, waiting expectantly.

“So,” I say in response to Mycroft’s report. “It’s his group but Yilmaz himself isn’t there?”

“No,” Mycroft says, not quite apologetic. “And until we have further information about his back-up in Abu Dhabi, I assume you won’t want to move against the rest of the group. Do you know how large it is, how many members?”

“No.” I stare at the screen. (Where is he? Is my gaoler there? How do Mycroft’s people know that Yilmaz isn’t one of the people inside the building?) “I don’t think there were many more than this, but I have no way of knowing for certain without questioning them. But I don’t want to spook them.”

One of the agents clears his throat, glances at Mycroft, who gives him a nod. “Sir,” he says, addressing me, “the agents on location suggested that they wait for the target to return to the compound and capture him before he can re-enter. The plan is to capture him alone and bring him back here. I think you’re entirely correct in thinking that if we target the rest of the group, Yilmaz himself will go to ground and just rebuild his organisation with other people, possibly his back-up in the UAE.”

I nod, look at Mycroft. “Yes. Good suggestion. What do you think?”

Mycroft shrugs. “It’s your call, as I said,” he responds. “I do think Smithson has the best idea, however. Capture Yilmaz alone, then take down the rest of the group. The instant he leaves the shed again, we’ll send in the forces. They’ll be surrounded. Thankfully, given their unpopulated and somewhat remote location, we should be able to work without many witnesses, if any.”

“Mr Holmes,” another agent says just then, one finger touching the earpiece in his left ear.

Both Mycroft and I turn. “Yes?” Mycroft snaps, before I can.

He swivels in his chair slightly, but doesn’t take his eyes off the screen in front of him. “It’s Al-Amri. He has eyes on a man he believes to be Yilmaz.”

“Al-Amri is one of your agents on the ground?” I direct this to Mycroft.

“Yes. What do you mean ‘believes’?” Mycroft demands, crossing the room in three steps, bending to look at the screen. “Sherlock, get over here.”

I’m already there, leaning over the agent’s other shoulder. The agent points at the screen, a computer showing GPS devices on a map of Al-Wakrah. “That one is Al-Amri. I have him in my ear. Suspect not confirmed, sir. Repeat, suspect not confirmed to be Yilmaz.”

“Where is our other man?” I ask.

The agent points at his second screen. “Two blocks away. Two hundred metres.”

“Salib.” Mycroft supplies me with the name, then says quietly, “Have him close the distance and apprehend the suspect before he can reach the compound.”

It’s a suggestion of a directive, one he could have just made without consulting me. I nod briefly and relay it to the agent. “As soon as he’s in range, tell them to go.”

“Yes, sir.” The agent speaks softly into his mouthpiece in Arabic. He appears as white and Anglo-Saxon as they come. I glance at Mycroft, raising my eyebrows slightly.

Mycroft shrugs. “He worked in Syria for years, but the dialect is too different or I would have sent him. These agents prefer to speak to their partners in the field in the local language to avoid confusion in switching languages on the other end.”

This makes perfect sense. I focus on the GPS dots moving together until Salib is in the same frame as Al-Amri. The agent in front of me is listening intently. “Ready, sir,” he says.

“Go!” I say, leaning forward even further.

I see the two dots converge on a single point; the man who may or may not be Yilmaz is not GPS-tagged and is therefore invisible through this medium. Everyone is silent, waiting, watching intently. Thirty tense seconds pass. Then the agent’s shoulders slump a little. He asks a short question, listens for the response, follows up with two or three short exchanges. (Wish I spoke Arabic. Wish I spoke everything.) He turns slightly toward his left, toward me. “It’s not him.”

I hear Mycroft’s breath release in frustration. “They’re certain?”

“Fingerprint checks out on the local police database. Seems he was once arrested for pickpocketing in his adolescence. Sorry, sir.”

Mycroft presses a thumb to his temple, fingers to his broad forehead. “What’s their cover for the sudden attack?”

The agent shrugs. “Told him they thought he was someone else and scattered. He’s continued in the direction he was walking but turned south on Umm Al-Hool Street. Salib is tailing to make sure that he’s not going to the compound. It was Al-Amri who questioned him while Salib ran his prints.”

“Is he aware that is prints were taken?” I ask.

“No, sir. Salib had a print sheet in hand and doesn’t think the suspect was aware that it even touched him.”

“Good,” Mycroft says. He sighs and looks at me. “Sorry.”

I shrug. “Yilmaz has to turn up. Are there any more agents you could send?”

“Not from our government, but…” Mycroft trails off. “There are always possibilities,” he says vaguely.

“Recommend against it, sir,” the agent says quietly. “The specific area is quite unpopulated. The locals would notice.”

Possibly, I think but don’t say. “All right. Let’s wait and see where this one goes. I assume Al-Amri is still in position to apprehend Yilmaz, should he return?”

“Yes, sir.”

Another agent, two chairs to the right speaks for the first time. “Salib just confirmed that the suspect has gone into a house. He’s returning to join Al-Amri near the compound. They’re covering the two approaches from the road and we’ve got satellite coverage from the water.”

“Good,” I say. “Then we wait.”

***

In the end, we wait another twelve hours. Yilmaz does not come. No one leaves the compound. Mycroft looks at me, greyish with fatigue. The time is now just past eight in the morning. Like me, he probably hasn’t slept since I called him fifty hours ago. “Go home,” he says. “We both need to sleep. I’ll let you know the instant we have something.”

“He has to come back sometime,” I insist, but my corneas are dry and irritated from lack of sleep. It’s a half-hearted insistence.

“He will. And when he does, we’ll capture him,” Mycroft promises. The door opens and Anthea appears, phone in hand. “Go on.”

“You’ll call – ” I should resist, insist on staying, but I will be no use to myself if I am too tired to think.

“I will. Go.”

Anthea deposits me on the front steps of 221B and I stagger inside to the sofa and check my email. There’s a message from Duncan but it’s just a request for an update. I write back and start reading the other messages. I fall asleep with the laptop still open on my legs, head leaning back against the wall. Fold it, push it onto the coffee table, and turn onto my side where I fall asleep instantly.

I wake some hours later. Check the time: twenty past seven in the evening. I slept about ten hours, then. I yawn and stretch, and the hunger sets in with surprising ferocity. (This feeble form of mine.) I pull myself off the sofa and wander into the kitchen to make some toast, turn on the kettle. Eat the toast in the kitchen, take the tea to my chair and open my laptop to read Duncan’s response to my email. A distant sound penetrates my thoughts and it takes me a split second to place it: the door. Someone has just opened the front door to 221B. Did I lock it when I came home? Can’t remember. I listen, Duncan’s email forgotten, the laptop forgotten.

I hear footsteps moving toward the bottom of the stairs, stopping before they can begin the ascent. I know that step. A thousand years of separation could have gone by and I never would have forgotten it. My heart is in my throat.

It’s John.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

 

I freeze.

What is he doing here? Stopping by for tea with Mrs Hudson or something? (No, she wouldn’t have invited him here. Besides, she was out when I woke and I haven’t heard her come back yet.) I rule out coming to get something; he’s had two and a half years to do that already. (Nine hundred and thirty-four days.) No. He is here because of me. Somehow, he knows.

Every pore of my body is listening to his hesitation, the silence of him standing at the bottom of the stairs. (Thinking what? Trying to decide whether or not to come up after all?) I strain with the effort of listening, trying to hear his thoughts. The air between the bottom of the stairs and the sitting room is thick with his awareness of me, mine of him. (Electric air, crackling in my ears. Cannot breathe it in.)

He moves; is he leaving? (Don’t leave/Yes, go, do it now while I am still capable of sending you, if only this way: silently, without your knowledge of it.) Then the weight of his step on the bottom stair; he has decided to come up. My pulse skyrockets; breaths coming shallow and sharp in my chest. I push the laptop away and stand up. I can’t be sitting down the first time I see him again after all this time, after everything. (Why is he here? What does he know? Why does he know? How can he know?) Try to swallow around my heart, lodged in my throat. Physiologically impossible. (Bugger physiology.)

I count the stairs. He hesitates again before the seventeenth, then crosses the landing so quietly. Appears in the open doorway and stops. Looks at me.

I can do nothing but look back at him, pulse thudding through my veins like a hammer against my ear drums. John. Here. With me. Breathing the same air. Tangibly here. I can identify at least four separate emotions on his face. (Conflicted.) He looks astonished, angry, anguished, and something else, something I hesitate to label (could be wrong). Is he going to speak? (Should I speak first? What could I possibly say?) I swallow again, mouth dry.

“Sher – ” He tries, stops, tries again. “Sherlock.” It’s incredulous, disbelieving, full of emotion.

“John.” It sounds hollow, voice scraping in my throat.

“So it’s true,” John says. His eyebrows are worrying together on his expressive forehead. His hair is a little greyer than it was before. He’s thinner. (Never mind that. A host of other adjectives flood my brain. Beautiful/perfect/amazing. John. That says it all. His face, every line of his body seems both achingly familiar, yet somehow a surprise, as though I had forgotten. Every miniscule movement of his face.) He swallows. “You’re alive.”

“How did you know?” It’s all I can say; I’m still frozen and can’t speak properly, can’t for the life of me think how to handle this. (No ideas coming to mind, just a horrible blank. Cannot possibly deduce this situation.)

“I saw lights on last week,” John says, and he sounds frozen, too. Hollow. Like we’re not saying anything real, anything that matters yet. It sounds ridiculously nonchalant and normal, total mismatch for this hard coldness in my chest fighting against the rush of adrenaline and dizzying warmth at just seeing him again (stop it now). “Wondered if Mrs Hudson had got a new tenant at last. But I called and asked and she got all flustered and wouldn’t tell me anything. Made me wonder. So I came back a couple of days ago and I thought I saw you, just for a moment. In the window. I… came back to see…” he trails off.

The window. Stupid. Stupid. I should have bought thicker curtains and left them closed at all times. How ridiculous. To survive two and a half years anywhere but here, only to be spotted in my own window, by one of the people most important to avoid having see me. I am a colossal idiot. This thought jolts me out of my frozen state at last. I glance down at his hands. Still bare, but that will change. “Why are you here?” It sounds flat.

This changes something in John’s face and he goes belligerent. (Finally. Something tangible. Can deal with his anger; cannot deal with him just standing there, not moving, not saying anything of substance.) “Why am I here?” he repeats incredulously. He takes a step into the room. “Sherlock! What the bloody hell is going on? I thought you were dead!”

“Yes, that was sort of the point,” I say sharply, heart still thudding away. “You weren’t supposed to know that I wasn’t. You still shouldn’t. It’s not safe. You should leave and pretend you were never here.” (As if John could do that. That was one of the reasons he couldn’t know; he never could have kept it secret enough. He’s far too readable.)

Now he is furious, crossing the well-trodden carpet, saying my name in tones that match his face. I see his arm rising, fist balling. I let it happen, not even moving to absorb the shock more efficiently. He punches me directly in the face, upper right side near my eye. Red pain blooms in a haze, obscuring my vision for a moment, and he is shouting through it, cursing at me. “You utter bastard!” John yells. “Why? Why would you do this to me? To everyone? You sodding selfish prick!”

The words hurt more than the punch did. Selfish. I raise my hand to my face, sticky with blood, and try to remind myself that the plan for not seeing John again is still the plan. If he’s angry with me, he’ll go away and let me finish my task of keeping him alive. He’s still yelling, though. (Pay attention.)

Why?” John demands, right in my face, less than a metre away from me. “And where the hell have you been all this time?”

“Not here. Obviously.” I’m glaring back at him. “John, I told you, it’s not safe for you to be here. You need to go.”

“No.” He’s shaking his head, eyes clouded and dark with fury. “I’m not moving an inch until you start explaining yourself.”

Feel my mouth twist in irritation, anger. “No. Not now. Not yet.”

“What do you mean, ‘not yet’?”

“I should think the words would be self-explanatory,” I snap. The blood is pulsing out through the cut on my face.

He’s breathing hard, lips thinned against his bared teeth, not yet decided on whether or not he’s finished hitting me. (Part of him wants to very badly.) “Is that supposed to mean that you will, someday?”

Yes, if you insist,” I say, still irritable.

He shakes his head. Can see the muscles over his mandible clenching, bunching over his upper molars. “And I’m supposed to believe that.”

“That was the idea, yes.”

“Well, I don’t, Sherlock. You lied to me, you jumped off of a – you let me think – you made me think – do you even know how much I – ” Typically, he can’t seem to finish any of his sentences/demands. He was always like that when he was upset and he’s particularly upset right now. (Not yet as upset as he deserves to be.) He’s stumbling over the beginnings of half a dozen questions, finally decides which he wants to ask first. “How much longer before you would have told me, then?” (Accusing.)

“When the operation was finished,” I snap. “As it’s ongoing, I really can’t give you a precise answer, John.” (Cannot help being snappish. Having him so close is not all right. Want too much to touch him. Comfort him. Make him stop being angry. Make him get over being angry and get to being glad to see me again. All things which I patently cannot do, not now, not ever. He’s made his promises, and not to me.)

He’s shaking his head again. “I don’t believe you,” he says again. His face is flushed with anger, fists still balled. “What kind of person would do this – to his own best friend?”

If I start explaining it all now, we’ll be here for days. But I have to say something to this. “Someone who was trying to do the right thing,” I say, feeling my lower lip rising to press into the upper. “I really can’t explain it now, John. You need to leave. Carefully.”

John just stands there staring (glaring) at me as though he still can’t make up his mind about all of this. Finally, he crosses his arms, spreads his feet a little, planting his weight firmly on the carpet. (Soldier instinct: shifting his centre of gravity to gain stability. As if his very lack of height didn’t already give him that advantage). “No,” he announces, pigheadedly stubborn. “I’m not going anywhere.”

This makes me even angrier. “For God’s sake, John!” I hiss. “You’ll undo everything I’ve been doing since I left! Please, for your own sake, just go!”

Now he looks confused. “What?”

“Don’t make me repeat myself!”

“Sherlock…” John drops his arms, the anger giving way to something else, something that pushes the insides of his eyebrows upward again (worried). “I wish you’d explain. I just need to understand.” The anger has gone; he’s almost pleading.

“I told you, not yet,” I growl through clenched teeth.

He blinks and looks at me for a long minute, obviously trying to work something out in his own head. “I shouldn’t have hit you,” he mutters. (Oh, now he feels badly about that.) “Christ, Sherlock, do you know how hard it’s been? How much I’ve missed you?”

This shakes something within me that I very firmly ignore. “I would imagine it to be directly inverse to the amount I’ve missed you,” I say, teeth still gritted. It comes out more defiantly than I meant for it to.

John blinks, reacting to what I said. (Oh. Should not have said that out loud, perhaps. Rethink: no. Definitely not.) His lips tighten; self-reproach? (Can’t tell exactly.) “Let me get a flannel for your face,” he says.

“Just leave it.”

“I won’t be a minute.” He ignores me (as always) and disappears in the direction of the bathroom.

I don’t move, heart still beating unpleasantly hard. (Why must he be so stubborn? Seeing him again is even more difficult than I expected, and I expected it to be fully unpleasant. Too pleasant. Same thing. I cannot bear this, being this close to him, yet knowing what I know. Unbearable.)

He comes back with a flannel in hand and approaches cautiously, wielding it as a shield, as an olive branch. “I’m sorry,” he says, and much of the tension has left his voice and shoulders. “I shouldn’t have hit you.”

“I heard you the first time,” I say tersely, but it sounds sulky to my own ears.

He almost smiles at this, steps into my space and gently presses the flannel to my cheekbone. The gaoler once hit me in the same place, only harder. (Selfish.) “Afraid that’s going to bruise,” he says, sounding even more apologetic.

I jerk the flannel out of his hand in the clearest don’t touch me signal I can give, subtly shaking him off.

He lets me have it but doesn’t back away, still standing directly in my face, eyebrows making those idiotic question marks around his (expressive, emotional) eyes. “Sherlock,” he says slowly, softly.

I don’t know what he’s asking. Flick my eyes rapidly (guardedly) to his and look away again. “What?” (Can’t look at him when he looks like that. Makes me want to kiss him. Can’t be thinking thoughts like that when he’s right there, when even he could read it on my face clear as daylight.)

“I’m glad you’re not dead,” he says, biting his lip. “The day I thought you died, I…”

A silence falls when he doesn’t finish his sentence and I make no move to finish it for him. Part of me desperately wants to know what he would have said; the rest of me understands already that whatever it was has long since been replaced by his fiancée. Her very existence has annihilated all of the possibilities I had once dreamed of for this reunion. It’s all pointless now. I can’t help John finish his sentence. It’s useless.

He’s struggling with his thoughts, trying to choose the right words for this, to address this fractured thing that lies between us. “I’d really like to stay,” he says eventually, changing directions. “I could be really careful. I’d just like to stay and talk, if I could… I don’t care how long it takes. I could stay for hours. All night. Days, if that’s how long it takes.”

I shake my head again. “John. You can’t stay. I’m in hiding. I rarely leave the house unless I have to, and when I do, it’s in disguise, or surrounded by Mycroft’s people. If you stayed, you would have to join me in that. You wouldn’t be able to go to work, see people. You would hate it. And it’s still too dangerous.”

John’s face works as he processes all this. “Mycroft knows you’re alive?”

That’s the one thing he took from that? “He only found out recently,” I say. “I was… forced to go to him for help, eventually.”

John’s eyebrows rise. “You must have really been in trouble, then,” he says.

“I was.” I sound grim. “It wasn’t my first choice. In fact, the opposite: it was my last resort.”

“How long ago?”

“Since what?”

“Since you went to him.”

I think. “About two weeks.”

This seems to surprise him. “And before that? Where were you?”

“John,” I say, hearing a hint of desperation in my own voice, “I really can’t tell you now. All I can say for now is that everything I’ve done in the past nine hundred and thirty-four days has been part of the same case, and it concerns you. Please, just let me do this.”

He looks shocked – more shocked than I thought he would. “Me?” he repeats incredulously. “Sherlock – “ He stops, tries to think (fails), shakes his head as though to clear it. “I don’t understand.”

“Obviously,” I bite out, impatience twisting itself into contempt in my voice. “And now isn’t the time to explain it. Please, just go and do whatever it is you do these days and carry on as though you don’t know I’m alive, if you possibly can. For your own sake. For mine.”

His face softens, mouth twitches, emotion still written into every line of his mobile face. “All right,” he says quietly, after a little. Accepting it. “All right.” His eyes come up to meet mine, searching. “But you will tell me, later on?”

“If you really want me to, yes.”

“I really want you to,” John says. He hesitates. “You won’t disappear again?”

I think of Yilmaz, of the compound in Al-Wakrah. “I can’t make any promises. But if I possibly can, I won’t disappear again.” Think of going to Qatar with Duncan and some of Mycroft’s agents, of getting captured again. Perhaps not being quite as lucky this time. Promises are risky.

He shifts his weight, puts his hands in his jacket pockets. “Can I come with you if you need to leave again?”

These words hit me right in the heart. For a moment I can hardly breathe. Of course I want that. How could I not? (It’s what I wanted all this time away from him.) “No,” I say, the word tight and spoken without the benefit of oxygen. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I want to keep you out of danger,” John insists, though it’s clear that he already knows that it’s useless.

(Almost want to smile; can’t. Too painful.) “Go home,” I say. “That’s the best thing you can do for me right now.”

He looks pained (very much so) and ducks his face, hiding it, but he nods. “All right,” he says again, defeated. Then a sudden flash of his eyes on mine. “But I swear to God – you come back and do this conversation properly,” he says fiercely. “Or I’ll find you. So help me, Sherlock, I’ll find you.”

(Cannot respond to this. Stare mutely at him.)

He takes the flannel out of my hand and puts it down, launches himself at me in an engulfing hug. After a startled moment, I clumsily fold my arms partway around his heaving back (is he crying?) but can’t quite return the gesture, keeping my arms close to my own body. (Shouldn’t even do this much – this will only make everything worse, harder. The heat of his arms is already imprinted indelibly on my back and sides, the closeness of him dizzying, intoxicating. Want. I want this. Want him far too much for my own good.) My hands are resting gently (too gently, dead giveaway) on his elbows but his heat is pressing into me, his face too close too mine. I close my eyes and drown in it.

After a long moment he pulls himself away, scrubs a sleeve over his wet face, mutters “Sorry,” and then straightens out his jacket in an attempt at military precision. Looks at me again. “Call me. When you’re ready. Please. If you change your mind, if there’s anything I can – ”

(Have to say something to shake myself back into sense, put more distance between us.) “Go home to your fiancée and forget about me.” It comes out colder, harsher than I had intended, perhaps, but it works. “That would be the best thing you could do.”

Shocked hurt comes across John’s face, but he nods. A spasm of something like anger flickers, but he turns and goes through the door and down the stairs without another word. I listen for the bang of the door, the return of silence washing through the flat like a flood.

Breathing far too quickly, I stay exactly where I am for a solid five minutes, willing myself not to self-destruct, go to pieces. His crying has nearly undone me, his hug disastrously close to the line between my ability to contain myself and keep on working in isolation (near-isolation, at least; I suppose Mycroft counts for something now), keep myself together emotionally. I must not go to pieces.

This stern self-lecture is only partially successful. I smoke through an entire packet of cigarettes that night, until the entire sitting room is foggy with blue-ish haze and my mouth bitter with the aftertaste of tar. I don’t sleep, cannot work, cannot eat, cannot think. Too much. That was too much. More than I should have been expected to take, after everything else. An emotional John turning up too soon, confronting me about my disappearance before I was ready to talk about it. It’s all too much.

***

Not going to pieces does not quite work, as plans go. I can’t function. All I can think is that this was wrong, it happened the wrong way. I should have been given time enough to finish this, so that when the confrontation finally happened (was stupid to think I could have avoided it once he knew), I could lay my sacrifice of nine hundred and thirty-four days at John’s feet like a votive offering, kneel before him and ask his forgiveness for having let him think me dead for so long. For having left him out. For having let him grieve, uncomforted. Perhaps if we had been given that moment, we could have written a new reality over the present one, a reality that left no space for a fiancée, for someone else who has taken my place in his life. It would have been messy, complicated (for John, never for me – no, this isn’t correct; what do I know of relationships? Complicated all around, then), and he would have been angry, but presented as a fait accompli, the gift of his life achieved and offered up to him as the most precious thing I could have found, done, given – surely that would have abated his anger, countered the cold, inanimate metal thing encircling his fiancée’s finger. (He gave her his promise of commitment; I gave him his own life back to give. How could he have compared the two?) Not that I ever really thought this would work, but it would have been better than… this.

It’s true that I never apologise. I didn’t even apologise after Baskerville. I always intended to apologise for this, though, since that moment on the rooftop: John stubbornly refusing to believe my lie, my slightly-desperate realisation that I would have to try harder, painfully harder, to convince him. My broken laugh, tear escaping before I had noticed it forming over my cornea, heart clenching, thinking through my words, Oh John, so sorry, so sorry for this, what you’re about to see… so sorry for how you’ll feel, because now I know that you will. And I do. I do.

And now I have sent him away a second time, compounded my original deceit and sudden departure with a second rejection, a second exclusion. Now he can go back to her, whoever she is, and complain bitterly about me. My coldness, my selfishness – God, I should have hit him for saying that. He doesn’t know. (Can’t know.) Still. He will go to her and rant about his intractable, difficult friend who had the gall to fake a suicide in front of him and then disappear without a word for two and a half years, only to reappear and not tell him about having returned. She will soothe and pet and kiss away his frown and he will eventually relax into it, remind himself of his new normality, of this woman, and how it’s what he always wanted, anyway.

(Is it? I don’t know any more. I think it must be.)

(This is despair. That’s what this is called. There’s a name for it; other people have suffered it. Nonetheless I feel that understanding the abject hopelessness currently being experienced must be somehow novel to the human experience.)

It is day nine hundred and thirty-five. I don’t know the time, can’t be bothered to check. There are a pile of text messages on the phone and I suspect rather a lot of email. I ignore it all and turn my back on the world at large.

***

I wake to Mrs Hudson’s worried-sounding voice. “… just in there, hasn’t moved for days,” she’s saying to someone.

Ponderous step on the floor, two feet, weight evenly distributed, leather-soled shoes: expensive. Punctuated by a third footfall in the metal tip of an ostentatiously long umbrella. Obvious.

He walks in and stands there, looking down at me, studying my turned back for a long moment before he speaks. “Well, what is it, Sherlock? What’s going on?”

Hear Mrs Hudson’s footsteps descending. (Only she could make the act of going downstairs sound worried.) Shrug fractionally. What day is it? I have to count hours for a moment before I find the answer. Day nine hundred and thirty-seven. Two days after having seen John.

“You haven’t answered a single text I’ve sent you since the other night,” Mycroft says impatiently. “I’ve emailed you. Tried calling.”

I say nothing. Why is he here? Why can’t he leave me alone?

“Sherlock.” The impatience has grown. “You can’t just never speak again. Has something happened?”

Movement of tongue feels alien against the rest of my mouth. Dry. “Why should anything have happened?”

“I’ve been sending you the latest reports,” Mycroft says. “I thought that might interest you, given your mission. Why haven’t you responded?” When I don’t answer, he sighs and sits down the closest chair, near the desk, dragging it closer to the sofa. “Mrs Hudson says you haven’t eaten, left the house, showered, at least to her knowledge, or done anything except for smoke and lie on the sofa. Clearly something’s happened.”

I close my eyes. “The reports said there was no new information. Your texts said the same thing.”

“You could have acknowledged that you’d received them,” Mycroft says irritably. “This is, after all, your operation. You wanted to be in control.”

I say nothing to this, either.

He exhales again, a long, steady sigh. “I don’t suppose this has anything to do with John.”

Feel my shoulder twitch involuntarily at the sound of his name. “Why would you say that?” I ask sharply, still facing the back of the sofa.

“So it is about John. Progress.” Mycroft is studying my back; I can feel the exact pinpricks of his eyes, like lasers. “He called me,” he says finally, grudgingly.

I wrench myself around and stare at Mycroft in disbelief. “He called you? When? Why? When were you going to tell me?”

He’s already held up a hand, placating. “Sherlock. For God’s sake, calm down! He didn’t reach me; I was downstairs at the time and had my phone on silent. He didn’t leave a message. I just saw that he had called.”

I’m staring at him. “Did you phone him back?”

“No. Not yet, at least,” Mycroft allows. “I was going to check with you first.” He delivers this with a twist of that half-smile/half-grimace that he somehow manages to lace with self-congratulatory smugness all at the same time.

That’s something, at any rate. But I want, rather badly, to know why exactly John contacted Mycroft. “Has he phoned again?”

“Not so far.” Mycroft slides forward a little on the chair, bending toward me. “Sherlock.”

I withdraw into myself, recoiling from his analytical, overly-direct gaze, don’t respond.

He sighs and drops his face. “Look,” he says to the floor. “I realise this must be difficult. But you need to stay focused. Remember what the point of all this has been. I know that you know, so leave off taking my head off for saying that. I knew that it would be hard for you to be here in England, so close to… the people you left to protect. Hopefully we’ll have Yilmaz not long from now, and then we can discuss your re-emersion into regular life. I’m surprised it’s taken this long so far, to be honest.”

“You underestimated him.”

“It’s possible,” Mycroft says, unbothered. “However, our surveillance is so tight that he will not be able to return to his compound without my knowing.”

“And if he never returns?” My question is wooden. “If he caught your scent and abandoned the compound? Or if it was a decoy all along?”

Can hear Mycroft shrug. “It was your information,” he reminds me. “Your source.”

“These people are paranoid, incredibly so,” I say, voice still uninflected. Dull. I am dull. Cannot feel anything but hopeless and dull. “You may never catch him.”

See his frown peripherally. “Don’t say that. These people always get caught. Eventually.” He shifts. “Meanwhile, do eat something. And take a shower. You need to keep yourself at the top of your game if you’re going to catch this man.”

This does not require acknowledging.

“I’ve asked Mrs Hudson to make up your bed, since you seem unwilling to do so,” Mycroft goes on. “She’s going to make you some lunch.” A harder note comes into his voice. “There are times when we are given the luxury of wallowing in our feelings, and there are times when we simply must soldier on with the task at hand, no matter what our internal landscape. Do get it together. Unless you want to cede control of the operation to me entirely. Is that what you want?”

Twitch my shoulder in approximation of an irritated shrug.

“Then snap out of it,” Mycroft says briskly, not unkindly. “I don’t know what it is, but you must turn a blind eye to it and do your work.” He stands and walks to the doorway, strides measured and even as ever. He pauses for just a moment, probably looking back at me, but leaves without saying anything else.

***

Though it’s hateful, I reluctantly follow his dictum. Am still showering when Mrs Hudson calls from the kitchen that she’s leaving lunch on the table and is popping out to Tesco’s to get a few things for the fridge. Hunger made a sudden and vicious reappearance while I was showering, so I sit down in my towel and eat the sandwich immediately. Roast beef, thick, soft wholegrain bread, dijon, lettuce. It occurs to me not for the first time that I love Mrs Hudson. Would never say it. (She knows. Unnecessary.) She’s also left a tangerine, already peeled. (She knows my dislike for getting the pericorp and albedo in my fingernails, staining them orange.) She’s left the kettle switched on, a cup at the ready. I make tea and go to dress, leaving it to steep. I recognise this boost as what it is, a forcible restart to an unwilling engine. Still unwilling, but I can see that without Mycroft and Mrs Hudson, I might never have left the sofa. Nothing for it now that I’m in motion but to keep moving, I suppose.

I read all of the email, drinking the tea, even respond to a couple. One cursory response to all of Mycroft’s reports, principally to show him that I am functional again, at least marginally. Text Duncan with an update. He responds almost immediately, saying that his leads have gone silent but that he’s placed someone else in the area. I text back and thank him, then spontaneously decide to go and have my stupid, short haircut trimmed. It’s something to do.

***

That night, I sit down on the side of my bed for the first time in nine hundred and thirty-seven days (nine hundred and thirty-eight really; I spent that last night before the fall in the lab while Molly worked in the other room). I pick up the phone Mycroft gave me, hesitate, then cave to the temptation to call John. Haven’t done this since Berlin. My fingers shake as I dial. (Will he be home? At the fiancée’s?)

Four rings, but then he answers. (Check the time. Almost eleven. Is he in bed with her? Classic hour for it.) “Hello?”

Sounds confused. Unknown number, calling at this time of the evening. I don’t say anything, just let the silence spin out.

“Hello?” John says again, and it’s ridiculous to feel that he’s closer than he used to be when I would do this, but he is. I could take a taxi and be wherever he is within thirty minutes at the most, at this time of night. “Hello?”

Am barely breathing, just gripping the phone as though it is a lifeline. (Want so badly to say something/have no idea whatsoever what I would want to say even if I could. Permanent, irrelevant dilemma.)

“Hello?” John says a fourth time. Then there is a silence where I can hear him thinking, can actually hear it in the silence. “Sherlock?” he asks tentatively.

Shock. (How did he know?) Feel my mouth open, heart hammering in my throat. More of that loaded silence follows. (I know he knows it’s me. Can feel his knowledge as clearly as if I were reading his mind.) I hold the phone away from my face and force my thumb down onto the End button, hating that I’m doing it. (It’s the only sane course of action.)

I shove the phone with brutal force under the pillow and shove my body with equal roughness into the bed, pull the blankets around myself tightly, cocoon-like, and shut my eyes so hard that my entire face has contorted. Bugger Mycroft. Bugger the operation. I don’t even want to wake up.

***

Nonetheless, when Mycroft calls at half-six in the morning with the news that they have something and that there will be a car outside in twelve minutes and to be ready, I stagger to my feet and put my accountant outfit back on, the brown version, and am downstairs in time to meet the car.

He hands me a paper cup of coffee as I walk into his underground surveillance dungeon, gives me a once-over and the briefest of nods, then points with his chin at the correct monitor. “Report from Salib, came in twenty minutes ago. The others inside the factory have begun leaving and not returning. I suspect you were right: Yilmaz has caught wind of our surveillance and abandoned the compound. They’re being careful to leave in small numbers, one or two at a time, spaced apart. After the fourth and fifth left, Salib and Al-Amri became suspicious. So far none of those who have left have returned.”

“You’re tailing them?”

“To the extent that we can, yes. We still only have two agents in the area. However, a partner organisation has successfully maintained surveillance on the third member of the organisation, who left on his own. He went to the market, probably trying to shake any tails. Unsuccessfully, obviously. He then got into a taxi, where he was followed to the airport.”

“Which airport?”

Mycroft gives me a look that could be exasperated. “The only one in Qatar. Doha International.”

As if I’ve memorised every airport in every obscure Middle Eastern country. Actually, never mind. That is valid, as I could name at least one airport in every other country in the region. Missed Qatar, somehow. “And the others?” I ask, ignoring his look.

“So far they’re still in the area. Doha, one is at his flat in Al-Wakrah.”

I nod to show I’ve heard, then move closer to one of the screens. Mycroft follows me, pointing at the screen and explaining some other detail. I absorb it in silence, eyes memorising the monitors.

“We probably won’t see anything major, not now,” Mycroft is saying. “But the camp is definitely breaking up. We’ve got agents in a partner organisation on the ground in Abu Dhabi in case Yilmaz is there waiting for them. We’ve been monitoring all electronic communication and there’s been nothing going in or out of that factory. It must have been a pre-arranged scramble plan. You know, a certain number of days without seeing him, assume trouble and – ”

“Yes, I know what a scramble plan is,” I say absently, staring at the monitor in front of me over the shoulder of the agent facing it.

“So,” Mycroft says, ignoring my response in turn. “We watch them go. And then we wait.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

 

Waiting is fruitless.

(Thought it would be, somehow. This doesn’t feel like the moment, but it’s frustratingly hard to trust my instinct over cameras and so much distance.)

The compound is deserted now, its inhabitants scattered throughout the city. Two have left by the airport in Doha but the rest appear to be lying low. Probably biding their time and spacing their departures according to a pre-set protocol. Mycroft pinches the bridge of his nose after another forty-six sleepless and more or less uneventful hours have gone by and eventually tells me to go home. I start toward the door, listless, but he calls back sharply, telling me that he expects me to stay in contact. I wave him off and follow Anthea out to another nameless black car and fall into the backseat. She doesn’t come along, just closes the door. The driver leaves me at 221B and I stagger inside to sleep.

Or try: my route is first encumbered by Mrs Hudson, who hears me come in and scurries out of her flat to catch me before I go up, looking worried. Wants to know where I’ve been. I explain about Mycroft, say something vague about an operation and she frowns. “But then, might be good, you know,” she says, patting my hand. “Keeping busy, right? Always good to have a project or something?”

A project. As though Mycroft has me making macaroni art in his office all day. “Yes,” I agree tonelessly. “Nice.” I look toward the stairs without meaning to, yearning to sleep.

She catches it, of course, and pats my hand again. “Off you go, then,” she says briskly. “You look tired, dear. I expect you’ve been working too hard.”

Shrug. “Not too hard. Just been awake too long. I’ll just…” I trail off, gesturing loosely toward the staircase.

“Of course. You go, then. I’ll come up later and see how you’re doing, shall I? Off you go.”

I hear myself agreeing vaguely and my feet are stumbling up the steps at last. Am so tired that the light itself seems grey, the pearly-grey of early morning, though I believe the time must be closer to nine. I pull my clothes off, leaving them strewn piece by piece across the floor between the door and the bedroom, divest myself of socks, undergarments, and let gravity pull me inescapably to the bed.

***

I wake hours later (how many hours? No idea yet) to the faintly metallic sounds of Mrs Hudson cluttering about in the kitchen. The light in the room is warm and golden, coming in slanted through the window. Sunset. Around eight in the evening, then. Another sound, male voice, medium pitch, instantly familiar, volume low. Mycroft. Talking softly with Mrs Hudson, who is responding while clearly preparing food. I turn on my back, stretch and yawn. Pull myself out of bed and blink a bit. Find a towel hanging on the back of the door, wrap it around myself and emerge into the hallway and into the bathroom before either of the occupants of the kitchen can waylay me. Smoke a cigarette in the shower. Acrobatic a feat as this is, it’s still better than listening to both Mrs Hudson and Mycroft harangue me about the smoking if I wait until after. They’re still there when I emerge from the shower, towelling my hair dry. I don’t look in, just disappear back into the bedroom to dress before facing my brother and Mrs Hudson’s respective scrutiny. Finally, in trousers, a shirt, and my old blue dressing gown, I join them in the kitchen and set immediately about making coffee.

“Good morning,” Mycroft says, without irony. (He likely slept most of the day, too, I think.)

“Mmm.”

Mrs Hudson comes over and pecks me on the cheek (I am forced to sag at the knees a bit to allow her to do this. If Mycroft notices this, he doesn’t remark on it. He knows why I left London in the first place, after all.) “Sleep well, dear?” she asks, in the overly-bright tones of someone determined to keep things cheery.

“Mmm.” I put a positive tone on it this time and deploy it with an eyebrow raise.

“Lovely,” she says, smiling affectionately. “I’m just making some supper for you and your brother. Lots to talk about, he says, and he’s been waiting a little while for you to wake, so I thought…”

I sigh, but accept it. “Fine,” I say. “Thank you. Coffee, Mycroft?”

“No, thank you,” Mycroft says. “I slept a few hours earlier but would prefer to get back into my regular sleep cycle if possible tonight. Tea, if you have something decaf.”

I suppress the urge to sigh again and take the kettle to the sink to fill it. “Your choice is in the top right cupboard. You can select your own. We don’t – ” Catch myself, rephrase. “I don’t think there’s a large selection of decaffeinated teas but there should be something.” Yes: I remember, a variety box that someone gave us once. For Christmas, possibly? I never drink decaf anything and John only does when he’s sick or it’s very late. Only did. He could have changed, I suppose. Picked up new habits from the fiancée. (Did he ever pick up habits of mine? Other than crime-solving, I mean? Don’t think so. John was always quite resilient to such things.)

Mycroft pulls himself off the chair and betakes himself to the cupboard to search as I switch the kettle on and go to find two cups. Mrs Hudson says something about supper being nearly ready. I make a pleasant sound at her and ask if she’s staying.

She flutters at me with a slightly-nervous side-look at Mycroft. “No, I think you two have some… things to discuss,” she says, then hastens to reassure me before I can berate Mycroft for his tactlessness in sending Mrs Hudson away even as she’s preparing him a meal. “Besides, Mrs Turner wants to go and see that new film, the one with the vampires, and she doesn’t like to go alone. Feels self-conscious, so I said I’d go along with her and I’ve got to get ready.”

I frown. “You should eat,” I say.

She beams at me, affectionate. “I did eat at tea, dear. I’ll be fine. I just made enough for two, anyway.”

A lie, and an obvious one, but she would prefer if I just accepted it. Once she has left everything laid out, she takes herself off and Mycroft finally speaks, setting down his cup of whatever tea he dug up in the cupboard. It smells of wildflowers and weeds. Disgusting. (Decaffeinated anything, what’s the point?) “First order of business,” he says. “Nothing new in Abu Dhabi yet. No action, nothing out of the ordinary, but in these areas it can be so difficult to tell what is abnormal in the first place. Al-Amri and Salib will stay in Al-Wakrah another day, then move operations to Abu Dhabi where they will be working with the Agency.”

I nod, frowning slightly. I don’t like this. Never trusted anyone in the CIA, never will. Mycroft is too smart to trust them either, presumably, which is the only reassuring thing about this plan. He will already know my unspoken objection on these grounds, so I leave it unsaid. Serve myself some of the casserole and push it over to Mycroft. “You didn’t come here just to tell me that.”

“No,” Mycroft agrees, studying the casserole before deeming it acceptable and serving himself. “There’s something else.”

I wait, watching him. He seems reluctant to speak. (Why?) “What it is?” I prompt, impatient.

Mycroft looks up at me. “It’s John,” he says.

My heart leaps into my throat (physiological limitations aside). “What?” I demand. “Is he all right?”

Mycroft inserts a forkful of casserole into his face and shakes his head at me, unable to speak for a moment. Finally he swallows and says, “Relax, he’s fine.”

“Then what is it?”

“This is execrable,” Mycroft says, picking up his tea and sipping. He looks down at the casserole. “The casserole, on the other hand, is delicious. What is this, precisely?”

“Mycroft!”

He is tormenting me deliberately, peering into his plate. “You’re right, it’s fairly evident. Italian sausage, potato, cauliflower, hmm… garlic, onions, and beer, I would say at a guess. It’s very good.” He allows his eyes to meet mine again, almost smirking. “He came to see me.”

John did?” This is difficult to believe. “When? Why?”

“This afternoon,” Mycroft says. “And he wants to be allowed into the operation.”

“What did you tell him?” The question leaves my mouth with the speed and force of a cannon blast.

Mycroft goes dry. “I rather thought you’d react that way,” he says, mouth twisting a little. “I know how little you think of my judgement, despite having come to me for help, but you can rest assured: I told him that it was up to you. Your operation, your rules.” He watches my reaction for a moment, then goes on. “I brought the video from the office surveillance. I thought you might want to watch it for yourself. You should have told me that he came to see you.”

“Why?” (It’s none of his business.)

“His safety is at the heart of the operation,” Mycroft reminds me chidingly. “I need to know if he’s compromising his own security. I found it in the street footage when I went back to check, but I should have been alerted sooner – preferably by you.”

I stare at my plate, the meal forgotten. “I made him leave,” I say dully. “For exactly that reason.”

“Yes, he said,” Mycroft says. “He said you were quite clear on that point and wouldn’t let him stay. He thought it was my idea.”

Wonderful. Now John will know with unequivocal certainty that it was me, my choice, that I didn’t want him there. He must have left thinking that this was a restriction that Mycroft put on me somehow, because of whatever the operation was, but now he’ll know it was definitely me who sent him away of my own volition. Perfect. “What did he say?”

Mycroft stabs a bit of potato and eats it contemplatively. “He wants me to convince you to change your mind.”

“What did you tell him?” I am staring hard at Mycroft and he has the nerve to seem entirely unaffected.

He shrugs. “I told him that it would be up to you, but that I didn’t think it a good idea. You could just watch the footage.” He takes another bite, chews it calmly, swallows, and adds, “He also asked me for your phone number. He says he wants to text you. He even offered to let me secure his phone if that would convince you.”

I can’t think of what to say to this. That John still wants to see me, talk to me, after the other day… is good, isn’t it? But I have to think of his safety first. “And?” I manage to say. “What did you tell him? Do you think that’s safe?”

Mycroft shrugs again. “I was vague. I said that any breach of security would have to be considered carefully. I reminded him that you’re not yet officially alive, that you’re in hiding, and that the least contact you have with anyone outside the operation itself, the better. I said I would ask your opinion, regarding texting.”

I nod automatically, thoughts spinning ahead. Think of John, so anxious to see me that he went to Mycroft – to ask him to convince me. He must be desperate, indeed. So much for waiting until I was “ready”, to use his word. (It was never a question of readiness; it was a question of the operation still being in-progress, idiot.)

Mycroft clears his throat. “He also wanted to know why he couldn’t be in on the operation itself. He says he wants to help.”

I shake my head. “No. Out of the question.”

“Why, precisely?” Mycroft asks curiously. In response to the astonished look I give him, he forestalls me and goes on. “If he’s willing to go into full hiding with you, that could arguably keep him safer than staying out in the open and feigning innocence about you. And it does seem that, given that it concerns him specifically, he could make a decent argument – and did – that he should be allowed to know what the risks are. I told him, again, that it was up to you, but I did say that you would be wise to say no. It seems you told him that the reason for your absence was this very operation, according to John, and he says that you shouldn’t have to do it alone.”

My throat closes. (Sentiment. Bloody sentiment.) I take a sip of lukewarm coffee, stalling. This is precisely what I have wanted for the past nine hundred and thirty-nine days now: to have a partner again. Not just a partner. John. I knew, that moment on the rooftop, in that eye-opening, blinding moment of realisation, that I would miss him and miss him badly. But I never thought to be away for so long. And even then I never realised the full extent of it, how much I was capable of feeling for another person, how deeply felt the lack of him would be. When John appeared out of the blue in my life that afternoon, I didn’t know that everything would change. Everything did change. My entire life reordered itself to allow for him, for his presence. I kept being surprised by how easy it felt, I who had always been so solitary. There were always small frictions, the rub of having to get used to another person’s habits and small demands pushing up against my own solitary ways and patterns, but if anything, I almost enjoyed the friction of it. Getting used to John being there was easy. Realising how dependent I’d become on him was slightly more difficult to accept, but I never tried once to change that. (Addictive personality.) I’d been fine on my own, but it was so much better with him, incomparably better once he joined my life and seemed content as anything to let my life rule his, order his, reformat everything in his to accommodate mine. Me. (Same thing.) Once I had him, I stopped being alone. It was the two of us. The rest of the world could go and bugger itself: I had my Boswell. My blogger. My John. And not a day has gone by that I haven’t felt his absence.

Mycroft is still studying me, eyes laser-sharp as always. He’s pushed his weedy tea away, his plate empty. “Sherlock?” he prods gently, interrupting my reverie.

My plate is still half-full. “I don’t know,” I say, staring into the middle distance, thoughts still turned inward.

Mycroft gets up and goes to the kettle, switching it on. “He left me his number, at any rate, though he seems to think that you still have his.”

I say nothing to this. (He did know it was me. How could he have been so certain?)

“Think about it,” Mycroft says quietly. “Think about what would be best for him. And for you. It’s possible that you would find it easier to stay engaged in the work if you weren’t moping about him half the time, you realise.” He picks up my cup, levels me with a look, eyebrows where his hairline should be, then stalks over to the sink to dump out my cold coffee. “Make yourself a proper cup of tea and think it over,” he advises over his shoulder. “I’ll leave you with the footage, if you want to hear how the conversation went. Let me know, after.”

He sets my cup down on the table in front of me and withdraws a disc in a paper envelope from his jacket pocket. Goes to pull his coat off the hook on the back of the kitchen door and leaves without saying another word.

I wait until he is gone before going to fetch my laptop, abandoning my dinner to slide the disc into the drive. I have to see this.

***

The video shows a date and time stamp in the lower right corner. Today’s date, time: 14:07. Mycroft is sitting at his desk frowning at a computer screen when the knock sounds. It plays out like a film. I am riveted to the screen of my laptop.

“Come,” Mycroft says. The camera shows his face before John appears, shows the fleetingly unveiled surprise. Replaced instantly with his usual, smooth façade, but not quickly enough. “Dr Watson,” he says evenly. “Do come in.”

The camera angle only shows the back of John’s head. (Obviously there would be more than one camera in the office but I suppose Mycroft wasn’t about to splice the footage together into a film. The point was only to show me the conversation, after all.) John walks over and stands by the visitors’ chair. His hands are balled by his sides and he swings his arms outward a little, fists bouncing off his thighs. It’s an uncomfortable gesture. Not nervous: ill at ease. “Mycroft,” he says, stiff.

Mycroft gestures at the seat, expression cautious. “Have a seat, if you like,” he says carefully. “What can I do for you? It’s been a long time.”

“It certainly has.” John sits, leans back in the chair and appears to be gazing at my brother. (Trying to decide what to say?) Mycroft just gazes back, not impatient. Just waiting. Finally John says, “How long have you known?”

Mycroft conceals this shock better, though I can still see it. He holds John’s eyes a moment longer, steadily, then glances away. “About three weeks. That’s all. You have my word.”

“And you didn’t tell me because…?” John’s voice is jerky, not necessarily angry. (Not yet.)

Mycroft sighs. “It’s extremely classified information at this point, John. There was a good reason for why he did what he did, and that reason is still in existence. It’s really for the best if you don’t try to contact him. Not yet. It’s too – ”

“I saw him,” John cuts him off. “I went to Baker Street the other day. I know he has some operation going on, and that somehow it’s about me. That’s why I’m here. I want in.”

Mycroft bucks visibly at this. “Into the operation?” he asks blankly. “In what capacity? Are you just looking for information, or…?”

“No.” John is curt. “I want to help. I want to help Sherlock do whatever he’s been doing all this time. He shouldn’t have to be working alone. He shouldn’t have had to be working alone all this time.”

“He’s not working alone now,” Mycroft points out, recovering his composure and lacing his fingers together on the desk. “He’s working with me. My agents. Partner agencies.”

John shakes his head. “That’s not the same,” he says. “That just says that it’s a really big operation, if he needs the kind of help you can give him. What about an actual partner for on the ground work?”

“He’s not in the field any more,” Mycroft tells him. “His being back in London should have told you that.”

John gives a frustrated sigh. “Mycroft, stop stonewalling me. You know damn well what I mean. There’s no saying he’ll be staying here permanently, is there? That’s he’s absolutely finished with the field work?”

“He is if I have anything to say about it,” Mycroft says sharply.

“But,” John says, pointedly.

Mycroft looks away again. “It’s his operation,” he agrees reluctantly. “His decisions. So, that said, you’ll see that this discussion is somewhat irrelevant in any case. If Sherlock thought it advisable to involve you, he would have contacted you. The fact that he hasn’t says that he considers it too dangerous.”

“I don’t care about that,” John says. (Wish I could see his face here. Can clearly read the frustration in his shoulders, particularly the left, but I wish I could see his expression.)

Mycroft lifts his eyebrows. “Has it occurred to you to consider that he does?” he asks. He quells John with this, lets the silence spin out for a moment, then goes on. “He has gone to considerable lengths to ensure your continued safety over the past two and a half years, which has meant some – unpleasant circumstances, shall we say, while you’ve been busy… moving on.” He gives a general wave of his hand toward John at this, an air of faint disgust just hinted at beneath his words.

John leans forward in his chair. The colour in the video is not perfect, but it seems that I can see that his ears are darker than they were. “Mycroft, I thought he was dead! What choice did I have but try to move on, somehow? Was I just supposed to grieve for the rest of my life?”

Mycroft offers one of his grimace/smiles. “What do you think he would have wanted?”

“That is not fair,” John says, voice quiet and dangerous. “Low blow, Mycroft.”

Mycroft shrugs. “Well, in any case, it still stands that it is Sherlock’s operation and Sherlock’s decision to make. I can’t imagine that he would say yes, but I can pass along your request. Do please avoid going over to Baker Street again, if you would. Doing so endangers both of you. Sherlock is, for all intents and purposes, still dead. It would be best if you carried on as though he were.”

“What if I can’t?” It’s low, intense. He appears to be looking down, from the angle of his head.

Mycroft purses his lips. “You’d best learn to, if you honour what he is doing right now.”

A long moment while John appears to be struggling with this. When he finally speaks again, lifting his head, his voice is ragged. “Would you give me his number, at least? I’d like to text him.”

“Not safe,” Mycroft says swiftly. “All channels are being monitored.”

“But he has a phone,” John says. “I know he does. He still has my number. You or your people must have rigged it to be secure or something. You could do whatever you did to my phone, if you want.”

“Won’t work,” Mycroft says, immovable. “Other people would call you. You’d make other calls. You have patients. A sister. A fiancée.”

I can hear John’s heavy exhale over the recording. “I could get another phone,” he says, but he sounds defeated.

Mycroft sighs, too. “I’ll ask him,” he says. “But it’s his decision. It would really be best, John, if you were to just wait until the operation is finished.”

“It’s for the operation that he needs me,” John says, suddenly fierce. “And I need to help him. I need to be there with him.”

Mycroft holds his hands out, palms turned upward. “Do I need to keep repeating myself? It’s Sherlock’s operation and Sherlock’s decision. I will pass this on to him, and there’s nothing else I can do.”

There is dismissal in his tone, and John recognises chain of command when he hears it. He gets up, straightens his jacket and his shoulders. “Thank you,” he says tightly, and turns and strides from the office. Glimpse of his face at last: insides of his eyebrows lifted, brow furrowed: anxiety, troubled set to his mouth and jaw.

Then Mycroft, looking directly at the camera after the door closes. “Hope you’re satisfied,” is all he says. “Your operation, after all.” The disc stops playing and my laptop ejects it.

I spend ten interminable minutes looking at the darkened screen, trying to organise my thoughts into patterns and sense. Finally, I pick up my phone. Dial Mycroft’s number.

He picks up on the fourth ring, sounding sleepy. (Check the time: it’s close to ten now.) “Sherlock.”

“Give him my number.” The words fall roughly out of my mouth. I clear my throat belatedly, trying to clear the emotion away.

A moment passes, then, “It’s done.”

I disconnect and wait.

***

It takes fifteen minutes, during which time I tell myself a dozen times that he’s changed his mind, pacing agitatedly around the sitting room, phone in hand. When it buzzes I nearly drop it in surprise.

It’s John.

Can we talk?

Bugger Mycroft. Bugger his bloody surveillance. I text back at once.

Come to 221B. Use back entrance to Mrs H’s
kitchen. Don’t turn on the lights. Can you come now?

He responds within the minute:

On my way. Getting a cab.

A cab. John never takes cabs unless I’m with him. He must really want to get here quickly. It occurs to me that I have no idea where he’ll be coming from, how long it could take to get here. I look down at myself. Barefoot. Dressing gown. I decide to take this off. Somehow it seems like this conversation will be very important. Don’t want to be wearing a dressing gown for it, no matter how many hundreds of times he’s seen me in it before. Go to the bathroom to check my hair, brush my teeth. (Refuse to ask myself the logic of any of this. It’s John, John who has seen me at my worst, hair and body unwashed while under cover amongst the homeless network, or covered in rubbish, reeking of malodorous chemical mixtures, soaked with mud, with rain, with blood. Nonetheless. Somehow it seems terribly important to look presentable for this.)

Time cannot go by quickly enough. I’m going out of my skin with impatience, poking and prodding at random objects, flitting from one spot to another until finally, finally, the back door downstairs opens quietly. Mrs Hudson is still at the cinema with Mrs Turner. She wouldn’t come in the back way at this hour, anyway. Yes: his step on the creaking backstairs. It’s John. (John.)

He comes through the kitchen and stops in the doorway, looking at me. I feel like an insect pinned to a board, a frog in a dissecting pan. Laid bare. Can’t move. Can’t speak. My throat is tight, just seeing him again. (Sentiment has ruined me utterly. May never recover.)

His eyes are dark and unfathomable. He swallows. “Thanks,” he says. His throat sounds tight, too.

“For what?” I sound hoarse, as though I haven’t spoken in days.

“For letting me come. For changing your mind,” he says. “Mycroft must have talked to you after I saw him. I figured that was why he gave me your number.”

Feel my chin jerk in a nod. “Yes,” I say. (Cannot stop staring stupidly at him. Feel like an idiot.)

John takes his jacket off without breaking eye contact, tosses it over the back of his chair, and takes a couple of steps toward me. “Let’s try this again,” he proposes, voice not quite steady.

(Internal chaos. What is he doing? What is happening?) “Do what again?” I ask, too quickly. (I sound defensive, guarded. Didn’t mean to.)

“Our reunion the other day didn’t go quite how it should have,” John says, rueful. “I had a bit too much time to think after, and no matter what, no matter how shocked or angry I was, I wish it had… I wish I had been different about it.”

He is two metres from me and stops. “It was quite understandable,” I say, my voice still horribly jerky and too fast.

“Still,” John says. He takes another step. “The fact is, your death – what I thought was your death – it broke me, Sherlock. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever gone through. It was like losing half of myself, whatever that means. And knowing that you’re alive again – or were alive all along – it’s the best thing I ever could have been told. The very best. And it’s not possible to not want to be with you, working with you. I don’t care what it takes. I want to help. I want you to not be on your own in this, especially not when you’re doing it for me.” I open my mouth but he forestalls me. “Don’t say it’s not safe. I don’t care a toss for safe, not after I saw you there, on the pavement, and knew how much it all meant to me.” He takes a deep breath. “Still means to me.”

“All what?” My voice is still rough, lower than it should be. I shouldn’t be afraid to look him in the eye, but when I do, the answer is as obvious as daylight. (Terrifying/exhilarating.)

“You,” John says simply. He closes the distance between us, right in front of me. (Like predator and certain prey. Could not move if I tried.) “And me.”

I’m hardly aware of anything but his face, his eyes, burning into mine. His chin turns up and I must have turned my face down to his because there is almost no space between us at all now. I can feel him tangibly, his presence surrounding me with that same sense of vertigo swirling around my head, his magnetic attraction pulling me irresistibly toward him. Feel his hands settle firmly on my waist and shiver despite myself. By now I know what’s going to happen, clearly, but I can feel myself trembling, uncertain, yet consumed with want for him. I’m paralysed, unable to move either toward him or away, but my indecision doesn’t appear to affect John in the slightest. His lips are very soft and very hesitant, waiting for confirmation, for rejection, for response. There are no thoughts to contain this, to describe it, reduce it to a simple transcript of inner monologue. Not this. I lean into his mouth with my own and he responds instantly, pressing closer. My knees buckle under the strength of it (or my own inability to process it), but his arms catch me, drawing me tight against him. Somehow my arms have got around his back and his mouth is opening under mine, lips strong against mine, kissing me with all the passion that he so easily embodies and expresses. Not like me, trapped inside my own brain, so convinced for so long that I didn’t even have passions like his. Maybe I didn’t, before him. Am kissing him back with little technique, going on instinct only (no other resources to fall back on here: hardly my area). It feels simultaneously completely alien and unfamiliar, yet exactly the way I thought it would. Not sure how that could be, but it is and it is everything I wanted it to be, the strange-yet-known slide of his tongue against mine, down to the very taste of his breath, his saliva. Someone is making some sort of pathetic, desperate sort of sound and I realise belatedly that it goes in tandem with my overly-long fingers clutching at the back of his shirt: it’s me. I sound as though I am gasping for breath and he is oxygen.

Finally he breaks the kiss, lets me sag back and slightly down onto the desk (legs still not functioning) and moves his hands to my face, forehead on mine. He is breathing as hard as I am, exhaling into my face, against my mouth. (Am I suppose to speak now?) I close my eyes, not wanting it to end, not wanting him to pull away. Am still gripping the back of his shirt so tightly that my fingers will cramp. He doesn’t seem all that inclined to move away, though. “Sherlock,” he breathes, just above a whisper, but he doesn’t say anything after, just stands there, breathing, thumbs stroking over my cheeks. After a bit, he nudges my knees apart slightly to insert one of his own between mine, slides his fingers into the very short hair at the back of my neck.

I feel his gaze and open my eyes to his. Still can’t decide on what to say. (Give me a clue, John. Bit lost here.)

He looks far less lost than I feel. “I guess that answers that question,” he says with a slight laugh, the laugh betraying more uncertainty than I’d suspected.

“Which question?” I ask, because I have to.

“Whether it was always just me.” John gives a self-deprecating smile with this. “I never really knew, you know. I thought, sometimes, but… well. And then it was irrelevant, or so I thought. Didn’t make it any easier, though.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, because it seems like the only thing I can say to this. And because it’s true and because I always intended to apologise. “I never... it only occurred to me that you might.... feel… feel like this during that last phone call.”

John’s fingers tighten in my hair for a moment. “You never suspected before that?”

“Maybe later,” I say, closing my eyes again, distracted by his fingers in my hair. “But not at the time, no.”

He presses his lips to my forehead. “And you?” he asks. “When did you know? Please don’t say just now.”

“Probably also during that last phone call,” I admit. “It made it so much harder. All of it, having to jump in front of you, not knowing when I would be able to explain. Or come back.”

“You git,” John murmurs. “You utter git. And you couldn’t tell me that you were about to save my life.”

“Not really, no.” I open my eyes to find his on mine again, on a level because I’m perched on the edge of the desk. I lean forward and hesitantly put my lips on his again. He accepts it with none of my hesitation and responds by kissing me for a rather long time. It’s perfect. I didn’t know that something so unscientific, so illogical, could be so perfect. I don’t particularly want to talk any more, because then he’ll bring up practicalities and other topics and complications (like his bloody fiancée) and I’ll tell him that he can’t be a part of the operation but that I’ll do my bloody hardest to finish it off as fast as I can and then come back to him, but this is all fantasy. A soap bubble that will shatter the moment its tiny lifespan collapses, and I don’t want to see the other side of this moment just yet. I just want this to go on forever.

(Please, let it just go on forever.)

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

 

“So it’s true, then,” John says, hours later.

(Seems like hours. Probably only minutes. Semantics.) We’re in the exact positions we were before, me perched on the edge of the desk, John standing in front of me. One of his knees pushed between mine so that he can be close without having to lean past my legs. I open my eyes. “What’s true?”

“You did it to save my life,” John says, pulling me back into the conversation we’d started before. He’s waiting, eyes searching my face. “You didn’t deny that.”

(Oh.) Should I have said something then, when he said it? Forgot he didn’t know at the moment. Mycroft didn’t tell him that and neither did I; he’s just extrapolated that from my having told him that the operation was about him, that he was in danger. (Smart, John. Good deduction.) “Yes,” I say, since he’s expecting me to say something. To confirm or deny it.

John’s lips press to mine again, briefly. “That changes everything,” he says, eyes almost closed. “About how I think of it, I mean. I thought you had committed suicide, Sherlock.” The pain on his face is plain. “When they found out that Moriarty had been up there with you, I thought he’d managed to convince you, or drugged you into thinking you were the fake, not him. Something like that. I couldn’t figure out how he could have made you believe that. It always bothered me. Molly said there was nothing unusual in your toxicology report, but she wouldn’t let me see it. I guess that part makes sense now… and Molly helped you do it. I see.”

He’s piecing other parts together. I don’t really want to talk about this (don’t really want to talk, full stop), but I can see that it’s inevitable. Still. Don’t want to, not yet. Attempt to distract him, make a noise that is a vague affirmation of his theories, lean forward, mouth seeking his again. He lets me, mouth as hungry on mine, but draws away again, much too soon. I make a noise of disapproval/protest, but he’s determined to talk.

“Just… tell me a little more, first,” he says, somewhere between a request and a plea. “I just – it’s been so long and there’s so much I don’t know.”

Sigh. “It would be a very long explanation,” I try, wanting to put him off.

“I’m gathering that, yeah,” John says, the hand on my neck moving to squeeze my right shoulder. “You don’t have to tell me everything. But you have to know how many questions I have right now. It’s been driving me mad since I saw you the other day. Well, that and… this,” he says, a bit awkward. “Should we sit down or something?”

Move my eyes rapidly across his face. “How long are you staying?” Attempt at vocal neutrality mostly successful. (Good.)

John hesitates. “I don’t know,” he says, hedging. “How long will you let me stay?”

(Forever. Don’t want him to leave at all.) I feel the corner of my mouth twitch involuntarily toward a frown. “How long do you want to stay?” It’s a challenge, and it’s a stalemate. I know this already. If he’s asking if I want him to stay, what does he want me to say? If I say I never want him to leave, then he’ll have to gently, regretfully explain how and why he can’t; if he’s asking permission to stay long-term, he has to know it’s already been given, as I allowed him (asked him) to come here. What’s his game? What am I supposed to say?

John frowns slightly in response. “I want to be in on this operation with you,” he says, worry lines appearing between his eyes. “Mycroft said I would need to go into hiding with you to do that.”

“Yes.” Watch him intently, hawk-like. (Signs of withdrawal, of the beginnings of the explanation and excuses? I want for him to stay, but cannot – cannot allow myself to hope for it. It’s not realistic.)

But there is nothing so far. (Not yet.) John nods, as though to himself, as though confirming some internal process or decision. “That’s what I want,” he says. “I’d need to… make some arrangements, but I can do that. I want to help. I want you not to be alone any more.”

He can’t go saying things like that. It makes me feel intensely… something. I discover that I am unwilling to make eye contact with him before I have identified the feeling lest he see and recognise it before I have properly analysed and catalogued and made sense of it. Talk quickly, willing the feeling to dissipate. “You wouldn’t be able to work. You’d have to stay here.”

“Well, yeah, I kind of figured that,” John says, lip twitching a little. “Wouldn’t really be hiding otherwise.”

I think of his fiancée but it’s too soon to mention her, too soon into this fragile beginning of whatever we are now, whatever this is. I close my mouth around the unspoken words and swallow them back. Settle for nodding toward the sofa.

John looks at it, takes my wrist and pulls me toward it, sits down just far enough to angle himself toward me. “Right,” he says. “So, explain. The rooftop. What happened? Why did you jump, Sherlock? I know that you were the one behind the call about Mrs Hudson. You were trying to keep me away so that I wouldn’t have to see it. I know that much. All that told me at the time was that you were planning to jump all along, that it wasn’t a spontaneous decision, but even after they found Moriarty, I just couldn’t figure out why.”

I can see that he’s going to force me to talk about it before he’ll let me kiss him again. And then he’ll start talking about his fiancée and the moment will never come. He’ll come to his senses and leave and the solitude will be a thousand times worse than it was while I was away. (Need to concentrate. Just talk and let it play out in sequence. Nothing else for it.) I try not to sigh, blink once to clear my head, and start explaining. Just the condensed version. “There were snipers,” I tell him. “Assassins he’d hired. For you, Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade. The only way to abort the operation was for me to jump, or for Moriarty to call them off. He shot himself to force me into doing it.”

John’s face compresses into worried creases. “My God,” he says, horrified. “So you had no choice. And I guess that’s why you didn’t tell me, in case someone was listening?”

“Exactly,” I say. John puts his hand on mine. I look down at it and go on. “So I went to track them down. That wasn’t difficult, but you knew Moriarty, what he was like. I had find out if there were fail-safes in place, people to complete the job in case it was discovered that I was still alive.”

John is watching me intently. “And were there? Back-ups, I mean?”

I nod. Think back through my list, the list that had grown and grown as I eliminated parts of Moriarty’s extensive organisation only to discover new branches, new groups. “There were at least five assassins here in London.”

John nods at this. “Right, the ones Mycroft told us about.”

“Yes. You saw the first one, the Albanian. It was Moran who shot him. The second one was the Greek, the one who pushed us out of the way of the bus. There was a Russian woman and an Irish man. An American.”

“Okay,” John says, concentrating. “Who else? Who’s Moran?”

Who’s Moran? Without warning I feel my throat start to tighten again. I try to clear it, force it to relax but I can’t. Someone I never wanted you to meet or even know about is what I want to say. I swallow, swallow again, trying to deal with the sudden emotion. (Unexpected. The worst kind of emotional attacks.)

“Hey.” John’s voice is soft, his fingers tightening on my hand a bit. “What is it?” Can feel his eyes on my face, searching. “Did I say something wrong?”

This is terrible. How do people live with emotions like this? It is suddenly blindingly clear that just the fact that he is still here, engaged or not, but alive and here with me, that Moran never got to him, is all that matters. And it only worked because I was successful in keeping him from knowing I was alive. He knew that he was being pursued, but not that it was me, not until the moment I shot him in the back and spoke John’s name in his ear as his body jerked in death. A move that John, honourable, trustworthy, John would never have condoned, but I would have done anything to eliminate Moran.

“Sherlock.” John’s voice is gentle but insistent. He hooks a knuckle under my chin with his free hand and lifts my face. (Have to fight the instinct to refuse, pull away.) “What are you thinking?”

His eyes are very wide and dark blue in the lamplight. Patient. John is not always this patient, not with me. I have to say something, explain. “I – ” My voice catches; I can’t finish. Without quite intending to, I pull my left hand out from under his and pull him roughly to me. You’re alive, you’re here, don’t go, don’t get yourself killed. Don’t leave me. Don’t let me leave you again. Saying it silently against and into his mouth. He makes a soft sound of surprise but responds, the fingers on my chin moving to the back of my neck again (he likes touching me there, holding me in place).

After a bit, he pulls away just a little. “Sherlock,” he says again, too gently. “You’re not usually so – is Moran something you don’t want to talk about? It’s okay. Tell me something else then, if you would. Just – just so I have an idea, you know, where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing. Please.” He touches my bottom lip with his thumb, such a tiny gesture but filled with such affection, such tenderness. The kind of gesture I know nothing about, an entire language I do not speak. (I will be nothing but disappointment to him if he were to ever choose me over his fiancée. This just proves it.)

I blink and try to clear my head a little, clear my throat again. “Moran was your killer,” I say abruptly, the effort of saying the words forcing them out too harshly. “I killed him. In Paris. Ten months after I left London.”

John’s eyes widen a little, locked on mine. Can see him thinking, processing this. Wait for him to ask for details, but he licks his lips and says, “Ten months?”

“Yes.”

He’s still thinking, frowning a bit. “Where did you go afterward? Right after?”

“Immediately after?” I think back. “A small city in Germany called Saarbrücken. Near the French border.”

John smiles unexpectedly. I wait for him to explain, but he shakes his head, seeing the question on my face. “Later,” he says. “Where did you go right after you left London? Where did you go first?”

This is safer territory. “Belfast,” I tell him. “The maintenance man.”

John gets it immediately. “Mrs Hudson,” he says. Something seems to dawn on him. “Oh my God. He was here, here at Baker Street. I saw him dozens of times. He was right inside our flat!”

“I know,” I say. “I tracked him to Belfast. Then I followed the Russian to St. Petersburg.”

John definitely frowns now. “So you tracked them down, and then you… killed them?”

I frown back. “Yes. What else was I supposed to do?”

“Have them arrested?” John tries, but it’s feeble. He knows as well as I do that I had to kill them.

I give him a slightly exasperated look that says this. “John.”

He sighs. “Okay, okay. I know. Then where?”

“Then I was in England again, the north, but only briefly. Rogue CIA agent named Carl Jenkins, Manchester. He was Lestrade’s killer. After that, I had to start digging deeper. Jenkins had associates in Brooklyn, so I was there for awhile.”

“Brooklyn, as in New York?”

“That’s the one. That was where I found Jenkins’ whole group. And they knew the plan. They had Lestrade’s picture tacked up on the walls on the flat they were using as headquarters. Dodgy place in Williamsburg, looked like a crackhouse. Probably was a crackhouse.”

“Did you talk to them? Confirm that they knew the plan?” John’s hand is still lying on the sofa between us from where I abandoned it and he’s unconsciously curled the fingers inward. Defensive motion. Steeling himself to not like what I’m telling him. (The first sign. He could use this as fuel to leave.)

This observation gives my voice more of an edge than I intended. “Of course,” I retort. “What do you take me for? I talked to all of them, all of the groups. Except Moran. I already knew that he knew the plan.”

“How?” John wants to know. It’s not quite a demand, but close.

“Because he was the one orchestrating all the other assassins. Because he was the one who killed them when they stepped out of line. Because I spoke to one of his associates in Avignon before I finally caught up with him in Paris,” I say, stifling the urge to roll my eyes, impatient. “I had been chasing him for eight months by that point. Well, seven and a bit if you take away the time when I – ” I stop. I wasn’t going to tell John all of it, not the worst bits.

He catches it, though. Of course. I was much too obvious. (Idiot.) “The time when you what?” When I don’t respond, looking away, he puts a hand on my knee. My unfinished words hang in the air between us. “Mycroft said you had some ‘less than pleasant times’,” he says quietly. “Was that one of them?”

Eyes still averted, I nod, but add, “It wasn’t that bad. I was just… detained.”

“Detained?” John repeats. “As in… imprisoned?”

“Not as such,” I say. “Not officially. But captured, yes.”

John’s nostrils flare slightly. “Were you interrogated?”

“John – ”

Were you?”

Glance at him and look away. “Yes.”

He is breathing through his nose, noisily. “They beat you.” It’s not a question, but he’s waiting for confirmation nonetheless.

Jerk my chin once, just barely.

Suddenly John is on his feet and pacing, one hand on his hip, the other on his forehead. “Christ,” he says heavily, not looking at me.

I watch his pacing with a touch of alarm. “John – what are you – ” (I don’t understand.)

He stops near the mantle, as far from me as he can be while still being in the same room. He’s angry about something, clearly, blood rising to his cheeks, glaring at me. “I called you selfish,” he says, furious. “And I hit you. Why didn’t you tell me then? You should have hit me back. God knows I deserved it!”

I get up and cross the room to him, unsure how to resolve this, get him to sit down again. “John,” I say uncertainly, “you could hardly have known.” I don’t say that it did hurt. (He knows, now.)

He’s still glaring. “What else?” he demands.

Feel the crease at the bridge of my nose appear. “What else what?”

“What else happened to you?” He sees my expression closing and takes an involuntary step toward. “No – Sherlock – I need to know. Please.”

He comes closer again and takes hold of my upper arms, pinning me in place. I avert my eyes. “It wasn’t that bad,” I say. It’s not quite a lie. The detainment near Odessa was better than the cinder block cell in Antalya. They fed me more often. Let me shower a couple of times. Brief memory of the gaoler hosing me down with cold water, leaving me shivering for hours after, teeth chattering so badly despite the acrid heat of the cell that I could hardly speak during the next interrogation. The interrogations in Odessa weren’t as bad. It won’t do to tell John about any of that, though. “There was another time, in Turkey,” I say. “More recently. That was worse, but it’s over. I got away.”

“What else?” He knows I’m holding out on him. His eyes are dark and intense, mouth and chin set in that way he’s always had, the way that means that he’s not going to budge unless I do what he wants me to do.

I sigh. “It’s over, John,” I say, making my own voice gentler than usual. “There’s two and a half years of it. It wasn’t… it wasn’t great, overall. There were a lot of sticky situations. I had a little bit of help from two British agents I met along the way. Scottish, actually. One of them is still helping a little, with information.”

“That’s good,” he says, but his jaw is tight. “And the other one?” (He knows. There’s no point lying to him.)

“Got blown up,” I say shortly, feeling my lip twist.

John’s eyes are raking over my face. “That was… recent,” he says. (Not certain. Testing his hypothesis.)

I nod, still looking away. “You could say that.”

And just like that, his anger is over, arms slipping around my torso, standing very close to me. (Keeps taking me by surprise. He always did.) He buries his face between my neck and shoulder and his arms tighten. Impossibly, this feels almost more intimate than kissing him did. He’s so close that I can feel his heartbeat in my chest. I put my arms awkwardly around the back of his shoulders (these things are easier if I’m not given time to think about them first; aggravating thought) and try to think of something reassuring to say. Or is he reassuring me? (I’m not clear on the roles or the rules here.) After awhile I decide to just not say anything. Perhaps this is enough, just standing here and holding each other and reassuring each other that we’re both here. There’s so much more that will have to be said, I know. This is temporary. (It’s necessary to remind myself. He came to get answers, but he won’t stay. He can’t.)

After a little, John turns his face inward and presses his lips to my neck, warm against my skin. I hear myself exhale, his hair ruffling with the force of my breath. He kisses his way up to my jaw, edging up toward my ear, across my cheek. I stand still and let him, eyes closed, lips parted, bathing in it. (Understand tacitly that this is John’s version of articulating this, this unnameable, fierce thing between us. I have neither the vocabulary of words nor gestures to respond in kind, only raw, unvarnished instinct.) Instinct turns my face slightly toward his, cutting short the progress of his lips toward my mouth, impatient, wanting. He keeps his arms around my back, holding us chest-to-chest and takes pity on me, putting his mouth back on mine at last. My hands get themselves into his short hair. It’s soft and fine, sliding like silk between my fingers. I know I need to hold back a little, at least emotionally, but it’s impossible to think about anything clearly like this. It would be like pacing yourself after nearly dying of thirst and being presented with a well. (But this isn’t an inexhaustible supply. He will leave. I know this, but all I can bring myself to feel is relief that he is here. Here and kissing me. Oh, John.)

Finally he pulls away, heart pounding. (Can still feel it, thudding against my chest cavity.) Looks up at me, his face utterly serious. “Where next?” he asks.

Can’t think yet. Aware of my flushed face, heightened pulse, shortness of breath. “What?”

“Where do you need to go next?” John’s jaw has taken on that stubborn set again.

“Mycroft won’t let me go anywhere, at the moment,” I tell him. “We’re watching people from here and Mycroft has some agents out there.”

“Where is ‘there’?”

“Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”

John searches my face. “But you will go back, at some point.”

“I may have to,” I admit. “It depends, a bit.”

“Will you tell me about it?” John is asking, but firm. “Please. I want to know.”

I study his face. “John,” I begin. “Listen to me. This operation was linked to Moriarty by a member of Moran’s group. I found the connection while I was working on what I thought was an unrelated operation as a favour to someone else, someone who had helped me with something. It’s occurred to me more recently that it’s possible that those operations were somehow connected in ways I couldn’t have known at the time; Moriarty’s operation was huge. He was connected to virtually every criminal or terrorist organisation in Europe and Eurasia, and parts of North America. I don’t think it went much beyond that, South America or Africa, aside from some parts of the north. Not Australia or the Far East to my knowledge, but everywhere else. And this one is about you. Mycroft and I have just been debating whether you’d be safer in hiding with me or carrying on your normal life as though you didn’t know I was alive. Because eventually this operation will come to the point of my having to be exposed again. At some point, I’ll want to get back into the field to apprehend this last group and its leader. And when that happens, it’s highly likely that I’ll be exposed, they’ll know who I am. This group in particular captured me once before, in Yemen. They didn’t know who I was then, though they spent a lot of time trying to find out. They went to a lot of trouble to target associates of mine and if they were to find me again, and certainly if they were to find out who I am – if they haven’t already; they interrogated someone who knew me – the level of risk to you would go up considerably. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

John has been following intently, and nods. “But that’s just what I’m saying,” he says. “I don’t want you going back out there without me. Not this time. You’ve done so much on your own already, and I’m grateful for it, and I understand that everything you’ve done has been to keep Lestrade and Mrs Hudson and I safe. I get what you’re saying, that as this operation comes to its apex the risk to both of us will grow – but if I’m going to be at risk anyway, where would I be safer than with you, fighting it with you?”

I quirk an eyebrow at this. “That is a ridiculous argument. Trust you to feel safer in the direct line of fire.”

John shrugs. “Better to be standing where you can see your enemy,” he argues. “I’d rather that than – than just have my clinic bombed out of the blue or something, unsuspecting.”

He does have a point. I consider a bit, looking down at him. Thirteen centimetres height difference. It doesn’t seem as much when he’s this close. “Either way you choose, you have to cut something out completely,” I warn. “And if you choose to do this, to stay with me, you’re giving up a lot more.”

“It doesn’t matter,” John insists.

“No.” My voice is short. “It matters. You can’t make this decision lightly, without thinking it through properly.” I gently disentangle myself from his arms. I can’t talk about her from there. I need to be calm and clear for this. I will explain to him exactly what this would entail and he will understand that he can’t do it. I go around him, not quite pushing past him to sit down in my chair, gesture at his for him to follow suit. John looks at his chair with the missing Union Jack cushion and sits down, looking a bit lost. He sits on the edge, leaning forward (obvious desire to be closer, which is… nice. Wanting to give in to it is distracting.) I cross one leg over the other, creating a physical barrier. “Listen,” I say, voice more focused now. “This is an all-or-nothing thing. I’ve spent the past nine hundred and thirty-nine days playing at being a spy. I’ve probably made a lot of mistakes but I’ve learned a thing or two. This wouldn’t be like our old life, chasing small-time criminals around London, working with the police. Our allies out there are just barely on the right side of the law themselves: CIA, private agents, agents from governments they won’t openly identify, rogue agents, secret service people. If you came into the field with me, you’d have to remember ten different identities at the same time. There’d be no contact with anyone here, and that goes for when we’re right here in London, too. No contact. With anyone. Not for anything. Do you understand that?”

John takes a deep breath, but nods. “Yes. I get it, Sherlock.”

“It could take months,” I say, relentless. (He has to understand what this could involve. I won’t have him agreeing and then getting cold feet and backing out. That would be disastrous on every front. It would destroy me.) “You wouldn’t be able to work. Money won’t be a problem; Mycroft and his people would help, but going back to your job afterward could be difficult. You’d likely be declared missing. Possibly even presumed dead. Your sister would be furious with you.” I watch him for a moment, processing this, then decide to skip over the fiancée, just to counterbalance and play devil’s advocate for a moment. “But the other alternative is to go back to acting like I’m dead and you’ve moved on with your new life.” This is low, I know; deliberately repeating Mycroft’s words to him. “You wouldn’t see me. There’d be zero contact. No texts. No phone calls. And it could, as I said, take months and months. There are no guarantees here.”

John groans and bends over, putting his face in his hands. “Jesus Christ,” he says, the words muffled against his palms.

I watch him like a predator, ready to pounce on his first weakness, the first sign that he can’t handle the thought of it, of committing to this and staying with me. (But he has to know. He has to know what he’s deciding.) “It’s not as simple as just wanting to help,” I say, trying to keep my voice kind. “I know you want to. But you need to understand why I’m saying you can’t.”

John’s face flies up. “What?” he demands. “I thought you were letting me decide.”

This is painful but the way forward is clear now. I steeple my fingers under my chin and keep myself outwardly composed. “I’m sparing you the choice. It would be too difficult for you. I’ll finish the operation with Mycroft’s people and then I’ll come back.”

“No.” John glares at me suddenly. “You don’t get to do that. And the decision isn’t too difficult for me to make on my own. It’s hard, but I know what I need to do. I’m staying with you. You’ve been on your own too long as it is.”

Now for the kill. I feel my chin jut out, lips tighten, and say, “John, you’re engaged.”

His glare deepens, cheeks flushing. “What, you think I’ve forgotten that?”

I make a vague gesture in the air between us. “It… hasn’t been entirely evident that you hadn’t,” I say coolly. “If you’re even considering going into hiding with me, I suppose we have to talk about that sooner or later. Not that I particularly want to.”

“Well, neither do I,” John says, angry. “It’s none of your concern.”

My eyebrows slide upward, mouth considerably tighter than before. “Isn’t it.” Can hear how unimpressed I sound, but don’t back down. (I never back down.)

“No, it’s not,” John says. “Obviously I – I have to…” he fumbles for words. “Do something. Figure things out. But this isn’t the time or the place for that. I just want to think about this operation and you and I and what we need to do. The other thing is something I have to work out on my own.”

The anger and hurt about his bloody fiancée are uncoiling in the pit of my stomach, threatening to come roaring out my mouth if I’m not very careful. I clamp my lips shut and look away from him, toward the empty fireplace. “It’s relevant,” I say stonily. “If you’re even thinking about staying with me, it’s relevant because it’s something that could compromise you. Do you understand what I mean about no contact?”

“I’m not an idiot, contrary to what you’ve always thought.” John’s cheeks are still red. “Is it that you actually don’t want me to stay?”

“No.” The word leaves my mouth so quickly that it surprises us both. I force myself to breathe deeply, then say it again, more calmly, with painful honesty. “No. I want you with me more than I can possibly say. I mean that, John. I’ve wanted you with me since the day I left. And the thought of having you by my side again, having our old partnership back – just you and me again – ” I have to stop, throat closing dangerously again.

John’s face softens. “The two of us against the rest of the world,” he says, his own voice rough. He nods. “Yeah. Exactly.” He rubs the back of his neck, then says, “Then stop being such a bloody stubborn idiot about it. I’m staying, and that’s it.”

I push myself out of the chair and drop to my knees in front of him, pull his face down to mine. His shoulders are still tense and his breath hitches but he opens his mouth under mine, tangling our tongues together, and after a minute or so he slides off the edge of his chair and onto his knees, facing me, arms coming around me. My hands are on his face and I can’t bring myself to care if I ever breathe properly again. This is all I need: John. The sole element I require for survival. He can be my air and earth and water and fire; I don’t need anything but him. (Stay, then. Don’t leave me, John.)

***

Kneeling together at this proximity means that I feel it when his body shifts, blood stiffening the flesh below his trousers, feel it against my lower pelvis. Can feel the instantaneous response it provokes in my body, just being aware of his arousal. (Oh. Oh. Had never thought this far ahead, somehow. The oversight of this potentially very obvious factor of having John respond to me emotionally shocks me in instant retrospect. How could I have failed to consider this? It isn’t that I’ve never thought of him this way – on the contrary – but I am wholly unprepared for it in a real situation. Entirely out of my depth.) I hear my own sharp intake of breath, mouth unsealing itself from John’s, the air like ice in my lungs after the warmth of him. Sensation not unlike panic. (May be classifiable as panic, in fact.)

He makes a small sound (surprise? Dismay? Soothing? Can’t even tell) and moves his hands to my waist, just above my hips. “Sherlock…” His lips are still touching mine, eyes barely open.

“I – ” No idea what to say. Desire is pooling in my groin and suddenly I feel ridiculous, kneeling on the carpet like this.

John’s eyes open a little more, taking in my face, my widened eyes. (Dilated pupils forsooth.) “Hey,” he says softly. “It’s all right. It’s all right.” His hands smooth over my hips, back up to my waist. Steady hands. Unhesitating. (How is this all right for him? My stoically straight John, how can he be so calm about this?)

I nod fractionally, take a deep breath and put my mouth on his again. Encouraged, he kisses back, deeply, with more abandon. He shifts a bit closer, thighs touching mine now, his arousal more pronounced, a heavy warm thing pushing against me, my hitching lower abdomen. The feeling of it there produces a sort of low, deep red heat in the pit of my belly, like wine, like Shiraz swirling darkly in the firelight and suddenly I need to be touching more than his face. Move my hands down to his sides, to the checked shirt he has neatly tucked into his trousers, his skin radiating warmth through the fine cotton. He exhales through his nose, a small sound groaned into my mouth and he slides his palms down to the round curve of my arse, the heat of him translating through my trousers. He pulls me closer, my unmistakeable tumidity now pushing into his firm belly. Am exhaling erratically between kisses, pulse spiking, nerve endings in overdrive with new data, new reactions. Heart pounds against his chest. Find myself mirroring his gesture almost unconsciously, hands crawling to his arse, wanting him, wanting him so badly I can hardly breathe. (John. Mine.)

My phone pings loudly in my pocket, startling me, interrupting. John groans, just a little. “Ignore it?” he says hopefully.

Attempt to estimate the time but it seems I have lost all sense of it, here with John. On the floor. (Why the floor? Oh. Because I was the one who went to kneel in front of him.) It must be late, very late, which means there’s only one or two people it could conceivably be – in fact (brain clears a little), there are only one or two people who it could possibly be, given how few people have the number. I sigh. “Can’t,” I say, and pull it out of my pocket.

It’s Duncan and the time is 3:02am. (Does not bode well.) It’s a short text:

Update from contact in UAE. Seems one
or more of your team may be compromised
there. Consider pulling out! Operations at risk.
Leaving Beijing now, project here can wait.
Will update with details.
HD

There is an immediate clash between my rational mind and the gentle haze that has been filling it for the past several hours, particularly these last, unbelievable minutes. Duncan’s text cuts sharply through the fog and I feel my shoulders sag in disappointment even as my spine stiffens, preparing for action. I need to call Mycroft. And this, whatever has been happening with John, will have to wait. (Intense frustration.) I look at him and see that he knows already, face torn between frustration of his own and intense desire to know what is happening. (He will understand this. John always understood that the work came first, and this time the work is him. For him. He will understand.)

(He has to.)

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

 

“What is it?” John asks, voice a curious mixture of anticipation, dread, and possibly adrenaline.

I’ve sat back on my heels to read the text and am re-reading it rapidly before calling up Mycroft’s number. “Trouble,” I say briefly. “I have to phone Mycroft.”

John swears under his breath; I understand perfectly that he understands the gravity of the situation if I am phoning my brother. He sits back, too, waiting.

I dial. It takes Mycroft five rings to answer (is he actually sleeping?) but then he picks up. “What is it?” His voice is only a modicum less clear than usual.

“Trouble,” I say again. “Got a text from my contact. He seems to think that our agents’ covers have been compromised. Recommended aborting.”

Can practically hear the clicks and whirrings of Mycroft’s brain. “Has this been verified? When did you hear?” Full clarity; he is entirely awake. Can hear the sounds of him sitting up, standing.

“Just now. And no, my contact got the info from another contact.”

“Where are you?”

“Where do you think?” As if he doesn’t know.

“All right. I need to get to the office. I’ll send a car once the intel is confirmed.”

“Give me a ten-minute warning before the car arrives.”

Mycroft rings off without acknowledging this. I put the phone back in my pocket and look at John. He looks both resigned (about the interruption to what was beginning before?) and interested. “Where are you going?” he asks.

“To Mycroft’s office. He has an enormous surveillance unit in the basement. But not just yet.” Hesitate. Not sure why he hasn’t assumed he was coming with me. Need to ask, I suppose. “Are you going to come?”

“Of course, if you want me to,” John says. “Except…” he trails off.

His own hesitation squelches all of the warmth that had been building in my gut, replacing it with a sensation like cold water. “Except what?” It sounds fast, sharp, insecure. (Touch of self-loathing. Would be nice to at least keep my dignity intact if he is suddenly changing his mind.)

He hears the insecurity, smiles slightly and shakes his head, reaching to put a hand on my knee. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says firmly. “But I was just thinking that I’ll need to get some clothes and such. So maybe I should go and get my things now and then come and meet you at Mycroft’s office. Or come back here first. Whatever you like.”

(Oh. Yes. This is a perfectly reasonable thought. I don’t want him leaving, though. Getting any distance will give him a golden opportunity to realise what an impossible decision he’s made, make it easier to change his mind by text or phone. Still – suppose I have to consent to letting him get his things.) “All right,” I say slowly. “The business at Mycroft’s office usually involves a lot of standing around and watching nothing happening on satellite monitors. It can take a long time. Perhaps when the car comes, they can take you to your flat after they drop me off and then come back for you when you’re ready.”

John smiles with just a touch of relief to it, a relief I don’t quite understand. “That would be great,” he says. “So – right now, is there anything you need to do?”

I think hurriedly, then say, “No, not until I’ve heard back from my contact.”

“Who is your contact?” John asks curiously.

(Right, am supposed to be letting him in with all of this.) “He’s the Scottish agent I mentioned,” I tell him. My knees are beginning to cramp so I push myself up into my chair. “His name is Hamish Duncan. I met him through another agent, Jack Sheffield, on an operation of Sheffield’s in Hamburg about eight months ago. He has a contact in the Abu Dhabi area and he just texted to tell me that the contact thinks they’ve been compromised.”

“Okay,” John says. He retreats to his own chair, a small furrow between his eyes. It seems unrelated to what he’s saying. “How did you get involved with that?”

It’s going to take another two and a half years just to explain everything to John, tell him all of the stories. (Tedious. Yet I do want to tell him.) I place my hands together under my chin and begin. “I was trying to find out who was at the head of a crime ring that I first encountered in the Czech Republic. I had thought they were based there, originated there, but I was spying on a couple of its members in Prague one day and overheard them speaking German, which made me think that they weren’t Czech after all. Obviously. I traced them north to Dresden, then followed two of them to an area in the south of Berlin called Neukölln. It took me until the platform change in a tiny place called Elsterwerda to discover that I wasn’t the only one following them. That was confirmed when Sheffield changed U-Bahn lines at the same time, too. He was aware of it as well and apprehended me once our targets had reached their destination. It took us less than a minute to realise we were on the same side, and after we sorted out our agendas, we agreed to work together. I just knew that they were a crime ring linked to Moriarty; Sheffield needed certain information about their movements because of a connection to another group he was tracking. Or rather, he was trying to establish whether or not there was a connection. I just wanted to eliminate them.”

“So what happened?”

“We did take them down, eventually, but when it’s an entire organisation, one always has to know the full extent of the organisation, or else they just go to ground and regroup somewhere else. Sheffield brought Duncan in as an outside source, but I didn't meet him then. Sheffield referred me to him when I needed back-up for an operation in Salzburg some months later. I don’t even know who Duncan works for, precisely. He may even be MI5 for all I know. Anyway, Sheffield was there loosely at the behest of the German government, but he was freelance and always preferred to work alone.” I pause. “He was a good agent. A good man. I don’t know how he was caught or what happened, but the group we’re after now is who killed him. He was targeted in an explosion which put him in a hospital in Edinburgh. I went there to check on him and because I needed help, and the hospital exploded literally as I was arriving at it.”

John blinks, mouth open, making the connections. “That was just weeks ago! It was all over the papers!”

“I know.”

“You were there? Of course you were – so – was the explosion meant for you, then? Or do you think it was a coincidence that they blew him up again right when you got there, or what?”

“I don’t know,” I say carefully. “I had called in advance – dangerous, I know, don’t tell me. I used a false name, one that Sheffield knew me by, but I used his name. I didn’t know whether that was his actual name or he would have been admitted under an alias or what, but when I asked about Sheffield it seemed they knew who he was. But the person I spoke to on the phone told me that there had just been an ‘incident’ wherein a lot of the hospital’s equipment had suddenly malfunctioned. From the level of distress this person was in, and from her wording, I would say that quite a large number of patients died because of this malfunction. So it’s possible that Sheffield was already dead when the bombs went off.”

“That explosion was huge,” John says blankly. “I knew people who had worked there, nobody I was still in touch with, but – the Royal Edinburgh is enormous, and the entire thing was levelled to rubble.”

“I know,” I say again. “Mycroft pulled me out of that very rubble himself.”

John blinks, thinking for a moment. “He did? How did he know you were there?”

I sigh. “I was at my wit’s end, honestly,” I admit. “After I got away from the place in Turkey where I was being held, I got myself to Cyprus in the hold of a cargo ship, then flew back to Berlin. I had a flat there and I just wanted to regroup for a day or two. The people holding me in Turkey are the group we’re after now, led by a man named Sherkan Yilmaz. They told me that Sheffield was in the hospital and let me go, more or less.” I don’t mention that they tried to kill me as I was being “let go”; that will only upset John. “I’d been in detained for a month and was dehydrated, I had no clothes, I hadn’t been eating well. I was there for less than thirty-six hours when I went back to the flat and found it had been burned down. It was my flat specifically. You know I rarely believe in coincidence; I had to believe that I’d been found, so I left Berlin the next day to go to Edinburgh to ask Sheffield for help. By that time, I knew he was injured but I didn’t know the extent of his injuries and I thought I had no one else to turn to. When the hospital exploded in front of me, I turned and ran back the way I had come, to a commercial street near the university. While I was running, it occurred to me suddenly that I could still ask Mycroft, that I was back in Britain. I had so many different phones that I didn’t have any contacts stored on the current one, but I stopped on a street corner and looked for CCTV cameras and just shouted his name at them. I meant to get his attention and then get further away from the blast radius, but I was struck in the head by a piece of debris and knocked unconscious. Half-buried in the rubble when Mycroft’s people found me.”

John’s mouth is open, eyebrows knit together in deep concern. “Where did he take you?”

“The Swiss Embassy, to recover,” I say. His concern is too warm, too… it feels almost invasive. I get up and move to go to the kitchen, make tea or something, but John is on his feet instantly and intercepts me, gentle but unmoving.

He puts his hands on my arms and leans his forehead on my shoulder. “Oh, Sherlock,” he says, muffled. “My God.”

(Don’t want to be pitied, yet am curiously touched by it at the same time. Still. Don’t want him treating me like I’m made of glass.) “It’s all right now,” I tell him, hands finding their way to his waist and settling there. “I’m all right.”

“I should have been with you.”

“It’s all right,” I repeat. Am tempted to lay my cheek against his head. I try it, not wholly certain of myself. (Is this a strange thing to do? Will he find it odd? Or worse, amusing?)

He responds with a soft sound and by moving closer still. The hands that were on my upper arms slip below them, around my back. After a moment, he turns his face upward and presses his lips to my throat. Feel my chin duck, seeking out his mouth with mine. I find his forehead first, press my lips to it, then the bridge of his nose, the sharp protrusion of his cheekbone, corner of his jaw, chin, then upper lip. He is standing still, eyes closed, brow still furrowed in pain or sympathy or something along those lines, receiving these bestowings of (affection? Desire? Need for deeper physical contact?) in quiet acquiescence until my mouth touches his. Then he presses into me, lips strong and assured on mine, opening at once, pushing upward on his toes. The earlier heat plunges southward through my body again, the strength and speed of its return frankly astonishing. Sexual impetus is not something I have ever experienced with consistency; it was always easy enough to ignore when inconvenient and seldom presented itself most of the rest of the time. Strange to find it awoken by something as seemingly unadventurous as kissing. (It’s not the kissing. It’s that it’s John. Out of my depth as I am, I know that.) But it is definitely present at the moment. (Slight cause for concern, as all of my knowledge in this area is theoretical only. I know how it works. I know nothing of the related etiquette, any of the myriad fine lines I could unwittingly tramp across without any systematic flags or warnings in place to keep me from it. Reiterate: definite cause for concern.)

John’s hands and lips are more insistent, more urgent. He pulls away from a moment to murmur, “Where were we, then?”

(Can’t think of how to respond to this. Settle for trying out my mouth on his neck, just below his ear. This produces a breathy laugh, followed by a deeper sound, not quite a moan. (Pleased. He likes this.) His hands drop to my arse as though magnetised and this time he doesn’t just hold it lightly. His fingers grip, palms rubbing circles over it, massaging, using it as leverage to pull me closer to him. (Oh. This is… this is very welcome.) Hear myself make a rather unplanned noise, mostly just breath, but still – uncontrolled. (Worrisome. What else might I do if he deconstructs all of my barriers?)

“Right, I remember,” John breathes, tongue and lips doing something obscene (wonderful) to my jaw. “We were doing this.” He smiles up at me, no trace of shyness, of hesitation, but checking. “All right? Unless you’d rather not… if there’s anything you need to be doing…”

“No, it’s all right,” I say, voice scraping roughly against my throat. The heat in my pelvis is roiling like a pit of snakes, both desire and no small amount of nervous energy frothing within me. John’s hands have pulled me flush against him, letting me feel his own desire high against my thigh. (Such strange flesh that protrudes, ungainly, commanding attention, needing friction. Strange and also wholly welcome, I’m finding.) I’ve agreed, but I’m not entirely sure; on the one hand I feel almost panicked about plunging into such unknown territory so quickly. On the other, though, I am consumed with feelings of wanting to merge myself with him, lay some physical claim to him at last, push my flesh against his, into his until we are inarguably connected and bound. (These thoughts are completely irrational; I know very well that physical intercourse is no guarantee of lasting connection; nonetheless I want it, want him, more than my rational mind can contain.)

“Stop thinking,” John murmurs, hands rubbing my arse in a very odd sort of reassurance. “Just – let it happen. Do you want to do this?”

(Have I hesitated, then, that he’s trying to reassure me?) I make a neutral sound, neither assent nor disagreement, and decide to touch him again the way I had before, the way he’s touching me. I’m not as fluid as he is, but at least my hands are less jerky than they were the first time, settling over his firm and altogether satisfying arse. Delight in feeling it, squeezing, fingers gathering information about the musculature, the softer, rounder areas, the mesmerising dip in the centre. Feel him groan against me, his mouth near my ear. It’s intensely interesting to manually explore this body that I have catalogued mentally and visually but never touched, not like this. John’s tongue flattens against the underside of my jaw, palms circling, caressing. I leave one of my hands on his arse and explore the length of his spine with the other, filing away small bits of kinetic information. Feel him shiver, his hips tilting into me involuntarily. (Friction needed.) (Interesting.)

Am not certain when it began, or when I started doing it, but we seem to have begun moving rhythmically against each other. (Bodies move instinctively as they will, seeking fulfillment to needs unmet.) John lips at my ear and gives a laugh which is a mixture of arousal and slight uncertainty. “Has anyone ever mentioned that you’re too damned tall?”

“No,” I say, and open my eyes.

He pulls his head back enough to look up at me, smiling. “It’s all right,” he says. Then, in a whisper, “Let me touch you.”

(Spike of panic.) “John – ” Heartbeat elevates still further.

“I want to. I’ve never – I mean, you know I don’t – but I want to, so badly. Please, Sherlock.”

His eyes are midnight and very, very sincere, full of affection as well as desire. I couldn’t turn him down if I were at gunpoint. I manage to jerk my chin in a nod but can’t speak. And I do want it, the arousal is strong and I can feel my flesh yearning for the attention, but… (What will I need to do? How does this work? What do people do in these situations? Perhaps I should buy a book about sex and sexual relations. For all the good it will do me now.)

John distracts me from these thoughts (partially) by kissing me again. (I very much like kissing, it seems. New information. Was not previously aware of how much I had wanted to kiss him. Well: I was aware, but in a strictly theoretical sense. Now it seems that the more of it I do, the more of it I want to do.) While this is happening, his fingers abandon my arse (pity; I did rather like that) and start to deftly slip the button out of my trousers. (Fleetingly glad I didn’t wear a belt today.) His fingers don’t move to the zip next as I was expecting; instead his palm presses up against my erection through my trousers, rubbing over it. The sensation is literally shocking; I feel as though every nerve ending in my body has sparked at the same time. I feel my abdomen go concave, breath hissing inward through my teeth, spine going rigid. “Okay?” John asks in a mix of voice and breath. (He’s uncertain, doesn’t know what to make of my reaction.)

Nor do I. Bite my lip and nod, clenching my teeth in preparation for the next assault of pleasurable touch. When it comes, it comes gently but no less insistently, John’s hand sliding along my length, pressing in with the heel of his hand but not gripping with his fingers. Those trail along afterward in a lighter wake, though my penis is not demonstrably less aware of this secondary touch. Realise that I am digging into his arse with all ten fingers. (Could be uncomfortable for him.) Attempt to release the pressure. “Sorry,” I mutter.

“No, I like it,” John assures me in a murmur, grinning a little. His uncertainty is still there; this is new territory for him, too. That’s slightly more reassuring than his verbal reassurances, in fact. I make a concerted effort to relax. John kisses me again and adds, “I didn’t even know how much I liked having my arse touched, actually. Don’t stop.”

Thus encouraged, I resume, secretly pleased. (Like the way it feels. Fits perfectly, as though it were made to order for my hands. My own, bespoke John-arse. Ridiculous, amusing thought.) He does go for the zip of my trousers now, sliding it carefully down around my bulging anatomy (such an embarrassing thing, so unsubtle, undignified). John looks down between us at it, hand going back to it as though fascinated, drawn to it. He touches it through my pants, which are entirely inadequate at hiding its state (which is beyond obvious at any rate, but the visual confirmation is faintly embarrassing somehow. No one has ever touched my body like this before. I felt raw, uncoordinated, horribly unsure of myself, teetering unbalanced between undeniable, unconcealed desire and near-paralysis of uncertainty. (What is acceptable here? How will I know – I, who sweep unheedingly through the niceties so beloved of common society in a wake of social disaster on such a regular and thorough basis. Never cared an ounce before this minute and now I can think of nothing else.) John’s hand is gripping me through the infinitesimal screen of my pants and it is quite distracting. (Perhaps I need to allow myself to be distracted. Except I can’t get so caught up in it that I make some sort of horrible blunder.) Attempt to breathe.

Am still gripping John’s arse as though it is the only thing holding me to the earth. He looks up to my face again from his visual studies of my still-clothed genitals and puts his free hand on my face. “You’re thinking again,” he says softly, and kisses me before I can formulate a response.

(Oh. It’s much easier this way.) Don’t have to look at him, make awkward eye contact while he knowingly, deliberately slips his hand past the waistband of my pants to take me directly into his hand at last. I’m extremely aware that my breath catching in my throat will be entirely evident to him as his fingers curl around my (jutting, undignified, demanding) flesh, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. His tongue strokes tenderly against mine as though in deliberation imitation of his hand. I feel simultaneously exposed, more vulnerable than I have ever felt in my life, nervous as an adolescent, ridiculous as a thirty-seven-year-old with no sexual experience worth mentioning. On the other hand, the sensation is incredible, far more interesting than one would think this could be. Am slowly losing consciousness of any part of my body but those that John is touching, particularly the bit awkwardly pushing itself into his fist, aided and abetted by treacherous hips that won’t keep still.

John is encouraging this, breaking off my mouth to whisper affirmations against my lips. “I love feeling you like this,” he whispers, opening his eyes to find mine. “You’re so – so beautiful like this, Sherlock – ” He shuts himself up by attaching his mouth to mine again (good, didn’t like the talking bit). His teeth graze over my lower lip, a sensation that connects itself directly to my penis. His hand begins to move faster, meeting the small shoves forward that my pelvis is helpfully providing. The snakes in my gut are twining together to form a singular spiral, winding around the base of my spine and coiling upward when my brain decides to wade back into the proceedings. Now that it is functioning again, I notice that John’s other hand has disappeared and realise that he has taken it back to open his own trousers, reaching down to do what I should be doing for him. (Oh. Hadn’t even thought of that – what a shameful oversight, entirely neglecting your partner.) Am immediately consumed with doubt and embarrassment. Secondly, looking at his face, contorting in the beginnings of his own pleasure, suddenly all I can see is that his face has looked this way before, with other people. With her. When is the last time he has had an orgasm in someone else’s presence? (I can admit that being jealous of every person he has ever been with sexually – half the women in London alone, if past behaviour is any indication – is ridiculous, but I feel it nonetheless.) The two thoughts, especially at the same time, are as effective as a bucket of ice water.

The coil of building pleasure vanishes and I feel myself go soft in his hand, heart beating too fast for the wrong reasons. (I’m upset. I got irrationally jealous, irrationally upset with my own lack of foresight or sense of sexual etiquette, and my arousal has evaporated like water vapour in a desert. Sense of shame expands outward at explosive speeds.)

John’s eyes open. He looks confused, concerned. Looks down between us to my softening penis in his hand, withdraws his hand from his trousers. “Sherlock?” Glances at me, uncertainty all over his face. “Everything… all right?”

“Fine,” I say stiffly. “John, I… perhaps it’s too soon for this.” (Miscalculated earlier shame. Am humiliated. Utterly.)

John’s eyebrows draw together. “Okay,” he says, still uncertain. “I – it didn’t seem like it a moment ago, I just – did I do something wrong, or did something… change? Did you think of something that changed things?”

He knows me too well. Feel my jaw clench and wish he would take his hand away from my penis. “I thought of you with your fiancée,” I snap, too embarrassed to bother with filtering.

John winces as though I just slapped him. He does stop touching me then, slides his hand carefully out of my pants and puts it on my waist, not retracting himself completely. “You don’t trust me,” he says quietly. Heavily.

The heaviness of his words creates an unpleasant silence when I don’t deny it. “John…” I try, but I don’t know how to finish. “I do want this,” I tell him instead, reconsidering. “Really. It’s not too soon. I didn’t mean to say that.” That’s debatable, but it’s true that I wanted it. (Still want it? Yes. I think so. Want him: definitely.) “I just…”

“You thought about it too much,” John says, sighing. He rubs his forehead with his free hand, the other still resting on my hip. “I can’t say that I blame you, though. It’s completely understandable. I am, as you said, well, engaged.”

“I still want this, with you,” I say, which is true but also because I didn’t mean to make him feel badly. (Not this time, at least.) “That notwithstanding.”

He bites his lip. “Are you sure?” He sounds anything but sure, eyes skittering across mine but not landing long enough to make real contact.

I bend my mouth to his. “Quite,” I murmur. “Maybe not right at this instant. Maybe it… won’t work for me this time. But I do want this. More than anything.”

He searches my eyes properly now, our faces a little too close for him to be able to focus comfortably, but he nods. “Okay,” he says softly, and lets me kiss him.

I pull him close, aligning our bodies again to recapture the feeling of closeness and intimacy, trying to silently apologise for my unreliable, skittish body, my propensity for over-thinking the simplest of things, for having complicated everything even more than it was already complicated. My own plan of being sexual with him in attempt to form a romantic bond between us has been ruined by my own inability to stop thinking about the fact that he has already formed such a bond with someone else. The thought of knowing that my thinking of his engagement is what ruined this moment stabs into me like ice. Why couldn’t I have just left that alone for a moment in my efforts to forge our own bond to rival the one he has with her? The serpentine desire has settled into a sludge of disappointment and dull anger with myself, not to mention the residual humiliation. Have just made the stakes even higher for myself; John’s pride will be hurt that he failed to bring me to completion and if I fail in the same manner for him, it could very well put an end to this all-too-fragile beginning.

John’s arousal has flagged somewhat, though not entirely. Being close to me still engenders the response in him. (Have never previously been jealous of John’s sexual drive. May have just begun to be.) He is kissing me with something that feels like a mixture of desperation and sadness. (Need to get rid of the sadness. Make him laugh. Or… something better.)

Pull my mouth off his. “John,” I murmur, letting my voice drop and watching his reaction closely. I am rewarded by his pupils dilating instantly at the sound of my voice; wondered if the lower register would strike a chord with him. Am pleased to see that my suspicion was correct. “I would very much like to touch you, if I may.” (Too formal? Probably. God help me. I have no idea what to say, how to say it.)

His eyes flutter closed, breath escaping with a scrape of voice to it. “Are you – are you sure? You don’t have to.”

I lean forward, brush my lips over his ear. “I’m quite sure. I want to.”

He shudders – in pleasurable anticipation, I hope – and nods. “Okay, then. If you want to, then I want you to.”

(Permission granted.) I take a breath and press my lips once to the side of his face, near his jaw, then slide my hand down his front to settle between his legs, the way he did on me. Can feel him, heavy and still half-erect, his penis curled in his pants. The button is still undone, the zip half-open. I pull it down with my thumb, not taking my fingers off him. (The advantage of long fingers, I suppose.)

His breath catches in his throat. “I wasn’t – I wasn’t planning this, you know,” he says, stammering. “It just – started – ”

“Shh. I know.” I put my mouth on his to still his nervous words (for his sake) and so that we won’t have to make eye contact (for mine). It works; it’s easier for both of us. It’s a direct parallel to what was happening before, but this time I’m in control. (Am I? Have no earthly idea what I am doing. So much for control. I will just have to use my powers of observation to see what works on him, how his body responds. Am slightly comforted by the knowledge that my deductive skills are somewhat renowned. There may be hope that my social/sexual awkwardness may one day be balanced by my ability to deduce what he wants, what he likes.) Insert my hand directly into his pants; too much fussing about will just prolong the nerves on both sides, I think. We both stiffen when my fingers touch his penis, John inhaling sharply through his nose, brows contracting. He is trembling. (I may also be, I realise a moment later.) “All right?” I murmur. Need to check.

“Very,” John gets out, sounding semi-strangled. He adds, “I may have just rediscovered my interest in your hands. You have beautiful hands. I used to just… watch them, sometimes.”

This pleases me very much. Had no idea he felt that way about my hands. Encouraged, I run length of my palm down his erection, which has firmed considerably in just seconds. Discreetly watch his face for reactions and am struck by how it makes me feel to see him like this, the most vulnerable part of himself literally in my hand. (I cannot trust him but he trusts me. I, who have drugged him (or tried), snapped at him, insulted him, depended on him too much, dragged him away from dates, and too much more to list – I who am in every way unworthy of his trust, I who jumped from a building and feigned my own death in front of him, even if by doing so I saved his life. After all of that, and knowing that I can’t trust him enough to let myself go in front of him, he still trusts me.) Looking down at his face through half-closed eyes, my fist circling him, rhythm steadied gently by his hand on mine, I feel that same, horrible closing of my throat. Emotion. I am filled with emotion. (Don’t deserve him. Want him all the more for knowing that.) Kiss him fiercely, too overwhelmed to leave my own mouth otherwise unoccupied, lest the wrong words, gawky and unpractised, escape without permission or forethought.

John kisses back just as fiercely, exhaling into my mouth, my lungs, hips thrusting forward into my hand. He pulls his mouth off mine to grind his cheek into my jaw and a shudder runs through him, forcing the breath out through his clenched teeth and he climaxes, penis jerking and twitching in my hand, covering my palm with his release. The heat and wetness of it shouldn’t be surprising but it somehow is, though this is secondary to the sentiment produced in me at feeling John coming apart in my hand. In my hand and at my hand. I feel in this instant that he is entirely in my power. (Perhaps theory about physical intimacy used as a binding factor isn’t so far off after all.) He breathes heavily against my neck for a moment, then puts his mouth on mine again, lips warm and slack.

(Am startled to discover that my arousal has cautiously made a partial reappearance.) Before I can make any decisions about whether or not to attempt pursuing this avenue again, however, my phone pings.

John groans. “I hate that phone.”

I smile against his mouth. “Operation,” I remind him, and pull it out, squashing down my slight disappointment (/slight relief). It’s Mycroft, of course.

Situation severe. Need you here. No time
for a warning; car outside in two minutes.

I turn the phone to John to let him read it. “Oh, Christ,” he says. He makes a visible effort to pull himself together, stepping away from me just enough to tuck himself away, though he doesn’t zip his trousers. “Still all right to drop me at my flat?”

“Of course,” I say, mind already clicking through the things I need to do before the car arrives. (Socks, shoes, jacket, coat, wallet, keys. Wash hands.) “They’ll probably need to take me straight there but I’m sure there won’t be a problem taking you home after.”

“Okay,” John says. “I’ll just…” he nods toward the bathroom and takes himself off.

I put the phone down, go to the kitchen sink and run the hot water. Am about to put my hands into the stream when I curiously lift my right hand to my mouth and taste it, taste John’s orgasmic fluids. Curious taste, not at all unpleasant. Swallow it and think of consuming his DNA. (Like this thought.) Hastily wash the rest away before he can catch me at it (he would probably find it entirely bizarre, which would be embarrassing; have had quite enough of being embarrassed for one night). The water is still running in the bathroom sink as I go into the bedroom in search of footwear, a suit jacket. I’m just swinging my coat on (still miss my old one) when John emerges, going straight for his jacket. (He still knows how to get ready quickly. Good. He’ll need that.) Time for one last check before we’re surrounded by Mycroft’s people, Mycroft’s equipment. Hand on the doorknob, I say, just to confirm, “You’re sure about this, John? Really sure?”

“Absolutely,” John says, eyes on mine, unwavering. He leans in and kisses me once, briefly. “Come on. We’d better not keep them waiting.”

***

Upon entering the underground dungeon in Mycroft’s building, he takes one look at me and knows. His expression is hovering somewhere between exasperation and being smugly pleased and a partial eyeroll is forming. All he says is, “I see you’ve made up your mind, then. Will John be joining us?”

“Yes,” I say shortly, ignoring his smugness in particular. “He’s going to get some clothing and such in preparation.”

Mycroft studies me for a longish moment, then nods. “Good.” He switches modes abruptly, to my relief, gesturing at the largest of the monitors. “Abu Dhabi. Your source is quite correct. Both Salib and Al-Amri are being tailed, and from what we can tell, their tails have the building surrounded.”

He points at the red heat signatures blurring on the screen, the two inside marked with the names of our agents. I count seven in the immediate vicinity, moving but never straying far from the building. Not good. “What about the Agency?” I ask. “Aren’t they supposed to be providing back-up?”

Mycroft winces. “They were, yes. Only it seems they’ve decided to pursue another angle of this. They’re still looking for Yilmaz himself.”

“Excellent back-up,” I say dryly. I check the time. It’s just past five in the morning. John should be back by seven; he said he would need a bit of time. (Don’t see how it will take him two hours to get his clothes and whatever else he thinks he will need for the next few weeks, or however long it will go, but still. Acknowledge privately that it is my concern about him changing his mind making me so impatient.) “Remind me again why you wanted to work with the CIA, Mycroft?”

Mycroft gives me an irritated look. “We had very limited options for agencies willing to lend us agents fluent in the dialect of the area; as you so correctly pointed out, it is a unique one and there are not all that many agents working on our side politically who speak it.”

“And there are only two sides, of course,” I lash back, glad of an outlet for my excess nervous energy. “There are as many sides as there are agencies involved, Mycroft, more if there are personal agendas to take into consideration.”

“I’m so glad you think I’m unaware of that,” Mycroft says acridly. He gives me a chilly look. “Who is your contact? It’s time we had all of the information consolidated.”

Mycroft may actually know Duncan already if he is MI5. I really don’t know, though. “The name is Duncan. Hamish Duncan. I don’t know who he works with or for, but he’s trustworthy. I know him through the contact I had who was killed in the explosion at the Royal Edinburgh,” I tell him, eyes on the heat signatures marking Al-Amri and Salib’s locations.

“Sheffield,” Mycroft says. He nods, as though to himself.

I watch him. “Do you know Duncan?”

Mycroft shakes his head minutely. “Not by that name, at least. Do you have a photo of him?”

“No.”

“Can you get into contact with him?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “He was in China when he last texted me. He said he was going to join his contact in Abu Dhabi, said whatever he was working on in Beijing could wait.”

Mycroft nods toward the phone in my pocket. “Call him.”

I try, but the call doesn’t go through. “He’s probably in the air. I’ll send a text.” I do, typing quickly.

Please call as soon as you’ve landed.
Line is secure on my end. SH

“Mr Holmes?” An agent at the far right is already halfway out of his chair, coming over. We both look at him but it’s clear he’s addressing Mycroft. They are his employees, after all.

“Yes, what is it?” Mycroft is sharp.

The agent holds out his wireless headset. “Jackson, sir. He wants to speak to you.”

Mycroft frowns. “Why? You’re his contact.”

“He’s looking for clearance, sir.” The agent is still holding the headset and Mycroft snatches it and puts it on.

“Hello?” he snaps. He listens for a moment. Then, “Confirmed?” The frown deepens. “Confirm it first, but keep tracking him. Photos?” He waits, listening, eyebrows drawn together. “Get some if possible. We’ll work on it from here. Send a physical description by encrypted email. Apprehend him. Do not kill him. Is that clear?” Pause. “No. You do not have permission to question him. Just capture him and hold him – if you’re sure he’s involved. If not, you risk exposing the operation. We can’t be snatching citizens off the streets of Abu Dhabi without reason.” Another pause, then he says, very dryly, “Yes, well, we operate a little differently here. You have your instructions.” He pulls the headset off and hands it back to the agent. “Cameras.” The agent nods, seeming to understand the one-word order and retreats to his station. He turns to someone else. “Paulson. Satellite.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll have it in position within ten minutes.”

“Call in a second if need be. I don’t want to lose sight of our agents.”

“Yes, sir.”

I raise my eyebrows at him, expecting an explanation.

He gives it, gesturing toward the table in the centre of the room. He’s had a second chair added with a laptop so encrypted I can barely check my own email on it, never mind do anything else. We sit down as he explains. “Jackson, one of the Agency’s people, thinks they’ve identified a member high up in Yilmaz’ operation. He’s not one of those.” He points at the main monitor, still showing the location of our two agents trapped within. “Jackson and his people tracked him to a small downtown hotel. He is alone at the moment, but that could change.”

“Photos?”

“None as yet. We’ll see if we can catch him on satellite the next time he leaves the building. Lyons there is currently assessing whether or not the hotel has an internal surveillance system that we can access.” Mycroft nods toward the agent in the corner.

I grudgingly admire his having already thought of this. “Has the physical description come through?”

Mycroft opens his laptop and calls up his email. “There isn’t much. Heavy-set, approximately forty-five to fifty years old, of Arabic or Turkish descent, heavy features, large eyebrows, moustache. Slight limp, was overheard speaking Turkish. Last seen wearing khaki pants and a black military-style jacket, white t-shirt. That’s all there is. Speaking Turkish is hardly suspect; Abu Dhabi is such a tourist hub that there are bound to be thousands of Turkish tourists.”

My brain has locked onto this. “Which side was the limp on?” The words come out utterly expressionless.

Mycroft glances at me curiously, but shakes his head. “I don’t know. It doesn’t say. I’ll ask.”

“Text it. I want an answer now.”

Mycroft frowns again but does it, picking up one of the five phones on the table in front of him. “What is this?” he asks, typing with his thumbs. “Do you know him?”

“That depends which side he limps on.” My voice is tight. I already know in my gut; I just want confirmation.

Mycroft is content to wait in silence until the response comes through. “Right side.”

I am out of my chair in a second, too agitated to sit still. The gaoler.

Mycroft interrupts my pacings. “Sherlock, who is it?” He’s sharp, impatient.

“I don’t know his name. But he’s part of the organisation.” I check the time. Not quite six. Where is John? It’s not time yet, but I wish it was. “Who’s responsible for watching him?” I demand of Mycroft.

Mycroft snaps his fingers. “Lyons.”

The agent looks up, comes up. “Yes, sir?”

Mycroft gestures to me, a go-ahead. “Do as Mr Holmes says.”

Lyons looks at me and waits. “Where is the hotel? Show me,” I order.

He nods. “I’ll show you, sir, if you’d step this way.” He takes me to his station and points at the screen on the left which is displaying a map of downtown Abu Dhabi. “This is where he went. He just went in about twenty minutes ago, according to our source with the Agency.”

“Jackson,” I say, confirming.

“That’s right, Mr Holmes. They’ve got four agents just monitoring the hotel, but only one properly undercover as a local. The others are American and can’t get too directly involved without blowing the operation. The language is an issue, as, er, Mr Holmes predicted it would be.” Lyons looks a tad wrong-footed, referring to Mycroft this way in front of me.

“Fine,” I say. “If he comes out, let him leave and have them follow him. That won’t be their headquarters, it’s too public. Too central.”

Mycroft has come over to stand just behind my right shoulder. “Yilmaz prefers to be just outside commercial centres, correct? Near a port, if possible?”

“Yes,” I say. “What is the port authority for Abu Dhabi?”

Lyons slides into his chair and types out a flurry of words. After a moment, he says, “Khalifah Port. Northeast of the city.”

“I want satellite monitoring on the nearest possible residential area to the port. No one comes or goes without our knowing, is that clear?”

“Absolutely, sir.” Lyons glances at Mycroft. “Sir, I’ll need your clearance for a third satellite.”

Mycroft winces slightly (thinking of the cost, I can see), but doesn’t object. “Granted. Get one into position the minute you’re able. Use my access codes for it.”

“Yes, sir.”

I resume pacing back and forth behind Lyons. If he’s uncomfortable, he doesn’t express it. Of course, he does work for Mycroft. Time goes by; nothing happens. I sit down at the table and check my email, calculate the time difference between Beijing and Abu Dhabi and attempt to calculate when Duncan might be landing. Not for another hour if he got a direct flight. Check the time again. Five to seven. (Where is John?) My phone pings and I nearly jump out of my skin. It’s not John; it’s Duncan.

Just landed in Doha, connecting to Abu
Dhabi. Update? HD

I text back quickly, thinking that he must not have been in Beijing when he left. This is slightly troubling, but perhaps he was already on the plane when he texted. Perhaps there was a strong tail wind. Perhaps he’s just a liar. Or didn’t want to be traced in case the text wasn’t secure. Either way, I still more or less trust him. He doesn’t seem a devious sort, though he is a spy, of course.

Our agents are in trouble, surrounded and all
we’ve got for back-up is the Agency. Need more
people in the area! We’re also tracking someone
higher up in the group. Still willing to work together?
SH

He texts back immediately.

Very much so. Owe it to Jack at the least. Will
you be joining me out here? My contact is for info
only, not a field person. HD

I look at Mycroft and think of John, and make a split-second decision.

Yes. As soon as I can get there. SH Press send. “Mycroft.”

He looks up from another agent’s console, someone at the front of his command centre. “Yes?”

“I need a flight to Abu Dhabi. I’m going to meet Duncan. Make arrangements.”

His eyebrows lift and he walks over. “Sherlock…” He looks concerned. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

“I have to. There’s no one else to send.”

“You don’t speak the language.”

“I won’t talk to anyone. Mycroft, just do it.”

His lips compress in resignation and he silently gives way. “Will that be for one person or two?”

I check the time. Three minutes past seven now. (Where is John?) “Two,” I say. (He will want to come, won’t he?)

Mycroft nods. “All right. Will you be taking anything? A change of clothes? You’re dressed a little warmly for the United Arab Emirates, even for February.”

“Do you have supplies here?”

“What do you think?” Mycroft smiles, his smug little I’m-the-supreme-commander-of-the-universe smile. He calls to another agent and gives out instructions to find clothing for two males suitable to the climate. He already knows both our sizes without asking. He sends someone else in search of toiletries and sturdy footwear, sunglasses, other small things that I might have forgotten to even consider. The supplies are produced within ten minutes, impressively.

Meanwhile, it’s now quarter past. I text John impatiently.

Where are you? We’re leaving for Abu Dhabi
as soon as Mycroft arranges transport. It could be
in minutes. Hurry!

Mycroft’s phone rings. He listens, then tells me that a military flight has been arranged. “They’ll take you and John to a shipping container in the Gulf and you’ll be flown from there by helicopter into the city. I assume you’ll have a specific location planned by then. No rush.”

“All right, good, thank you,” I say.

Check the time again, just as Mycroft says, “Where is John? Your ride to the airport will be here any moment now.”

It’s almost twenty past seven now. Anthea walks into the command centre, tucking away an access card. From her face, I can already tell it’s not good news. She beckons to me subtly. I go over, stomach clenching painfully.

“Two things,” she says. “First, your transport to the airport is here. Secondly… I’m sorry, but Dr Watson wasn’t at his flat. I called but he’s not answering.”

I can feel Mycroft’s eyes on me. “Go,” he says quietly, handing me a bag of clothing and the other supplies he had gathered. “Once he gets here, I’ll send him on to join you, if you like.”

I feel as though I’m going to be ill. I take a deep breath and force my brain off. That part of it, anyway. I have to focus. I’ll go to Abu Dhabi. Duncan will be there. I’ll go after the gaoler and John will… John will come later, perhaps. Suddenly I need a cigarette, the craving hitting so hard my hands are trembling. (Amazing that I never thought of it even once while John was with me. It’s completely illogical to think that an emotional/psychological addiction could supplant a physical one, but it certainly distracted me, at any rate.) There’s no time to smoke. The transport is waiting. It’s time to leave. I follow Anthea outside feeling like my very nervous system is trying to escape my skin and get into the car she points me to. Inside I try valiantly to force down the emotional turmoil and focus. Review what I know of Abu Dhabi’s layout, looking at a map on my phone. I cannot let myself think about this. Nonetheless, the thoughts seep through. (Has he changed his mind, then? Where is he? Why hasn’t he answered my text? Is this him running from it, hiding from me? John, who told me that if I disappeared again, he’d come after me? It can’t be. Surely it can’t be. But it can – I know this all too well. If only I hadn’t disappointed him, if only my mind and body had cooperated. Would he change his mind over my sexual failure, over my inability to respond fully to him? Is that giving him reason to doubt now? Was our one-sided incident not enough to form a strong enough physical bond?)

Enough. Enough. I can’t possibly work like this, thinking like this. I make a herculean effort to shut off that line of thinking and finally succeed. My hold on my focus is tenuous but in place for the moment. I walk up the steps to the cargo plane, allow them to strap me into the webbed harness, secure my bag, and allow myself to send one more text.

Leaving for UAE on military flight. Wish you
were here. Please text. Get in touch with
Mycroft, if you’re still in.

Pause. Should I add something more? Something more sentimental? My hesitation is too long: one of the pilots looks back. “All right, Mr Holmes, we’ll have to ask you to switch off the phone now,” he says.

Too late. I press send and turn off the phone. The small plane lifts away from London and John and I feel utterly empty.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

 

By the time the helicopter lands at Abu Dhabi International, I have slept a small amount and am feeling markedly calmer. More myself. My thoughts have marshalled themselves, under control again. As the propeller overhead slows to a halt, I turn my phone on and text Mycroft to confirm my arrival. There’s a text from John that I decide not to read, though my heart thuds unpleasantly when I see it. (Can’t think about this, not now.) The thought had crossed my mind that perhaps he’d been abducted, but that was almost hopeful thinking; I know that the reason for his absence had nothing to do with Yilmaz miraculously catching up to him after nine hundred and forty days of having left him alone and everything to do with John’s fiancée. (Not now.) I’m escorted off the plane by two more military men of some sort; didn’t bother checking their insignia for ranks or names (immaterial; with the sole exception of John I’m somewhat indifferent toward militia in general. Uncomfortably patriotic. Too many rules, too much emphasis on blind obedience en masse). These two met the plane when it landed on the shipping container some distance out in the Persian Gulf and silently accompanied me onto the chopper. The plane crew had bid me quick, terse farewells and took off again shortly after the helicopter did.

The two soldiers now escort me to a small building over the tarmac, referring to it as the waiting lounge. I realise instantly that this is not the main terminal; probably a small wing reserved for military access or charter flights or something along those lines. Once at the building they tell me that I can wait there until picked up or that I can call a taxi from there, to explain that I’m at the military terminal. I look around the small hut and nod, thank them and watch them leave. There are large No Smoking signs everywhere, the message posted in Arabic with English beneath. I step outside and break my first law in the United Arab Emirates and have a badly needed cigarette. It will help me focus in any case. With it balanced between my lips I text Duncan as the sun beats down upon me. Mycroft’s people dressed me in beige khakis, sandals, a long-sleeved off-white linen shirt and a keffiyeh. The temperature is approximately twenty-six degrees and after the chill damp of London in February, it’s a nice change.

Landed. Where are you now? SH

I send it, go inside and call a taxi, speaking slowly in English. (It’s a tourist hub. Surely they get English-speaking tourists. Wish I spoke Arabic.) The operator responds slowly but well and agrees to send a taxi to my location. Duncan responds.

Hotel, corner of 8th and Khalidiyah
in Khalidiyah Village. Room 518.
Watch your back and make sure
you’re alone in the lift. HD

I text back a confirmation as the cab pulls up, pick up my bag and walk to the taxi. Give him my best smiling tourist act, even if he’ll find it odd coming from someone coming in through the military terminal. I tell him I haven’t got a hotel yet, laughing like an imbecile and tell him I’d like to stay on the water, somewhere that overlooks the Gulf. He suggests the Hilton (all tourists like Hiltons!) and I agree readily, still chuckling with him at my own, devil-may-care approach to travel. He chats in heavily-accented but comprehensible English, the subject principally what a fantastic and popular city Abu Dhabi is. I agree wholeheartedly, taking in the roads and subtly checking the map on my phone all the while. He leaves me at the Hilton with his card, insisting that I call him when I want to go back to the airport or any time I need to go sight-seeing and I agree readily, placing it with deliberate care in my wallet in front of him, pay him (tipping with another round of cheerful ignorance regarding the denominations of the local currency) and stride cheerfully into the Hilton.

Once in the lobby, I check surreptitiously for public toilets and disappear into the men’s, changing shirts and keffiyehs, adding sunglasses and wrapping the keffiyeh around my head, knotting it securely. It covers the majority of my face. I exit quickly and head directly to the queue of cabs waiting outside. I drop the tourist voice and direct the driver in my best Turkish accent (in English) to take me to the corner of Khalidiyah and King Khalid Bin Abdul Aziz, approximately half a kilometre from my destination. We don’t speak for the duration of the ten-minute drive. The street is wide and meticulously manicured with perfectly rounded topiary and towering palms. The Gulf to the left is dazzling aquamarine. It looks like a tourist’s paradise. There are people on the beaches, even though it’s February. We reach my corner and I pay him in silence save for a cursory thank you. Mycroft’s people provided me with UAE dirham, of course. (Think briefly how much easier the past nine hundred and forty days would have been with Mycroft’s people organising everything behind the scenes. Think even more briefly of how smug this thought would make Mycroft.) I shut the cab door and shoulder my bag, walking briskly down Khalidiyah Street as though I know exactly where I am. (I do, more or less. It’s only ignorance I normally have to feign.)

The hotel is exactly where Duncan promised, shiny gold lettering in Arabic glinting in reflected sunlight on the wide canopy over the entrance. I walk inside without a glance at the reception desk and head for the bank of lifts. The lobby is full of skylights and potted plants, tasteful (local?) paintings and panoramic photographs of the Gulf. Like everything else I’ve seen of the city so far, the entire hotel appears to be brand new, no older than four, maybe five years old. I study the wear on the carpet inside the empty lift and determine three and a half years, give or take a few months. The buttons have hardly been touched. My ride is solitary and I exit at the fifth floor with a cautious glance into the corridor. No one. Security system, presumably; never assume you’re not being watched has long been my maximum. Life in London with Mycroft and his constant CCTV surveillance have taught me that much, at least. I knock at the door of room 518.

Hear footsteps, then a voice at the door. “Aiwa?" Scottish accent.

“Holmes,” I say, very quietly.

The door opens. It’s Duncan. He looks exactly the same as he did when I last saw him eight months earlier. Two pounds heavier. New gun; it weighs a little more than his last one but he still keeps it in the right inside pocket of his jacket. He smiles but doesn’t say a word, ushering me swiftly inside. He shuts the door firmly, puts the chain on and advances with his hand held out. “Glad to see you,” he says, still smiling. “A real honour.”

“Thank you,” I say, relaxing slightly and beginning to unwind the keffiyeh from my face.

He points at it. “Good thing I recognised your voice,” he says. “That’s quite effective.”

I give a half-smile and pull off the sunglasses. “Good to know. Thanks for letting me come.”

He waves this off. “Of course. We should work together when we can. Thought you were coming with another agent?”

(He means John, I realise.) “He was detained,” I say shortly. “He may be coming later.” (Have no idea if this is true or not.) Change subjects. “You didn’t come from Beijing.” It’s not a question and requires an answer. I hold Duncan’s gaze and wait for it.

Duncan smiles faintly but his eyes are clear of deception. “No. I trust your phone but I wasn’t one hundred percent sure about mine. I’ve had it secured since landing, however. My contact is an information specialist. I just had to be sure. I flew from Hong Kong. You were probably wondering how I landed a solid hour ahead of schedule.”

Test passed. “I was,” I admit, smiling.

He grins. “Sit down, won’t you? Never thought I’d be in the field with the great Sherlock Holmes! Wish I’d known it was you back in Hamburg!”

Hamburg. Right. We’ll need to discuss that at some point. First, though… “The pleasure is mine,” I say formally. “Before we get down to business, can we just sort out some basics?”

“Why not?” Duncan spreads his hands expansively. “Go ahead.”

I level my gaze at him. “Who do you work for, precisely?”

He looks surprised. “Sheffield never mentioned it?”

“No.”

“I’m with CSIS,” he says. “Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Dual citizenship, you see. Was with MI5 but it was a remote, crossover branch with CSIS all along.”

That could explain why Mycroft doesn’t know who he is. “Is Hamish Duncan your real name?”

“It is,” he confirms, still affable. “Is Sherlock Holmes yours?”

It’s a light joke, meant to dispel the tension of possible distrust between us, so I smile back. “It is. If that’s done, then, what shall we call each other out there?”

He nods approvingly. “I speak a little Arabic but my accent is dreadful, so I try to avoid being here. When I am, I go with a Canadian accent and play the tourist card. I have a Canadian passport that I never fly under – it’s not real – that I use as false ID when I need it in the field. I almost never use it, think it’s still good. If we go with that, then it’s David McKay. Now, what about you? Do you do accents and that?”

“I can do a decent Turkish accent,” I say, “but I’d rather not do Turkish on a regular basis here where there are bound to be a lot of Turks. I did it in the taxi now to explain away the keffiyeh around my face, but it wouldn’t hold water for much longer than that. I can do Romanian. Would that do?”

“Can you? That’s great. Romanian wouldn’t be too common almost anywhere. Good choice. Who are you, then?”

I sift mentally through typical Romanian names. “Mihai Comescu.”

“Fantastic. Now, let’s compare notes. Where is this man of yours and who is he?” Duncan sits down at the small table and gestures at the other chair.

I sit, dragging the chair back from the table a little. “I don’t know his name. He was the only one in the upper echelons of the group who spoke any English. When they detained me, he was my gaoler. He did most of the interrogating, or Yilmaz would ask and the gaoler would translate.” I pause. “He was also responsible for delivering any punishment, so I don’t know if that puts him higher or lower in the general chain of command.”

“Higher,” Duncan says, with a sympathetic wince. “What were they asking you about?”

I sigh. “I was caught following them in Sana’a and captured. They mostly wanted to know who I was and why I was following them. I found out after a month that they knew that I knew Sheffield, so I don’t know if they had already seen me before. They didn’t say anything about you, so if it was connected to Sheffield’s operation in Hamburg, you could be compromised, too.”

Duncan frowns. “Is Yilmaz connected with the Hamburg group? What was the name, Bülow?”

“Yes, Bülow was the name. Arms dealers,” I say. “Had branches in Prague, Hamburg, and Leipzig. I don't know whether or not they're connected, though.”

Duncan snorts. “Who sets up an arms dealing ring in Leipzig?”

It is funny. Leipzig. Of all cities. I’m not even sure Leipzig is a city. Well, population of half a million; I suppose it is. One wouldn’t think it, though. Seems too charming for grand-scale international crime somehow. “I know. After Hamburg, it was just a question of clean-up once Sheffield and I got to Leipzig.”

“What part of the city were they in?”

“By time we got there, the train station. They were about to board an Inter-City Express train to Frankfurt.”

“And from there, anywhere,” Duncan says, with a sigh. “I wonder where they were headed.”

Frankfurt is a mandatory change point for nearly every train on the Deutsche Bahn. He’s entirely correct. I shrug. “If it helps, they didn’t get there,” I say dryly.

He cracks a smile at this. “So they were connected to Yilmaz somehow. What’s his deal, anyway? What’s his business?”

“Explosives, evidently,” I say. I think of the hospital in Edinburgh, of Sheffield’s suspicious bomb injury in the first place. “I don’t know what else. I first heard of them through a small local crime in Sana’a that felt off, the murder of a twelve-year-old boy that was suspicious.”

“How so?”

“There was no reason to kill him. He came from a poor family, wasn’t related to anyone important, hadn’t done anything wrong that anyone knew of. He was obviously murdered – a suspicious explosion under his bedroom window, clearly meant for him – and no one could understand why. I was looking for connections to a master crime ring, looking for clues to link me to local crime rings connected to the main one, so this one caught my attention.”

Duncan smiles admiringly. “Of course,” he says. “Trust Sherlock Holmes to spot the murder that isn’t just a murder.”

“Thanks, but would you mind not using my name?”

“Of course,” Duncan says, and lowers his voice. “I did a sweep for recording devices, just so you know. The room is clean. I check it every time I return, though I’ve only left once since arriving. Standard procedure. So, right. Explosives. You figure the kid saw something he shouldn’t have?”

He’s quick. “Precisely. So I started digging, came up with something that led me to a certain address. I wasn’t careful enough. I was caught. They took me to Turkey and let me go after a month of interrogation and told me to go find Sheffield, essentially. Told me he’d been injured in an explosion and was in a hospital in Edinburgh.”

Duncan looks incredulous. “They just… let you walk out?”

I nod. “Well, they tried to shoot me – Yilmaz himself, if the gaoler was to be believed – but yes, more or less. I thought that they would probably follow me, hoping I would give away more about myself, my identity, if I was free.”

“You didn’t actually go directly to Edinburgh, did you?”

“Of course not,” I say sharply. “What kind of idiot do you take me for?”

He withdraws. “Sorry,” he says, slightly wary. “Had to ask.”

“I got to Cyprus in a cargo hold and went back to Germany from there.” I still sound irritable. “I don’t know if I was followed or if someone had already seen me in Germany. It got very complicated because I don’t know how or when my cover was blown. They burned down my flat, and it was only after that that I went to Edinburgh, mostly because I thought I ought to check on Sheffield, and because I needed help by then.”

Duncan nods. He rubs a hand over tired-looking eyes (jet-lagged, probably), a gold ring glinting on his fourth finger. He’s in his upper forties, probably, and looks like he needs to sleep. “Had the hospital already gone down when you arrived?”

“It exploded as I arrived,” I say, looking at the far wall. “Again, I don’t know how I could have been followed there, or if someone was just there waiting for me to set foot on the grounds, but it was literally the moment I stepped off the pavement. That’s when it exploded.”

“Jesus Christ. And you’re still willing to go after this guy.” Duncan looks disbelieving.

“We’re short on agents, and there are highly personal stakes involved, for me,” I say, thinking of John.

His eyes are sharp, intelligent. “Personal?”

“Let’s say I’m concerned about collateral damage.”

“To a person.”

“Yes. Three people.”

He leans across the table. “What does this depend on? What factors are they missing, that your people haven’t already been… well, blown up, probably?”

I hesitate, then decide to tell him. “The original crime ring that I was after… its leader chose targets of personal importance to me and forced me to jump from that rooftop to call off their killers. I’m concerned that he may have left instructions with contacts of his to complete the task should I be found alive after all.”

He doesn’t miss a trick. “So your identity is of utmost secrecy,” he says. “I see. Yes. I won’t say your name again. And you fear now that Yilmaz may have discovered who you are? And that the original bloke was using him as a failsafe?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a lot of if’s, but I understand your concern. Had you found other groups who were planning on taking up the job as back-up?”

“Yes,” I say again, slowly. Thinking of Carl Jenkins’ operation in Brooklyn, Lestrade’s photos all over the walls of the grimy flat. “And this group is the last I’ve been able to connect to the original organisation, so…”

Duncan sits back and studies me. “So you need to get it done. And your gaoler is here, it seems. Good. I’m with you. What’s the plan?”

I study him for a moment, thinking. Then, “Find the gaoler. Make him talk.”

Duncan nods briskly. “I like it. Here?”

I don’t follow. “Here?” I repeat.

“You want to question him here in Abu Dhabi, or do you want to take him back to England?”

“No, here,” I decide. “I want him to lead us to the rest of the group. Yilmaz. I want to find out what they know.”

“Sounds good. Where is your gaoler now?”

I get up and go to my bag, fish out the tablet Mycroft’s people put in there. “Is there wifi in the room?”

“Hotel network.”

Duncan is nodding, waits as I connect and pull up the city map. I put the tablet in front of him and turn it. “Here,” I say, pointing at the map. “That’s where he was last seen. My people will notify us if he moves.”

“But so far he hasn’t?”

“No, but I’m due to check in.” I dial Mycroft’s number.

He answers on the second ring. “Sherlock.”

“Yes. Position of the gaoler?”

“No change. I told you I would let you know.” It sounds like he’s rolling his eyes. “He’s likely sleeping. Sit rep with Duncan?”

I glance at Duncan. “Fine. We’re going in. What about your agents?”

“I’ve persuaded our friends to look after it. I’ll let you know.”

“Good. Thanks.”

“Sherlock – ” Mycroft’s voice catches me as I was about to disconnect. “Have you been reading your texts?”

Twinge of annoyance. “No, why?”

“Do.” Mycroft says nothing else, just hangs up.

Still annoyed, I grimace and shove the phone back into my pocket, aware that Duncan is eyeing me carefully. “Sorry,” I say shortly, and don’t offer an explanation.

He doesn’t ask. “Did you want to go straight away, or do I have time for a short nap? Sorry, but jet lag’s a bugger and I’d rather be alert.”

“Of course,” I say. “When can we leave?”

“Give me two hours?”

“Fine.”

“Are you staying in this hotel?”

I look around the room. “I might as well, I suppose. I’ll go and find a room. Text me when you’re ready to go.”

“I will. Thanks.” Duncan offers another smile which cause the lines under his eyes to break into relief, underscoring exactly how fatigued he is. (Should have paid more attention to that earlier. He’ll be of no use if he’s swaying on his feet.)

I gather my belongings and return to the lobby to request a room, paying for two nights. (Can always extend it or change hotels if necessary. I prefer to stay on the move, anyway.) Finally, alone in room 923, I sit on the side of the bed and read John’s texts. There are three.

Oh shit, I’m sorry, I just saw
these! I hope it’s not too late!
Don’t go without me, I’m on
my way!

Then, fifteen minutes later:

Fuck, I’m so sorry, Sherlock. I
hate that I missed you. I’m here
with Mycroft now. I’d like to come
out there and join you but Mycroft
says only if you say it’s all right.
Call me?

And then, thirty minutes after that:

You’re still in the air, I know,
but please call when you land.
Mycroft says we can talk face-
to-face on one of his gadgets. I’d
really like to. I wish I were with
you. I’m sorry I missed the flight.
Please call me.

Nothing after that. (He must think I’m angry with him, since I haven’t called.) Is this why Mycroft harassed me about my texts? Surely he has better things to be worrying about. Although he’s probably wondering if he needs to put John on the next military transport to the area or something. I look at my phone and hesitate. Besides, I’m not sure how I feel about this. John hasn’t said why he didn’t get my messages on time. The fact that he is in Mycroft’s bunker is slightly reassuring; he hasn’t completely changed his mind, then. Small relief. Still: something obviously happened, as I felt sure it would if he left me, had a moment to take stock of his situation and try to work out his priorities. (But then, if he’s had doubts, offensive action is required on my part to reinforce his decision to go to Mycroft, to contact me, to say he wants to join me here. Yes. I need to call.) I dial Mycroft’s number again.

He answers immediately this time. “Yes?”

“Is John still there? I want to talk to him. Connect me on a screen somewhere.”

It’s bossy as anything and I can nearly hear Mycroft rolling his eyes, but he starts snapping things at someone off to his left. “One moment,” he says into the receiver. “I’ll connect my phone to one of the wall monitors and turn on the video.” There’s a pause while things are being connected, then he says, “All right. Connect your tablet to the link I’m texting you now – it’s like a secured, private version of skype – and enter my phone number.”

He recites it; I memorise it while pulling out the tablet and typing out the link manually as quickly as the tablet’s slow start-up will allow. The video call connects and Mycroft’s frowning face appears as I hold the tablet up in front of myself.

His eyes connect to mine through the screen. “Good, your video is working, too.” He looks over his shoulder, beckoning, and steps back to allow John into the frame.

John’s eyes are wide and worried and relieved all at the same time. He smiles tentatively. “Hello,” he tries.

I glare at Mycroft. “Are you just going to stay there?”

He rolls his eyes again and heaves an exasperated sigh. “You’re welcome. It’s always such a pleasure.”

I ignore him and wait for him to retreat, and only then look at John. Suddenly, it’s awkward now that it’s the two of us. “Hello,” I say stiffly.

He glances back to ensure he’s not being overheard (as if that entire room isn’t wired from floor to ceiling). “I’m so sorry,” he says in a rush. “God, Sherlock, I’m so sorry I missed your messages, and the flight. Are you all right?”

“Of course I’m all right,” I say, irritable. “I just got here.” (Oh. Was supposed to be behaving nicely and reinforcing his decision. Can’t just stop being myself, unfortunately. And nothing is certain yet. He will have to factor in some potential for irritation until he’s made his intentions clear.)

He bites his lip, cringing a little. “Okay,” he says. “Sorry. I’m sorry about all of it.”

“What ‘all of it’ do you mean?” I still sound snappish. “Why didn’t you get my messages on time? Or my call? Or Anthea’s calls?”

John rubs his forehead, always a sign of anxiety or stress. “Look, I… please try to understand. I’ve chosen to stay with you, haven’t I?”

He’s not finished but I interrupt. “I don’t know. Have you?” It’s abrasive and challenging and rude. (Can’t help it.)

His lips compress a bit, but he nods. “Yes, Sherlock, I have. I really have. For as long as it takes. And I know you said that I couldn’t contact anyone or tell anyone about it, but I couldn’t say nothing at all. I had to say something to explain my upcoming absence, because I thought it would be preferable to drawing police attention to either me or you. And – I couldn’t just do that to – to my fiancée, either.” (I note his reluctance to say her name. I have avoided any reference to it, too. Perhaps he picked up on that.)

Can feel my mouth tightening in displeasure. “So you told her? What did you tell her, precisely?” I’m demanding, scowling, and apparently doing the opposite of my own directive to be nice and somehow reassure him that he’s chosen the right person. (Perhaps he hasn’t. Can’t possibly be nice about this. He’s telling me to my face that he’s flouted my specific directives about this mission and compromised the entire thing. To her, for her sake.)

He stays resolutely non-angry, leaning toward the small screen. “I told her a bit of the truth,” he says, the lines in his forehead deepening (self-recrimination? Yes.) “I told her that something had happened that changed things between her and I, that it was my issue and that I was going to need some serious time to figure things out. I said it could take a long time, and to please not try to contact me before I was ready.”

(Bit of surprise. Somehow I hadn’t expected that. It’s actually a rather elegant solution, though I would have preferred he end things altogether, of course. I suppose it’s too soon to expect John – steady, reliable, integrity-ridden John – to do that.) “What did she say?” I ask, throat tight.

John looks away. (Can see the self-recrimination more clearly; he’s not even trying to hide it from me. Does he want me to see it? Feel guilty over it? I don’t.) “Well, she asked a lot of questions,” he says slowly. “Pretty reasonable ones, and mostly things I couldn’t answer. She asked if there was someone else, and I had to tell her that there was. She, er, didn’t take that well.”

I frown. (No, one doesn’t.) “What else?”

John sighs. “It was painful and it took a longer time than I expected. I don’t really want to talk about it, at least not here and now. But I couldn’t exactly go checking my text messages while my fiancée was weeping and asking if we were still engaged and all that. That would have rather added insult to injury. But that’s the reason why I missed your messages.”

“I see,” I say. (Calculate: he looks terribly unhappy. Feel twinge of sympathy, even considering.) Clear my throat. “I hated going without you.” (Raw truth: feel exposed.)

He smiles a little. “Can I come meet you there?”

(Think: the gaoler is dangerous, not all that intelligent, but he is brutish and enjoys hurting people. I had got used to him after thirty-one days, but he is an animal, brutal and truly without a shred of moral instinct. And if he knows the plan… he is close enough to Yilmaz that he could.) John won’t like it, but… “I’m all right for now,” I say. “Duncan is here and he’s a good sort. We’re going to try to capture the gaoler and get him to talk, and if we can find out from him where Yilmaz is camped out, then maybe we can discuss it again, but now a smaller number might be better. If you could stay with Mycroft for now and help him from that end, that would be great.”

His disappointment is easy to see but John nods anyway. “Okay,” he says. “I trust your instincts on this. I wish it was me instead of Duncan, though.”

“So do I,” I say, honestly, trying a small smile.

John glances over his shoulder again and comes nearer, lowering his voice. “I hate being away from you for even a second, just as I’ve got you back.”

Warmth floods through my gut and face in surprising profusion. Try to keep the smile off my face but it doesn’t quite work, the corners of my mouth forcing themselves outward. “I’ll have to make this quick, then.”

“Do that.” John favours me with one of the little smiles he used to only use for me. Had almost forgotten how much I’d secretly relished those, stored them away in some small chamber of my mind palace and treasured them in utter secrecy. Am suddenly very aware of how physically far he is from me. (Should I change my mind and let him come? No. Not yet. Must put his safety and the operation ahead of my personal desire for his proximity.)

“I’ll be in touch,” I promise.

“Stay safe.” John’s eyebrow lift; it’s an order.

“I will.”

John calls over his shoulder to Mycroft, who reappears beside him. “You’ll keep me updated?” he says. It’s not a question.

“Yes. We’re going to the gaoler’s hotel in about two hours. Let me know if there are any changes before then.”

“Of course.” Mycroft glances at John, who smiles again with a firm little nod of farewell, and then Mycroft disconnects.

Left alone, I take the tablet to the bed and lie down on my front, pulling up the map of Abu Dhabi again. I do some visual exploring of the industrial district close to the commercial shipping port and wish for the thousandth time that street view was available in these countries. Honestly. Still, one can learn a lot from a map. I’ve got a clear idea of whereabouts Yilmaz could be hiding; the closest residential area is about a ten-minute drive from the port. It’s not as close as he prefers, but Abu Dhabi is large (population of just over a million including the metropolitan area) and easy to access for someone like him. He speaks Turkish, Arabic, and probably Greek, too. With his complexion he could blend into any number of cities or neighbourhoods and likely has compounds and bolt-holes all over Asia Minor. I picture the gaoler again, the grotesquely oversized eyebrows and moustache (disgusting; never trust a man with facial hair) and wonder if I could recognise him without them. (Stupid question; of course I could. His was the only face I saw for a month; how could I possibly fail to recognise it?) The twisted right incisor, his thick, hairy fingers. The bulbous nose and small, suspicious eyes, embedded in a tangle of wrinkles caused by the natural exposure of the sun in a desert climate and an addiction to cheap cigars. Speaking of which. I note the No Smoking sign on the wall and sigh inwardly. Such a liability, being addicted to something again. I don’t know what it’s like not to be. I always needed an escape from the boredom. Something. Anything. There was nicotine, then there was that brief stint with sky-diving, then there was a flirtation with cocaine from which Mycroft’s horror and suspicion never recovered, then it was the work, and then it was John. Nicotine seems so tame in comparison. Still: it is a compromise. I will want to go outside more often than is required for the mission, expose myself unnecessarily. A foolish reason to risk my cover. Perhaps if I make a concentrated effort to focus on the operation, I won’t think of smoking.

And John will hate it when he founds out. Perhaps I can avoid having him find out. He was always terribly wily about that before; I never could understand how he always knew. And that was before he’d formed a habit of kissing me. At least, I hope it’s become a habit now.)

Just as I’m thinking this and longing for either him or a cigarette (the former considerably more than the latter), my phone pings. It’s John. (Feel the instinctive, unsuppressed rush of warmth. We just spoke and he’s already texting.)

Mycroft said it was okay to text. He did
something complicated to my phone. I
just wanted to ask, you didn’t really think
I’d changed my mind, do you?

Is this a trick question? How I am supposed to answer that? (What does he want me to say?) I think for a few moments, then text back carefully.

Couldn’t not wonder. Glad you didn’t.

His response comes very quickly. He texts faster than he can type on a keyboard, the idiot. (Think it fondly.)

I hoped you wouldn’t think that. And
you should know how much I think
about you, how much I think about
kissing you again, touching you again.
Still can’t quite believe I’m allowed to
do that.

Euphoria. (Haven’t ruined everything with my awkward, uncontrollable body, its unpractised responses to unpractised activities. My resultant prickliness and lack of experience, lack of his skill with touch, his familiarity with the human form and its ways of pleasure. Of knowing how to act, as… mind goes blank in search of the correct term. As a lover. John Watson knows how to behave like a lover. I patently do not. And he still wants to touch me, still wants to try it again even considering. He hasn’t fled to some mental corner in self-recrimination over my body’s inability to perform during our only sexual interlude thus far. He isn’t thinking that I’ll never be willing to try it again. Or: consider: possibly this is his attempt to ensure that I will let him (/I? Us?) try it again? To persuade me to believe that he was entirely satisfied with how the first attempt went in hopes that the second will work better. Clever, John. Well done. Appeal to my baser desires in hopes of circumventing my mental procedures of risk calculation and inborn caution of looking incompetent. (He knows me well.) Takes four drafts before I manage to send a text back, feeling ridiculous about feeling shy at all at this distance, yet likely more forward than I would have been in person:

You have priority clearance in this
area. Only you.

(Will he take that as a dig concerning his own pluralist love life at the moment? Well: he can if he wants to. It is, after all, the truth.) His response doesn’t indicate that he’s considered the possible double meaning, though.

God, I wish I were with you!

I smile at this. If the heat at the pit of my belly is any indication, apparently my body agrees. (Should I practise, I wonder? Never bothered much with masturbation; usually my intermittent cases of arousal went away on their own, those rare times that this particular biological urge would surface. Perhaps it would be wise to acclimate my body to the behaviours I would like it to not fail at quite as spectacularly as it did last time. Such a strange, pointless activity, auto-erotica. Serves no biological purpose whatsoever. (Prostate health? That’s a weak argument at best.) I’ve done it before, mostly in my awkward adolescence, but it was never habitual. Always felt strangely shameful, not that anyone ever particularly intimated to me that I was obligated to feel that way about it. I read in an article once that fantasy plays a key factor in auto-stimulation and I could never find anything to think about that served my focus adequately. Perhaps now, though… I swing my legs to the floor, sitting up on the side of the bed and look down at my lap. Feel my teeth graze my lower lip. My body has reacted somewhat to this chain of thoughts, to John’s suggestive texts. I become uncomfortably aware of myself, just sitting here in the middle of the afternoon staring at my own clothed semi-erect body and begin to feel ridiculous. Nonetheless. Impatient, I grasp it and am rewarded (almost to my surprise) by a sensation of pleasure as before, though not nearly as strong as when it was John touching me. (When did this begin? When did I become so suddenly responsive to this?) It is baffling and I loathe feeling baffled.

After a few more minutes of awkward self-groping through my trousers, I decide that I need more specific inspiration if anything approaching the fantastical is going to occur. Right now it’s nothing but clinical, and thinking about the various nerve endings in the male genitalia, stimuli to the nucleus accumbens, and theories of sexual arousal are not helping. (New theory: less thinking in general would probably engender a greater likelihood of success.) I refuse to do a search for anything on the subject on an object that will be returned to and scrutinised by Mycroft, so I search my memory instead for any particular wisdom on the subject. Although, thinking of the tablet suggests something else. I go to it, ignoring the slight discomfort of moving in my semi-erect state and check: yes, the video playback still functions even though the call is finished. The device has stored screenshots of each part of the conversation. I flick through the photos toward the end until I find that small, private smile of John’s. (Yes. There it is: the warm rush of arousal dropping like lava to my pelvic floor. A noticeable swell of interest from my now-turgid flesh.) Instinctively I decide that skin-to-skin contact is more likely to be successful and fumbling to unbutton the beige khakis. The skin there is dry and smooth. Too dry, or my palm is. Search through the bag with one hand (one keeping a loose hold on myself, as it were) and find some hand lotion (desert climate; necessary precaution). Extract some, leave the bottle and pick up the tablet again, frozen to John’s earnest face and its private smile. (That works.)

Seeing him like that, I can properly call to mind our interlude in the sitting room at Baker Street, remember the exact feeling of his small, square, sturdy doctor’s hand on me. (Hand is moving instinctively now, the slide of the lotion helping immeasurably.) I need to just remember the parts leading up to my body’s failure (mind’s failure, really) and concentrate on that… his hand was firm on me, but not too tight. Any lighter wouldn’t have been enough and any harder might have been too rough. (Refuse to think of how John is so good at judging what another body needs. He’s a doctor. Focus on that. Better still, just remember how it felt: yes. Yes. That’s better. That’s much – ) When I orgasm, it startles me. I hadn’t realised I was so close to that point. (Unfamiliar ritual. Probably requires more practise.) I sit there on the edge of the bed, breathing heavily, the tablet forgotten on the coverlet beside me. Hand covered in my own release. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this. Can’t remember when the last time was. Come down slowly, feeling vaguely satisfied with myself, with the success of this small experiment. Note: if I think of John – and only John, no other distractions – it shouldn’t be a problem.

Consider texting him to tell him what I’ve just done. (No. Too soon. Besides: topic of masturbation still generally embarrassing.) Instead I opt for going to wash my hands and generally tidy myself. Perhaps a short nap. (Sexual peak followed by physical fatigue seems like such a cliché. Perhaps there is actually something to that.)

I check the time, set the alarm for just before Duncan’s expected call, curl on my side under the sheets and text John once more before sliding into sleep.

I wish you were here, too.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

 

“In position.”

Duncan’s voice comes with a small burst of static through the earpiece. I grimace and adjust the volume slightly. “Ready,” I respond from my crouch, quadriceps straining a little. The adrenaline counters that nicely, though; I’m ready to spring into action the moment he says the word.

He’s positioned outside the gaoler’s hotel room door. It’s a posh, brand new, sparkling-clean monstrosity, a cylindrical tower of gleaming windows and polished surfaces. A haven for wealthy business men and tourists with more money than sense. Five stars. It seems utterly incongruous for the paramilitary-casual stylings of this particular man. So: not his choice, though he probably likes it. The luxurious setting makes him feel important, respected. Yilmaz will be footing the bill.

“Wait,” Duncan says under his breath. Faint sound of the friction of fabric against fabric; he’s changing position slightly.

“What is it?” I’m around the corner, only just out of earshot. I’m careful to speak in Romanian accent, although my posture is hardly one of an innocent tourist who took the wrong turn to his room. My cover will be having dropped something if someone comes, but so far the corridor is deserted. If they use this hotel regularly, they could easily have someone working on the inside and there are certainly closed-circuit cameras blinking discreetly in every corner of the corridor. This is risky no matter what.

“He’s just taken a phone call. I’m not catching every word but it sounds like he might be leaving. Wait…” Duncan stops, obviously listening. “Yes! He’s leaving. Meeting someone in the lobby. I’m moving out.”

His retreat was to be in the opposite direction and he takes it, evidently: can hear him walking in slow, measured footsteps. He doesn’t panic: a seasoned field agent. The fact that he’s made it to his late forties and is still working in the field means that he’s good, very good, indeed. I cautiously trust his protocols about this. Spying: not really my area, though not far off. Not at this level, though. I was doing fairly well, I thought, though I may never know where my cover was compromised. I may never know where the leak was, if someone betrayed me, where I was seen or followed. That’s the problem: I always want answers, and in this particular business, one usually only gets them when something goes drastically wrong. Something did go drastically wrong, but I still don’t know where I made my error. (Hate that. Can’t dwell on it, though, not here. Not now.) “Update?” I request, keeping my voice soft, both vowels of the word slightly too broad (“apdeht?”). The Romanian accent is not particularly beautiful, at least not in English.

“Target has left the room. Making for the lifts. I’ll take these stairs, you take the others.”

I straighten and obey his directive immediately, pushing open the door to the seldom-used staircase. We’re on the sixth floor; I’ll have to hurry if I’m going to reach the ground floor before the lift does. Building like this, the lift will be a smooth, quick ride. It was built two years ago, approximately. Check to make sure the door isn’t locked from the inside, would hate to be trapped in a staircase. It’s not locked, nor accessed by room keycard only: good. I clatter rapidly down the stairs, the unfamiliar, athletic sandals strapped firmly to my feet. I’m dressed like any generic European. Polo shirt, unremarkable black windbreaker, the same beige khakis, sport sandals. Tourist, obviously, but nothing that would stand out. It’s hard enough to disguise my particular looks but the severe hair cut helps, styled in a deliberate tousle rather than the slick combed-down accountant look I was using in London. My face is mostly obscured by a large pair of sunglasses (different pair from the day before).

I slip into the lobby, slow my gait and cut my eyes toward the lifts. The doors open. There he is: the gaoler. Attired rather better than he was in the days of my imprisonment in Antalya: dark suit (cheap but still nicer than the army fatigues and sweat-stained, formerly-white vests he preferred to sport in that cinder block hell, plain black dress shoes. Thick soles, not particularly good quality, but still.) Walking heavily but moving more quickly than one would guess he could toward the main doors. We’re going to lose him if he gets into a car. (Think!) I see Duncan at the far side of the lobby, holding a newspaper and wearing a hat he wasn’t wearing before. Ah: lifted from the lobby boutique. (He’s quick! Touch of admiration.) Leaning against a wall with one leg crossed casually over the other, toe balanced on the carpet. His features are pleasant but ordinary, perfect for blending into the background like this. (Unlike mine; I stand out like a sore thumb wherever I go.) He speaks to the newspaper, mouth barely moving. “Will your people have satellite surveillance?”

“Yes.” I watch the gaoler, eyes narrowed slightly behind the dark lenses. He is nearly at the door.

He stops suddenly, slaps at his left pocket and pulls out a phone, growls into it. The thick brows condense toward the centre of his oily forehead. He scowls at the response on the other end, says something terse in reply and goes to sit down in one of the tall-backed armchairs near the front windows instead. His ride isn’t here, I take it. We have a window of opportunity.

I step back behind a pillar and pull out my own phone, push the shortcut key for Mycroft’s number.

“Yes?”

I drop the Romanian accent. “Still at the hotel. He just got a call. We need a car and we need it now.”

Mycroft pauses, clearly performing some sort of internal mental gymnastics. “There’s no possible way I can make a car materialise within the next five minutes,” he says crossly after three long seconds of thought.

“Where are your spooks? Send one of them over. Do it now or we’ll lose him!” Internal anxiety rising. (Do not want to lose track of the gaoler.)

“Sherlock. Calm down. I’ll do what I can.” Mycroft disconnects without another word. (Good. That means he’s working on it.)

I walk casually back around my pillar and wander toward a rack of pamphlets filled with tourist information. I choose one about cruises on the Gulf and leaf through it, pulse hammering in my veins.

“Update?” Duncan’s voice in my ear.

“I’ve asked about a car,” I say, accent back in place, moving my lips as little as possible. “Waiting.” Glance at the gaoler; he’s still sitting where he is. Even in a suit and halfway-decent shoes, he looks like a thug. An animal. Can still feel his thick, hairy knuckles grazing my face.

My phone buzzes. Mycroft. “Yes?” I ask, trying to keep my face expressionless for the sake of anyone who might be watching. Check the time: six minutes have passed since I called him.

“An agent who goes by Johnston at the moment will leave a black Audi with the valet. According to his GPS locator, he’s two minutes away. Ask for it under your cover name. It’s a German model; driver’s side on the left.”

Relief. “Good. Thank you.”

If Mycroft is surprised by this, he doesn’t say; just hangs up.

“That was quick,” Duncan comments in my ear. (Of course he overheard my end of both conversations.) “Your people are good.”

“Indeed,” I say dryly. It’s true: Mycroft hardly attained his current position of influence by being incompetent, fun as it is to pretend otherwise. Check the time. After two minutes, I start moving toward the door. “Going out to the car,” I say, hand covering my mouth as I fake clearing my throat. “Wait until he leaves and then join me. I’ll stay in the drive.”

“Affirmative.”

The valet is seated behind a small desk outside under the canopy. He leaps to his feet. “As-salaam alaykum. Good evening, sir.”

Alaykum as-salaam,” I respond, working the Romanian accent into one of my only phrases of Arabic. “Pick-up for Comescu.”

“Yes, sir. Very good. The car was just delivered.” He pulls out a radio and speaks rapidly into it. The car must have just come; his colleague is probably still parking it. Yes: theory confirmed; the black Audi emerges from the lot and is driven to the kerb, the other valet springing out and standing beside the door, waiting for me.

I go over and get into it without speaking, a curt nod to the valet. (No tip: not sure if it’s expected and anyway, Eastern Europeans are not generally known for tipping well.) Close the door and settle into the seat, trying to acclimate myself to sitting on the left side of the car to drive. I don’t drive all that often as it is; have never driven on the left before. Mycroft’s reminder was actually helpful; had started envisioning it in advance. I shift the gears wrong-handed and pull forward to the far end of the curved drive in front of the hotel, shift back into neutral and wait. “McKay?” I say to Duncan, under my breath. (There can’t have been time to bug the car, unless it’s the CIA who’s bugged it. If so, we’re all in trouble.)

“Yes.”

“I’m at the front end of the drive, to the right when you exit,” I say, speaking quietly.

“Perfect. We’ll be in position to nip out after him whenever his people get here.”

“Good.”

“Hang on, he’s taking a call,” Duncan says. “Do you see anything pulling up?”

I look around, see only one vehicle moving toward the circular drive, pulling in and stopping just ahead of the valet station. “Yes. Black SUV. Driver isn’t getting out.”

“Your man is on the move. Be there in a second. Don’t lose visual connection with the vehicle!” Duncan is moving, the noise of the hotel lobby fading.

I see the gaoler first. He disappears directly into the SUV and it doesn’t move for a moment. Duncan appears a moment later, moving casually but swiftly toward the Audi. As he swings himself into the passenger seat, the SUV pulls out and passes us. I yank the gears into position and start after them.

Duncan pulls out a small, black square device out of a pocket and holds it up as though trying to get a wifi signal. He twists in his seat and trails it through the air of the backseat. “Have you tailed anyone like this before?” he asks before I can ask what he’s doing.

“No. Only from taxis.” I pull into the traffic on Hazza bin Zayed.

“Then do as I say,” he says, studying the device now.

It grates, but I have to defer to his seniority of experience. “Of course.” Nod at his device. “What is that?”

“Counter-intelligence detector,” he says, then relaxes slightly. “We’re clean. Where did the car come from?”

“Our friends at the Agency,” I say, repressing the urge to grimace. “My brother sent them.”

“Your… brother?”

Ah. Had neglected to mention that my backing comes from none other than my own, overly-involved, overly-self-important brother. “Yes. He’s organising the operation on the London end.”

Can feel Duncan turn his head curiously toward me, but all he says is, “Don’t follow too closely. Always stay one lane over.”

The SUV is directly ahead, so I signal, glance over my right shoulder, and change lanes to the right. (Feels distinctly strange to be driving on the right; I’ll have to be careful making turns.) “Where are they headed?”

Duncan’s put the device away now and pulls out his phone, presumably pulling up a map. “They’re probably making for the motorway, Sheikh Zayed. It leads out of the city to the east, it seems.”

The SUV changes lanes, then turns abruptly without signalling. I follow, switching to the centre and dropping back a little again. “Where are we?”

“Shaik Rashid. They’ll probably turn left onto Dalma and then take the exit to Sheikh Zayed. Get into the left lane.”

I do it without question, focusing on the traffic and the SUV. The windows are all tinted darkly; I can’t even see the outline of the gaoler or his driver. (Where are they going?) The SUV swerves over two lanes and lunges in front of a blue sedan that honks in protest (I assume that one is protest; everyone seems to be honking for no particular reason that I can deduce, at any rate) and turns left onto Dalma, as Duncan predicted. “Now where?” I snap.

“The exit will be on the right. If you get to the right lane first, it looks less like we’re tailing them.”

I refrain from pointing out how extremely obvious this is (vague memories of John reminding me that not everyone tolerates being snapped at the way he and Lestrade do, at least when they did) and concentrate on shifting two lanes over and resisting the urge to drift too far to the right to compensate for feeling like I’m sitting too far to the left. The SUV veers over again, cutting off vehicles in both lanes before taking the exit. I follow as sedately as possible, but the speed of traffic is fairly constant and the exit is a single lane. There are two cars between us.

“Where do you suppose he’s going?” Duncan asks as I turn right with moderate caution onto Sheikh Zayed, change lanes again to avoid being directly behind the SUV and settle into the flow of traffic. The glare of the desert sun glints off the other vehicles, making me fleetingly glad I thought to wear sunglasses. The heat forms a haze over the road. I estimate the temperature to be approximately thirty-one degrees Celsius.

“Not sure. Yilmaz has shown a preference for staying close to the water and not directly within city limits, though. It’s likely he would choose somewhere further from the urban centre.”

“Most of this country is more or less on the water,” Duncan points out.

“Yes, but I was thinking of the commercial shipping port.”

“Which is where?” Duncan diverts his attention to the map on his phone.

“Khalifa Port. About a third of the way to Dubai from here.” My eyes are on the SUV, which is changing lanes again, weaving in and out of the traffic. I increase the speed a little, not wanting to lose them.

“Ah. There it is. Okay,” Duncan says, and puts the phone down in his lap. “So who’s your brother?”

I hesitate. I’m not sure if this is a secret. Mycroft has never said. “He’s with the government,” I say, hedging.

“Clearly” Duncan is dry. “Is he with MI5, then? MI6?”

“To be honest, I don’t know his precise position,” I admit. “He’s never told me. I suspect that it’s something along those lines, though. He’s quite high up. I think he may run MI5 or something like that.”

Can peripherally see Duncan’s eyebrows lift. “Can I know his name, or is that…?”

“It’s Mycroft,” I say. “Mycroft Holmes.”

Apparently this does mean something to Duncan, if his sharp inhalation is anything to go by. “M,” he says, after a moment, sounding as though a piece of some private puzzle has fallen into place. “Your brother is M. I can’t believe the two of you are related!”

Mycroft would probably appreciate this reaction immensely. Privately, I think, so that’s who he really is. Interesting. I keep my eyes on the road and the gaoler’s SUV. “Do you know him?”

“Not personally, but his intelligence is legendary, in both respects of the term. I suppose it must run in the family. Did he never try to get you into this line of work before?” Duncan is vague, but I know what he’s asking.

Shrug a little. “Not really. He’s always made me do little favours for him. Things that took too much ‘legwork’, as he preferred to call it. Things he couldn’t trust his own people to do, or local work that was connected to something larger. Anyway, let’s focus, shall we?”

“Of course.” Duncan drops the subject immediately. “All right, this has become the E10, the motorway connecting Abu Dhabi to Dubai. If we’re headed to the port, it should be about another thirty minutes’ drive.”

“Right,” I say, just to acknowledge that I heard. (John finally drilled that through my head. “Just make some sort of sound so that I know you heard me, would you?” Pang. I miss John’s annoyance.)

***

The SUV leaves the motorway after twenty-eight minutes, taking an exit leading onto what Duncan says is an apparently nameless road leading toward the port. We appear to be driving through an industrial zone. No other vehicles took the exit to this road; I drop back to a distance of sixty metres or so. It’s already suspicious that we’re there at all. No need to exacerbate it.

Two kilometres before the port, the SUV suddenly pulls over but doesn’t leave the road. “Shit,” Duncan says, frowning.

I agree: they know or suspect they’re being followed. I drive by without changing speeds or sparing their vehicle a passing glance and continue to Khalifa Port. “I propose we wait at the port and see if they come here, unless you want to try doubling back. It would look a bit suspicious if we do it too quickly, though. Does the map show any other roads leading off this one?”

“There are a few, yeah,” Duncan says. “But none that would take him to the port, if that’s where he’s headed. The map isn’t complete, of course. Evidently the makers of these maps weren’t permitted a lot of time in the region. No street view.”

“I know. It’s most inconvenient.” I pull up to the commercial docking area and look around. It’s a wide expanse of tarmac, some scattered parked cars on one side, row upon row of shipping containers and storage units on the other. I drive past a stand of enormous, blue-painted quay cranes and around a stack of empty, disembarked containers and downshift the gears. “How’s this?”

“Good,” Duncan decides. He unrolls his window a little (it’s quite stuffy in the car), then looks at me. “You realise, of course, how suicidal it is for you to be pursuing them like this. One good look at you and you’re dead. And me with you.”

I avoid his gaze and crack my own window open. “Yes.”

He doesn’t stop studying me, his silence thoughtful. “You must be really desperate to get these men.”

“I am.” Hot, acridly dry desert air is seeping in through the open windows. A nicotine craving hits suddenly, hard. (Ignore it.)

“Fair enough,” he says after a moment. “Come to think of it, I rather am, too. Sheffield was a friend.”

“What happened in Hamburg?” I ask, abruptly changing the subject. Or redirecting its focus, perhaps. (Nicotine would help me think.) (Stop it.)

Duncan looks confused. “How do you mean? You were there.”

I glance at him briefly. “I was,” I say, looking back out my window. “I’m wondering if I missed something in the larger picture, that’s all. I’m still looking for the reason that Yilmaz knew that I knew Sheffield.”

Duncan looks at me carefully and shrugs. “I know as much as you do,” he says after a minute. “Sheffield called me in as back-up. He never explained the details and I never asked. He was like that, told you what he needed you for, what you needed to know to do it. Always played his cards close to his chest, that one. Good agent.”

“How well did you know him?”

Another shrug. “How well do any of us know each other? How do I know if Sheffield was his real name or not? I’ve known him since the Cold War years. It stops mattering after awhile, or so I decided a long time ago. He never betrayed me, to my knowledge, nor I him. He helped me out of a few sticky spots and I tried to do the same by him.”

The SUV appears then, pulling into the wide expanse of parking lot. “McKay,” I say, though I’m relatively certain we’re not being recorded. (Best not to take that chance, though our conversation might be a give-away anyway.) Nod toward it with my chin.

He can’t see it from the passenger seat, leans over to look around the edge of the container blocking us. “Son of a bitch,” he says softly. “There they are. Don’t suppose they’re taking ship or something, do you?”

“Not without Yilmaz and the rest, no. Besides, they’ve only just set up camp here,” I say. “I suppose they’ve got some sort of compound or safehouse around here somewhere.”

“Then what are they doing at the port?” Duncan asks.

It’s a good question. A valid question. “I don’t know,” I say to the window. My lungs are aching for a cigarette, but this is hardly the time.

“A meet, maybe,” Duncan says under his breath, as though to himself.

“Perhaps.”

Suddenly he gives me a sharp look. “Look,” he says firmly. It sounds like the beginning of a lecture or speech of some sort. I turn to look at him. “You can’t be seen,” he says. “You know that, right? That’s our one absolute, no-compromise variable.”

“I suppose,” I agree cautiously.

“At some point, one of us will need to get closer, wouldn’t you say?”

We both look at the SUV again, stopped in the middle of the parking lot for no apparent reason. Can see where he’s going with this. “Possibly.”

“As I see it, we’ve got two options.” Duncan is squinting out the front window, the crows feet around his eyes pronounced in the sunlight.

“Let’s hear them.”

“We wait here and follow them back out when whatever’s about to happen has finished.”

“So far so obvious.”

Duncan ignores this. “Once they’re back at their hideout, I go in and set up listening devices around their compound. Thanks to your people – to your brother – we’re well-equipped with the technical stuff for that.”

Feel my face frown. “We’d almost certainly be caught.”

“Right,” Duncan says. “So the two options are not all that different, in point of fact…”

He turns his head toward me. Our eyes meet across the narrow space and I understand, understand from the way his throat bobs as he swallows. “You’d get caught deliberately.” My voice is flat.

“We’d be in contact,” he says, already arguing for it. “Again, thanks to your people we’ve got the earpieces and I can activate my button cam to give you the interior view.”

“It’s too risky,” I say, shaking my head. “Yilmaz is brutal.”

“They let you go.”

“They set me a trap,” I counter. “A trap that I’m beginning to think was intended for Sheffield rather than me. The only plausible reason that they let me go is that I was being used as a pawn in their revenge on Sheffield for something. That, or that they were moving camps and didn’t want the extra baggage of a half-starved prisoner to drag around with them.”

Duncan turns his head to face forward again, as though seeing the SUV through the shipping container blocking his view. “Then what else do you propose? We need information. I’m willing to go in.”

His logic is sound and I cannot think of a single other viable plan for finding out what Yilmaz is up to. “Damn it,” I say under my breath and dig into the inner jacket pocket for a pack of cigarettes, a lighter.

Duncan looks mildly surprised. “Didn’t know you smoked.”

“It helps me think.” Flick the lighter, hold the cigarette to the flame, inhale. Ah. Better. Another inhalation, exhale directed out the window, inhale again. (Waited too long, could barely think around the need for it. This is bad; must really get back onto the patches once I’m back in London.) The rush hits, first washing over my thoughts in a dizzy, heady stream, then clarity follows. Think: if Duncan gets himself caught snooping around and is taken prisoner, with the tiny camera we’ll install on his shirt button and the earpiece, I’ll see and hear everything, though it’s likely to be in Arabic, unless he pretends he can’t speak it and they bring the gaoler out to translate as they did with me. That is, of course, unless they check his ears and strip him of his garments, which is likely. But what other plan do we have? Two people can hardly storm a house or factory or barn or whatever other place Yilmaz has found to use as a temporary headquarters this time without knowing anything about how many people are inside, what sort of ammunition they have, how well-defended the makeshift fortress is. Duncan is entirely correct. I flick ash out the window. “All right,” I say at last.

Duncan looks at me, eyebrows lifting. “You’re agreeing to this?”

“I don’t like it, but you’re right,” I admit. “It’s the best possible plan.”

Another car drives onto the tarmac, sliding to a stop alongside the SUV. Another SUV, beige in colour. The windows are rolled down; no one gets out. A short meeting, then. A simple exchange of key information. It’s over in five minutes. The beige SUV leaves first. Five minutes more pass, then the black one with the gaoler in it drives away. I jerk the car into gear once more and instigate a stealthy pursuit.

***

Duncan tells me that, according to his phone’s map, the suburban-style area we’re in is called Al-Samha. The house is at the far eastern end, on a dead-end street tucked behind a strip mall of sorts. Beyond that are what looks like barracks and more industrial park. It’s very secluded but not suspiciously so: perfect location for a safehouse. I stop half a block from where the black SUV is parked and turn to Duncan. “You’ll try to plant the recording devices without being caught, I assume.”

“That’s the idea,” he agrees. “I’m just quite sure that I will be caught. If not, fine, but we won’t get much info from inside the house. I’ll only be able to plant them around the yard or close to windows if we’re lucky. It will delay everything. It’s really better if I can get inside.”

Our eyes meet. He’s deadly serious, and he’s right and I know it. I stop trying to argue with him. He has more field experience than I do. This is his profession, and he’s good at it. Still. It’s his decision, though I feel may not realise what he’s getting himself into. “How will I know if you’re in trouble?”

He’s a good-natured man in general, but this causes Duncan to glare, jabbing a finger in my face. “Listen,” he says sternly. “No matter what happens, you’re not to come charging in. Do you understand? They see your face again and this operation is over – you’re dead in the water and your friends with you. I wouldn’t hold out any hope that your identity will stay a mystery if they catch you a second time, and there’s certainly no way you’d walk away a second time. So there’s not going to be a second time. I will under no circumstances let on that I’m not totally alone in what I’m doing. My M.O. will be simple enough: I heard there was a terrorist cell operating out of Abu Dhabi and I came to investigate. I’ll tell them I’m with CSIS. I’ve got my Canadian passport with me.”

“It’s a fake.” From this proximity I can see the spidery red blood vessels at the tops of Duncan’s cheeks. (High blood pressure. Come with age and the profession, I think.)

“No. The identity is fake but it was furnished by the Canadian government. It will check out if they look it up.” Duncan is holding my gaze, absolutely intent on this. “I’m tough. If they get rough, I’ll live. I’ve been roughed up before.”

I pause. “I’d still like to know if you’re in trouble. I won’t come in. You have my word. But I’d like to be able to alert my people. Get some other agents to pull you out if need be. Give me a code word, at least.”

“If they take the earpiece, you won’t hear it, anyway,” Duncan warns. “But fine. If I’m in trouble, I’ll find a way to use the word ‘American’.”

Feel my brows contract. “‘American’?” I repeat. It seems a strange choice, and a rather common word.

He grins, unexpectedly. “Sure. No Canadian would ever want to be mistaken for an American. It would be easy to bring it up at need. If they ask if I’m American and I’m not in trouble, I can tell them what I really am. If I’m in trouble, I can say that I’m not American. And so forth.”

“You’re Scottish,” I say, but am almost tempted to smile. In a way, his logic and dry wit remind me of John. (John.) I hold out my hand. “Give me your phone.”

Duncan pulls it out unhesitatingly and hands it over. “What are you doing?”

I jab at the buttons, following the steps Mycroft’s technical person showed me. “Synching the GPS chip in your phone to mine so that I can keep track of you if they move you.”

“Impressive,” Duncan says, watching my fingers. “Of course, if they turn it off, you’ll lose me.”

“Not necessarily. My brother’s people have ways of turning phones on remotely.” I don’t mention that if they dismantle or break Duncan’s phone, this won’t work, of course. I see in his wry expression that I don’t need to say it aloud. I give the phone back and he hands me his counter-intelligence detecting device.

“Take this,” he says. “You might need it.”

I take it. “Go. Be careful. These people are ruthless.”

Duncan takes his gun out of his pocket and lays it on the dash. “Won’t be needing this in there. Won’t do me any good, anyway. And listen, if I’m caught, don’t hang about here. You get out of sight if that happens, for both our sakes.” Before I can respond to this, he turns to me and holds out a hand. “Been an honour, Holmes.”

I don’t correct him on the name, let the objections die unspoken, and shake his hand. He exits the car and walks calmly toward the safehouse. I have to admire his steely reserve, his sheer nerve. And I wonder if I’ll see him alive again.

***

He is captured within fifteen minutes, as we both knew he would be. He’s activated the button cam, the video stream feeding to my phone and I can see the inside of the house and whichever of the lowlier thugs are hauling Duncan toward the kitchen at the back of the house. The only words I hear are in Arabic, which Duncan is pretending he can’t speak. (Good. That will help when they interrogate him.) The feed lasts for all of ten minutes. I see is someone (not the gaoler, someone else) in front of the camera, leaning in close as he straps Duncan to a chair, going by the level of the camera and the way his captor is bends down. Then someone looms closer still, shouting in Duncan’s face, the volume painfully loud in my earpiece. The face moves off to the left of the screen. Another burst of anger and then two more men come over. One of them strikes Duncan in the face. The sound distorts, static bursts crackling in my ears. The earpiece is being held between the thick thumb and forefinger of the man who strapped Duncan down. I instinctively rip my own out and shut off my microphone so that I won’t give myself away, watch the man shouting into the earpiece in fury (idiot, the mic is inside Duncan’s collar, not in the earpiece). He waits for an answer, shouts again. When it becomes clear to him that no response is forthcoming, he hurls the earpiece to the floor where I can’t see it, but I certainly recognise the motion of his leg as he crushes it underfoot. Next, large hands reach for the front of Duncan’s shirt and the camera goes dark. They’ve either found the camera or stripped him of his shirt; either way the feed is lost.

Duncan is on his own in enemy territory. As he clearly planned to be. There is nothing I can do, at least not here and now. (This was expected, I remind myself. What he wanted to do. It’s the only way to get the information that we need.) I start the car and drive with forced calm back in the direction I came. When I reach the city limits of Abu Dhabi, I pull over on a side street and call Mycroft.

“Yes.”

This is the second time in my life that I’ve been actively glad to hear his terse voice. “Duncan’s been captured. Lost audio and visual. I need John. Send him to me.”

“I’ll have him on the next available flight.” The response is immediate and unquestioning. I’m grateful until Mycroft adds, “We’ll discuss the rest of this later. Are you somewhere safe?”

“No. I’m in the car. I’ll need a different car.”

“Return it to the valet and leave it there. Change hotels.”

“Of course, I was going to do that anyway.”

“Call me when you’re safe.”

“I’ll never be safe, Mycroft.”

There is a short pause, then he says, “I’ll text you with details of John’s arrival.” Then a click and he’s gone.

I glance in the rear-view mirror and see nothing. I’m alone again, or so I believe. My only ally in the region has been willingly taken captive and John is on the other side of the world. I think of Duncan briefly and silently wish him luck. (I don’t believe in luck, but he’ll need it nonetheless.) And then I drive away, leaving him behind.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

 

Worrying about Duncan won’t help him in the slightest, so I shut that part of my brain off and concentrate on productive thinking, forming a plan. I’ll track his location constantly (my phone is hooked up to the tablet now, his GPS signal flashing intermittently on the map). Once John arrives, we’ll decide what to do once there’s more information. Either we’ll breach the safehouse and attempt a rescue, or we’ll watch and see what Yilmaz does. He’ll know by now that his location has been compromised by at least one agent; is he paranoid enough that this would make him move? It seems as though the house in Al-Samha may have actually been a home base of sorts; Duncan had told me weeks before that he thought that Yilmaz had people and contacts in Abu Dhabi.

Once John arrives. I check the time again, though it’s still hours and hours off. It’s past midnight. John’s flight is due just after one in the afternoon. I might as well try to sleep. I’m not remotely interested in sleeping but I can feel the fatigue. I never did do as well in hot climates as I do in London’s cool, damp air. I move to the window and lift the curtain, looking out. I’m on the seventeenth floor of a hotel near the airport, one of probably hundreds of these shiny, enormous, brand new towers. The service is impeccable, not that I want any of it. I looked for something simpler, older, but this sort of thing was all I could find. John would prefer something simpler, I think.

Lean my forehead against the cool glass. John. Now that the rush of the day is ebbing, with my hands effectively tied until John arrives, there is nothing to distract me from thinking of him. (Nothing to prevent me from thinking of him.) Will it be strange? He texted once, right after Mycroft’s text with the details of John’s travel arrangements, to say the same thing, that he was on his way. He’d added an apology for not being able to come sooner; apparently the military has somewhat less of a need to fly to the United Arab Emirates than I’d hoped. Still. Twenty-five hours or so, and I will see him. Will he be upset with me for thinking he’d changed his mind? (What else was I supposed to think, when he missed his pick-up and didn’t answer anyone’s calls?) Or… will it suddenly just work, the way these things are supposed to? Nonsense. Romantic delusions. Nothing works the way one imagines it might, especially when it involves me. Before I met John, I had stopped thinking about the days before I became a detective, accepted that my solitary ways would remain solitary and felt no hunger for that state to change. John brought the hunger with him from the first – not only his own, but igniting mine along with his. I never knew that I wanted something more until it was placed before me, unasked for, yet utterly desired. I want him. I want him more than anything. I want this nine hundred and forty-two-day nightmare to be over. And I want his fiancée to magically disappear.

Fantasy. I’m painfully aware that John has not once committed to staying with me beyond the duration of the operation. He wanted to help, he said. He wanted me to have a partner in my work again, to not have to go it alone any more. He felt compassion for my experiences and, if I know John (and I do), a small measure of guilt. He certainly knows that I chose to leave London without him, chose to embark on this mission to rid our lives of the threat of Moriarty, but he will still have felt it. I’m tired of this, tired of playing Bond. It is dangerous to start thinking this way, but having had seven weeks back at Baker Street, even in disguise and rarely leaving the flat save to join Mycroft in his surveillance dungeon, was more than enough to whet my yearning to be home again. But at least I’ll have John. For a little while.

And he cares for me. Unbelievably, he does. But he’s committed himself to someone else. (But I came first. He cared for me first. Nonetheless, he is a man of his word. Not like me.) A small voice of doubt reappears, reminding me that I’m not half good enough for him (is she? doubtful), that I in no way merit his trust, his commitment. (But I want it nevertheless. He is John. I don’t possess the requisite vocabulary to frame what that means, precisely. He is the only person I could want, the only one I’ve ever wanted. And the thought of his still-nameless fiancée eats me from within. How could I ever possibly convince him to choose me, to stay with me for good?)

I turn from the window and drop the curtain. Perhaps this operation will reawaken his need for the sort of lifestyle that being with me would offer. Not much danger in moving in with some boring, acceptable, harmless woman. Although, having to compete with her very feminineness is a problem. John considers himself straight, no matter what his hands on my body might have suggested as evidence for a valid argument to the contrary. His fiancée is indubitably a woman. I am indubitably not. Have to find a way to make him believe that he could want me as much or more. (Pending cooperation from body and mind alike, this is my vague plan, though I’m woefully lacking in the necessary information to bring this about.)

I yawn, unbutton my shirt, step out of the khakis and lay them on the chair. Strip off my undergarments and put them in a pocket of the bag Mycroft’s people packed for me. The air conditioning is on lightly, just enough to counteract the dry heat engulfing the hotel on all sides. Slide between the sheets and set the alarm on my phone, leaving the ringer on. Mycroft will no doubt call at some point to harangue me again for having let Duncan go into the safehouse alone. He does so love to do that and has an uncanny knack of poor timing. Enough. I don’t want to think about Mycroft and his nattering in bed. Would much rather think of John.

I find that my body has already slightly anticipated my train of thoughts and my vague ideas about trying to practise a little more before his arrival. I’m anxious. I can’t help but be. If this doesn’t work a second time, he will surely lose heart and write me off as a bad investment. I’m already a risky choice for an emotional companion; there will be so much that I know so little about, so many ways in which I am certain I will disappoint him, should he give this a chance. The idea was that his… whatever he calls what he feels for me and the physical aspect would make it worth the trouble and headache of attempting a romantic relationship with me. If I can’t even provide that, bring that to the bargaining table in compensation for my other lacks, what would there be left for him, to make it worth giving up the woman? I have find a way to coordinate my brain and body so that it doesn’t fail him again. These thoughts are not conducive to masturbation in any way. Note: anxiety is a performance killer. Yet how can I not being anxious when I’m horribly concerned about my ability to perform? Catch-22. (John would applaud the reference to popular culture. To which I would retort that it was a literary reference and we would bicker about it. I miss bickering with John. Miss the way his cheeks fire up when he starts to get angry, his voice taking on that particular bark.) Oh. That’s helping, actually. Thinking of John helps, full stop, even thinking of his annoyance with me. I am horridly unpractised at sexual fantasy but make an attempt to imagine how it could be, how John’s face would look in the hypothetical scenario I’m trying to build in my head, how his voice could sound, how he might touch me, or ask me (let me? tell me?) to touch him. (Palms still remember in precise detail the exact feel of him, the small movements of his penis as it lifts and responds, the small twitches of his testes, the coarse, soft hair…) Suddenly hear my own breathing, ragged in the still air of this anonymous, darkened hotel room as my hand moves rhythmically over myself under the thin cover of the sheet. Become aware that my sensory perception is heightened; the feel of the high-thread-count cotton where the bare skin of my arse, my back, the backs of my legs move against it, the pillow case on the back of my neck, exposed as it is with my current hair cut. But nothing so much as the rigid flesh in my right palm, the fingers of my left hand crawling aimlessly over my stomach, my chest. Imagine touching John the way I’m touching myself, making him feel this…can see his face now in my mind’s eye, contracted with the tension of the building peak…(There it is, the elusive, silvery swirl of pleasure, nerve endings hungrily receiving stimulus and conveying it in waves to my brain.) Increase in tempo, accelerando, crescendo, and… several seconds of suspended fortissimo, and then my rear crashes back down onto the sheets, cramped fingers still cradling myself as the ejaculate continues to spend itself over my hand and abdomen. Breath too loud in my ears, heartbeat racing.

Well. Thoughts resume after a moment or two of merciful absence of thought. That was successful, then. It didn’t take that long, did it? Not sure how long I wandered mentally as I first started touching myself. Should have timed it. I’m not aware of what the precise length of duration is correct for this, though I’m uncomfortably aware that both too long and too short are unacceptable. (How does anyone do this? Have regular sexual activity? How are more people not constantly burdened with anxiety concerning it? Life was so much simpler before this – but it’s John. And I want it. With him, I want it. Badly.)

My thoughts finally begin to slow, ebbing toward sleep. I should get up and clean myself. I will, in a few moments… but the sheet is cool, heaped in soft piles onto my body, sensual drifts of expensive cotton pooling between my thighs and over my midsection, my quiescent, satiated genitalia. I am going to fall asleep. I am sleeping.

***

In the morning, I keep myself in the hotel room for as long as I can possibly stand, studying maps, learning a few more phrases of Arabic (not that I’d be able to learn enough to understand the sort of vocabulary I’d be most in need of understanding in the moment, but still). Have another short and frustrating conversation with Mycroft concerning Duncan. I point out repeatedly that it was Duncan’s choice and that there wasn’t much I could do when it seemed like one of the better options despite the risk and he was so willing to go. Mycroft argues that he could have his own interests and I direct him to check up in his background with CSIS, his earliest days with MI5. Eventually hang up on annoyance and think about researching the psychology of sexuality, but can’t because all of the devices belong to Mycroft and I could not possibly endure the humiliation of having him know that I needed to research this. The nicotine craving first hits around nine-thirty but I stave it off with caffeine from the in-suite coffee maker for awhile. (Am hoping very much that John will have the opportunity to notice whether or not I’ve been smoking when he arrives later, not that he’ll be looking for it. Either way, I have enough trouble concerning John as it is without making my mouth taste like an ashtray on top of everything else.) Finally I can’t take it, waiting for his flight, my annoyance with Mycroft, my inability to research what I’m actually interested in researching at the moment, and a touch of what might be hunger, and leave the hotel. Whichever of Mycroft’s minions packed my bag did a decent job of it, providing clothing for a variety of circumstances despite not having packed all that much (practical). I dress myself as a tourist but aim for a more American look rather than European. Jeans, t-shirt, baseball cap. It’s too hot for a jacket or coat. The same sandals. A third pair of sunglasses, wire frame aviators this time. Say a few phrases in my best attempt at a Brooklyn accent, acquired during those weeks in Williamsburg, before heading out in search of nicotine patches and then sustenance, in that order.

I do the grinning idiot tourist act in the chemist’s shop and then find a quiet restaurant that has English below the Arabic on the menu and order a shawarma in a pita. Discover when it arrives that I was hungrier than I thought, devour it and think that John would be pleased with me for eating. (Would he? Does that still matter to him? I keep thinking of him in terms of how things used to be, but everything has changed now. All I wanted was my old life back, but with the fiancée complicating everything and two and a half years’ distance between us, nothing is certain any more.)

Slightly dispirited by these thoughts, I walk around the neighbourhood a little. It’s all very shiny and brand new and suburban. I don’t care for it much, but that’s strictly subjective preference. I like older cities, or at least cities that still have older architecture. Check the time again. I cannot just pace around the hotel room waiting for John. I walk a little more, find a small park which has quite a nice decorative fountain in the centre. Catch myself thinking of John again, the inane thought of bringing him here and showing him this fountain running through my head. I frown internally (possibly externally as well), trying to shake off this foolish romantic nonsense. (When did I get like this?) Mooning around after John like the lovesick youth I never was. Besides, he’s not coming to watch sunsets with me; he’s coming because I have a mission that needs finishing, and a temporary partner who may need rescuing.

I stand and walk back to the hotel, checking that I’m not being followed, per the habits I’ve developed in the past couple of years. (Mycroft was right; it may take a long time before I stop doing this. Damn him. Duncan had said something similar, too, about my having been in the field too long per standard protocols. When he asked if I’d gone for a psychological evaluation upon my return to London, I nearly took his head off.) The lift is empty as I ride to the seventeenth floor. Outside my room, I glance down the corridor in both directions, then drop to a crouch to inspect the floor. Yes: the tiny white thread, no more than a centimetre in length, is still balanced against the door where I left it. I scan the keycard, wait a few seconds, then perform my routine checks on the room. I am more or less confident than no one has been inside, my luggage undisturbed, the windows sealed with the all-but-invisible threads still in place there, too. Exhale in cautious relief and check my email. Nothing new except a routine report from Mycroft. Salib and Al-Amri were sprung from their cage when a nearby bomb blast (detonated by our friends at the Agency) distracted the terrorists surrounding the building, just long enough to get our agents out. They have been sent to loosely monitor the safehouse in Al-Samha where Duncan is being held.

Check the time again. John’s flight should be landing any minute now. I pace agitatedly, distractedly straighten up the room, make the bed (had left the Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob), try to study a map of downtown Dubai. It’s useless; I can’t concentrate. My phone pings. John. Surge of joy. (Ridiculous.) My thumb shakes a little as I swipe the screen lock.

Just landed. Where do I go?

Text him back rapidly, as though my heartbeat is in my fingertips.

Park Arjaan Rotana Hotel in
Al Matar. Room 1724. When
you get here, say this when you
knock: 51 31.421 by 0 9.504.
I’ll be waiting.

Five minutes, then a response.

On my way. In a cab.

Have already calculated driving times based on mid-afternoon traffic estimates for his ride. Eleven minutes with a margin of error two minutes in either direction. Check my hair and clothing, which I feel dubious about at best. (Jeans. Ugh. Although: concede that the added bulk around the waist and such is compensated for the way they look and feel on my legs. Small gain.) I pace to the window, pace back to the bathroom and clean my teeth, check the window again, then the time, then abruptly sit down in one of the chairs and attempt to breathe deeply and calm myself. I’m on my second deep breath when there is a soft knock at the door.

I leap to my feet, heart in my throat and move stealthily to the door, put my lips nearly against it. “Aiwa? (Must keep up appearances. English would give me away in a nanosecond if it isn’t John for some reason.)

“Five one, thirty-one point four two one by zero, nine point five-oh-four,” his voice says.

I unlock the door and open it. A wave of emotion hits unexpectedly and with force, rising up to block my throat. His eyes are on mine, his face smiling uncertainly. I hurriedly clear my throat and step back to let him in, limit his exposure to being seen in the hallway. He steps past me but doesn’t go far, just enough that I can close and lock the door behind him. (Am suddenly unable to speak; don’t know what to say.)

Neither does he, it seems. “Was that Arabic, just now?” he asks, dropping his bag on the floor and pushing his fingers through his hair.

Shrug. “It means yes.” (Eyes devouring his face.)

He blinks, eyes a little tired, but wonderfully blue (offset by the navy accent wall behind him). “I didn’t know you spoke Arabic.”

“It was one word.”

“I liked it.” John smiles again and it hits me in the knees. He takes a careful step toward me. (Unsure of his welcome?)

John being uncertain of me, about this, bothers me. “John,” I say, exhaling. I take a large step toward him, closing the gap between us, put my hands on his face and bend my mouth to his all in one swift motion. He responds instantly, more enthusiastically than I expected somehow (ah: that would be relief) and put his hands on my hips, opening his mouth to me. I wait for him to reach out with his tongue to touch mine (not sure about the protocols involved) and press mine into his when he does (so intimate; I can feel his taste buds against my own, interesting) and his hands slide around to my back, holding me tighter, closer. (It’s entirely wonderful. I don’t want to think about anything but this.)

After a bit (much too soon, in my opinion), John pulls back a little. “Did you really think I had changed my mind?” he asks. It sounds like he’s trying for his Reasonable John voice but I can hear the wistful note beneath it.

Feel my shoulders twitch in a shrug. “I didn’t know what to think,” I say, side-stepping it. “You missed your pick-up. Weren’t answering my texts, Anthea’s calls.”

His arms have relaxed but his hands are still resting on the waistband of my jeans. “But I told you why,” he says, the reasonable tone working better now. “I gave you my word, Sherlock. I said I wanted to be in this operation with you, didn’t I?”

He’s so close that it’s difficult to prevaricate, difficult to hide anything. Can feel my mouth making some sort of uncertain shape that I can’t control, blink only to shutter my eyes for a second or two. “You did, but… I thought that… I didn’t know what to think.”

John’s eyes travel across my face, picking up far too much, evidently. His face softens. “Sherlock…” he extricates an arm and touches my face. “You were worried,” he says. “I’m sorry. It just took longer than I thought, and I had to say something to explain my sudden disappearance. Mary would have had people out looking for me. I thought it best to keep my disappearance low profile. That’s all.”

I barely hear his last words. Mary. I have a name for her now. (Didn’t want one. This makes it harder. Now she seems even more real, though that’s a foolish notion; she was just as dangerously real before I knew her name.) “I see,” I say stiffly. (If he’s going to be talking about his fiancée, he’s too close to me. Need more space.)

He reads whatever I’m thinking again. (This is inconvenient: John, the consulting detective of my emotional state. I’ll never be able to keep anything from him as long as he’s standing so close that our chests are still touching and looking apparently directly into my soul. Ugh.) “We don’t have to talk about that,” he offers, quiet. He touches his lips to mine again, then takes a step away. “Do you want to brief me on the latest?”

I feel his absence immediately and keenly, body turning automatically in the direction he’s walking. He is picking up his bag and placing it on the bed. (Suddenly I wonder if this is presumptuous, that I got a room with only one bed. Well, we can certainly change rooms, or even hotels. Make a note to ask about this later. Will be awkward. Sigh.) Make a concerted effort to switch into business mode. “Duncan is still in Yilmaz’s safehouse in Al-Samha. Mycroft’s two agents are loosely patrolling the area, but aren’t going to do anything other than monitor. We have satellite coverage in place, as I’m sure you know from Mycroft, and I have his GPS location through his phone.”

“Right,” John says. He’s unzipping his bag and pulling out a pair of sandals like the ones Mycroft’s people provided for me. He drops them on the floor and kicks off his own shoes. “I know all that. What’s our plan, though?”

“There isn’t one specifically,” I admit. “Not yet. I want to give Duncan some time. He’s good, you know. He’s been doing this a long time and he knows his business. It may be that he’s still gathering information and planning his own escape. Or it may be that they’ve beaten and tortured him. I have no idea and it’s difficult to know. All I know for certain is that he and they are still there, in the house.”

“We know for certain that his phone is,” John points out. “What if they left and just left his phone behind?”

“Satellite,” I remind him. “The number of heat signatures in the house haven’t changed.”

“Oh. Right,” he says. He rubs his eyes. “Sorry, not quite wide awake.”

I study him. If I know Mycroft, John has probably been awake for hours and hours, much longer than he’s used to. “Do you need to sleep?”

“Maybe a little,” he says, looking at the bed. “It’s best to just get used to the local schedule as quickly as possible, though. I can last until this evening.”

“Whatever you like,” I say, and he smiles at me. “Are you hungry?”

“Not yet, but I will be in a few hours.” He glances at his watch. “It’s one-forty. Maybe we could look around the area or something? Or if we have a car and you want to show me anything, the safehouse or the port or anything like that… And afterward, we could find something to eat?”

“Sure,” I agree. He turns to look at the bed and I hasten to speak, tripping over my words. “Er – about the room, I wasn’t sure what you would prefer, so I just – but we can get another room, or I can, or if you would rather stay somewhere else, it doesn’t matter; we can stay anywhere – ”

John shakes his head, smiling slightly. “Sherlock. Stop. This room is fine. For both of us,” he clarifies, seeing my reaction.

Somewhat reassured, I feel the tension in my shoulders dissipate a little. Clear my throat and change the subject. “We do have a car. If you like, I could show you the places relevant to the operation. Until there’s word from Mycroft, Al-Amri, Salib, or Duncan himself, we just have to wait and amuse ourselves anyway, so we might as well.”

He nods now. “Okay. Yeah. Let’s do that.”

Something feels just slightly constrained. (Is it just me? Or is it because of me?) The slight tension I sense doesn’t seem specifically negative, but simply there. I would prefer it not to be there but have no idea how to bring that about. (If it weren’t for the operation, I could have met John at the door, drawn him inside and pulled him directly to the bed. Or could I? Can’t see myself doing this, somehow. I loathe this uncertainty, loathe the fact that I’ve put myself into this situation of sentiment-driven, ridiculous awkwardness. I’m out of my depth in this, and I need to be focused.) Attempt very hard to focus. “Let’s get you somewhat disguised, then, shall we?” I say, nodding toward John’s bag. “What sort of thing did they pack for you?”

“A bunch of stuff, I think,” John says, going back to the bag. He nods toward my jeans. “Should I keep the jeans, to match you?”

“Good idea.”

He starts rummaging through the bag now, then throws a cheeky look back over his shoulder. “I’ve never seen you in jeans before, not once.”

He’s grinning and it helps ease the tension a little. “I thought it seemed more American,” I explain.

The grin deepens. “I like them. A lot, in fact.”

This is surprising, but pleasing. “You do?”

“Oh, yeah.” John sounds smug, and quite sure. He pulls out a baseball cap like mine and turns around. “With the bare feet, too. Very nice. Should I wear this?”

I make some sort of incoherent sound, try again. “Er. Why not?” I manage.

John leans in swiftly and kisses me on the cheek, there and gone again before I can react. (He liked the incoherency, then.) “Maybe a t-shirt, too, I was thinking. I was hot in the cab.”

He’s currently dressed in a long-sleeved button-up shirt and was carrying a jacket, so this makes sense. I go to the tablet and pick it up, averting my eyes as his strips off his shirt, feel my face heating a little. Text from Mycroft, wanting to know if John’s arrived. I text back succinctly.

“How gentlemanly of you.” John sounds amused, pulling the t-shirt over his head and coming to stand behind me. “Do you want to go now?”

He’s very close to me. I can feel the heat of his body through my clothes. I could turn around now and… I turn, feeling his eyes on me. Mouth is paralysed, though.

“Is this okay?” John is asking, holding his arms out for my approval, a pair of sunglasses in his left hand.

(Want to kiss him. Want to tell him that he looks wonderful, that he will blend in perfectly and look completely inconspicuous, that he looks nice in what he’s wearing, silly baseball cap notwithstanding, that I want to touch him and hold him close to me and let my hands crawl down his body to his arse again, want to give him pleasure in any way that I can…) Swallow. (Focus.) “Yes,” I hear myself say, mouth dry, voice a little hoarse. “You look… just right.” (Horribly inadequate. Not what I wanted to say at all, but… either we pass the time familiarising John with the territory for the operation or if I let myself attempt what I’d much rather be doing, we may not leave the room again today. As my eyes rake down his front, it’s certainly clear to me which option I’d prefer, despite the not-inconsequential amount of anxiety that the thought brings.)

John smiles. (Difficult to tell if he can tell what I’m not saying, if he can read the internal war I’m currently hosting.) “Great,” he says. He steps away and the physical tension is broken. “I’ll just put my sandals on and we can go.”

(Later, then. At night, when the agenda calls specifically for being in bed.) I put my own sandals on in silence, pick up my phone and put it in my pocket. Get the long-sleeved linen shirt out to take along in case it gets cold later. (Should I take the tablet? Maybe. Better to have it unnecessarily than not have it if we need it. It will be in the car, anyway, password protected in half a dozen ways. I look at John, standing by his bag and suddenly wonder what I’m doing, taking him outside at all. Luckily, unlike me, he has a face that disguises well. Not instantly recognisable. I think back to all of the near-escapes I had before Mycroft intervened and feel suddenly much more cautious. “Do you have your phone?” I ask.

John pats the left pocket of his jeans. “Right here. Plus a gun, here.” He pats the back of his waist. “Do I need anything else?”

“Bring a jacket, just in case it gets cold later,” I tell him. Pause. “And maybe your kit.”

“My kit?” He looks surprised, but starts digging for it without objection. “Not planning to get us into any accidents, are you?”

Feel my lips compress behind his turned-away back. “No, but it’s always best to be cautious. Is there anything in your luggage that could give away your identity?”

He thinks, glances at the bag again. “No, I think that’s all in my wallet, which I have here.” Right pocket.

“Good,” I say, then go to the window and locate the small pieces of thread, setting them upright in three different precise locations against the glass, all but invisible against the white-painted wood of the sill. I bite the one for my luggage in half, placing one half against my luggage on the dresser, the other around the back of John’s bag.

He is watching me carefully. “You really got into the spy thing, didn’t you?”

“Had to. Can’t be too careful. I wasn’t careful enough.” I straighten, nod at his face. “Put the sunglasses on.”

“Outside,” John counters, smiling. “People don’t wear sunglasses inside. It would look suspicious.”

(So clever, my John.) I smile back. “Good point.” I’ve got my own in hand (the wire aviators again) and take the keycard, check for my wallet, tablet tucked under my arm. “All right, let’s go.” In the corridor, I hastily check both directions, then bend and place the last thread against the doorsill. Make for the lifts, John keeping pace beside me. (Feels strange to have him here with me, so far from London. Strange and very welcome.)

He grins at me in the lift and I grin back, pushing down the sensation of warmth deep in my gut. (Can’t help it. Just having him here makes the whole ordeal bearable, plus both he and the operation have recharged my adrenaline, my appetite to complete this mission. So glad he’s here with me.)

***

I drive toward downtown, pointing out various points of interest, choosing scenic roads where possible. He likes the palm trees, the glimpses of the Gulf, so I turn east on Corniche Road and drive along the water, letting him see the beaches. He comments on how new the architecture is and I tell him a little about Abu Dhabi’s history, its shipping trade, its relationship to Dubai. I ask after a little if he still wants to see and port and safehouse area and he says that he would, if I think it’s all right. We discuss code names. John says he thinks he can handle a basic American accent, so we agree to stick to playing Americans. After minimal debate, we decide to be Scott and Mark, respectively, which makes us both laugh for no particular reason. (It’s nice to laugh with him again.)

We’re in a navy Jetta, something small and totally unremarkable (excellent choice on my brother’s part, I have to admit), delivered by one of his spooks. I swept it with Duncan’s counter-intelligence detecting device (which John is very impressed by). They haven’t bugged it, at least according to the device. (They must owe Mycroft a favour or something.) I agree that it shouldn’t do any harm to drive out to Port Khalifa and into Al-Samha, though it might be wise to give the street the safehouse is on a wide birth. It’s a long drive to the port but I remember precisely how to get there. On the way, John tells me what he observed in Mycroft’s dungeon. We discuss that for awhile, then John tells me ruefully that one of Mycroft’s staff showed him the on-site gym and suggested he might like to use one of the treadmills for awhile. I laugh. “Did you?” John used to jog sometimes, when we lived together. Not in the winter or in bad weather, but occasionally.

“Once I stopped feeling insulted, I did,” John says. He shrugs. “Why not, right? Plus it got me out from under Mycroft’s nose for a bit. I was starting to think he could read my thoughts.”

I frown. “He wasn’t… asking anything he shouldn’t have, was he?” (Delicate territory, this.)

John is quiet for a moment. “No,” he says finally. “Not really. I mean, I had to explain why I was late. He was furious that I’d missed the flight, but he seemed sort of relieved that I called. Anthea came and picked me up then. Mycroft let me have it for a minute, then he backed down. After that, he would just stare at me when I was looking at something else, but I could always feel it. It seemed like he sure wanted to ask me a lot more, but he didn’t.”

Small relief. “Good,” I say, eyes on the road.

Can feel John’s head turn toward me. “Do you think he… knows?” he asks, not clarifying.

I assume he means about whatever our tentative new state is. (Can I tell John that I hardly know what it is, officially?) “I imagine he has a vague idea,” I say, with equal lack of specification. Hesitate, then say it. “I would be somewhat hard-pressed to define it myself, if he had asked me. He hasn’t. I imagine he is making his own deductions concerning it.”

John is silent after this. After a moment, he reaches over and puts a hand on my leg, squeezes gently.

I clear my throat and take the exit to the road that leads to the port.

***

Later, after the drive back downtown, I find a well-populated restaurant overrun with tourists and locals alike, close to the beaches and the big-name chain hotels, somewhere where we can fit in and not look an inch out of place. (The port visit made me more nervous than I care to admit, if I’m honest. Somewhere safe seems best.) “This seem all right?” I ask, shoulder-checking as I parallel on the right for the first time in my life.

“Sure, fine,” John responds. He looks out his window, gauging the distance to the kerb. “Well done, you. I didn’t know you could drive on the right.”

“It’s a newly-acquired skill,” I say dryly, but feel the corner of my mouth quirk in a smile. “Come on. Let’s have dinner.”

The restaurant is Italian, though not noticeably like an Italian restaurant in Italy (or in England, for that matter). John opts for some sort of pesto dish and I ask for the same thing, both of us donning our very best American accents. Once the server leaves, John puts his hands on the table and leans forward. “You’ve cut your hair,” he says. “I never had a chance to say, before.”

I’ve almost forgotten about it being short. “Oh,” I say. “Yes. It was quite long when I got back to London. I was trying for a bit of a disguise. Accountant/city boy look. Plus, I’d recently had my cover blown and thought it best to change my appearance a little bit.”

“I like it,” John says, his face open and warm. “I miss your curls, but you would look good with any hair style.”

Allow myself to smile a little. “John Watson, are you chatting me up?”

He leans over even further, eyebrows lifting playfully. “That’s the general idea, yeah.”

My face warms, to my embarrassment. Can feel the tops of my cheeks flushing. Think of later, back at the hotel. (Confirmation: he definitely doesn’t mind that there’s only one bed.)

He can also read minds, apparently. “I think I’d have been worried if you’d asked for two beds, by the way,” he adds nonchalantly.

I pick up my glass of water and take an overly large sip. (He’s thinking about later, too.) Fingers smear the condensation. Set the water down and try for a casual tone. “You’ll probably be tired. You’re jet-lagged.”

John’s smile is nearly predatory, something dark and warm in his pupils. “What was it you always used to say when we were on a case? ‘You can sleep when you’re dead’, was it?”

He remembers. I smile. “I did say that,” I allow. “I’m just trying to be considerate.” (That, and that I’m half jumping out of my skin at the thought of trying desperately not to disappoint him again. This is probably why he’s being so complimentary, I realise: he’s trying to bolster my fragile, masculine ego. Acknowledge that there may be some truth to the theory of the fragile, masculine ego. When one experiences one’s first sexual encounter involving another person at the age of thirty-seven and one then fails to maintain an erection throughout, some worry is highly justified, in my opinion.)

John nudges my sandal with his under the table. “Bugger that,” he says eloquently. “This is no time to start being ‘considerate’, Sh – ” He stops himself. “Shit, sorry. Mark.”

I smile at him, long and slow. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t think anyone’s watching, anyway.”

“Can’t be too careful, though,” John says, using my own words from earlier.

He’s right, of course. Still. It’s hard to focus on that in this relatively safe-feeling, crowded restaurant. That, and it feels like we’re on a first date. Angelo’s all over again, except in a slightly less-nice restaurant and in a vastly less familiar setting. Also excepting that this time, I won’t tell him that I’m married to my work. The meals are served and we eat slowly, exploring this new territory. I am surprised to find I can eat at all; my gut is roiling with equal parts anticipatory anxiety and haste to get back to the hotel.

***

That part does not go quite as planned. We exit the lift, comfortably full from dinner and stride down the corridor toward room 1724. I’m carrying the tablet under my arm, though John has left his medical kit in the car. I plan on setting the tablet on the floor and then pushing John up against the nearest wall or door and snogging him senseless. (Feel relatively secure about this part and am looking forward to it quite a bit.) When we get to the door, I hold an arm out to keep John back and stoop to inspect the thread. It’s not there. All thoughts of what I wanted to do with John evaporate, leaving my mouth dry and my heart rate elevated. I check more carefully, bending to see if it’s just fallen over and slipped under the door. No white thread in sight. Only a gust from opening the door could have pulled it inside, or it could have stuck to a shoe – while crossing the doorsill into the room. I look up at John, whose eyes are wide in understanding. Quietly, carefully, I insert my keycard into the reader, wondering if that will set off any triggers. (Peripherally catch John drawing his gun.) I wait five, ten seconds. Nothing. I’m at eye level with the door knob and push it three millimetres inward, examining. Aha. I wasn’t paranoid: there’s a wire. I ease the door shut again very, very carefully and straighten. “Scott,” I say to John, very casually, “I seem to have left something with the concierge. Perhaps you’d care to accompany me back down. I believe you wanted to ask about rental cars, anyway.”

“Sure, all right,” John says, just as casually, but there’s a touch of fear in his eyes.

We walk back to the lifts in silence. As we wait, he pulls out his phone and types something. My phone buzzes and I pull it out to look at it.

What is it? What did you see?

I text him back as we’re stepping into the (empty, thanks be) lift.

Bomb wire. They’re onto us.

John reads my response when it comes and says nothing, but he exhales heavily, eyebrows knitting together. We walk quickly through the large, luxurious lobby, both striving to look like we’re not rushing out. Only once we’re in the car does either of us speak. John is full of questions. “How did they find us?” he’s demanding as I yank the car into gear and back out of the parking space. “We were careful! How could they have known?”

“One never knows,” I say, turning onto the road and speeding away. Without thinking, I just drive toward downtown, tense and worried. After five minutes, I pull over and call Mycroft.

He answers on the second ring. “Yes, what is it?”

“Bomb at the hotel,” I snap.

Sharp inhalation. “Where? Are you still there?”

“No, we’re in the car. The Jetta. The room was wired to blow upon opening the door. I don’t know anything about the device, how large it is, what the explosive material is, but you’ll have to get it out of there.”

“Is John with you?”

“Of course, where else would he be?”

Mycroft doesn’t chastise me. “All right. I’ll have the hotel evacuated and alert them to send in a squad. Where are you headed?”

“Another hotel, I thought,” I say, unable to prevent the bite of sarcasm.

He ignores this, too. “Good. All your things are inside the room at the Park Arjaan Rotana, I assume?”

“We have the tablet, John’s medical kit, he has his gun, and we have the clothes we were wearing. John has a jacket. I have a long-sleeved shirt. We’re dressed like Americans. Jeans, t-shirts, sandals, baseball caps. We have our phones. Obviously.”

“All right. Buy whatever you need, of course. I’ll send the Agency people in and call you with a report later.”

I glance at John. “No. Email. Late night phone calls here will mean the chance of being overheard in English.”

“I’ll email, then.” Mycroft pauses. “You’re all right? Just shaken up, I take it?”

John’s profile is worried, scowling a little. “We’re all right,” I say, stomach still in turmoil. “You have to find out how they found us. The room was wired while we were out this afternoon, so they already knew we were there. Was John followed from the airport? Was I seen this morning?”

“We may never know,” Mycroft reminds me. “They’re good, though. Very good.”

He sounds troubled, and this is troubling to me. Change topics. “Any movement in the safehouse?”

“No exits. Not yet.” Mycroft sounds like he’s pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’ll email with more information later. When I have it.”

I disconnect and start driving again. “I’m sorry,” John says to the window.

“What?” I change lanes, glancing in the mirror. “What for?”

“It was probably me. I probably gave us away sometime. I haven’t been doing this as long as you have, I don’t…” he trails off.

John. Don’t start thinking like that. It could just as easily have been me. I was walking in the neighbourhood this morning. Maybe I was seen. I don’t know, and as Mycroft just reminded me, we’ll probably never know. There’s no point dwelling on it, we’ll just be as careful as we can be.” I say all this with my eyes on the road, but we finally come to a red light and I steal a look at him. He still looks troubled. I reach over and put a hand on the hand resting on his thigh. “It’s not your fault.”

“I’m a liability to you,” John says flatly, though he doesn’t shake off my hand.

“Hardly. I’m the liability. I’m the one this group has caught before and would recognise in a nanosecond. Let’s face it, we’re both liabilities. But that’s why we’re doing this. We’re also quite good at this.” I try for a reassuring smile and John’s scowl relaxes slightly. The light changes so I take my hand back to change gears. (Wish we were in a cab; driving is so tedious.) I meander through downtown, then choose one of the many tourist hotels at random, Le Meridien on Tenth. John leaves his hat in the car but brings the medical kit this time. I bring the linen shirt (now the only other shirt I own), contemplating trying to do something along the lines of the white thread trick to make sure the car isn’t compromised, then remember that the thread was in the other hotel room, anyway. (I’ll get Mycroft to replace the car.) I retrieve John’s hat and the tablet and go in, checking us into a double room in my best foolish tourist tones while John scans the lobby in studied nonchalant boredom. I pay in cash (American) and we take the lift to the tenth floor. In the lift, I let my hand brush against John’s deliberately and am rewarded with a small smile, directed at the buttons indicating the changing floors above our heads, and his fingers tangle into mine for a moment. In the silence, the understanding that was welling up between us during dinner and on the way back to the last hotel rises again, unspoken but decidedly felt in his fingers against mine. My heart begins to beat faster in anticipation. (Nerves? Stop thinking about that. Must not psych myself out about this.) He lets go before the lift stops (prudent, given the local culture and its attitudes regarding homosexuality) and we find our way to room 1006.

No bomb blasts go off, and the counter-intelligence device finds nothing. Only when its scan finishes do I toss it and the tablet and my shirt on the dresser and turn to John. He sees the intent in my face a split second before I advance on him, dropping his jacket and the medical kit to the floor. I rip the idiotic baseball cap off my head and drop it, backing John into the wall behind him. My hips knock into his, anchoring him to the wall and our mouths come together. I can feel the adrenaline pumping through his blood, his pulse thudding under my hands, which are moving over his sides, his torso, the parts of his legs that I can reach, the lower curve of his arse where it’s not blocked by the wall. His tongue and lips are wonderfully warm and strong against and under mine, his breath shuddering out through mouth and nose. His hands start on my back but quickly travel lower, pulling me into him. It’s hot and hard and fast and I want it so badly (oh God John want this – thoughts melting into incoherency again, perfect, don’t think don’t think don’t think just do). Can feel him hardening against me, feel my body responding in kind, arousal spiking like adrenaline, like nicotine, like the euphoria immediately following the victory of a case, but even more so, more intensity in this, more – oh, hell yes, do that again – vastly more pleasure. Feel it blooming on my skin everywhere his hands touch and press, feel it within and without. Fingers fumbling at his jeans (have to touch him, have to feel him in my hands again, so much data that needs collecting, so much pleasure that wants exchanging).

Hips already moving against him of their own volition, fuelled by the small noises John is making, of want, of need, his fingers bumping against mine in their haste to help me free his erection. (Would be faster if he weren’t distracting me horribly with the heel of his palm pressing into my penis, trapped inside my own jeans, aching in unspent desire, desire for that very hand separated by the thick wall of denim. Finally manage to wrangle his zip down in an act of decided desperation and get my own jeans open in possibly record-setting time. John wastes no time sliding his hand into my pants, pushing them down around my hips. Oh. Can hear the undignified noise I just made, sparks lighting behind my eyes and in my nerve endings. Breath gusting out of my lungs and through my mouth, passing my vocal cords and collecting another uncontrolled noise along the way. John moans back as my hand finally closes around his penis, pushing unabashedly into it. Bodies mirror each other’s, moving together, apart, together. My eyes are closed tightly, lower lip trembling, catching between my teeth as I try to restrain the noises I’m making. John breaks the rhythm longs enough to get both our erections side-by-side, circled in both our hands. The feeling of him against me like this is so shockingly, painfully intimate, so intensely pleasurable, that I forget how to breathe. The euphoria is building, fed and fed by the rising tension I can feel spiralling upward through John’s body, through the sounds he’s making. He’s close. Very close. “Sher – ” he gasps, all breath, and then his hips still, penis spattering my hand, my exposed skin with his orgasm.

(Now the pressure returns with force, the anxiety. Now that he’s come, I must follow suit. Cannot lose it now.) I grit my teeth together, chasing fiercely after my own climax. Push hard against his hand, his penis, still pulsing out drops of semen, beginning to soften, but he doesn’t pull away.

“That’s it,” John murmurs, and attaches his mouth to the patch of skin just below my earlobe. “Oh God, yes, come for me, Sherlock, I want to feel you – ”

Desperation peaks, sensation peaks, and for a moment I think I actually lose consciousness as my orgasm finally, finally rushes through me with the speed of a locomotive, laying waste to everything in its path. (May or may not be making rather a lot of noise. Doesn’t matter.) My throat is raw, eyes wet, feel it flooding through me and out of me in bursts of liquid heat, searing, technicolour pleasure as John’s fingers dig hard into my arse. Let my head drop back, mouth open, panting, feel John’s mouth on my throat, tongue stroking over my pulse point. He’s gasping.

“Holy fucking hell, Sherlock, that was the hottest fucking thing I have ever – ” He is profane, nearly incoherent himself, interrupting himself to drag my head upright, planting his mouth on mine again.

I feel utterly wrecked, knees trying to give way, kissing back with as much energy as I can muster, still breathing hard, chest heaving against his. (Wanted him so badly, and finally, finally had him. Yet the hunger for it is still there. Check. Good. Yes.) I open my eyes after a little, the colours in the room slightly distorted. Thoughts beginning to seep back into my cranial tissues. (Success: this was successful. Think it’s fairly safe to say that.) John is still kissing me as though there is nothing else in the world he’d rather be doing and after a moment, I realise that I feel exactly the same way. (Sentiment. Base sentiment.) (Ignore.) “Let’s go to bed,” I say, when I can speak again, still breathless, voice ragged. (Not sure how I’m still upright, to be honest. Oh: probably because John’s arms are around me like a vice.)

He pulls away and looks up at me. Smiles a particularly wonderful smile that I’ve never seen before, I who thought I knew all of the myriad expressions John Watson’s face can make. (Wonderful. So wonderful. If this is the upside of falling entirely and ridiculously in love, then I can’t even fault myself for having done so. I did it long ago, but now, having it realised in flesh and mind and heart, I am utterly lost to it. And I can’t induce myself to care, to issue myself dire reminders about the dangers of being compromised by sentiment. Don’t. Care. I waited so long for this, so horribly long, and I will never willingly give it up now that I have it.)

As we stumble toward the bed, John’s hands pulling at bits of my clothing (once again, my only clothes), I can’t even bring myself to think of the bomb or of Duncan or of Yilmaz. It can all bloody well wait until tomorrow. Right now, there’s John. (Finally.)

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

 

I wake up not realising I had fallen asleep. Disoriented. I notice immediately that I’m not alone in the bed, though, and memory floods back. John. Feel the smile curve foolishly across my face in the dark. (I’m utterly besotted. God help me.) He’s fallen asleep facedown on my right shoulder, cheek mashed warmly against my bare skin. His right arm is stretched over my chest, the other shoved deeply under a pillow. I remember now. We were lying face-to-face, having struggled out of our clothes in post-orgasmic lassitude, lying close together under the blankets, hands moving slowly over each other, kissing occasionally and not saying all that much. I suppose I was tired. (Still am.) What time is it? Why have I woken? Where is my phone?

Realise I am probably awake because I need to use the toilet. Look down at John, sprawled across me and don’t want to move. Weigh the circumstances, decide I’d really prefer not to wait several more hours until morning. Is this what coupled people do on a regular basis? Have sex of some sort with all of the delicate behavioural protocols that entails, then fall asleep together and try to extricate themselves without waking the other when a full bladder makes itself known? This is ridiculous, I’m inching my way out from under John as though it’s a covert mission. (Still. Don’t want to wake him. If all goes well, I’ll get up, locate my phone and check the time, relieve myself, and be back in bed before he notices my absence.)

Finally get a foot onto the floor and from there it becomes easier, using my leverage on the floor to drag myself gently off the bed without moving it too much. John’s still snoring softly. I feel ridiculously pleased with myself for having achieved this seemingly-simple thing. Find my phone in the pocket of the jeans (wadded on the floor next to the bed) and take it to the bathroom before the light of the screen can wake John. I have email. Mycroft, of course. I read his three emails while trying to relieve myself as quietly as possible (the sound echoes off the marble). He wanted me to update with our current location some time ago. It’s close to three in the morning locally; my last contact with him was around eight in the evening. (He’ll be livid.) I’m unpleasantly sticky, hair sticking to bits of skin where it has no business sticking and pulling uncomfortably. I find a flannel and wash myself off, then dry my hands, pick up the phone to answer Mycroft’s latest email. Type back: Was sleeping, apologies for the delay. All is well for now, at Le Meridien on Tenth. Please send a new car, have your people check for GPS tracking devices embedded and have them disabled before delivery is completed. Appreciate it. Will check in later. Press send. Ease my way back into the dark room and perform the extrication operation in reverse, lifting John’s sleep-heavy arm and sliding beneath it.

He stirs, head lifting, blinking blearily in the dark. “Sherlock – ?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you go?”

“Toilet. Go back to sleep.”

In response, John’s eyes close and he shifts closer, like a burrowing animal. Wrong metaphor. Like a heat-seeking missile. Smile in the dark at my own analogy. Yes, that’s perfect. His breathing is already deepening again, settling back into sleep. I’m not at all tired any more, but it’s undeniably pleasant to lie beside him like this and listen to his slow, even breathing, body pliant and heavy in sleep. (How can he trust so easily, to just let me see him like this, not just asleep – I’ve certainly seen him asleep before – but post-coital and naked and open?) It’s a small wonder to me that anyone could trust me.

I think back through every lucid moment I can recall of our… must improve my mental vocabulary for this activity. Sexual episode? Very clinical, but technically accurate, I suppose. Fine: sexual episode. This time I managed to successfully streamline my thought processes to focus only on sensation and the moment at hand and it worked. Even though I was slower to get there than John was. (Is this bad? What is the protocol on orgasms? Is one person supposed to go first? I suppose it’s inevitable, tricky to time, but was it an acceptable window between the two climactic events? John didn’t seem put off by it, but then he could very well have been trying to spare my feelings, given the first time. He would have been high on post-orgasmic chemicals.) Am very aware that I am still feeling the effects of these chemicals myself (dangerous, heady combination – and Mycroft thought that cocaine had a detrimental effect on me!), but I’m finding it difficult to separate the specific chemical/hormonal effects of orgasm from the enduring chemical state of being in love, which I have known about for some time. Since the phone call from the roof of the hospital. Have never been unaware of it since.

It crossed my mind once that the inevitable human condition appears to be to want something unattainable, and in the unlikely event of attaining it, most people stop wanting whatever it was. I turn my head and look at John in the dark and determine that I unquestionably still want him. Something about this thought settles in the pit of my abdomen somewhere, like a restless animal going dormant at last, and suddenly everything seems all right. Perhaps I can cautiously relax into this, just a little bit. I won’t let down my guard, lose focus about the mission. But perhaps I can… enjoy this. (Can I let myself have this? Just for as long as it lasts? There’s no question that if John decides to go back to Mary, it will destroy me entirely. There is no pretending otherwise and I’m not going to try. Survival is only survival. So I might as well take this, mightn’t I? Feels like I’m pleading with some other inner voice, the one that sounds too much like Mycroft’s.) I shift downward in the bed a little, adjusting our height difference, bringing my face closer to his. Feel my thoughts slow with my lips against his hair, and eventually let the rhythm of his breath lull me back into sleep.

***

When I wake, it’s to the feeling of sunlight on my face and a warm hand moving slowly over my torso. (Calculate the angle of the sun beams and estimate that it’s somewhere between nine-thirty and ten.) Turn my head away from the sun (suppose I never bothered shutting the curtains last night) and toward John. He’s awake but his eyes are still closed. “Morning,” he says, without opening them.

“Hello.”

He hears the smile without seeing it and smiles back. “Sleep okay?”

“Yes. I don’t always sleep this much. You?”

“I feel great,” he says, eyes not opening. “I was awake a little earlier – that would be the jet lag, I know – but you were still sleeping and I didn’t want to wake you, and then I fell asleep again.”

“Oh.” (Should I apologise? Might as well try it.) “Sorry.”

Small huffed laugh. “Nothing to be sorry for. I’d forgotten what you looked like, asleep. It was always such a rare sight at home.”

(Wonder if he notices that he just referred to Baker Street as home. Decide not to point it out.) “I hope I wasn’t snoring.”

“You never snore,” John tells me, opening his eyes and looking at me. “That much, I knew.” He smiles again, properly, and leans over to kiss me. I kiss back before I can worry about things like morning breath and my hair looking ridiculous from sleep and being unshowered. He’s not objecting, so I let it go and engage more fully. He likes that, judging by the sound he just made. His hand is still stroking over my chest, a fingertip grazing one of my nipples (small frisson of response there, interesting). It’s just meant to be a shortish, good morning kiss, it seems, because he’s already pulling back and starts talking again. At least he leaves his hand where it was. He’s saying something about jet lag but I’m distracted, thinking about his hand.

Make an agreeing sort of noise. Ask him if the sun is bothering him. He says it feels nice. I privately agree, basking in the sensation of it on my face. Feel my eyes drift shut, focused on the feeling of his fingers. Before he was letting his entire palm drag over my skin but now it’s just his fingertips and it feels far better than I would have estimated, the pleasure of it slowing my tongue and thoughts. (Best not to try saying anything, then.) Concentrating on the pleasure isn’t necessarily the best of ideas either, though; the sensation is spreading steadily southward and I can feel that my penis is no longer lying docilely against my thighs. He’s bound to notice sooner or later.

“So,” John says conversationally (how can he be so casual, when he’s reducing me to this tongue-tied, blurred-lines state?) “We’ve lost everything we’ve brought with us, then, except for the computer and my kit, luckily. I suppose we should get some clothes today?”

“Mmm.” Focus. Attempt to respond in words. “If you want.”

John peers at me. “You going back to sleep?”

“No.”

One of his fingers drifts over a nipple again, peaked in response by now and he makes a bit of a surprised sound. “You like this,” he says. Yes, definitely surprised.

“Mm-hm.” Sunlight, John’s fingers trailing tendrils of sunlight onto, into my skin. Onto my nervous system.

He makes a happy sound now, gets closer and presses a kiss to my shoulder. “Have you ever done this before?” he asks, voice just above a whisper.

“Be more precise,” I murmur, not opening my eyes. Erection coming along a treat. This could be awkward but his fingers feel so good that I don’t care all that much, to be honest. Attempt to be subtle about shifting my thighs apart a little to accommodate it.

“Woken up with someone,” John says softly. “Like this.”

Like this would take so much specific quantifying and I don’t feel like explaining at the moment. Like this, in the literal sense of waking up in the same bed as another person before? No. Like this, as in with someone I’ve just committed some form of sexual act with the previous night? Again, no. Like this, as in waking up beside the person I’ve been fantasising about waking up next two for the past nine hundred and forty-four days now? No. Just No seems simpler, so I say that. “No.”

Another kiss, and John’s fingers skate down my belly, where the side of his hand bumps gently into my bobbing erection. (Oh.) John echoes my unspoken reaction. “Oh,” he says, but it doesn’t sound like it’s a problem. Rather the opposite, actually. Risk opening my eyes. John’s smiling up at me, eyes glinting with that dark something I saw there in the restaurant last night. (Oh.) Feel the heat rise from my crotch to my face, staining my torso in its path. I know what that look means now. “You do like this,” he says, and wraps his fingers around it.

I stiffen, inhaling sharply. “Ah – !” Spike of unexpected pleasure. “John – ”

Hear his low laugh. “Careful, now,” he teases. “It’s Scott, remember? You slipped up at dinner, too. I didn’t want to say anything. Like you said, there wasn’t anyone about, but still. Can’t be too careful, right?”

My eyes fly open at this, aghast. It’s true. I did, didn’t I? (“Are you chatting me up, John Watson?” I remember it clearly.) The self-recrimination is like being doused in cold water. Feel myself soften substantially, though not all the way.

“Oh shit, I’m sorry,” John says, sounding ticked off with himself. “Here, let me – ” He’s shifting downward – where is he going? Not leaving the bed, I hope? If so, that was sudden, I might have recovered if he’d given me a moment –

And then I realise where he is, breath warm on my thigh. All thought operations suspend themselves, brain coiling in on itself in something that’s approximately forty percent No no no you can’t do that I don’t want it don’t do that and approximately sixty percent oh God yes now please God do it do it do it please. He doesn’t give me a choice in the matter, taking most of my flagging erection into his mouth (his sinfully warm, paralysingly talented mouth), lips tightening, tongue stroking the most intimate part of my body as though he has waited over two years to do it. I’m reacting on sheer instinct, half concerned that my arms are going to shoot out and push him off because the sensation is too intense and half worried that I’ll seize him by the hair and push myself so far down his throat that he chokes. To prevent either unacceptable thing from happening, I dig all ten fingers into the bed sheets, white-knuckled, mouth open and gaping like a fish, eyes squeezed shut, my entire forehead contracted into my bridge of my nose. My body is trembling as though it has been electrocuted. (Was electrocuted once – no, twice – and it was nowhere near is intensely, painfully pleasurable as this.) Am gasping for breath. My erection has recovered with remarkable turn-around time, I think, though the thought itself is muzzy, half-drunk on John’s wicked mouth. (How is a self-professed straight man so ridiculously good at this? I have just enough mental coherency to be capable of seeing that this could well be personal bias; it’s not as though I have anything to compare it to, but – ) I open my eyes and look down the length of my torso at him. The sight of his mouth around the hard length of my erection is so over-stimulating that I let my head fall back with a groan I’m unable to prevent. John makes a noise of appreciation at this, a noise that reverberates through my flesh, jangling at every nerve. Concentrate on keeping my arse on the bed, on not thrusting upward. It feels horribly restrained, as though I’m forced to trust John with the full responsibility of my orgasm. (Maybe that’s exactly what he wants, I think suddenly.) If so, then I can at least help him by concentrating on the pleasure of his mouth, the hot, hard press of his tongue, the soft openness of his throat. His hands aren’t idle, either, one following his mouth up and down the length of my penis, the other massaging circles over a hip as though communicating in some secretive language, cell to cell. (Perhaps he is.) He does it as though he loves doing it, showing no signs of wanting to stop or do something else. (Good. Will die if he stops now.) His mouth is – there are no words for this. It’s like the sunlight on my face but magnified to the power of ten thousand. It’s like every other cellular function has stopped to focus energies on the internal build-up of my orgasm. I can feel it beginning now, the sensations collecting, tightening, rising –

“John – ” I just manage to gasp out in warning, and he pulls off a bit, but not all the way. I realise then that he’s not going to move, that he intends for me to ejaculate into his mouth, and that thought is enough to tip the scales. The orgasm rises through me and pulses out onto his tongue, against his lips, which tighten as he swallows, swallows again. His tongue moves gently over the underside of the head of my penis, coaxing out the rest of it. (Now he’s consumed my DNA too, I think, the thought only half-formed and unfocused as the tightness in my lower belly slowly releases, the last ebbs of the orgasmic wave dying away. Surely that’s a more visceral, more significant biological contract than the verbal vow he plans on exchanging with Mary.)

John moans as though he is the one who just had an orgasm and slides back up my body. “Oh God, Sherlock, I – ” he kisses my chest, my (damp) neck, my jaw, breathing hard.

He’s rendered so emotional by this, by having given something like this to me, and while I think I understand (touching him, giving him pleasure and watching it happen in him was surely just as much a part of the experience last night as his hands on me were), it still shocks me. Fingers find his chin and tilt it up so that I can kiss him properly. (Want to thank him but it seems embarrassing and I’m not sure if that’s de rigeur for this. Is thanking polite or rude in bed? Unnecessary? (Are these acts considered par for the course, expected and therefore left unacknowledged as such?) Incomplete data.) I can taste myself in his mouth. (Combined genetic material in saliva and semen. It’s not just myself I taste in him: it’s us. This is what we taste like, our combined DNA. Interesting.) I turn on my side to face him, reach down and find that he is indeed extremely aroused and wanting this, making small noises of agreement and appreciation when I close my hand around him and start to stroke. Not terribly familiar with this, but I remember the speed he seemed to prefer in the sitting room at Baker Street the first time and attempt to repeat it. It’s working; he’s making breathy moans against my chin, lips tightening into kiss shapes against whatever part of my face they find, hips bucking forward into my palm. “Like this?” I murmur against his lips, looking for confirmation.

“Yes, oh yes – just like that, God – just keep – yeah – ” John is babbling, right hand gripping my back. He flings a leg over mine and thrusts harder into my palm. I adjust my motions to accommodate his, enhance the speed and pressure and just like that, he’s climaxing, the hot release of semen hitting me in the stomach and hand. Another long thrust and there’s more of it, accompanied by John’s ragged moans, bit of profanity (like that). Finally his body relaxes, the tension draining away. He kisses me for a long moment, soft and a bit messy, a lot of tongue and saliva and I have no objection to it whatsoever.

(So this is what it’s like, waking up with John Watson.) I feel the corners of my mouth pull into smile, just a little.

His eyes are closed again, but he says, “What?”

“What do you mean, what?”

“You’re smiling.”

(How does he know?) “I suppose I am.”

“Are you happy right now?” John’s eyes open, tracking my face. “There was a bomb planted for us in our hotel room yesterday – and we could have been there when they came. Are you actually happy right now?”

I bend forward and press my lips to his suprasternal notch. “Immensely,” I say, against his skin. It’s quiet and I mean it completely.

I pull back to see that his eyes have gone wide, brows high on his forehead. (I’ve surprised him again.) And then he smiles. “I – ” he stops.

“What?” I ask, blinking, wondering what he was going to say.

John bites his lip and changes directions. “I meant to ask before. The code you gave me to say when I arrived yesterday, what was that?”

Have to think for a moment (still wondering what he decided not to say, the instinctive thing that rose to his lips only to be reconsidered, retracted). “Oh. Coordinates.”

“As in, latitude and longitude?”

“Yes.”

“What were they the coordinates of?”

I smile at him and put a hand on his bare chest, fingertips resting in between his collarbones, where my lips were a moment ago. It’s warm, his pulse still quicker than usual. He doesn’t object to the touch. “221B Baker Street.”

John smiles at this and touches my face with the backs of two fingers. “I should have guessed.”

“You really should have.” I’m still smiling.

Suddenly John looks serious. “There was something else,” he says. His hand curls around mine and I let his fingers intertwine with mine. “While you were away… did you ever call me?”

The question takes me unawares. (Can’t think of a reason not to admit it, though.) “A few times. Yes,” I say, watching his reaction closely.

He nods, as though it’s only a confirmation. (Should have known that he would know.) “The night that you killed Sebastian Moran,” he says quietly. “You said you went to Saarbrücken after. You called me that night.”

I remember it clearly. “I did,” I acknowledge. Too close to him to be anything but honest.

“And from Berlin, more recently.”

“Yes.”

“And somewhere in Georgia.”

“Yes.”

“I was curious,” John says. “I had the calls backtracked, but I could never get specific locations or a phone number to call back; they were always blocked. But when you told me about Moran in Paris and going to Saarbrücken after, suddenly it made sense. And then you called once from London, too, after I came to Baker Street that first time.”

This recitation is calm and matter-of-fact, but he wants me to confirm it. “I did. Yes.”

His eyes are very expressive in sunlight, navy shot with grey and so patient, so gentle. “Why?”

No filters. “I missed you,” I say plainly, entirely honest again. (Feel laid bare by it.) “Those were the times when it was… the worst, not having you there. Not being at home with you.”

This time he doesn’t retract it. “I love you, you know,” he says, eyes focused unwaveringly mine. “I hope you know that. I think I have since the very first. Must have done. Took me awhile to realise, though.”

(Did not know that. Decidedly did not know that. May burst. Must keep it together, though. Reverse psychology would suggest that if I start displaying overly-attached behaviour, he will find it unappealing, the opposite of an incentive to stay.) “You never said,” I say instead, my fingers tightening in his.

“I know.” His eyes are searching my face, waiting for the appropriate reciprocal response.

(He wants me to say it, out loud. As if I haven’t said it a dozen other ways already. But how can I, with Mary there?) “Can you love two people at once? Is that possible?” (Oh. Didn’t quite intend to blurt that out, so unvarnished and raw, but the question asked itself without my volition. And I cannot possibly return his declaration without this coming up. And now, without an erection depending on the outcome of the conversation, perhaps this is the time. We cannot avoid the subject forever, preferable as that would be.)

He doesn’t recoil, get out of bed, head for the nearest flight back to London, nothing like that. He goes a bit still, though. “Sherlock…” (Can feel him withdrawing.)

“It’s a valid question.” (Can hear myself going stiff, sounding awkward. Slightly defensive.)

“I know.” He does. The admission is quiet. He’s not angry with me, I don’t think, but his brows are drawn tightly together in the centre of his forehead, eyes hidden, angled down at the bed. “I just… can we not do this now? I’m not ready to talk about it. I don’t know what I… I can say that yes, it is possible. It has to be, because I do.”

(Am torn between being stubbornly glad that he’s not withdrawing his statement of loving me and being justifiably, at least in my own opinion, angry that he still loves her. Don’t know what to say to this.) In the end, I don’t say anything, my hand lying uselessly on the sheets in the narrow space that divides us.

John raises his eyes to my face but I’m not looking at him. He puts his hand over mine between us. “Hey. Don’t… don’t think whatever it is you’re thinking. Let’s just take it day by day for now and sort out the future later on. Could we do that? I’m sorry, I – I know it’s a lot to ask, and you were never that patient, but…” He trails off, biting his lip again, waiting for my response.

I lift my eyes to his now, all of the horrible uncertainty I’m experiencing probably written all over my face on plain display. My throat feels uncomfortably tight. “I’ve already waited nine hundred and forty-four days. To see you again. For this.”

John groans, leans his forehead into my chest. “God. I’m sorry, Sherlock. I’m sorry to be asking you to do this – I just – ”

(Will touching him now make it seem like I’m trying to force a decision from him? Or will he interpret it as the comfort I intend? Must acquire a book on the psychology of intimate relationships, not that it will help me now, when I need it. Also: consider the possibility that no book currently in existence could navigate the specific minefield which is John Watson.) Consider the evidence, then: he’s distressed (touching recommended). It’s because of something I said (touching not recommended). It’s directly because of me (again, not recommended), but it’s related to wanting to be with me (in which case, touching could support the argument in favour of me, in which case, recommended). Could be seen as tool of manipulation (not recommended). Exasperation, thy name is human relationships. John moves his hand to my hip and squeezes. No idea what he’s trying to say, but I decide that it makes reciprocation acceptable and put an arm around his back, drawing him closer. He accepts it, pressing into me and I kiss the top of his head. “It’s all right,” I say finally, though it really isn’t. (He must know it isn’t.)

“I know it isn’t fair,” John says to my chest, his voice vibrating into my thoracic cavity. “I just need more time.”

I trail my fingers over his back the way he did earlier, and after several long minutes, a sense of peace seems to settle again.

After awhile, John stirs. “I suppose we should get up. I need to shower, and then I think we need to see about finding some clothes.”

I don’t want to get up at all, but he’s right. (Feel strangely worried that if we let this moment go, we will never find it again.) I retract my arm. “All right. You can shower first, if you like.”

John smiles and kisses me once, briefly. “We don’t have to take turns…” He gets out of bed and walks to the bathroom, stopping in the doorway to look back at me with a smile that is so full of suggestion and intent that I feel the blood rising to my cheeks.

Right, then. I’m out of bed and in the bathroom before he’s had a chance to turn on the taps.

***

His hands are as gentle and patient as his eyes, in the shower. He makes the act of washing my body and hair not only the clinically precise procedure of a medical professional, but an act of obvious care and intimacy. (He makes me feel loved without saying a word. I feel it, but I don’t trust it, can’t let myself believe it is anything but temporary.) My eyes are closed tightly under the hot spray of water, trying to block out the emotion welling through my pores while still entirely cognisant of the sensation of his hands laving over my back, my penis unfeignedly erect almost since the start of the shower. (Can’t help it, being this close to him, both of us fully nude in front of each other for the first time except under the cover of the bedding. It’s achingly intimate. And arousing.) I’m copying his motions, clumsy and decidedly unprofessional. Cannot possibly disguise what I feel when I touch him, hence my closed eyes. Otherwise it would be too much; I would be pressing him into the walls or the floor of the tub in my desire to fuse our very cells together. (Have never been in love before. This is torture.)

“Hey.” John’s voice is gentle, like his hands. “Sherlock.”

“Mark.”

“Whatever. I can’t call you Mark when we’re like this,” he says vaguely. “You all right?”

“Mmm.”

“Can you look at me?”

I can’t refuse him. Open my eyes, water running in rivulets down my face. My hands are resting idly on his hips (oh, forgot what I was doing for a moment and let them go still).

John’s hands are resting on my lower back. “It’s not at all that I’m not sure how I feel about you,” he says, I suppose trying to clarify. We weren’t speaking before, just cleaning each other and communicating with our hands (mine saying far more than I wished). When I don’t respond, he sighs and struggles to continue. “It’s just… it’s not that I think it wouldn’t work, with you. With us, I mean.” (This is alarming; his very wording of it makes me think that this is exactly what he has been thinking.) “I mean… fuck, this is hard to put into words,” he says, sounding frustrated. “It’s just – I have this one relationship that definitely works in all of the ways it’s supposed to work, and you and I, we were never like that, before. Even if we maybe both wanted to be and didn’t quite realise it. Or maybe it took all that time apart to really make it seem – oh, I don’t know, I don’t want to tell you what you thought about it while you were away – I just mean that we weren’t actually like that before, so this is all pretty experimental, right? And it’s just that – it’s not that I mean to put all sorts of pressure on this to work, but on a practical level it seems, well, a bit daft to leave one thing behind that works rather well in favour of one that isn’t certain yet. I mean, I think it works pretty well physically, and it seems clear that you have feelings for me, but you said yourself that you’ve never woken up with someone before. I’ve certainly never seen you in a relationship. We haven’t even talked about your history with all that, past relationships and that. Though from what you said, it sounds like – ” He stops, looking embarrassed. No – he’s embarrassed on my behalf. (That’s worse.)

I fill in his blank. “I thought you knew that,” I say. “I thought you knew ever since Mycroft said, that day at Buckingham Palace.”

John shrugs. “Yes, but it was Mycroft. For all I knew, he was just yanking your chain, like he does. And that was before you met Irene. For all I knew, she could have changed all that.”

This bothers him. Still. Even now, it bothers him. “It didn’t,” I say shortly. “You’re the first, if that’s what you’re asking.”

About four different expressions try to occur on John’s face at the same time, namely relief, exasperation, fondness, and – arousal? (Unclear.) “I’m glad,” he says, settling on fondness. “But you see what I mean, then – if you haven’t been in a romantic relationship before, you might not be aware of all the elements that go on within them. Compromises. Give and take. All the messy emotional stuff.”

“John,” I say, endeavouring to sound patient, “I lived with you for eighteen months. That was a relationship. And that was before I was trying, particularly.”

He smiles at this. “I did manage to train you to compromise a bit, didn’t I,” he muses. “Oh, Sherlock.” He steps closer and puts his arms around me all the way, my penis bumping awkwardly into his lower abdomen, his knocking into my upper thigh.

I put my cheek down on his wet head. There is a knot of something painful in my chest. “So what you’re saying is, you’re testing this to make sure that it could be a real relationship, something that could compete with what you have with Mary, before you’ll actually consider it as a viable alternative. It has to compare favourably in every area or else you can’t contemplate taking the risk of ending up with me, someone who doesn’t know a thing about relationships like this, has sexual experience that you could summarise in a couple of sentences, all of which you’ve been present for, and whose lifestyle has in the past regularly endangered your existence.”

His arms tighten. “Please don’t think of it like that,” he mumbles into my shoulder.

“It is like that.” When John stays quiet, his wordless desperation seeping into my skin like tangible despair, I soften a touch. “It’s perfectly reasonable,” I say, throat tight again. “Logical. To make sure that the second possibility is viable.” Pause. “I don’t know if it is, either.”

He makes a sound I can’t classify. “What?”

My arms are around his shoulders (when did they get there?) and I raise a hand to cradle the back of his neck. “I can hardly make any guarantees, when it’s an unknown quantity for me as much as it is for you. But I want this. I hope I can… I want to be what you need.”

John’s back shudders and he raises his head, face so full of emotion that I’m assailed by it. “I want you to be exactly who you are,” he says, voice rough. “And if that can work with who I am, that’s what I want.”

I want to kiss him but I can’t forestall the next question. “And Mary?”

His eyes close as though in pain. “If it can work with you, God help me, that’s what I want.”

“Then that’s enough, for now,” I say.

He lunges for my mouth then, half in relief that I’ve let it go, half in genuine emotional response, I think. My erection had softened a little during the conversation, but his is jutting against me and provoking nearly instantaneous response again. John’s tongue and lips are on my own, the spray of the water washing over our faces and blinding me, but it doesn’t matter. After a minute or two (internal clock not functioning at the moment) he reaches for something (shower gel, it seems) and lathers it over both our erections, his other hand pulling mine in to join his there, then returning to my back to press me closer. In the end we end up against the side wall (it seems I did end up backing him into it), our linked fingers flying faster and faster over ourselves. The shower gel is some sort of jasmine rose scent and its scent and the earthier scent of arousal rise and intermingle in the steam. I’m the first one to orgasm this time, to my internal relief and slight triumph, John following within fifteen seconds. (I wonder if, with practise, I couldn’t learn to control the precise moment of release to match his. Would very much prefer that.)

We stand there together, breathing hard, my forehead pressed into his (may have bruised it when I came, in fact), coming down from the moment together. “I don’t know if I could go back anyway,” John admits when he can speak again, in another moment of painful honesty. “Maybe we could have resumed our old friendship again, in spite of my being with Mary, if I hadn’t kissed you. But it was me who did that, me who crossed that line. I know it’s my fault things are so messed up now. But… I can’t make myself wish that I hadn’t, now.”

(Does this mean I’ve won? No. It’s far too early to think that. But for the first time, I allow myself just the smallest (nonetheless terribly dangerous) amount of hope. It’s too late now. One shot of some drugs can be enough to lead to terrible addiction. I know the level of trouble I’m in. Nothing for it, then.) I kiss him and say, “Neither can I.”

***

One of my favourite things about John was always that he knew exactly when to focus on business and leave the personal matters aside. The moment we’re dry and dressed, he’s back in operation-mode. No blurred lines. He’s busy talking about going to eat, changing hotels, asking about the car, buying some replacement clothes, wanting to know what updates Mycroft has sent. This is perfect. I cannot cope with thinking about the overwhelming complexity which is John Watson and the multilayered complexity of this operation at the same time. I answer his questions, give him the tablet to read my email and call Mycroft to check in at last.

He’s predictably furious, but there’s nothing I can do about that. When his tirade finally runs out, I wait a moment, then say, “Are you finished?”

He huffs. “Yes.”

“Good. John and I are going to get some clothing and replacement supplies. We probably won’t leave the central section of the city. Are your two agents still watching the safehouse?”

“Yes. There’s been no new activity.” Mycroft still sounds irritated.

I suppose I did leave it rather long between check-ins. He’s supposed to worry if he doesn’t hear from me. The lack of news from the safehouse is worrying to me, though. No one has come or gone since Duncan got himself captured. Something has to happen soon. He’s still living; the number of heat signatures hasn’t changed. Mycroft said that the cost of the constant satellite surveillance was earning him some concerned phone calls, but it’s immaterial to me; we need the surveillance. It’s the only source of information we have about Yilmaz or Duncan now. “All right,” I say to my brother. “I’ll check in later, then. Apologies for the delay.”

He sounds somewhat mollified. “Please do. The car is outside. It’s a dark grey Toyota Camry. Very non-descript. The keys are with the concierge under the name of Harrison Jones, no ID required for the pick-up. Be careful, Sherlock. Don’t get yourself killed, and don’t get John killed.”

“I’m Mark right now, and I won’t. We’ll be all right.” I glance at John, thinking that if anything, his life and safety are worth even more to me now than before, which I would not have thought possible. I end the call and slide the phone into the pocket of the jeans. “Ready?” I say to John.

He gives the room a once-over to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything, already nodding. “Yes. Let’s go.”

“Remember the emergency plan,” I remind him.

“Of course. If you say the danger word, I’ll move out and play back-up.” John unconsciously touches the gun tucked into the back of his jeans.

Just knowing that he has it and that he’ll be with me makes me feel almost invincible. (Dangerous feeling. I push it aside: business as usual.) “Then let’s go.” I wipe the keycard free of prints and left it on the dresser. Check the door before opening it, inspecting the doorsill and space between the door and the wall for any sign of a tripwire and find nothing. Open it slowly, wait, count to ten, then ease into the corridor checking both directions. The baseball cap is pulled low over my forehead, linen shirt open over yesterday’s t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to make it look more informal. I walk nonchalantly to the lifts, John following, thumbs hooked casually into his pockets. The lift arrives. There is a woman inside, Arabic in appearance and apparel. As per the plan, John stays beside me so that, in the event that she’s an assassin, she won’t be able to get between us. He has his hands backward on his waist now, feigning boredom as he studies the numbers, but it keeps his fingers within centimetres of the gun.

Nothing happens. She exits at the lobby and walks to the front desk, miming something that looks like a boat to the clerk. I stop by the concierge’s station near the doors and say in my best approximation of a southern American drawl, “Pick-up for Harrison Jones.”

The concierge glances at my face, nods, and extracts a set of keys. He points toward the front parking lot beyond the doors. “The far right side, sir.”

“Thanks,” I say, and take the keys, and make for the doors. John has been silent the entire while; I can feel slight tension radiating from him. He’s in combat mode, ready to take necessary action if need be (but he doesn’t want to have to). His senses are alert and focused, very much the cool-under-pressure RAMC captain. His men were lucky to have been commanded by him, I think. They would have been much safer with him.

The car is where the concierge said it would be. I surreptitiously pass Duncan’s counter-intelligence detector around it, including close to the wheel wells where a possible GPS tracker could have been planted. John takes a careful look under the bonnet to make sure there’s nothing suspicious around the motor. (For someone who doesn’t know how to drive, I’m slightly impressed by his knowledge of automobile components.) Inside, I scan again with the detection device and find nothing. So far, so good. I turn the key in the ignition and the car doesn’t explode. Lovely.

“I can’t believe you lived like this for two and a half years,” John says to his window as I back out of the parking space and drive toward the exit onto Tenth. “I would be so paranoid by now.”

I shrug. “No worse than being in an active war zone, I assume.”

“Maybe, but at least there were always other people around. I was never dealing with everything entirely by myself.”

I pull into the traffic and turn north, then west onto Hamdan bin Mohammed, aiming for a shopping centre I looked up in the hotel room before we left. “Mycroft says I was in the field too long,” I admit, grimacing slightly. “When he rescued me in Edinburgh, he said I was jumpy and nervous, and that it would get worse if I stayed by myself. He’d seen it in other agents, and of course he pointed out that I don’t have that sort of training.”

“I thought that the maximum time for intelligence operations was six months,” John says.

I nod, confirming. “That’s what Mycroft said. He said he’d seen agents who’d been in the field too long and that they had trouble sleeping for the rest of their lives because of the paranoia. He didn’t want me coming back out here. He wanted me to just stay in his control centre and run the operation from there, with him.”

“Where he could watch you at all times,” John says dryly. “Of course. You wouldn’t have lasted, though. I had two days of it and it was plenty.”

“I know.” Nothing more needs saying; John has always shared my feelings for Mycroft.

“It’s just up here,” John says, gesturing ahead and leaning forward to peer out the window.

As he’s saying this, my phone buzzes and pings at the same time. Text message. Curious. I just spoke to Mycroft; he wouldn’t text this soon afterward, and if something happened, he would call.

“Was that your phone?”

“Yes.” I pull into the parking lot of the shopping centre and into the first space I see. The phone pings again, then again. Three new messages. I swipe the screen open. They’re from an unknown number, local, and they’re badly scrambled, some characters only partly formed or replaced by strange symbols. (Odd.) Frowning, I read.

it?s hd. Still ali#e but% not
sure how?% -long# [illegible]\
op movîng to Yem/n

not sure [illegible] maybe 2nite
%?phone broken $ried 2 text
b4 but [illegible] watch?d
u werè right% was a mis/ake

please send help %f possible
be c&re[illegible] they know
you?re watch>>g [illegible] find
link 2 jack sorry i cdnt d& more.
have to go but% was an h?nour hd

Wordless, the pit of my stomach flooding with apprehension, I pass the phone to John and watch his face as he tries to decipher it. Duncan’s damaged text messages fill me with dread. Still alive. Please send help if possible. Mistake. Sorry. His initials at the end. They’re going to kill him and he knows it. And they’re taking him to Yemen. (Yemen: where Yilmaz and his people captured me in late December.) This does not bode well for any of us. Because I know already that clothes shopping will have to wait. John and I are going to have to go to Yemen. I will need to track them down, then walk into the camp of the man who set a bomb trap for me and let me go, half-alive after a month of interrogation, and free my ally before they kill him. Or finish killing him. I cannot think of something I would rather do less, but I know already that it has to be me. It’s time to face Yilmaz again.

John’s eyes meet mine as he hands back the phone, his face reflecting the same dread I’m experiencing. “I guess we’re going to Yemen,” he says.

This is precisely why he is so perfect: he understands immediately that we have to go, and has already accepted it without question, stoic and strong despite what he feels about it. (Feel another pang of relief that he is here, with me. I would hate to go back to Sana’a alone.) John understands my private dread; he knows the gist of what happened. (The moment when I was captured, beaten unconscious. Waking up in the cell in Turkey. The torture. The heat. The thirst.) He knows that it was in Yemen that it happened, at Yilmaz’ hands. He understands, and he’s coming with me. This time, it will be John and I against the rest of them. I won’t have to face it alone. “I’ll call Mycroft and get him to arrange us a transport,” I say aloud, and leave all of the rest of it hanging unsaid between us.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

 

The helicopter circles El Rahaba Airport and swerves off to the west toward the New Sana’a Terminal, the separate military terminal just outside the city boundaries. There is a gust of wind and the helicopter is buffeted, causing me to brace my hand against the wall at my right. To my left, John is silent and stoic, gazing steadfastly at the desert and the approaching ground.

There are only three of us in the aircraft: John and I, and Al-Amri, who is flying it. Mycroft was grim when I we spoke for the third time from Abu Dhabi several hours earlier.

“There’s no one else who can go,” he’d said. “Al-Amri has a pilot’s license and I don’t trust anyone else. You’ve been compromised again and we don’t know where the leak is coming from. It has to be one of our own for the transport and he’s the only operative in the area. Besides, he speaks Arabic, obviously, and will be able to communicate with local air traffic control like a native speaker. It will attract less attention.”

I’d agreed, seeing his point. “What about once we get there?”

Could practically hear him shaking his head. “You’ll be on your own at first. I’ll send Al-Amri back for Salib and then keep them on stand-by as back-up. Sana’a is closed to us, Sherlock, do you understand that? We have no access. Even satellite access is tricky there. This country is not our ally. And Sana’a is not like Abu Dhabi, modern and slightly more open to the West. It’s foreign and traditional and closed. The fewer Europeans we send in, the better. This is a high-risk situation. Even two people is one too many, though I’m just as glad you’ll have John there with you.”

“Yes, fine,” I’d said in response, sounding cross. “I have been there before, Mycroft. I know what it’s like. How do we get from the military terminal to the city? I assume taxis are out of the question.”

“I’ll have Al-Amri arrange something for you. Stay somewhere central, somewhere crowded.”

I’d rolled my eyes and ignored this bit of obvious advice and asked about where to meet the helicopter instead.

Now Al-Amri is speaking with the tower, listening to the incomprehensible responses and replying in kind. He meets my eyes in the mirror once, then says something else. After a few minutes, he switches the radio off. “I have just told them that there are two passengers,” he says soberly. “They asked. I could not have refused to answer.”

“It’s all right,” I say. “They’ll see us anyway when we leave the helicopter, unless you had another plan for disembarking. What’s the plan for transportation?”

“That would be me,” he responds, eyes focused ahead as he angles the helicopter onto the pad painted on the tarmac. “I have asked for a car. I will take you to a hotel downtown. Somewhere that westerners could believably stay, but not a western chain. Close to the old city.”

John stirs at this. “I thought that westerners didn’t really come to Sana’a,” he says.

“They don’t, not often.” Al-Amri shrugs. “But sometimes. You should both cover your faces anyway.”

John looks at me and I nod. In the end, we were obliged to spend a small amount of time buying more appropriate attire. The American look will not favour us here. I bought a cotton tunic and traded the jeans for linen trousers like the ones I had had before. John kept my linen shirt and found trousers to match mine. Al-Amri had keffiyehs for both of us when he met us at the military terminal in Abu Dhabi. He didn’t explain the helicopter, which was clearly labelled as property of the UAE government, and neither John nor I requested an explanation. I pick up the keffiyeh and silently show John how to wind it around the forehead and the lower portion of the face. He struggles slightly with his own and I adjust it for him, then put on my sunglasses.

The overhead propeller is slowing and Al-Amri opens the doors. He is not a talkative man, at least not on the job, but he radiates competence and knowledge and I cautiously trust him. The tarmac is deserted; evidently whatever he said over the radio guaranteed an entire lack of reception. I both appreciate it and feel suspicious of it. He leads us to a small, official-looking building. “Wait here.” He disappears inside, leaving John and I waiting silently without. He returns a moment later and begins walking toward a parking lot on the far side of the building, keys in hand. The car is non-descript and at least ten years old. It’s perfect for camouflage.

In the car, he gives us a small amount of information about the city. He knows that I have been here before and he also knows that the stakes are vastly higher now. He knows about Yilmaz; he knows about Duncan; he knows that I was captured before and that it happened here. “You were somewhere east of the city last time, correct?” Al-Amri asks, glancing sideways at me (John had insisted on taking the back seat).

“Yes. I started tracking them from in the old city, but once I was captured I was taken somewhere on the eastern outskirts. I could find it again on a map, but I don’t know what any of the streets were called. They’re not labelled on our maps.”

Al-Amri nods as if this is expected. “We will be monitoring all travel entering the city over the next thirty-six hours, from Abu Dhabi. After that point, when we have information, we will likely join you if Mr Holmes clears it.”

So much for this being my operation. I suppose they are his agents, though. “Do you expect Yilmaz to move the entire group at once, or in smaller groups again?”

“Smaller groups, likely.” Al-Amri looks over his shoulder and changes lanes.

“Are we being followed?” John asks from behind me.

“No. I do not think so. Always best to be careful, though. Changing lanes is an easy way to check.” He’s still watching the mirror, watching the traffic behind us coming from the airport. “You will both need to be very careful. Don’t let your faces be seen in public. Try to speak as little as possible. Refrain from overly western habits. Mobile phone use is common here now but pickpockets are common in the markets as well. It would be best not to use your phones in public. Be as careful as possible. You are ferenji here, outsiders. Attract as little attention as possible.”

I can practically feel John’s irritation at being treated like a rank amateur, but he accepts it, as do I. Al-Amri is from Riyadh, sixteen hundred kilometres away. He knows this culture and he knows this city, and he is a senior MI5 field agent. I would personally rather than even he did not know the location of our hotel, but at this point, we have little choice but to trust him. He could have killed us at any point, though of course if he’s the leak, he would simply pass the information along to Yilmaz. Somehow I don’t think that it’s him, however. I could be wrong; my instinctive feeling is hardly based on logical deduction. Perhaps it’s simply that I’ve accepted that we don’t have a choice about this.

Sana’a is coming into view. On the whole, it is a bi-chromatic city, mostly shades of beige and terracotta, sandstone and baked brick. Reddish or beige buildings with white clay trim around the domed mashrabiya windows. The very air looks dry, feels dry even within the car. Al-Amri drives past several open-air markets in courtyards, men strolling in ankle-length tunics, trousers, sandals, women swathed in loose, dark veils.

“None of the local men have their faces covered,” John points out from behind me. Not sure whether it’s directed me or Al-Amri.

Al-Amri assumes it’s for him and responds. “No. Just until you are inside. In case we are followed. It would be better not to be seen than to look a little odd. And there are men who cover their faces against the wind, the sand. It is not unheard of.”

John subsides into silence again.

Al-Amri breaks it after a few more minutes. “This street is called Al Mithaq. We are parallel to the old city now, to the east.” He indicates to the left with his head. “You can see the walls, there. Your hotel is close to Bab Al Yemen, the primary gate to the old city.” He turns slightly to me. “Forgive me. You may already know this.”

“It’s always useful,” I say. “Where is the hotel?”

“Just here.” Al-Amri slides the car into a parking space along the kerb. “Ready? Let’s move quickly.”

I look for the sign. The Al-Shameeri Plaza Hotel. It looks ancient, made of the same sandstone bricks as most of the other buildings in this part of the city. It looks like somewhere that locals would stay. Approximately eight storeys, arched windows and latticework, completely typical of the local style. It looks exactly like the sort of place I was looking for in Abu Dhabi and failed to locate. I like it immediately. Liking it is immaterial, however; we just need a secure place to stay. I follow Al-Amri across the pavement, head ducked, John just over my right shoulder. (He’s playing bodyguard; can feel it in his stance without looking, the protective vibes positively radiating from him. It makes me feel something deep in the centre of my chest, having him like this, about me.)

Al-Amri ducks into the hotel, movements fluid and swift and unobtrusive. He has changed his gait from the way it was on the ground in Abu Dhabi. A very competent spy. He moves to the reception desk and speaks to the employee in a low, conversational tone. There is an exchange or two, then much smiling. He places his palms together and bows to the clerk and turns to us. “This way,” he says. He leads the way through the lobby, which includes a sitting area (on the floor, that is) for tea, several men spaced out on the mat drinking tea from small, square glasses. There is a narrow staircase, then another short corridor and then a small lift, large enough for four people at the most. Al-Amri chooses the button for the seventh floor, marked in both Arabic and English. He is entirely silent until we arrive at the room, number 79. It is small and clean, with two single beds, two large, domed windows, a small bathroom with a shower, western-style toilet, Arabic-style toilet, sink, and bidet. The windows are open with no screens, a faint breeze blowing warm air into the room. It is approximately twenty-six degrees outside and the air is pleasant.

Al-Amri nods to me; Mycroft told him about the device that Duncan gave me, and I perform the necessary scan. Nothing. (I hope it actually functions.) Only when the screen comes up negative does Al-Amri speak. “You should be all right here,” he tells us. “I have told the clerk that you are foreign dignitaries and do not speak Arabic. I have checked you in under my name. They believe you are here for business meetings in the old city. The old city is safe enough, but never let down your guard. We will pass on any information we find through Mr Holmes. If you receive or find any further information on Duncan or Yilmaz’ operation, please convey it immediately through Mr Holmes. Local communications are not safe, even on our phones. Through London we have the secure government satellite.”

London being Mycroft, of course. I agree and thank him. This is no time to bicker about authority.

“Of course.” He waves this off. “You should have enough local currency. If you need more, there are currency exchanges vendors in the old city and automatic cash dispensers.”

He is referring to the cash he gave us in Abu Dhabi, a hundred thousand Yemeni rial, which is only about two hundred and ninety pounds, give or take. If the situation weren’t so tense, John would find this funny, I can’t help but think. “Yes,” I say to Al-Amri. “We’ll be fine. Thank you.”

He nods at both of us. “Good luck.” He doesn’t waste time, just leaves.

John exhales and puts his kit down on one of the small beds, unwinds the keffiyeh from his face, then goes to the window. I set down the shoulder bag I was obliged to obtain and join him, my right shoulder overlapping his left. The view is panoramic and breathtaking, overlooking Al Mithraq and the old city. We can just see the great entrance gate, Bab Al Yemen, from here, and the sun is beginning to set behind the hotel, shadows stretching toward the east. I tug the keffiyeh down around my neck. John leans back into me and I obey some internal instinct to snake an arm around his lower back, hand resting on his right hip. He puts his hand over it, fingers linking into mine. (Overwhelming desire to kiss him, despite the window, despite the tension in my gut.) His face turns toward me, clearly feeling something along the same lines and he murmurs, “Not in the window.”

I make some sort of noise of agreement and we step back until there are no other windows visible, one of the small beds touching the backs of my legs and preventing further retreat, and then John turns away from the window and into me, mouth finding mine. The location is seductive despite the situation and I cannot help but respond to him. The kiss goes on long enough that the first stirrings of arousal make themselves known, but John pulls away with a small groan. “If this goes on any longer, we won’t get anything done,” he says, smiling fondly.

His proximity makes clear thought difficult. “What did you want to… get done?” I ask, eyes at half-mast, looking at his mouth.

His eyes flick down to mine, specifically to my lower lip if I’m not mistaken and I can see the interest in his eyes and in the quick application of his tongue to his own lower lip. “Oi. Stop that, you.” A grin. “Focus. Operation. Did you text Duncan back?”

“Yes. At the airport in Abu Dhabi, just before we lifted off. Sorry, should have mentioned it.”

“Can I read it?”

I take out my phone and give it to John. He reads my text, which said:

Hold on. Going to Yemen.
Will try to find you there.
Update if possible! Don’t
give up.

John nods, reads it again, then hands the phone back. “Good. That’s nice, at the end. I know he’s a pro spy and all that, but he sounded pretty desperate in his texts.”

I nod, still thinking about those messages. There’s a piece of the puzzle that’s missing in all of this and I don’t know what it is. It’s been bothering me.

“Hey.” John’s voice pulls me out of my introspection, though he’s still standing right in front of me. “Are you hungry at all? It’s just after eight. Thought maybe we could go eat something and then come back here?”

Focus. “We could do that,” I agree. It would be better, of course, not to leave the hotel at all, but we do need to eat. A place like this wouldn’t have room service. “Would you like to see the old city?”

John brightens. “I would, actually. I’ve never been to a city this old.”

I glance at him and think of mentioning Kandahar, but from the little he’s ever said about it, it doesn’t sound very large or very interesting, so perhaps the original architecture is no longer in place. “Then let’s go.”

“Do you think we should cover our faces?” John asks. “It seems odd to me, if the other men don’t do it. I mean, I understand, but if we do something that looks out of place, won’t that give the game away anyway?”

“People do sometimes do it,” I respond, considering. “I have definitely seen it. I don’t think it’s as out of place as you’re thinking. And it would be safer.”

He grumbles a bit, but picks up his keffiyeh and puts it back on. “I feel like I’m about to rob a bank.”

“Perhaps next time,” I suggest. “I don’t believe that would qualify as keeping a low profile.”

“Hilarious.” But his eyes are smiling.

“Gun?”

“Of course. You?”

“Yes.” I have the revolver that Al-Amri provided tucked into the back of my waistband. I don’t often carry a gun but when I have in the past, I generally keep it in an inside pocket of my jacket. There’s no equivalent place on the tunic I’m wearing, so I adopt John’s method. The sun is setting, so I leave the sunglasses and put the room key in my pocket. I’ve felt tense since Duncan’s texts came, slightly on edge. I’m just as glad to be getting out of the room, unless John would prefer to find an alternate method of stress release. Tempting as it is to suggest (or instigate; suggesting it verbally still seems too forward or something), the thought has occurred that it would be better to stay on edge, keep my focus. I owe Duncan that much.

We leave the hotel as unobtrusively as possible, slipping through the lobby and out into the busy street. The old city lies directly ahead, the Bab Al Yemen gate just around the corner. Per our instructions, neither John or I say much to each other; we were supposed to avoid calling attention to our English and our differences as much as possible. The silence is companionable, despite my tension.

It’s not only my tension, I know. John has been tense since Duncan’s texts came, too. I’m aware that he can feel my own dread, aware that he wants to ask about it but there hasn’t been an opportunity yet. Wants to ask a lot of things, now that I concentrate on it. He’s projecting suppressed questions quite obviously now that I look for it. He’s gone into soldier-mode ever since the texts, in constant vigilance mode. I can literally feel his alertness, all senses on high-alert to potential dangers. My bodyguard and partner, my personal military escort. (This side of him thrills me somehow, exuding power and capability. It is balanced by what I feel for him when he’s at ease and content, wearing one of those ridiculous jumpers and settled into his chair with the newspaper. Neither side outweighs the other – but this side has an edge that keeps something deep within my libido alert and taking notice in a way I hadn’t previously realised. Think back to Baskerville. Well. Perhaps I had realised a little.)

We’re walking with the throng through the great gate. I have been here before, but I came through the gate under cover of night and left the same way two nights later. Bab Al Yemen with the sunset elongating the shadows like poetic exaggeration, making the old city nearly a caricature of itself, the sun bringing the stone to life, is very beautiful. And with John here, despite the danger, it feels achingly romantic. Perhaps John feels it, too; his hand is brushing against mine every so often as though accidentally, and although the throng keeps us close enough, I know he could avoid it if he didn’t mean for it to happen. (Want to take his hand the next time it happens and interlock my fingers with his, want to find some narrow crevice between buildings and push him into one of them and kiss him senseless.) I breathe and attempt to push down these ridiculous (dizzying) thoughts. It really is comparable to a narcotic, being in love. I crave him all of the time, think about him all of the time. I can admit to myself now that I fully understand the reasons why people commit crimes in the name of love, motivated by love – or love lost. Crimes of passion have never seemed to perfectly justifiable to me as they do now. I understand, not just in theory but with every cell of my body. Of all the many things that knowing John has taught me, this is yet one more.

His hand touches mine again but his profile is looking straight ahead. I deliberately let my hand touch his a few moments later and catch him trying to suppress a smile, hidden as it is behind his keffiyeh. There is an open area just beyond the gate that we’re crossing. I nod with my head to the northwest where a small street opens onto the square. “The souq is this way,” I say, as quietly as possible to be heard above the crowd noise. “The market. There’s a restaurant in there that’s rather good, or we could pick something up from a street stall.”

John keeps close to me as we navigate the throng and once we’re out of the square and on the narrow street, he says, “Perhaps the market. Then we can just find somewhere to sit down and eat, maybe. A restaurant might keep us stationary for too long.”

“Agreed. The souq, then.” I can feel John wanting to ask how I know the old city so well, and can also feel him firmly not asking while we’re still out in public like this. The vendors are still open, will be until dark has fallen. The old city is a sensory experience, heaped spices, perfumes, and the natural scent of old stone and dry desert air mingling together in a heady mixture. The vendors call out to us, always in Arabic. I shake my head repeatedly. To one particularly insistent man, who keeps asking a singular, repeated question to John and I, I demur again and say la, no. He desists at once (it is rude in this culture to continue after a no has been given) and John touches my hand again.

I find a stall where a very old man is preparing saltah, the most common dish of Yemen (certainly of Sana’a, at any rate). His smile is missing several teeth, but is wide and warm. He says something eager to John, gesturing broadly at his food. I’ve eaten saltah before and think John would like it. He looks at me, asking silently and I shrug and nod. He nods back, so I turn to the man and say, “Aiwa, itnein, min fadlak,” holding up two fingers for clarity. He beams and serves two portions into stainless steel bowls, gives us spoons. “Bikam hatha?” I ask, my best approximation at a how much does this cost?. In response, the old man smiles again and gestures at us to eat, speaking quickly and making signs that I decide to interpret as meaning that we can pay afterward. He produces two folding chairs and waves John and I into them. John gives me a look of slight amusement as he pulls the keffiyeh off his face.

The saltah is good. I’ve eaten it before, in as many varieties as the versions I’ve had. This one has the usual base of maraq stew with lamb and beef this time, with sahawiq spice, potatoes, and vegetables. It’s spicy but not overly so. The vendor watches us surreptitiously and sets about preparing tea which he serves in small glasses. It’s very hot and very sweet, off-setting the spice nicely. The people wandering through the market pay us no especial attention whatsoever. I’m aware that John is watching just as casually as I am, not letting his guard down for a second. Once again, I feel inexplicably relieved to have him with me. The last time I was in Sana’a, I was sleeping between buildings, hauling myself over the walls of private gardens and running along the tops of them trying to track Yilmaz. It may come to that again, but we can’t do anything until we know where Yilmaz is going. We are dependent on Al-Amri, Salib, and Mycroft’s surveillance for information, unless Duncan himself gets a chance to text on his broken phone again.

We finish and I stand, handing my bowl back to the old man. “Shukran,” I say. I have an extremely limited vocabulary in Arabic, but at least I can say thank you. He’s thrilled, taking John’s bowl from him and offering more tea with a lifted kettle. I’ve already had three glasses and John four, so I decline. The vendor regretfully proposes a sum of money, possibly three thousand rial, though I’m not certain I understood correctly. Roughly eight and a half pounds sterling for the both of us. I consider trying to bargain but am not sure if bargaining also applies to food, so I just give him a note for five thousand rial and hope it’s sufficient. He nods approvingly and gives back two thousand rial, so I was correct. The extra Arabic study did help in a most elementary fashion, it seems. It’s hardly enough that I could say please don’t shoot, I’m in a position to negotiate on behalf of the British government if we were captured by a terrorist cell, but it’s something that I can at least recognise numbers beyond one to ten now. I thank the vendor again, exchange formal parting words, and lead John back through the souq.

Back at the hotel, we’re silent in the small lift, John still on watchdog patrol. I can feel his tension from several feet away and up close, it’s impossible not to sense, grating against my own internal misgivings about being here in Sana’a again. In front of our room, I bend and look for my white thread. It’s there where I left it. The door opens without incident, and after the mandated two-minute wait, we go inside. I inspect our minimal possessions (my shoulder bag, John’s medical kit with a couple of other things stowed inside) for the threads as John locks the door behind us. Everything is in place. Perform the counter-intelligence scan and when the negative result comes up, I say, “Clear.”

“Good.” John comes up behind me and puts his arms around my waist, his head down on my shoulder. It’s nice. I cover his hands with mine and wish I could reach more of him to return the gesture. “I don’t know how you survived like this for so long,” he says after awhile.

I turn around in his arms then and put mine around his shoulders. “I just didn’t think about it all that much. It’s better having you here with me.”

This was evidently the right thing to say. John lifts his chin and kisses me, which is precisely what I wanted him to do. A soft kiss, then a harder one, brief loss of contact, then his lips are on mine again, mouth opening under mine, his tongue finding mine and pressing in. I shift closer, hungry for more contact, for him. He doesn’t make a move to take it further, though, which is slightly disappointing. Eventually he breaks off and looks at me very seriously. “We need to talk.”

A jagged bolt of worry goes through my gut. “What about?”

He touches my lips with his thumb. “Not like that. Don’t worry. About the last time you were here. I need to know, in detail this time.”

Mixed feelings. On the one hand, I knew he wanted to ask. On the other… “John,” I start, not wanting to refuse him, but not precisely wanting to discuss it, either.

“Please,” he says, forestalling me. “It’s important to me, Sherlock. Please.”

I sigh. “Fine.” There’s no point denying him. I know how stubborn he can be, particularly when he wants something. The sun has set and the room is dark. There is no furniture other than the two narrow beds. I assume he’ll want to sleep separately, as there’s only space for one person per bed. I check the time. It’s almost ten now. “I’m going to get ready for bed first.” It will give me a moment to gather my thoughts, at least.

I brush my teeth and use the toilet (the western-style one; I’m not feeling adventurous enough to try the Arabic-style one) and take a very brief shower, keeping my hair out of the water. I just want to rinse off the sand and sweat of the day. After, I exit with my clothes folded under my arm, a small towel around my hips. As I put my clothes down on the dresser next to my bag, I can feel John’s eyes on my back. (Good. It’s not that I think that this is precisely the moment for sexual activity either, but I want him to want it, at least. To want me.)

He doesn’t say anything, though; just gets up off the bed he was sitting on and goes into the bathroom. I hear the toilet and the sink running, and then he’s back, dressed only in a pair of black pants. By then, I’ve sat down on the bed closer to the window (the one he hadn’t chosen) in my towel. I’ve sent Mycroft the mandatory update. He now wants an update every two hours (when awake), which is a pain but I do understand why. I’ve plugged the phone and the tablet in to charge, briefly glad that Yemen uses the same type of electric outlets as the United Arab Emirates; I hadn’t thought to buy more adapters. One of the many pains of constant travel that John’s beloved Bond movies rarely mention. John sits down on the other bed, two metres from mine. It’s a small room. “I’m sorry,” he begins. “I can see that you don’t really want to talk about it, but I’d really like to know. I just need to know what memories you have of this place, what happened when you were captured. You didn’t say that much before, and I can understand why – it sounds like it was horrific – but I’d really like to know. It would mean a lot to me if you would tell me more about it.”

He’s practised these words, I think. He chose them carefully. He’s close, only a metre away across the space. We’re both sitting on the edges of the beds. I bend forward, elbows on my thighs, hands dangling between them. “It started when I was still in Germany, in Berlin. I had a flat there for a little while. By that point, I had eliminated about eight terrorist groups and a couple of extra people who were associates of Moriarty’s. I was looking for other groups that might have been connected to him somehow, anyone who might have known about the plan to eliminate you and Lestrade and Mrs Hudson if it came out that I was still alive. I had a network of people I would ask for information from time to time, any kind of strange local crime that could have been more than just a local crime, anything out of the ordinary that could lead to something larger. I spent hours every day reading newspapers online, scouring the internet for news. I gained access to the Interpol internal alert page, which was very useful. I found two groups through them. The beginning of this was the murder of a twelve-year-old boy here in Sana’a, in the Musayk region in the northeast.”

John is watching me intently. “A twelve-year-old?” he repeats.

Nod. “They often start young in this area of the world, but it seemed more of an act of retaliation or prevention than of a boy mixed in something he shouldn’t have been. He was murdered in his sleep by a bomb planted under his bedroom window. I thought that if he had become involved with a terrorist group at a young age, he might have been killed in a more obvious way – forced into suicide bombing, or killed in action somehow. He was singled out and murdered. It didn’t seem right.”

“Where were you when you heard about it?”

“Riyadh. I had just finished eliminating a group there. Money launderers in the oil trade with, of course, a connection Moriarty. I was about to go back to Germany when I read about the murder of the boy. I came here, did some investigating, and learned that the boy had been seen talking to a man I later identified as Yilmaz. I decided to follow him for awhile to see if he was up to anything suspicious. I had no idea who he was, or that he realised he was being followed. After three days, I followed him to a house on the eastern wall of the old city. I turned a corner and suddenly I was surrounded. The entire courtyard was filled with his men, guns in every window. They took my wallet, watch, gun, phone, bag. Everything I had, even my shoes. Yilmaz wanted to know who I was, and of course I didn’t answer. He doesn’t speak English, so everything was translated by the man I’ve always thought of as the gaoler. The only other name I was able to learn was that of his second-in-command, Emir. It was Emir who searched me and took all of my things. It was the gaoler who beat me to a bloody pulp. It was very hot that day. I was half out of my mind from the beating and at one point managed to get hold of the gaoler’s gun and tried to shoot Yilmaz. I missed, and after that I was knocked unconscious. Butt of a gun, I think. When I woke up I was in a makeshift prison cell. It took me a long time to deduce where I was, but the gaoler actually told me a few things. Some directly and some unintentionally, that I was able to deduce.”

I pause for a moment. John uses the break to insert a question, softly. “Where was it? Was that the one in Turkey?”

Nod. “Somewhere just outside the city of Antalya.”

“How long?” he asks, quiet.

“I was there for thirty-one days. I kept track. It was… long. It felt very long. I thought I was going to die there, and lose my mind along the way. The interrogations were long and repetitive; counting the days and keeping track of when the sun rose and set every day was the only way to hang onto any sense of reality. I was interrogated at least once every two days, always by Yilmaz and the gaoler. Sometimes Emir was there, and there were always people there for security. When I wasn’t being questioned, they left me seated on a stone bench, my arms chained to the walls. The chains were long enough that I could feed myself and use the toilet. It could have been worse. I suppose it was bad enough, though. They usually fed me twice per day, some sort of bulgur wheat porridge. No vegetables or protein, and not nearly enough water. When Mycroft took me to the Swiss Consulate after the hospital bombing in Edinburgh, the medics told him that I was severely dehydrated and suffering from malnutrition. I believe it. I was weak afterward.”

“God,” John says softly, sounding pained. “How did you escape?”

I shake my head, still not understanding entirely. “They let me go. They asked me about my ‘friend’ Sheffield. I have no idea how they knew that I knew him. None whatsoever. They told me that he’d been injured in an explosion and that was in the hospital in Edinburgh, and suggested that I go see him. It was very odd. I assumed that at some point, I had let something slip, spoken in my sleep or something. I had his number stored on my phone but the screen was locked, not that that would have stopped anyone fairly determined, but I didn’t even have his name stored with it, just initials. I don’t believe I gave anything away in the interrogations, no matter how – ” I stop. I never wanted to go into all of that with John.

His very silence is knowing. “What did they do to you?” he asks after a charged moment has gone by, his voice low.

“John…”

Tell me.

I bend further forward and put my face in my hands. “Water-boarding, sleep denial, standard beating. Mostly just that. Food denial, occasionally.”

“When?” He can barely get the word out, his throat so constricted with emotion.

(I can’t look at him. All of this feels shameful to reveal, somehow.) “January, mostly.”

John makes a soft sound like a moan. “And all that while, I was…”

(Can feel that he’s thinking of Mary. When Mycroft rescued me in early February, he said the engagement had been recent. Is John remembering some horridly romantic memory of himself and Mary around the same time that I was being tortured in a Turkish prison cell? For one terrible moment, I want him to feel every bit as undeservedly guilty as he must right now. It’s awful. There was nothing he could have done. But the contrast in the events is horribly ironic.) The silence grows between us. Eventually I clear my throat. “So, they let me go. Yilmaz tried to shoot me even as I was climbing over the wall, led there by the gaoler. I thought they would pursue me on the road. I don’t think they did, but I’ll never know for certain.”

John swallows (I can hear it), audibly pulling himself together. “How did you get out of Turkey?” he asks, the words forced and pained.

“Stowed away in the cargo hold of a ship bound for Cyprus. Once I was there, I got to a bank and got some funds – one day, I’ll have to tell you about the arrangements I’d made before I left London, but it’s too dull to tell you now – and bought some clothes, a plane ticket back to Berlin. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone back to Berlin where I’d probably spent too much time already, but I needed a safe place to spend a few days recovering. It was familiar. Turns out it was a large mistake, but I didn’t know that at the time. Perhaps I should have thought, but I didn’t.” Hate this, acknowledging my error.

John looks at me and for the first time since I began talking, our eyes meet. “Why was it a mistake?”

“That was when they bombed my flat,” I say, not sure if he remembers this from when I told him before, or if he would have put the pieces together in the correct order. “So then I went to Edinburgh, to check on Sheffield and see if he’d be able to help me. But that, of course, was when they bombed the hospital, leaving me no choice but to call for Mycroft, and the next thing I knew, I was waking in a room in the Swiss Consulate and Mycroft was there.”

“Jesus Christ.” John is shaking his head. “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t even… God, Sherlock, this is the first time it’s occurred to me that maybe it actually was better that I didn’t know you were alive and doing all this, because you could have been killed so many times, too far away for me to have done anything about it. I could have lost you so many times and I never even would have known. Although, I suppose I still would have preferred that to thinking you had killed yourself.”

I look up at him. “I’m sorry,” I say, and mean it completely. “I’m sorry, John. I shouldn’t have done that to you.”

“Don’t,” he says, impossibly gentle after all of the tension in his voice. “Fuck, Sherlock. I could have lost you and never even known the truth of why you did it all. I could have lost you so many times.” He gets up and bends over me, taking my face in his hands. The kiss is long and a little desperate on both sides. He pushes me down onto my back, straddling my hips and leaning over me, hands still on my face. “I love you,” he tells me, eyes bracketed by so much emotion and pain that it hurts me to see it. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” His lips are touching my face, fingers in my hair.

I clutch at him, kissing back, touching every part of him I can reach. It’s not even sexual per se; it’s about needing contact with every fibre of my being, needing confirmation that he’s still here with me, that he still wants this, wants me. I’m nude under the towel, which has fallen open anyway, and John’s in his pants. Neither of us is entirely soft, but at the moment all I need is for him to keep kissing me this way, as though he can’t breathe any other way, as though being separated from me now would kill him. (I am entirely convinced that it would kill me. I need him in a way that outweighs my need for oxygen.) I feel emotionally drained from talking about the gaoler and Yilmaz and the prison cell all over again and just want this, to stay locked within the frame of John’s arms and torso and legs, his mouth on mine where it belongs, forever. Or at least all night. After awhile, I wrestle the thin blanket and sheet out from under me and get it over John’s back. “Stay here,” I hear myself say, not quite pleading. “Don’t sleep over there. Stay with me.”

John nods, not protesting, not pointing out quite reasonably that these beds are narrow for one man, never mind two. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says, and it’s a promise. He settles against me, lying mostly on top of me, one leg tangled between mine, his left arm and torso draped over me, head on my shoulder. I’m trembling with the aftermath of all the emotion and his hand is smoothing over my ribs and chest, trying to soothe it away, to calm me, lips pressing occasional kisses into my skin. I respond as best as I can, kissing his forehead, stroking his hair and back. I lose track of the time, and eventually, we sleep.

***

I wake some hours later, somewhere around four-thirty in the morning, the darkest and deepest part of the night. In our sleep we’ve shifted, John having slid off me and turned onto his side. There wouldn’t be room for both of us to lie on our sides facing each other, but our bodies have worked out an arrangement on their own, mine slotted in behind John’s more compact frame. Spooning, I think they call this. Ridiculous term. My arm is around him (the other squashed under my torso and the pillow), our legs jumbled together. And I have a raging erection which has nestled itself directly into the curve of John’s arse. I inhale sharply, remembering what I was dreaming – it was a torrid dream in which I was standing behind John, who was bent forward in front of me in some nameless room, entirely lacking in details (unimportant), and I was very decidedly engaging in rather enthusiastic intercourse with him. The sensation of my penis entering his body is one that neither my body nor my mind can have any possible frame of reference to use for dream material, and yet I can feel the echo of it on my skin as clearly as though it had happened. (What is this? Subconscious sexual instinct? I really must buy a book on sexuality once all of this is finished.) Surely I haven’t actually done that in my sleep, I suddenly think in a slight panic. Neither of us could have slept through that, could we? But no – I’m fully erect but haven’t reached orgasm, and I’ve evidently been thrusting into that space at the top of John’s thighs in my sleep. I can feel the wetness of the pre-orgasmic fluid smeared between his legs and on the soft cotton of his pants. I must have been rubbing myself off against him in my sleep. How embarrassing, using his body like this without permission or any sort of prior discussion. I’m ashamed of myself, of my body for behaving like this without my conscious volition.

John stirs slightly (oh Christ, is he awake?). “Don’t stop,” he says, his voice thick with sleep.

“John – I’m sorry,” I stammer, my own voice hoarse. “I wasn’t – I was asleep, I’m sorry – ”

He laughs a little, just a huff of breath. “I know. So was I, but I was dreaming. And it feels good, don’t stop.”

(I can’t, though, I’m too humiliated by this.) I don’t move, my penis still awkwardly lodged between his thighs and the cleft of his arse. I can’t speak. I’m simultaneously horribly aroused at the memory of the sex we were having in my dream, which was evidently translated into this strange other thing I was doing in lieu of that, yet too ashamed to continue as directed.

John can read my thoughts now, apparently. “Stop thinking whatever it is you’re thinking,” he commands, albeit still a bit thickly. “Come on. Get your hand on my cock and keep doing exactly what you were doing. I want it.” He moves my hand from his stomach down to his erection, trapped within his pants, showing me his arousal. That it’s really all right. (Well, then.) I cave and obey him then, slipping my fingers into his pants to grasp his erection. To move against him like this feels rather astoundingly good. He’s very hard; he must have genuinely been aroused by this. I think of the dream, of the feeling of pushing myself into him and imagine it now. It’s easy enough to envision; a slight adjustment and possibly some lubrication and I could do exactly that now. (I wonder if that’s something we’ll do at some point.) The thought makes me move faster, my fist jerking unevenly around John’s perfectly-shaped, perfectly-sized penis. From this angle it feels similar to stroking myself and his penis fits in my hand as though it were made to order. (Perhaps sex should be more like this, done half-asleep so that more logical thoughts can’t get in the way quite as much, instinct taking over.) I’m rutting against him like an animal and yet, he’s the one moaning, his hand covering mine, steadying the rhythm, and then my back is arching and I can feel it starting, hear myself gasping his name as bright lights go off behind my eyes, and then it’s happening: I’m coming all over his thighs, onto the thin cotton covering his testicles and my own wrist, and even as it’s happening, John’s body begins to convulse in my arms, semen pulsing out three, four times over my fist and his fingers. It was almost simultaneous this time, I think, even as I hear myself panting, lips on the back of his neck, breathing his name between kisses. His skin is slightly sweaty, salty on my tongue. (Want to run my tongue over every part of him, taste him everywhere. Later, I promise myself. And he will let me. I feel quite sure of this now.)

His fingers lace into mine, both our hands still wet and sticky with his come and I can’t make myself care. His breathing is already slowing back into sleep. My limbs feel heavy and sated with orgasm now. John’s soft breathing is lulling, hypnotising. I let go and sleep.

***

About an hour later, my phone rings. I jerk out of sleep, disoriented, looking for it, and nearly fall out of the narrow bed trying to answer it without pushing John out of bed, either. It’s Mycroft, of course. (Who else could it be?) It takes me three times to unlock the screen with my thumb, then get the phone to my face. “Hello?” My voice is rough with sleep.

“Sorry to wake you,” Mycroft says, all business. “I know it’s early. We’ve got movement. Are you awake enough to take this in?”

I blink, mind whirring and launching into gear. “Yes,” I say, my voice and mind clearing. “Go ahead.”

“Good. Al-Amri’s cover is that he works for the UAE government, which gives him certain access. He made a point of creating a contact in the air traffic control tower at Abu Dhabi international, and they’ve just reported an unauthorised flight take-off. It’s a small plane, a ten-seat Cessna Grand Caravan Ex. It took off just after 6:40am in Abu Dhabi, which is 5:40am in Sana’a. Al-Amri is currently working on accessing Emirate satellite coverage to track the plane. Our plane is to have you intercept the party as they arrive at their ground location. Heat signatures indicate that Duncan is still with them, unless they’ve switched people out, which is entirely possible. Are you with me, Sherlock?”

“Yes, of course,” I say. “Ten people exactly?”

“No, despite the number of seats, we’re seeing heat signatures for sixteen people. Listen, it’s a plane, not a helicopter, so they will have to land at one of the airports. This is the time of night would have been the best for taking off in Abu Dhabi, but by the time they land security will be higher again. It’s still a fairly smart move if they didn’t want to drive all the way from Abu Dhabi. It’s too risky for you to meet them at the airport. First, we don’t know which airport they’ll choose, between El Rahaba and the military terminal further out, but even if we did, there’s no cover at any airfield and you’re not taking on the entire group at once, just the two of you. We’ll track their movements and hopefully find a window for you to intercept them. The plan is to get Duncan and get out, and hope to hell that he obtained some useable information.” Mycroft is speaking as quickly as I’ve ever heard him before, no trace of his usual feigned boredom.

“Understood,” I say. “What’s the expected flight duration from Abu Dhabi?”

“Roughly two hours and fifteen minutes, depending on wind conditions.”

I’m entirely awake now. “How long until Al-Amri has satellite access?”

There’s a pause as Mycroft checks something, speaking to someone else in the room. “It’s coming online now. Wait a minute.” Another pause, then he says, “Confirmed: the plane is definitely following a trajectory to Sana’a. Get up and get dressed, Sherlock. The show is about to roll.”

“You’ll call back with a location, I presume?” I sit up, feet hitting the floor.

“Of course.” Mycroft disconnects.

John is wide awake, though he hasn’t moved. “Where?” he asks.

I turn and look at him over my shoulder. His hands under linked under his head and he’s looking straight up at the ceiling. “Don’t know yet. Mycroft is calling back. But the whole lot of them are coming here, or at least sixteen of them are. Mycroft thinks that Duncan’s with them.”

“Good,” John says. He looks at me. “So what’s the plan?”

“Supposedly we’re going to intercept them, somehow grab Duncan without being seen, and get out.” I quirk an eyebrow at him. “Simple, right?”

John’s wry smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Oh, yeah. Right up our alley, death-defying spy missions. Shit.”

“There’s no one else here with us,” I point out. “Mycroft thought that the more people we had here with us, the more attention it would call to the operation.”

“And he would have been quite right,” John agrees. “So, it’s just you and me, then.” He looks at the window. “It will be light by the time they land, probably. How long did he say the flight would take?”

“Two and a quarter hours.” I check the time now. It’s ten past six. “The flight took off thirty minutes ago, so they’ll be landing around eight. We won’t have the cover of darkness if we’re intercepting them right away.”

“Which also means greater visibility for us,” John points out.

Once again, I appreciate his soldier side more than I can say. “True.”

“I suppose there’s nothing for it but to get dressed and wait, then.”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“I need a shower, anyway.” He looks rueful. “I’d say you should join me, but…”

This time, I agree. “It’s probably best if we don’t distract ourselves.”

He nods, possibly relieved that I’m not put out about this, and disappears in the direction of the shower.

I pull out the tablet and check my email, bring up the most detailed map of Sana’a I can find. I wonder if I can rent a car at this hour without seeming suspicious. It would surely be better to have one; if we can possibly carry out a rescue mission, how else can we get away? Never mind that, how can we get to wherever it is in a hurry? We’ll definitely need a car. I stand and go to the bathroom door. “John?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I come in for a moment?”

“Of course.”

I open the door and go to the sink, washing my hands. I find a towel and begin washing off the crusted evidence of our mid-night encounter. “I think I should try to rent a car. I thought I’d go down and speak to one of the hotel staff.”

John sticks his head out of the shower, glances down at my nude form, then makes a visible effort to ignore it. “Yeah, good idea,” he says. “You think it’s safe? With having to leave names and all that?”

I shrug. “We need a vehicle, I think. Nothing about this plan is exactly safe. I have the credit card that Mycroft gave me when I left London.”

“Does it match whatever name Al-Amri gave for us when he checked us in?”

Smart question. “I have no idea if he gave names for us at all, actually. He checked us in under his name.”

“Oh. That would be good. Yeah, go on, then. Do you want me to come with you?”

I wave this off. “No, I just wanted to tell you I was going downstairs. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Sure.” He disappears behind the curtain again and I hang up the towel and leave the bathroom, dressing myself quickly. I take the room key (and the gun) and strap my sandals on. I’m hoping for a mostly-deserted lobby, given the time of day (now twenty past six in the morning), and I get it. There are two staff personnel at the reception counter and I approach one with my best ingratiating smile. Not the stupid-tourist one, just the apologetic I-don’t-speak-Arabic one. “Afwan,” I begin, not having to feign the awkwardness all the much. “Hal tattahadath al ingliziyya?” I try, hoping that they really are accustomed to westerners here.

The two employees look at each other, exchanging uneasy looks. The first turns back to me and says apologetically, “Only little.”

The other employee moves closer and volunteers, “Je parle un peu de français, si vous le parlez?”

Relief. I can handle French; I cannot handle Arabic. “Oui, français va me convenir,” I respond. “J’ai besoin à louer une voiture, si possible. Est-ce qu’il y a un service pour ceci ici?”

Both employees look relieved and the second positively enraptured to be found able to help after all. He springs into action, volunteering in grammatically-flawed but understandable French to call a rental service (Al Amoudi Top Car, it seems) at once. I ask if I can pay for it immediately through the hotel and they assure me that yes, this is the correct procedure. They don’t ask for identification, but take the credit card (registered to one Richard Clark) and swipe it, have me sign (have to double check the last name and leave a looping scrawl that no one could possibly decipher), and all is well. They assure me that they’ll come up and let me know when the car has arrived. I thank them effusively in French and Arabic and retreat back toward the lift.

John is dressed and checking his email or something on the tablet when I return. I announce my success and John is suitably impressed. He shows me how he’s rigged his medical kit so that he can strap it to his back (with his keffiyeh, in fact) to carry it the way he used when he was in uniform. I ask if it’s necessary to bring it and he reminds me that Duncan may well be in need of immediate medical attention, and for the hundredth time, I’m reminded of how glad I am that he’s here with me. Twenty minutes later, the French-speaking staff member appears outside the door, asking for Monsieur Clark in French. I cautiously open the door and he smilingly gives me the car keys and explains that it’s the black car parked out on the street. There’s more thanking and then he leaves. Now all we need is for Mycroft to call.

***

The instant he does, we’re on the move, as though we both really are Bourne-types who do this all the time. John is calling up the directions on his phone map even as we ride the lift down to the car, as I’m speaking to my brother on mine. We’re on the pavement and inside the rental car in seconds, John navigating as I pull into the mid-morning traffic. It’s just past eight and Mycroft has Al-Amri’s satellite access as promised.

“They’re still on Airport Road,” he says. “Heading south into the city in two black cargo vans.”

I have the phone on speaker now that we’re in the car, so that John can hear. “Got it,” John says. “Turn left here, Sherlock.”

We drive steadily north as Mycroft updates us every few seconds. When Yilmaz’ two vans turn onto route sixty, Mycroft and John realise that they must be headed to the west. John is muttering aloud to himself, fiddling with the map and wondering how far south they’ll go on the motorway and whether we should try turn to the west ourselves. “Mycroft,” I say, “how can we possibly arrive ahead of them if we don’t know exactly where they’re going?”

“You’ll probably need to follow them, I suppose,” he admits. “I know it’s not clean, but what option do we have? This is likely our only chance to extricate Duncan.”

I know this, so I don’t refute it. “Turn left here, Sherlock,” John says suddenly.

I swerve and turn onto Ring Road. “How far?”

“We’ll turn left again, to the south, when we get to route sixty.”

“I have your position now,” Mycroft says. “Black sedan heading west on Ring Road, correct?”

“That’s us.” I check the mirror and change lanes, speeding around several cars.

“Not too fast,” John warns. “We don’t want to attract suspicion. All right, follow the road left here and then we’ll take a right…yes, that’s it. Straight on, now. We’re nearly at the motorway.”

“You’re just ahead of the vans!” Mycroft snaps suddenly. “Good, Sherlock! Get onto the motorway ahead of them if you can!”

“I don’t know where they are!” I snap back.

John takes the phone from me to hold it, noticeably that I’m having slight difficulties holding it against the wheel.

“They’re just north of the intersection of route sixty and Cairo,” Mycroft responds.

“That’s just north of where we are,” John reports as I turn south onto the motorway now.

“Excellent,” Mycroft says. “Now: let them pass you.”

I can see the two black vans in the mirror now. So close. I deliberately start losing speed, letting other drivers pass, then drift into the right lane. The vans are closing in. “Should I get between them?” I ask John.

He thinks about it, then shakes his head. “No. We don’t want to be too obvious. We don’t want to lose them either, though. We’ll just have to stay as close as we can without being right on top of them.”

“Agreed,” Mycroft’s voice says from my phone’s speaker.

The vans pass us, first one, then the other. I’m tempted to crane my neck to see who’s driving, see if I can catch a glimpse, but that would be rather obvious. I’m about to switch back into the left lane when the vans both pull ahead of us into the right, preparing to turn.

“They’re turning onto Rabat,” John says.

“Confirmed.” Mycroft sounds nearly anxious.

“Keeping a cautious distance, then,” I say, turning after them. This part of the city is run down, semi-deserted. It’s the perfect place for a hideout. “All right, Mycroft, I’m hanging up now. We’ll report in when there’s something to report.”

“Good luck,” my brother says, and disconnects without prevarication.

John glances at me. “Yes,” I say, without asking what he’s thinking. The vans are pulling over. I immediately pull over on the opposite side of the street and turn the car off. We’re ten metres back, in perfect position to watch. The first van unloads and from here, I can see Yilmaz. “That’s him,” I say to John, hearing the tension in my voice. “Yilmaz. In the black, at the front.”

John watches him, eyes narrowed. “And the gaoler?”

“Not yet. Maybe in the second van.” It’s unloading now, people piling out. Mycroft was correct; the party consists of sixteen people. Clearly they overloaded the small plane. Or, more likely, had it stripped of the luxury seats so that they could fit more bodies into it. Clever. Definitely something Yilmaz would do. Finally, the last four people emerge. Three Arabs and a single European, bound at the wrists in chains, at the ankles with rope. Duncan. And holding him by his collar and half-dragging him behind the others is the gaoler. The other two men are bringing up the rear: guards. The four of them are significantly behind the others, having got out of the van last. This is it: our one chance. I look at John and see already that he has deduced the obvious plan. I jerk my chin toward the group. “We have to take out the guards,” I say. “I’ll take the one on the right, you take the one on the left. Then I’ll get the gaoler, you grab Duncan. It has to be as quick and as quiet as possible.”

“Agreed, except I’ll take both guards and you take the gaoler,” John says, tense. “We can’t risk them making noise and giving warning. I can handle both of them. All right?”

“Agreed. Go.” We open the car doors at the same time, leaving them slightly open. I leave the keys in the ignition. There’s no one about and I’m far less concerned about car theft than I am about having means to a quick getaway.

The rest of Yilmaz’ crew has disappeared into a rundown structure to the left and beyond the end of the street I can see open country, a spreading wilderness of rocky rubble with a couple of dusty mountains a few kilometres out. Keeping my footsteps as quiet as possible on the gravel road, I lead the way at a stealthy, quick walk, John grim and silent beside me. A completely silent approach is impossible. They hear us the instant before we’re on them. I don’t wait to see what John is going to do to the guards; he passes me in a flash and the instant he does, I spring forward to the gaoler, clapping a hand around his mouth from behind. From John’s direction I hear the hard connection of the butt of a gun to bone (skull, likely), then the soft grunt of the second guard being taken by surprise, and two bodies falling to the gravel. Duncan has tripped as the gaoler yanked him forward. With my left hand still closed firmly over the gaoler’s mouth, the barrel of my revolver pressed to the base of his neck with my right, I twist the gaoler’s brutish face around, leaning in over his rounded shoulder. His eyes go wide first in recognition and then fear.

I smile, my voice soft and predatory. “Remember me?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen

 

“Duncan,” John is saying from somewhere to my left, “I’ve got you. Easy now.”

My eyes haven’t moved from the gaoler’s dark, fearful ones. “Not a word,” I breathe. “Don’t even think of it. Move.” With my hand gripping his elbow like a vice, the muzzle of the gun pushed coldly into the base of his skull, I walk him swiftly back to the car, faster than his limp would prefer. I push him up against the passenger side door and, holding him in place with my knees and forearm, bind his hands one-handed with my keffiyeh.

“That’s it, come on,” John is saying, voice low and steady, encouraging Duncan. “We’ve got to get you out of here. Can you go any faster? I’ve got you.”

I look over my shoulder at him, still pinning the gaoler to the car. “Should we put him in the boot?”

John nods. “We don’t want him in the back with Duncan, do we?”

“No.” I lean forward, close to the gaoler’s ear. “Did you hear that? He says you’ve got to go in the boot. I’m afraid there’s nothing for it.”

“English man,” the gaoler spits. His face is contorted with anger and contempt. “I think you were died. I wish you were died.”

“Dead,” I correct. “You wish I was dead. I’m not, no thanks to you.” John has retrieved the keys from the ignition and tosses them to me and I unlock the boot, which is empty and clean. “This looks more comfortable than my cell. In you go.”

“Go in hell!” But with the threat of the gun, coupled with my own desire to get out of here as quickly as possible, I assist his efforts to climb in none too gently.

“Go to hell. Wrong preposition, I’m afraid.” I close the lid of the boot firmly but as quietly as possible. John’s already in the car, tense and waiting for me. I start the car and peel around, heading back toward route sixty as quickly as possible. “Watch the mirrors,” I tell John.

He didn’t need telling; he’s already twisted halfway around. “So far, so good,” he says, voice full of tension. “Drive faster.”

“Where do you think we should go?” I glance in the mirror and don’t see anything, half expecting a black van to come roaring up behind us, Yilmaz’s long-range rifles firing.

“Somewhere. Anywhere far from here. Not the hotel.” John is shaking his head. “I don’t know, damn it!”

I think for a few minutes, then turn north on route sixty, get into the fast lane and drive as nonchalantly as possible with sweat beading my forehead. John is still watching behind us. I change lanes, checking the mirrors again. So far, nothing. “Duncan. You all right?”

I catch a glimpse of his face in the mirror. He looks like hell, greyish and haggard. “Yeah,” he says weakly. “Thank God for you, Holmes. Thank God. Thank you.”

“All part of the service,” John says to him, shifting from soldier/bodyguard to doctor in a split second. “Are you hurt? Once we’ve got some distance, we’ll get you looked at.”

A touch of alarm comes into his voice. “I don’t want – ”

“He means that he’ll look at you,” I correct, reassuring him. “This is John Watson. He’s a doctor, among many other things.”

The John Watson? The blogger? The army doctor?” Duncan manages to sound impressed despite his condition.

“The same,” John says affably. “Are you all right? In pain?”

“Rather, yes,” Duncan admits. “It’s all right. I’ll be all right.”

I turn abruptly into the university campus and drive through it. Staying on route sixty would be too obvious. Thoughts are blurring through my mind exponentially faster than I’m driving, considering, formulating, rejecting plans, formulating new ones. The gaoler, Yilmaz, Duncan, Mycroft’s agents, where to go, where to go. There: a plan. I increase the speed leaving the campus, exiting onto Ring Road, take the left lane and watch for the turn-off to the A1. It comes and I take the turn without signalling. Nothing in the mirror.

“Where are we going?” John: quiet, tense. But confident; he trusts me.

“North.” I shift into the right lane and follow the curve of the road until it merges into Airport Road. “Can you find a road that leads out of the city to the east, somewhere as far north as possible but before the airport?”

John doesn’t ask, though I can feel him wanting to. “Got it,” he says after a moment, squinting at his phone. “It hasn’t got a name, at least not on the map, but there’s a long street that connects to the N5, with a lot of nothing in between. At least nothing that’s marked on the map.”

“Perfect. Tell me when to turn.”

“I will, yeah.” John’s eyes are on the road, his face set and determined.

There is a thumping from the back of the car; the gaoler is getting restless it seems. I don’t miss the way Duncan jolts in the mirror. “It’s all right,” I say, to reassure him as best as possible. I recall a little too clearly the paranoia that follows an experience like his. “You’re going to be all right now.”

“I’m sorry,” Duncan says dully. “I’m sorry, Holmes. I should have listened to you. They were going to kill me, I heard them discussing it.”

I give him a small smile in the mirror. “At least you maintained your cover and didn’t let on you understood.”

He shakes his head and closes his eyes. “They didn’t get anything from me.”

“Which is why you’re in the condition you’re in,” John says wryly. “On behalf of both of us, thanks for holding out for so long. You’ve done well. I’ll look after you, just as soon as we’ve found a place to stop.”

Duncan doesn’t say anything, but opens his eyes briefly with a look of mute gratitude.

“It’s just up here,” John says to me now, pointing.

I wait until the last possible second, swerve around the corner to the right, drive thirty metres, and abruptly pull over and wait. I wait ten long minutes, just to make sure that we haven’t been followed. There’s nothing. Slowly, I pull back onto the road and drive eastward, looking for a suitable location. Two-thirds of the way to the N5, I find it: an abandoned-looking building. There are a lot of them in Sana’a, particularly around the edges of the city. This one is in partial decay, missing a wall and most of the roof. It will do nicely. I drive the car around to the back side of the building, concealing it from view from the road. Give John a look and a nod of my chin and he steps out of the car with me, assuring Duncan that he’ll be right back.

Outside, he looks at me. “What’s the plan?”

He is in complete agreement with whatever I’m about to propose. This is immensely satisfying. I could coolly announce to him that I plan to drag the gaoler out of the boot and shoot him in the head at point-blank range, execution style, and John would nod, accept it, and ask if I wanted him to hold the gaoler down for it. He amazes me. I don’t half deserve him. “I need to find out what the gaoler knows,” I tell him. I nod toward the building three metres away. “I’m going to take him in there, tie him down, and see what I can… procure from him. I need you to help me get him in there, then look after Duncan. Find out what he’s learned, if anything.”

“Right,” John says. “And after? What are we going to do with him?”

I smile. He’s slightly concerned that I mean to kill the gaoler, but not enough that he would object to it. “I’m going to send him to Mycroft.”

John grins, understanding at once. “I like it,” he says. “I thought you were possibly going to just… take care of him here.”

“Would that have bothered you?” I’m curious.

John shakes his head. “No, not at all. This is the man who tortured you, right?”

“Under orders, but yes,” I say. Not always under orders; there was plenty that was the gaoler’s own initiative. Or suggestion. “Why?”

John looks darkly toward the boot of the car. “Because if you were, I was going to tell you to join the queue. I’d have liked to have had a go, myself.”

The smile comes over my face before I can prevent it. “You amaze me, John Watson.”

He shrugs, modest, but smiling. “I told you that I loved you, didn’t I?” He turns toward the car without waiting for an answer. “Come on, let’s get him out, then.”

It’s a bit of a wrestling match even with his hands bound, the gaoler’s limp notwithstanding, but the presence of our guns helps. We drag the gaoler, protesting every step of the way, into the crumbling building. There are exactly two chairs inside, a low footstool and a wooden chair. “The chair,” I say, and John’s already got it, helping me get the gaoler onto it, his arms looped over the back. John holds him still as I retie the keffiyeh, securing the gaoler’s arms to the wooden back. Without a word, John hands me his own keffiyeh so that I can secure the gaoler’s ankles as well. We stand and survey our work. He’s securely fastened, face thunderous, his heavy brow puckered with frowns. John gives me a satisfied look and nods toward the car. “I’ll be with Duncan. You’ve got this?”

“Yes. Go.” The gun is in my hand. When John’s footsteps have faded out of hearing range, I begin. “So,” I say. “Here we are.”

The gaoler spits on the ground. “I should have let Yilmaz shoot you when you go over wall,” he says sourly.

“He did try to shoot me, if you recall.” I study his face. “Let’s get something straight: you have absolutely no bargaining power here. You are going to answer my questions, as quickly as possible. If you don’t, my friend would quite like to shoot you.” I raise the revolver and heft it in his face. “Or I could just do it myself. Much quicker. Do I make myself clear?”

He glares at me, but his eyes drop to the revolver and after a moment, he nods sullenly.

“Good,” I say. I lower the gun, swing the stool around and perch on it. “What is Yilmaz doing here?”

He hesitates, wanting to hold out, but gives in, eyes on the revolver. “Finding other people in group.”

“Why did he leave Abu Dhabi?”

“Because you send in Scottish man!”

“He knew it was me who sent him?”

“No, but he know Scottish man not alone. He know somebody follow him.”

I relax slightly. “How many others does he have here?” Another long pause. I grow exasperated. “Quickly, then,” I say impatiently.

“Twenty. Maybe some more, little bit. Maybe not so many.”

(Twenty. Good Lord, that’s twice the size of the group he has now.) “Do you know who I am?”

The gaoler looks at my face for a moment, then looks away. “No. Just English man.”

This is a slight relief, but my next question follows hard on the heels of his answer. “And my friend,” I say. “Have you ever seen him before?”

There is another pause, but this time the gaoler’s face looks crafty. He gives a slight nod.

My pulse spikes. “You have? When? Where?” I demand.

“Pictures. Lots of pictures.”

“Do you know his name?” It’s too fast. (Pulse suddenly thudding in my throat.)

The gaoler thinks for a moment, searching his tiny mind for the name. “Watson,” he says, after a moment.

For a moment the panic has me in its grips. It’s real. The plan is alive. They know who John is. They know his face and his name. There can only be one possible reason why: Yilmaz knows Moriarty’s plan. But then my mind clears, showing me the loophole. “But you don’t know my name?”

The plan is only still active if they realise that I am who I am, and still alive. But surely even the gaoler has put two and two together by now. He is doing it now, I can see the thoughts forming behind his small, dark eyes. “Watson is friend of Sherlock Holmes, English detective. You English. But Sherlock Holmes, he is died. He dead,” he corrects himself. His eyes go to my face, narrowing in laborious thought. He cottons on a moment later, eyes widening again. “You Sherlock Holmes!”

“Right in one, though it took you awhile,” I say dryly, lifting the revolver again. “Tell me this and answer me honestly, or you will regret it: does Yilmaz know that Sherlock Holmes is alive?”

The gaoler looks at the gun. He shakes his head. “Don’t know.”

“Come on,” I spit. “You would know! Does he know?”

“I don’t know,” the gaoler repeats, eyes going fearful. “He never say to me!”

After several heartbeats, I decide that I believe him. I let the gun drop again and put it back in the waistband of my trousers. “Very well,” I say. “You’re going to be taken to London and interrogated properly. They’ll find out whether or not you’re telling the truth.” I walk to the doorway and add snidely over my shoulder, “Stay here.”

John is waiting for me outside the car. “He’s sleeping,” he tells me as I approach. “I gave him something for the pain.”

“Is he all right?” I ask, but I’m looking at John’s face, so infinitely important to me, and think that I need to get him out of here.

John nods. “He will be, though the trauma may be a different question. He was tortured, no question about it. His blood sugar was very low, and it’s difficult to say, but he may have sustained damage to his nervous system, judging from his reflexes. He needs a hospital and probably a psychiatrist. And food, but I didn’t have anything to give him.”

I sigh. “I know. We’ll get him looked after, I promise. Did he tell you anything?”

“Yes, actually,” John says. “He was able to eavesdrop a fair bit, though he was sketchy on details for the most part. It sounds like Yilmaz’ home base is in Istanbul, but he rarely uses it because he’s always on the move. Duncan said that he had a base in Damascus as well as the other bases in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha, and Riyadh. Sort of every major city in the region, though Turkey’s farther out. Makes sense, I suppose – he’s Turkish, right, so he’d have a home base there, but most of his trade would be out here.”

“His trade being explosives. Arms dealing, in other words,” I say, nodding.

“So what’s our plan now?” John asks.

I take out my phone and pull up Duncan’s texts again. “Listen to this,” I say, and read the messages as best as possible given the character confusion and missing pieces. “‘It’s Hamish Duncan. Still alive but not sure how much longer. Operation moving to Yemen. Not sure when, maybe tonight. My phone is broken. I tried to text before but I was being watched. You were right, this was a mistake. Please send help if possible. Be careful, they know you’re watching. Find a link to Jack. Sorry I couldn’t do more. I have to go, but it was an honour, Hamish Duncan.’”

“Oh, that’s right,” John says. “He told me that they never found his phone. He had managed to hide it in his pants, but it was damaged by moisture when he was water-boarded. It could have been worse; he was still able to use it that one time, but it was the only time he was alone long enough to send those texts. I have it here, if you want it.”

I hold out my hand. “Let’s see.” John digs in a pocket and gives me the phone. I slide the back off and pull out the battery, search for the embedded GPS device. Dig it out with my thumb nail and crush it under my sandal. Just to be safe. “Did he say anything about Sheffield?”

John shakes his head. “No, nothing. He wasn’t in great shape. You might be able to get more out of him when he’s next awake.”

“He’ll be gone by then,” I say. I take out my phone and dial Mycroft’s number.

“What do you mean, he’ll be gone?” John is asking, as Mycroft’s number rings.

“Sherlock!” He sounds tense. “I was expecting an update before now!”

“Sorry, brother. First opportunity. The situation is under control at the moment, but we’re in need of some transport.”

“Let’s hear it, and then I want a proper report.” It’s not a request.

“Get Al-Amri and Salib here. I have a prisoner for transport back to London, as well as a patient.”

“Duncan?”

“Yes.”

“And the prisoner?”

“The gaoler.”

“Brilliant,” Mycroft says, a rare expression of approval. “I’ll get them on a helicopter now. Text me your precise coordinates once we hang up. What else?” I can hear his pen scratching furiously.

I glance at John. “John and I require transportation to Germany.”

“Germany! What for?”

“Research,” I say. “Hamburg, please. But not too directly.”

There’s a pause as Mycroft thinks rapidly. “I assume it’s a priority. I suggest you take a commercial flight. It would be faster than waiting for me to reroute a military flight; we’ve got nothing in the region whatsoever at the moment.”

“All right,” I say. Speed is of the essence, after all – not in getting to Hamburg per se, but I am rather anxious to get John and his apparently well-known face out of Yemen as soon as possible. “How fast can you have your agents here?”

“They’re on stand-by, as I told you, and are at the airport already. The helicopter is powering up as we speak; I’ve got an agent on the line with them. Given current weather conditions, I can have them there in an hour and a half.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“Now, proper report,” Mycroft orders. “What happened?”

“Not much,” I say. “It was actually all quite simple. We went in, pulled up just as they were getting out of the vans. The gaoler was the last to get out. He had Duncan and two guards with him. John took out the guards, I grabbed the gaoler, we got out. We’re currently parked behind an abandoned house on a road close to the airport. Send the helicopter directly here, we’ll load Duncan and the gaoler in as fast as possible, drive to the airport, leave the rental car, and fly to Germany.”

“You weren’t followed?”

“No. I don’t believe so.”

Mycroft lets out a long exhalation. “Good, Sherlock. You’ve done very well. Congratulations.”

“It’s not over yet.” I look around, an instinctive response I still can’t help. (At this point, I need the remnant paranoia to keep us alive, anyway.) “I’ll send you the coordinates directly.”

“Good. I’ll find you a flight two to three hours from now and send you the reservation numbers. I’ll use the names on your current passports.” Mycroft disconnects.

John looks at me. “Hamburg?”

“Hamburg,” I confirm. I give him my phone. “‘Find connection to Jack’,” I read again. “He meant Jack Sheffield. We’re missing something, both Duncan and I. There was something about Sheffield that neither of us knew. Some connection to Yilmaz. I thought all this time that I must have given myself away at some point, but I don’t think that I did. I was so careful. They knew something that I didn’t know they knew. I don’t know what it is, but Sheffield is the key. He’s dead, so we can’t just ask him. I thought perhaps I would go back to Hamburg, retrace my steps through our operation there, and see if I can’t find some answers. We can now – we’re a step ahead of the game, John.”

John nods, understanding. “Your luck is changing,” he says, looking up at me, squinting against the sun.

“It is.” I look around us again. The last time I was in Yemen, I was captured. This time, we’ve finally outsmarted them, captured one of theirs. “But it’s a long way from over.”

“How long until the agents get here?” John wants to know.

“An hour and a half. Duncan’s all right in the car?”

“I should think so, yes. He should sleep for an hour or two.”

“Then I suppose we should keep an eye on the gaoler, though there’s nowhere for him to run out here.”

John leans up and kisses me once on the lips, just briefly. It surprises me; normally he’s all business when we’re in operation-mode. Before I can respond, he’s turned toward the deteriorating house. “Let’s go, then.”

***

The helicopter lands an hour and eighteen minutes later, just before one o’clock. It’s quick and our location is isolated, but none of us thinks for a moment that it will have gone unnoticed. Speed is of the essence. Meeting Salib for the first time, I shake his hand and we each say the other’s name. Al-Amri is with John, already moving into the house to retrieve the gaoler.

Al-Amri speaks to him in Arabic, harsh and low: clearly a warning to keep quiet and move. He and Salib take him by the shoulders and move him into the helicopter. They’re extremely efficient; the gaoler is handcuffed and strapped in within the minute. John is waiting by the car with Duncan, who is still unconscious when I follow the agents out of the house, so I go to him and together we carry Duncan onto the helicopter. The agents have got a long sleeping mat stretched out in the minimal floor space, the best they could manage mid-air, Salib explains, and shows me how they’re going to secure Duncan for take-off. John explains that Duncan will wake in an hour or so and tells them what to do to care for him. I put the damaged phone back in his jacket pocket. Mycroft will meet the helicopter personally and explain the situation to him when they land.

“Now go,” Al-Amri says to me, eyes flicking over the surrounding landscape. “Someone will have seen the helicopter; they’ll be coming. Get to the airport and get out of here. Go now, don’t wait until we’ve taken off. We’ll fly toward Riyadh first to put them off your scent as much as possible, and then we’re gone.”

I grasp his hand. “Thank you.” Salib next, no words, just nods and handshakes.

John gets up from his crouch beside Duncan and exchanges his own handshakes, looks at me. “Shall we?”

We get off the helicopter and go straight to the car. Without looking back, I spin off the coarse gravel beside the nameless road and set off with all speed for El Rahaba Airport. As I turn onto Airport Road, John points behind us silently; the helicopter is lifting over the houses and heading off to the northeast toward Saudi Arabia. Safe travels, I think silently.

It’s a short drive to the airport. “Where are we headed, exactly?” John asks.

“Here to Cairo on Yemenia, then Cairo to Frankfurt on Lufthansa, then a train to Hamburg on Deutsche Bahn.” I try to indicate my left trouser pocket with my chin. “Phone’s in my pocket. Mycroft texted the flight plans. We’ll get train tickets on the ground in Frankfurt.”

John chuckles under his breath, to my surprise. (Didn’t seem like he was in a chuckling mood.) “I think this is the first time you’ve told me to take something out of your pocket for you since you’ve been back.”

I smile, eyes on the road. “I didn’t tell you to; I merely indicated where it was, for your convenience.”

He shakes his head and slips his hand deftly into my pocket. He does it so gently that it feels almost intimate, though he’s barely touching me. I glance at him and think of Hamburg, of the hotel. Of the bed, and John in it with me. The idea gives me a sense of vertigo, of nervous anticipation, though we’ve now had several successful episodes. Last night’s hardly counts; neither of us planned that consciously. I didn’t know what I was doing. The memory of it makes me flush a little, though.

John’s speaking; I almost missed it. (Can’t help being distracted, if he’s going to go putting his hands in my trouser pockets like that – and while I’m driving, too.) He’s saying something about how we’ll have to check in directly; the flight leaves in one hour’s time.

“Yes, I suspect that was the idea,” I tell him, turning into the parking lot. “Less hanging about where people can see us. You’ll be heartbroken to know that even if we had our keffiyehs, we wouldn’t be able to cover our faces in the airport, anyway.”

“Oh, yeah. Heartbroken.” John smirks. “Where should we leave the car?”

I nod ahead. “Up there where it’s crowded. Less noticeable.” I drive over, slide the car into a space between two other cars and lock the keys inside. “Come on. We’ve got a flight to board.”

The falsified passports raise no alarms whatsoever. (Of course not: Mycroft’s people made them.) We sit in the waiting lounge for twenty minutes before boarding begins in perfect, feigned boredom. It is fake: my nerves are a little too close to the surface of my skin for my own liking and I can feel John’s tension, despite his calm expression. It seems that we are all right, at least for the present. Nothing happens on or during the first flight. No one has asked about our lack of baggage, carry-on or checked. No one says anything about our passports. We may actually be getting away with this side-trip to Germany. I hesitate to even think any way other than cautiously, however; only time will tell. I can’t help but feel slightly that John was right, though. I feel that my luck, if it was luck, has changed. (Our luck, I correct myself. I’m not alone any more. There’s John. For now, at least, there’s John.)

***

Somewhere between Cairo and Frankfurt, John falls asleep on my shoulder. I don’t wake him, quietly enjoying the heaviness of his head there. My shoulder is the perfect height to serve as a head rest for him. (Perhaps there are advantages to being so much taller than him, after all.) He wakes on his own after awhile, apologising (idiot) and wanting to know if he missed a meal.

“No, I would have woken you,” I tell him. “We should be landing in an hour or so. We can get something before we catch the train.”

“How long will it take to get to Hamburg?” He still sounds drowsy.

“About four hours.” His eyes are already starting to close again. “Sleep, if you want to,” I invite.

John nods but doesn’t understand what I mean. I sigh, reach over with my left arm and pull his head down to my right shoulder again. He gives a slight huff that might be a laugh. “Oh,” he says sleepily. “I see.”

I turn my face into his hair and press a kiss into it, subtly. (No one is watching.) “I’ll wake you when we land.”

“Mmm.” He’s drifting.

Carefully, I set my cheekbone against his hair and rest my head on his. My brain is far too active to relax enough to sleep, but it helps to calm me a little. (I can’t take the risk of relaxing; I have to get us away from the Middle East entirely, at least for now. Have to keep John’s face out of their sight, now that I know that they know it. I haven’t told him this yet. It’s therefore on me to keep alert and keep him safe. I won’t sleep, not here. Not now.) I think through our plans and decide that we should stay in Frankfurt overnight. Sana’a was on Arabian time, UTC plus three hours; Cairo was an hour earlier and Frankfurt will be another hour earlier. By the time we land, it will be approximately nine in the evening in Germany but will feel like eleven to us. There will likely be overnight trains to Hamburg, but we could just find a place to stay in Frankfurt and take a morning train. Yes, that would be preferable. John is already tired. The constant tension takes its toll; I admit to myself that I feel the fatigue, too.

The descent began five minutes ago; I heard it in the shift of the engines. They’ll announce it in another five minutes, as though anyone was dense enough not to have realised. It will be another forty minutes before we’re at the gate. I settle into my seat and try to find neutral mind space. It’s impossible; I can’t stop thinking about precautions that we should take, the best part of Frankfurt to stay in, what to do next. If I can’t find a link between Sheffield and Yilmaz in Hamburg, perhaps I should retrace my steps back to Berlin. I spent too much time there. I know that now. I should have stayed somewhere new every two nights. I stayed in Berlin for months, far too long. I had been on the move for so long by then; it was so tempting. Kathrin Reger was kind. She didn’t mind the month-to-month rent, my comings-and-goings. I had told her that I was in a sort of business that required a lot of travel and she accepted it without question. Berlin is large, busy, interesting. A bit like London in that respect, though in no other. Cities have their own personalities, like people, only vastly more varied and interesting than the majority of people I know.

At last, the airfield is in sight. I wake John in enough time to let him wake before he’ll need to get up and walk around and seem alert. The landing announcements are being made in German, waking the dormant German-speaking part of my mind again. Words and phrases and systematic grammatical function slot themselves into place once again. The wheels touch down hard. Everyone is in the aisles. We tacitly stay seated until it’s possible to just stand and slip into the stream of people getting off. It’s difficult for me to stand at my seat, anyway. John follows me silently through the airport. (Hate this airport, it’s unnecessarily enormous.) Our passports are scanned without problem; I exhale a little. Close to the doors, I stop at a Geldautomat and withdraw some money in Euros, give John the Yemeni rial and send him to exchange it at the currency exchange kiosk twenty metres away. (I keep my eyes on him at all times throughout my own brief transaction, then catch up with him, loitering just over his shoulder.) John doesn’t seem surprised to find me right behind him when he turns, though he gives me a bit of a look.

“It worked out to three hundred Euros and some change,” he says.

“Good. That was a better exchange that it might have been. Here.” I give him another five hundred Euros, to his (further) surprise.

“What’s this for?”

I shrug. “In case you need it. Come on. We should see if there are any clothing and shoe shops open in the airport; things will have started to close by now and we’ll be cold. March in Germany is similar to March in England.” John agrees and we go through the dull task of finding some attire more suitable than our obviously warm-climate – warm, Arabic climate, at that – ensembles. Jackets, closed shoes, socks, pants, a pair of jeans for John, a pair of wool trousers for me, new shirts. A few toiletries (toothbrushes – cannot even fathom how many toothbrushes I’ve bought since I left London nine hundred and forty-five days ago), and it’s done at last. Last stop for adaptors for our phones and the tablet and then we can finally leave. Outside the airport I find the queue for the taxis and join it. We only have to wait a few seconds; it’s terribly efficient. Inside, I tell the driver, “Hauptbahnhof, bitte.”

“What’s that?” John asks quietly.

“Train station. How much change have you got?”

He digs into his pockets and checks. “Three Euros?”

“Got a five?”

“Yeah, why?”

“We might need it.” I nod meaningfully at the driver and clam up, and John nods with resignation and follows suit. It’s a long drive into the city, but we’re deposited at the train station without incident.

John looks up at the large arch covering the tracks and starts to go inside, but I stop him, eyes scanning for the sign I’m looking for. There it is, complete with a small crowd waiting. “This way.”

“Hang on, where are we going?” John asks. “Aren’t we taking a train?”

I smile at him. “No. We’re taking the streetcar. I thought perhaps we’d save the last leg for tomorrow. It’s been a long day already.”

John smiles back at me in clear relief. “Brilliant. So where are we off to?”

We’ve joined the group waiting. It’s not exactly a queue, yet there’s a certain order to it nonetheless. This is beginning to feel almost like a holiday, compared to the other places we’ve been, and I am beginning to think that we really haven’t been followed. “A rather nice hotel,” I say. “One with beds wider than a metre.”

John grins. “I see,” he says. He gets closer as the crowd begins to shuffle onto the tram, which has just arrived. “Though I thought we managed rather well last night, despite that…”

Something about his furtive words, murmured close to my ear in the middle of a throng boarding a streetcar when I was least expecting it is so audacious that I can feel my very ears begin to flame. I take his eight Euros and go to the ticket machine midway down the car, purchase two single fare tickets and validate them both. My face is still warm and I know he’ll see it. I nonchalantly turn and face him anyway, handing him his ticket.

He’s grinning at me, and glances around, then steps a bit closer. “I’m cold,” he says quietly, the grin not going anywhere. “You were right about the weather.”

(He’s so close I can barely breathe, now that I’m not distracted by a dozen other rather important things, like keeping us alive.) Force my voice out evenly. “Of course I was right, I used to live here.”

“Here? In Frankfurt?” John’s eyebrows go up.

“No, Berlin. Same sort of thing.” The streetcar is bumpy; John is holding onto my elbow rather than one of the poles. He’s facing me, but looking past me out the windows.

“It’s nice,” he says.

I smile indulgently over his shoulder. (“Nice.” So imaginative.) “It is. There are more beautiful cities than Frankfurt, certainly, but yes: Germany in general is rather nice.”

“We should come back here sometime and see more of it,” John says spontaneously, without thinking. When I don’t respond, he moves back a little and looks up at me. His face changes, cringing slightly. “Oh. Um. Sorry. I didn’t – ”

I breathe deeply and try to make my mouth relax. “I’d like that,” I say, wincing internally at how stiff it sounds. “Maybe one day.” It’s a bland, neutral response, more controlled than the first attempt.

I’m not looking at him and can feel that he knows it, is thinking about it. He moves closer again, closer than he was before and puts both arms around me, turning his face into my shoulder. I stay where I am, holding a pole, but let my other arm settle around his back. No one is looking at us. They’re all just going about their business, never minding the two middle-aged men embracing in the middle of the streetcar.

I listen to the stop announcement. Kaiserplatz. “This is us,” I say, gently dislodging John. “Come on. Let me show you this hotel.”

The crisis moment has passed. John detaches himself and leads the way off the tram, looking around with interest. “Wow.” He sounds impressed.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? This is Kaiserplatz. And that,” I say, pointing, “is where I was thinking of staying tonight.”

John’s eyes fall on the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof on one corner of the plaza and widen comically. “You weren’t kidding about it being ‘rather nice’,” he says, open-mouthed. “But – you can’t use the credit card Mycroft gave you, you used it for the rental car.”

“I know. Which is why we’re going to use the card he gave you.” I smile wickedly, knowing he’s forgotten all about the other credit card.

He laughs delightedly. “Of course! And why not have Mycroft pay for it! I like the way you think.”

“Let’s go see if they have a room, and then let’s go out for dinner.”

John smiles and leans into me as we wait to cross over the plaza to the hotel. “Are you asking me on a date?”

“I don’t know, would you accept if I did?”

We’re crossing the street. “Only on the condition that I get to take you to bed afterwards,” John says, voice pitched low, volume adjusted so that only I will hear it.

It has the same effect as it did before, my upper cheeks warming visibly. “Would you stop doing that!”

“Never.”

I can feel the idiotic grin echoing his on my face and can’t prevent it. I have the sudden realisation that I’m happy, happier than I’ve been for ages. The trouble is far from over, but at the moment, we’re neither pursuing nor being pursued. I don’t know how long I’ll get to keep this, keep John, but for tonight, at least, he’s here with me. Mine. I’ll just need relish every moment of it.

***

I sip the last of my wine, watching the legs skate back down the inside of the glass. I once wrote a blog post about wine and John teased me about wanting to become a sommelier for a week. Even Lestrade mentioned it and I hadn’t thought he ever read my blog. This is a particularly good wine. I suspect anything on the menu would have been, going by the general cost and décor. I let John choose the restaurant, reminding him that our government was paying for it, specifically through Mycroft’s budget, and he rather enthusiastically chose the posh-looking French restaurant just around the corner from the hotel, claiming the proximity as a specific bonus. I frankly couldn’t agree more, though I worry that talking about the night ahead too much will put horrid amounts of pressure on it to go well. I think it will go well. I just want to lie next to him, feel his skin against mine, hold him. Of course I also want the rest of it, but as I’m still less clear on the precise terms of what that rest could entail, it’s a bit difficult to imagine in advance. I just know that I crave his proximity, crave being on the most intimate of terms with him. And knowing that he wants it as much as I do is like a drug. That he wants me, that he could possibly want me even half as much as I want him, is hardly believable. And yet it seems that he does.

I set the glass down and find John’s eyes on me, warm. He’s smiling. “Penny?”

We’ve been talking easily throughout dinner, mostly about Berlin and the other cities in Germany that I’d seen and he told me a little about parts of London he’d lived in during university days. We avoided any potentially difficult subjects by tacit agreement. Now though, I suppose I had drifted into my own thoughts again. I look over at him and feel my face give me away a little, heating again. I open my mouth but can’t quite bring myself to be as forward as he is, to tell him what sort of thing I was envisioning for after we’ve paid and escaped into the relatively safe confines of our own room.

His smile deepens, eyes full of mirth. “I see,” he says conversationally, but his foot is nudging mine under the table, thumb grazing my wrist.

“Don’t do that here!” I say, but it’s a weak protest. And I haven’t moved either foot or wrist out of his reach.

John chuckles. “Mismatch between words and actions. Is he ever going to bring the bill?”

As though by magical summons, our server appears. John hands him the credit card and it’s scanned in the portable machine, the receipt handed back to John to sign. He glances surreptitiously at the name on the card and signs something illegible. Judging by the server’s profound gratitude, it seems he tipped rather generously. I give him a slight smile and pull my new jacket back on. He’s wearing pants now, since we bought some at the airport, but he wasn’t all day (he claims I ruined his only pair the previous night) – a fact which I’ve thought of on and off all day. We walk rather quickly back to the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof, pressed together at the upper arm, though we’ve both got our hands stuffed into our pockets. If we didn’t, I suspect we wouldn’t even make it back to the room and I don’t want to get John arrested for public indecency (German police are as logical and efficient as the rest of the country, after all).

We’re not alone in the lift until the third floor, and despite the fact that our room is on the fourth, John attacks me with his mouth and hands the instant the doors close. I’m gasping into his mouth when the doors open again, an elderly and very-dignified-looking couple waiting. They both look rather put out by our untimely display. We separate and exit the lift, me murmuring something along the lines of Entschuldigung on our way past. John is giggling helplessly and pestering me to get out the key, now. It’s difficult to focus on fine motor skills when someone is not-so-subtly grasping your arse in the middle of a corridor, but I manage it in the end and grab him. “Wait,” I insist, though my voice is breathy. “Two minutes. Bomb check, remember?”

John groans, but agrees and makes a concerted effort to pull himself together. We stand there, only inches apart, both of us looking at the time on my phone. “Longest bloody two minutes ever!” John grumbles, and I can’t help but agree. The minute turns at last and we push into the room, nearly tripping over each other. I swing him around against the nearest wall and use my height to its best advantage, looming over him, flattening him into the wall with my hips and torso, mouth locked on his. His hands are everywhere, roaming over my back, passing over my arse for a grope that makes me moan into his mouth before they move on to my face, into my hair.

I’m hard already and suspect I won’t need to concentrate on staying that way, not this time. “Get your clothes off!” I demand, pulling at his jacket.

He obeys readily, ripping off the jacket and throwing it to the floor, going to work on the brand new shirt directly after. I don’t want to slow his enthusiasm but I do hope he doesn’t rip the buttons off, as I’ve left the thread in Abu Dhabi. I get my own jacket and shirt off and go for the button of the new jeans. John’s hands are working at my trousers and for once he’s faster than I am, yanking them over my arse and down my legs. A hand snakes around the front and grips me hard through my pants and I hear myself moan again, head coming into contact with the opposite wall, which he seems to have backed me into without my having noticed. Feel John’s mouth attach itself to my throat, hand squeezing. It’s not enough, though; I want to be touching him, need to be touching him. And despite my uncertainties, I need to do more than just get him off with my hand this time. That’s all I’ve ever done for him so far and tonight I want to do something more. He has to know that I have no technique, no experience to draw from, which worries me – but then, I am excellent at making deductions, after all. I suspect that the techniques could be transferred to this.

It’s obviously a surprise to him when I pull myself off the wall and push him back against his, get my mouth on his neck, his chest, his stomach, slowly sinking to my knees in front of him. (He did this for me; I can surely do it for him.) “Sher – what are you – ” he’s stammering, eyes opening, looking down at me.

I smile up at him. “What do you think?” I ask, my voice low and predatory. His erection is at eye level, his penis thick and hard in his pants. It’s at the perfect height for this; if our positions were reversed I might be a touch too tall for it to be comfortable for John. I rub my cheek against the hard protrusion through the warm, thin material of his pants, then lip at it gently. He’s trembling and breathing hard, slips of moan coming out on his breath. No objections so far, then. I slide my fingers into his pants from below, up around the curve of his arse, mouth still lipping at his erection through the cotton. I work the pants down, first in the back, then in the front and slide them down his quivering thighs. He’s already half-undone by this, to my partial amazement – but then, I can remember quite vividly how astonishingly, mind-blankingly good it felt when it did it to me. And if he’s done this before (and I’m sure he has), anticipation will be playing a factor. Despite my inexperience, I am suddenly determined to be the best he’s ever had. It’s hardly rocket science. I may know nothing about sex, but I can surely figure this out. Observe. Deduce based on data presented: his reactions. Repeat as necessary. I take his penis in my hand and hold it to my mouth. It’s ridiculous to think that his penis looks precisely the way I thought it ought to, but it does. It looks like part of John. It harmonises with the rest of him. And I like it very much. I cover its head with my mouth, careful to keep my teeth out of the way and John nearly dies, or so it sounds from the noises he’s making. I feel the laugh moving through my body, humming into his rigid flesh, which doesn’t help. He curses, hands fisting in my hair. Not pushing, just gripping.

“Oh God – oh fuck – more, please, Sherlock, please, I – oh fuck, yes, yes…”

The stream of filthy encouragement (command? pleading?) continues unabated as I take the majority of his penis into my mouth, applying my tongue and as much suction as I’m able. Use my hands to touch the parts of him I can’t reach and begin a steady rhythm on him, alternately rubbing his thighs, his arse, touching that interestingly-textured sac between his legs (his testicles are already tight and high and full, so ready – the thought is arousing). He is leaking, the salty liquid mixing with my saliva and the aftertaste of merlot on my tongue. The words begin to dissipate into meaningless sounds, just exhaled moans, bursting his vocal cords apart in temporary releases of breath, his voice rising in pitch. His hips are jerking forward despite his obvious efforts to keep them still, so I match my rhythm accordingly, timing my forward movements to double the speed and intensity on him. The hand in my hair tightens; the other finds my hand on his hip and interlocks our fingers in a death grip.

“Sherlock – I’m – ” It’s as much warning as he has time for. My free hand is cradling his testes and can feel the orgasm beginning from there; I’m prepared for it. I go still, pulling back so that only the head of his penis is in my mouth and press my tongue into his frenulum, massaging it. John gives a grunt that begins from his pelvic floor and orgasms, his entire body tensing just before the wave of release. It’s hot in my mouth, thick but not unexpectedly so. There is a second burst, then a third, and then he’s slumping back against the wall. I follow, leaning forward, holding his softening penis and licking at the last afterthoughts of his orgasm. That was incredibly arousing, feeling him come apart at the seams in my very mouth. Satisfying to see how very much he evidently did like it. I’m pleased, tongue and lips still caressing his flesh. He reaches for me, for my face. “Come here.” His voice is rough, body spent. “Come here, I need to kiss you.”

(No objections here.) I get to my feet and let him draw me in, less self-conscious about the obviousness of my erection, though I don’t precisely want to call attention to it, either. The kiss is long and deep, and after he releases my mouth, John continues kissing my face, my cheeks, my chin, my neck. “Was that all right, then?” I murmur, tone light, but still wanting to hear him confirm it.

“All right? All right? Are you out of your mind, that was bloody brilliant. I can’t believe you’ve never – well, I do, you’ve said, but – and trust you to be so good on your first go – but God, yes, Sherlock – that was more than all bloody right!”

I smile against his lips. “Good, then.”

John begins to push me backward toward the bed. “You, now,” he says, eyes dark with promise. He’s pulling back the covers and it’s foolish that we’re both getting in on the same side but we can’t seem to let go of each other long around to go round to the opposite sides, so we just stumble into the bed perpendicularly, then spend a couple of laughing, semi-awkward moments positioning ourselves on our sides, facing each other. John props himself up on one elbow. “What would you like?” he asks, voice just above a whisper. His face is infinitely tender and open. (He would agree to anything right now, I think.)

I shrug, self-conscious. “I don’t know. Anything.” (What else can I say? He could just use his hand, that would be fine, but I can’t even bring myself to say these embarrassing words. If it were anyone else’s sex life, I would have no quandary whatsoever with describing the particulars of any act, but not – not like this. Not when it’s me, and not with John. It’s too intimate, too personal to verbalise thus.)

John is tracing an invisible pattern over my chest with a finger, eyes following its progress. “Last night…” He trails off, then picks up the thread again just when I thought he wasn’t going to continue. His eyes flick up to mine. (My soldier: I suspect he will always be braver than I am when it comes to certain things.) “It seemed like, based on what you – on what your body started doing in your sleep, that you might be interested in… well, that sort of thing.”

I’m immediately embarrassed by the reference to last night; my erection droops slightly (hope he won’t notice). I look toward at his chest rather than his face, too. “I – that was – odd, not the usual sort of – I don’t know why that happened, precisely, I just – ”

John mercifully cuts off my inane babble. “I don’t mean what we actually did,” he says archly. “I mean that it seems you might be interested in fucking me.”

My mouth is suddenly rather too full of saliva. I swallow, twice, heart rate elevated out of nowhere. I’m stammering. “I – John – I – maybe – maybe not.” I sound like a blushing virgin, God, why can’t a crater open and swallow me?

He looks a bit confused but not put out. “Why not?” he asks, sounding merely curious. “Did I… get that wrong? I just thought, based on… well. We certainly don’t have to; I just wondered if you might want to.”

“It’s too – too – ” I’m struggling for the word. (The problem is that if we do that, if we’re that intimate, I would be giving him my last vestige of privacy, of a self that does not already belong to him. And if or when he leaves me to go back to Mary, it would destroy me completely. I firmly believe that it will already, but this – I have to hold out somewhere, somehow. But I cannot bring myself to explain this to him.

Miraculously, it seems I don’t have to. Not yet, at any rate. “Too intimate? Or too soon?” John asks softly, turning his hand over to drag the backs of his knuckles over my skin. “I can understand that.”

“Not never,” I say, trying to recover my composure. “But maybe not yet.”

“But maybe someday?” When I nod, John leans over and kisses me. “Because I think I’d like to try that, if it was with you. You know I’ve never been with a bloke before. It would be new for both of us, and I – I’d like that.”

I realise what it is, precisely, that he’s trying to do for me, for us: it would even the tables between us, put him on my level of experience. He would do it to reassure me, to make me feel less hopelessly at sea with all of this, because it would be equally new for both of us. And I love him all the more fiercely for it. (He understands me. He really does.) I seize him and pull his mouth back to mine, kissing him harder than ever before, more boldly than I’ve ever ventured, and he isn’t overwhelmed by it – he pushes back into it, into me, pulling me down onto him. His hands track down my back again, rubbing, caressing, actively loving me as tangibly as possible. When they reach my arse, the stimulus brings me to full arousal again, my body frotting against him wherever it can reach. I hear myself breathing his name, holding back the other words that I don’t permit myself to say (not yet), pushing to be closer to him. (I want the day for what he’s proposed we do to come soon, and perhaps it will whether or not I actively decide that it’s all right, but not yet. Not tonight.)

“What about you?” John asks, his voice a hoarse murmur. He moves his hand meaningfully toward the centre of my arse, where it divides. “Have you ever…?”

“John,” I say, lifting my face to look him in the eye. “If there is a question regarding sex and me to which you don’t already possess the answer, then the answer is no.”

He smiles, affectionate, the desire in his eyes undimmed. “I was going to ask if you ever did this to yourself… you know. Used your fingers.”

Feel my eyes widen slightly as the reason for the current location of his fingers becomes entirely clear. “No,” I say honestly. “I never have.” Then add, forcing the words out, “But you… could, if you wanted to try that.”

John smiles again, his eyes gleaming a little this time. “I do want to try, in fact.” He reaches for the bedside table and brings out a small tube. “I put this here before we left for dinner,” he says casually. Lubricant, I assume. I watch him open the tube and spread a generous amount over his fingers. The tube is tossed aside and then he brings his face back to mine and says, lips hovering over mine, “I thought about it all through dinner. Where I want to touch you, and how.”

His words have an unholy effect on me; untouched I can feel myself hardening even further, aching to be touched, for some kind of friction, for skin against skin. Hear myself groan, writhing against him. “Do it,” I get out. “Please. Do it.”

John’s eyes flutter to half-mast at that. We're lying more or less face-to-face again, though I'm leaning onto him. He takes my upper (left) leg and pulls it over his own. My penis is trapped between my torso and his now, rubbing a little but without enough friction to really do anything. John curls his right arm around me and down, skating gently into the crease of my arse, a single finger searching. It feels like he’s breaching the very core of my being when his finger slides within me (and I know that I was right about wanting to wait on fully penetrative sex, if even this feels this unbearably intimate). “Okay so far?” John asks, his own breathing elevated.

I nod, eyes closed tightly, my forehead contracted. “Yes.”

“Hey. Look at me,” John says, still terribly gentle. “We can stop this any time you don’t like it. It will be okay. I promise. We’re experimenting, right?”

“I like it,” I force myself to say as I open my eyes, and it isn’t untrue. I like that I’m doing this with John, even if the sensation is alien and strange. And my body seems to agree; the enthusiasm demonstrated by my penis is evidently unflagging.

John kisses me, long and slow and sensuous, and pushes his finger a little deeper, crooking it forward a little. “How’s – ” He stops as I gasp, pulling away from his mouth, my body spasming. “Ah.” He sounds pleased with himself. “Found it, then. Still okay?”

(Okay is not the word for this – this sensation of technicolour exploding behind my eyeballs.) “Yes,” I say, barely getting the word out fast enough. “God, yes!”

John moans a little and resumes, his mouth on mine, finger sliding in and out. I’m scrabbling at him, hips thrusting uncontrollably against him, trying for better purchase. “I’m going to do another finger now, all right?” he asks me breathlessly.

My agreement is incoherent but he understands that it is indubitably a yes and soon there is a second finger pushing into me, invasive and so welcome. I might be drooling; can’t tell. (Can’t care, precisely.) The stimulation of my prostate is so overwhelming that I think I could achieve orgasm from this alone.

“Come here,” John commands, turning onto his back, his fingers still inches deep within me. I settle over him, legs tangled with his, one knee up near his ribcage to give him better access. (I’m too far gone to worry much about the obviousness of it, of this silent request/demand for more.) He gives it to me, his fingers steadily thrusting into me, penetrating as deeply as they can, and then, while I’m moaning and fully incapable of forming words, his other hand, now free and not trapped beneath him, curls around my penis and begins to stroke.

The sounds I’m making are positively indecent. My body doesn’t know which way to thrust, forward into the tight circle of his fist or back onto the exquisite, agonisingly pleasurable stimulus of his fingers. I am on the verge of full-out wailing, nearly biting through my own lip with the effort not to. I’m breathing too hard to kiss him, panting against John’s shoulder as the clench of my orgasm rises up, tightening around me like a vice. I’m trembling on the edge of it, eyes screwed shut, then John’s hand squeezes once and the orgasm crashes over me, wracking me from head to toe. I feel as though every pore of my body is coming, as though I’m flying into pieces in one liquid rush, the dam gates open and flooding everywhere.

When I come back to myself (did I pass out for a moment? I think I may have), I’m heaving breaths against John’s shoulder, body trembling in the aftershocks of the most spectacular orgasm I’ve ever experienced. I feel too weak to talk, too emotionally turned inside-out to trust myself, anyway. John has slipped his fingers out of me and is just holding my arse, cradling it in his palm, his other hand stroking my back. “Holy hell,” he says, voice not entirely steady. “God, that was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. That was amazing.”

I turn my face into his neck and kiss him weakly. “And it was me it happened to,” I slur, the words half-formed.

He drags my face up to kiss my mouth solidly, quite convincingly. “It was us,” he says after. “We did that together.”

Here and now, in this particular moment, with that specific look on his face, I can almost believe it: believe in the possibility that this could last forever. I have never felt so close to anyone in all my life, never known that such an intense feeling of bonding was possible. It’s all chemistry, I know: oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin. That’s the science of it and I am as much prey to the workings of chemistry as any other organism, but it’s not as simple as science. It’s John. John and I. (I love him so fiercely I can barely breathe at the thought of it.) I wind my long arms and legs around him and think the words silently, breathing them onto his skin.

His arms are around my back, holding me as tightly as I am him. “I know,” he whispers. (What he knows he doesn’t say.) Lips on my forehead. “Sleep. I’ll be here.”

(I’m exhausted; I stayed awake on both flights to keep on guard. Now, after the magnitude of our capture of the gaoler, the rapid escape from Yemen, and this, my body is limp against his. Have no choice but to obey him.) I feel myself slide into sleep, barely aware that I’m doing so, my thoughts full of him. (John. My John.)

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

 

I wake from my brief doze, still sprawled all over John. He’s awake; I can feel it instantly. Besides which, his hand is still trailing along my back. I blink, eyelashes brushing against his neck. “How long have I been asleep?”

“Half an hour, maybe,” he tells me, pressing a kiss to my forehead.

“You didn’t sleep?”

“No.” Can hear that he’s smiling. “I just wanted to… savour the moment a little, you know? It’s not every day that you have such an intense, mind-blowing experience with someone like that.”

I tilt my head up so that I can see him. “Really? That’s not just… commonplace for you?”

John gives a short laugh. “Are you kidding?” When he sees that it’s a genuine question, he licks his lips and gives a proper answer. “No,” he tells me. “There’s a difference between sex which is satisfying, and sex which is full-body, earth-shattering, wall-shaking sex. The second kind doesn’t happen all that often, at least not for me.”

“But it did now?” (Need to know this. It isn’t merely idle curiosity.)

His lips touch mine again. “Yeah, I’d rather say so. First you take me apart with that astoundingly good blow job, and then – well, being part of someone else’s experience is just as much my experience, if that makes any sense. When you came there, I felt like I came again just in sympathy with you. I didn’t, but it was like something within me did. It was a shared experience.”

Now, more than ever, do I want to say those words to him. (Now, more than ever, I still can’t. Not with Mary there.) “But was it as good for you? I feel like it can’t have been, that what I did for you wasn’t as good as what you did for me. That was…” I don’t have vocabulary for this. I decide to say exactly that. “I don’t have the vocabulary to describe that. That was… life-changing. If you were trying to convert me to a religion, I’d be in the queue to become a priest for it by now.”

John laughs, his chest shaking under me. “That’ll do, as far as vocabulary goes,” he says affably. His fingers slide into my hair. “And it’s really not necessary to keep score, as far as all that goes. We’re lovers now. We have sex. We perform different acts on each other and we don’t have to rate our orgasms on a scale of one to a hundred afterward and see who got the better deal. I know that won’t satisfy you, so I’ll add that I was quite, quite well-satisfied with that orgasm. It was so good I was surprised I was still on my feet by the end of it. And,” he adds, his eyes going dark again in the way that I’m finding I quite like, “the night is young.”

I smile at him, a small knot of tension loosening in my chest, if not dissolving completely. “You should sleep, though. It was a long day and you’re tired.”

That look hasn’t changed. “How long did you say the train to Hamburg is?”

“About four hours.”

“Sounds like an excellent time to nap,” John decides. “Meanwhile, this hotel is wonderful, this bed is excellent, and I plan for it to be a complete ruin by the morning.”

I lift my head off his chest and look at it. “It doesn’t qualify for ruin status now?”

“Not just yet. I think we have a little more damage in us.” John stops talking then, sealing his mouth over mine, and I decide to forego my other points of discussion for the time being. He’s half-hard, I realise. He really was aroused by was he was doing to me. As before, his arousal stirs mine, though I think I’m frankly too spent to go another round this soon. My body may have other ideas, though; given time, the phoenix could rise from the ashes. I doubt anything could compare with the orgasm I just had, but one never knows. If there’s anything I’ve learned about John Watson over the years, it’s not to underestimate him.

For many long, rather wonderful minutes, we lie together, limbs entangled, kissing, touching, hands moving without haste over each other’s skin. John is becoming steadily more and more aroused, a process I find fascinating to watch and feel. Fascinating and arousing in and of itself. My body is slowly but surely responding to it, responding to watching that intriguingly responsive flesh hardening, the blood vessels filling, lifting his penis away from his body. He’s moving against me, slowly, not pushing it. I turn onto my back and pull him with me, encouraging it, giving him more leverage. “Do you like this?” I didn’t mean to whisper but that’s how it comes out.

His mouth is still on mine. “Mmm – yes, just like – can I just – ?”

“Yes, do it.” I get my hands onto his arse and feel it contract as he rubs himself along my body. My penis is definitely interested, aided by John’s sure, fluid movements against it. When he reaches his orgasm, it’s almost languid, just a subtle tensing of his muscles and then spending himself over my stomach.

“Sorry,” he murmurs, laughing a little, breath huffing against my chest. He finds a corner of expensive sheet and wipes it away, then slides down my body and begins kissing my testicles, of all things. I shiver; he notices and smiles up at me with his eyes. I’m still only about half-hard and remain unconvinced that I could possibly have another orgasm tonight, but my penis is responding to his mouth, so close by. After a bit, he replaces his mouth with his fingers, which stroke and gently tug at my scrotum while he licks around the base of my erection and slowly works his way up to the head. By the time he’s got that far, I’m breathing hard and trying not to squirm, my penis harder than I thought it could get in so short a time. He takes his time about it, not trying to make the orgasm happen, just lavishing his so-palpable affection on it, on me. The orgasm is subtler than the last when it comes, just a gentle contraction of pleasure. I have just enough time to say his name in warning before I feel myself spilling onto his tongue, within the warm haven of his (warm, gentle, amazing) mouth. He wipes the corner of his mouth and comes back up to join me, settling an arm contentedly around my abdomen. “I love you,” he says again. (He doesn’t seem to tire of saying it, and it amazes me every time, quietly thrills me every time.) “I would do anything for you, you know. Anything, Sherlock.”

There is only one thing I can think of that I would ask of him, and that’s precisely the thing which he has said he cannot give me an answer about, not yet. My silence is more telling than I wish, but he cannot possibly fail to come to the same conclusion about what I am thinking. I touch his hair and try not to say it silently, but I feel that even that, the simple touch, is a demand right now. A request for impossibly more, for promises of permanence that he’s in no position to give. There is nothing I can say.

He doesn’t move away from me, nonetheless. The silence goes on for awhile, and he’s still moving his thumb across one of my flat pectoral muscles. “After you died, I was lost, you know,” he says, after several long minutes have gone by. “I was so lost.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” I ask, quiet. “You don’t have to if you’d rather not.”

“I think I need to, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind. I just don’t want…”

“It’s all right, now,” John says, kissing my chest. He settles back in and resumes. “It was really the worst thing I’ve ever lived through. I’m not saying that to make you feel guilty. I just want to tell you what these past two and a half years have been like. I’m starting to know some parts of your story, but you don’t know much of mine, and I understand that you don’t want to hear about Mary, but there was so much before that, before I even met her.”

I move my fingers to his hair; he seems to like it when I do that. “Tell me.” It’s true; he hasn’t spoken about it. And I do want to know.

He’s quiet for a moment, organising his thoughts. When he begins, he says, “Well, like I said, it’s not to make you feel guilty. Not at all. I just want you to know, because it matters again, now that you’re back. I was… in a bad way after you died. After I thought you died, that is. I thought I was going a bit mental, to be honest. I suppose I had known in the back of my mind, or suspected at least, how I felt about you. I guess I always brushed it off, pushed it away and tried not to think about it. I would tell myself that anyone would feel the same way, being exposed to your constant brilliance, your charisma. People would get upset with you for being tactless or rude; they would resent you for being smarter than they were, but they were still drawn to you. And not just to your brilliant mind, either – I mean, you’re extremely attractive as well as charismatic and interesting and brilliant. I hadn’t missed that. I suppose I just thought that I was falling for the same thing that everyone else always did with you, on top of you being my closest friend.”

I’m listening, absorbing it all. “But you didn’t,” I say now. (It has to be said.) “You never did. That was one of the things that was always so intriguing – and frustrating – about you. You saw through it all, always called me down when I was too far over the line.”

“But you knew how amazing I thought you were. I always said, and you seemed surprised every time.” John looks up at me and smiles, so fondly, but there’s sadness behind it.

(I don’t understand the sadness.) “Go on,” I say, instead of asking. (Feel that I’m frowning slightly.)

He puts his cheek back down on my shoulder and I resume rubbing my fingertips through his hair. “When you died – it all came rushing to the surface. Even before, when I saw you there on the rooftop – I wanted to say it then, wanted to tell you. It all came into my head at once, that it wasn’t just a crush like everybody else had on you. I knew then that you were absolutely everything to me. Everything. And I was about to lose you and there was nothing I could do to stop it, no time to say what I needed to say to you. It was like a nightmare that wouldn’t end. Every morning I would wake up and for a second I wouldn’t remember what the crushing weight on me was, and then it would come back over me like a wave and then stay with all the time like a black fog. I stopped working. I couldn’t get out of bed. I started seeing my therapist again, and she wanted me to talk about you. I couldn’t.”

He goes quiet for a moment and I realise that I’ve gone rigid next to him, hand still in his hair. The words are paralysing me, his pain taking root in my chest and hardening there. (Can’t speak. Decide not to try yet; he’s not finished.)

John resumes, fingers beginning to move over my chest again. “This will sound odd and I’m not trying to claim that it’s normal in any way, but… I would think, over and over again, of all the things I wished I had said to you, imagine various scenarios of how it could have played out, me telling you how I felt and your reaction. You and me in the kitchen, drinking tea. You and me in the sitting room. On the sofa watching telly. In our chairs reading the newspapers. Out at a crime scene. In a taxi. Anywhere. I played it out hundreds, thousands of times. And I would imagine what would come after, assuming it went well, which I always made it do – they were my fantasies; of course I made them go well. Except for the times when I was too depressed and could only imagine you rejecting me. But – ” John takes a deep breath and goes on. “The times they went well, I would imagine the things we would do. I got off on it, literally. I imagined us in hundreds of sexual scenarios, told myself over and over again that if it had ever got to that point with us, I would have done anything with you, anything to you, anything you wanted. That’s – well – I don’t know if imagining an act dozens of times makes you any better at doing it for the first time, but in a way, I feel like some of the things we’ve done that are new for me aren’t, only because I’ve already dreamed of doing them with you so many times before. Of course a professional would probably say that the romanticism of grief probably added layers of gloss and perfection that were completely unrealistic, but even so. Ella asked me once if I’d slept with anyone since your death and I remember laughing like a total crazy person and somehow it turned into crying halfway through. I thought that I’d better not tell her that that in my head, I’d been committing every possible sexual act with you, no matter how depraved, and wanked myself nearly raw doing it – but that in real life, no, of course not. It was a strange thing, I know that. Eventually I managed to force myself to stop thinking about you, because I just couldn’t cope. When it wasn’t that, I’d be lying awake in the middle of the night wanting you so badly I could hardly breathe, not being able to cope with the idea that the world could go on existing without you in it. With the fact that you were gone and that I had to face it.”

(I’m hardly breathing myself. The pain of his memories has seeped itself into my bones and skin and suddenly I hate myself for having done this to him. I think of the snipers and all of the terrorists and gunmen I eliminated over the past nine hundred and forty-five days and know that it was all completely necessary, that I had no choice. I remind myself of all of those lonely, miserable days of having come to realise that I loved him and missed him like a missing limb, an extension of myself, but it doesn’t compare to this. At least I had the interrogations to endure. That almost evens the score a little. I know that it’s Moriarty who did this to him, to us, but I feel the guilt despite that, on a plane utterly removed from my ability to reason logically.)

“It took a long time – nearly two years, really, before I started feeling sort of normal again. I met Mary four months before you came back. And it was nothing like – it wasn’t on the same scale as what I imagined having with you. Even what I had with you, just as friends. It couldn’t come anywhere close to filling the void you left behind. But it was normal. It was nice. She was and is lovely. She understands me reasonably well and we got along easily from the beginning. She knew about you, that you were my best friend, and she knows there is a part of my life that I never talked about, not with her, but she never put the two things together. She just accepted it all without question, that there’s a part of my past that we just didn’t discuss, ever. She always chose to focus on the positive future we were going to build instead. It was always… I hate to call it second-best; that seems so unfair to her. It couldn’t hope to compete with what I wished I had had with you – but you were gone. I was trying to accept it, at last.”

(I understand. I finally understand. I can finally almost forgive him for it.)

“So,” John says, angling his face to look at me without raising his head, “when I found out that you were alive again – God, I can’t even describe it. I felt everything that a person can feel. I was shocked, furious, I felt betrayed, I had a thousand questions that all went to the tune of ‘how the hell could you have done that to me?’, and at the same time I was relieved – and heartbroken – and angry all over again. I should have waited for you to tell me that you were alive yourself, but Mycroft told me after I missed the flight to Abu Dhabi that you were never going to, that you had found out about my engagement and had decided to never let me know you were alive. So I am glad that I went to see you. And that was a disaster. I’ve never had such a confused and upset week. By the end of it, though, I knew that I had to know – that I had to let you know how I felt, somehow. Despite Mary; she didn’t even factor into it, I’m sorry to say. I had already loved you for so long, and our first reunion had been so rotten as it was that I thought I didn’t have much to lose. So when Mycroft texted me your number, I thought it must have been because you’d told him he could. And when you kissed back, all I could feel was relief – and joy – that you had felt it, too. At least some of it.”

He falls silent and finally I will my voice to move again. “I did,” I say, voice slightly hoarse from the hardness lodged in my throat. “I always had. Maybe I didn’t realise how much until the last minute, but there was no time to tell you then. I was in the middle of trying to save your life. I didn’t know it would take so bloody long. I never meant to leave you for so long. I never meant to leave you at all. I never wanted to.”

John lifts his head and looks at me, then crawls on top of me and kisses me hard, both hands gripping my face. When he stops several minutes later, his eyes are wet. His thumb strokes over my eyebrow, his face so full of emotion that it hurts me. “That’s how I justified coming with you,” he says, voice thick with it. “I figured that Mary had had me all that time that you needed me, or wanted me, and this time it was only fair to you to have someone with you, and only fair to myself, honestly, to see if, all fantasy aside, you and I could actually work.”

My throat is constricted with emotion of its own, not the least of which is fear. “And?” I manage to get out. “Do we work? Does it work for you?” (The question is horribly bare, completely unvarnished and raw, my every trembling emotion laid out for him to see.)

John’s brow contracts. “God, yes,” he whispers. “Better than any of the fantasies.”

(I find this difficult to believe – I think of my failed erection that first time in the sitting room at Baker Street, my all-around, prize-winning awkwardness in sex in general, of my fumbling lack of technique, my difficulty in expressing myself in any way, to ask him for anything, to verbalise what I feel for him, my crippling insecurity with specific regard to him in general.) Feel my jaw clench, my hands gripping his upper arms. “Don’t – don’t say that just to be kind,” I say, suddenly near anger. (Cover for the insecurity. Completely inadequate cover; it’s horridly obvious.)

He doesn’t startle at this. “I wouldn’t,” he says, smoothing my hair back from my forehead. “You know me. I wouldn’t. I mean it, Sherlock. And I love you even more now than I did when I was grieving you. And look at us. We’re out here, jumping from country to country, doing things that we really have no business doing, and doing it well enough to merit your brother’s praise, of all things. We’re an amazing team. We’re partners. It’s as simple as that. We work together. We complement each other. We belong together.”

I know that,” I say, aware that it sounds slightly petulant. (Can’t be helped. In the face of John’s deeply personal revelations, it occurs to me that this is no time to be stingy about my own revelations, such as they are. Truth be told, I am shaken by what he’s said, about how much and for how long he felt this way. Shaken and profoundly, stupidly moved by it. And yet – his engagement stands.)

John sighs. “I know it, too, you impatient git. I could tell you now that I’m ninety-eight percent sure that I’ll be staying with you once this is over, but you wouldn’t believe it anyway, not until it’s officially finished with Mary. Poor Mary. I never saw myself as the unfaithful sort, not in the slightest. I like to think that I have integrity, that I’m not someone to breaks his word. But this is just – different. This is you, and you were there long before she was. It’s a chance I missed once and just cannot lose again. I need you. And I have reason to believe that you’re rather fond of me, too.”

“Idiot,” I say crossly (self-consciously). “You know that.”

John smiles, but it disappears into seriousness too quickly. “Of course I know that,” he says gently. “And I know why you’ve been reluctant to put it into words as such. And it’s not fair for me to ask you to, when I’m in the compromised position I’m in. But I do know.”

It takes all of the wind out of the sails of any potential declaration. Nonetheless, my feeble statement is all I have to give him after his years of sorrow, of his half-mad fantasies about a dead man he thought he’d lost forever, never mind that said man was pining for him from across the world at the same time. I brace myself. “I love you,” I say, finally, the words coming out with difficulty. It sounds as feeble as I thought it would, yet it is the single most profoundly true thing I have ever said, of all of my many, flawlessly brilliant deductions, my logical declarations of factual truth.

But when I look at him, his eyes are shining and definitely wet. He says my name and buries his face in the crook of my neck and shoulder and wraps all four limbs around me, arms digging under my back. I turn onto my side so that I can get as much of my gangly limbs around his body in return, holding him as though my life depended on it. (It hollows me and fills me at the same time; how is that possible? That I could feel so consumed by this, yet overflowing to the point of being overwhelmed by it. I don’t understand it – but I feel it. I am drowning in the feeling of it. It is devastating and perfect and he is more than I could ever deserve, and yet to offer him all of myself is the minimum, the very least thing that I could give back. And all I want is for him to accept it. To take me and keep me and never, ever let me leave him again.)

***

A phone is ringing: my phone. (What time is it?) I make to reach for it and realise that I am still completely entangled with John, albeit more loosely than what I last remember from last night. I don’t recall having fallen asleep, just the bone-deep, heart-pounding feeling of being entirely absorbed in him, flesh to flesh, spirit to spirit, pressed together as though trying to chemically bond, his arms and legs twined around me, mine around him, not speaking any more, just drowning in the heady sensation of being as close as possible. I don’t know how long we lay together like that, don’t know whether I would label it as an effort to comfort and reassure, or if it started that way and eventually just became the need for proximity, for physical confirmation of everything that was said. His revelations have shifted things between us. I feel differently now, slightly less insecure about it all. Yes: decidedly less, I think.

The phone is still ringing. (It has to be Mycroft.) John hears it in his sleep and shifts but doesn’t wake entirely. Attempt to extricate myself just enough to roll away and reach for it. Fumble at the screen. “Hello.”

“Sorry to wake you. Shouldn’t you be about to board a train to Hamburg?”

Annoyance helps clear the fog of sleep. “What time is it?”

“Six forty-five in Frankfurt. How is the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof?” Mycroft is sardonic. (Ah: he’s noticed the credit charges, then.)

I look at John and deduce that he’s awake, though only just. His eyes are still closed. (Want to end this call and spend every possible remaining minute touching him.) “It’s lovely, thank you. What is it?”

“Well, I have an update if you’re ready to hear one. I noticed you didn’t check in last night, by the by. I would really prefer it if you would, even if you’re having yourself a night off.” Mycroft only sounds mildly put out, which in and of itself is surprising. He must be genuinely pleased with me on the whole.

The faster he discharges his information, the sooner I can get off the phone and back to John. “Let’s have it, then.”

Mycroft clears his throat. “First off, you’ll be glad to hear that Duncan is going to be all right. The nerve damage that John suspected is not as bad as the neurologists first feared and should improve with time. It’s affecting his left hand but not the right. There were a few rather severe burns on his back and the doctors did two skin grafts. I’m telling you this because I assume John will want to know. The other symptoms you’ll be aware of already, the dehydration and malnutrition, some other physical violence, as well as the psychological trauma. He’s meeting with a therapist later today. Secondly, you’ll be further glad to know that he is precisely who he says he is: Black Watch-turned-intelligence, former MI5 liaison with CSIS, now full-time CSIS. I presume that your decision to not take him to a hospital was so that John could verify his injuries and put to bed any doubts about whether or not it was a cover.”

Trust Mycroft to know my precise reasoning. “That, and we were in a bit of a hurry, if you recall,” I point out dryly. “Beyond the natural difficulty of not knowing how the medical system in Yemen works, not wanting to waste time in hospitals, and of course, security. But yes, that was part of it. Seemed faster to just get him back to London as I assumed you’d want to question him yourself.”

“Indeed, yes.”

“What else was he able to learn?”

“We spoke about what he had already told John, and then he spoke about the operation in Hamburg on which you assisted your associate Jack Sheffield. As I understand, Duncan was not a part of this operation but you later met him through Sheffield when you were in need of back-up while in Salzburg.”

“Yes, that’s correct. Sheffield referred him because he himself was unavailable.”

“Yes.” Mycroft pauses. “We spoke at length about his association with Sheffield, and he says that you must have begun coming to the same conclusions, that there was something off about the operation in Hamburg, which is why, I assume, you’re on your way there now.”

“You assume correctly.” I look at John again. I should tell Mycroft that Moriarty’s plan is indeed live, but I want to tell John first. Perhaps Mycroft has already learned this for himself and I can get him to say it. “And the gaoler? You’ve questioned him?”

“Of course. That was my next point. His name is Tarik Gürkan, and he’s about fourth in the pecking order in Yilmaz’ organisation. Wanted in six countries for extortion and human trafficking, among other things. He’s been with this particular group for four years now. Quite loyal, but not beyond the breaking point. He’s hired muscle, not brains.”

“I could have told you that,” I say, rolling my eyes. “What else did you get from him?”

John is definitely awake. I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, half-turned toward him and he reaches out without opening his eyes and takes my free hand, the one not holding the phone to my head. It’s such a simple thing, but it distracts me and I nearly miss what Mycroft is saying. “…talked about Moriarty, and he didn’t know the name. However, he was aware of the existence of someone he called ‘the big boss’, someone that even Yilmaz had submitted to without question. The ‘big boss’ is apparently dead. Yilmaz knows your name, but Gürkan didn’t know whether or not Yilmaz has made the connection that you were him, or that you’re alive.”

“So he said.” Confirmed, then. Frustrating: I need to know whether or not Yilmaz knows this.

Mycroft pauses. “He also knows of the plan. Moriarty’s plan.”

I close my thumb over the top of John’s hand. “I know.” Two words, yet they make me feel cold.

Mycroft is silent for a moment. “Does John know?”

“Not yet. I’ll…” I can’t find a way to indicate that I plan on telling John without using any male pronouns. John is astute and would know instantly that I was talking about him. (Don’t want to tell him just yet.) “I’ll look after that.”

Mycroft gets it. “I see. Yes, I think you should.”

“Was there anything else?”

(Can hear him failing to suppress a sigh.) “Nothing that can’t wait or be emailed.”

“Good. As you say, we have to get ourselves to Hamburg. I don’t even know what I’m looking for or whether we’ll find anything, but it’s all I have to go on. We may hit Berlin while we’re out that way, too.”

“Keep me informed.”

“I will.”

Mycroft disconnects. I put the phone down and slide back under the sheets. “Mycroft?” John says, his eyes still closed, still holding my hand.

“Mm,” I confirm, slotting myself into his personal space, inserting a knee between his, forearms resting against his chest. Nudge at his nose with mine, angle my face in to kiss him. (It feels strangely daring to be the one to initiate this, especially in a quiet moment like this. In the heat of the moment I can do it now, but this is another sort of thing.) John is so wonderfully responsive, though, lips opening under mine, drawing me in. He shifts closer and puts an arm over my side, kissing more actively as he wakes. It goes on for several rather fantastic minutes, our bodies loose and warm from sleep. He speaks the language of intimacy so easily. (Am beginning to learn from him.)

He pulls away and opens his eyes after a bit, and smiles at me, his expressive eyes so beautifully unveiled and freely tender. “Last night was incredible,” he says, fingers on my mouth.

Obeying some heretofore unrealised instinct, my mouth kisses them without forethought. “Even with all of the talking, after?”

“Even with all that,” John confirms, still smiling. He touches my lower lip with his thumb and then moves his hand to my hands, curled near his chin, and twines his fingers messily into mine. (I could stay here and do this forever, I think. Serotonin. It doesn’t matter. It’s real, chemistry aside. This is love. I am in love, wonderfully, deliriously in love for the first time in my life, and it is indubitably the best high, the best thing I have ever experienced.)

I smile back, for once not taking care to mask it in my eyes, keep some of it back in cautionary reserve. “It was for me, too. All of it.”

“I love you,” John says, and because it still makes my entire chest contract when he says it, and because I’ve said it once and am now at liberty to repeat it as often as I feel the urge, I hear myself echo him and then he’s all over me, hands squeezing, penis hardening against my body. I’m touching it (am incapable of not touching it), feeling the blood filling it, thickening the sensitive flesh, and I decide instantly that I want to try what I did last night again, see if I can’t improve upon my first try. I’m halfway down John’s body before he even realises what I’m about to do. He gasps as I take his erection into my mouth. “Oh God, that’s – do we – ah – do we have time for this? We don’t have to get out of here?”

I’ve turned him onto his back and look up from the cradle of his thighs, release him just long enough to answer. “There are lots of trains,” I say, letting my lips brush against it as I speak. “We can leave any time. Are you in a hurry?”

“No! I just – no,” John says again, obviously deciding to abandon the argument. He grins down at me. “By all means, carry on, then.”

I smile back as well as I can while running my mouth down the length of his erection, dragging my tongue over it and cataloguing the tremors in his thighs. (Every part of John is intensely responsive, so free with its information and reactions. It’s as though his very nervous system was constructed for my personal pleasure, to observe and deduce with pleasurable ease, helping me even through my woeful ignorance of this entire field of human activity and psychology.) Spend a few moments discovering what his testicles feel like on my tongue and inside my mouth (this makes him inhale sharply, spine going rigid), pressing my fingers to that sensitive place just behind, then going back to the penis itself to take as much as it as possible into my mouth. (My confidence is improving, I think: before, I would have felt too self-conscious to either perform or be performed upon only one person at a time, too conscious of being watched in either position. Now that seems less important: I just want to give John pleasure. Besides which, I like this, doing this for him. Emotional complication aside, it’s interesting. Much more so than I would have thought than a sexual act could be. But then, it’s John. He was always the exception to all of my rules, wasn’t he?) He is straining upward off the sheets, knuckles white where he is gripping fistfuls of the fine cotton. I reach for his hand and move it to my hair, silently encouraging him to grip that instead. When he does, the tug on the roots of my hair sends interesting signals to the pleasure centre of my own mind, my penis hardening further beneath me. Can feel my hips twisting a little, unable to resist the urge to rub against the sheets.

John is moaning and not making any effort to conceal it and I like this, too, how expressive he is vocally. He is leaking a lot, the saline taste already familiar. Based on his responses and the small movements of his body under my mouth, I determine that he needs it to go faster, needs more friction. Very well: I tighten my lips and concentrate on repeating my motion consistently, fingers rubbing that place behind his testicles. He’s saying my name (warning; disregard: not applicable) and arching his back as his semen pulses out in hot bursts into my mouth. I swallow, swallow again, keep my lips on him as it winds down, tongue gentle now, until his penis becomes sensitive and begins to twitch minutely. I let it go. John is flushed, sweat gleaming at his temples, pupils swallowing his irises, breathing heavily. “Come here,” he pants, pushing himself up onto his elbows. “I need your cock in my mouth now.”

(If he made me confess, this is precisely what I was hoping for. The way his mouth feels is literally incomparable. Before he did that the first time in Abu Dhabi, I was unaware that such sensation existed. Had I known, it’s quite possible I’d have been less hasty to dismiss sexuality outright.) I waste no time in doing as I’m told, moving up to straddle his rib cage, bending over him to prop up the pillows beneath him to make the angle easier, and as I’m straightening up, he takes my penis into his mouth with a hard suck that nearly makes me collapse onto him. I hear the unplanned vocal reaction that escapes my mouth before I can prevent it, my hips bucking forward before I can prevent that, either. “Sorry!” I gasp out, forcing them to still, though the majority of my thoughts are tangled together because of how brain-destroyingly, devastatingly good this feels. The first time John did this, I was half-asleep and it wasn’t furtive, precisely, but he was under the blankets. It was partially hidden. This feels so blatant, so exposed, my kneeling upright over him, penis disappearing into his mouth as his head bobs forward over it.

He lets me go just for a moment, hands on my hips, to say, “No, it’s all right, you can do that.” He pulls me forward to demonstrate what he means.

“I – don’t want to choke you,” I say, feeling the heat stain my upper cheeks, bracing my hands on the headboard above him.

“It’s okay. I’ll be fine,” John assures me, then gets his mouth back to what it was doing. I’m reluctant to do as he’s suggested and just let myself thrust forward into the slick heat of his mouth, but his hands are pulling me forward, insistent. I try it experimentally, just a little, and discover that there is something about the very motion of thrusting like this which some part of my brain evidently finds quite, quite arousing. John moans again, his voice resonating through my flesh, hands running down over the backs of my thighs, sliding up to cup my arse. The very hint of the memory of his fingers there last night arouses me still further. (I’m not going to last long. Is this all right? It seems like it would be. He hasn’t complained about it taking too long or not lasting long enough, not yet at least… besides which, I’m not certain I have much control over this yet.)

“John,” I manage. “I…” Just then, his hands grip tighter on my arse as he pulls himself into a sitting position, simultaneously pulling my penis directly into his throat. I hear myself give some sort of strangled sound choking out of my throat, incoherent with pleasure. He does it again, then again, palms and fingertips massaging hard, almost painfully into the flesh of my arse and on the fourth one I lose control, hips shoving forward so far that my penis must be halfway to his lungs, one hand going to the back of his head to hold him there. His nose is pressing into my lower abdomen and I’m shouting and coming, completely unable to keep myself silent this time, the spasm contracting my entire body for a prolonged moment as the blood roars in my ears, then unclenching in wave after wave of release. I’m coming directly down John’s throat and this is so wrong, so filthy, so rude, and yet I can’t stop it, can’t move, can’t pull myself out of his mouth. Couldn’t if there was a gun to my head. I am powerless to do anything but ride out the wave, wait for the spasms to stop. “Sorry!” I gasp when I can speak again, pulse hammering through my chest. My penis is finally softening in his mouth, semen still ebbing out onto his tongue. I force my fingers to loosen their grip and release his head. “I’m so sorry!”

John makes a sound of negation, caressing my arse more gently now. He finally lets my penis slip from his mouth and kisses the skin at its base, then my stomach, over and over again. “Don’t apologise,” he murmurs against my skin. “I wanted to do that. Wanted you to do it. I asked you to, as I recall.”

“But I didn’t mean to – ”

“I know. Stop. It’s okay.” He pulls my body down to his, weak now and trembling in aftershocks, his mouth finding mine again. “It’s more than okay,” he says, between kisses. “If I hadn’t wanted to do that, I wouldn’t have. It’s as simple as that. It seemed like you were being a touch too polite about it, so I decided to make it happen myself. And I loved doing it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

His voice is a little raspy. I search his face, pushing my fingers into his short hair again. “You’re sure?”

“Absolutely. And it was nice, seeing you let yourself go for once,” he adds, smiling up at me again. “Quite hot, in fact.”

(Am utterly consumed by love for him. I could die now and be content)

(Well: ninety-eight percent content.)

***

Showered and clothed, we take our meagre possessions and get the streetcar back to the Hauptbahnhof. There is an InterCity Express departing for Hamburg in fifteen minutes. There is another in forty-five minutes, but that one stops in Kassel, Göttingen, and Braunschweig on the way. Happily, I know this system well and it’s a matter of minutes before I’ve purchased the tickets and printed a small schedule to see the list of stations on the way to Hamburg. I give it to John, as I already have them committed to memory. Despite not having reservations, we find seats easily. I explain the system to John, taking care to check with the people across the aisle that there was no one sitting there previously (“Hier ist noch frei?”) and settle in, John closer to the window. (This is intentional. He isn’t shielded from view, but at least less accessible.) The train leaves two minutes later, perfectly on time. John stays awake and interested in everything for approximately twelve minutes before he falls victim to the train’s alluring sway. I’m back in watchful mode and resolve not to sleep during the journey. It’s difficult; the rhythmic rocking of the train is highly soporific and the peacefulness of having John asleep beside me is lulling me into wanting to join him.

This is strange, I think, alternately watching John and the passing landscape, the gentle green hills of Hessen. I’ve never been in such a state of heightened emotion over a sustained period of time like this before, never had to learn how to behave normally and go about life as usual while feeling something like this. It’s quite possible that regular people get used to this after awhile. I’ve never had to. I’ve never been in love with someone before. The previous nine hundred and forty-six days don’t quite count, because the object of my affections was not directly under my nose all of the time, actively loving me back. It’s an enormous distraction, of course, yet we’ve both been dealing with it fairly effectively, haven’t we? I think we have. The moment that we swing into action, it’s not that it disappears, but it seems we’ve both been able to focus on the work and not get distracted by the fact that apparently we both want to have rather enthusiastic sex most of the time. Even if it is a distraction, I don’t regret it. I’m not only incapable of regretting this, I don’t even want to try. Not after we both spent so much time wanting the other, yearning for it in isolation. I think of John’s two years of grief, of thinking he was losing his mind with it, over me. Of wanting the memory of me more than any living person, all of his confused feelings about that. Of being willing to abandon everything he’d been able to rebuild in his new life without me to come with me for this, to try being with me in this way. What he said last night is absolutely true: we are partners. We fit together – I, who never thought I was designed to fit with anyone. He thought he had lost me forever, and seized the chance to be with me when it came. (Think of his openness in telling me all of it, his ability to just lay himself bare that way. I envy it and half-fear doing it, myself. But now I want to. For him, I want to.)

The train stops briefly in Fulda. I see someone smoking a cigarette on the platform and realise with a slight shock that I haven’t thought of smoking once since Abu Dhabi. I lost the nicotine patches there and never missed them. I suppose I’ve psychologically transferred the addiction directly to John. This thought is somewhat amusing. John has woken because the train stopped, but it’s temporary. He finds my hand and intertwines his fingers into mine and goes immediately back to sleep. (This is new. He has never held my hand in public before, and with the exception of his apologetic hug on the streetcar yesterday, rarely engages in public (or semi-public) demonstrations of affection.) If we’re being watched, which I somehow instinctively believe that we are not, then perhaps it would be safer not to expose our mutual liability in our feelings for one another. However: I am certain that any interested parties already know that John is my liability, my area of weakness, and secondly, I am entirely unwilling to dissuade him in any way. I tighten my fingers in his and settle deeply into my seat, determined to stay awake, listening to the peaceful rhythm of his breathing.

***

Leaving the Hauptbahnhof, I feel my shoulders release slightly, only then realising that I feel tense just being back in this city. I never liked Hamburg. Not only was there the whole business of Bülow, the arms dealer Sheffield and I had followed here from Prague, but the city itself never appealed to me somehow. Everything from its miserable weather to the Hauptbahnhof itself. (This is entirely subjective; I realise that many people are quite fond of the city. I just don’t happen to be one of them.)

“You all right?” John asks as we stop to wait to cross the street.

Hadn’t realised he was watching me. “Fine. Yes.” This isn’t enough; he looks far from convinced. (Realise that it will always be harder to fob him off now. He won’t accept that any more. In a way this is almost a relief, for reasons that I’m unable to articulate to myself at the moment.) I give in. “Not the best memories,” I allow. “It wasn’t damaging or terrible, just not my favourite experience.”

“Will you tell me more about it, when we’re somewhere less…” John gestures around us, at the crowds of pedestrians flooding away from the train station. “Public? When we get to the hotel, maybe? I’d like to know what we’re looking for.”

“I will,” I promise. “And that makes two of us. To be honest, I really don’t know. This could be quite futile. I’m looking for any trace of a connection between this group and the other one.” (Assume he’ll know I mean Bülow and Yilmaz, respectively.)

“Right, okay.” John glances around again. “Where are we going, then?”

“Hotel, I thought.”

“Can we stay somewhere nice again?” John asks, lowering his voice. “I don’t want last night to be over yet.”

(I know precisely what he means. But it isn’t. This morning we woke up and it was all still there. The intimacy had not evaporated overnight, as I was half-afraid to find it had done, myself. Surely this morning after Mycroft’s call is proof of that, that we both wanted to confirm it, verify it, make sure it was still there. And it was.) “It’s not,” I say, momentarily discarding my mental map of this area of Hamburg. Cannot stop myself from adding, my voice low, “It won’t ever be. Not unless you – ” Stop, wrong angle. I try again. “As long as you want it, we’ll have it.”

(This is better.) John looks at me and smiles, though there’s caution in it. Can see that he’s still hearing my unfinished Not unless you leave me/stop wanting it/go back to Mary after all/whatever else I meant by that. He touches my hand, a signal I’m beginning to interpret as his desire for greater contact being hindered by the fact of being in public. I look at him and meet his eyes, and a moment passes between us where it’s clear to me, at least, that were we in private, he would have kissed me now. (The thought itself can almost replace it. Almost.) He clears his throat. “So, where precisely are we going, then?”

(Bring the mental map back up. Hamburg: St Georg.) “Just up here,” I say, nodding with my chin. “Approximately four hundred metres. I think you’ll like it. I’ve never seen the inside, but the outside seems promising.”

The Hotel Atlantic Kempinski is a white-pillared edifice and John sounds suitably impressed when we arrive in front of it. They have a room. We disperse our few possessions and I sit down at the small table by the window. All of my previous thoughts about the specifics of this investigation have been fruitless thus far. This is what I need John for. He’s standing by the bed, surveying me.

“You look like you’re about to go into mind palace mode,” he says. “Do you want to be left alone to think?”

“No.” I look over at him. “You wanted to hear about the operation with Sheffield.”

“I did, yeah. Thought it might help if I knew where we might be starting.” John comes over and sits down across from me. “You told me that you met him on your way from Prague to Berlin, tracking this arms dealer.”

“Yes. A man named Reiner Bülow. He led a group of fourteen members. He was very superstitious and feared the number thirteen. Whenever he lost a group member he would become violently unpredictable until he’d replaced the missing member. Sheffield told me that.”

“Tell me more about Sheffield, how you became involved with him.” John leans his forearms against the table and interlaces his fingers.

I skim through the memories, thinking. “By about halfway from Dresden to Berlin, I realised that he was tracking Bülow, too. He was watching them, keeping a low profile. It’s quite obvious when you’re doing the exact same thing. He said he had noticed me around Dresden already. I’d seen him but hadn’t yet made the connection. He was very, very acute, very observational. He confronted me very quietly on the train, just dropped into the seat beside mine and wanted to know what the nature of my interest in Bülow was. He didn’t give the name, just indicated him.”

“And you told him?” John asks, frowning a little.

“Had to; he had a gun pressed to my kneecap.”

“Nice,” John remarks, the frown lines still there between his brows.

“Understandable,” I counter. “I said that I had reason to believe there was something suspicious about the group and was merely pursuing them to gather information. He told me at that point that he was doing the same thing and suggested that we team up. I was reluctant, but he pointed out that we’d merely be in each other’s way and potentially get caught in each other’s crossfire unless we worked together. He showed me his identification, said that he’d been Black Watch, was now freelance intelligence. I said I was freelance as well. I gave him my German name and identification, an alias called Hans Walther. If he suspected it wasn’t genuine, he never said, nor did I express any doubts about the identity he gave me. He had more information on the group than I did, said he’d been following them for awhile and knew that they had headquarters in Hamburg. He wasn’t sure why they were going to Berlin.”

“You said you followed them to an area in the south of the city, right?”

“Yes, Neukölln. An area that’s had a reputation for being a bit of an immigrant area.”

“But Bülow was clearly German, not an immigrant,” John points out.

I frown, thinking of this. “True,” I say, “yet he didn’t have typically German features. His spoken German was clearly the German of a native speaker; there was no accent whatsoever. He was pale in complexion, yet his general features were slightly more Arabic or Persian, come to think of it. But his name, his language, his associations were all strictly German. Even in the Czech Republic he spoke not a word of Czech: only German.”

“So what was he up to in Neukölln, then?”

“Nothing, apparently. He spent two nights in a flat there with his second-in-command, a man called Wilhelm Leitner. The next day the whole lot of them went to Hamburg, all on the same train but no more than two men to a car. The train had exactly eight cars including the dining car, so Sheffield and I stayed there, at opposite ends. In Hamburg they all got off at the Hauptbahnhof and went to their headquarters here.”

John is leaning forward even further. “And then what?” he asks, tense. “And where were the headquarters?”

“Sheffield had a whole plan that was meant to capture only the leader, and, he told me, turn him over to Interpol for questioning. That was all he told me, all I knew of his plan. He was going to rig an explosive to detonate in another part of the building to scatter the rest of the organisation, leaving them leaderless and bewildered. That was the plan, as I knew it. We went in – I’m skipping over the details; they’re not important – and in the end, what happened was that the bomb detonated too early and killed the lot of them.” I look over at John, reading my own doubts in his face. “Sheffield said it was an accident, that the detonation device had malfunctioned. I asked where he had got the bomb and he said he’d stolen it from them. That part always bothered me, because I had thought that the arms Bülow dealt with were mostly semi-automatic rifles, military grade. Sometimes small drones, but not explosives. But there was no time to bother him for follow-up; he had word from a contact in Tunisia and left straightaway. As far as I was concerned, Bülow was one of Moriarty’s groups and I was just as glad to have them dispatched.”

John’s frown has deepened. “Do you think Sheffield meant to kill the lot of them all along?”

“It’s possible,” I reply. “The thought has occurred, more than once.”

“Why would he lie?”

“That’s the part I don’t understand. Have never understood. I tried to ask about it once but only through a text; I never saw him again in person after that. Two or three times I contacted him for information and he always provided it when he had it. Twice he did, and his leads were good. The third time he didn’t. Once I asked him if he was available to provide back-up and he wasn’t, explained that he was dealing with a drug trafficking ring in Glasgow. He referred Duncan then, who was free at the time. It was in Salzburg, a money laundering group that I’d heard of when I was in Vienna. The group was large, about thirty members, so I thought it prudent to have someone else there.”

“That could have been me,” John says, a touch wistfully.

I give him a half-smile. “I’d have rather had you. But these ones knew about you. Knew the plan.”

His eyebrows go up at this. “Did they?”

I hesitate. “John…”

He knows already. Can see it in his face. “The gaoler,” he says quietly. “He knew, didn’t he. Yilmaz knows.”

It’s not a question. “Yes.” I watch him carefully, still hesitant.

He nods, as though confirming something. “I thought as much. The speed you got us out of Yemen after, I thought that must have been what you learned from your questioning. Why you wanted me to stay with Duncan instead of coming in.”

“Duncan needed you.”

“I know,” John says gently. He unlocks his hands and turns them palm upward, beckoning for mine. When I’ve put my hands in his, he goes on. “I figured as much. But listen, Sherlock. If Yilmaz finds out that Sherlock Holmes is alive and puts two and two together and figures out that you’re him, you’re just as dead as I am. We’re in this together, remember? You’ve got to let me protect you as much as you protect me. That’s how this works.”

I nod slowly. (He’s perfectly right, of course. I can’t treat him as a partner and yet be trying to treat him as a victim in need of protection at the same time. Still.) “Yes. All right. I should have told you. I was always going to. I just wanted to wait for the right moment.”

He nods, accepting this. “Good. So, what do we have to go on? What’s the connection between what happened here and Yilmaz?”

“That’s precisely what we need to find out. I thought perhaps we’d go to what’s left of their headquarters and have a look around. There won’t be much, in all likelihood. It happened eight or nine months ago now. The police will have been in, and German police tend to be very thorough.”

“But what police are as thorough as you?” John smiles and gets to his feet. “Well, come on, then. Where were their headquarters?”

I go to the tablet and turn it on, then call up a map of Hamburg so that John can see. “Here,” I say, pointing. “It was an abandoned factory – or perhaps they owned it, I don’t know – in an area called Wilhelmsburg. Close to the river.”

“Hmm,” John says. “Sounds familiar.”

I straighten and look at him, pieces clicking into place that I had never thought of previously, possibly because the last time I was here, I didn’t know of Yilmaz and his patterns yet. “On the water! John, you’re a genius!”

He looks confused. “Am I? How so? I just thought it was a typical getaway plan.”

“It’s Yilmaz’ typical pattern, not Bülow’s. You’re right, it’s right on the Elbe, or the Südelbe here. And the Elbe flows northwest from the Czech Republic, from a convergence of the Labe and the Vltava, which flows directly north through Prague. Of course they stayed here. It doesn’t change anything, but it makes so much sense. You’re brilliant.”

John grins, looking pleased with himself. “But then why was he using Yilmaz’ set-up? Or does every terrorist super-villain think that way?”

Shrug. “Could be. I don’t know.”

“Or maybe they’re friends,” John says. “Or not friends, but maybe business associates. It’s a long shot, but they’re both arms dealers, right? Maybe they had trade deals?”

I blink, then lunge at him and grip him by the shoulders. “You are the most brilliant man I’ve ever met,” I proclaim into his startled face. “This is why I needed you with me. That’s perfect. They must have known each other. That must the link. But how does it all fit together? Where did Sheffield come into all of this?”

John’s flushed and looking rather pleased with himself. “I don’t know. Let’s go to the factory and see. How do we get there?”

I think. “Sheffield hired a car, said a taxi was too dangerous.” I check the S-Bahn lines. “Let’s take a taxi. It’s too far from the S-Bahn, and the operation hasn’t been there in ages.”

“Could be dangerous, and we left our guns in the car in Sana’a, remember?” John warns, but he’s already patting down his pockets to make sure he’s got everything. “Let’s go.”

***

I’m correct in thinking that there wouldn’t be much left. I walk John around the site, describing where Sheffield and I had waited, where we had split up. My shock when the building exploded perhaps two metres from where I stood. John asks if I think that Sheffield was trying to kill me, too. That thought had also occurred, but I never thought so. He had had many opportunities to kill me before then, had he been untrustworthy, and hadn’t taken them. We walk through the rubble. The walls of the factory aren’t even there any more. It’s all concrete chunks, metallic rubbish, and occasional pieces of dried bone.

As we make our way through the wreckage, John stoops and tugs at something that catches his eye.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Not sure. Part of someone’s clothing, I think.” He shifts a few more pieces of rubble until he’s got it free. “Yeah. Trousers. There’s a pocket here.” He digs into it and removes a small slip of paper. His eyebrows go up and he comes over and hands it to me. “Phone number, I think.”

I take it from him and read the number. +49: German number. Berlin prefix. It looks familiar somehow. I’ve dialled it before, I’m certain of it. Berlin. Who would I have called in Berlin? And then it comes to me. I look at the crumpled piece of paper again and the pieces slot themselves into place. Yes.

Kathrin Reger. My landlady.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

 

“What do you mean, ‘not now’?” I demand into the phone.

John looks over at me, concerned. We’re back at the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski, trying to make plans, and my beloved brother is stalling me. “I said, not now,” he repeats at the other end of the line, annoyed. “I may have a situation here, Sherlock.”

I have a situation,” I snap back. “What’s going on that’s more important? This may have been the source of the leak, ever since I escaped from Turkey. Why my flat in Berlin was bombed. All of that.”

Mycroft sighs heavily. “Have you forgotten the meaning of the phrase ‘this is a bad time, call me later’, by any chance?”

I refuse to budge. “What is your ‘situation’?” I repeat. “Tell me. This is supposed to be my operation, if you recall.”

He is pacing; I can hear the click of his heels on the floor. He stops now, probably pinching the bridge of his nose. “I would simply rather wait until our data is complete. However, if you insist on knowing right this instant, it seems that I have a missing agent. It may be connected to your situation, which is why you need to stay in Hamburg for the time being.”

Confusion. “What? Related how?”

“Christ, Sherlock!” (Mycroft rarely employs expletives. He must be well and truly frustrated.) “That’s what I was waiting to have an explanation for!”

“No. Tell me what you know,” I order, glancing at John, who has his hands on his hips, eyebrows making worried brackets around his eyes.

Mycroft sighs again. “This may be pure coincidence, but this is what I’ve got at the moment: an agent has gone missing, and – possibly by pure happenstance – there has been an unauthorised take-off at the Abu Dhabi airport. It was reported about two hours ago but the take-off was more like six hours ago. So far we have no information on the make or model of the missing aircraft, just that it’s small. The airport staff are literally going through inventory as we speak. Secondly, an unidentified aircraft was spotted approximately one hour ago in Turkish airspace above Istanbul. Its vector does not correspond with any scheduled flight path, commercial or charter. The operator refused to acknowledge hailing attempts from Istanbul air traffic control. There was an earlier sighting of an unidentified craft just over Aleppo, Syria about forty-five minutes before that, same story. It’s possible that it’s multiple planes but it makes sense for it to be the rogue flight out of Abu Dhabi.”

I take this in, pulling up a mental map of Persia, Asia Minor, Europe, trace the trajectory of the flight. “So the trajectory is consistent with a flight path from Abu Dhabi to Germany, would you say?”

“To north-eastern Germany specifically, yes, or any point before or beyond. Berlin is a likely possibility, if this is connected to your operation. Of course it’s too far out to tell at this point. I’m monitoring any and all suspicious or unsanctioned flight activity from Istanbul and all points surrounding it to track the flight.”

“Which agent is missing?”

“Al-Amri.” Mycroft is grim.

“Shit!” It’s involuntary. (I also rarely use invectives. So crude.) Peripherally, John’s concern has just grown exponentially. (Can feel the protective soldier vibes from here. I wish he still had his gun if only to calm him, but we could hardly fly with them out of Yemen.)

“My thoughts precisely,” Mycroft says dryly. “So either he’s the leak, he’s been compromised somehow and is abandoning the mission with plans to report later – which is the most optimistic hope – or he’s been abducted. Salib said that he missed a check-in, but that they normally gave each other an hour’s leeway. Both their positions are sensitive enough that sometimes meeting a check-in point is impossible. After two hours, he grew worried, followed protocol, and contacted me. He claims to be absolutely certain of Al-Amri’s integrity, but it would hardly be the first time an MI5 agent has gone rogue without his partner’s awareness. I won’t conceal from you that I am very concerned. Al-Amri knows too much to defect or be taken prisoner. Meanwhile, given your current link to Berlin, it seems likely that the operator of the aircraft is headed there, and until I can confirm that Al-Amri’s disappearance is indeed linked to the missing plane – which it may not be in any way whatsoever – I would prefer you to stay away from Berlin until I can give you more reliable information. Now will you allow me to do precisely that?”

Slightly chastened (doesn’t matter; I still would have preferred to know this now rather than later), I agree. “Yes. Go ahead. Thank you for filling me in.”

Disgruntled, Mycroft ends the call without another word. (Typical.)

“What is it?” John is standing at my elbow.

I look up at him, put the phone down on the small table by the window and put my other hand on the back of his thigh. “Trouble,” I tell him. “Possibly very large trouble.” I explain, filling in the parts John wasn’t able to glean from hearing my end of the call. “We’re to stay here until Mycroft knows more.” I make an effort to lighten my tone. “Looks like date night just got extended.”

That was intended to make him smile but it doesn’t work. John’s brows come together in a slight scowl. “Why wasn’t he going to tell us?”

“He wanted to wait until he knew more and had confirmed it,” I say, shrugging. (John isn’t responding to my touch. I let my hand fall away, disappointed and suddenly feeling defensive about it.)

John doesn’t notice. Instead, he takes a few steps away, agitated. “Why?” he demands, to no one in particular, it would seem. “Why Al-Amri? If he’s a spy, he could have sold us out back in Sana’a – we were totally in his hands then!”

(Still feel rebuffed. Had hoped that he would be a little happier about not rushing off to Berlin to confront my former landlady, that we will be able to stay here tonight after all. Although, I consider that he is quite good at staying focused despite emotional entanglements and remind myself that this is an excellent quality. No need to take it personally. Still.) “Perhaps he didn’t have the right sorts of contacts in Sana’a. I’m sure that Moriarty would have left a bounty on your head, and possibly mine, too, should it become known that I was alive. Perhaps he’s not interested in collecting the bounty, but selling leads to the right bidders.”

John stops and looks at me. “Do you think he is on his way to Berlin?”

“It’s too early in the flight path to tell the final destination for certain. And we don’t know yet if that’s him in the plane.”

“But what do you think?” he persists.

“I don’t know. It’s always a mistake to theorise with incomplete data. We have no choice but to wait for Mycroft to find more information. He’s right; it would be foolish to rush into a situation with unknown variables.” I’m speaking to the wall, voice emotionless and flat.

“I thought he was okay,” John says. “I really did.”

He sounds disappointed. I think of John in Sana’a, taciturn in the helicopter and then the car with Al-Amri, barely speaking to him. If that was John thinking of someone as “okay”, I would truly interested in seeing him react to someone he thought was a spy or a traitor.

He comes over now and puts himself in front of me, in my line of vision. “I’m sorry,” he says, not explaining what he’s apologising for, but then he adds, “I hope it’s something else. I hope it’s not connected to the missing flight at all.”

“So do I,” I say. “Maybe it is.” (I think this highly unlikely and know that I failed to make it sound convincing.)

John sees through it as I knew he would, but he puts his hands on the arms of my chair and bends down to kiss me briefly. “You don’t think that,” he says. “You’re trying to make me feel better. Who would have ever thought I’d see the day?”

(Feel slightly reassured. Wish that I could stop doubting it, but with a two percent margin of error, doubt is a mandatory pre-existing variable.) “Things change, I suppose.”

“Is this what it was always like for you?” John asks, curious. “A lot of crazy action and then sitting around waiting for information?”

“Sometimes,” I say. “I didn’t have anyone on the outside except for the small network of people I could go to for information. Most of the time the down times were for research or equipping myself, or in many cases, setting up new identities, sorting out funds, buying new electronics. Phones, computers. Toothbrushes. Clothes. Luggage. You’ve no idea how many times I’ve had to replace everything.”

“Expensive,” John comments.

“I was prepared for that. Listen,” I say, bending forward and changing tacks slightly. “This is what we’re going to do: we’re going to give Mycroft until morning to give us more information about the flight and Al-Amri and then we’re going to Berlin to do our own research. There’s only so much he can know from London, anyway.”

John straightens up and looks at me, very serious. “All right,” he says.

I meet his eyes evenly. “You’re fine with that? You wouldn’t rather wait?”

John gestures vaguely with his hands. “I follow your lead. You know that. This has been your operation since the beginning.”

I stand and pin him with my gaze. He is unwavering, unfaltering. He means it. He would follow me anywhere I asked, or told him to without a trace of doubt – or better still, in spite of any doubts he might have. I take his face in my hands and bend over him, kissing him firmly. (Definitely the first time I’ve initiated something of this nature in broad daylight, completely out in the open, as it were.) John makes a slightly surprised sound at first but immediately responds, kissing back and evidently deciding to forgo his questions. After a moment I feel his arms around my back. When it ends, I become aware that my pulse is racing, that I’m short of breath. I’m still holding his face. (Should say something.) “I don’t deserve you, John Watson,” is what finally comes out of my mouth.

His eyes widen for a split second (surprise again?) and then he smiles. “True. But I chose this, didn’t I?”

(This, he chose this, not me. He hasn’t chosen me. Not yet. (Yet?) But he did choose to be here with me for this. That bit is true.) “What time is it?” I ask him. We arrived in Hamburg just after two in the afternoon. The trip to the wreckage site on the Südelbe must have taken at least a couple of hours and we didn’t leave the hotel right away. I’ve lost track of the time.

John checks his phone. “A little after seven. Are you hungry?”

I’m not, particularly, but it would please him if I ate. I probably should, anyway. (A stray memory clicks: sitting in my cell in Antalya, thinking that I would try not to take eating for granted in the future. That John would like it if I made that effort. I remember trying to stifle the thought of John at the time.) “Yes,” I say. “Let’s have dinner.”

John smiles again. “Same conditions as last night,” he says, his tone warning, but there’s a trace of his sly humour beneath it.

(I remember perfectly well without the reminder.) Smile back, make my tone arch. “That you get to take me to bed after? Deal.”

There’s a silent moment that passes between us. I feel certain that he is thinking exactly what I am: this may be the beginning of the big dénouement. The showdown. This could be our last night in relative safety. It could be the last night of the operation, depending on what happens in Berlin, and we both know that once this operation is over, this bubble of John having an excuse to stay with me is over and he will be forced to make a real decision. Either way, there is a lot riding on this and it could be a last chance of sorts. He or I could be killed. The entire situation in Berlin is dangerous, very dangerous, with far too many unknown factors. (But there is no alternative; the only option is forward movement.) John nods at me, his face reflecting everything I’m thinking. “Come on,” he says firmly. “Dinner first.”

***

Though it’s late March, John wants to find somewhere to eat that’s on the water. It’s a simple enough request to satisfy; our hotel is already on the water. We debate the directions, end up opting to stay on our side of the Außenalster and find a restaurant a ten-minute walk away directly on a quay. “This do?” I ask John, bending to peer at the menu posted by the door. “German cuisine,” I inform him.

“I’m utterly unfamiliar with that, apart from the standard Oktoberfest fare,” John replies, squinting at it. “I have no idea what any of that says.”

I explain several of the dishes and John decides it sounds fine. “I’ll order for you, once you’ve decided,” I reassure him. Inside, I agree with the server’s deduction that we are, in fact, two people in total and she takes us to a table by a window. March is clearly not the season for restaurants on the water, at least not this restaurant: there are only two other occupied tables, all spaced at diplomatic distances from the other diners. I make John take the seat with the best view of the water (though both sides are fine; I don’t really care) and wait for her to leave before walking John through his menu options.

He’s holding his menu, following along. When I finish, he says, “I think I’ll try – er – this one.” He points. “The roast beef with potatoes, was it?”

“Yes,” I confirm. “Good choice.”

“What are you having, then?”

I show him. “The wiener schnitzel.”

“Ah.” John studies it again. “I thought that ‘wiener’ meant Viennese?”

“It does. Schnitzel is popular in Germany, too. Viennese style means it’s essentially plain, just breaded and served with lemon. There are other popular varieties with sauces and mushrooms and such but I prefer it this way.”

John puts the menu down and folds his hands over it, leaning forward. “Exactly how many languages do you speak, if I can ask?”

“Fluently?” I frown at him. “One.”

“But you’re functional in at least three others,” he persists. “You ordered us food in Arabic. You said you spoke French with the hotel people in Sana’a when you got the car. And German. Besides which, you lived here in Germany for a bit, you said.”

“Really only German and French, in that order,” I concede. “Well enough to get by. And bits and pieces of other languages. I brushed up on basic Arabic phrases when I got to Abu Dhabi, before you arrived. I suppose I know a few phrases in Russian, and perhaps ten useful words of Czech.”

“Still. It’s impressive, and I thought you could hardly impress me more.”

John’s smile is warm, and it warms something in the very core of me. I clear my throat, feeling my face flush a little, but am spared having to come up with an adequate response to this when the server comes back and asks for our order. I order for both of us, attempting not to stumble over any of the words or make idiotic mistakes just when I’ve managed to impress John. She accepts it all without question and takes herself away. (Success.) “I ordered you a beer,” I tell John. “Hope that’s all right. It’s one I tried once when I was in Berlin and thought you might like.” (Feel self-conscious admitting this, but this is supposed to be a date, more or less, isn’t it? He could at least give me the benefit of trying, hopeless as I am at this.)

His eyebrows go up. “You thought of me then?”

(The self-consciousness makes me edgy.) “John,” I say somewhat crossly, “I thought of you all the time.”

The server reappears with two glasses of beer then. When she leaves, John grins at me. “I never took you for the soppy romantic type. You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?” (Feel uncertain about this – is that praise or condemnation? Or worse, mockery?) Before I can ask, John lifts his glass and holds it out to be clinked.

“Cheers,” I say, still feeling wrong-footed. (I don’t know what to say. I’m so useless at this. As desperately as I want for this to work, I’m experiencing one of the many moments where I cannot possibly fathom ever becoming functional at this, at a normal human relationship, and one of a romantic nature at that. I have to consciously stop myself from presuming on him all the time, watch my sharp tongue and make sure I don’t mindlessly insult him. It’s nonstop work, takes so much concentration – yet worth it, if he will only stay.)

His eyes follow mine out the window. “I think I’ve got the better view,” he says lightly, seemingly unaware of my inner turmoil. “Can you see that fountain, at the far end there?”

I twist around and give it a cursory look over my shoulder, but turn back to him. He’s still looking at the water, his mobile face pensive, almost dreamy. (So beautiful. So perfect. So him.) “I’ve got the precise view I wanted,” I say, hoping it sounds less idiotic, less awkward than it feels to say aloud.

He turns back to me and sees where I’m looking, not out the window but at him and smiles slowly, his eyes going soft. He reaches for my hand, lying on the table near my nearly-untouched beer. He doesn’t say it (want him to say it) but it’s on his face. I can read it, at least.

***

After dinner we walk back to the hotel along the water, and once again he is holding my hand. He had let go shortly after my sentimental statement about the view, when the server brought our meals. After that it was just regular conversation, at least on the surface. (Think of sitting there, my heart burning within me, hearing my mouth form regular responses to his regular words. Wishing I knew better how to say the right sorts of things, the things that will convince him that I, in my angular wrongness could somehow be right for him. That this could last beyond this trip, this operation. That we could be as close without the fuel of the constant threat on both our lives to drive us together, without the intensity of the mission lending intensity to what exists between us. I don’t know how to say this, how to bring it up. Instead I hold his fingers uselessly and walk beside him, listening to our footfalls on the pavement.) It occurs to me again that this is likely the last night I’ll have to worry about this in detail before it’s over. I may be wrong, but I feel instinctively that this is the beginning of the end of it. I will find a gun – two guns; John will want one – and I will hold it to Kathrin Reger’s face and force her to tell me when and where and how precisely she betrayed me. I’ll have some answers at last. But all that is for tomorrow. Tonight, I still have John. (I don’t know what he imagines for when we’ve returned to the room, but I have made a small, private decision to do anything he wants. No holds barred, no matter how – invasive or uncomfortably unfamiliar or – any of that. If he wants it, he can have it. Me. He can have all of me.)

“Penny?” John asks, as he did last night in Frankfurt at the restaurant. His voice is light; he knows that I’m thinking too much. (A subjective view, but certainly the one he’ll have.) He squeezes my hand a little, possibly trying to insert a bit of levity between us.

Levity is not one of my stronger suits. “I was just thinking that it’s nice that we still have tonight, without having to go anywhere,” I say carefully, hoping it will strike the right note. Neither too doom-laden nor too forward, in terms of what I anticipate happening in the room.

“I can feel you thinking much more than that,” John says, with a rueful chuckle. “But it is nice. It’s been good to have a bit of time, to just… I don’t know, be together. Get closer. And I can tell that you’re thinking too much about what happens after, and all that, but – just tonight, let’s not, all right? Let’s not think about everything that’s happened before this or any of what could happen later. Tonight, let’s just be together, here and now.”

He stops and faces me, looking for confirmation, lacing the fingers of both hands into mine. I nod. “All right,” I say, voice low but steady. “I’m all yours.”

John leans up and kisses me, there on the path in the park by the Alster. It’s warm and intense but slightly too brief; he’s pulling away far too soon. “Let’s get inside, then,” he says, tugging me along after him.

Inside the hotel, he kisses me in the lift again, barely waiting until the doors close. At the sixth floor, we stumble out, John’s lips still on mine. (Security, I remind myself. Check surroundings.) I’m only just able to tear myself away, looking up and down the corridor in both directions, digging in my jacket pocket for the room key. At the room, I open my mouth to remind John about the two-minute wait, the standard detonation check time, but he remembers.

“I know, I know,” he murmurs, pushing me up against the wall. “Two minutes. Check the time. I don’t know why, but I can manage to keep my hands off you all day while we’re busy doing other things, but as soon as we get close to wherever we’re staying, I just can’t any more.”

I would respond, but he’s cut off my ability to do so with his lips and tongue, so I don’t even bother trying to resist it. (Why should I? This could be our last night together, depending on what happens tomorrow.) Time loses any sense of meaning it ever had. When I break away from him, breathing hard, I check the time again and show him that four minutes have gone by, lip twisting ruefully. He laughs with me, takes the key out of my hand and lets us in.

I move to crowd him against a wall, but he stops me before I can claim his mouth again. “Would you be terribly disappointed if I just took a quick shower?” John asks. “It’s just, I’m wearing the same clothes as yesterday and feel a bit dishevelled. Since I only have two shirts now I thought I’d try to prolong it a bit, you know?”

I back away. “Of course,” I say, trying to keep the slight disappointment off my face. (I do quite understand, and frankly feel the same way. Particularly considering how far I am willing to let things go tonight, I would rather feel secure in my level of personal cleanliness at any rate. Perhaps he’s feeling something of the same thing.)

“You could join me,” John says, “only I know how hard it will be to keep our hands off each other, and I only want to because I want tonight to last, not just be a quickie in the shower.”

(He’s right, and I want precisely what he’s said, too.) I shake my head. “Then let’s shower separately. I quite agree.”

He looks a bit relieved. “All right,” he says. He straightens himself, pushing off the wall and kisses me quickly. “I’ll be three minutes.”

“Make it two,” I tell him and he gives a cheeky grin and disappears into the bath with his newly-purchased shower things. I strip to my undergarments and pace about the room, dimming the lights and trying desperately not to think too much, not to get too worked up about this. John shuts the water off after four minutes and emerges into the room after five. I’m about to tell him that he took five minutes, not three, but my words get tangled on their way to my mouth at the sight of him dressed only in a very small, very white towel, his hair sticking up in spikes as he towels it with another impossibly tiny towel. (Is he using the hand towels? Surely a hotel of this rating has larger towels than this. Of course they do. Conclusion: this is deliberate torment.) I attempt to refrain from glaring at him, uncomfortably aware that my unpredictable body is reacting at the very sight of him, and that it will be completely visible to him.

John grins, entirely aware of what I’m going through. “Hurry, then,” he says lazily, and pulls the towel off, laying it on the bed.

I stop next to him, lower my face to within centimetres of his mouth. “You bloody tease,” I say, letting my voice slip down an octave.

He exhales hard through his nose, the pheromones of his arousal all but visible. In revenge, he ghosts a hand over my crotch, the heel of his palm only just skimming my penis through my pants. “Hurry the fuck up,” he groans. “And don’t touch yourself in there, either.”

(I am not going to win a game of sexual provocation with him.) I swallow back my own reflexive groan and force myself away from him. I make the shower hot, cleaning myself as thoroughly as possible while steadfastly ignoring my erection. There is a brief debate over which products to use to clean certain areas of my body. I think of how I wanted to stretch John out and explore every part of him, taste every unknown secret corner of his body, think of him doing the same. I make sure to be very thorough. I wouldn’t want him tasting soap suds on my skin. (Another dangerously unknown realm of all of this, where my lack of experience makes me feel like a nervous thirteen-year-old. No book would probably even address this, whether shower gel or bar soap would be preferable cleansing agents when one fears (/hopes?/suspects?/wants to be prepared for the possibility?) that one’s lover might want to insert his tongue into unmentionable places. People do that, don’t they?) Suspect it has been longer than three minutes on my part, too. I shut off the water and towel myself dry very, very thoroughly, wringing the water out of my hair. Never found wet hair particularly attractive, but I’m hardly going to dry and style it with John waiting, am I? Luckily it’s still quite short and doesn’t take long to dry by hand. I do the best I can, then hang up all of the towels and walk into the bedroom nude.

John is sitting in one of the chairs by the window. He turns to face me and his mouth opens a little, then closes as he swallows. “My God, you’re beautiful,” he breathes, and stands and comes toward me.

I smile at him, trying to overcome my sudden nerves. (It’s worse than first date nerves; it’s sixth or seventh date nerves, or whatever it would be. It’s most-important-date-yet nerves.) “Come to bed,” I say, the nerves making my voice husky. I hold out my hand.

“Yes.” Just that, a yes. John takes my hand and leads me to the bed. He’s hard and unembarrassed about it. (I’m hard and somewhat embarrassed about it.) We lie down facing each other under the blankets, and John moves toward me and kisses me slowly, languorously, sensuously. Our bodies are warm from the shower and despite my nervousness, intertwine with the ease of familiarity, legs overlapping, penises bumping, rubbing slowly between our abdomens. After a bit, John opens his eyes. “What should we do tonight?” he asks, just above a whisper. “I’m up for anything you want. Anything at all.”

Somehow it doesn’t feel like the moment to say No, that’s what I was going to say and start an argument about it. What he told me last night has changed things for me. He laid himself absolutely bare and it made things feel… safer, somehow. I feel a greater sense of… not permission, but ease, perhaps, at being able to put voice to what I want, added to his having said that he likes it when I do precisely that, tell him what I want. “I want to touch you everywhere,” I say, and it feels all right, having said it aloud. I don’t immediately die of the awkwardness of saying something like that. “Can I do that?” I ask, watching his face.

His smile is so lovely that it makes my heart clench. “God, yes,” he says softly. “Please.”

Some of the tightness in my chest releases further. I push myself up onto an elbow and turn him onto his back, leaning over him. Now that I have the go-ahead, I don’t even know where I want to start. At his mouth, then. That’s safe. I’ve done this. I put my mouth to his, to which he responds with his usual immediacy, let my hand splay over his chest. As we kiss, I explore the planes of his pectoral muscles, the interesting peaks of his nipples, the jut of his collarbone, press a thumb gently into the dip of his suprasternal notch. His isn’t terribly pronounced, but it’s there to feel and I like the way it feels. Emboldened by his vocalised responses, I move my mouth to his neck, his Adam’s apple, bobbing as he swallows beneath my lips. I shift further onto him, conscious of my erection pressing into his hip, his nudging my thigh, touch my tongue to his scar (interesting, but he’s self-conscious about it and I don’t want him to be uncomfortable), catch his earlobe in my mouth, tasting it, hearing his shivered response to it. My daring grows as I go; his arms, his elbows, the dusting of hair beneath his arms all receive the attentions of my lips, my tongue (though doing this to his underarms makes him giggle endearingly). I taste the skin at his rib cage, his finger tips, the hollow of his navel, the place where the lean tendon at his hip leads to his very-erect penis. I pass that over (despite the inherent temptation to linger there) and reposition myself to trail my mouth over his thighs, his knees, his ankles. His toes provoke an even more vocal response from him, his fingers tightening on whatever part of me he can reach. Finally I slide back up his legs and lavish my attentions on his genitalia, making him both sigh and groan in reaction, hips already arching upward, making minute thrusting gestures into my mouth. He’s gentle, not pushing into my throat the way he allowed – forcibly took me, rather – into his. I take one hand off his hip bone and gather the delicate sac of his testes into my palm, moving my mouth back on his penis so that only the head is inside. I’m going slowly, being very gentle, because I don’t want him to climax yet. Move my fingers to that sensitive place behind his testicles and look up at him, looking for confirmation, or hesitation. “John,” I ask, voice low and filled with desire even to my own ears, “can I…?”

He’s propped himself up on his elbows to watch me and he nods. “Yes,” he says, as I make my meaning clear by moving my fingers minutely further back. (Want to make him feel what he made me feel last night.) He spreads his legs to give me space and tilts his hips upward. “God, yes. Please do that.”

(My penis throbs at the raw want in his voice, his desire to be touched like that, to have my fingers within him. Has he wanted this all along? Perhaps.) “Should I use… did you bring, er…”

“Yes.” John mercifully cuts me off. He gropes blindly under the pillows and brings out the small tube. “Here.”

The substance is slippery and silk-smooth. I rub it between my fingers to warm it, distracting John from the wait by dipping my mouth over his penis again, then slip my fingers back into the place where the round curve of his arse begins, seeking the heat within. He is reacting already to only having my fingers in that area, not even touching his anus yet, not within him yet. The notion of it alone excites him. (Yes, I think. He did want this. He should have said. Oh: the realisation clicks. He did say it, when he proposed what he proposed last night, what I turned down. He proposed it because he genuinely wanted it, not because he was trying to humour me in what he thought I wanted.) This produces a swell of emotion that makes my mouth all the more tender on his sensitive flesh, my tongue caressing it as though it were made for doing nothing but this. I slide my long second finger to the hole that leads to the very centre of John, or so it feels to me. It’s tight, hotter than any other part of him, even more so than the warmth of his mouth. He groans as I press against it, mouth still working over his penis. (Should I check? Yes.) I lift my mouth off him. “Okay?” I ask, voice huskier than ever.

“Very okay,” John confirms, eyes closing. He shifts himself even wider, penis standing unabashedly upright, corded with thick veins and leaking at the head. He looks too delicious for words, half-ravaged and at the height of his arousal. For me. Because of me. It’s overwhelming and almost painfully beautiful at the same time.

I rub at the entrance to his body, my attention more there than at my slightly absentminded licks at his penis. John is writhing a bit, pushing himself against my finger. I take the hint and push my finger past the initial resistance of his sphincter, up into the hot core of him. His vocal reaction prompts another desperate throb from my own penis, which is steadily oozing pre-orgasmic fluid onto the sheets. I rub myself against the cotton a little, unable to keep my hips still, beginning to grow desperate to be touched, myself. His arousal is feeding mine in a constant loop, his every reaction prompting an equal and opposing one from my body. I slide my finger in and out of John experimentally, noting his responses, filing them away.

His penis is harder than ever and he’s moaning, droplets of sweat beading on his forehead. “More,” he groans out. “Please, Sherlock. Do another finger.”

(Well. I don’t have to be told twice, do I?) I’m afraid it will be too much, too thick, but after the initial resistance fades, John is pushing himself down onto my fingers in obvious enjoyment ,which is encouraging. I remember what he did and bend the last joint of my fingers forward, searching for something I don’t know if I’ll recognise other than by his reaction. But no, that must be it, the firm, round texture against my finger tips. John’s body convulses under me and all ten of his fingers clench in my hair. (Aha.) Pleased, I lift my face from his penis again and request confirmation. “Like this?”

He is nearly incoherent. “God – God – fuck, yes – oh God, Sherlock, I’m – please, keep on doing that, I – oh fuck, fuck, fuck!” His entire body is shaking; I’ve resumed sucking at his penis with the full strength of my mouth while twisting my fingers rhythmically into him and suddenly he’s pushing at my head with one hand, the other going to grip at the base of his penis like a vice. “Stop. Stop, Sherlock!”

Confused, I release his penis and look up at him, slightly nonplussed. “Why…?” I start, not sure how to finish. “Didn’t you – you didn’t – ”

“Come here,” John commands, gesturing upward. (His usual demand to be kissed. I know this now, so clearly he’s not upset.)

I comply, placing myself mostly beside him, partly draped onto him. (Am so aroused myself that I cannot possibly bear to be touching any less of him.) I go to kiss him, but can’t stop the question. “I thought you… I thought you liked it?”

John kisses me anyway, very convincingly, hand pressing hard into my back. “I did,” he says after. His tone is very honest. “I loved it. I just didn’t want to come yet.”

(Oh. Am relieved.) “Oh,” I say aloud. I bite my lip, thinking of my burning, unasked question, debating whether or not to ask it. (Growing desperate: judgement impaired by rather crippling levels of sexual arousal at the moment.)

“What?” he asks. (He doesn’t miss anything. My clever John.)

“I was wondering,” I say, hesitant. “Er. The thing you suggested last night, the thing I didn’t… do you still want to… do that?” (The awkwardness of asking as diplomatically as possible if I can change my mind about that and please please please put my penis into him after all is enough to make me cringe every which way, but… I really want it. Rather badly. And it seems he may want it as well, so…)

John’s eyes widen. “Yes!” he says. “God, yes! I thought you didn’t, er, want to?”

I shrug, self-conscious, face heating. (Erection throbbing, heart pounding.)

“Did something change?” he asks, curious. (Not evaluating, judging, just curious.)

“You,” I say. “Last night. What you said. That changed things. For me, I mean.” I’m useless at explaining this, but hope it will be sufficient for him to understand.

It seems it is. His face changes a little, his eyebrows making those beautifully understanding parentheses around his beautiful eyes, deep-blue in the lamplight of the room. “All right,” he says, and lets it go. “How do you want me? I mean, on my back? Side? Front?”

Bite my lip again. “I don’t know. I’ve never… obviously.”

John smiles at my obvious awkwardness and leans forward to kiss me slowly, a kiss full of acceptance and kindness and love. “I know, Sherlock, my love,” he whispers. “Neither have I. That’s precisely why I want to. And you’ve just confirmed that I’m quite interested having you inside me, so I think it will be wonderful for both of us. I don’t know if there’s a ‘best’ position for a first time doing this. Maybe if I turn on my side like this?” He turns himself around and shifts back against me, so that my erection fits itself directly into the cleft of his arse. (He’s mirroring the position we were in back in Sana’a, when I was dreaming of it, dreaming of doing this with him, and woke up thrusting against him like an animal. He has to know. This is deliberate.)

A shudder of desire so intense I can barely speak moves through me. He’ll have felt it, pressed up against me like this. “You’re sure?” I ask, half afraid that he’ll change his mind and that I’ll die of disappointment and sexual frustration. “Completely sure?”

“Completely sure,” John confirms. He finds the tube of lubricant and passes it back to me. “Go on. I want your cock in me. I want you to fuck me. Do you even know how many times I’ve dreamed of it, imagined us together like this?”

(The thought had occurred after what he said last night.) “Okay,” I say hoarsely. I get the tube open again and spread some of its contents over my achingly-hard penis. I’m so far gone now that I could probably achieve orgasm in another four or five strokes of my own hand, never mind within John’s body. I run a palm over his arse and left (top) leg, lifting his thigh away from its partner. Find the hot opening of his anus again with my fingers, then position the head of my penis against it. I take a deep breath, and then John startles me by pushing back, not enough to breach himself on me, but enough to make the pressure unbearable. My hips snap forward before I can stop myself, seating the head of my penis firmly within him. We both make heavy vocalisations at this, John breathing encouragements. Fuelled by them, I hook my leg over his, grasp his hip and push myself all the way into him. I can barely breathe. It’s so tight, the sensation so intensely erotic that I’m justifiably afraid I’ll reach orgasm far too soon. (I don’t know the specific etiquette of this but the basic science of it would suggest that if John needs the stimulation of my penis against his prostate to achieve his climax, then I must ensure that his occurs before mine does. This is going to be difficult; any tiny movement at all and I could be spilling myself into him.) “Okay?” I gasp out, breathing so ragged and uneven that I could be going into cardiac arrest.

John’s moan is so sensual, so incredibly aroused that the very sound of it makes my penis twitch within him. “Yes!” he grinds out into his pillow. “Extremely okay. It feels amazing, having you in me. Just – just give me a second, all right?”

My concern that he might be in pain despite his arousal helps me get a grip on myself, as it were. “Of course,” I get out. “Just say when you want – ”

“Now,” John interrupts. His body relaxes slightly. “I want it. I’m ready.” He reaches back and gets his hand on my arse, pulling me firmly against him. “Fuck me. Please, Sherlock.”

My arousal spikes again; I don’t need telling twice on this, either. Bracing myself against the sheets with my right foot, my left thigh clamps around John’s as I begin to thrust into him, trying to keep it slow, trying to control myself. My entire body is already in the grasp of the impending orgasm, teetering on the edge. It feels inhumanly good. John’s body is gripping my penis, the lubricant adding just enough slide to balance the friction and my lower lip is caught between my teeth in a seemingly-futile effort to stifle the groans grating in my throat on every exhalation. The pleasure is so intensely exquisite that I am torn between wanting to stay here on the edge of it forever, and wanting nothing more than to rush headlong into its blinding, golden horizon, let the feeling squeeze my body into pulp, wringing me out until there’s nothing left. I can hear my voice, uncontrolled now, ragged moans mingling with John’s as we copulate, my body driving into his, hands gripping his torso, fingers pressing roughly into his nipples, letting his teeth close around one of my fingers to the point of pain. Even pain is translating as pleasure now. The edge is too close; I’m in the very threshold of orgasm now. “John,” I pant, fumbling lower, closing over his own hand jerking over his penis. I want to ask if he’s close, if he’s nearly there, but all I can say is his name. The pitch of my voice rises in desperation. “John – !” It chokes out of me and then I’m helpless to stop it, helpless to say anything at all now as every sound in the room shrinks in against my eardrums, white noise screaming within my head as I seem to explode within him, lights bursting behind my eyes. I may be screaming (have no idea), my body thrusting wildly into John’s as my penis and testicles empty themselves over and over again into him.

Sound finally returns, the sound of my panting overlapping with his. There is a wetness all over my knuckles. (He did orgasm then. Relief. It must have happened exactly when mine did; I have no lucid memories of it otherwise.) Our hands are still moving weakly over his softening penis; my hips are stilling slowly. I let go of his hand and move mine to his chest, clutching him to me. The blur of the orgasm is clearing from my mind to be replaced by emotion, too much emotion. Can hear my breath becoming shaky. I press my forehead into the back of his neck, eyes stinging. (Am I crying? Surely I’m not crying. I rarely cry, though nearly every time I have, it’s been related directly to John.) I feel impossibly close to him, closer than I knew one person could feel to another. I’m still within him and it’s not enough; I want to fuse every molecule of our skin together. I never want to be farther apart from him than this. (The stray bit of trivia that oxytocin causes pair bonding in mammals wanders across my thoughts. We are mammals. We are no more exempt from this science than from any other law of biochemistry.) It’s fully irrational, yet it occurs to me I am weeping because ninety-eight percent isn’t enough, that I will never be enough for John, good enough, patient enough, that I will never merit the other two percent, never get over my painful awkwardness to manage to behave normally enough for him. It was one thing when we were best friends and flatmates, but how can I ever be enough for him as a partner? And I will always want to be this close, will always crave him, need him, want him. And I cannot bear the thought of him being this intimate with anyone else. I could kill Mary with my bare hands now without a second thought. He is mine. I wish I could absorb him, be absorbed by him, keep him and be kept by him forever. This hunger, this need, is unbearable. I will die of this, of wanting him so badly I cannot even express it.

“Sherlock?” John sounds uncertain, still breathing hard from the strength of his climax. “Are you… are you okay?”

Press my forehead harder into the back of his neck and make some sort of incomprehensible sound. (No idea how to explain this.)

“Hey,” he says, sounding concerned now. “What’s going on?” When I don’t answer, he wriggles away a bit, letting my softened penis slip from him (and the loss of this contact makes me feel worse, despite that he’s turning around and tangling his legs into mine, re-establishing the proximity as well as possible). John puts the hand that isn’t trapped below him on face, gently trying to pull it up so that he can see my expression.

(I’m humiliated by this inexplicable emotion and at a loss to explain it exactly.) He can tell I’m crying; his thumb is moving through a tear tracking down my cheek. “I’m sorry,” I say, almost too low to hear, unable to look at him.

I feel his lips on my forehead. “You don’t have to conclude every sexual encounter we have with an apology, you know,” John says, trying to sound light but his concern wins out. “What’s going on? Was that too… intense?”

I think about this for a moment. (No. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that I require this intensity at all times. Cannot possibly be expected to live without it.) “No,” I say finally.

“Are you sure?”

“I love you,” I blurt out. Then, appalled at the suddenness of it, I raise my face and look at him, half-afraid of what I might see. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to – but I do. I love you. I love you so much.”

John’s face is impossibly soft, his eyes wells of Johnness. “I know,” he says softly. “I know, you great idiot. I love you, too. Why do you think I said all that, last night? It wasn’t to make you feel badly. It was to – to show that, no matter what I have with Mary now, how much I always did love you. I suppose I was trying to reassure you a bit. So that you would know the strength of what we have going into whatever comes next. Is that what you’re… is that related to this?” Instead of putting it into words, he sweeps a thumb over my wet eyelashes instead to indicate it, swiping away the tears before they can fall.

“I suppose,” I say. It’s a feeble explanation. Swallow, trying to get a grip. (Focus. It helps.) “I’m sorry,” I try again. “I know you didn’t want to talk about that tonight. I just – it was all so – ”

“Yeah. I know,” John says. He smiles, impossibly. “It was for me, too. That was really, really intense, and I loved every second of it. I hope we do it again.”

I search his face, looking for any sign that he’s just saying it to make me feel better. There aren’t any. “I promise I won’t cry next time.” I’m ashamed and rueful.

“Hey. None of that,” John orders. “You git, I like it that you’ve got so emotional over this. Over me. I never thought I’d see that side of you.”

“I never knew a side of me that cries after sex existed,” I say, feeling my face contort in a moment of self-loathing. “It wasn’t something that I ever thought would happen. But then, you break all of my rules, John Watson.”

“Good,” John says. Somehow he gets himself even closer and wraps all of his limbs around me. “I love you. I’ll always love you. Even if you cry every time. I love that it means enough to you that it got that kind of emotional response. Do you know what that means to me?”

His face is buried in my neck as he says this and I’m just as glad, because I’m having to fight off the ridiculous tears again at this. “It means everything to me,” I say, voice rasping and thick. “You. You’re everything to me.”

John’s only response is to hold me as tightly against him as he can. I get as much of myself around him and refuse to think about how ridiculous I am. (He makes me defy rationalism. I cannot explain or defend this and I don’t care to try.)

***

The memory of this night could keep a person going for years, I think the next morning, even in the face of the awareness that my hunger for him, that feeling of wanting to be impossibly closer at all times, hasn’t faded in the slightest. I want him constantly; I will always want him constantly. After that astounding, life-changing – event (I cannot bring myself to call that a sexual episode, not when it was so much more than something purely sexual), we fell asleep. I woke around dawn to John padding back from the toilet, sliding back into bed and over to me. (Hadn’t even woken when he got up. I suppose the entire affair was particularly exhausting, on both physical and emotional levels.)

He saw my eyes open and put his mouth on mine before draping himself half over my chest again and going back to sleep. It took me a few minutes, absorbed as I was in watching his face as he slept, peaceful, yet with a sense of watchful care that I suspect he will never lose. (And I am the subject of this watchful care now. I like this very much.)

Now it’s close to eight judging by the light streaming in from the windows, curtains not barring the early sunlight, and I am awake before John. I need to use the toilet and I need to send a text, preferably without waking John on either count. I ease myself out from under him and take my phone to the bathroom. After drying my hands, I type a text to Duncan’s encrypted phone.

In Hamburg. Need to obtain a
couple of handguns. Any ideas?
Hope you’re recovering all right.
SH

Sent. Hopefully he’ll respond soon. Back in the bedroom, I slip back into bed, inserting myself under John’s sleep-heavy limbs. He wakes anyway, but just shifts closer, mouth lipping at my chest, half-conscious. “Time is it?” he asks.

“Shortly before eight.”

“Time to wake up?”

“Soon,” I tell him. I stroke a hand over his back and wonder if this will be the last time I’ll wake up with him. I give myself a strict limit of five minutes maximum to lie here wallowing in thoughts like these, and then it will be time to think properly. I touch his hair and press kisses into it, and his hand comes up to find my other hand to slide our fingers together. “Question,” I say, quiet.

“Mmm?”

“If something goes wrong today – ”

“It won’t,” John interrupts fiercely, the rasp of his stubble scratching at my chest as he speaks. “I won’t let it.”

“But if it does,” I persist, keeping my voice gentle. “If something happens to me, would you go back to Mary no matter what?”

John goes still. (It occurs to me that this question could be perceived as highly unfair.) The silence spins out and grows awkward, though he’s still got his fingers woven into mine. “That’s not a nice question,” he says finally, his voice low.

“I know.” I don’t apologise. (What’s the point? I’m sorry he finds it difficult. I wish it wasn’t a difficult question. And I’m not sorry for having asked. If for some reason, I meet my death today, I want to know that he really did love me.)

“I’m not sure,” John says at last, after another prolonged pause. He’s not looking at me, eyes trained on the newly-risen sun out the window. “I’m not sure if I could go back to that, after knowing what it could have been like, with you.”

It crosses my mind that this is about as complete an answer as I could have asked for. I decide to stop pushing it and just accept this. I kiss the top of his head again. “Thank you for saying that,” I say softly.

He turns his face up to mine and glares. “Stop doubting me, Sherlock. I love you, damn it. Don’t you know that yet?”

“I do…” I try, but he’s right: I do doubt it. “I do, John,” I say more firmly. “I know you love me.” The alarm rings. Quarter past eight. I reach for my phone and shut it off. Enough introspection. It’s time to move. “Come on,” I say. “Time we were up. I’m going to shower. Come with me?”

John holds my gaze for a moment, then nods. “Yeah. All right.” He still looks rather emotional, his brows still knitted, jaw still clenched, but he follows me into the bathroom nonetheless.

***

While John is shaving, I dial Mycroft’s number. He answers immediately. “What’s the report?” I ask brusquely.

There is a minute pause which I interpret as Mycroft wincing. “We lost the plane,” he says. (Can hear the cringe in his voice.) “Sometime between three and four in the morning, your time, it simply disappeared from our radar.”

I force my voice to stay calm. “Could it have landed?”

“It’s possible, but there were no nearby airfields.” Mycroft hesitates. “I’m sorry, Sherlock. I know you’ll want to go to Berlin anyway and I’m sorry I couldn’t give you better information.”

“It’s all right,” I say, mouth dry. (It’s no different than before, then.) “We were going to leave this morning regardless. And you don’t actually control everything, difficult as I know that is to accept.”

“I wish I did.”

“I know you do. Any word on Al-Amri?”

“None. We’re bringing Salib back, just to be safe. He’ll be duly processed.”

“Fine. Good,” I say. “Listen, I need you to get in touch with someone at Interpol. She’s a former source of information that I was sometimes able to use. I don’t have her contact details any more, but you’ll be able to get that. Her name is Helga Stiefl and she’s German-Swiss, works in the Zurich office. Tell her that Hans Walther needs the full file details on a former arms dealer named Reiner Bülow, killed in Hamburg about eight months ago. Bomb attack. I want the forensic report, ballistics, everything.”

Can hear the scratching of Mycroft’s pen. “All right,” he says. “When I have it, should I call?”

“Text first,” I say. “Thank you, Mycroft. And if you get word on the plane, of course, please do pass it on.”

“I will. Please be careful.”

“I will,” I say. I pause for a moment. “Thank you,” I say again, quietly. Meaning for all of it, every bit of help he’s given since he rescued me in Edinburgh.

“Don’t start with that. Give me an update when you’re done,” Mycroft says briskly, forestalling any sort of foray into stilted brotherly emotion.

I nod, though he can’t see it. “I will,” I say again. I hang up and go put my things on. My phone buzzes as I’m tying the laces of my new shoes, purchased in the Frankfurt airport. Duncan. I pick it up to read his text.

I do know a man, in fact.
Safe to call now?

I could just cut this short and call him. “Duncan just texted,” I say to John, who has finished shaving and is packing up our few things and storing them in the compact shoulder bag he bought. “He wants me to call.”

John nods, fitting the tablet into the bag. “Go on, then.”

I dial the number and wait for him to answer, which he does after a single ring. “Duncan.”

“Holmes.” He sounds all right. Certainly stronger than he did when I last saw him. “All right over there?”

“Yes, fine.” I want to get to the point but courtesy requires that I ask. “And you? Recovered now?”

“Much better, thanks. Still have some therapy, physical and the other sort. Anyway: you’ll find your man on the Reeperbahn, working in one of the stores. It’s called Rote Katze, close to the S-Bahn station, south side of the street. Speak English to him; he’s Irish but speaks German decently. Tell him that you’re not interested in his usual stock, and then mention that you’re a friend of Mick O’Brien’s. He should take you to the back room and show you what he’s got. Takes cash only, of course.”

“Of course,” I echo. “Anything else I should know?”

“That should about do you. Your brother and I are going to be starting deeper interrogation of Tarik Gürkan today. Hopefully we’ll get something useful out of him. Meanwhile, be careful out there.”

“Will do. Thanks.” I disconnect and look over at John. “Ready to go? We’ve got a stop to make on our way to the train station.”

***

It’s a short journey to Berlin on the InterCity Express. John sits close beside me, tense and uncommunicative for the most part. (Not angry, I deduce. Not put off by what I asked. Just steeling himself for action. My soldier.) The transaction on the Reeperbahn went as simply as I had hoped, just as Duncan said. We are both armed and prepared.

Berlin is very large, and the trains often stop at more than one station. I debate between getting off in Spandau and taking the S5 to Charlottenburg-Wilmerdorferstrasse or going right to the Hauptbahnhof and taking the S5 back west. Count stations in my head. Spandau, Stresow, Pichelsberg, Olympiastadion, Heerstrasse, Messe Süd, Westkreuz (intersection to the Ringbahn), Charlottenburg, Savignyplatz, Zoologischer-Garten, Tiergarten, Bellevue, Hauptbahnhof: no. Shorter to go back from the Hauptbahnhof. I relax slightly.

“What?” John asks.

(Oh. He even noticed that.) The train is slowing for the Spandau station stop. “I was just wondering if we should get off here or carry on to the main train station. Which is what we’re doing,” I tell him, forestalling his reach for the shoulder bag.

“Oh. All right.”

The train stops on the lower level of the Hauptbahnhof and we disembark in the blue-grey light of the subterranean platform. “This way,” I say, nodding toward the S-Bahn signs. Up the escalators, following signs for the S5 or S75 bound for Spandau. Buy tickets at the machine. It’s all still so familiar, so recent. This felt like home once. Temporary home, perhaps, but home nonetheless. Berlin is nearly as familiar as London. I give John his ticket and tell him to punch it through the validating machine, which he does.

“You know it so well,” he says, gazing down the tracks.

“I know. It’s still very familiar,” I allow.

He smiles at me suddenly, affectionately. “It’s nice to see the place where you lived for a bit.”

I smile back and consciously echo his misspoken words the other day in Frankfurt. “We’ll come back someday and see it properly. As tourists.”

The smile he gives me now has more relief in it than anything else; he’s glad I’ve stopped pushing him for a confirmation, allowed the fantasy of this lasting beyond the end of the operation to stand this once.

The train comes. At Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorferstrasse, we get off and I surreptitiously check every direction before leading John off the raised platform at the eastern end. My old station. I point out a few of the places I remember to John as we walk. It’s midday, just past eleven in the morning, and it’s hard to take seriously the fact that we may be walking into a terrorist trap. Why was Kathrin Reger’s telephone number in the pocket of a paramilitary arms dealer’s trousers? I ask myself for the hundredth time. She hardly seemed the type to be connected to a group like that. Plus which, I lived in her building for three months before I went to Riyadh. She could have turned me over at any point. And she didn’t, at least not until the night the flat was bombed. But she owns the building – why would she have deliberately damaged her own property? No: she must have been forced to cooperate, I’ve decided, but it’s dangerous to theorise or make assumptions. Just because she checked on me, made me come downstairs with her typical Germanic insistence that I come and eat cake with her on occasion means nothing. She could have been a spy. Anyone could have.

“Will Al-Amri be waiting for us there, do you think?” John asks quietly as I nudge him around the corner onto Windscheidstrasse, my old street.

“I don’t know,” I say carefully. “I really have no idea.”

“What’s the plan, then?” John asks, tense. “Just ring the bell and see what happens?”

“Precisely. This is it up here.” I nod toward the white stuccoed building, typical style for Charlottenburg. Walk in the front door and to suite number one to the right, and press down on the bell, covering the peephole with my thumb.

We wait a long moment, and then I hear footsteps. (So she is home.) I withdraw the gun and hold it by my side. (Without looking, I can feel that John has withdrawn his, too.) The door unlocks and Kathrin Reger tentatively opens it a crack, peering out. (She therefore tried to check first and is nervous that she couldn’t see.) Her eyes widen. “Hans!”

Ja, was für eine Überraschung,” I say, quoting her own words upon seeing me again after Turkey back to her. What a surprise. “Let us in, Frau Reger.”

She shakes her head, frightened. “I cannot,” she says, accent thicker than usual: anxiety. “They watch. They see.”

I level the gun in her face, my own features set like cold stone. “Open the door,” I say quietly.

A hand goes to her face and she hastily backs out of the way. I push after her, John checking over his shoulder and then bolting the door behind us.

“Is there anyone here?” I demand, looking around, gun still trained on her.

Nein! I promise! I am alone!” Kathrin covers her face with both hands now. Her voice is trembling. “Please don’t shoot me!”

I jerk my chin toward one of her comfortable chairs at the small dining table. “Sit.” She does so, obeying without question. “Tell me, Kathrin. I was just at the wreckage of a bomb site where an arms dealing terrorist ring was killed in Hamburg eight months ago, and we found your phone number in the pocket of one of the terrorists’ clothing. Why did a terrorist have your phone number eight months ago?”

She shakes her head, visibly shaking. Twists her fingers together. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t. Eight months was – was August. You moved here at the end of July. I barely knew you, Hans. I didn’t say anything to anybody. Not then.”

It has the ring of truth. I glance at John, who says, “Not then? When, then? When exactly did you sell him out, then?”

(Excellent question.) She begins to cry, bending forward. “It was after you had left. I thought you were never going to come back! Someone came and they asked – they made me confirm that you lived here, which apartment was yours. It was a man and he had a gun. I could not say no.”

“And,” I press. “Go on.”

“He – he made me promise that if you came back, I would tell him. But I didn’t – I wasn’t going to!”

Things begin to fall into place. They must have got my address from the mobile phone company. I had given it; my identity as Hans Walther was one of the deeper ones I had built. I assume now that I was indeed followed out of Turkey. (Of course. Stupid to have ever thought that my release was anything other than supervised. Stupid.) So: I was seen leaving Antalya, seen in Nicosia, seen returning to Berlin. “But he came back, didn’t he?” I say quietly. “When was it?”

She lifts a despairing face, nodding confirmation. “The day you borrowed my key – remember? He came back. He knew you were here. He told me I had to get out of the building until the next day and to tell the others that they had to leave for twenty-four hours. He took me with him and made me sit in the car and watch when the bomb went off. I was so afraid that you were inside – I have had bad dreams about it ever since.” She is weeping openly.

John and I exchange a look and I lower the gun. “I wasn’t there. Luckily. I came back while the fire was still being put out. Did you see me? Did he see me?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t think so. He let me go once the crowd had dispersed but I was too frightened to stay. I went to my brother’s apartment in Wedding for three weeks, until the building was repaired. Most of the tenants moved away. I am so sorry, Hans. Please. You must believe me.”

“I do,” I say, relenting. “It’s I who should apologise, Kathrin. I put you in danger. I shouldn’t have come back here, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go at the time. But please tell me: what did the man look like?”

Kathrin Reger reaches for a tissue and blows her nose. “He was Arabic, or maybe Turkish. He wore a dark suit and a gold watch. Shiny black shoes. I remember his shoes. Very neat hair, with a lot of gel.”

This last item is the only thing she has said which would not match a description of Al-Amri. I look at John again, and he says, curious, “About how old, would you say?”

“Close to my age,” Kathrin says. “About sixty.”

Al-Amri cannot be older than thirty-five, I think, with a sudden feeling of relief. It doesn’t explain his absence, nor does it clear him from suspicion, but – suddenly my thoughts stand still and I straighten, the realisation crashing over me like lightning. An Arabic man. One who provides surveillance and information but tends not to get personally involved. A plane that disappeared from the Abu Dhabi airport. A face I have never seen and therefore would never have thought of:

Duncan’s contact.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen

 

“His name, Duncan. Your contact in Abu Dhabi. Provides information but never physical support, never offers back-up. Who is he?” I’m pacing, angry, the phone gripped to my ear. John is sitting at the table, looking worried.

“His name is Altan Osman,” Duncan says over the phone. He sounds tired. “He works for the government, the Emirate government.”

“How did you meet him?” I demand. “What’s the connection?”

There’s some noise in the background and Duncan isn’t responding, at least not to me. Then he’s back. “Sorry, Sherlock – your brother is requesting that you open a conversation on your tablet. He wants to be in on this.”

I turn to John and move the phone from my mouth. “The tablet. Please.”

John is on his feet in a heartbeat, going to the shoulder bag and pulling it out. He turns it on and pivots it to face me. “Here. I don’t know what you – ”

I’m there, bending over to stand it upright. (This is just as well; John might as well hear this immediately.) “All right,” I tell Duncan. “The messaging program is just opening. Is Mycroft there?”

“Yes, he’s here with me.” In the background I hear Mycroft telling Duncan to tell me to call.

“Tell him I will, just give me a second,” I say with irritation. The program logs in and I hit the button to call. When Mycroft and Duncan’s faces appear, I end the phone call. John pushes the chair behind me and when I’ve sat down, leans over my shoulder, our faces appearing in the upper right section of the screen.

Mycroft is seated next to Duncan now. “Sherlock, there’s a good deal I have to tell you, as well. But first, where is your landlady?”

“I sent her to stay with her brother in another part of the city.”

“Good. Now, what makes you think that it’s Osman who’s the leak?”

“It can only be him,” I say. “The leak began before Al-Amri was part of this operation. Duncan, your man has got to be connected to Yilmaz. You say he provides surveillance, correct? What’s a government employee doing running private surveillance, anyway?”

“The same thing that Al-Amri was doing?” Duncan says, frowning. “I suppose a lot of us have multiple projects on the go, as it were. It makes sense to me, though. I had no idea that Al-Amri was working for the Emirate government as well. It’s not a huge organisation; they must have known each other. I only just learned who Al-Amri is, so I couldn’t have foreseen the overlap, just as you didn’t know that my contact was with the government, either.”

“Al-Amri is exceptionally intelligent,” Mycroft puts in. “It’s quite possible that he caught on and Osman killed him or had him killed.”

“How do you know him?” I ask Duncan again.

“It’s simple enough,” Duncan tells me. “I needed a spot of local info on the ground in Dubai and Sheffield referred me to Osman, said he always had good leads on intel.”

Sheffield again. All the points of data keep coming back to him. Before I can say anything about this, Mycroft interrupts. “Sherlock, you need to know this: Duncan and I have begun some new interrogation strategies on Gürkan, and while he hasn’t cracked yet, I feel that he will soon enough. It’s only a matter of time.”

New interrogation strategies is Mycroft-speak for torture. Mild torture, perhaps, but torture nonetheless. Then again, it’s the gaoler. I glance at John, who is clearly sharing my thought and he looks grim. “Has he said anything of substance yet?”

Duncan defers to Mycroft, who says, “No. But your contact at Interpol came through with the file. We now have info to use against Gürkan, and it may be of significance to you. Bülow had a criminal record in Germany and was wanted for a few minor crimes in several European countries. No one had yet proved that he was involved in the arms trade but it was widely suspected and confirmed after his death. Yilmaz is wanted for widespread crimes from arms dealing to human trafficking and terrorism. Both of their DNA were on file: it’s a partial match. They were half-brothers. Stiefl told us that Bülow was the son of a Turkish guest worker, as they used to be called, and a German.”

I close my eyes, think approximately three thousand thoughts at once, then open my eyes and speak rapidly. “The Gastarbeiter: Turkish immigrants, for the most part, working under a program now discontinued in Germany in which migrant workers were allowed to come and work for one or two years, with monetary incentives to return to their countries of origin when the time came. However, many Turks stayed in Germany for three and four generations, often not learning German or attending German-language schools, generally Muslim, and a source of heated social debate after a time, the incidental popularity of Turkish Döner kebabs available on nearly every major street corner of most major German cities notwithstanding. It makes complete sense for the half-brother to have been Reiner Bülow: half-brothers, both arms dealers, one trading in personal weaponry, the other in explosives. German father, Turkish mother: his name is German and because of his father, he would have spoken German and integrated into German society but his features were more Turkish owing to his mother. Now, Altan Osman: Turkish name, not Arabic. His origins are in Turkey, not the United Arab Emirates. A spy, then, working for the Emirate government. Crosses paths with numerous other spies, including Sheffield, at some point. Did Sheffield know that he was affiliated with Yilmaz? Not likely. Did Al-Amri? Equally unlikely. The connection between Yilmaz and Bülow makes sense now: there was some manner of connection between Sheffield and Yilmaz, and because the two arms dealers were related, somehow Bülow was drawn into the triangle. Sheffield killed Bülow, thus earning him Yilmaz’ hatred and need for revenge. In the end, it all comes back to how and why Sheffield was connected to Yilmaz.” I stop, draw breath, and notice that all three listeners have fallen utterly silent.

Then John swallows, and speaks. “That is the most brilliant thing I have ever heard you say, and I’ve heard you say some rather brilliant things.”

I look at him, startled out of my deduction. Warmth blooms through my face and chest and it’s only because Mycroft and Duncan are watching that I must keep myself utterly still and not react to this, to John. I don’t entirely trust myself to speak, so I clear my throat, inhale, try to find my tongue.

Mycroft beats me to it, though. “So if your theory is correct, Sheffield was Yilmaz’ primary target all along.”

“Yes,” I say. More of it becomes clear. “But because Osman was running Yilmaz’ surveillance, I was seen with Sheffield and mistaken as his colleague, rather than a chance companion met on the road. And I must have been seen again in Yemen – in fact, I must have been followed electronically since the day of the bombing in Hamburg, when Sheffield killed Bülow and his entire group. So when I was seen in Yemen, I wasn’t just seen as someone who was following Yilmaz – they recognised me. Thought I was there to do the same thing to Yilmaz, which was why they expected me to be more upset when they told me of Sheffield’s injury; they thought they had foiled my plan. I was the idiot who didn’t know what I’d stumbled into. It all makes so much sense now!”

“But what was Sheffield’s connection to Yilmaz, then?” John asks. “Why was Sheffield pursuing him in the first place, all alone?”

I look at him, seeing the thought on his face. “You’re wondering if Sheffield was dealing with him,” I say.

“That was always a possibility,” Mycroft says from the other side of the screen, but Duncan bristles.

“No,” he says. “Not Sheffield. Anyone else, but not him. He was incorruptible, I’d swear it.”

“Hamish,” Mycroft says, gently for him, “I’m afraid to say that that’s what everyone thinks of their colleagues. Your loyalty is… touching, but we have to consider all of the possibilities.”

“But arms dealing?” Duncan presses. “Why would a lone agent get himself involved in something like that? You don’t understand – Sheffield was smart, nearly as smart as the two of you. He would research for months before making a move. He was always finding intel that anyone else could have missed. And it drove him. He had nothing else, no family. The work was everything for him.”

John glances at me; can feel it rather than see it. I think again of my instinctive liking for Sheffield – or not liking, perhaps, but kinship of a sort. Sheffield was a lone wolf sort, the way I had always thought of myself in the days before John. “I don’t know – yet,” I say. “The gaoler. You’ve got to get that from him, Mycroft. If Sheffield was working with Yilmaz, he would know.”

Mycroft nods. “Yes. Agreed. Meanwhile, what do you want to do?”

I think rapidly. Someone stole an aircraft and flew it, possibly, here. Someone desperate enough to risk being tracked by multiple air traffic control towers in multiple countries and steadfast enough not to declare himself. Someone very certain that I would be coming to Berlin. If it’s connected, but my gut instinct says that it is. Instinct is no replacement for solid fact, but when one is lacking in facts, instinct is the next best tool. “Wait,” I say. “We wait. If the pilot of the stolen aircraft is, as I suspect, Osman, then they’ll all be coming here sooner or later. If Osman still had surveillance in Yemen, which is likely, as he must have done the first time I was there, they’ll know by now that it was John and I who grabbed Gürkan. They’ll be looking for us. They’ll be panicked. Desperate to silence me before Gürkan tells us too much. They know that I have motive for revenge, between my own imprisonment and Sheffield’s murder. The attack on the hospital that should have killed me and didn’t. The attack on this building that I managed to miss. If they know I’m here, they’ll come.”

Mycroft and Duncan are both silent for a moment, troubled looks on both their faces. “It’s very risky,” Mycroft says finally. “There are too many unknown variables. We don’t even know whether that missing aircraft is connected to this at all. And if it is, we don’t know who is in it. What if the leak was Al-Amri? He knows more about your current movements than Osman would, in all likelihood. What if it wasn’t the same leak consistently? What if it was Osman’s surveillance that got you caught in Sana’a and targeted in Berlin and Edinburgh, but it was Al-Amri who sold you out later?”

Sometimes I loathe how Mycroft always knows which questions to ask. He’s got a point, multiple points, even. (Still.) “There’s no alternative,” I argue. “If we know they’re coming and gunning for us, we can at least control the territory, force the confrontation.”

“He’s a bomber, Sherlock; he’s not going to come to a fire fight!” Mycroft sounds exasperated.

“But we’ll be here first,” John puts in. “We’ll be able to see them coming. Sherlock is right: they’re coming for us anyway, and we want to catch them, so what’s wrong with here and now?”

Mycroft glances at Duncan, who gives a conciliatory look and says, “Better there in Berlin, territory that Sherlock already knows, than playing cat-and-mouse for another six months and finally getting surprised with a showdown in Tokyo or something, where they’re controlling the territory and have the upper hand.”

“You could come back to London,” Mycroft offers. “You know London better than Berlin. And I’d have more people in place to act as back-up.”

I shake my head. “It may already be too late to change locations,” I point out. “If Osman is here, then Yilmaz is on his way. If we move now, we could escape, yes, but we would lose track of them. This is precisely what we wanted, what Duncan was hoping to achieve in getting captured. He led us to them in Yemen, but we didn’t know enough there – neither the territory nor the facts of the situation. We attained another source of information in the gaoler. Now is the time to move in and catch them. If we lose them now, we’ll lose everything we’ve been working toward and it may take us months to track them down again.”

“If you arrived in Berlin before Osman did, which is likely, they may not even know where you are now,” Mycroft presses. “Unless Osman has an ongoing surveillance network in every city, but once they bombed your flat, who would suspect you of going back there specifically?”

Again, he has a very valid point. And he’s correct in his assertion that we need back-up. If John and I use ourselves as the bait, who will be there to surround the bombers when they come to target the building? Then an idea strikes. “Mycroft!” I say. “We’ll leak the information that I’m alive, survived the fall, et cetera, that John is here with me, staying with my former landlady. We could go viral with it, hit social media sites and maybe get a headline in some major papers in Berlin and London – might as well get it over with – and simply publish our whereabouts.”

I look at John while Mycroft chews this over and he’s nodding. “That’s practically a gilded invitation to come out and play,” he says. “And meanwhile, they’ll know they’re walking into a trap but how could they possibly resist? Plus Osman will know that Kathrin outed him, which may scare him off the scent at least until Yilmaz and his crew arrive. But what about back-up?”

Duncan clears his throat at this juncture. “How long is the flight from Sana’a to Berlin?”

(Calculate rapidly.) “Approximately six and a half hours if it’s direct.”

“And London to Berlin?”

“About an hour and a half.”

Duncan looks at Mycroft. “I’ll go,” he says, his voice quiet and very firm.

Mycroft objects, because he’s Mycroft and it wasn’t his idea first. “You’re only just recovering,” he says. “You’ve been through a lot.”

“I’m an intelligence agent,” Duncan says, shrugging. “We need people we can trust on this, and that’s a very short list right now. Salib is too far. And who else do we trust? Interpol?”

Mycroft shakes his head. “Too many unknowns. But it may be our only option.”

“You could ask Helga Stiefl,” I say. “She would have people here, if you trust her.”

“I don’t trust anyone,” Mycroft says flatly, ruling it out. He makes one of those frog-faced grimaces and straightens his tie. “I’ll come.”

You’ll come?” John says, before I can react. He’s leaning further over my shoulder, his expression somewhere between disbelief and anger. “Mycroft – after what you did – ”

“Please,” Mycroft cuts him off, wincing very slightly, “now is not the time for dramatics. Here is what we’ll do: I will contact Stiefl and have her provide some people who will not be given any of the salient data, just to have people on hand. You, meanwhile, will spend the next three or four hours letting the world know that you’re alive, Sherlock, and that John Watson is with you.”

“Hold on,” John says, cheeks reddened (he hates being interrupted). “You’re supposed to be interrogating Gürkan.”

“Yes,” I say. Everyone goes silent, looking at me. I’m thinking over the small idea that just came to me and decide I like it. “Mycroft, you have to stay in London and complete the interrogation. We need that information. Send Lestrade.

Lestrade?” Mycroft echoes, astonished.

“Why not? He’s good. We know him. We trust him, more or less.”

John is looking at me (can feel it again). “He did arrest you,” he says quietly. “But I agree. And he made up for it, at your funeral. What he said.”

His voice is even but I wince internally at his mentioning the subject of my funeral. (Is it still painful for him? Consider: yes. It must be. It’s John. He wouldn’t have forgotten that or got over it.) I turn my head and meet his eyes, silently trying to convey something like an apology. He shakes his head almost imperceptibly and one corner of his mouth tightens in the foreshadowing of a smile. I look back at Mycroft. “Contact him,” I say. “He’ll come.”

“Are you sure?” Mycroft sounds dubious. “He has his own duties to attend to. He’s not a field agent.”

“Neither are we,” I say. “Just do it and stop arguing, Mycroft.”

Duncan looks at my brother. “This is DI Lestrade, M?”

M. Had nearly forgotten that. “Yes,” Mycroft says shortly. “Fine. I’ll get him on the flight.”

“Good,” I say. “Mycroft: you need to get whatever you can from the gaoler. I want to know what the connection to Sheffield was. It won’t change what we do with Yilmaz, but I want to know before Yilmaz dies or is carted off to a prison cell where he’ll never willingly give any information again.”

He nods, still making one of those uncomplimentary grimaces of his. “That’s next on my agenda after this regardless. I’ll get the information.”

Duncan meets my eyes and a silent understanding passes between us. We’re both tired of this, tired of not knowing why our sometime-colleague was killed, and I am tired of this entire operation. “I’ll text when we land,” is all Duncan says, and Mycroft leans in and pushes the button to disconnect the call before anyone else can say anything.

John is still bending over the chair, leaning his forearm across the back of my shoulders. He squeezes them as he straightens up. “Thank God Mycroft got all of the genes that make him so uniquely annoying.”

I turn my face just a little (hadn’t consciously meant to do that, but perhaps my slow-to-waken instincts are beginning to kick in after all.) John catches my unspoken hint (of course) and puts his lips briefly to mine. “I thought you said I was an annoying dick all of the time.”

“Please don’t remind me that I said that,” John says, pulling away. He’s frowning. (Oh. Had not meant to bring up that specific memory, particularly not when he was already thinking about my funeral.)

“It’s all right,” I say, clumsily trying to reassure him. “You said it more than once. And it was always true.”

His shoulders unclench a bit and he pats me firmly on the back once. “Fair enough. Okay, let’s focus: where do you want to start? Facebook? Twitter?”

I smile at him. “Your blog. And then all of the above.”

John smiles back, a real smile, and very fond. “Right, then. Let’s get to work.”

***

I study the blog entry, which John has just finished (with my insertions, naturally). It reads:

29th March:

First entry in over two years and it’s a bombshell!
Ladies and gentlemen, Sherlock Holmes lives! Afraid I’ve been
sitting on this one for a little while. So much I can’t say just yet,
but the short version goes like this:
I found out that Sherlock was still alive about a
month ago. He faked his death and is alive and well!
We’re on an important mission which I can’t tell you
about just yet. All I can say is that we’re in Berlin,
staying in the building where he lived for a little while
when he was away from London. I know there are some
of you who still think he’s a fake, but the truth couldn’t
be more different: Sherlock Holmes is a hero, and he
saved my life, the life of our landlady Mrs Hudson, and
our friend DI ******** when he defeated Moriarty.
I never doubted him and am very proud to know him.
He’s a great man and if you believed in him all along,
bless you. We’ve got some things we have to do here,
but we’re hoping to be home soon.

(Comments disabled)

He insisted on putting in the hero bit and wouldn’t budge on it. Three hours have passed since the conference call; Duncan and Lestrade should be landing within the hour. Meanwhile John has updated his Facebook page, emailed a friend or two, and we’ve just finished an interview with a member of the Associated Press, who will be forwarding the story to every major newspaper in Berlin, Paris, New York, and most importantly, London. The interview came with a photograph (we insisted; otherwise it wouldn’t seem believable). John looks more or less the same as he had before, still thinner than he should be, but with my short hair and different clothes, lack of coat or deerstalker, it’s obviously a recent photograph. The dubious will dismiss it as a digital alteration of an old photo, most likely, but we’ve persuaded several shop owners in the vicinity to upload tweets and mobile phone photos as well, so perhaps having multiple sources will help. The journalist assured us that the interview would be published in the earliest editions. He was quite excited by the entire thing; I hadn’t known I’d had such a following even here in Germany.

My phone pings. Text from Duncan.

Landed. Hiring a car.
Be there shortly.

They’re coming from Tegel with Helga Stiefl, who is meeting them personally to brief them before she goes by the flat of Kathrin Reger’s brother in Wedding to check on their security escort and see that all is quiet. Duncan is going to set up our own video surveillance once he arrives (Mycroft texted that before disappearing back into whichever dungeon he’s got the gaoler in); meanwhile John and I are armed and ready in the event that something happens before Duncan and Lestrade arrive. It’s been quiet so far. We walked to Wilmersdorfestrasse and persuaded clerks in the O2 store (mobile phones), the Starbucks, the Lidl (grocery), the Goethe Apotheke (pharmacy), and posed for a ludicrously cheerful photo at one of the outdoor tables in front of the Fantasia Eiscafe. The entire outing took forty minutes; we kept our actual exposure to an absolute minimum. Quick entrance into the shop, location of a manager or clerk, quick-as-possible explanation, often in my best efforts at German, the request for a twitter update with a photo, with GPS activated so that it would be painfully easy for anyone to triangulate between the multiple locations to confirm that we are, in fact, in Charlottenburg, just three streets over from Kathrin’s building. Even the Eiscafe was just a pose; we took our beverages and departed the instant the photo was uploaded. Every business was on Wilmersdorferstrasse, a pedestrian zone (safer for us; as long as we’re on foot it’s best that anyone pursuing us therefore be on foot as well, obviously), between the U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations at Kantstrasse, up to Schillerstrasse. Then we ducked back onto a sidestreet and got ourselves back indoors and out of sight. John has signed up for a Twitter account under an alias just to follow our progress and the news is spreading rapidly: perfect. The Eiscafe picture surfaces and we have a good laugh at it, sitting on the sofa in Kathrin’s empty flat.

“It looks like we’re on a date,” John says fondly, holding the tablet closer to his face.

I lean over and expand the photo for him with my fingers. It’s true. We look happy. (Well: I look bizarre and unnatural, the smile too wide, but I suppose I can see why John likes it. We’re clinking our tall glasses of Eiskaffee (coffee with ice cream) together and grinning like idiots.) I take the tablet from him after a moment and search through the SherlockLives! hashtag for the photograph I preferred. There it is, the one the Starbucks barista took: we’re outside on the cobbled pavement, just walking (the photo was designed to look as though it was taken without our having posed, by a passerby), with the Starbucks sign visible in the background for geographical placement. John and I are looking at each other and smiling, his hair ruffled in the late-March breeze. We’re not touching but it looks tangibly affectionate. I can feel what he feels for me by looking at it. “I like this one,” I say.

John looks at it for a long moment, smiling as though to himself. “So do I,” he says. “I’d like to have it framed, sometime.”

I keep my unspoken objections to myself, knowing that he’ll hear me thinking them regardless. I am correct: he looks at me, one quick, diagnostic look, and tugs the tablet back, laying it on the sofa beside him. (He’s going to kiss me. Can feel it. Want him to.) I’m correct again: his hand is reaching for my face already and he doesn’t bother saying anything, trying to reassure me for the thousandth time. Instead he just kisses me for a very long time. No one tries to turn it into anything else; I don’t want anything else. I just want this, a stolen moment of calm between the action, and perhaps a rare spot of being alone. He is infinitely gentle, his tenderness every bit the match for his not-inconsiderable temper. His hands are on my face and neck and at the back of my hair, which has grown out just enough that he can grip it between his flattened fingers and tug gently as his lips and tongue caress mine. (It’s perfection. I make a herculean effort not to think despairingly about what will happen after the grand finale with Yilmaz and just take this for what it is, stay with it and take everything I can from it. I vow to myself that I will never forget a second of this, so that if the worst happens and John leaves me once this is done, I will be able to think back to every nanosecond of being with him, every single kiss, the way his hands and mouth feel.)

After a short eternity, John breaks away but stays very, very close. I lean my forehead against his, eyes closed as his thumbs stroke over my cheekbones. “Where are we staying tonight?” he asks, voice soft.

This is a very good question. “Here, I suppose,” I say, opening my eyes and relocating the thread of my thoughts with only a small amount of difficulty. “Duncan will have the surveillance set-up. They can position themselves outside somewhere. Car, perhaps. We’ll have the cameras and the motion sensors, and this flat has a back door.”

“What if we’re surrounded by time the alarms are tripped?”

Shake my head. “They won’t be. Mycroft said the sensors will pick up any movement from two hundred metres away.”

“And if they’re already here, in the building or something?” John asks. (Military strategist: he made captain for a reason, after all.)

“Then we’d be dead already,” I say. Press my lips to his forehead. “We’ll be all right. We’ll stay awake so that we’re alert.”

John smiles at me. “You’re getting better at that,” he says lightly.

Feel myself frown. “At what?”

He points at his own forehead. “That,” he says, still smiling. “Spontaneous gestures of affection. Without thinking about it strategically first. I liked it. You should do things like that more often.”

My face burns. I get off the sofa and walk toward the table. (If he wanted revenge for my having mentioned him calling me an annoying dick the day of my fake suicide, he’s got it.)

“Sherlock – ” John sounds concerned, is crossing over to me. He sounds apologetic. “I’m sorry, that was a bit tactless, I suppose,” he says, slipping his arms around my waist from behind me. He kisses the back of my neck. “I just meant – I know it’s not been completely easy – I don’t know, being in your first relationship, I guess. You hate not knowing everything there is to know about something and I know a lot of this has been – well – new. I just wanted to encourage it. You’re behaving like a proper boyfriend and I love it. I didn’t mean it to sound patronising.”

(Hate that he still has to be kind about this, that I am still so fraught with fragile worries about every single thing I do with him, so concerned that one misstep could be the thing that finally decides him against me.) I turn abruptly in his arms and put mine around his shoulders, holding him close to avoid him seeing my face for another moment or two while I try to gain control over my expression. “It’s all right.” (I sound short. Didn’t mean to, precisely.)

“I liked it,” John repeats, somehow managing to sound both insistent and slightly unsure of himself. “I just – I’m sorry.”

“Stop. Don’t be sorry.” Pause. “I’m glad you like it when I do that. It is new, and you’re right that I don’t like feeling like such a – such a novice, I suppose. I just want to be able to make you happy.”

“You do,” John says, his arms tightening. “You do, Sherlock.”

I kiss the top of his head again and he pulls my mouth down to his again. It lasts until the buzzer sounds, startling us both. I pull away. “They’re here,” I say unnecessarily.

“I’ll get it,” he says, his spine stiffening, hand going automatically to the gun at the back of his waistband.

I let him. No sense interfering when he’s in protective soldier mode. And Osman would hardly ring the buzzer, would he? John opens the door after checking the peephole (I take my hand off the gun in my own waistband) and Duncan is there, Lestrade just over his shoulder. John stands back to let them in and for a moment all four of us just stand there, no one quite sure what to say. John locks the door behind them. Lestrade’s eyes are on my face, incredulous. “Shit,” he says. “It really is true. Bloody hell!”

Feel the corner of my mouth twitching. “Good to see you, too, Lestrade.”

His face splits into a white-toothed grin. “You look amazing for a dead bloke. Shit!” He comes over and I allow him to hug me, one of those bracing we’re-all-men-here hugs that involve a lot of back slapping and upper arm gripping. I endure it and pat him back. He releases me, still grinning. “I couldn’t believe it when your brother called. I know it’s not the time, and Duncan here’s filled me in quite a bit, but I’ll still want the whole story sometime when all this is done. Over a pint or two, mind.”

“Or three,” John says.

I smile back at Lestrade. “Certainly.”

I turn to Duncan. “Duncan.” We shake hands. “Glad you could make it. Are you all right?”

“Sure, yeah,” he says, with one of his trademark shrugs. He smiles, though it doesn’t entirely reach his eyes. “Still got some, er, therapy to get through, but otherwise fine, more or less.”

John glances at me, then Duncan. “Nightmares?” he guesses. “Been there. They’ll stop after a bit. Don’t let them get to you.”

Duncan nods brusquely. “All right, then. As we’ve established, it’s not really the time for chitchat. I’ll go out and set up the cameras and all that. Lestrade here’s got the earpieces and radios, so I’ll leave the three of you with that. All the social media in place?”

“Oh yeah,” John assures him. “We’re viral. And it’s a hit. My blog post alone has got over nineteen hundred hits in the past two hours and it’s being tweeted, plus we got ourselves into all sorts of posts on Twitter, Facebook, all that. Listen, do you need a hand out there?”

“Me? No. Thanks, though. Plus,” Duncan adds, “you need to keep your face as hidden as possible, isn’t that about the size of it?”

“True,” John concedes.

Duncan goes, leaving the three of us standing in an awkward circle. “So,” Lestrade says finally. “Er – it feels so weird to say this after I already said it at your funeral, but – Jesus, Sherlock, I’m so sorry. I really am. I’ve never done something I regret more. You have no idea how badly I’ve felt, all this time. I am so bloody relieved that you’re alive – and I can’t quite believe you still want to work with me. It sat me right on my arse when your brother called out of the blue like that.”

(This is painful.) “Stop,” I say, a little more sharply than I’d intended. “Stop castigating yourself; it’s humiliating. It’s all right. You were just doing your job. And yes, John says you rather made up for it by what you said at the funeral.”

Lestrade shoots John a look through narrowed eyes. “You told him?”

“What? No. Not what you said, just that you said nice things,” John says. “Thought you’d maybe want to tell him yourself.”

“Let’s save it for when there’s alcohol to make it less awkward,” I say dryly, and they laugh.

Lestrade exhales deeply. “I didn’t even say hi to you yet,” he says to John now. He moves in and they perform the ritual exchange of the masculine hug, although John is gentler, patting Lestrade on the back. They separate and Lestrade surveys him. “You’re looking good, too. Thinner, though.”

John gives a slightly-forced smile. “Yeah, well. What can I say?”

I realise he doesn’t know whether Lestrade’s remark was meant as criticism or praise. I’m not sure, either. John was never carrying extra weight, though his ridiculous jumpers sometimes made it look that way. I think now that he must have lost weight when he was grieving. (Pang of unwelcome guilt. Better than having let him die, wasn’t it? I remind myself, and push it away.)

Lestrade tries again, possibly searching for less sensitive ground. “Heard you got engaged,” he says. “Congratulations!”

It falls even flatter, the air becoming strained. “Er, thanks,” John says, steadfastly not looking at me.

Lestrade looks at me as though looking for an explanation. I’m not sure what my face is doing but whatever it is makes him nearly take a step back. “Christ,” he says. “I’ve obviously put my foot in it. Er – are you two, uh…” His gaze moves suspiciously back and forth between us.

John rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms. “Yes,” he says, sounding like he’s forcing it out. He puts his hands down and looks Lestrade in the eye. “We are. And yeah. I am engaged.”

(See Lestrade’s eyes flick to John’s face, then back to mine, putting it together.) “But, uh, not to…?”

“No,” I say shortly. “Her name is Mary. Anyway. You have the audio equipment, yes?”

Lestrade looks back at John, cringing a little. John shrugs. “Yeah,” Lestrade says. He goes to the table and sets down his bag, unzipping it. “I’ve got it all here. Let’s get it set up. Duncan and Mycroft have told me a fair bit – by the way, Sherlock, how did you conveniently forget to mention all these years that your bloody brother is M?”

I shrug in turn. “He likes to maintain the myth that he ‘occupies a minor position in the British government’. Yes: he runs MI6 and there’s a great deal of crossover with MI5 as well. Shared agents and such. You should see his surveillance dungeon in the basement of his building.”

“It’s quite something,” John adds, picking up a hand-held radio. “Okay, so what’s all this stuff?”

***

Lestrade and Duncan are both gone now, outside in their rental car. John and I are both wearing earpieces and mics, as are they. Duncan came in with food he picked up at the Thai place around the corner on Stuttgarter Platz. Can’t remember its name, something about orchids. Always liked it. Duncan and Lestrade went back to the car after double-checking the motion sensors one last time, leaving John and I on our own. We’ve eaten now and John is checking our progress on the social media sites. After a bit, he gets to his feet and comes back to the table where I’m reading BBC Online on my phone. “Sherlock?”

I look up, lifting my brows in response.

“What happened to your flat?”

(I don’t understand the question.) “What do you mean? It was bombed.”

“But that was this building, wasn’t it?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say briefly. “It was localised to my flat. Some damage to the one above, but otherwise it was just mine.”

“I didn’t notice anything from outside,” John says. “They can’t have fixed it already, could they?”

“The outer walls were rebuilt,” I say. “It was winter. They’d have had to. I imagine it was necessary for the structural integrity as well.”

“Which floor was it on?”

“Fourth storey,” I say. “Why?”

“How many storeys in the building?”

“Seven, I believe.”

John nods. “So that would have been a tricky bomb to rig. Definitely Yilmaz’ people you think?”

“I do, yes.” I study him. “Why?”

John shrugs, looking a touch (resigned? Disappointed?) “Suddenly I was just hoping that maybe it was all a coincidence or something. I guess not, though.”

“No,” I agree. “Not very likely. They’re very good. But we’re better.”

John gives me a half-smile for that. “Let’s not get cocky,” he warns. “Can we go up and see it?”

(Have deliberately avoided even thinking about this.) Hesitate. “Why?” I try, though I know how set John can become once he gets an idea.

“I’d just like to see it,” he says, in that firm way of his. Firm, but not insistent. He would let it go if I said I’d rather not.

Nonetheless, the urge to please him is difficult to ignore. “All right,” I say, trying to sound as though it doesn’t matter one way or another. Then, turning my face closer to the mic pinned to my collar, say, “Did you catch that, Duncan? Lestrade? We’re just going up to the fourth floor.”

“Got it,” Duncan’s voice says.

“We’ll watch your little dots from here,” Lestrade chips in, meaning the GPS locators they’ll be able to follow on one of the many screens in the surveillance den Duncan has built in the rental car.

John grins and shakes his head. “Come on,” he says to me. I take Kathrin’s keys and lock the door behind us. It was always a fairly safe building, at least until the day it was bombed, but the tablet is there, with far too much compromising information on it, even locked and password-protected as it is.

We take the stairs and at the fourth floor I look down the corridor to my right toward the place I once considered a safe refuge. I had just moved here when I went to Prague to investigate the group that turned out to be Bülow and his operation. I had just acquired a new mobile then at the O2 store on Wilmersdorferstrasse, under the alias of Hans Walther. I used this address. Osman must have got the information directly from the O2 network or something, I suppose, the instant I was seen with Sheffield on the train from Prague to Berlin, or somewhere between Neukölln and Hamburg. Perhaps after Hamburg, when I came back here. It was home base for awhile. The closest thing to home I’d had in all the time since I left London. It was the last door on the left. There is a simple barricade in front of the door, similar to the sort that are used to barricade a roadway during construction. I move it and test the doorknob. Unlocked, it swings open.

Inside, the flat is dark and empty and cold. The interior walls are all gone. The exterior walls are nothing more than plywood, stacks of pink insulation stacked against them to prevent loss of heating. The floor is still in place, but the ceiling was blown upward; one can still see into the flat above. Beside me, John silently takes my hand. He leans over and I think he’s going to kiss my ear or something but he whispers, “Turn off your mic for a moment.”

I let go of his hand to reach into my trouser pocket for the small control box and do as he says without questioning it, my eyebrows lifted inquiringly instead.

John switches his own off, then says, “So this is where you lived. For how long?”

“Officially, I suppose about seven or eight months,” I say, “though I was gone much of the time. I probably spent about four months here at the maximum. It was a home base of sorts. I left my clothes and the few things I had picked up here when I would find another group to investigate. The longest I was gone was nearly three months, when I went to Saudi Arabia. I was there for six or seven weeks, then went to Yemen, and you know what happened there. That was basically the end of my living here. I came back here after Cyprus and slept here one night. The next evening when I came back – from eating at the very restaurant Duncan brought us dinner from, in fact – I could already see the fire from the end of the street and thought that it was the paranoia suggesting it had anything to do with me. When it had everything to do with me,” I say. It sounds bitter.

John puts his hand in mine again, twines our fingers together. “What did you do?” he asks.

“I was in a bit of a panic. It was obvious when I arrived that the fire was in my flat specifically. I heard people in the crowd in the street saying that there had been an explosion or a bomb, and I knew then that it was no accident. I got away from there and went to the U-Bahn and took about five trains until I was in an area called Alt-Tempelhof. I stayed in a small hotel there, just the first one I found, then went to the lesser-used airport and flew to Edinburgh to find Sheffield the next morning.”

“I’d have been scared shitless,” John says frankly, though he’s speaking softly.

“I was,” I admit. “I didn’t know what else to do. Sheffield always seemed so calm, so hardened and competent. He was the real thing, not like me. He’d been a field agent most of his life. Before that he was Black Watch, so he was very much accustomed to violent situations, always knew how to double- and triple-check the right things, knew which angles a sniper could find, all that. Like you, but only in that way.”

“And then you got to Edinburgh and the hospital blew up in your face,” John says ruefully. “Jesus.”

“I knew there was something wrong,” I tell him, tightening my fingers in his. “I had tried to call him at the hospital, remember, and the lady on the phone said there’d been some large scale problem with a lot of the machines and that patients had been ‘affected’, which I assumed was her euphemism for dead. She couldn’t tell me if Sheffield was one of them, but I assumed that something was very wrong. So I thought I should at least get there and see what was happening. Either I was followed again or there was something rigged so that the instant I set foot on the property, the explosions began. I’ll likely never know precisely how that worked. And then, as I was running from the explosion, I suddenly remembered that I was in Britain again. I stopped in my tracks and looked for a camera and literally shouted my brother’s name. The last thing I remember is every camera on the street corner turning to point at me.”

John shivers. “To think I would ever find that a comforting mental image.”

“I know,” I say. I’m about to suggest we go back downstairs but he isn’t finished.

“And then you woke up in the Swiss embassy,” John recalls. “And Mycroft was there.”

“Yes,” I say. “Which was also a relief. I woke up not knowing where I was. I’d been hit in the head and was severely dehydrated, so I didn’t quite have all my wits about me just yet.” I give his hand a tug. “Let’s go back downstairs.” (Don’t want to say this, but even talking about it brings back the paranoia, standing so close to the place where I targeted, the place I had thought of as safe and anonymous. Had I come back half an hour earlier, it would have worked, I would have died in the explosion. I remember that dinner, eating slowly, worried that the month of a diet of bulgur wheat porridge might have weakened my digestion to the point of making Thai cuisine intolerable, and thinking of John and Christmases at Baker Street. It occurs to me now that if thinking of John at the time was what slowed me down that night, in a sense it was he who saved my life. Again. He will never stop saving me, I think. Someday, I should tell him this.)

Back in Kathrin’s flat, Duncan’s voice speaks in both our ears. “You two awake? You haven’t said a word in about half an hour now.”

“And trust me, Sherlock, everyone who’s met you knows how rare that is,” Lestrade puts in.

John snickers and turns his mic back on. “Nothing to worry about,” he assures them. “We just had our mics switched off.”

“Private conversation?” Duncan asks with an audible smirk. Lestrade has either told him or he’s figured it out for himself. (Did he notice in Yemen already? Could not possibly care less but it’s somewhat interesting to speculate. Are we that obvious?)

“Yes,” John says candidly. “Be nice or I’ll repeat it in lurid detail.”

I catch myself laughing at this. It’s juvenile and full of attitude and very funny. (I should have kissed John that day at Buckingham Palace, I think suddenly. It’s not the first time I’ve had this thought. Or when we were walking away from our very first crime scene. Or the moment I met him. I should have taken one look at him and known. I did know; I knew something. I knew instinctively that he would fit, that he was right, that he was the one person who would fit into my life and that I wanted him there. I just didn’t know exactly how. I should tell him all of this someday, too, I think.) I look at him and think that perhaps I should do it now. It could be our last chance. The words are on the tip of my tongue but I remember the mics and catch myself.

John sees the look on my face, whatever it might be, and his expression changes abruptly, the laughter disappearing. “Turning the mics off again,” he says to the other two, eyes not leaving mine. “We’ll check in with you in a bit.”

I follow his lead and turn mine off again, giving him a quizzical look.

“You looked like you were about to say something I very much wanted to hear,” John says, with a smile.

I smile back, take a step toward him and open my mouth to start trying to put into words a bit of what I was just thinking. “John,” I begin. “Perhaps we should – ” I stop. My pocket is vibrating. I frown and pull out my phone. Mycroft: a call, not a text. “I’m sorry,” I say to John. “It’s Mycroft.”

He waves it off. “No, of course. You have to take it.” There’s a small line between his brows.

I answer. “Yes?” I’m tense. Mycroft rarely calls without texting first.

My brother is even more tense. Considerably more, I realise instantly, with concern. “Turn the tablet on. Call me when you’re connected. Is John there with you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Lestrade and Duncan?”

“Outside in the car.”

“You can brief them after as you see fit. Duncan will likely want to hear this.” Mycroft hangs up.

I put the phone down and go to the tablet. “We have to call him. It sounds like he has news.”

“Bad news?” John asks, that line deepening.

“It didn’t sound particularly good.” The tablet is on, the internet calling program turning itself on. I pull the two chairs together and we arrange ourselves in front of the screen as the call is connecting.

Mycroft looks tired and old, his hair in unusual disarray. He rubs his eyes. I have only rarely seen Mycroft actually look tired before, and wonder for a moment when he last slept. He was definitely awake for the whole of the previous night with the missing aircraft and his missing agent. He’s practically grey in the face with fatigue and possibly stress. I realise this worries me. Other people get tired and weary-looking. Not Mycroft. He clears his throat. “Some updates,” he says. “Out of professional courtesy, this should be said first: Al-Amri is dead.”

I hear John’s sharp inhalation beside me. I feel blank. “When?” My voice sounds flat, uninflected.

“Initial examination suggests three days ago. The body was moved, however.” Mycroft looks away for a moment, then looks back directly into the camera at me. “They put it in Salib’s hotel room for him to find.”

“Oh, God,” John says, covering his mouth.

(It’s shocking, yet I can’t feel the same freedom of self-expression that John comes to so easily.) “When did he find it?”

“An hour ago. He’s very upset, to put it mildly. In fact, he’s resigned,” Mycroft says, with a sigh. “Hardly surprising. They always resign.”

“Always?” I repeat. “What do you mean?”

Mycroft pinches the bridge of his nose. “I mean that people frequently resign when their partners defect or are killed in the field. Even more so in the infrequent cases when they were more than work partners,” Mycroft says, eyes moving toward John but not looking him in the eye. “I didn’t know that until now. Normally we try to prevent these sorts of attachments from forming, as it tends to compromise people. I don’t think that it did in their case; they were both incredibly professional and skilled agents. Salib still would be, but at the moment he is beside himself with grief and obviously it’s not the moment to try to persuade him to stay with us. In any case, it was definitely murder, and placing the corpse in their hotel room was an obvious taunt and warning. I have a helicopter on its way to Abu Dhabi to extract Salib now.”

“How was Al-Amri killed?” I ask, fearing the answer.

He knows that I know. “It was brutal and cruel,” Mycroft says shortly. “He was tortured, and from the extent of the damage to the body it would suggest that he certainly held out for a very long time. One can only hope that he was finally put out of his misery before he said anything. His fingers and toes were burnt off, his lungs were full of water, there were large acid burns on his face, burning entirely through the cheeks so that the teeth were visible. Other lesser injuries; he was beaten, four broken ribs, one shattered by a blunt object of some sort. There was significant blood loss, likely from a knife wound to the kidney area. It would have been slow and exquisitely painful, all of which Salib could easily have deduced for himself on seeing the body.”

I can’t think of what to say. A heaviness settles into my throat, making it difficult to speak. I swallow and try to get past it. “What else?” I ask, trying not to think of Al-Amri.

Mycroft heaves yet another sigh. “The interrogation is finished. You and Duncan were correct: Sheffield was not a traitor. He did, however, have a fair bit going on that he possibly should have thought to tell you about before involving you in his own private war with two of the biggest arms dealing rings in the east. From what Gürkan told me, I can tell you that Sheffield was attempting to set up a sting. He was trying to infiltrate Yilmaz’ group as a client, while in fact trying to catch Yilmaz making a transaction. Sheffield’s cover was a success. His angle was that he’d lost badly in the stock market and was looking to recover his funds in a hurry in the sale of illegal explosives. Yilmaz believed him. He set up a bad deal where he defaulted on his side of the delivery of the goods, whereupon Yilmaz had the monetary transfer reversed at the last second, before it could be traced. This was a slight mistake on Sheffield’s part; if he had properly understood the finer details of how the wire transfer was going to work, he would have realised how long it would take to complete, as it was routed through a third party bank. Basic money laundering at its finest. It’s always a fatal mistake not to do your researching where banking is concerned. Where it gets particularly ugly is that Sheffield had somehow made a local contact, someone who was feeding him information and warned him off and then kept in contact, sending him updates and information on Yilmaz’ operation. The informant was caught and killed.”

“Who was it?” I ask.

Mycroft puts his elbows on the desk and rubs his temples with both hands. “It was a boy. A twelve-year-old boy. He wasn’t involved in any way with the operation; he was just a local who knew the streets and knew how to listen, I suppose. Gürkan said they finally caught him on a security camera and had him killed. Bomb placed under his bedroom window.”

Everything slides into place. “Of course,” I say, my voice like wood. “In Sana’a. The murder I was investigating. I knew it wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill murder, who targets a twelve-year-old kid? And that’s how I stumbled onto Yilmaz’ entire operation, because I saw the murder that was more than a murder. It was silencing and revenge and punishment for his family all in one. And it was a warning to Sheffield.”

“So, as you correctly surmised, when you were seen investigating the boy’s death, you were recognised from your previous sightings in Sheffield’s company,” Mycroft tells me. “Sheffield found out about the boy’s murder and knew from his associations with Yilmaz that there was a German-Turkish half-brother in the business. When he met Bülow, not only did he know of his connection to Sheffield, but knew that Bülow would know him if he got a good look at him. He used you as his smoke screen; any time there was a security camera, Sheffield somehow managed to duck behind you, using you as a shield. It wasn’t that he deliberately got you to look at the cameras or anything; he just used you as a means of not being seen, himself. And I doubt he was ever planning anything other than bombing Bülow’s group to kingdom come, as he evidently used a device stolen from Yilmaz during his time in Yemen. It was a message. And he had the boy to avenge. His motive seems quite clear to me, wouldn’t you say?”

The heaviness is still there. I feel like an absolute idiot. That entire time – my having heard about Bülow on my own and going in without the first notion of this three-way drama unfolding between Yilmaz, his half-brother, and Sheffield. When Sheffield confronted me in Elsterwerda and suggested we team up, it just seemed like a practical solution, as we were targeting the same group and didn’t want to get in each other’s way or caught in the crossfire. Little did I know that Sheffield simply needed a human shield just to get him close enough to Bülow to detonate his vengeance. “Yes,” I say. (What else can I say?) “Quite clear. Is there anything else?”

“This part won’t be surprising,” Mycroft says.

John leans in. “Let me guess,” he interrupts. “Another missing plane out of Abu Dhabi.”

“It’s not missing,” Mycroft says. “Yilmaz was seen boarding a private chartered jet that filed a proper flight plan and everything. Once Osman found out about Al-Amri working for us, Yilmaz flew to Abu Dhabi to deal with Al-Amri, and now that that’s finished, they’ve deduced that you’re in Berlin. He’s on his way, and he’s being public about it. He wants you to know. That’s even more dangerous. The flight plan states that it’s a direct flight, estimated flight time roughly seven hours.”

“When did it leave?” It’s the last thing I need to know.

“Thirty minutes ago. He’s on his way, Sherlock, and thanks to your scheme he knows exactly where he’s going.” Mycroft is grim.

It’s his job to be grim when he’s on that side of the screen. “We’ll be ready,” I tell him. “Everything is set up. All we need to do is catch him. Alert Stiefl, get her troops ready to catch some terrorists. We just need a perimeter so that no one escapes.”

“I’ll phone her now,” Mycroft promises. He leans forward. “Be careful, both of you. This is no game.”

Grit my teeth. “Mycroft, I have been doing this for some time if you’d care to recall. Nine hundred and forty-eight days now, to be exact. Don’t lecture me about being careful. I’m still alive. That should be testament enough to my caution, I should think.”

“Sherlock.” John is quiet but insistent. “He’s just trying to wish us well.”

I sigh. It’s true. And Mycroft still looks awful. “Sorry,” I mutter to him. “You should get some sleep. You look like hell.”

“Thanks,” he says, but there’s a trace of humour there. “The interrogation was… difficult. I remember now why I usually delegate those. Even with assistance, it took quite a lot to get all that from Gürkan. Anyway, I’ll take a short nap after I speak to Interpol. You should sleep, since you have the time. Better to be alert when the attack comes.”

“Fine. Yes.” I survey him through the webcam. “In that case, good night, Mycroft.”

“Good night.” He nods at John. “John.”

John nods back and reaches over to end the call. He reaches into his pocket for the controls of his earpiece. “Tell them,” he says.

He’s right, better to do it now. I switch on my microphone. “Duncan, Lestrade, Mycroft just called…” I tell them as briefly as possible, ending with the estimated arrival time of the flight out of Abu Dhabi. “Turning the microphone back off but we’ll keep our earpieces in.”

Lestrade acknowledges this. “We’ll be here and awake,” he promises. “Just in case Osman is on the scene and up to no good.”

“Thanks,” I say. “Switching off now.”

I look at John. He stands abruptly. “Come to bed.”

“Now?”

“Now. If we’re allowed to sleep, then I want to. Or, at the very least, I want to lie next to you in a bed one last time before a crazed Turkish terrorist and his friends descend on the building in the hope of blowing us sky-high.”

I stand and take a step toward him, find his hand and take it, and lead him to Kathrin’s bedroom. We get undressed in silence, leaving our underclothes on in tacit agreement. I hardly want to be caught nude should Yilmaz somehow arrive ahead of schedule. We get into the neatly-made bed and I pull John into my arms and hold him tightly. “I won’t let that happen,” I promise, my throat tight, my voice only just above a whisper. “No one is going to bomb us. We’re a step ahead of them now. We’ve got Lestrade and Duncan and Interpol.”

“I know,” John says, but he sounds dubious. Then, “They tortured Al-Amri. Horribly.”

“Yes.”

“If they catch us, don’t let them do that to me. I’d rather die in a bomb blast.”

“No one is getting tortured or killed,” I say firmly. “Particularly not you.”

“If we were going to die in the morning, this is how I would want to spend my last night,” John says.

I exhale. “Me too.” I think of those things I wanted to say, lying folded and heavy in my chest, and can’t quite get them from there to my mouth. Instead, I say something else. “John.”

“Mmm?”

“I wish we could stay here,” I say, my fingers and lips in his hair.

“Here?” John repeats, uncomprehending.

“Not here in this particular building. Here in Berlin. I wish we didn’t have to go back at all.”

John raises his head to look at me, brow furrowed a bit. “But you love London.”

“That’s not the point,” I say, because it isn’t. “We could stay here. Berlin is a wonderful city. I’m sure they have local crime here, too. There must be people here who could use an anglophone doctor. We could find a nice flat somewhere. They have good public transit and pastry. You’d like it.”

“I’m sure I would,” John says. He tries not to sigh, but I can feel it in the too-deep exhalation he’s not quite able to suppress. “You think that if I just never see Mary again, we’ll never have to face it. You worry that the instant I see her, this will all disappear. I don’t know how to tell you that it won’t. But of course I have to see her face-to-face when I tell her about you. You can’t do that sort of thing in a text or something.”

This gives me a moment of pause. “You’re going to tell her about me?” Clarify. “About us, I mean?”

“Of course; what else could I say?” John’s shoulders move in a slight shrug. “I already told her that the reason I needed space was that there was someone else, someone I used to love. Which isn’t untrue. And when she sees the news tomorrow I imagine she’ll be confused to find out that I’m in Germany with you, not shacked up with some smarmy blond from my past, which is probably what she thinks. Maybe she’ll put two and two together and realise that it was you all along.”

“Did you ever talk about me?” I ask, suddenly curious. (I prefer not talking about her at all, but it does seem a touch safer to do so when I’m the one lying next to John, in his arms. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, after all.)

“She knew that I was your blogger, your assistant, whatever you want to call what I was back then. That we lived together. And that your death was horrific and that I never wanted to talk about it. So no, not frequently.” John turns his face into my neck and kisses my throat. “She never knew how I felt, if that’s what you’re asking. Let’s talk about something else.”

“What do you want to talk about?” I ask, my breath ruffling his hair.

“Anything but Mary,” John says. “Or the day I thought you died.”

I think, and the words begin to loosen from their stiff folds. “Earlier, when Mycroft called,” I begin, then stop, debating how to start.

“Oh, yeah,” John says, remembering. “What were you going to say?”

I move my fingers over the warm skin of his back and pull the blankets up a little further to cover us both. “I had been thinking about how I should have kissed you that day in Buckingham Palace. When we were laughing. I didn’t know that I wanted to then, but I knew later, after I’d left London. That I’d wanted to kiss you then. I should have.”

“You really should have,” John says very sincerely. “It would have spared me that awful six months that Irene Adler was in our lives.”

For a moment I don’t know who he’s talking about. “Oh, the Woman.” I make a derisive sound. “That was all just a game. You had nothing to worry about.”

“It’s exactly because she was a game that it worried me,” John retorts, his spine stiffening.

“Stop that,” I order, smoothing a hand over his back. “She was interesting in the same way that Moriarty was interesting.”

“That’s hardly comforting.”

“No, it’s – ” I search for the words for a moment. “Obviously Moriarty had worked it out that I wasn’t sexually active and tried to exploit it by deploying the Woman. They tried to use my lack of experience to control me. I hope you don’t think I was stupid enough to fall for it.”

“No, but…” John doesn’t sound convinced.

“But you worry that I wanted to.” It makes sense that even that still bothers him. “I didn’t. You thought I flirted with her. She flirted with me; I deflected it. She tried to hold my hand; I used it to take her pulse, gather information. It’s not something you should have ever wasted two seconds worrying about. Especially not now.”

“I thought you had slept with her, when I went out,” John says, his arm tightening possessively around my chest. (Is he really acting possessive, with his fiancée still in the picture? I’ve agreed not to mention her though, and the last thing I want tonight is to start an argument.)

“I didn’t,” I tell him. Find his chin and tip it up. “There’s been no one but you, and never will be anyone but you.”

He smiles at me. “Good.” He shifts upward, so that we’re lying face-to-face, almost too close to focus on each other. “Tell me every other time you should have kissed me.”

I laugh and start trying to think of other times. “First crime scene, after you shot the cabbie,” I say definitely.

“Wrong.”

“Wrong?”

“The first one should have been about two minutes after I walked into the lab at St. Bart’s,” John says decisively.

“You amaze me,” I say. “I had that thought earlier, but I thought that perhaps at the moment you would have found it a bit sudden.”

He grins. “When else?”

I tell him, making half of them up as I go. He starts interrupting by kissing me between points on the list, which is fine. I keep speaking, if only to keep my mind and his off what dawn will bring, off the notion that he’s entirely right and this whole thing could end very badly. I feel almost as though I can see us from outside myself, somewhere far above, lying as close together as two people can be, talking and kissing and occasionally laughing, at least one of us hoping that somehow the strength of this can in some way keep us alive, keep the danger at bay. Regardless, whatever happens, I meant it: this is how I would want to spend my last night on this earth. In John Watson’s arms.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen

 

I wake because the alarm on my phone is ringing. It takes a moment to recognise what the sound is; I’m disoriented with sleep and my thoughts haven’t cleared yet. Alarm. Not a phone call. I check that the earpiece is still in my ear (it is) and turn the alarm off. Look at John, who is still sleeping soundly beside me. It’s five in the morning. I reach for the wireless control box for the earpiece and microphone and switch the mic on. “Duncan?” My voice is deep and rough.

“Here,” he confirms. “You two awake?”

“Yes. Well, I am. Anything to report?”

“Not a peep so far. You’d best get up, though. The flight is due to land in about twenty minutes. Good timing.”

“I set an alarm. I’m going to wake John but I’ll leave the mic on, just not on me. You should get the ambient noise.”

“That’ll do,” Duncan confirms.

“Is Lestrade awake?” I ask.

“Right here, Sherlock,” Lestrade says. “Don’t worry. We’ve got it all under control. There wasn’t a soul about during the night. One lady came home with groceries just after you two went to sleep. That’s it. It’s a very quiet neighbourhood.”

“I know it is. All right, thanks,” I say, and move the mic back to the night table. Shove back down into the blankets, closer to John. He looks so peaceful. (Hate to wake him, but it’s necessary.) Touch his upper arm. “John.”

“Mmmm.” His brow furrows, but his eyes blink, opening. “Hello,” he says, and yawns.

“Morning,” I say. I touch his face, one of my clumsy attempts to replicate his easy, affectionate gestures. “I know it’s early, but we have to get up.”

I can visibly see his brain waking, his thought processes coming back online. (Fascinating.) “Okay,” John says. He yawns again. “What time is it?”

“Five. Just after. Like we discussed,” I remind him.

“Right.” He turns on his back, stretches, then rolls back toward me and leans in for a sleepy kiss.

I return it, but put a finger on his lips after. “The mic is on,” I say under my breath.

“Ah,” John says, lips twitching. “I see.” He sighs. “I guess we’d best get up, then.”

I remember again that I have exactly one pair of trousers and a choice between two shirts. Personally, I am looking forward to having a wider selection of clothing again. I walk out to the sitting room to retrieve John’s shoulder bag and find brand new pairs of socks and pants to put on, if nothing else, then finish dressing. Find the gun and slide it securely into the back of the waistband of my trousers again.

John is in the bathroom, the sink water running. I wish there was time for a shower, but that will have to wait. Kathrin had said to help ourselves to anything in the small kitchen I explore and find a coffee maker, well-used but clean and functional, and make coffee. There are brötchen (small rolls) sitting on the counter and a search of the cupboards reveals chocolate spread and there is butter in a dish on top of the miniature fridge, gouda and salami inside it. This will make John happy. He likes eating breakfast far more than I do, but proteins and carbohydrates will be useful today. I wait for him to emerge from the bathroom, pointing out what I’ve found, and take my turn, brushing my teeth and splashing water onto my face. A very fine stubble has surfaced and I decide to shave. Hate stubble, always have done. When that’s finished I join John in the kitchen and we eat breakfast together.

With that finished, there is nothing left to do but wait. John has cleaned up the detritus of breakfast and gathered our few possessions back into his bag. I unlock the back door of the flat that leads into the garden in the event that we need to get away quickly. It’s surrounded by high stone walls on all sides, so it would be a very brief respite but it’s better than nothing. There is nothing else left to do now. I check in with Lestrade and Duncan occasionally. It’s now just after five-thirty. John comes back to the table but doesn’t sit down. “Mics off,” he says to all three of us, meaning his own and mine. I don’t understand but reach into my pocket and turn it off anyway, even as Duncan confirms in my left ear.

“What is it?” I ask.

“I have a question,” John says. “It’s just hypothetical, but I wanted to know.”

“All right,” I say, hearing the uncertainty in my voice. His features are firm and his tone is uncharacteristically short.

“It’s not a nice question,” he warns, confirming my fears. “But you’ve asked me a few hard questions yourself and it’s something I’d really like to know.”

“Okay,” I say, wishing he would just get it out already.

“Here it is,” John says. “If, for some reason, I went back to Mary after this is over, would you regret having done all this? I mean all of it, from the day you faked your death and started this entire operation, to save me. Would you still have done it? Would it have been worth it to you, knowing that I loved someone else, chose someone else in the end?”

His question hits hard. I find myself actually breathless, as though I’ve received a blow to the solar plexus. For a moment I can’t speak at all, mouth open, eyes probably full of betrayal and shock at the very notion – and that he would ask me this. That he would propose this hypothetical circumstance at all, of him going back to Mary, after everything he’s said, all the times he’s tried to reassure me. I understand completely that this is a test, perhaps the greatest single test he could put to me. That this question is more important than any time I’ve been awkward or uncertain or not known what to say. That if he’s contemplating leaving me after this at all, his entire decision could hang upon this response. This one thing is non-negotiable; I must get it right. I swallow and attempt to find words, but John cuts me off before I can begin.

“I want a real answer,” he says, warning. “Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. I really want to know, Sherlock. Would it have been worth it? Everything you’ve suffered because of it, everything you’ve lost, all the time it’s taken – all of it. Would it still have been worth it in the end, really, if you didn’t get me?”

I sit there, gripped in the balance of the question. I think of the first days, Belfast, then Brooklyn, the grimy places I stayed. Then Russia, Georgia, Romania, all the places that followed. The prison cell in Odessa, the rat-infested hovel where I stayed in Paris. All of it. Think of John with Mary, still faceless to me and the source of a greater fear than any of the terrorists I’ve encountered in the past nine hundred and forty-nine days could have ever inspired. No, that’s not accurate. Moran. Sebastian Moran was the worst: because he was going to kill John. And then I know the answer to the question. There’s no doubt. It would be better to have John alive at any cost, than to have let someone kill him. Of course. It’s perfectly obvious. No matter what the personal cost, no matter what will become of me if he leaves me. I meet his eyes, my own far too vulnerable to be in any fit state to be seen, and let him see it all. “Yes.”

A muscle in John’s cheek clenches and releases again. “Yes to what, precisely?”

My voice is low. “Yes, it would have been worth it. No matter what. Your life is more important to me than – ”

“Than what?” John pushes, relentless.

“Than – me,” I say, wanting to look away but knowing that I can’t. Not yet. “Than what I want. Than what I feel.”

John keeps his eyes on mine for a long moment, searching them, his gaze going from eye to eye. “Then I’ve made my decision,” he says finally, his jaw tense, face full of intensity. “If we get out of this – I’m yours, Sherlock. If you’re completely sure you want me.”

(Am not sure what instinct motivates this, but I obey it anyway.) Slide to my knees on the floor in front of him. (The moment of absolute truth, merciless and naked.) “I’ll always want you.” My voice is hoarse. “Always, John. Nothing could ever change that.” I wrap my long arms around his thighs and press my face into his hip so that he can’t see it. “Don’t leave me, John. I’ll die if you leave me. I’ll shrivel and become – nothing. I’m nothing without you. Don’t leave me. Please.”

Both of his hands come into my hair before he speaks, and when he does, it’s full of emotion. “I won’t leave you,” John says, voice rough and trembling infinitesimally with meaning. “I don’t even think I could. It may make me about the worst man alive, leaving my fiancée two months after I proposed, but – I can’t help it, Sherlock. I’ve loved you far too long. And the fact that you love me is still nothing short of a miracle to me. I can’t lose that. I can’t lose you again.”

I open my eyes and look up at him. “Then don’t. Don’t lose me.”

John smiles down at me, though he still looks troubled. “I’m not going to. Come on, get up. You’re making me feel like a right cad down there.”

I get to my feet. “Do you mean it?” I demand. (Probably shouldn’t be demanding about this, but he shouldn’t say things like this if he doesn’t mean them completely.) “One hundred percent?”

“Yes,” John says. He moves to kiss me but I stop him, frowning.

“But you still feel guilty about Mary.”

“Of course,” he replies, frowning back at me. “How could I possibly not? Unfortunately, it doesn’t change how I feel about you one bit. I love you.”

“Fortunately,” I correct him, but then he gets his way and takes charge of my mouth temporarily. I let him kiss me for a bit (all right: am quite seduced by his kiss and temporarily forget what I wanted to say), but then it comes to me and I break away again. “Promise?” I demand.

The troubled look deepens. He’s frowning. “You’re asking me to promise you that I’ll break my promise to someone else.”

(I see his point but choose to ignore it.) “Yes.”

He is silently flagellating himself again. “Not much integrity in my doing that, is there?” A brief, unhappy smile.

Regret: he wishes there was an option for him that would allow him to maintain his integrity, but there simply isn’t. He chose this, chose to come back to Baker Street and kiss me that first time. He put himself in this situation, and both Mary and I along with him. (Hate having even this in common with her.) He is a man of integrity, generally. That is a fact, a central characteristic to his entire being. One which is proving quite irritatingly inconvenient in the face of his being engaged. On reflection, I consider the irony within these thoughts. That one of the things I love and admire most about John is the very thing that could keep him from me if in the end he decides that his prior promise is a stronger pull on his sense of honour than that which he truly desires. (That which I hope he truly desires. He still claims to love her, after all. How does one quantify love, rank one sort of love above another? How can I ever tell myself that his love for me outranks his love for her? This is something I will never know. And yet, I would trust his promise. As she did. This is a painful thought.) Swallow around the hardness in my throat. “It’s different,” I say, insistent. “You loved me first.”

“I know I did,” John says, quiet. “It doesn’t make it any less shitty of me to break my word to her now. Or give any promise I could make to you any more value. If I do this, break it off with Mary, my word becomes meaningless. Completely meaningless.”

“Not to me,” I say firmly. (And stop saying if, I don’t say.)

John searches my face. “You really mean that, don’t you?” he says wonderingly. “You would really trust me. How can you? You’re asking for the exact promise that you’re asking me to break.”

I frown back at him. “I thought you said you were one hundred percent sure.”

“I’m not saying I’m not,” John counters. “I just – you have to see what an oxymoron giving my word has become.”

“Yes,” I say. “I know it’s illogical. But I trust you. And I still want you to promise.”

John bites his lip. “If you trust me, then why do you need a promise?”

It’s becoming an argument. (Why is he so reluctant to do it, to say it?) “John – ” I break off. I don’t know how to finish, how to word my protest.

“I just feel I should at least end it with Mary first before I make any new promises,” he says quietly.

Feel my jaw set. “If you’ve already said it, said that you’ll stay with me, why should it be so complicated to give me your word?”

John sighs and rubs his forehead, one hand on his hip. “This may be a bit late to mention it, but this is a terrible time to be having this conversation. I know I started it and I’m sorry now. I should have waited and brought up my question later. I want you to feel like we’re a united front going into this. I mean, we are. I’m here with you, no matter what. I love you and I’ve said I’ll break it off with Mary and stay with you after this. If it’s that important to you that I give you my promise, then all right: I promise.”

“Say the whole thing,” I order. (It’s probably too much, pushing it too far. Can see from the exasperation he’s not hiding all that well (not trying?), that he’s annoyed by this conversation. Doesn’t matter: too late to retract it now.)

He shakes his head (frustrated) but says it anyway. “I promise that when this is done, I’ll stay with you.”

“Forever?” (I sound childishly insistent, but it’s important, damn it.)

John blinks. “Sherlock Holmes, did you just propose to me?”

(Did I? That’s possible, I suppose, though I wasn’t thinking precisely in those terms.) I open my mouth to say something, clarify or respond or something along those lines, but before I can, Duncan’s voice speaks in both our ears.

“Head’s up,” he says. “We’ve got movement at the end of the street, coming from Pestalozzistrasse.”

The charged atmosphere of our conversation vanishes to be replaced with a new and immediate tension. I switch the microphone back on, peripherally seeing John do the same. “What sort of movement?” I demand.

“Single pedestrian, keeping to doorways, rather suspicious-looking,” Duncan replies. “Could be Osman. Too far away to tell but it fits his silhouette. Once I can get a look at his face, I’ll know for sure.”

“What’s he doing?”

“Unclear. No, wait!” Duncan swears under his breath. “Sherlock, you remember my counter-intelligence detecting device? He’s got one and he’s detecting our surveillance. He’ll have to; it’ll register as an alien SIM card on his device. He’ll know we’re here, or at least that he’s been made, within minutes.”

“What do you suggest we do?” John asks.

I look at him. His face is calm, jaw set. He’s put our conversation clearly behind him. The gun has somehow appeared in his hand with my noticing him drawing it. (Me. I’m off my game. Of course it was a stupid time to have that conversation, but he started it. Never mind: focus.)

“Stay where you are for now,” Duncan instructs. “Monitoring… he’s making a phone call. That’s it. The game is up.”

“Where exactly are the Interpol blokes?” John wants to know.

“Literally just around the corner. Several corners. He’ll have passed one group at the corner of Pestalozzistrasse and Windscheidstrasse just a moment ago, five blokes hiding out behind a large parked lorry on the northeast corner. There’s another group in the lobby of the building just across the street from the car here; they’re the closest. The third group is just beside you in the little garden in front of number six and the fourth is at the end of the street up at Schillerstrasse.”

“What’s the number of this building?” John asks me.

“Seven,” I tell him. “Duncan, is there anyone else near Osman at all? Do you have visual confirmation yet?”

“That’s a yes on visual confirmation,” Lestrade says, voice sounding distant (he’s focused on something else). “We’ve got an angle from one of the street cameras. Facial recognition is a match. It’s Osman. And no, Sherlock, he seems to be alone at the moment.”

“He usually works alone,” Duncan says. “But he rarely ventures outside. All of his work is done from behind the screen, normally. He must have needed electronic confirmation or something along those lines.”

A small silence falls. “Any idea what’s going to happen?” John asks. “Idiot question, maybe, but…”

There’s silence on the other end. “No,” Duncan admits. “But hold on a second: I’m instructing unit one to capture him.”

Through Lestrade’s mic I hear the sound of Duncan giving the order, and then comes several minutes of tense waiting. “Lestrade,” John says, but doesn’t say anything else, trailing off.

Lestrade waits another moment, then says, “They’ve got him.” He sounds satisfied, adding, “Bloody git. He had a gun, tried to shoot one of the Interpol guys. Missed, though.”

John paces in front of me. “I feel trapped in here,” he says, frustrated. “I know the point is to draw them to us, but what if it doesn’t work? What if they’ve come up with something else?”

“They can’t obliterate us,” I say. “If they’re in it to collect a bounty on you, they’d need your body identifiable, remember?”

John stops, turns back to face me and says, “I never thought the day that the bounty on my life would actually comfort me. You’ve got a point, though.”

I smirk. “I am rather brilliant at times, if you’d care to recall.”

John grins back and suddenly everything is all right between us again. Lestrade speaks up again. “Okay, got Osman. They’re got him locked in a car around the corner. Two guards, the rest of the unit is back on alert.”

“Hang on,” Duncan says, voice warning. “We’ve got a vehicle. Two vehicles. Large black vans.”

My pulse spikes unpleasantly. “That’s them! That’s Yilmaz.”

“Confirmed!” Duncan snaps. “I know those vans. What do you want to do, Sherlock? Let him come in or do you want to come out?”

“Wait,” I say. “Are they stopping?”

Pause. Then, “Yes. It’s not a drive-by. They don’t know for certain which flat you’re in, anyway. Okay, yes, they’re parking. The vans are approximately twenty-five yards from your door. And they are… ” Hear him counting under his breath. “Twenty men, Sherlock. We’ve got them outnumbered and he’s almost completely surrounded. Most of these faces are unfamiliar to me; they weren’t there in Abu Dhabi. He’s replaced most of them. I see Emir and maybe two others who were in the safehouse. Everyone else is new. If you let them come in, I can bring in all units and surround the building, but because it’s attached on one side, we can’t surround it completely. What do you want to do?”

I close my eyes and think. Then, “Let him come in.”

“Sherlock – ” It’s Lestrade, objecting.

“Bring in the units,” I say, cutting him off. “He’ll want to talk first. I know his type.”

“He doesn’t speak English,” Duncan reminds me.

“He’ll have replaced Gürkan with someone who does,” I say. “Hence the escort.” Though they’re certainly not all translators. “What weapons do you see?”

“Nothing visible,” Duncan says, “but don’t let that fool you. They’re nearly at the door. Picking the electronic lock, probably. Yes: someone from the back has just been called forward, probably an electronics expert or something. They’ll be inside within seconds. I can get the units in place within the minute.”

“Do it,” I say. “Status?”

“They just got the door open,” Lestrade says. “They’re in. Good luck.”

I can hear the door now, then the tread of heavy-booted feet marching directly to Kathrin’s door. (They definitely knew which flat we’d be in, or at least which they wanted to try first.) I glance at John and we raise our guns in tandem at the door even as he moves to plant himself firmly at my side.

There is no knock. A steel-toed boot crashes into the door and kicks it off its hinges. The owner of the boot steps aside and allows Yilmaz to walk past him and into the flat. His hands are empty; there is no visible weaponry whatsoever. (This makes me feel uneasy in the extreme.) He gives me a heavy, flat-faced and unimpressed. This is the first time I have seen him since I was his prisoner in Antalya. I remember his rough-voiced questions, demanded in Turkish directly to me, repeated in guttural English by the gaoler. He stares at me now as though I am an insect he wishes he had crushed then. “So,” he says finally, in English. “Holmes.”

“Indeed,” I say, gun not moving an inch.

Yilmaz’ eyes shift to John. “And John Watson,” he says. “Nihayet. Hajjar!”

One of the men in the corridor steps forward, just inside the doorway. “Sidi.”

(Arabic response to a Turkish word, my brain registers automatically. Not Turkish. Has he acquired an all-new crew in Sana’a or Abu Dhabi, then? It has occurred to me before that if Duncan was able to understand them during his capture, then they were speaking Arabic, not Turkish. Were the Turkish crew only there for the duration of his stay in Antalya, then? Does he acquire a new crew every time he discovers a compromise in his security? Yes – this seems likely. He is a suspicious, paranoid man, as with so many others like him. He works all over the region; though Turkish, Yilmaz obviously deals more frequently in Arabic-speaking nations than in Turkey itself. Of course his current operating crew are Arabic.)

Yilmaz says something. I recognise none of the words, but Hajjar translates in accented but easy English. “My employer states that he made a large mistake when he let you go.”

I shrug. “Possibly. It was his decision, however.”

Hajjar repeats this back to Yilmaz in Arabic. Yilmaz growls something else. “He says that if he had known who you were and that you were alive, he certainly would not have made that error.”

“Yes,” I say. “I know.”

John has not moved a muscle, both hands on the gun, arms unwavering and steady. He is radiating strength and solidity like a small sun blazing to my right. (It comforts me endlessly, just having him there.)

Yilmaz speaks again, followed by the translation. “Yilmaz states that he is here to collect the bounty on the life of John Watson,” Hajjar announces. “You, he will release on the condition that you cease your harassment of his group and its business affairs. You will not attempt to follow or keep surveillance. You will return to England and stay there and forget that he exists at all, and he will forgive your interference, provided that John Watson comes with us now.”

“Absolutely out of the question,” I respond without hesitation, voice steady and calm. (John has not moved an inch beside me.)

Hajjar repeats my answer to Yilmaz, who narrows his eyes and glares at John. Hajjar looks apologetic. “I am afraid to say that this was not a choice. This is what is going to happen. And, I should add, if there is any further surveillance on this operation, this offer of mercy is to be rescinded immediately and you will be killed.”

“Let me ask you something,” I say, and address Yilmaz directly. “From whom were you planning to collect the bounty?”

Hajjar quietly translates my question.

“Moran,” Yilmaz says, frowning. “Sebastian Moran.”

I nearly drop the gun in my surprise. “Moran!” I hear myself give a disbelieving laugh. “You’re joking!”

Hajjar translates. Yilmaz bristles visibly, gritting something out through clenched teeth. “He requests the nature of your comment be explained,” Hajjar says politely to me.

“Sebastian Moran is dead,” I proclaim, still incredulous. “I shot him myself a year and a half ago in Paris.”

Hajjar conveys this to Yilmaz, looking worried for the first time. It’s worth it if only for the look on Yilmaz’ face, the blank consternation, followed by the thick suspicion. A growled question. “Where precisely?” Hajjar asks me.

“Métro Barbès-Rochechouart on the four line, two stations north of the Gare de l’Est,” I tell them. “I shot him in the back of the head. He was tracking John Watson at the time, but trying to shake me off his trail first. I caught him, and I killed him, as I will kill anyone who threatens this man again. Have a care, Yilmaz.”

Hajjar passes this on in low, rapid tones. Yilmaz gave a short, terse response. “He requests proof,” Hajjar says.

“There isn’t any,” I say. “But tell him he’ll have a hell of a time collecting a bounty from a dead man. I also disposed of the rest of his group. There’s no one left from whom you could possibly collect a bounty. I’ve dealt with James Moriarty’s entire network now. You were the last.”

Yilmaz’ response to this is just as succinct. Hajjar is apologetic again. “He says that he would rather confirm this information first. Therefore we will be taking John Watson.” He glances at Yilmaz, who reaches simultaneously into his pocket and for the edge of his jacket. (Panic registers immediately: I know precisely what that movement means even before his jacket opens. I almost don’t hear Hajjar’s next words over the static in my brain.) “I’m afraid you have no other option, Mr Holmes.”

A chest full of explosives (SEMTEX 10, to be precise) is revealed beneath the jacket, his thumb hovering over a hand-held detonator. Suicide bomber, one of my least favourite things. (Frisson of genuine fear whispers down my spine.) Yilmaz displays his gleaming teeth. Ferocious. Obsessive. Completely willing to die over this, provided that John and I die with him. His operatives don’t matter. (And people call me a psychopath.) “Semtex,” I say, for Lestrade and Duncan’s benefit. “Lovely. You’re willing to take down the entire building and all of your own operatives just over a bounty? How much is it, then?”

(Can hear Duncan’s panicked tones through the earpiece and shut them out, concentrating on the sounds in the room.) Yilmaz waits for Hajjar’s translation, then responds. “Ten million,” Hajjar says to me, then looks at John appraisingly. “Very valuable,” he adds, clearly his own contribution. “Or very hated.”

“Wrong,” I say, fierce. “Valuable because he was very loved. And still is. And not a one of you is going to threaten him again. That was your first mistake.”

“Sherlock,” John says, speaking for the first time since Yilmaz came in. His voice is full of warning, but underscored by fear. (Having been made an unwilling suicide bomber himself already, he’ll know the likelihood of our surviving a second parallel situation like that one.)

Hajjar is quickly finishing the translation. Yilmaz narrows his eyes at both of us and says something quick and vicious. I don’t need the translation; it’s written all over his face and body language already: he is going to detonate himself. “Lestrade, now!” I say, then, to warn him, “John!” I pull the trigger and shoot Yilmaz in the centre of the forehead, aware that his thumb could still clench down on the detonator even in death. The next couple of seconds are a blur; I’ve dropped the gun and am gripping John’s elbow and running for the back door of the flat that leads out into the tiny garden. Lestrade is shouting something in my ear. The only word I make out is helicopter; the flat has erupted into gunfire and smoke. The door is open (thank God we left it unlocked) and my eyes are stinging. There is a rope dangling in front of my eyes.

John grasps what’s going on before I do. He’s shouting my name and grabs at the rope, gesturing at me toward him. I get the rope with my left hand and shove my right arm around his ribs as we’re jerked off the ground and it’s only just in time; the entire building goes up in a fireball bomb blast not three seconds after we’ve cleared the roofline. The heat wave reaches us, dangling precariously in the air, blasting against our faces in a searing wind. I close my eyes and tighten my grip on John, hoping my left hand won’t slip, but then the helicopter dips over another block of flats four or five streets over, letting us stumble down onto a gravel-topped roof. The chopper sets itself down several metres away. The propeller blades not slowing, the door opens and I recognise Salib.

“Get inside!” he shouts.

John takes my hand and pulls me along with him. (Why am I moving so slowly?) The aftershocks of the explosion are still ringing in my ears; perhaps that’s why I can’t seem to move or think properly. I follow John into the helicopter and Salib pulls the door to behind me, locking it. “Saif Salib,” he says, curtly identifying himself, though we met briefly outside Sana'a when he and Al-Amri came to collect Duncan and the gaoler. He as he climbs back into the cockpit and we lift off again seconds later.

I fall into an overly-padded leather seat as the helicopter gains altitude over western Berlin. John is to my right in the other passenger seat, already tugging the harness-style seatbelt over his shoulders and buckling it. I ignore mine and close my eyes. All that just happened: Yilmaz is dead. And in the attempt to avenge him or capture us or some such thing, the semtex got detonated by a stray gun shot. They’re all dead. “Lestrade?” I say, remembering them suddenly, Lestrade’s words about a helicopter. “Duncan? Are you there?”

“Probably out of range,” John says to me. I look at him. His face is very serious, eyes dark blue and full of concern. “I’m sure they made it, but we should try to call them.”

The explosion. Duncan and Lestrade, just outside in the car. But with my warning – who knows, though? I pull out my phone and dial Duncan’s number (don’t have Lestrade’s or I would have called him.) After six rings, Duncan answers. “Sherlock! Where are you?”

“In the helicopter,” I say, relieved. “Where are you? Are you all right? Is Lestrade?”

“We’re fine,” he assures me. “Thanks to your warning, the instant we heard the word ‘semtex’, we got the hell away from there. Just a couple of blocks. We didn’t know if Salib was going to make it in time for the party, so we didn’t say anything, didn’t want to rely on that. Sorry! Glad he turned up, though!”

“Not an issue,” I say, gripping the phone. “Where are you?”

“Close to the building but not too close. Emergency vehicles are on their way, but I don’t think anyone will have survived. You shot Yilmaz, I take it?”

“I did,” I confirm.

“Good,” Duncan says grimly. “I’m glad. Listen: Lestrade and I will stay here and sort everything with Interpol. Salib will take you two back to London to debrief your brother, though you should call him over the radio and report. Your phone will be out of range once you’re out of Berlin airspace.”

(Wonderful, now even Duncan is telling me to report to Mycroft. Brilliant.) “Will do,” I say. “Listen, thanks for everything, Duncan. Tell Lestrade, too.”

“Got it. See you back in London sometime.” Duncan hangs up.

John reaches over the moulded plastic table/drinks tray separating us and takes my hand. “You did it,” he says quietly. “You saved us.”

I adjust our fingers to interlock them. “He threatened you,” I say simply. “And we did it.”

“You may not have noticed, but he also threatened you,” John points out.

“Hmm. True,” I concede, then say, “I can’t believe he didn’t know that Moran was dead! How could he have taken that for granted, never checked in? Moran’s been dead for ages! He could have saved himself and us over a year of this if he’d found out sooner.”

“It is hard to believe, yet somehow I do,” John says. “His talent with explosives aside – and honestly, anyone can blow stuff up – he didn’t strike me as the sharpest tool in the box. He probably always has his henchmen do the bulk of the thinking. But you really should take more credit for the things you do. Although I suppose shooting a man in broad daylight in a subway station is probably frowned on in most countries.”

He’s smiling and suddenly we’re both chuckling. It’s rather like old times, except that he’s holding my hand and my heart is pounding more out of relief than an adrenaline rush. I remember Salib then, who hasn’t said a word since we got inside the helicopter. I raise my voice to get his attention and be heard over the throb of the propellers overhead. “Salib. Thank you.”

“Yes,” John echoes in profound relief. “Thanks a million. You saved our lives.”

Salib looks at him in the mirror, then me. “Don’t thank me. I had to.”

(I understand precisely what he means. If someone had captured John and tortured him brutally, later killing him outright, I would go to any length to murder the man who had done it, or help those who had done it for me.) His face is haggard in the mirror and in a rare moment of empathy, I can feel exactly what he must be feeling. The hopeless, despairing, consuming hatred, the howling grief of loss, the pain of knowing of Al-Amri’s torture, the rage against the entire universe for having allowed any of it to happen. I hold his eye in the mirror and attempt to silently convey my complete accordance. “Yes,” I say. “I see.”

He jerks his chin in a brusque nod, mouth tight, but his eyes are tortured.

“I thought Mycroft was sending a helicopter to bring you back to London?” John says, framing it as a question.

Salib shakes his head slightly. “I received the most recent update on your situation from M and directed the pilot to give me control of the helicopter so that I could fly it to Berlin. I knew that you would need back-up but I didn’t know if I would be in time to do anything.”

“You did,” John assures him. “You got there just in time. We would have been killed either by Yilmaz’ operatives or by the blast.”

“I did what I had to do,” Salib reiterates, then resumes his tight-lipped silence.

Beside me, John falls into a thoughtful silence of his own, a silence which is not entirely easy between us. (Now that the operation is officially over, reports and debriefings aside, it’s finally time for him to really make his decision. The question of he and I can finally take priority. I can feel that he’s thinking about it. I cannot believe that we are actually finished, that nine hundred and forty-nine days after I left London, this is finally over.) He is still holding my hand but has retreated somewhere in his own head, his body language clearly stating that he does not wish to talk. Fine: I need to call Mycroft, anyway. (It will distract me.)

***

Salib lands on the roof of Mycroft’s building. Of course Mycroft’s building has a helipad. Mycroft himself emerges onto the roof with three agents, all of whom look familiar from his basement lair. One of them is blinking in the sunlight as though he hasn’t seen it for weeks. (Quite plausible, that.)

Mycroft’s face is an odd mixture of solemnity and relief, though the former is winning out. He’s carrying two boxes – oh, yes. This ritual, of course. (Perhaps I won’t refuse it for once. After nine hundred and forty-nine days, it’s well-merited this time.) “Sherlock,” he says, when he’s close enough. The wind attempts to whip his sparse auburn hair into a frenzy, but he simply smoothes it down and it obeys him. “John,” he says, nodding at John in turn. (His most formal tone. My brother does formality very well, after all.) “On behalf of Her Majesty the Queen, I would like to hereby inform you that you have been elevated to knighthood, to the Order of the British Empire. The decision has been made and cannot be refuted,” he adds, with a pointed look at me. “Your insignia will be formally conferred by Her Majesty at a ceremony on the tenth of April this year; however I have been charged to display them at this point. You will be provided with details regarding the ceremony by an aide to the throne within the next few days.”

He opens the top box to display the insignia and John peers at it. “Er, wow,” he says. “Thanks, Mycroft, but I didn’t even really – I mean, I was only part of the very last bit. It was all Sherlock.”

Mycroft smiles at him, then me. It’s a bit oily, but otherwise unusually pleasant for him. “As I said, the honour cannot be refused. It was hardly my decision, though it’s well-deserved – on both your parts.” He closes the box again and relaxes slightly. “Well done. Congratulations to you both.”

“And to you,” I say, meeting his gaze levelly. “I really couldn’t have finished this without your help, Mycroft. You know that, but – well.”

His lip twists. “Now that is unusual, hearing you say it. I’m glad you made it. Very glad. I’m afraid we do have to go through the details, so if you’d follow me inside…?” Mycroft turns and leads the way off the roof.

I look at John and he shrugs, falling into step beside me as we follow Mycroft. One of the other agents is talking to Salib aside, his voice low and discreet, and they follow us at a distance. The squinting agent is speaking into a microphone pinned to his collar, the third holding the door open for Mycroft. I remember that my earpiece and microphone are still attached to my person and remove them in the lift. On the fourth floor the lifts stops and Mycroft leads us into his office. He keeps three or four offices around the city, including at the Diogenes Club, but this is his primary centre, where he most prefers to work.

Once we’re seated, he collects the earpieces and microphones (they’re his, after all) and offers tea or coffee. Once tea has been served, he begins the questions, an endless, detailed inquiry that goes on for hours, quite literally. More tea is served. Mycroft goes back to earlier points to revisit something that happened in Abu Dhabi or Sana’a, then brings up much earlier points. The makeshift prison cell in Antalya. The operation that Duncan assisted on in Salzburg. The hotel where I stayed before fleeing Berlin in Alt-Tempelhof.

John excuses himself to use the toilet after several hours. Mycroft leans back in his chair then. “So,” he says to me once the door has closed. “I presume that congratulations are in order?” The question mark is only just there; he’s fairly certain but there’s room for doubt, for confirmation.

Feel my shoulders shrug a little. (There’s no point denying it; Mycroft always knew how I felt, was always ribbing me about it before my “death” and obviously knew well enough to know that the news of John’s engagement would be badly received. He knew that the black depression that followed had everything to do with John’s engagement – knew, and was gentle with me about it. And obviously John and I have been staying in the same rooms; Mycroft will know the exact dimensions of each room and how many beds were in each one. He knows.) “I suppose,” I say, endeavouring to sound casual. “Nothing is official as such, or however you want to put it.”

My brother makes a derisive sound. “What do you mean, ‘official’? It’s obvious, Sherlock. The way you look at each other is utterly transparent. There’s some small tension there between you now, but it’s quite clear that he shares your feelings in no small measure.”

I frown. “I don’t know. He’s still engaged.”

“I imagine that will end soon enough,” Mycroft says. He’s watching me carefully.

Shrug again. “We’ll see.” (It’s all I can say. Want Mycroft to dismiss us so that John can get on with it, go and do it and then come to me and tell me that it’s done.)

“He – ” Mycroft begins, but the door opens again and John comes back in. Mycroft clears his throat. “I would say that we’re more or less finished here. If there’s anything else, I’ll let you know. John, if I need to get in touch, where will I find you…?”

John’s face is polite but closed. “You can call me,” he says. (Deliberately opaque? Perhaps.) “On my phone,” he specifies. (He always hated Mycroft’s little games.) “I believe you have my number.”

Mycroft studies him for a moment, then lets it go, surrendering. “Yes. All right. Once again, thank you both.”

I stand. “It was hardly altruistic. It was a question of survival.”

“Yes,” Mycroft says. “I know.” He gives me a crooked smile. “I’ll be in touch.”

I nod at him. We leave, going down to the lobby in the lift together. (Wish he would push me up against one of its walls, like he did in so many other lifts. Wish this awkward wedge didn’t exist between us.)

When we reach the door, John pushes through it, then stops and turns to me. “Listen,” he says. “I, er, I’ll need a bit of time. I just need to do this in my own way, in the best way I can think of. I’ll get in touch once it’s all done, all right?”

(It’s the exact wording he told me he used for Mary, to explain about leaving to go to Abu Dhabi with me. And no, it certainly isn’t all right. Concede that the “all right” was a mere courtesy on his part; he’s not asking, he’s informing. Have no choice but to accept it.) “How much time?” I ask, hating the uncertainty in my voice. (Have already laid myself completely bare to him. Got down on my knees and literally begged him not to go. Fallen completely to pieces while still inside him. He holds everything that I am in the palm of his hands and could crush me with a single word, a solitary breath.)

John looks away from me to the traffic going by. “I don’t know. Couple of days, maybe.”

(A couple of days without John seems like an eternity.) “All right,” I say. My voice sounds unsteady and fraught to my ears. “And I can’t contact you at all in that time.”

“I think it would be best if you didn’t,” John says. “I just – need to do this properly.” His face is set and stern but he softens just a little and puts a hand on my arm. “Don’t look like that,” he tells me, but there’s a note of pleading beneath the firm tone. “I’ll be back. I love you. You know that. I just need a bit of space to do this thing. I’ll hate doing it but it needs to be done. And then I’ll be back.”

“But you love me,” I say. (Need to hear it again.) “You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” John says. He smiles up into my face. “How can you not be sure of that yet? I love you, Sherlock. I love you with everything that I am. But you can’t be a part of this, that’s all. It’s just something I have to do on my own.”

“Okay,” I say. (I sound no less reassured.)

John sighs and reaches for me. “Come here, then,” he says, and pulls my face down to his. As we kiss, I slip my hand into my pocket and find the tiny microphone he left on Mycroft’s desk. Where to place it is the question; he’ll change out of these clothes the moment he can. His hair, then? He’ll shower as soon as possible, too. It’s a long shot but I clip it into the hair at the back of his neck, close to the scalp. I took both earpieces so I’ll be able to determine which one can be altered to coordinate with John’s microphone. It’s dishonest but this is vital. If I can’t physically follow him, this is the next best thing. But then John, thinking that he’s mirroring a gesture of affection on my part, slides his fingers into the hair at the base of my neck and goes on kissing me, there in public, and I suddenly feel ashamed of myself. I, who only very rarely feel shame, feel it now, and keenly. I remove the microphone from his hair (probably wouldn’t have worked anyway) and return it to my pocket, then let the kiss wash through me, curling into my bones and nesting in my pores. I don’t give a damn that we’re standing on the pavement in broad daylight. I don’t care what a single person in London thinks. Today is the day that I finally ended Moriarty and cleared the threat on John’s life. I’ll kiss whom I please, when and where I please and anyone who objects will find himself with an Order of the British Empire insignia lodged somewhere deeply unpleasant in short order.

When John pulls away, he gives me another smile that’s too reassuring. “I’ll call you,” he says firmly, then turns and walks away. The invisible bands of his instruction to leave him alone pin me to the pavement. I have no choice but to let him go.

I watch him, wondering where he’ll go first. He has hundreds of Euros in cash but no Sterling. Bank machine, then. Taxi, then to his flat. I still don’t even know where he lives. Never asked. (Should have.) Somehow it feels like the end of everything. The adrenaline of the day, and the collective adrenaline of the past two and a half years, is ebbing away and leaving me cold and empty. I suppose once Lestrade gets back to London, we’ll discuss my beginning the work again, the work I’ve missed badly ever since I left, but at the moment I feel completely indifferent to it. All I can think of is John.

He reaches the end of the block and turns right, disappearing from my sight. There’s nothing to do now but go home and wait for him to come back to me.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty

 

Mrs Hudson is delighted to see me.

It’s not that I’m not pleased to see her, but she’s spilling inquisitive questions everywhere and following me about like the hovering, motherly sort that she is and at the moment it’s driving me slightly mad. (Force myself to be patient: am very fond of Mrs Hudson, after all. She can’t help being the way she is any more than I can help being the way I am in response. Allowances must be made.) I answer or evade as many questions as I can take, then beg off, claiming to need a nap. She flutters her hands and says inane things about jet lag and making me a cup of tea “you know, just to settle you down” and busies herself in the kitchen. She calls over her shoulder that I can go ahead and unpack and I nearly laugh. What few possessions we had left were in Kathrin Reger’s flat when it blew.

Think of Kathrin as I wander into the bedroom and assume she’s safe at her brother’s. Helga Stiefl and her staff will get Kathrin sorted with a new flat and help defray the loss of the building itself. Insurance will help, I think vaguely. (Know little about insurance, though a great deal about insurance fraud, thanks to a case back in 2006, not long after I started consulting.) Think of Duncan and wonder if I’ll see him again, whether he’ll go back into deep-cover operations with CSIS or come back to London with Lestrade. Though they barely knew one another, they worked well together; anyone could see that they had a certain level of automatic working chemistry. And he’s unusually good with surveillance equipment, even for a spy. Perhaps he could turn to the private sector, become a security expert or some such thing. Consult for Mycroft or Lestrade or whomever else. Somehow I suspect that after his experience at Yilmaz’ hands, he will not return to the field, at least not in the same manner.

My eyes skim disconsolately over the objects in the bedroom. I’m well aware that my disjointed thoughts are little more than a desperate effort to distract myself from thinking of John, trying to predict what he is doing at this moment. Shower first, probably, clean clothes. He’ll bring in the mail, check his email, poke about in the kitchen. When will he call Mary? (Stop it.)

Mrs Hudson appears in the bedroom doorway (the door was open), holding a steaming cup. “I’ll just set it down here,” she says, eyes moving around the room and finally coming to rest on my face. She puts the cup on the dresser, then unexpectedly she crosses the small space and puts her hands on my shoulders. “Oh, my dear,” she says. “It’s been difficult, hasn’t it? And where’s John, then? I saw it in the papers, that he was out in Germany with you, there! I’d have thought he’d come home with you…”

Keep my voice resolutely even. “He went to his flat, I assume.”

“But everything’s all right, with you two?” She’s fretting. (Loathe being fretted over.)

I make myself sound reassuring now. “Yes, yes, of course,” I tell her, trying to sound soothing. “Perfectly all right. He’ll come round in a day or two, I’m sure.”

Her face brightens. “Oh, well that’s all right, then!” She gives me a little hug, squeezing my shoulders and I pat her back until she desists. She retreats to the doorway and flaps her hand toward the tea cup. “Drink that while it’s hot, now,” she admonishes. “And then get yourself some sleep, Sherlock dear. I’ll be downstairs.”

I make some sort of vague response and wait for her to go. Her idea isn’t half bad, honestly. It’s just after six in the evening but I have nothing better to do. Perhaps a shower and then a bit of sleep. (Have no idea what else to do with myself.) I do exactly that: take a long shower, drinking the tea at the same time, then dry myself and return nude to the bedroom. The sheets need airing but otherwise it’s comfortable and blessedly familiar after all this time. The only thing missing is John.

***

I wake at four, restless. Must have been dreaming of John; his face is everywhere in my scattered thoughts, though no solid narrative presents itself to my waking memory. I lie awake and stare at the ceiling, wondering where he is. Am sick with fear that he went to see Mary, just one last time, to be utterly sure. Would he do that? I don’t think he would, but I am incapable of being sure of anything until he returns. Perhaps I will never be sure. Perhaps, no matter what he says or does, this gnawing doubt will always consume me. That he’ll tire of me and my moods, my lack of courtesy, my messes and annoying habits, and finally leave. Or that, ironically, my very doubts and insecurities will finally exasperate him to the point of going.

I wonder how it would have been different if I had actively realised my feelings sooner, before the fall, before leaving London. Would that have ruined us permanently? It’s a moot point now; we both realised too late and nothing was ever said or done. Though the possibility was always there, wasn’t it? From the very first; acknowledged and side-stepped and relegated to the parallel domains of friendship and cohabitation.

Have always been somewhat nocturnal. In the past, there would usually have been an experiment to begin, or one ongoing to check on. A website to keep up, an essay in-progress. Now every canvas is blank. I could go and find my violin and see if the strings are in any condition to play, I suppose, but I feel uninspired and flat. Don’t feel like playing. There will be email, I suppose, comments on the website since my being alive went viral two days ago. This is day nine hundred and fifty-one, and the operation is over at last. It’s hard to grasp. There will be live media attention once it becomes known that I am back in London. I don’t want to deal with any of it before I know where things stand with John. If John is here with me, I’ll endure any amount of media, I vow to myself. I’ll get my old coat back and wear it, cram a deerstalker onto my head, or any other ridiculous thing they’d like to dress me in. Don’t care; I can take any of that if John is there.

If he doesn’t come back, I will shut myself inside the flat until they’ve given up hope and then… I don’t know. Could I stay here and start consulting again, with John and Mary sharing the city with me? I’m back to the point I where I was when I first got back to London. Except: he told me over and over and over again that he loves me, that this is what he wants. Realise that I am not actually seriously contemplating a decision based on John not returning because my hope that he will is still too great, despite my crushing fear that he won’t. He must. He has to. He promised.

Close to six, I fall into a shallow sleep again, tossing and turning, legs tangling with the sheets. Have forgotten how to sleep on my own and hate it.

At eight I get up and go to the laptop in the sitting room, the one Mycroft gave me when I first came back. I was correct: there are hundreds of emails and messages. I put off responding to anything for the time being and check the news sites instead. My return to London is not yet known, but the news out of Berlin has spread. Lestrade and Duncan have both made statements about John and I having taken down Sherkan Yilmaz and his operation. Helga Stiefl has spoken on behalf of Interpol and said some rather complimentary things about what I’ve accomplished in the past two and a half years with regard to Moriarty’s network of terrorist operations across Europe and the Middle East. The word hero is used several times, by both Stiefl and Lestrade. A news site out of Abu Dhabi reports the murder of Al-Amri and the related defection of Osman, both government employees. Al-Amri’s liaison with the British government is revealed and a tribute to his career follows. Good. He deserved that much, at least.

Mycroft said yesterday that Duncan, Lestrade, Salib and Al-Amri would all be receiving some manner of honorary as well (posthumously, in the case of Al-Amri, of course). I’m satisfied on Lestrade’s behalf particularly; that sort of thing would matter to him, would please him. It takes until past ten to finish catching up with the news related to this operation, let alone anything else that has transpired while I’ve been away. Enough; my attention span cannot tolerate any more. I wander barefoot into the kitchen and check the fridge for bread. Bless Mrs Hudson; she’s done the shopping. Mycroft must have alerted her to my imminent return. Even with everything else he was coordinating yesterday, he or one of his underlings thought to instruct Mrs Hudson to ready the flat for me. He really is rather extraordinary. Perish the thought. Pining for John is making me unendurably sentimental.

By noon I’m going out of my mind. Don’t want to leave the flat; there will be press waiting and in the unlikely event that John comes sooner than he said, I don’t want to miss him. I shower and try to reacquaint myself with my violin. I was never disciplined enough in that regard to play professionally; could never force myself to practise when I just didn’t feel like playing and now is no different. I give up after fifteen minutes of it, my fingers sore, having lost their calluses after two and a half years away. That particular return will be a slow one, but I can feel the music still there in my fingers somewhere. It will return.

At one I text Mycroft.

Where is he now?

There’s a bit of a wait, but then he responds.

I would not recommend whatever
it is that you’re currently contemplating.
When a party makes a request for space,
it is usually in one’s best interests to
respect that. You made a wise decision
regarding the microphone yesterday. John
would not have appreciated your attempts
at surveillance. However: the following
is the encryption to the SIM card on
his mobile phone. Use it wisely.

A string of numbers and characters follows in the second text and I realise what he is doing: by giving me the encryption to the SIM card, I will be able to access the GPS device embedded in John’s phone. It will allow me to see where he is, if not to hear or see him directly. It’s something, at least. I go to the laptop and key the sequence into the correct programme and wait for the map to appear. When it does, I realise I’m no more enlightened than I was. Text my brother again.

Who lives at 229 Portobello Rd?

His reply comes immediately.

That’s John’s address, you imbecile.

I frown and don’t respond. So John is at home. This tells me little; I have no way of knowing whether he’s there alone or not. (Is he the sort of man who would break an engagement on his own territory or someone else’s?) This proves to be a difficult question but in the end I determine that John would either choose neutral territory or, if he was feeling apologetic, the other person’s. It would be an act of graciousness. Then he could leave and let the other party recover in the dignity of privacy. Yes, I decide: he will do it at Mary’s. Unless: a public environment would allow either party to leave if the situation becomes too difficult. The person whose home it is would be stuck, unable to leave.

The temptation to go to his building and wait for him to leave, to follow him, is very strong. There are good arguments for doing so. If I want to tail him to Mary’s or wherever he decides to do it, it will be too late if I wait and watch from here to find out when he’s leaving and where he’s going. Need more data. Text my brother again.

Last request: require Mary’s address.

He replies quickly again.

I do recommend against this course of
action, but far be it that I dictate your
decisions in this matter. Mary’s address
is 35 Grafton Rd, Dagenham.

I look up the address on the map. It’s far, and street views prove it to be ugly. Drab, stucco row houses, the very thing John’s complained of in the past. According to him, one should either live in the heart of the city in a place like 221b Baker Street, or else live outside the city somewhere quiet and peaceful in a house that isn’t attached to other houses. Dagenham is far enough to be inconvenient unless one works in Dagenham or Becontree or any of the other godforsaken pockets of residential London out that way. There are no large parks (John was always quite fond of our proximity to Regent’s Park) and the nearest Underground station (Dagenham-Heathway) is inconveniently far on foot. A more detailed search of the street view proves that a disguise will be difficult; I’ll have to feign being service personnel of one sort or another. Perhaps he will meet her in a café or something instead. A public space would limit the potential for drama. I find myself hoping for this option. A public space would also prevent any possible reforgings of romantic attachment, or so I hope.

The other option is, of course, to stay at home and simply wait.

I cannot make a decision; in the end it makes itself by default when dark has fallen and I have not left the flat. The blinking dot on the map shows that John has not left his, either.

***

It happens the next morning: John’s dot leaves the flat at precisely fifteen minutes to eleven. Coffee, then. I search the cafés in the vicinity and determine the one he is heading toward, as he’s walking in the opposite direction of a tube station. (Could be taking a bus, but I don’t think so, somehow.) I fly around the flat and find a floppy newsboy cap that pulls low over my brow, pair it with an elderly cardigan with elbow patches that droops nearly to my knees and a pair of holey jeans left from my university days. Sunglasses would be too suspicious combined with the hat but I find some non-prescription dark frames favoured by the hipster crowd and choose an appropriately “ironic” moustache to wear with them. Enough: I’m out the door and into a cab less than twenty seconds later, barking out the name of the café to the driver.

I arrive just after John, who is settling himself at a table along the window. Wait until his back is turned and then skirt along the opposite wall until I’m sitting just over his shoulder, facing the opposite direction. Directly behind him would be too close and too suspicious; the café is not yet full enough to warrant having to take a table so close to any other. I am in his blind spot here. My short hair is hidden by the cap, my clothing unrecognisable to him. I cross one leg over the other and slouch over the table, feigning absorption in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

A few moments later, I hear the clip of heels crossing the café and stopping at John’s table; he’s getting to his feet. “Mary,” he says. “Thank you for coming.”

“Hello John,” she says. There’s the sound of a cheek being kissed. Her voice is soft, somehow mellower than I’d expected. A touch melancholy.

They sit down. John clears his throat. “Er, how have you been?” He sounds stilted, awkward.

Mary gives a small laugh. (I want to turn around, look at her, but it’s too risky. Am suddenly curious to know what she looks like.) The laugh is tinged with a slight bitterness. “As well as can be expected, I suppose.” The shrug is there in her voice. “And you?” (Slightly pointed.) “I see you’re back in London after your… adventures.”

“Yes,” John says. It sounds pained. “About that…” He trails off. (Can practically hear him gathering his thoughts together.) “Mary… when I said that I needed time away from you because there was someone else, it was true but it wasn’t the entire truth. I imagine you’ve been a bit confused by my sudden appearance in the media, there in Berlin, and I’m sorry you saw me in the news before hearing it from me directly. I couldn’t tell you where I had to go; it was completely classified. I couldn’t even tell you that I was needed on a mission with Sherlock, since as far as you knew, Sherlock was dead and I could hardly explain that – even that fact was still extremely classified, and if I’d just said I had to go on some mission, it wouldn’t have made sense because that part of my life was supposed to be over. I’m sorry that I couldn’t explain. But what I said about needing time because of there being someone else was also true. I’m very sorry.”

She is breathing slowly, deliberately, choosing her words just as carefully. “So – it was all part of the same thing, then? You found out that Sherlock was alive and needed your help, but it was also that you wanted to be with him? That’s what I’m gathering, but if you could explain a little more…”

John sighs. (Can feel his frustration from here, how much he hates having this conversation.) “The thing is, he’d been on his own for two and a half years already, fighting terrorists and living on the run, being captured and tortured and constantly on the verge of being killed. He was back in London temporarily and he was exhausted, anyone could see that. He needed help, but he didn’t know how long it was going to take to solve it, so my only choice was to let him go back out there by himself and wait here, not knowing what was happening to him, or go with him and just disappear for weeks or months, for all I knew. I couldn’t tell anyone what I was going to do, because one of the reasons it was a secret was that my life would have been in danger if the terrorists had found out he was still alive. So I had a bit of an obligation to help him as it was, for both his sake and mine. But I always should have been there, with him. We were partners. And he’d been doing it on his own for so long already. He was protecting me by letting me think he was dead, he thought he didn’t have a choice about that. But this time, I had the choice to help him. I had to, though. I had to go.”

“I understand that,” Mary says. “I also think it’s more than that. I mean, you just said. You were partners, but you also loved him.”

John exhales slowly. “Yes,” he says. No prevarication. Just a simple, honest, admittance. “I did and I do.”

“I knew,” Mary says quietly. “I knew that you had loved him before he died, or before he faked his death, I suppose. I knew you didn’t want to acknowledge that part when you talked about him, but I knew it. And when I saw you in the Times with him in Germany, it all made sense. I didn’t understand how he could have been alive, but obviously he was, and therefore you were with him. And there was a picture – the two of you were just walking down a street, in front of a Starbucks, I think. You’re not touching or anything, but it was just obvious to me that you were lovers. It just shone from both of you, and I thought then that you’ve never looked at me like that.”

Her voice is gentle and steady, but she’s being brave. Yes: that fits. John would have chosen someone like himself, quiet and firm and courageous, yet honest enough that her pain is quite evident despite the evenness of her voice. John’s is less even. “I’m sorry, Mary,” he says, sounding wretched. “I did love you. That was never a lie. And I’m sorry that this was going on before we officially – well. I suppose that’s what I’m doing now. Breaking it off. I have to. You know that I love him. I feel terribly that this all worked out the way it did. If I had known he wasn’t dead, I never could have got involved with someone else, but I did think that, and I met you, and it was – wonderful while we had it. But – ”

“I know,” Mary says. There’s the sound of skin against skin, just a whisper of it. She’s touching his hand or hands, I think, patting. “I know, John. But you love him. And you loved him before you loved me. I understand how it works. I can’t even blame you for this, though I sort of wish I could. I think I would have had to do the same thing, if it had been me.”

John gives an unhappy laugh. “It would almost be easier if you weren’t being so bloody understanding and kind about it.”

(Can hear the sad smile in her voice.) “But I do,” she says. “I’m sorry. And in a way, I think it’s wonderful. I’m happy for you: you lost someone who was the very centre of your life. I always knew that whether your love for him was strictly platonic, or – not – he was everything to you, and I’m glad for your sake that you’ve got him back.”

“We were never together before he died,” John says. “Not like that. We were partners in his work, and we lived together, but it wasn’t – ”

“I know, sweetheart.” Mary’s gentleness is inexorable. “I always knew that it was unrequited. That’s why it was so bitter. Otherwise grief heals more cleanly than yours ever did. I knew that what we had was only second-best for you, but I believed it could be enough, over time.”

John is quiet for a moment, perhaps wrestling his emotions into check. “It would have been,” he says at last. “It really would have. We would have been happy together.”

The sound of her hands on his again. “I thought so, too. But I really am glad for you,” she says. “That he’s not only alive but loves you back is wonderful – for you. And it’s clear to me that he does love you. I hope he’ll be very kind to you.”

I think for a horrible moment of what John might say in response to this, that one thing that I rarely am is kind, but he doesn’t say it. (Writhe with self-loathing for a minute or two.) “Thank you,” he says, his voice rough with emotion. “You’re a star, Mary. I never deserved you.”

“It’s not about what we deserve or don’t deserve is it?” Mary says, the question rhetorical. “It never has been. Otherwise, maybe I would still have you.” Her chair scrapes against the floor; she’s leaving. There’s a pause and then the sound of something small is set down on the table. “This belongs to you,” she says. “I stopped wearing it when I saw your picture in the paper.” She bends and kisses his forehead. “Be well, John,” she says softly, and then she’s gone.

I twist in my seat to catch a glimpse of her, a long-coated figure with short blond hair disappearing through the doorway. My gaze catches on John before I can help myself. He’s buried his face in his hands, the ring box on the table in front of him. (He’s crying.) Guilt hollows out my gut. I want to go to him, but understand that this is the very last thing I can do. As far as he will ever know, I was never here, never overheard this. (But I’m glad that I did.) After a few moments, he pulls himself together, blows his nose on a serviette, then gets to his feet and leaves the café. Neither of them even had anything to drink.

When I’m certain he’s well clear of the premises, I return the Tolstoy to one of the shelves lining the back wall and go outside to find a taxi. Time to go home and wait – wait to see if he will still love me after this, or if his resentment will keep him away. I barely see Westminster as it passes out the taxi windows; my gut is curled in on itself in misery. It was his choice to involve himself with me while he was still engaged. I know that. (How do I convince him, now, that it was worth it? That I am worth it, worth him?)

***

Back in the flat, I wait. And wait and wait and wait. I cannot do anything productive. Am non-responsive or monosyllabic to Mrs Hudson when she attempts communication. Mycroft threatens to visit when I don’t answer his first three texts inquiring about John. I answer the last text, at least, just to stave off the visit. I understand John’s need for space now. I do. I appreciate that he’s ended it with her, and am somewhat consoled by his direct acknowledgement of his feelings for me to her, yet I also understand entirely that his sense of integrity is suffering at the moment. Misplaced as it is, he feels he can’t just go from that, from breaking his engagement, directly to me and to being happy to be with me.

I understand. Yet I long to reassure him that he’s made the right choice, long to brand confirmation into his skin cells, breathe it into him, remind him that we are what we are. Restore that sense of intense intimacy of being practically inside one another’s skins. I have been within him – I should have insisted that he do the same, but there wasn’t another chance. We haven’t been together – not in that way – since that night in Hamburg, when I fell apart because the very intimacy was overwhelming. But no, that wasn’t the reason for my emotional wreckage that night – it was the fear of losing that very intimacy. I want that. I want to be overwhelmed by it, by him. I want him inside and over and around me. I want to fuse myself to him and breathe his air, feed his lungs with mine. Want to tell him that I’ll never leave him again, never lie to him again, never be cruel to him again. (Am uncertain about my own abilities to keep these promises, but I will try, damn it. I will do everything in my power to be less… myself. To make myself someone that he can feel justified in having given up Mary for.) I want to curl myself around him and tell him a thousand, unhesitating times that I love him and will forever, that he is the very best thing that ever happened in my life and that I will never willingly let it go. Never let anyone threaten or hurt him again, not as long as I am drawing breath.

Shadows gather in the sitting room and before long, it is dark. After a long while, I go to the kitchen and eat the sandwich Mrs Hudson told me she’d made for me hours ago, then brush my teeth and take myself to bed. Two nights without him now, four since we last touched each other. It feels like an eternity.

***

Morning brings more press, more articles, more emails and comments and tweets. I read through it, then shower and dress myself in one of my old suits. I choose the one that was the mostly tightly tailored, as I’ve lost weight during my time away. It’s a black corduroy suit that always did cut neatly in at the waist. After all this time it still hangs well and I must have gained back some of the weight I’d lost because the fit is similar to during my first year with John. His presence from the United Arab Emirates through to Germany ensured that I ate regularly, I suppose. I study myself in the mirror and decide that I look acceptable. If he comes today, I want to be sure that I’m not in my pyjamas or some such thing.

Just before eleven, the bell rings. Mrs Hudson answers it and I’m not sure what’s going on, but she sounds quite excited, her voice high and happy. Then she’s calling my name. I go downstairs to find two burly men and two dollies of boxes in the foyer. I understand immediately, something unclenching in my chest at last: movers. They’re looking at me questioningly. “Take them right up to the sitting room,” I say. “You can just leave them there.”

“Right you are.” The first mover is gruff and quick, already wheeling his load to the bottom of the stairs.

John is out on the pavement calling directions to someone else. (Don’t want to see him with all these people around. I retreat up the stairs after the boxes to direct traffic up there instead.) The first load of boxes are labelled Kitchen and Books respectively, so I carry the kitchen things to the work top, which is still clear of experiments for the moment. The second mover arrives with boxes labelled Clothes & Shoes. I direct him to the bedroom, my bedroom. “Just leave them inside the doorway,” I say. “No need to unpack.”

“As you say, sir,” the mover says, shifting the boxes off his dolly. “I was instructed to do any packing or unpacking you and Mr Watson prefer, so it’s down to you, sir.”

“We’ll do the unpacking,” I say, not bothering to ask from whom his instructions came. That’s quite obvious, but for once I can’t make myself feel annoyed with Mycroft.

John comes up with the third mover, who deposits a load of boxes in the sitting room near the others and goes out to the hall where John still is and tells him that was the last of it. John thanks him, says something to Mrs Hudson (not sure what, can’t spare attention for that, but it makes her leave at any rate, which is all I care about) and then he comes in and shuts the door behind him, looking at me.

I stand there, in my suit, and for a moment have no idea what to do or say. And then I do. I cross the room in about two seconds, and then John is grabbing me by the arms and swinging me around into the closed door, pushing me up against it. (Relief; this is precisely what I wanted.) Relief makes me weak in the knees, my hands grabbing at his head, his back, my mouth on his the instant I can get it there. John is no less insistent, no less demanding in his need for confirmation. That’s precisely what this is: he needs to know this, feel this again, make sure that he’s made the right choice. He did, I know it in my bones. I may never deserve him, but as Mary said, it was never about deserving. He loves me, and I am utterly ruined with love for him. His hips are pushing me into the door, pinning me there and I’m hard already. I think of our first time, here in the sitting room, my failed erection and skittish, uncontrollable mind. Just as the thought of him having been with Mary ruined that sexual episode for me then, so his having chosen me over her now fuels it. And after four days, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that I could possibly lose this erection if I tried. (Am decidedly not trying.) John’s hands are all over me, fingers fighting at the zip of my suit trousers, shoving the jacket open and off my shoulders. I’m unbuttoning his blue-checked shirt, the one I always particularly liked (don’t want to make a mess) and his fingers are busy on my shirt now. I’ve dealt with his jeans and now finally, finally his hands are fighting their way into my pants to touch me, hand curling around my penis to grasp it, begin a hard, sure stroke that leaves me gasping. (Four days is definitely too long. Never again.) I’ve got a hand wrapped around his erection inside his pants, the waistband pulling tight and somehow we manage to shove the offending garment down around his hips so that he can move. We kiss and kiss, short of breath and dizzy, and it’s too fast, too hard, but going any slower would kill us both, I think. We need this, this confirmation, this re-establishing of who and what we are to one another.

Perhaps it’s because it’s been four days, but I am going to reach orgasm far too quickly at this rate. (Don’t even care for once.) I can hear myself begging – “please, John – oh God, yes, yes – just like – ah – ”, voice rising helplessly. John is moaning into my mouth even as I spill into his hand, then lets me go to wipe his hand on his own shirt (oh, John), then puts both hands on my bare arse, all ten fingers digging in as he thrusts into my fist. He comes a moment later, cursing and groaning my name. I let my forehead drop onto his, panting and still drowning in relief that he is here, that he with me like this, that he is really mine. “I love you,” I say, when I can speak again, and am glad that I managed to say it before he could say it first.

He releases his grip on my arse and takes my face in his hands. “I love you,” he counters.

“I know,” I say, hearing the slight unsteadiness in my voice, because I finally believe it. It doesn’t mean that I’ll never have doubts, never question it. But I do know. At last, I know. “Are you here to stay, then?”

John smiles. “I thought so, yeah. If you’ll have me.”

“Of course I’ll have you,” I say, trying to sound cross and mostly failing. “Is this everything? No furniture?”

“No, I left that behind,” John says. “I called your brother this morning and said I could use his help moving, if he wanted to provide any assistance with that. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him sound that genuinely happy before. Anyway, I said he could do what he liked with the furniture.”

“Was he actually there?” I ask in disbelief.

“Yeah, he came himself, ‘to supervise’, he said,” John says. He grins. “I know. Unusual. I think he, er, really wanted this to happen, though.”

“He did,” I admit. “Though not as much as we did, I think.” I observe his face, searching it for any signs of regret and find none. “Are you all right?” I ask quietly. “No regrets?”

John shakes his head. “No. Not a one. It… wasn’t easy, when I saw Mary yesterday, but I think she’ll be all right. It’s the right decision. I always knew that.”

“Doesn’t mean that it was easy,” I say, agreeing. I touch his face. “You’re sure you’re all right? This isn’t too soon?”

“It’s not half soon enough,” John says, and his smile is real, bone-deep and lovely. “We waited long enough for this.”

I hesitate for half a second, then say it. “The other morning in Berlin, when I asked you to promise to stay forever, I meant it. You wondered if I was proposing. I wasn’t then, not exactly, but I am now. I thought of buying you a ring but I didn’t want to presume, and thought you might like to choose it yourself. Marry me, John. Please.”

John’s eyes rove over my face, intense and heartbreakingly open. “You really want that?” he asks. “You’re one hundred percent sure?”

“A thousand percent sure,” I say firmly. (Never mind mathematical possibility.) “We belong together. Like you said. We’re partners, in everything. We’ve had some good people around us lately – Mycroft, Lestrade, Duncan. Salib and Al-Amri. But at the end of the day, you’re all I need and all that I want, John Watson.”

John blinks and I realise that his eyes are wide and blue and full of tears, but the right sort of tears this time. “I’m yours,” he says.

He closes the space between us, my heart pounding as my arms fold themselves around his back, lips meeting his. I waited nine hundred and fifty-two days for this. Think briefly of everything that occurred from the day that I jumped from the rooftop of St. Bartholomew’s until this moment.

(It was worth it.)