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Magpie: Two For Joy

Chapter Text

T minus 2 and counting

After replacing the cap on the black magic marker pen, Sherlock stands quietly, letting his eyes roam across the wall over the sofa. In the background, he can hear the CD recording of the Prince of Denmark's March, a piece written by Jeremiah Clarke in 1700. The music prompts a stray memory of when as an eight year old he had learned that the piece commonly called "The Trumpet Voluntary" was in fact written for the organ, and not the brass instrument. "Why is the title wrong?" he had asked his brother.

He could still hear Mycroft's superior sniff: "It's not an actual trumpet, Sherlock. It refers to a particular organ stop, generally a single rank reed stop, with vertical full-length resonators flared to form a bell; in traditional organ building, the trumpet stop makes a firmer, more solid-pitched tone than the French trompette, which emphasises overtones at the expense of fundamental note."

At some point in his childhood after that, Sherlock had come to loathe keyboard instruments, perhaps because Mycroft had always been such a know-all about them.

As the sun sets outside, Sherlock feels the cold; late spring days might be warming up, but the tonight it is forecast for a touch of frost, so he slips his camel dressing gown on over his shirt and trousers and then re-focuses his attention back on the wall. The smiley face is obscured by various pieces of paper, photographs and lists, floor plans, invoices, print outs of emails—even a map of the United Kingdom in the centre—useful for calculating travel distances and therefore the times between each milestone that will need to be passed along the way on a particular day. He's spent almost an hour today tracking down the latest road and rail construction areas that could interfere, mapping the traffic diversions in the designated target area and re-calculating travel times accordingly. Neatly typed and printed labels cordon off different parts of the wall. He has made an effort to keep it neat and tidy, because this wall is for more than just his own use. His eidetic memory means that he'd managed easily to do without a physical evidence board for most of his two years away, but Sherlock has to make an effort on this occasion to accommodate the less organised minds that are at work with him on this particular problem.

Various parts of the board are linked by strings of yarn, some in a tasteful shade of blue, others in a rather unfortunate pink to help those less able people draw the necessary connections through the data. The wool for both had been purloined from Mrs Hudson, after she abandoned the half-knitted scarf for her sister's godson, Peter, because the recipient had announced rather petulantly that there was no way on earth he'd wear something so ‘girly’. Sherlock has some sympathy with the ten year old; the pink is rather shocking and would have been a magnet for school yard bullying if she'd ever managed to finish it by last autumn. He'd finally resorted to using the yarn strings to help the others learn chapter and verse exactly what is required of them. He certainly doesn't need the visual reminder of who needs to do what to whom, by when, even if the why still sometimes eluded him.

Behind him, Sherlock can feel the emptiness of the flat pressing against his back. The sensation still bothers him, and the fact that he is so aware of the absence of John tonight bothers him even more. He's spent years alone; now and what is to come should be no different. But, no matter how often he tells himself that, building this evidence wall is the hardest thing he's ever done. It demands things of him that he'd never believed he would willingly do. Sherlock shifts his weight and squares his shoulders a bit, drawing in a deep breath. Once more unto the breach...

The wall has come to serve as a canvass of his life for the past five months. He, Mary and John have stood or sat in front of it at least twice a week and talked. But, oddly, the more the three of them are drawn to this wall, the worse his anxiety has become. He cannot help but feel each moment ticking down; it is worse than that digital counter on the underground bomb, because this time there is no off switch, no way to turn off the electricity current, no last minute intervention to stop the countdown, delay or defer the inevitable. He has submerged himself in the planning, losing himself in the minutiae as if paying enough attention to the details could help obscure the end result.

It is the end of 'T minus two and counting'. John and Mary are getting married the day after tomorrow, just as he has planned it in exact detail. The irony of using his case evidence techniques for wedding planning is not lost on him. I am guilty of planning and executing a crime against myself, against John and even Mary, too.

A twinge in his jaw reminds him that he'd been clenching his teeth rather too much lately.

Tomorrow is the rehearsal dinner. The guest list is neatly typed —pinned lower middle wall, just above the sofa. He's just drawn a line through one of the guest names—Janine Hawkins— she'd emailed Mary just an hour ago to cry off. Mary's forwarded e mail said that Janine's employer has demanded her presence at a business meeting in Paris tomorrow, which is to be followed by an evening dinner hosted for the Monsieur Harlem Desir, the Minister in charge of European Affairs. But, Mary added, "not to worry; she promises she will be there on the day."

The wedding is the day after tomorrow, so in theory Miss Hawkins should be back in time, but just in case she does not show, Sherlock has already briefed one of the other bridesmaids, Sarah Chambers, a fellow nurse at the surgery. He'd prepared a typed sheet of instructions. "Think of it as being an understudy; one never hopes for misfortune, but it could be to your benefit, Miss Chambers. The Maid of Honour's present is considerably more valuable than the one chosen for ordinary bridesmaids. It might just compensate you for the fact that you are unlikely ever to wear again the bridesmaid's dress, given that lilac does not suit someone with ginger hair and your complexion. Have you thought of dying your hair blonde for the day? It will mean that you wouldn't clash with the bride in the wedding photos." The young woman had given him a rather insulted look, before saying "no."

Sherlock mentally re-organises the dinner table plan, and thinks about the actual day, in case Mary's assessment proves too optimistic about Miss Hawkins. He grimaces slightly that he might be forced to sit next to the Sarah Chambers on the high table at the Wedding Breakfast. At least before the rehearsal dinner he should be able to assess her ability to follow instructions. He is all in favour of the idea of a rehearsal—every activity on the wall has been carefully timed and the schedule is meticulously worked out in minute-by-minute detail, but even then proper contingency requires a dry run. But why this has also to be an occasion for eating and drinking, Sherlock cannot understand. There is so much of this process that he has found perplexing.

Sherlock idly wonders whether he might be able to bribe Lestrade to call him away from the restaurant tomorrow night with an urgent case. He could promise John to be back in time for the actual wedding; it is worth a try to avoid at least this part of the (shudder) socialising that comes with the nuptial event. The next two days are going to be something out of his worst nightmares- people, noise, confusion, petty conversations, and then, to top it all, having to give a speech in front of an audience. The last time he'd done that, it was at Moriarty's trial and that had ended up with him being arrested for contempt of court.

He sighs.

Sherlock drops down to his knees and uses the blank sheet of paper on the coffee table to draw a thin rectangle and then inserted the names of the six people along one side, then climbed onto the sofa to post up the Plan B version of the Reception top table. Just in case Miss Hawkins is a no-show. In the process, his eye is drawn to the enlarged photograph of the wall-paper in the Orangery of the Arnsworth Castle hotel: a bright sunny yellow, with painted greenery and a series of large blue and white birds elegantly flying about. He'd used the photo to help with the choice of fabrics for the bridesmaids' dresses and for the flowers and table arrangements. Mary had adored the room, but there is something that annoys him about the birds.

They are what might charitably be termed ‘artistically’ drawn, rather than faithful to any particular species of bird. At first, he had thought of them as akin to Fairy Terns, a smallish all white sea-faring bird with an elegant forked swallow-like tail. He'd seen them off the South Indian sea coast. Or perhaps swallows, but the birds on the mural are too big for either swallows or terns, and their colouring is all wrong. These soaring on the reception room walls remind him a bit of magpies, with white on their body and heads. But the blue isn't the right hue, there is no green or black as there should be for Pica pica, and a magpie's tail is not forked. He wonders why the idea had come into his head that they were magpies.

And then he remembers the rhyme: Two for joy.

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock's eyes bore right through the mirrored plate glass window, as if it isn't there.

Sally Donovan takes her eyes off the suspect being interviewed long enough to register the fact that the Consulting Detective is not a happy witness to the interview going on. She might have had a two-year break from having him on her cases, but she has not lost the knack of interpreting the fidgets of the man whose impatience is almost tangible. He's told Lestrade that this interview is a waste of time; she disagrees.

The Farintosh Jewellery heist is a big one— over £1.25 million pounds worth of goods stolen, including the Rosenborg Opal tiara*— an heirloom piece worth almost half of that total on its own. It had been in the jewellery shop to be repaired. The robbery in Pimlico had been bad enough, but it had also cost the life of a witness- a homeless young man by the name of Terry Matthews who had presumably witnessed the burglar escaping with his loot.

For the past week, the combined forces of Lestrade's MIT and Len Barrow's Flying Squad unit from the Specialist, Organised and Economic Crime command have assembled the evidence. Eventually, facial recognition software had identified the suspect who is now being interviewed.

Lestrade's voice sounds amplified and slightly distorted on the speaker attached to the wall beside the window.

"So, let me get this straight. You went to the Tesco Metro at 6.14pm, bought some cold beer and then went home?"

The suspect shakes his head. "No, on Thursday, the day you are talking about, I was at home watching the football. I didn't leave the house all evening. I go to the shop every Wednesday; that's my curry night— have done for years, but never on a Thursday."

Sitting beside Lestrade, Len Barrow leans back in his chair, crosses his arms and sniggers. Watching the scene with Sherlock in the darkened observation room, Sally gives a low whistle. "Robert Penrose, you are one smooth liar. He really looks like he's telling the truth."

"In this case, Sergeant, that is because he is actually telling the truth." Sherlock says it quietly, not shifting his gaze from the suspect. He is rubbing the inside of his index finger against the thumb nail of his left hand, over and over, quite rapidly in almost flicking motion.

She throws a puzzled look at the Consulting Detective, who does not appear to notice her reaction. "That's impossible. We've got him on the in-store CCTV." Sally says sarcastically, "Or are you saying he's got an identical twin? A doppleganger?"

Sherlock is nodding, but she realises it isn't in response to her comment. "You're too quick to make assumptions, Sergeant."

Sally snorts. "And you're too quick to ignore the obvious evidence. I don't even know why you are here; the Guv didn't ask for your help— he's got enough on his plate, working with the Flying Squad. We don't need you getting in the way."

It is true that Lestrade had not asked Sherlock to get involved. It had been the Danish royal family who had contracted the services of the Consulting Detective. The tiara is an heirloom that they want back, and he is here on their behalf. Sally doesn't like that fact any more than she likes the idea of having him involved in a case that was "not the sort that usually interests you" as she put it. "A kid was bashed over the head by a beer bottle by a burglar; unfortunately, the concussion and hypothermia did him in, hours later. Manslaughter at best; no ghoulish details for you to obsess over."

Sally is struggling to find her way back to a working relationship with the man she once disparaged as the Freak. She hasn't called him that to his face since his return; guilt about her role in his downfall still restrains her a bit. But she is who she is, and while he might be quieter on a crime scene than he used to be, he is who he is. She'd really rather not have had him around on cases that she thinks of as "hers". Without John Watson to soften the Consulting Detective's abrasiveness, she finds it hard to avoid being irritated. Whatever Lestrade had said about the two men "sorting things out", the doctor isn't making many appearances these days. It makes her feel nostalgic for the two years when she'd not had to deal with being irked so much by Holmes.

Her sense of irritation gets the better of Sally, so she says what she feels in a loud enough voice that he cannot mistake her. "He's a convicted criminal. The evidence says he's lying, even if he says he isn't. That's what we have to go on. No use trying to make this more interesting than it is."

Across the interview table, Lestrade appears to be as unimpressed by the suspect's answer as Len Barrow is. He turns the laptop in front of him so the suspect could see the screen, and then taps the keyboard to play the video. "This is CCTV of that day and that time—check out the digital numbers— and that's you. We finally tracked you down by matching your face to your bank branch three streets away. They have you on their cash machine camera, withdrawing money the day before. Facial recognition software says there's a match, and we used it to get your name and address."

Sally doesn't need to see the footage being shown to the suspect; she’s the one who had retrieved it from the supermarket. In it Robert Penrose walked into the camera's range, carrying a wire basket with a six pack of cold beer cans and a ready-meal. She's even stopped the frame and examined it closely enough to know that it was a chicken curry, complete with rice.

Lestrade continues, "The CCTV camera in front of the Farintosh jewellery store two doors down the Warwick Way shows you walking out of the Tesco Metro, past the laundromat, then the jewellers, and turning left at the end of the parade of shops, down Tachbrook Street. Then, off camera, you must have walked down the alley to the back of the Jewellers where you picked the locks to get in through the back door. For the next hour or so, you cleaned the place out. You took the in-store camera footage of the burglary and destroyed them. We found the damaged kit, the smashed hard-drive, missing the crucial data files."

Lestrade leans forward, and taps the keyboard again, to fast-forward the footage. "But you forgot the front door camera, which was our lucky break. It's on a different system that you missed. And it catches you again, on your way back in front of the shop, and this time, you're not carrying the bag of groceries. That's because, on exiting the back door, you must have been seen by Terry Matthews— that's the name of homeless guy who'd bunked down for the night somewhere in that alley. So, you hit him with the beer bottle and crushed his skull. We also found something in the bin at the end of the alley—an unopened curry and the rest of your beers. Took us a while to find that, but it matches the ones you left Tesco carrying. The shoe prints in the shop? Yes, indeed, they match yours, too."

Penrose's face does not alter; he sits unmoved, his expression showing nothing but calm certainty. The lawyer appointed after his arrest leans over to whisper something in his ear, but he waves the man away. "You're wrong. I wasn't there. I didn't steal anything. I'm innocent."

Detective Len Barrow of the Flying Squad is a big man, imposing in his own way. And he uses it now, "But you have form, Mister Penrose—three years for burglary. Worse still, you have no way to corroborate your statement that you were at home, alone. No alibi."

"I don't need an alibi. I did my time sixteen years ago, but one thing prison taught me- apart from mending my ways and keeping my nose clean- it created a real need for routine. I never go out on a Thursday."

Burrows shakes his head, "That's not good enough. Not without a witness."

Beside Sally, Sherlock shifts his weight and mutters something too quietly for her to hear. "What was that, Holmes? Admitting you're wrong?"

Sherlock doesn't shift his gaze from the suspect, but snaps, "No, I said that he is innocent until proven guilty, and you have not done so." In a swirl of coat, he opens the door of the viewing room and stalks out, heading back upstairs to the MIT* incident room.

When the interview concludes some ten minutes later, Lestrade, Barrow and Sally eventually go back upstairs, but the sight that greets them is unusual, to say the least.

Sherlock is sitting cross-legged like a Buddha on one of the desks, facing the evidence board. The investigation has generated a lot of evidence, which has been taped up on not one, but two white boards—a total maze of photos and notes from the crime scene and then a great gallery of photos from the Tesco security cameras, about a third of which had been identified with a name on a yellow sticky note. Penrose’s photo is the seventh out of twenty.

There are several officers from the Flying Squad in the room, and they are watching Sherlock incredulously. Len stops alongside to join them.

As Sally and Greg come around the desk, she realises that the Consulting Detective's eyes are closed. He is gesturing rapidly; his left hand plucks something invisible from the air, and moves it around to a different position, while his right hand seems to be drawing lines to it. He does this repeatedly, in total silence.

One of the Flying Squad officers sniggers. "I thought this guy was supposed to be your team's secret weapon. I think he's gone off his trolley, Guv. Or is this hocus-pocus all part of the celebrity act?"

Lestrade shoots the man a withering look, before turning his attention back to the eccentricity.

"Sherlock, what's going on?"

There is no reply at first. Sally feels some sympathy with the Flying Squad guys, who are getting restless, and their muttering is on the edge of becoming louder and more abusive.

She whispers to Lestrade, "Do you think we should call Watson? I know they don't work together like they used to, but maybe he knows why the F…" she stops what she had been about to say and then continues "…Holmes is being quite so weird."

Suddenly Sherlock's arms stop in mid-air, and a pair of grey green eyes snap open. "This is all wrong." He gestures dismissively towards the boards. "Most of this so-called evidence is a total waste of time. Time is the crucial thing here; you need to think of this as a time line."

Lestrade looks back at the crammed white boards. "I'm not following you."

Sherlock lowers his arms and glared. "Clearly, as you've ended up interviewing the wrong person."

Burrows comes forward. "Penrose fits, and the evidence supports it. Anything else is just….pointless speculation. It isn't that complicated. You're just after more headlines."

"And you, Detective Inspector, are incapable of seeing anything beyond the obvious— that is, what you were meant to see. You lack the imagination to understand the criminal mind."

Before Burrows can snap a caustic reply, Lestrade holds up his hands between the two of them, like a referee stopping a boxing match. "That's enough from both of you. Sherlock, if you think we've got the wrong person, then you have to prove it, because the evidence may be circumstantial, but there's enough of it to build a prosecutor's case."

Sherlock sighs, and shakes his head slowly. "I need to interview Daphne Farintosh, the owner. And bring in her brother-in-law, His name is Bill Wright; he's in on it, too."

Sally starts laughing, "Now I've heard it all. You think an elderly widow is the criminal? And they're like, what— the Waters family? You're making this up. Mrs Farintosh is the person who stands to lose the most from the robbery."

Sherlock glowers. "The person who had that 'honour' is Terry Matthews, the young man who lost his life, Sergeant. His death wasn't planned, but then Mrs Farintosh and her brother-in-law hadn't calculated on the 23rd of January being such a cold night."

She rolls her eyes at the non sequiter. "What difference could the temperature on the night of the burglary make?"

He turns to her and said with real steel in his tone, "I'm not going to bother answering that question. Since you haven't a clue about this case, I prefer to let the real criminals confess to the crime. A confession trumps circumstantial evidence every time."

Ninety minutes later, the interview room is in use again. Only this time, Sherlock is on the other side of the observation mirror, seated alongside Lestrade. Barrow and Donovan have been relegated to the observation room. Across from Sherlock and the DI is Mrs Daphne Farintosh, a grey-haired woman in her early seventies, conservatively dressed in a rather dated dark grey tweed suit with an opal brooch setting off her ice-blue cashmere sweater.

When Sally had greeted her at the front desk to escort her to the interview room, Mrs Farintosh has greeted her with a grandmotherly smile. "There you are, Sergeant. I remember you from the day of the burglary. It was just so nice to see a woman amongst all those big police officers. I do hope you've got good news; the constable says an arrest has been made. I just want all this kerfuffle to get sorted out soon."

Now, sitting across from Lestrade and Sherlock, she seems bit bewildered. Next to her is a lawyer, Tom Grange, exuding an air of protectiveness.

He is the one who speaks first. "Look, I'm not a criminal lawyer, but I've been a friend of the family for years. I really must protest this, Detective Inspector. We came here in good faith, expecting to be updated on your arrest of the thief. We thought this was a meeting, not an interrogation. And on our way here, she's had a call from her brother-in-law to say that he's been brought in, too— to 'help with police inquiries', as they say." He eyes the recording machine suspiciously. "Daphne has given all the information she has about the theft at her business; you already have her statement."

Lestrade introduces Sherlock to the pair, and the reaction from the lawyer is astonishment. "What on earth? Why would you of all people be involved in this investigation?" Clearly, all the newspaper coverage of his cases since Sherlock's return has created an impact. The lawyer blurts out, "This isn't a …a bomb plot or a people-smuggling racket!"

Unfazed by the man's reaction, Sherlock answers the question. "Indeed not. I'm here on behalf of my clients, the Rosenborg family."

The woman's discomfort becomes even more pronounced. Quietly and with feeling she says, "Please convey my deepest regrets about this to the family. I'm just so sorry that their piece was stolen. My husband Harry would have been mortified, if he had been alive now." Her eyes tear up a bit. "He died in early November."

"This is all about bad timing, Mrs Farintosh, isn't it?" Sherlock makes it a statement, rather than a question.

She looks a bit shocked by the question. "Well, of course! Nobody ever plans on dying from a heart attack, do they? It was so heart-breaking; Harry and I have been together since before you were born, young man."

Lestrade intervenes to ask, "Can you explain to us why the tiara was at the shop? I hope you won't mind me asking this, but there are much bigger jewellers with international reputations. So, why your shop?"

She is a bit put out by the question. "Detective Inspector, just because my husband's business is small compared to someone like Mappin & Webb, it doesn't mean that we don't have a good reputation. My late husband was Australian, and one of the few jewellers in Europe who had the expertise in opals to have done the repair. Opals aren't easy like diamonds. They're soft unlike a lot of precious stones, and the crystal opals on that tiara were really delicate, needing someone with experience to clean and repair such a historic piece. A week before he died, the Rosenborgs agreed with Harry that they'd send the opal tiara to us after the Christmas season. It's just bad timing that the tiara was in the shop the night it was broken into."

She gives Sherlock a firm look. "If the police can't recover it from the thief, then at least they'll get the insurance. I'm trying to do the right thing, even if the burglars are to blame. Despite our insurance company's policy of having a ten percent excess on any one item and refusing to pay the full assessment value, we're making up the difference, so the Rosenborgs won't lose out." She now looks fondly at the man sitting beside her. "It isn't easy for a small business like ours; it will cost us a great deal, and if I didn't have Tom here to help me through all the legal stuff, I don't know what I would have done."

Sherlock sniffs, totally unmoved by the elderly woman's moral tone. "That's not what I meant about bad timing and you know it, so let me explain the facts for the benefit of the rest of the people in the room." He is not conceding a thing to her age or manner, but treating her as he would have if she'd been a hardened criminal with a long record.

Behind the glass, Barrow snorts. "Not exactly house-trained, is he? I feel a complaint to the IPCC coming on. That lawyer friend of hers won't accept her being badgered."

Sally rolls her eyes. "You have no idea. Holmes once yelled at a headmistress of a school who had two of her pupils kidnapped— made her hyperventilate and put her into a state of shock."

Unaware of their exchange, Sherlock unleashes his interview technique. "Let's start with the fact that at some point in early December, the landlord from whom you rent the premises for your business sent you and the other tenants a letter saying that the parade of shops was being put up for sale; any re-developer was likely to knock the whole lot down to build floors of posh flats above. He also told you that the rents of any new premises would be rising, and you and I both know that rise is to the point where you won't be able to afford them."

Beside her, Sally felt Barrow shifting his stance a little. "Bloody hell; we didn't know that."

"Yeah, he's just a mine of trivia, most of which is irrelevant." She just shakes her head in disgust. "He just can't resist showing off."

Unable to hear her snide remark, Sherlock continues, "Your husband had always managed the business and dealt with these sorts of things, I imagine. His death must have been a shock."

She nods, then sighs. "We'd been married for forty seven years; and then this theft…well, it's just all too much." Then Daphne lifts her chin. "Actually, I'm glad he wasn't alive to hear it; it would have broken his heart. He…"

Sherlock cuts her off. "Here's another piece of bad timing. That letter about the intended sale came just a week after your shop re-fit finished—the project that your husband had planned, but then he died just as it got started. You had thought it best to complete it, except you let the builders go and brought in your brother-in-law instead to save costs. But your brother-in-law hasn't got your planning skills, does he, Mrs Farintosh?"

She shakes her head sadly. As she draws breath to explain, Sherlock interrupts again, "The result was a project that overran both the budget and the timetable, damaging your Christmas sales— the key time of the year when you had hoped to get enough revenue in to pay off the construction debts."

This provokes another sigh from the elderly woman. "We had a terrible season as a result. All that money spent on a shop that might to have to close if and when they can find a buyer. It's just been one thing after another. We have no idea when the sale will go through; the landlord thinks it might be next autumn. All so distressing…" She looks like she was on the verge of tears again.

The lawyer pats her arm to comfort her and butts in, "I don't know how you got any of this information, but it's really none of your business, and it doesn't change the fact that her business was robbed."

Ignoring the lawyer, Sherlock tilts his head, looking at the woman with a keen eye that sees everything. "But, it does. It changes everything. Because the next letter arrived on the second of January telling you that the parade of shops had already been sold, and giving notice to quit the premises by the end of February. She didn't tell you that, did she, Mister Grange?"

Sherlock smirks as he glances at the lawyer. "I'll take your stunned silence as a 'yes'. Well, Mrs Farintosh, you decided to ignore that letter." He focuses again on the grey haired woman. "Were you too embarrassed to admit any of this to your new friend here? You are a procrastinator by nature, aren't you, Mrs Farintosh? I can tell, just by looking at the missing button on the sleeve of your otherwise immaculate jacket. You've got the button, but haven't got around to actually sewing it on."

Lestrade looks at the woman's sleeve, and it is clearly missing a button. Mrs Farintosh frowns and drops her hand below the table, instinctively hiding the sleeve from further scrutiny.

Watching the drama unfold, Sally can see Barrow frowning.

Sherlock continues, "So, a bit like a rabbit in front of car headlights, you were just shocked into inaction. You owed all this money, had no way of earning it before the shop had to close. You told no one that the shop had to close, because if you had, then the creditors would come after your house, your pension income. Time kept ticking on. Then on the 18th of January, the Rosenborg tiara came into the shop for repair. You'd forgotten about it in all the strain of the previous two months. Instead of returning it immediately, you accepted the delivery in the full knowledge that you couldn't actually repair it. The only logical reason to have done so was that you intended to have it stolen, and then to claim on the insurance."

Mrs Farintosh folds her hands together in front of her on the table, and lowers her eyes to look at them, rather than the Consulting Detective. Her lawyer jumps to her defence. "That's preposterous. You have the camera footage, the burglar is on it. Detective Inspector, your Sergeant told us that the man had been arrested."

Lestrade nods. "Yes, but he's denying any involvement."

Sherlock gives the lawyer and the woman one of his fake smiles. "It took me a little while to figure it out. At first, I wondered if you, Mister Grange, were in on the deal. Perhaps you or her brother-in-law Bill Wright hired Penrose to do the theft. But, then I realised that would have involved paying him—and Mrs Farintosh needs every penny she can get from the insurance and the re-sale of the jewellery on the black market. What's the easiest way to get away with an inside job? Blame it on someone else. Someone predictable, whose habits can be counted on, who can be observed carefully so that the circumstantial evidence trail can be laid that will end in his conviction. Mrs Farintosh, you decided that Penrose was just the person to take the blame. After all, he'd passed your door once a week for the past decade."

The lawyer starts shaking his head angrily. "Detective Inspector, what Holmes is suggesting is just ridiculous. First he says she can't plan anything, and then he says she's capable of doing just that. I ask you…does Mrs Farintosh look like a master criminal? She's a seventy-three year old housewife struggling to keep her late husband's business afloat."

Ignoring the man completely, Sherlock leans back in his chair. "In this case, Mrs Farintosh, you turned to family for help. Your brother-in-law is a building contractor who happens to have experience in fitting security systems— that's why you used him for the shop re-fit. He's the one who knew just how to alter the time-clock on the hard drive so that the data feed would show footage taken on Wednesday being dated as Thursday. So, you stopped the clock— literally—by changing the date, so you could implicate an innocent man. You told your brother in law to buy and wear the same size and make of shoe as his patsy— the man you chose to frame for the burglary. You even thought of the idea of buying the same beer and curry that Penrose routinely buys, and getting Wright to toss it in the bin behind your shop. Nice touch that."

Sherlock was no longer smiling. "You may be a procrastinator, but you are a planner. Your mistake was to rely on your brother-in-law."

He leaned forward again and pointed at the woman. "The trouble was, you didn't count on the cold snap on the 23rd of January— the night you chose for the burglary. That night the temperature dropped to minus seven degrees and a young homeless man decided that dossing down at the back of the laundromat was a good idea. The steam released by the washing machines and tumble driers is vented out back, keeping him warm. That meant he saw your brother-in-law putting the curry and beer into the bin at the back. And he was hungry."

The woman looks up again, with real pain in her eyes.

Sherlock drives the point home. "So, Matthews went into the bin and helped himself to the curry while your brother-in-law was doing the business in the shop and taking the tiara. Then Bill Wright comes out, he sees the boy, realises that he can be identified, panics and there's a fight. He didn't tell you about that until later, did he?"

Her eyes fill with tears.

"You didn't mean to kill him."

"Of course not."

"But it was your plan, Mrs Farintosh, that resulted in his death."

The woman does not reply, but keeps her eyes down on the table.

The silence drags on in the room, until finally Sherlock breaks it with a statement. "Your plan; your responsibility."

Miserable, she shakes her head. "It wasn't supposed to happen that way."

"Then your plan was to blame. And so were you."

"Yes." It comes out in a whisper and then she starts to cry.

Grange puts his hand on her arm, trying to comfort her. "Daphne? This can't be true?!"

"I'm so sorry, Tom. I was going to tell you. So many times this week, I nearly told you. But, I was afraid of what you would say, that you would leave me. Without Harry now, I …just wanted to tell you that I'd sold the business and that we would have enough to retire together to Spain."

Grange seems stunned by her revelation, but then the lawyer's training kicks in. "Don't say another word. You haven't been arrested, or charged, and you need to talk with a proper criminal lawyer before anything else is said."

She shakes her head. "No, I'm sorry. Harry would want me to tell the truth. It was his business, and I so wanted to do the right thing, but the more I tried to ignore the problems, the worse things got. And then the plans…well, the theft was supposed to be a victimless crime. The insurance would pay for the loss of the tiara. I never intended anyone to get hurt." Her breath hitches. "That poor boy."

She reaches into her sleeve and withdraws a dainty lace-edged handkerchief to clean up some of the mess her crying has made of her eye makeup. Then twisting it between her hands, she draws a deep breath. "It happened just as you said, Mister Holmes. I don't know how you could know but… once I realised that time had run out, I panicked and came up with this plan. I'm not an evil person. I never intended this to happen the way it did. Things just…snowballed, everything got more and more complicated."

Sherlock interrupts. "Where's the tiara now?"

"At home—under the floorboards. I was planning to break it up, and take the stones to Spain with me. There are five opals over 200 carats each; I could sell them anonymously through my husband's contacts. On the Algarve, the diamonds would be easy enough to sell on the black market. The Rosenborgs would get their insurance, and I'd get enough from the selling the opals and the diamonds from the tiara to clear all the debts and let me retire to Spain. The insurance and the sale of the other jewellery stolen from the shop would fund my Bill's kids' university tuition fees – that was his pay-off. The plan wasn't supposed to cost a life."

Sherlock does not hide his judgmental tone. "They say that opals are an unlucky jewel. For you, and for a homeless man, they were. Thank you, Mrs Farintosh for the confession. That will save a great deal of police time and public money, which has already been wasted enough in this case."

Pushing his chair back from the table, he stands up and looks back at the mirrored wall, aiming his next comment at Sally Donovan. "My work is done here; I will leave you to explain to Detective Inspector Barrow where to find the jewels, and Sergeant Donovan can get the details from Bill Wright of how the young man died."

As he gets to the door, Daphne Farintosh calls out to him. "Mister Holmes….wait. How did you know? I mean, I planned it so carefully. I tried to think everything through and leave no evidence. What gave me away?"

He stops at the door, but did not turn. "Human error. You believed your motives outweighed the possible damage to an innocent young man and a convicted criminal who had served his time. Your emotions led to procrastination, which created major opportunities for things to go wrong. In cases like these, planning is important, but timing is even more crucial. And getting a third party like your brother-in-law involved escalated the opportunity for things to go wrong. When you plan something, Mrs Farintosh, you become responsible for it. It's your fault."

She sniffs back her tears. "That's a harsh judgment, Mister Holmes. I did it for love. I know that's no excuse, but I loved my husband, and wanted his business to close with dignity." She turns and looks at the lawyer, "and I will admit, I did it too to have a chance to love again."

Sherlock reverses his position so he can face her again. "Then that was your mistake, Mrs Farintosh. Love clouded your judgment. When I figured out how I would have done the crime successfully, on my own, I could see where your emotions led you to make errors. In short, I have more of a criminal mind than you do."

Beside her, Barrow mutters to Sally. "Bloody hell; I'm glad he's on our side."

She shakes her head. "Don't you believe it, sir. Not for one minute. Sherlock Holmes is only ever on his own side."

oOo

"We've got to stop procrastinating."

John follows up his comment with a nudge of his foot into a soft thigh, and lowers the newspaper so he can peer over the top. He's just finished reading about Sherlock's latest case— the theft of an Opal Tiara. Its recovery had made all the weekend papers, in part because the Countess of Rosenborg had worn the newly recovered item to the Valentine's Day ball in London, organised by the charity, Save the Children. The front page photos of the Countess and a black tie wearing Sherlock are a welcome alternative to the usual 'hat man' photo, which makes John smile. At least this time he can't complain. Sherlock Holmes in black tie looked stunning. The photo included his friend handing a check to the charity organisers; apparently, Sherlock had donated his fees.

Sherlock seems to be well on the way to recovery, after Hartswood**. This case sounds like something for the blog, and John makes a mental note to get the full details when he next sees the Consulting Detective. John is sitting at one end of the sofa, feet up, working his way through the remnants of the Sunday papers. Mary is sitting at the other end, also with her feet up. She is reading a book: the latest chick lit bestseller. The author's name had made him feel uncomfortable-—Liane Moriarty, and the title wasn't much better, Big Little Lies***.

She'd grinned at him when he'd pointed it out last week. "Really, John. It's just a coincidence. The name Moriarty is as common for the Irish as Smith is for the English— not her fault. It's a bit of silliness about ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters and a bit of schoolyard scandal; nothing sinister. Pure escapism; think of it as the literary equivalent of your crap TV."

Every time he sees her reading it, John keeps thinking about Sherlock's big little lie about being dead. He's made his peace with his friend; the trials and tribulations of the return are behind them, and he's been able to work a couple of little cases with Sherlock, even if he’s paid for it the next day with exhaustion from spending a late night on a crime scene. Mary has been really good about not missing him on those occasions.

He and Mary have just enjoyed a quiet Sunday— slept in, had breakfast late. John had watched a six nations Rugby match on the box, enjoying the sight of England thrashing the French for once in Paris' rugby home ground, Stade France. Mary had done the washing and ironing, and a leg of lamb was roasting for their evening meal.

"So, what are we procrastinating about?" She doesn't look up from the book, when he nudges her with his foot again.

"You're the one who wants a proper wedding. It's just under four months away and we've not done a thing."

That makes her sigh, and put the paperback down in her lap. "I know….I know. It's just, when we're working, we get home whacked and can just manage enough energy to feed our faces and fall asleep- you in front of the telly, me with my nose in a book. And on our days off, it's a mad dash to get the shopping in, do the errands and keep this place looking like a clean home instead of a hovel. Today is the first day in weeks that we've had a chance to put our feet up. When are we supposed to find time to do the planning?" She made a face and then smirked. "I know what I want; I'm just not good at organising this sort of event. Want to take it over?" She asks the question with her usual mischievous expression.

He laughs. "As if I could. I became a surgeon so I didn't have to do anything but concentrate on what I wanted to do. The theatre team just pointed me in the direction of the bits that needed fixing. Not exactly transferrable skills when it comes to planning a wedding."

Mary smirks. "As your general practice nurse, I can testify to your need for support staff; I swear if I didn't come in to tell you who the patient was and what their reason for the appointment was, you'd never get to the end of a shift. I think I realised you were a high maintenance co-worker when in my first week on Mister Johnson came out waving a script for HRT and asking me what it was for."

"Not my fault; the computer screen had mixed up his prescription records with his wife's."

She fails to stifle a giggle. "You are supposed to be able to notice that a man doesn't get HRT."

He gives her a beady eye. "So, if you're so good at organising me, why not this wedding?"

She gives an exaggerated pout. "Out of my comfort zone. And don't tell me I should read all those stupid bridal magazines, or you'll end up with a horrid wedding that neither of us can afford. I'm just useless at this sort of thing."

"This from a nurse who organised the work rotas, the drug supplies and the medical procedures for camps with thousands of refugees in Africa and the Philippines. Tell me again how you can't organise?"

She laughs and throws up her hands in mock surrender. "Mea culpa; my guilty secret is out- but it's not what you think. I had staff to do what I told them to do. No one ever accused me of being a finisher; delegation was my secret weapon."

"So, delegate. Don't people do this stuff for a living?"

She rolls her eyes. "Wedding planners cost a fortune. And they plan weddings for several hundreds of people, costing many tens of thousands of pounds. Our budget, need I remind you, is under five thousand for slightly less than fifty people. That's the sort of money these people charge for the planning service alone. So, out of the question."

"What about Janine? Isn't helping with this sort of thing what a Maid of Honour is supposed to do?"

"Yeah, as if she had the time. It was hard enough to get her to agree to be a bridesmaid, let alone the Maid of Honour. That bastard of a boss keeps her working all hours of the night and day. She gets paid a whacking great big salary to organise him, and has no time or energy left for something like this. I still don't know for sure if she'll even be able to attend."

"Then let's elope. Get married by someone on a beach somewhere."

She wrinkles her nose in disgust. "I'm an orphan, John. Everyone else got birthday parties, big Christmases, graduation celebrations. I used to tell myself that I didn't mind missing any and all of those, because when I got married, I'd make up for it and do things right. Church bells, the dress, the reception, cutting the cake— it's important to me. The start of my new life as Mrs John Watson needs to be done in style. Even if I've just admitted that I am not the right person to organise it."

He sighs and picks up the Arts section of the newspaper. "Well, someone's got to do it."

"What about the Best Man?"

"Yeah. Why didn't I think of that? The man who said weddings were not really his thing."

"You talked him into being your Best Man."

He peers over the newspaper at her, to see if she is pulling his leg.

Mary is smiling, but she isn't teasing. "Seriously, I mean, think about it. If he could apply the same amazing degree of focus and attention to detail that he puts into solving a case towards planning our wedding, he'd tell us everything we needed to do, when and how much it would cost. He's organised. Just think of that wall behind the Baker Street sofa as a white board for wedding planning."

"You mean… ask him to treat our wedding the same way he would a crime scene? The mind boggles." He suppresses a giggle.

When she keeps the straight look on her face, he folds the newspaper and stares at her. "Oh, God; you're really serious? But…he doesn't know a thing about weddings. Not a clue. He's had to read up on what it means to be a best man, and quite frankly, some of his interpretations scare me."

"But that's the point I'm making. When he doesn't know something, he gets stuck in and does his research, becoming the overnight expert in a way that we can only dream about."

He struggles to think of Sherlock discussing things like reception menus and table cards. His mind cannot get the idea to take root.

Mary is nothing if not persistent. "Besides, it will give us a reason to see him regularly in Baker Street, on something that isn't a case. Maybe it will help get him used to the idea of being a friend, rather than you being just a crime scene fashion accessory. It could be the best way to convince him that the two of us getting married is not the end of us involving him in our lives."

He tries, without success, to moderate his look of scepticism.

She crosses her arms, looking a bit firm. "And another thing, John Watson. You get to play with him all the time, on the cases. I haven't had a legitimate reason to be around him, get him to relax around me and not see me as a threat. You know that is important; Diane Goodliffe said so. It's about confidence building measures. This would give me a chance to forge my own relationship with him, so it's not all about you."

"Well, I'm glad you think so, because there is no way I am going to ask him to do this. It was hard enough to get him to realise that I wanted him to be best man. It was one of the most awkward conversations I've ever had with him. He was seriously blind-sided, and it made me realise that he still hasn't got a clue how much I value our friendship."

She throws up her hands again. "Well, what harm would there be in my asking him?"

John looks away for a moment, so he could think it through.

"It's a big ask, Mary. I still don't know what he really thinks about us getting married. Would taking a role in planning it be….I don't know… a bit like rubbing his nose in it? If he isn't comfortable with the idea, you might be underestimating his reaction. When he gets confronted by stuff that makes him anxious, he can be quite rude."

She says quietly but firmly, "I'm a big girl, John. Leave him to me; I'll talk him round."

 

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock contemplates the woman seated on the sofa. He has turned his chair away from the fire to face in her direction, as Mrs Hudson pours a cup of her tea- Yorkshire Gold. He makes a mental note to remind her to buy Darjeeling in future, if she is going to provide it for him. The guest utters a hasty "No milk, thank you"- as the older woman offers her one of her chocolate bourbon biscuits.

The letter had simply said that Miss Mary Morstan recommended that she meet with him. On that basis, he had decided to see her. But, now seated before him, Mrs Cecil Forrester is a contradiction in terms. With a name like that one might have assumed that the woman would conform to the white Anglo-Saxon stereotypic housewife. Instead, Mrs Forrester was petite, in her early forties, dressed in a sari and had the darker complexion of someone from southern India.

"Thank you, Mrs Hudson. You can leave us now."

His landlady gives him a little bit of a glare. "I'm not your housekeeper, Sherlock. Nor your personal shopper, waitress or doorman, for that matter." But she does as she was told, and leaves.

"I regret, Mrs Forrester, that I have no Nilgiri tea to offer you."

His deduction is rewarded by a smile, and an eyebrow lift of surprise. "Oh, you are so clever! How did I betray myself? How did you know?"

"That you are a native Tamil speaker? The accent is clear at least to my ear, and your written English in the letter is impeccable, which would not be the case if you were born in this country. Where were you educated in India?"

"In Coonoor—the Providence College for Women, and the Stanes Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School," she says proudly.

"I was right. Your look of slight horror at Mrs Hudson's offer of milk gave you away. I apologise for her taste in tea, but perhaps you have become inured to execrable British teabags. You are from a tea-growing family."

She nods, but then a shadow of regret passes over her dark eyes. "I was, I should say. Long ago and far away. I'm British now. Mrs Cecil Forrester. My husband's name, but it suffices. My first name is Ada."

He continues his deductions. "So, the oldest child, for that is the meaning of your name in Tamil." His eyes focus intently on her face for a moment. "But unusually, you are an only child, so the other meaning of your name—"special one"— is apt. I think one of your parents was Anglo-Indian, probably your father, so he chose a name that also has meaning in English, 'nobility' and 'adornment'."

She nods, but he senses a sadness in her.

Sherlock tries again, "Forrester is also appropriate for someone who originated in the forests of the Western Ghats. How did you come to England?"

"I won a scholarship, to study marketing at the LSE. The Nilgiri Planters' Association paid my fees and UPASI—the United Planters Association of South India— paid my maintenance grant."

He looks into his own cup of tea, as if divining a future, or in this case a past. A quirk of his lips, then, "Therein must lie a reason for some of the heartache you mentioned in your letter. You did not return, as you were expected to do. You married outside of caste, outside of Tamil Nadu, repudiated the investment in you made by those who paid your fees. Instead you chose to live 8,000 kilometres from what your family and sponsors called your home. A courageous move."

She nods, but says nothing, as if not trusting herself to do so.

Sherlock remembers a particularly awkward part of Moriarty's network in south India, in Kochi. The heat and the monsoon rain had been hard to endure. The commercial hub of Kerala state and home to the southern Indian naval fleet, Kochi's crime syndicate was reaping the benefits of a port construction boom that relied on several city officials being dark angels. His attention starts to drift, memories flood back of the Cochin Shipyard, where India's first aircraft carrier was being built. The network's fingers had been well into that pie.

"Mister Holmes?"

His eyes snap back to Mrs Forrester.

"I have come to you, Mr. Holmes," she says, "because Mary Morstan suggested to me that you could help me to unravel a little domestic complication. I know that you are a very busy man, and that the crimes you deal with these days seem so …" She grinds to a halt, with a perplexed look. "I do not know if it is correct English to refer to a crime as 'grand' because that implies it is not horrible. What the papers said about the slavery gang was horrible, and yet, your work to catch them was grand, too." With an embarrassed smile, she continues "My little problem seems too trivial to trouble you, but Miss Morstan insisted that if I wrote to you that you would at least give me a hearing."

He nods. "Miss Morstan knows something of my interests. Not every case is the sort that attracts the press. If I had my way, none of my work would do so. My only criterion for agreeing to take a case is that it not be boring. Please tell me that your case is not boring."

She gives that odd head waggle that to a westerner might seem like a negative, but he knows to be an acknowledgement that she understood.

"Then you may begin."

"I have lived with my husband for eighteen years in Colliers Wood. I am registered with the GP practice where Doctor Watson works, but I see a lady doctor there. It is some distance from my home, but she is Tamil, so I feel happy going to see her. I was waiting for my appointment, when I realised that something was missing from my handbag—a small amulet, a Ganesha carved in wood from the Nageia tree, native to the forests of the Ghat."

Sherlock stirs. "It has sentimental value," he says dryly. He loathes this sort of case—missing pets, treasured souvenirs, lost briefcases— excruciatingly boring. He will have to speak with Mary.

"Yes, it was carved from wood that came from a tree on my father's farm. When I left to come to London, I took only a few personal items, because I thought I would be going home again." She looks at the cup of tea again, decides against drinking it and sits the cup and saucer back on the table. "When I realised that the Ganesha was missing, I became very distressed. The Ganesha is important to me; do you know the Hindu deities, Mister Holmes?" She looks up, expecting him to shake his head.

His lip give a tiny quirk of amusement. He'd had a lecture from a doctor in Mumbai, when he was healing from an infected knife wound. "The elephant-headed god, the symbol of success, fortune and prosperity, and of overcoming obstacles, also known as Ganapati, Vinayaka or Pillaiyar. The patron deity of the arts and sciences. Interestingly, Lord Ganesha is believed to place obstacles in the path of those who need to be checked, and is the destroyer of vanity, pride and selfishness." It was that role of the deity which had led to the lecture from Doctor Parasathwarthy, all about his stupidity in ignoring the infection until it was bad enough to require hospital treatment.

She looks down at her hands, now clasped in her lap. "Yes…to all that. But, more, too. The amulet reminds me of the price I have paid to come to live in England and to marry for love. My father in Coonoor died six months ago, and the family tea farm has passed to my mother. It is my uncle—her brother—now who works the plantation for her. When my father died, my uncle wrote to me in the harshest terms, telling me that I had disgraced the family name, and that the punishment for my selfishness is that I have been unable to have children of my own. He told me that I should never return home." Ada comes to a halt, as if the memory of that letter was too painful for anything but silence.

Somewhat impatiently, Sherlock urges her on, "Please, continue." He really is going to have to speak to Mary; this is beginning to sound tediously domestic.

Chastised, Ada sits up straighter, and resumes her explanation. "The Ganesha was just the last of many such disappearances. Several months ago, I began to notice that small things in my house were vanishing. Nothing of value, I must say. The first to go was an old hairbrush, one that I use each night. I have had it for many, many years, and it always lives on my dressing table. Then one night, it was just…gone. At first, I thought that I had misplaced it, but I knew that was not possible, because I never move it."

"A week later- on the same night of the week- it's always on Wednesday, I started to prepare our evening meal, and the tawa was gone."

He must be looking confused, because she rushes to explain. "Of course, you would not know that this is a kitchen utensil—a flat iron pan used to cook chapatti or roti."

He nods, conceding his ignorance of such matters. Utensils…. He wonders whether this could be even worse than that request to find the rabbit, Bluebell. Actually, though, the glow-in-the-dark rabbit had proved rather important in the solution of the Baskerville case. Sherlock stifles his impulse to show her to the door.

Fortunately, Mrs Forrester knows nothing of his interior monologue, and continues blithely, "The next week, it was a CD—one of my favourites. The singer Kavita Krishnamurthy Subrahmaniam. She's a famous singer, in a lot of Tamil films. My mother and I used to sing along. Now gone—I looked through every CD we have; Cecil is meticulous about filing them, so careful. And it was just gone."

"I began to suspect the cleaning company. My husband insists on having someone come in once a week. Perhaps the maid was taking these things. I told the company that I was ending the contract but I have to give a two week notice. Then this week- a photograph of my father in Coonoor was stolen. Well, I say stolen, but it was on my phone, and when I thumbed through my folder, well- it was gone. Someone had deleted it! I told my husband, but he dismissed the idea as absurd." She drops her voice to sound more like a man, one with a south London accent, saying "No one would take such trivial things; a thief would take the silver, rob your purse of money, or take a key so they could break in and steal things they could sell on the black market or a boot sale. And as for deleting a photo, all that takes is a slip of a careless finger. And losing things is more likely than someone stealing a frying pan or an ancient hairbrush missing half its bristles."

Back in her own voice, she continues. "I was so shocked, Mr Holmes. My husband and I have never argued before this, but he thinks I am being silly. Then he asked me to go to the doctor, and check if forgetfulness and losing things like this is a sign of early dementia or some illness. It has…destroyed me; I am in a constant state of…" She raises her hand to her mouth in distress. "That is why I was at the surgery, and then when I discovered the Ganesha missing..." She is on the verge of tears. "Perhaps I am going mad." The tears start to escape.

To forestall further eruptions, Sherlock rouses himself. "A hair brush, a photo, a CD, a pan, and then your amulet—an unusual collection, I must say. And yet much can be revealed by mundane and boring items. The devil is in the detail, Mrs Forrester, and this suggests planning, careful planning. Events like these are rarely random." He steeples his fingers below his chin. "Let me think." He closes his eyes.

A few minutes later, he opens his eyes and sniffs. "You did not stay for the doctor's appointment." It is a statement, not a question.

She looks up, surprised. "No, I didn't; how did you know that? I was so upset that I cancelled. I mean, it's embarrassing. I am not going crazy." Then she starts to cry again. "That's when Miss Morstan asked me what was upsetting me and I told her the story. She told me to write my letter to you and to mention her name." She wipes her tears and tries to put an English stiff upper lip on.

He gives her a hesitant smile. "Mrs Forrester, rest assured you are not 'going crazy'. Far from it. All of the items, no matter how small or trivial they might seem— all of them were chosen because they remind you of your home in India. While any one item's loss is insignificant, you must keep in mind the big picture, what their loss means to you and why the thief wanted to inflict that on you. How old is your mother?"

Startled by the sudden question, Ada answers "Eighty-two. She had me late; my father had almost despaired of ever having a child."

"And you are in your early forties."

She nods. "Forty two."

"Then my advice is simple. Go back to the doctor, or if you want confirmation even before that, go to a pharmacy when you leave here and purchase an over-the-counter pregnancy test."

Her eyes grow enormous. "What ?… but…that is not possible." It comes out in a whisper.

"On the contrary. Women as late as their late forties can and do conceive. In your case, it may well be a genetic proclivity, and inherited condition."

"But…" Ada looks bewildered. "What does that have to do with the thefts?"

"Everything. I do have some bad news, however. It is likely that your mother is unwell, and your uncle is concerned that when she dies, the ownership of the plantation will come to you and to your English husband. If you do have a child, then your uncle will be cut out of the inheritance entirely. I suspect that if you were to interview the cleaning company, someone with connections to your uncle— a friend of a friend of a relation, as they say— has paid your maid to steal particular items that are related to your past. The thefts are designed to stress you, to keep you in a state of high anxiety and to disrupt your good relations with your husband. In my experience, it does not take much to de-stabilise a marriage, and this anxiety would limit the chances of a pregnancy happening in the first place or being carried to full term. Your uncle is simply trying to protect his interests, at your expense."

She looks thunderstruck. "Then, I am not going crazy?"

He give her an odd look. "While pregnancy can do strange things to female hormones and I have been told by some so afflicted that it can make one more emotionally volatile, it is not generally associated with mental instability."

She laughs. "You are a bearer of good news, Mister Holmes, for which I am eternally grateful. Please may I congratulate you?! I am much impressed by your kindness and skill. You are indeed a great man." She stands up and nods, her hands together. "Namaste."

And with that, Mrs Cecil Forrester bows again, and leaves.

oOo

The third time she pushes the buzzer, it is just that little bit firmer and twice as long. The first two times she'd pushed the doorbell of 221b's first floor flat,there had been no response. Above her, the lights are on in the living room, and she can hear the faint sounds of a violin. So, Sherlock is home, just ignoring the bell.

Mary wonders whether she should take it personally, but then remembers that John had told her the story of the time that Sherlock had cut the doorbell wires. Maybe, he's just avoiding the paparazzi. The return of the Rosenborg's Opal Tiara to its rightful owners in Denmark has led to yet more press coverage. After solving the Tilbury and the Fight Club cases, Sherlock is on a roll; the newspapers are now happy to give him all the positive headlines they could, as if that would atone for their role in his 'demise' two and a half years ago.

Come on, Sherlock; answer the door. She needs him to do this, to accept the role of planning their wedding, and not just for the reasons she had told John about. Mary knows that her deal with Mycroft* is predicated on keeping the boys working together; she has to be seen to be actively promoting a closer relationship. It is the price of his silence, his tolerance, the willingness of the man who was the British Government to look the other way about her past. And it is a small price to pay; she's seen the positive changes in John Watson since Sherlock's return.

Changing tactics, Mary gives Mrs Hudson's bell a quick push, and is rewarded by the sound of footsteps. That's when she realises that there is no peep-hole. As she hears the door latch being opened, Mary decides to have words with Sherlock. For the security of an elderly woman living on her own, Mrs Hudson needs to know who is on the other side of the door before she actually opens it.

"Oh, it's you, Mary! Do come in, my dear." Mrs Hudson beams.

As she comes in the door, the landlady looks over Mary's shoulder, down the street a bit. "Is John with you?"

"No, I'm flying solo; I'm a woman on a mission." Mary gives Mrs Hudson a cheeky smile. "I know his nibs is upstairs, because I can hear the violin, but why do you think he's ignoring me? Is it safe to go up there?"

The elder woman's voice takes on a conspiratorial tone. "Well, you know Sherlock. He's liable to be rude to anyone and everyone, but he can't hear the bell because he has those things on his ears." She gestures as if she was putting on a pair of headphones. "He didn't even hear me when I was up there a moment ago taking him up a pot of tea and some date flapjacks I just baked. So, just go up, sit yourself down in John's chair and help yourself to a cuppa. I expect he'll realise you're there eventually."

The thought of it makes them both share a giggle. Mary then heads up the stairs, not bothering to avoid the squeaky stair that John had told her about. When she gets to the landing and slowly pushes open the door to the living room, it is to the sight of Sherlock, with his back to the door. Despite it being four o'clock in the afternoon, he is still in his dressing gown over pyjamas. The headphones are on and his eyes are closed as he plays the violin. For a moment she stands mesmerised by the sight of his lithe playing, the eloquence and emotion of the notes being given physical shape; with swoops and arching arms, he is almost dancing to the music.

After a moment of enjoying the view, Mary pours herself a cup of Mrs Hudson's tea and helped herself to a flapjack. She recognises the music vaguely, but can’t put a finger on the name. Then her eye falls on the empty case by the CD player on the bookshelf by John's chair. She plucks it off and sits down to read the handwritten sleeve: Bruch's first Violin Concerto in G Minor. The scrawled writing simply says third movement 7.32 minutes/soloist track deleted. So, a piece where the violin part is missing—something he could play along to. She giggles. Who would have thought of it—karaoke for violin! As she settles back to listen, she spots the music stand is in its usual place in the corner by the window; he is playing a piece he knew by heart.

Sipping the tea, she listens to his performance, her imagination struggling to supply the parts played by the orchestra that she can’t hear, but Sherlock clearly can. From John's stories about his violin playing, she had not realised that he is such an accomplished concert musician. "Two cats fighting" is a particular piece that John had moaned about. 

Sherlock's playing eventually climbs to a crescendo and ends with a dramatic flourish and a swish of the bow, but he stands listening, still with his eyes closed, to what she imagines is the last bit of the orchestra's finale. Then his shoulders drop. She starts applauding, wondering if he will hear it.

He whirls about, at the same time shoving the violin onto the table, wrenching off the headphones and dropping into a fighting stance, wielding the bow as if it were a weapon.

"Oh, Sherlock: I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to startle you!" Mary realises her mistake; given what he's been through over the past few years, the unexpected sound of someone intruding could provoke a flashback.

She watches as Sherlock recognises her and then gets his rapid breathing back under control and relaxes his shoulders. Raising his eyes for the briefest of moments to glance into the kitchen behind her and then down the hall, Sherlock sees her, but she knows he is looking for John.

"I'm on my own."

Mary watches the effect of her words. As he puts the bow down, the grey green eyes look away from her and become wary; two creases forming on his brow. He's trying to figure out why I'm here alone.

"Sherlock, I won't bite. And just because I'm on my own doesn't mean I'm going to take back anything I said when I've been with John and you at Hartswood. He knows I'm here. You can trust me."

He stands there, uncertainty telegraphed in every fibre of his being. He has not yet uttered a single word; nor will he look directly at her. Oh, God. I've really rattled him.

She decides to take a slight detour before coming to the point. No need to frighten the horses. It is an English phrase she had come to appreciate. "Someone— a recording engineer?— removed the soloist's track and you play in that space?"

Sherlock nods, then decides to demonstrate his nonchalance by pouring himself a cup of tea and sitting down in his leather and chrome chair. He still isn't really looking at her, but waiting, cautiously.

Mary thinks about it. Baker Street is his sanctuary, and she's just invaded, without his permission— a sneak attack. If her mission to get him to take on the wedding planning is to succeed, she needs to give him the upper hand again, make him feel comfortable again. She decides to take a risk.

"Okay—I get that your prodigious memory means you don't need the sheet music in front of you. That's impressive. And you can obviously play with the orchestra."

He nods again.

"Could you keep in time, if you weren't listening? Let's experiment." She puts the challenge into her tone, and hopes he will rise to the bait.

He tilts his head in acceptance of the unspoken challenge. Without a word, he gets to his feet, and then hands her the earphones. The long lead isn't needed; the CD player is within reach of where she is sitting. He reaches over to the CD player and reverses to the start of the last movement before pausing it. Then Sherlock pulls the plug of the earphones just out of the socket, before picking up the instrument again.

As he lifts the bow, he says quietly, "I need to hear the first note of the orchestra— it's the equivalent of the conductor's baton. Then you can push the plug in; it will cut the audio play off the speakers and onto the headphones. Then only you will know if I am keeping in time."

Game on. She grins, slips on the headphones as her hand hovers over the CD player. "Ready?"

He nods, and she pushes the play button. As soon as the orchestra begins, she pushes the headphone jack all the way in, keeping her eye on the digital counter.

Twenty three seconds later, he strikes the bow across the strings and is off. It sounds right, but she doesn't know the piece well enough to be sure. When the counter hits 45 seconds, he finishes his section, and the orchestra resumes a beat later in full flow, as if he had been listening. The second time he hits the entrance mark perfectly, she starts laughing. At four minutes into the piece, she pulls the jack out to show him that he is in perfect synch.

"How do you do that?!"

He stops playing, and the orchestra carries on. She stops the recording as he shrugs. "I know the music, and what each instrument is supposed to be playing at each moment. I don't have to hear it."

"What happens if it's a different orchestra or a different conductor?"

"This is the newest release. The Czech Philharmonia under the baton of Jakob Hrusa. The soloist is Nicola Benedetti."

She raises a sceptical eyebrow. "So, if it was by someone else, you could still  keep in time?"

He shrugs again. "Sarah Chang plays it faster with the Dresdner Phil under Masur; whereas Maxim Vengerov with the Leipzig Gewanthaus under the same conductor uses a slower, richer tempo."

"And you could match either?" She doesn't have to fake her amazement.

"I have an eidetic memory for music; so long as I've heard them play the piece, it's not difficult for me to match their style and timing."

"Why would you do that? Why not just play it the way you want to play?"

"That's obvious." He looks puzzled.

"Is it?"

"Yes, of course. The orchestra has been recorded when working with another violinist; it can't possibly stay in synch with me, or I with it, if I was not playing with them when they recorded. Besides, it's more challenging to match the different styles of playing. I know six versions. Simple, really."

She snorts. "Yeah, simple. Just keep track of what everyone else is supposed to be doing at the same time as managing your own playing, oh and let's level up so that it matches your memory of how another violinist does it. That's… well…" She giggles. "I can't resist using John's signature phrase: That's amazing." Mary finds herself broadening the smile into a grin. She doesn't need John to be Sherlock's cheerleader on this occasion; she's just realised that the man's brain can do extraordinary things even when it doesn't involve murder cases. The thought emboldens her.

"In fact, that's actually why I've come to talk to you. I want you to do something for me and John that is remarkably similar to what you are doing here."

He sits down, cradling the violin in his lap. "You want me to play, for you?" His surprise has something else in it, a scarcely concealed delight. "…at the wedding?"

"Yes, of course. Now that you've been kind enough to audition…" she smirks. "But that's not why I'm here. John and I have a problem, and we need you to solve it."

Now she has his attention. "You know John better than anyone. You've probably deduced just about everything that can be known about someone— including things he doesn't even know about himself." She can tell by the look in his eyes that she's said a truth he recognises. "…and things he probably doesn't want to know or anyone else to know about, either, so please don't put those into the best man speech."

He looks back at his violin in his lap, and seems to retreat a bit. She gives him a reassuring smile. "Relax, I'm not here about the speech. Our problem is more fundamental than that. I'm afraid there may not be a wedding, if you don't help us."

His head snaps up and he does not hide his shock, blurting out, "Second thoughts?" He actually makes proper eye contact with her for the first time.

"No, not from me, or from John. We both want to be married. It's the process that has him spooked. Has he said anything to you about the actual wedding? The ceremony?"

"No."

She sees that he is lying. "Oh dear; he has. I knew it. He just hates the idea of the event itself."

The two wrinkles are back on his forehead.

"Oh Sherlock; you aren't that  good a liar, especially not about John. He might be fooled when you're fibbing, but I know the truth when I see it. And that's our problem. I need someone to help me get him through the process; I need you."

"I don't understand."

She grins, and then says with a bit of mischief, "Ouch, admitting that must be annoying."

The grey green eyes narrow, but he must have heard the teasing tone, so does not seem to take offence.

She draws a deep breath and launches in. "It's the girly stuff he doesn't get. You know— the church, the dress, the cake, the reception. He'd prefer if we went straight to the honeymoon."

"The sex holiday…" Sherlock murmurs.

She giggles. "Yes. That's true. Even living together as we do, we've both been working, and we've never taken a holiday together. That part he gets. But the rest of it, he sees as a chore."

"Then elope. Isn't that what people do?"

"I'm not 'people'. My parents died when I was five and while it wasn't a terrible childhood, it was a case of distant relatives playing pass the parcel with me and I was always a hanger-on, never the centre of attention. I always told myself that if I was lucky enough to find someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I would do it in style. Properly. Not cut corners or make do. So, I really want a proper wedding. It doesn't have to be big or grand." She gives a sheepish look. "We can't afford anything like that anyway. But, the registry office thing? Well, it makes my blood run cold."

Now Sherlock is no longer hiding how perplexed he is. "What does any of this have to do with me? Why are you telling me this?"

"Because if you get involved in planning this wedding, then John will want to be, as well. You've talked him into chasing across roof tops, staking out criminal hideouts for hours, nights on end, in the freezing cold. And I'm not just talking about thrill-seeking stuff that appeals to the adrenaline junkies you both are. You've got him to do things that he would never in his right mind agree to. He's told me about the time you made him dress up as a woman and wear make-up, just to spy on a suspect at a brothel."

"It was for a case."

"Yes dear, I know that. But I also know John. He wouldn't have done that, unless you asked him to. So, in the case of the wedding, our wedding, if you were involved, he'd play along. Might even enjoy it."

"Involved? In what way?" His look of total befuddlement is actually rather endearing. How can someone so intelligent be quite so…innocent? This is the man who had single-handedly destroyed a global criminal network, and yet is not able to fathom the direction in which she is nudging him.

She takes her courage in both hands. "I want you to plan it. Plan our wedding. Tell us what decisions have to be made by when, what the options are, and in what order we need to make them. Project manage the whole thing, from start to finish. You have the attention to detail that both John and I lack." As she explains the proposition, Mary watches consternation taking hold of Sherlock's expression.

"But…I don't…I know nothing about weddings. I'm the least likely person in the world to know anything about the…the girly bits, as you call it. I don't even believe in the institution, let alone all the faffing about people do at one."

His look of dismay is now bordering on panic. He starts waved his hands about, almost flailing. "Parties…people, noise, all that smiling; horrible clothes, pointless religious mumbo jumbo, rituals." Sherlock seems to realise that his hands are doing something not quite right, so pulls them back in front of him, and grabs his violin in both hands to re-assert control.

He draws a breath, then asks "What part of your experience of me says that I'd be comfortable being involved in planning such a torture, let alone participating in it on the day?"

She plays the first card. "You agreed to be John's best man. Supporting him by planning the weeding is your role, part of being best man."

The reply is instantaneous. "No, it isn't. I know that now. What you've described is the role of the moth…" He stops.

"Oh, you remembered…orphan. Hello, that’s me." She waves, smiling. "That's the trouble with learning a plan from a book or on the internet. It never prepares you for the real thing. That needs contingency planning, calculating the risk factors, weighing them up, building the critical path. You know, the stuff you did so well to take down Moriarty's network. Sherlock, you have form when it comes to planning."

He looks unconvinced. "What about the Best Woman…maid…matron person?"

She shakes her head. "So not going to happen. Her boss is a slave driver; I can't even be sure she'll get away on the day. That's what I meant about real life intruding. If I rely on her, it will be another year before we are married."

"You say that as if that would be a bad thing."

"It would be. Tick, tock…my biological clock is ticking. The older I get, the less likely it is that John will get the chance to be the father he’s always wanted to be. Would you deny him that, just because you don't know what's involved in planning a wedding? Anyway, it took you all of a couple of days and you became the expert at being a Best Man. You can learn anything, if you think it's worth it. Isn't John's happiness worth it?"

She wonders if Sherlock realises how much his face communicates emotions when he is too busy thinking to bother concealing them. Mary points at the wall over the sofa. "You can use your evidence board to lay it all out for us, what needs to be done first, which decisions depend on the others. Plan it— in all its detailed glory. That's what you're good at."

He looks with utter confusion at the wall, adorned with its yellow smiley face. "But that's for crimes. Your wedding isn't a crime."

"Glad to hear it, especially coming from you, Sherlock. Listen, you've already agreed to be there as Best Man—and that means you're willing to cope with the people, the party, the rituals that you probably think are either silly or pointless. You agreed to it because John asked. Well, I'm asking you for his sake to do the rest of it, too, because John needs you to, don't you see? And I do, too."

He blinks rapidly, and continuously for a few seconds. Then he suddenly picks up his violin from his lap and puts it under his chin, an almost instinctive reflex.

She watches him pluck the strings quietly. She knows it is like a security blanket now; he's learned enough about the EMDR techniques. She is stressing him. He knows it; she knows it. He knows that she knows it, and yet is doing it anyway.

Finally, he says quietly, "You're asking a lot."

"I know. It's in a good cause. John wants to be married. You know that. With your help, he can actually enjoy the process of getting there. If you need another incentive, then consider these two."

Mary drops the teasing tone, and gives it her best shot. "First, it will give us an excuse to come over here a couple of times a week for a planning session. John won't try to duck it if it's done at Baker Street. Diane Goodliffe says it is important for both of you to find ways to interact on a day-to-day basis to rebuild your relationship. And I want to be part of that, so this is one thing that the three of us can work on together."

Then she delivers what she hopes will be the deciding factor: "And when he's here, it will be easier for you to raise the case of John's stint as Guy Fawkes— that's unsolved, and it worries me that he seems to want to forget all about it. I can't— and I'm guessing that you can't, either. Sherlock, I need your help to keep John alive so I get to marry him. If planning the wedding will help you figure out who would want to hurt John, then just put that marvelous mind of yours to work on our behalf. Sherlock, please."

The same three strings are being plucked over and over. She shuts up and lets him think it through. Almost three minutes later, she gets her answer.

"I'll think about it."

Gotcha. She smiles.

 

Chapter Text

"How'd it go?"

Mary sees her reflection smirk in the mirror over the bathroom sink. She's made a mental bet that John wouldn't be able to resist raising the question tonight. She responds with a cheery, "I think he's coming round to the idea. Just have to wait until he processes it all."

She hears a chuckle from John, who is getting into bed. "Yeah, it took him the best part of two minutes' worth of silent panic before he could get a word out when I asked him to be Best Man. I still think you are asking the impossible. If you really have talked him into doing this, then you are amazing."

"Of course I'm amazing. Why else would you be marrying me?" Mary goes back to brushing her teeth, and neither she nor John raises the topic again for four days.

On the fifth day, the summons comes—simultaneously, to both their phones, on their way home from the surgery. John manages to get his out before she locates hers in the bottom of her handbag.

6.10pm    If you are available, come to Baker Street. If you are unavailable, come anyway. SH

John frowns at his phone. "A bit of a command performance. He does know that it's a forty minute train and tube ride from here to there."

"Yeah- but what else were we going to do tonight? We're available."

"Sure?"

It has been a long day, and she seems to have spent all of it on her feet, but the chance to find out if Sherlock has accepted her proposition is too strong- she has to go. "Yep. I'm sure."

John takes her by the arm, and turns her around. "It'll be quicker if we walk to Tooting Bec station."

Although it is the rush hour, because they are going into London rather than escaping to the suburbs, it is possible to find seats on the tube. But, not together- two seats together on the underground are about as rare as a pair of hens' teeth. So Mary picks up an abandoned copy of the Evening Standard and flicks through it until she finds the crossword. She keeps an eye on John, across the carriage and six seats to the left. He just seems to zone out. She knows he isn't all that keen on the tube, after his experience in the tunnel under Westminster. Don't blame him.

But, at least that life-threatening episode had a known perpetrator who was, according to John, "no longer a threat to anyone." He'd been close-mouthed to her about the bomber's identity, and the press coverage had died down when no one had come forward to claim responsibility for a bomb that didn't go off. But, even without being told, she suspects that Mycroft knew, and Sherlock knew, and maybe John did, too. And the fact that none of the three seemed worried about it suggested that she could relax about that particular threat.

But no one has yet come up with a plausible suspect for the attempt to kill John by drugging him and then putting him into the bonfire. Whenever she raises it with John, he just grimaces. The one time she'd mentioned it to Sherlock, he'd just said tersely, "no idea." It worries her, constantly. In particular, it worries her that the person behind it had sent her the skip code. If it was just because Sherlock was back, then they would have sent the message to him. That she had been targeted is a real problem, and one she cannot ignore.

When she allowes herself to stop to think about it, the incident raises all sorts of unpleasant questions that need to be answered, and yet if they are answered, then those answers might compromise her current identity. It scares her, deeply. She has shed her past and wants nothing more to do with it. But she is all too aware how precarious her current situation is. Her arrangement with Mycroft is clear- he would investigate her background more thoroughly if she tries to stand in the way of John and Sherlock re-establishing their relationship. So far, she's felt no need- in fact, the reverse. She’d loved John when he was grieving for his friend. And she had watched with amazement as Sherlock's return brought her fiancé back to life, fully, in a way that she had not realised was possible. It healed a missing part of John, and she loves the new version even more than the previous one.

Luckily, Sherlock has so far respected her secrets. That he knows she was not all that she claimed to be is highly likely, yet the man has been very careful not to interfere, or to use that knowledge against her. But that does not mean she is home free. While the Morstan identity is a strong one, it certainly isn't fool-proof. And neither Sherlock nor Mycroft are fools. It's like walking a tightrope. Sometimes, she is so frightened by it all that it was hard to keep moving forward.

When she and John arrive at Baker Street and he uses his key to enter, Mary hopes that her scheme to have Sherlock plan the wedding will keep her balancing act going.

When they get into the living room, a quick glance shows it to be empty, so John goes through the kitchen and down the hall. "Sherlock?" He stops at the door to the bathroom and knocks. "You in the loo?"

A muffled "bath" is followed by a splash in answer.

John rolls his eyes. "If it's convenient, we're here as you asked. If it's inconvenient, tough. Get out and tell us what you wanted."

There is a chuckle that came from the bath, and the shared memory brings a smile to John's face too as he heads back to the living room.

Mary stands staring at the wall over the sofa, eyes wide with amazement. "I think this is a 'Yes', don't you?"

The wall has been neatly sectioned off- a series of printed labels are pinned up: guest list, church, reception venue, catering, transport, gifts, attire. Under each another set of colour-coded index cards, also labelled. Under church, there are cards marked denomination, vicar, flowers, order of service, music- entry, choir, music-exit, bell ringers, organist, photographer, ushers….There is a large map of the UK in the centre of the wall, and what looked like a Gantt chart timeline printed out on an A3 sheet just below it.

Mary just stands back, trying to take it all in. She smiles, as John comes alongside her. She watches his face as he surveyed the wall, and catches a hint of discomfort under his bemusement.

John points at one label at the far right hand side of the wall. "Sex holiday? What's that?"

She giggles. "What he calls the honeymoon." John smothers a laugh.

She threads her arm between his elbow and his side, pulling him closer to her, and is rewarded with a quiet whisper in her ear: "You are a bloody miracle worker, Mary Morstan. Who would have believed it?"

"Before he gets out, I need to say something." Mary turns to face John and holds him in her arms. Keeping her voice low, she says, "Sherlock needs this, John. He needs to feel valued by you, and not just because of his crime solving skills. You're not with him on that many cases now, so he's got to get positive reinforcement from you for the wedding planning that he is doing for us. That means, however tedious you might think the details are…"

He shakes his head, "not tedious."

"Hush…I know it's not your scene. But, by letting him be a part of it, and by you being willing to get involved, too, he'll come to realise that our getting married is okay. It won't change things between you two. So try to put a brave face on it, please? For his sake?"

As they hear the sound of bare feet coming down the corridor and into the kitchen, John raises his voice, so he could be heard. "Sherlock Holmes, Wedding Planner…well, if the cases ever dry up, you've found a second career."

"No. Only you. I would never, ever consider doing this for anyone else. I'd rather starve on the street." The baritone is smothered, sounding odd.

John turns to see what was going on, and realises that Sherlock is standing there in just a pair of trousers, bare-chested, his head covered in a towel that is meticulously being used to dry his hair.

Mary watches as a fond smile of bemusement blossoms on her fiancé's face. "Sherlock, you'll catch cold if you walk about the flat like that. Get something warmer on."

The towel is pulled aside and a tousled head peers out. "You said, if inconvenient..."

John laughes. "I was joking. Go finish dressing. We can wait."

"Don't blame me. You were twenty one minutes earlier than I anticipated, because you walked further in order to take the underground, rather than the train before changing to the tube."

Mary's eyes widen. "Have you been watching us? Picking up bad habits from your brother?"

Sherlock gives her a raised eyebrow. "Mycroft is lazy; he has minions to watch screens. I don't need CCTV; logic and your arrival time are enough for me to deduce your journey."

"So, why didn't you assume we'd take the quickest route? After all, your text made it sound like a command performance." John is still amused.

For a moment, the grey green eyes just look at them both, as if slightly confused. "My text didn't say anything about speed; Mary's the one who's the procrastinator, so I was attempting to limit the possible excuses. And I assumed she wouldn't want to walk the extra distance; after all, a nurse's duties keep her on her feet most of the hours that you're sitting down. Or did you not think of that?"

As soon as he finished talking, the half-dressed man gives an involuntary shiver. There are goose-bumps on his arms.

Mary waves him back toward his bedroom. "Shoo- get warm. Open pore syndrome…"

"That's a myth. Tell her, John. Human pores aren't like doors- they don't open and close. They just are. Shouldn't you know that, as a medical professional?"

She grins. "Nurse, not a doctor. All those anatomy classes are why he's paid more."

John intervenes. "Whatever—get the rest of your clothes on, and then come back and tell us about this."

By the time Sherlock returns, fully dressed and wearing his burgundy wool dressing gown as well, the pair have taken the straight chairs from the table between the windows and are sat side-by-side facing the wall and its labels.

For a moment, Sherlock pauses on the threshold, feeling awkward. After being alone in the flat for almost three months, suddenly the living room feels crowded, almost alien to him. John is different when Mary is with him. He is acting as if he is a visitor, rather than someone who lived here. His body language, his whole demeanour is not what it had once been, even though the smile on John's face is encouraging. It makes Sherlock's chest hurt, so he looks away and faces the wall, standing between the coffee table and the sofa. He keeps his back to the pair, acutely aware of their presence, but not willing to face it.

"Where do we start?" Mary's voice carries excitement and anticipation. Sherlock realises she is enjoying this, in almost exact mirror image of how much John is trying to feign enthusiasm, but not quite pulling it off.

For a moment, Sherlock starts to turn to look at them again, to deduce what was behind the difference, to really let loose his observational skills on Mary. But the second that thought crossed his mind, a memory interjects—

"Don't you dare!"

In the living room of his Memory Palace, John sits in his proper chair, telling him how he had sabotaged his love life by deducing every one of his dates. "I won't have you do that to Mary, and that's final." John's anger that had greeted him on his return is still raw and open. The demand had been delivered through clenched teeth, an ultimatum on the morning after John had been pulled from the bonfire. Between then and now, Sherlock has consciously avoided delving too deeply into Mary. This is his gift to John.

"Sherlock?" John's questioning tone cut through the wall of his Memory Palace and brings him back. He stops his move, keeping them just on the edge of his peripheral vision, then stiffens his shoulders, and starts.

"There are four questions that need answers today, because everything else depends on them. Of those four, one must be answered at the start. What is your budget?"

Mary smiles at John, as if waiting for him to answer.

"Um…we've set aside £5,000 pounds of what we've saved."

"Does that include the dress?"

Mary nods. "All in, including the honeymoon."

Sherlock writes this on an index card and sticks blue tack on the back. Then he steps up onto the sofa and pushes the card into place at the far right. "That automatically limits the number of guests. What number have you in mind?"

"No more than fifty." John sounds quite firm about this.

Sherlock writes that on a card and pins it. "That limits the location. A lot of wedding venues will only accept a minimum number of guests- and that's usually one hundred."

He steps back down off the sofa and faces them. "The next question is where- how far out from London are you willing to go?"

It is Mary's turn to answer. "It needs to be within an hour's drive or train ride from the centre- and close enough to a station that it isn't impossible to reach. Most of our friends in central London don't have cars. And it can't be so far out that people would have to stay overnight if they have families or can't afford it."

Sherlock turns to the map while flipping the cap off of a black magic marker. He leans over the sofa to draw an almost perfect circle around London, just beyond the perimeter of the M25 that circled London.

"Date is the other issue. Saturdays are the most expensive, mid-week the least."

Mary is equally firm. "Got to be a Saturday; no disrespect intended to a Consulting Detective, but most of our friends work a nine to five, weekday job, so taking a day off to attend a wedding will cut into their limited holidays- and if they have kids, they can't take them out of school. So, a Saturday- in May."

Sherlock writes "11 May" on one card and "18 May" on the other, then pins them up under the budget and guest numbers on the far left.

In a puzzled tone, John remarks, "Last time I looked at a calendar, there were four Saturdays in May."

Sherlock smiles. "You see, but do not observe that calendar, John. The first and last Saturdays of May are Bank Holiday Weekends. Travel is congested, and these are prime vacation times for people, most of whom are looking to leave the UK for warmer climates. It's even worse for the last weekend- that's half term, schools are out, and if you want the parents to attend your wedding rather than heading for Gatwick airport en famile, then you need to avoid those dates."

Mary smirks. "You are a natural at this, Sherlock."

He sniffs. "There are supplementary questions. Perhaps it is easiest if I give you a choice between two things, and you tell me which you prefer."

John and Mary exchange a puzzled look, but John shrugs and says "fire away."

"Church service or civil ceremony?"

"C of E or another denomination?"

"Sit down meal or buffet?"

"Traditional or modern?"

"Garden marquee or inside?"

"Hotel or historic building?"

"Afternoon reception only or an evening function, as well?"

He works his way through what had been called the style questions, getting a feel for Mary's taste. Each answer makes it onto an index card and is posted. For the most part, John seems happy to let Mary take the lead.

"Vintage car or pony and trap?"

"String quartet or disco?"

Both John and Mary answer "Disco" at exactly the same time, and start laughing.

Sherlock puts up another card up, muttering "No accounting for some people's taste."

As the questions are asked, answered, written out and then posted on the wall, part of Sherlock's mind disengages from the present. He's never understood the institution of marriage, based on the admittedly limited experience of observing that of his mother and father. For some reason, a memory took over.

"Why wouldn't you let me tell Mummy?"

He was nine. Mycroft's terse, "I told her. No need for you to get involved. You'll only make it worse. You don't understand how grown-ups feel about marriage. Father's reaction should have been a warning to avoid the topic. Instead, you just kept on, until he lost his temper."*

Sherlock sulked. "It wasn't my fault. And I don't understand what difference it makes whether Father has a girl friend or not. I still don't know why he got so angry." Unconsciously, he reached up and rubbed the side of his face, where the bruised purple was only just starting to fade, a week after the blow that had made them.

Mycroft saw his gesture and frowned. "It wasn't right that he hit you, no matter what you said, or how you said it. He has a temper; you know that but you forgot to follow the five steps I taught you."

The previous summer, Mycroft had given him a simple set of avoidance strategies, to avoid getting into trouble with his father. Sherlock didn't always understand when they should be used, or even why. So much of other people's behaviour was perplexing. Even Mummy's. She'd been relieved to find him when she got to Eton, but in the car on the way back to Parham, she'd taken him by the shoulders firmly and told him never, ever to run away from home again.

"I wasn't running away. I was running to Mycroft, because he'd be able to explain what I had done wrong, and find a way to stop Father from sending me away."

Mummy had cried then. He didn't understand why. And then the next morning, Mycroft had gone into Mummy's bedroom with her breakfast tray and they'd had a long talk. Sherlock had sat on the floor outside her door, trying to hear what they were saying. Whatever it was, it made Mummy cry even more. She'd stayed in her room for the rest of the day.

A lifetime later, he knew what he'd done. His revelation had shredded the last vestiges of their married relationship, bringing to light things that neither of them wanted to admit. Until then, they'd both been willing to turn a blind eye. Sherlock also knew, with the benefit of hindsight, that caring for him was what had taken his mother's eye off her relationship with her husband- something for which his father had never, ever forgiven him. But his father's infidelities—and his mother's willingness to accommodate them—made Sherlock cynical about why two people would continue to pretend that their relationship was worth preserving. Marriage remained something of a mystery to him- apart from being the motivation for quite a number of the crimes he had investigated. It was a rule of thumb for him to always suspect the boyfriend, the lover, but especially the husband. He wasn't gender-blind. If the victim was male, he'd look carefully at the wife or mistress, who was just as able to kill as their partner. Start there. Love makes people make the wrong decisions.

And the second most common motivation for crime was now staring him in the face, as he scanned the wall, and looked again at the one index card at the far left that read "£5,000". Money.

Sherlock caps his black magic marker and turns to face the couple for the first time. "You do realise that it is not possible to do all of this within the budget you've set?"

Mary giggles. "Probably not, but it's fun to think of what we would like if there were no constraints. Then when we have to cut our cloth to fit the budget, we can decide what to do without."

Sherlock sits down on the coffee table. "I'm not sure you understand. You clearly don't realise that the average cost of a wedding in the UK today is £20,983 pounds. Ninety two guests is the average, and the average spend per guest is over two hundred pounds- that's just for the venue, food and drink. It doesn't include the wedding rings, the dress, the church fees, honeymoon and all that."

The look of shock on John's face tells him what Sherlock had begun to suspect- he has no idea what the wedding would cost or involve. Mary's eyes are a bit wide, but then she smirks. "You're the genius. You'll figure it out."

Sherlock starts to think about what his bank balance is, and what might be moved to increase the income from the Trust Fund. He'd have to talk to his brother.

John snaps. "No, Sherlock. Don't even think about using any of your money- or even Mycroft's. This is our show. Either we pay for everything, or it doesn't happen." Then realising what he'd said could be misunderstood, he hastens to add "…at least not in the way that it would if money were not an issue."

That caveat makes it a challenge. Not insurmountable, but definitely more challenging. He will need to call a lot of favours in. Sherlock turns around to survey the wall.

"I need to think. You should go away now."

John clears his throat, "Ah, no. I was thinking about ordering some take-away and then we could all have a bite to eat."

Sherlock won’t turn around. He waves his hand behind him, dismissively. "You know I don't eat on a case."

"But you aren't on a case now. You wouldn't have interrupted the real Work for this, so you can join us." John sounds determined.

He shakes his head. "This is a case, John. If you won't let me solve it with money, then it is going to take some real thinking."

"We'll just do what everyone else on a limited budget does. Go to our local church, and hire a room over a nearby pub. It won't cost the earth."

Sherlock has turned to see John deliver this pragmatic response. In his peripheral vision, he can see Mary making a face of disgust. He thinks about her expectations not being met, and wonders what effect that would have on the married life of John Watson. His friend has made his choice, and Sherlock needs to do more than just honour that choice; it is incumbent on him to help the couple start their married life without disappointment. He has disappointed John enough; if he can do something now, then that would be what John would call a bit good.

So, he turns back to the board with renewed determination. "John, you can put it on your blog as "the best possible wedding" case. Go away; I need to think. Why not go to Angelo's? Tell him I sent you—that way you won't be spending money that you should be saving for this."

Mary pipes up, "What a good idea! We haven't eaten out properly in ages; come on, John." She gets up and reaches for the coats that had been hung on the peg alongside Sherlock's Belstaff.

Sherlock tunes them out, and starts to mentally map which of the index cards could be matched with the names of people who owed him favours. There are advantages to not accepting payment for solving most cases—it creates a sense of obligation. He barely registers the sound of their departure, but as soon as the front door clunks shut, he starts writing on yellow sticky notes. Better they don't know; John has peculiar ideas about pride. He would want to think that they have paid a proper amount. The balancing act will be hard to maintain- but not impossible. He's honed his deception skills whilst undercover as Lars Sigurson; now he will have to channel those, whilst still being Sherlock Holmes.

This Watson Wedding case may be more challenging than I anticipated.

Chapter Text

"The murderer hit him in the throat, probably with an elbow, certainly hard enough to shatter the hyoid bone and the thyroid cartilage, driving fragments of both into the internal carotid artery. He would have been unconscious in seconds, bled out in minutes….if he didn't choke on the blood first. Belt and braces- the work of a professional."

Greg Lesdrade can see that blood—it was everywhere—on the throat and around the head of the body of a young man, whose clothes suggest an office worker, middle manager. Even in the dawn's early light, there is enough contrast to see the dark coagulating blood pool in the empty carpark.

"The blow caught him by surprise. Only time to raise his arm in defence." Sherlock lifts the right arm of the victim, and Greg can see the broken bone- a compound fracture of the forearm, from the odd angle that it was showing through the waterproof jacket.

"Given body's still just warm, this is recent- within the last ninety minutes." Sherlock is now examining the man's hands.

"The owner of the Curtains and Blinds unit across Argall Way had called in the crime at 6.32." It is now just after seven. Sally Donovan is bundled up, with a hat, scarf and gloves, trying to keep warm by stamping her booted feet. "No ID, no effects in his pockets. Could this be a body dump?"

Sherlock snorts. "Your skills are deteriorating, Sergeant—not with that amount of blood. He was killed here, after meeting someone."

Greg looks around. The light industry park on the edges of Hackney Wick is part of the ongoing development of the Lea Valley—a legacy of the 2012 Olympics. Sally says, "This isn't a derelict area. Someone should have seen the murder or the body if it had been lying here for even a short time."

Sherlock disagrees. "You are not thinking straight. Go stand at the roundabout and look at the entrance to this car park—where a car would pass."

Annoyed, the Detective Sergeant does what she was told, and when she turns to look back, Sherlock calls out, "Squat down to a driver's position."

Watching Sally follow the instruction—and disappear from view—Greg can realise what Sherlock means. The verge surrounding the car park on the corner of the roundabout is overgrown—a few shrubby evergreens, interspersed with ivy are just high enough to obscure the body. So, if no one was actually parked in the car park, it was likely to have escaped notice from the road.

How does he do that? It still amazes Greg at how quickly Sherlock could see all of the angles at a crime scene. It took trained Forensic Examiners ages, using computer generated imagery and sometimes even laser lights to clarify angles of sight. The two who are working the scene had scarcely had time to get the crime scene tapes in place and start taking fingerprints and DNA swabs of the blood. As ever, Sherlock seems to be working on a faster time clock than any of the professional services. This morning, the Consulting Detective seems wound up tight, almost ticking with urgency.

He glances back to where Sherlock is continuing his explanation. "The killer chose this spot well. Unlikely to have anyone parked here overnight from a Sunday, and limited traffic coming in this morning at this hour. This is an overspill carpark- most of the workers in early will find spaces at their units. So, the killer would have expected to have until 7.30 or 8 to get away." He looks up and points right and then left. "No CCTV either. Why bother, most of the units have their own. Also, because the roads in the industrial estate are private, no traffic cameras either. A perfect choice- again, made by a professional."

If Sherlock's terse assessment makes him sound like a professional who looked for places and opportunities to get away with murder, Greg decides not to comment on it. He has no idea what Sherlock had actually gotten up to on his two years away— not the details, anyway. The DI's imagination has given him enough to think about when he'd seen the scars of Sherlock's back. He knows that Sherlock before his fall could give as good as he got, and the man who returned had not hesitated to get into a boxing ring with people who fought by the bare minimum of rules.** Right now, the tight shoulders and taut temper of the Consulting Detective are reminding him a bit of those times. He's grumpy and looking for a fight.

Sherlock stands up and flips up the collar of his Belstaff against the stiff breeze. He walks over to a pothole in the carpark, bending down to get his eyes close to the crumbling edge of the tarmac. He slides open the pocket magnifier and looks carefully. Greg goes over to see what had caught his eye.

When the Consulting Detective stands up again, he said just one word. "Motorcycles."

"Motorcycles?"

Sherlock gives him an odd look. "Yes—motorcycles—that is, two bikes, with distinctive tread patterns. A rendezvous that didn't work out for one of the bikers. It was planned in advance because the killer came with someone riding pillion."

Sally has returned to the two men and is looking rather askance at Sherlock. "I get how you could figure out tyre treads in the pothole edge. But how do you know they were put there by the killers?"

Sherlock rolls his eyes. "Anyone turning in this car park is going to hit that pothole. By the end of rush hour, the car park will be full and the tyre treads will have been obliterated. So, last ones in the carpark were motorbikes. Both the victim and the killers came in by bike."

Greg looks around. "So where's the guy's bike, and his helmet?"

"Obviously taken by the killers." He is not hiding his impatience.

Sally isn't mollified. "How do you know how one of the bikes had two passengers?"

"Weight differentials—one bike much heavier than the other—just look at the tyre imprints." This is delivered in rapid fire, almost staccato cadence.

"So, maybe the killer is fat?"

Sherlock closes his eyes as if in disbelief. "For God's sake, Sergeant. This isn't rocket science." He burns her with a look. "If I was going to kill someone who came on a motorbike, I'd bring along someone who could drive it away after the murder. Wouldn't you?"

"I'm not in the habit of killing people. How do you know? I mean you can't actually know." Sally's hands are actually on her hips; this early in the morning, she isn't willing to let Sherlock get away with just bulldozing her opposition.

"I don't need evidence; logic is enough to tell me what happened here." He stalks away back over to the body.

Greg calls after him. "Yeah, maybe, but why? I mean, who is this guy and why would someone- no, two someones- kill him?"

In answer, Sherlock leans down and pulls a set of keys from the dead man's jeans pocket. "Observe." He held up what is the top of a USB stick attached to the key ring. But the actual thumb drive is missing. "Whatever was on this was the likely motive for the crime."

"Any idea what would be worth killing this guy for?"

Sherlock looks back at the body. "I've more idea about the killer. They don't teach that kind of lethal blow in the police or the normal services. Only Special Ops- and they'd not have had much experience in putting it into practice. So, whatever it was, you won't find prints- the assailants will have used gloves." He turns away. "I need to make a phone call in private." He starts to walk away, reaching into his pocket for his phone.

Two rings are enough.

"To what do I owe the honour, brother mine? You're rather busy playing happy families with the about-to-be Watsons these days."

Sherlock huffs. "You're still bugging my flat? I thought you would have grown out of that phase by now. Anyway, this is what is known as a 'heads up'. Someone who is likely to have been intelligence has just turned up dead in the East End—minus a USB stick. Could be a foreign service, but doesn't look like it from the clothing and haircut. I've just sent you a photo. Do tell."

"Lord, just what I don't need on the one Monday in months that I've escaped to Parham." There is a heavy sigh from his brother. "Hold the line and I'll open the photo."

There is a pause, while Sherlock occupied his mind thinking about the motorbikes and tyre treads. One of those was rather unusual— and he had to go off to the garage attached to his Mind Palace to look through some of the tyre samples he had stored there. He lost track of time.

His brother comes back on the phone. "One of mine, alas." The languid tones of his brother have disappeared, and more clipped consonants have taken over. "My people will be there in a few minutes. You get to tell the Detective Inspector that he's off the case. And so are you." His tone is deadly serious, and in his most authoritarian voice.

"I can work faster than your people. Who was he?"

"Keep your nose out of my business, Sherlock. Under no circumstances are you to get involved. This is off limits. Anyway, don't you have a wedding to plan?"

Sherlock takes some small pleasure in hanging up on his brother. He walks back to tell Lestrade the bad news.

Sally's face says it all— disappointment and disgust in equal measure. "Another example of why liaison between the Metropolitan Police and the security services is at an all-time low." She goes off to tell the CS examiners to pack up their kit.

"Lestrade, can I borrow your Norton? It's seven minutes to your flat, if you're willing to drive me there. And you can get back to that breakfast you've been missing."

"Well, at least this time you're asking permission." But, then he thought about what Sherlock in his current mood would get up to on his own. And what he had learned when he'd gone to see Diane Goodliffe—that without John, Sherlock needed Greg to be a useful drag anchor on his risk taking.*** The volatility of Sherlock's mood clinches it.

"I'm coming with you."

Sherlock reacts with a frown. "How do you know where I am going? I might be using it for some domestic chore."

The DI just laughs. "As if that were ever going to happen. Before your brother's mob shows up here to process this crime scene, you want me to check the CCTV? See if we can spot anything?"

Sherlock looks back down at the body. "Mycroft's people will be too methodical; they don't think like the professional who did this. He will know enough to get some distance away on the back roads, before crossing one that might have a camera on it." His eyes focus on the middle distance- "he will have sussed out where to do it to miss avoidable cameras. Tell them to check the roundabouts at Crooked Billet, Waterworks Corner and the Whipps Cross –Lea Bridge intersections- sooner or later he has to show up on one of those. And unlike Mycroft's lot, I know what I am looking for— a Honda CBR 250."

Greg nods and tells Sally to mind the fort until it can be handed over to the Security & Intelligence Liaison team. While he drives back to Seven Sisters, he is on his hands-free telling the TfL folk what to look for. Sherlock is in the car’s passenger seat, his eyes glued to his own phone, researching something.

Twelve minutes later, he and Sherlock are arguing about who is going to ride pillion, and who is going to drive.

"I know what I'm looking for." Sherlock's tone makes it clear that he's spent the past two years in control, and is only reluctantly accepting the necessity of bringing Greg along for the ride.

"My bike; I drive." Greg is equally adamant.

The two of them are clad in leathers- Greg had forced Sherlock into storing his gear and helmet in the lock-up garage at the back of his flat. After what had happened in December**, he wasn't about to watch his beloved Norton be taken out again without knowing it was being used by Sherlock.

The DI had just taken a call from Transport for London - a motorbike bearing the license number WG58 KGJ had been picked up by the cameras at the Crooked Billet roundabout between the A406 North Circular and the M11. They would text his phone every two or three minutes with the target's position.

Greg still has a nagging doubt. "You said there were two bikes- the one driven by the victim and then taken out of there by the passenger on the other bike. How do you know this is the right one that we need to be chasing?"

"Are you really that thick?"

"Sherlock… It's early and I haven't had coffee, so just cut the crap and answer the question."

"Well, obviously, the killer came on the Honda- it's the one with the deeper tyre tread, showing two passengers. His accomplice has to take the victim's bike and dump it as quickly as possible- likely to be somewhere in the Hackney marshes or the lakes that are all over this neighbourhood. The killer is on the Honda and taking that USB to whomever ordered the attack."

Sherlock shoves his helmet on. "While we stand here arguing, he's getting away." He sounds cross at the delay, his tension at the crime scene now boiling over in scarcely concealed annoyance.

"Then shut up and get on." Greg grabs the handlebars and sits on the front. After a moment of hesitation Sherlock climbs on behind him. As the Norton charges up the West Green Road, heading for the Walthamstow Bridge, the target is heading north on a road the led to Stansted Airport. But at least the transport police are now tracking it, using the Motorway speed cameras on the M11. Greg has warned the police that his own bike would be exceeding the speed limit, and to just let them get on with it. At the first stoplight, he hands his phone back to Sherlock and says over the bike's rumble, "Keep an eye on the texts and tell me where to go."

As they roar under the M25 junction at Hobbs Cross, Greg starts keeping one eye on the fuel gauge. He never keeps a lot of petrol in the tank while it is in the lock-up; just a fire risk.

It is with some relief that Sherlock taps his helmet a few minutes later and shouts "Next exit." It’s the A414 to Harlow, or Chelmsford if you are heading east. There is no sign of their target when they get to the top of the intersection—and no cameras out here in the rural countryside. Greg throttles back and asks Sherlock, "Which way?"

There is a pause, and Sherlock drags out his own phone, calls up Google Maps, and then says without hesitating, "Follow the signs to Hastingwood, then left to Threshers' End, then follow the road through the three Matching villages. We're headed towards Newmans End and the Arnsworth Castle hotel."

Greg turns to look at him, flipping up his visor. "Why? Why there?"

"He has to hand over a USB, which means he needs a public place that gets passing trade. No pub is open at this hour- or if it is, people will notice anyone showing up. No big stores in this area. We need a hotel, one that gets a lot of international guests. We're less than ten miles from Stansted airport- but the airport hotels have heightened security. So Arnsworth Castle Hotel it is. Stop talking and get going."

It takes them another fifteen minutes of small country lanes before they finally spot the sign to the hotel. A long looping driveway through neatly manicured park land with the obligatory rare breed sheep grazing tell Greg that this is one of those "country house" hotels. He wonders where the castle is.

As they drive into the visitor's carpark, a quick scan reveals no motorbike. In fact, there are only six cars in the park, most of which are big, expensive luxury cars. One – a Ferrari- catches his eye. But, before he can say anything, Sherlock leans forward.

"Head for the staff carpark." Greg spins the back wheel of the Norton in the thick gravel for a moment before the bike's off-road tyres get purchase. The pair carries on past the hotel, around the back to what must have once been a stable area, a long time ago. Now the cars parked there look more like it— modest, a few bangers, and there, parked up against a lean-to carport is the target bike.

Greg starts to switch off, but Sherlock taps his shoulder. "We need to go in the front entrance; now we know he's staff, we need to pull rank." So Greg re-traces their route, parks up and then starts to strip off the leathers. Sherlock does the same, and by the time the two of them go in the front door, one would assume that they are business men, whose suits are a bit rumpled— perhaps from a recent flight into Stansted.

Greg lets Sherlock take charge, curious as to how the Consulting Detective will play it. Given his current mood, he doesn't want to get in the man's way. The younger man strides up to the reception desk and says with firm authority, "We need to see the manager of the hotel, immediately."

The young blonde woman looks slightly taken aback by the abruptness of the demand. "How can I help you, sir?"

"By getting the manager. Or did you not understand me? You may be from Latvia, but I assume that a four star hotel would not employ someone in this role who didn't have a reasonable command of the local language."

Greg grimaces; Sherlock is being his usual charming self. "And while we wait…" the younger man says imperiously, "…you can organise some coffee for us."

Yet, the rudeness seems to work. The blonde goes beetroot red in the face, but scurries back to pick up a house phone. Sherlock takes Greg over to the soft leather chesterfield in the lobby area. "Just sit down and look like we deserve to be here, Lestrade. More will be accomplished that way."

The DI rolls his eyes. He's in a foul mood for some reason.

But, he does appreciate it when only a few minutes later, a waiter appears carrying a tray of china cups with a coffee press. Sherlock gives the middle-aged man a close look, but then shakes his head when Greg raised an eyebrow. This isn't their target, but how Sherlock knows is totally beyond Greg. The waiter pours two cups, and Greg realises how much he appreciates it as he draws in the first taste. The morning has been too busy, and he welcomes the caffeine- not to mention the warmth. Tearing up the motorway in late February is not an activity designed to keep you warm. He picks up the newspaper from the coffee table, and sees Sherlock snaffle one of the hotel brochures whilst taking out his phone again.

Greg is on his second cup and starting to thaw out by the time the manager appears. A short, balding man in a suit who introduces himself: "I'm Simon Edwards, the manager here. How can I help you two gentlemen? I understand that neither of you is a guest in the hotel."

Sherlock gives him an intense stare. "We need to see your staff list. And then your guest list. Immediately."

The manager looks askance. "Why would you want to do that? Who are you?"

Sherlock glances over at Lestrade, who drew out his warrant card. "Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade, Metropolitan Police. I'm investigating a murder, and we have tracked the suspect to this hotel. This is Mister Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps you are aware that he occasionally helps the police with our enquiries."

The alarm in the manager's eyes is palpable. There are times like these when Sherlock's recent newspaper fame helps, if it gets them co-operation. "A murder?! Nothing's been reported to me."

"Why would it be?" Sherlock sits up and puts his own empty coffee cup down on the table. "The murder occurred in East London. Did you not hear what was said? The suspect was tracked here. We believe a member of your staff killed someone a few hours ago, stealing something in the process, and he's come here- perhaps to hand it over to someone, most likely a guest. So, we need to see the list of both staff and guests. Now."

Nonplussed by the revelations and the abrupt demand, the manager stutters, "Our guests…. I can't just hand over their details. They…er…expect a high degree of privacy. I'm sorry Detective Inspector, but you are out of your jurisdiction. I'd need to have a warrant from the Hertfordshire constabulary to be able to do what you ask, legally."

Sherlock glowers, and then unleashes his ire. "So says a man who has obviously been through criminal proceedings before. I expect the hotel is regularly used for adulterous liaisons, and you've probably been caught hosting other less salubrious activities, as well. I can assure you that the reputation of the hotel will be damaged further if it gets out that you've given cover to a member of staff who is a thief and a murderer, and that the hotel is serving as a meeting place for international organised crime networks."

This is delivered in Sherlock's rapid fire technique, usually reserved for deductions. It has the desired effect on the manager, who seems to be struggling to catch up, whilst almost visibly panicking when he manages to hear the key words of "reputation" and "organised crime". The bald head starts to shine; he is sweating.

Sherlock isn't finished. "If you really want us to apply to a local judge for a warrant, then I'll be sure to find one that uses your hotel. We'll see how long it takes for the news to get out onto TripAdvisor. It couldn't be any worse than that incident of food poisoning to the Christmas party last year for the Tesco top product sales teams."

The manager actually goes pale. Greg tries to hide his smile. Sherlock always seems to know which buttons to push.

"Um…I'll see what I can do. Just wait here." The manager starts to leave.

"Wait." Recognising capitulation, Sherlock presses his advantage. "Actually, given how few guest rooms are currently occupied, I need to see the reservations for tonight, as well. And don't bother with the full staff list- just today's duty roster will be enough." He flashes his "client smile"- which after many years, Lestrade knows to be mustered only when Sherlock thought it would be to his advantage.

When the manager scuttles off to get the information, Greg lets out the smile he's been trying to stifle. "You are wicked, you know. Poor guy's going to have a heart attack."

Sherlock folds the hotel brochure he's been reading and puts it into his Belstaff pocket. "Hotel managers are risk averse. And a useful source of information, if you know how to prey on their weaknesses."

"Why didn't you just ask which member of staff drives the motorbike?" Greg knows that Sherlock usually takes the shortest distance between two deductions, and goes straight for the guilty party, so the less direct route seems at odds with the man's earlier impatience.

Sherlock tilts his head. "And let the manager tell the man he's fired, to bugger off, and then remove all trace of his employment here? Really, Lestrade, are you always so trusting of people? It is in his and the hotel's best interests to deny that there is any connection with a murder."

He sniffs and gets to his feet. "In any case, the suspect is merely the means to the end. I'm more interested in finding out if the USB has been handed over yet, or whether the recipient hasn't checked in. If we make too much of a scene here, we might tip off whoever it is he intends to meet."

Greg takes a final swig of the coffee and puts the newspaper back on the table.

"No, you stay here. I'm going to take a quick look around." The tall brunet strides off in the direction of the restaurant, if the discrete brass sign on the wall is anything to go by.

While he waits, Greg has a hard think about the case. If Mycroft is taking over the crime scene, then it is something to do with security. And Sherlock's behaviour suggests that he wants in on the case— preferably before Mycroft arrives to stop him. He's been rather conspicuous in his desire to keep one step ahead of his brother. That is more than a tad worrying— he doesn't want to piss off the elder Holmes. Greg starts to rehearse his justifications, just in case he needs to explain his actions. He'd once promised to keep an eye on Sherlock, to make sure the Consulting Detective's investigations for the police didn't end up with him in a hospital bed. Given the professionalism with which the victim had been murdered, Greg is starting to wonder whether he should call in some back-up. And Sherlock's absence now makes him even more anxious. Might he be confronting the killer even now? Lestrade stands up, and starts to head for the restaurant.

But before he can get there, the manager re-appears, waving some papers. The small man is now sweating profusely. "Here are the lists. Where's Mister Holmes?"

Greg takes the lists out of the man's hands and keeps going. "He's exploring. I suggest we find him."

The restaurant is almost empty. One couple is sitting at a table by the window, and look up with curiosity when they entered. The manager flashes them a reassuring smile, and then exits, with Greg behind him.

"Most of the departing guests have finished their breakfast; the latest shuttle to Stansted left at 8.45. I've noted those already checked out on the first sheet."

Greg scans the list - only six names on it are highlighted in yellow.

"Any of these check out in the past hour?"

Edwards explains, "The ones highlighted on the first list are the guests who are still in the hotel. The others checked out and have left already. The second list has the thirteen guests already here, who are staying on for another day or more, and the third list has the people coming in this afternoon. And the last sheet is the duty roster."

The DI looks at the names and wonders what he should be seeing. He doesn't need Sherlock to be present to hear a well-worn phrase, "You see, but do not observe, Lestrade." Where are you, Sherlock? Just when he needs to know what to look for, the man has gone walkabout.

"Where else might Mister Holmes be? Are there other public rooms?"

The manager nods; "Follow me." He pokes his head into a wood panelled room with a fireplace, but over his shoulder Greg can see there is just one guest in there reading a newspaper; he looks up, expectantly. "Has my taxi arrived early?" It is a foreign accent, but not one Lestrade can place.

The Manager shakes his head. "It was booked for ten o'clock, sir." He consults his watch, and then says, "At least another twenty minutes to enjoy your paper. We'll come find you when it arrives. I was just looking for another guest."

Edwards comes back to Lestrade and points down the corridor. "Let's try the Orangery."

Greg follows the small man to the east side of the hotel, and through a pair of French doors into a long rectangular room filled with light. Windows along one wall look out over the garden, which even on a cold February morning still look attractive. But all that is taken in quickly, because the DI's attention is drawn to the sight of Sherlock at the far end of the empty room, standing on a bare stage, using his phone to take photos.

His baritone carries across the empty room to the manager. "You use this as a function room… what's the capacity, when seated at round tables of eight?"

Edwards looks startled at the question, but answers anyway. "Depends on the top table arrangement, but between sixty and eighty."

Sherlock continues to take photos, one of which is a close-up of the yellow patterned wallpaper.

Greg frowns, "Sherlock, what does the room capacity have to do with the murder?"

"Nothing."

Greg glances at the look of bewilderment from the Manager, before continuing, "Here are the lists you wanted."

Sherlock puts his phone away and strides over to the men; he pluckes the sheets of paper from Greg's hands and reads through them very quickly.

"Ah."

Greg waits. It was not the "oh!" he wants to hear, but over the years he'd learned how to translate some of the less obvious utterances of the Consulting Detective. Whatever Sherlock has seen on the list, it has surprised him, and that requires some thinking before he can deduce a solution to the case.

Sherlock is shaking his head. "I've got it back to front…Mister Edwards, you have not listed your agency staff here."

"No, because they don't tend to work here for any length of time, so why bother? We just pay the agency."

"So, anyone could turn up claiming to be from the agency, and you'd not know any difference, because you aren't even given a name. And the agency staff would not necessarily know each other." This is a statement, which gets him a nod of agreement from the hotel manager.

Sherlock raises his hands, pressing his fingers together in a familiar steeple. His eyes focus off in the middle distance.

Edwards shifts a little, and then explains, "It's not unusual practice; everyone does it to cope with the uneven pattern of demand for staff. No point in having people on the payroll, if the work isn't here."

There is no answer from Sherlock, who is still staring off into the distance. Greg tries to fill in the gap, "What agency staff have you got on at the moment?"

"We just finished a Tea Dancing weekend. So we laid on an extra bedroom floor maid, two catering, two waiters and one extra chap to shift luggage and do the set ups and break downs in the function rooms because we've a lot of shifting to do- stages, lighting and the like." Edwards is staring at Sherlock, puzzled by the man's disengagement.

Greg gives the manager a reassuring smile. "It's okay; he's just thinking."

Sherlock suddenly comes to life, and focuses his complete attention on the manager with almost frightening intensity. "Tell me about one of the guests checking out today- Iuri Malkhaz Chkhetidze. Is he a regular?"

"Um… yes, he is; A businessman, something in import-export business."

"You confirmed his identity against a passport? A Georgian passport?"

"Well, it was ages ago, but I presume so- the reception staff are trained so the first time someone checks in we have to confirm against a photo ID. We're close enough to the airport that it just makes sense. With so many international travellers, we use a passport to confirm ID and then check that the credit card is valid."

"How many times has he been here?"

Edwards shrugs. "Maybe a half dozen times or so this year. Once every other month; he's been coming for years."

A predatory smile is forming on Sherlock's face. Greg realises that he'd just made an important connection, but had no idea what it was.

Unaware of Sherlock's change in demeanour, Edwards continues, "Do you need to speak with him? His flight is at midday. He was in the library just a moment ago reading a newspaper. We've booked him a taxi for ten, so he's parked himself in there until it arrives. It's his usual routine."

Sherlock suddenly bolts through the French doors, running flat out back towards the Library. Greg takes off after him, with the portly manager bringing up the rear. Once the DI skids around the corner, he can see down the corridor. Before Sherlock gets to it, the heavy wooden door to the Library opens and a white-coated burly waiter starts to come out from the room. He takes one look at the men charging down the corridor and bolts back into the room.

Sherlock tears after him into the Library and Greg hears a great clatter of breaking china and the sound of something metal hitting the floor. When Greg gets into the room, it is to witness an extraordinary scene. The waiter and Sherlock are fighting— and it isn't by Queensbury rules. The waiter must have had at least a two stone weight advantage over the taller but more wiry Sherlock. In the brawl the Georgian guest's stuffed leather chair has been tipped over, and he is trying to crawl towards the door. Greg moves in to arrest the man, thinking that he must be the recipient of the stolen USB drive.

"Call an ambulance!"

Sherlock's shout means he takes his eye off his opponent just long enough to see them come into the room, and he is rewarded for his lapse of concentration with an elbow smashed into his right side with enough force to make the Consulting Detective cry out. He crumples and goes down on one knee. The waiter then raises a leg to aim a killer kick at Sherlock's head.

But he never gets the chance to deliver it because as soon as his assailant lifts his right leg off the floor to kick, Sherlock grabs the Persian carpet on which the man is standing and gives it a terrific yank. Off-balance, the waiter wobbles, and Sherlock rises to his feet and lashes out with his own kick, connecting with the front of the knee that is taking the man's entire weight. With a sickening crunch, the man's patella shatters under the force of the blow, and he crashes to the floor.

The manager has taken Sherlock's order to heart, and has run off to call an ambulance. In the meantime, Greg bends over the suspect guest who is struggling to get to his feet, trying to speak. His face has gone bright pink, his eyes bulging and his breathing ragged. The DI realises that the man is in some way injured, but he can see no visible signs of it- no blood, or bullet wound.

Sherlock has thrown himself onto the fallen waiter, and the two of them are now wrestling for a choke hold. The bigger man moves just as fast as Sherlock, and is using his elbows and hands to good effect, keeping Sherlock from getting an advantage.

The Georgian is gasping now and looks like he is having real trouble breathing. "Damekhmareba…. gt'khovt." Then he seems to rally for a moment, enough to blurt out "I'm on your side."

Lestrade is trying to make sense of this as he takes hold of the man's shoulders and eases him back down onto the floor, just as his legs starts to give way.

The DI calls out, "Sherlock, need some help?"

Sherlock's hand has caught the waiter's wrist and he drives his left elbow deep into the bicep, hoping to stun the muscle long enough to gain a lock-hold. He calls out "No. Keep him alive…cyanide. He's going to stop… breathing." Another painful grunt erupts from the Consulting Detective as the waiter struggles, gets a blow of his own in and nearly breaks the choke hold. Sherlock grapples again, this time flipping the bigger man over, so the Consulting Detective is underneath, his arm across the man's throat, cutting off both air to the lungs and blood to the brain. "Don't…" Panting now from the exertion, Sherlock is finding it hard to find the air he needs to explain. "Coffee poisoned. No mouth-to-mouth… but he…needs oxygen."

The manager is back in the room, with a panicked look in his eyes. "The ambulance is on its way from Bishop Stortford. Ten Minutes- then another ten to the hospital in Harlow."

The waiter is still thrashing, trying to break Sherlock's hold. He is lifting up his shoulders and crashing back down on Sherlock, who grunts with pain each time he is thrown back onto the floorboards. But he doesn't let go, even after his opponent starts to go limp. The manager watches as if he can’t believe what was happening in his hotel.

Lestrade bends over the guest, checking his pulse. The man is muttering in some foreign language—Georgian, he presumes— but at least he is still conscious and alert. Then in English the man shouts out- "Cooked clams."

"What?!" Lestrade doesn't understand; has he heard him right?

"Yes! Or liver— quick." Sherlock says this through gritted teeth, then finally lets the limp body of the waiter go and starts wriggling out from underneath him. He looks straight at the manager, who is wringing his hands anxiously, not knowing where to look—the room is a total shambles from the fight.

Sherlock sits up slowly; he is panting from the fight but repeats, "Cooked clams or beef liver; you must have one of them here in the kitchen." He draws in a deep breath. "Vitamin B12 counter-acts cyanide. Both have over a thousand times the recommended daily allowance. Get him to eat a hundred grams before he passes out. It will slow absorption."

Edwards looks unconvinced.

"It works—if you can be bothered to get it to him quickly," Sherlock rather unsteadily gets to his knees, as the Manager scurries out of the room again. The Consulting Detective then pats down the unconscious waiter, and checks the man's pockets.

Lestrade sees the momentary flinch as Sherlock straightens up. "You okay?"

"Fine. Better than he is, for sure." Sherlock glances back at the waiter, then down at the Georgian who is watching him. "I need to find the USB."

Chkhetidze cam hardly talk, but he reaches in his jacket pocket and fumbles a thumb drive out. "Get this to Mycroft Holmes," he wheezes.

Sherlock smirkes. "My brother won't be long." He pluckes the drive from the man's hand. "I think I hear a helicopter."

Greg listens, and sure enough, he too can hear it. He goes over to the window and peered out. "Yep. You're right."

Sherlock looks more annoyed than pleased by that fact. "I need to find something else—mind the fort, Lestrade." He then exits the room. Less than a minute later, the manager reappears caring a plate of what looked like raw liver. The Georgian grabbed at it and began to stuff it in his mouth. He has turned a rather alarming colour of pink. Greg holds the plate and stifles his own instinct to gag at the idea of eating the raw offal. Then the man slumps and closes his eyes.

The next thing he knows the room is swarming with black uniformed officers; their body armour says police, but one glance tells him that these are not the Met's special protection or counter-terrorism men. One points to the waiter, "Hostile?"

Greg nods, and they use plastic security cuffs to restrain the unconscious waiter. He figures this might be a rare outing of one of Mycroft's operational teams. A medic comes in behind them, carrying a stretcher and a kit, and immediately starts examining the Georgian.

His suspicions are confirmed when one of the agents calls out "Clear." A moment later, Mycroft comes into the room and sweeps it with an imperious glance before resting on the unconscious Georgian.

"Will he live?" The question is directed to the medic, who is putting in an IV.

"Cyanide. If we move fast and take the copter, he might make it."

Mycroft nods, and two of the agents pick up the litter and they depart. Then he turns to Lestrade with a steely look. "Where is he?"

Greg shrugs, and pointed to the downed waiter. "There's your murderer. Sherlock's gone off in search of something; don't know what." He watches as two of the agents remaining in the room pick up the unconscious man and carry him out. It annoys him that the back of their body armour read "police".

"Truth in advertising? Your men are not police, Mycroft."

That earns him a raised eyebrow. "It works to identify them as 'friendlies'; less likely to be an issue when the local forces can be bothered to get involved."

"Are you going to tell me what's going on here?"

"No. Your security clearance isn't high enough."

"Is Sherlock's?"

Mycroft answers him with a steely look. "That depends. In this case, no. So if you have the stolen USB stick, I would appreciate its return. Now." He holds out his hand.

Greg shakes his head, and is about to explain, but then Sherlock walks back into the room.

"Late again, Mycroft. Your man from Georgia would be dead if he'd relied on you."

The elder Holmes surveys his brother before unleashing a long-suffering sigh. "Sherlock, just hand over the data. This does not concern you."

"Doesn't it? One of your agents is playing courier, delivering something to one of your contacts. But somehow he takes a little detour and ends up killed. The murderer then shows up here- to assassinate a particular guest, now that he knows who he is supposed to kill." Sherlock pulls out not one but two USBs. "This is the one that your Georgian was supposed to exchange for the one with your courier. But why did the assassin want to kill him for it?"

Mycroft's eyes narrow. "I meant what I said, Sherlock. This is none of your business." He takes two strides closer to his brother and then closes his hand over the USBs in Sherlock's hand.

Sherlock does not release them.

There follows one of their staring matches, that Greg had come to realise was the default mode when both or either of them is too angry to trust using words.

It is Mycroft who breaks the impasse, his face like stone. "Brother mine, give me the data."

In all the years he'd known the man, Greg has never heard quite so much menace in his words.

Sherlock takes a step closer. "Or what?"

"You will lose every shred of protection that Elizabeth ffoukes has ever afforded you in the past. You will be barred from any work of this nature with any branch of the United Kingdom government—or any other foreign government for that matter."

Sherlock actually smirks, totally undaunted by the threat.

But Mycroft isn't finished. "And I will see to it, personally, that you never, ever work with the Metropolitan Police again. If that is not enough incentive, then consider this. The Detective Inspector here will also be sent to purgatory, his career over, for directly disobeying the orders of the security services to cease and desist involvement in this business."

Greg's eyes widen, as the silence grew.

Then, Sherlock releases the data sticks and steps away, his face now as inscrutable as his brother's.

Mycroft does not even look at Sherlock or Greg as he strides out of the Library.

Once he gets over the momentary shock of it all, Greg manages to find his voice again. "Sherlock, just what the bloody hell just happened?"

"Good question, Lestrade, but I don't have an answer…yet. Mind giving me a lift back into London?" The man's tight, tense manner from the crime scene is gone, replaced now by an almost breezy nonchalance.

All the way back down the M11, Lestrade tries to understand it— and fails.

Chapter Text

"Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice, Miss Goodliffe."

Behind the polite and briskly professional demeanour of the Detective Inspector, she sees something is keeping his shoulders tense. The therapist gives him a reassuring smile. "And thank you for being willing to come to Reigate. I appreciate it. Especially as this must be a rare day off for you."

That gets a hint of a smile from the Detective Inspector. She gestures to the comfortable chair opposite her and as he sits down, he answers, "Yeah, well…criminals don't tend to work on a predictable nine to five, Monday to Friday basis."

For a moment, his eyes rove around the room rather than looking at her. Her session room is over a homeware shop, on the High Street in the middle of Reigate. It’s furnished it with a minimalist touch— soft beige, brown and cream furnishings are more about natural textures and easy-on-the-eye colours, designed to reassure anxious patients. Not a doctor's surgery, but it isn't someone's home either. Neutral territory, she calls it. The only decoration is a vase with a branch of flowering cherry in it on a small lacquer table, and a framed piece of oriental calligraphy on the wall. There is a small, intricately patterned Turkish carpet between the two chairs, a medley of tan, gold, black and brown threads.

"Does Sherlock come here?" He is trying to mask his incredulity, but not doing it very well.

"No. We decided it’s better for his sessions to take place at Baker Street. He needs surroundings that are familiar enough not to be a distraction."

That gets her a broader, knowing smile, but she can tell that he is still on edge. She decides he needs encouragement, so she asks, "How can I help, Detective Inspector?"

"Please, call me Greg. This isn't official business." His brown eyes seem kindly, and she has come to understand a little more about him, since he had showed up at Hartswood to help Sherlock through detox in January. Doctor Cohen had explained about his relationship to her client, and she's seen some of that in the way he handled himself with Sherlock— his patience and humour through the grueling withdrawal spoke of years of experience.

"It's about Sherlock."

That much she has guessed.

"I…um, don't know if the doctor-patient thing works, with someone like you? I mean, you're not actually a psychiatrist, are you?"

"He isn't a 'patient', Greg, because he isn't 'sick' and I am not a doctor." She gives a soft chuckle; "I wouldn't call him 'patient', in any way— not with me, not with the world, and certainly not with himself. He's a client. That said, I respect everyone's confidentiality, Greg. I couldn't help people if they didn't trust me. Sherlock is no different."

"Yeah, I figured. But, I need your advice."

"Tell me how you think I can help, and I will tell you if I can, within the bounds of confidentiality."

"John Watson told me that you've been back to help Sherlock recently, because of a case."

She nods. His regular EMDR sessions had tapered off in mid-February, because Sherlock said he was no longer experiencing any flashbacks, and he'd figured out how to do the EMDR technique on his own. She had continued to see John Watson for appointments once a week at Baker Street. Ten days ago, Watson had called her back to help with Sherlock’s apparent dissociation. She's seen Sherlock twice since, to try to help him recover from what she would classify as not quite a relapse, more a temporary setback. He's been unsettled, and had told her that something he'd had to do for a case was to blame.

"It's my fault." Greg is no longer trying to hide his discomfort, so this is blurted out.

"In what way do you think you are responsible for what happened?"

He sits back in the chair, looking unhappy. "I have to be careful these days. There are people at the Met who still don't like the idea of him working cases with us. Early days and all that. I keep getting lectures from the new Chief Superintendent about having to follow all the correct procedures. 'No exceptions', he says. And, well…I've been in the doghouse for the past two years and need to be seen toeing the line."

She decides to ask a question of her own, partly to forestall what she thinks he might want to ask about Sherlock. "You've worked with him for years. Was he always prone to taking unacceptable risks?"

"Yeah, risk is his middle name. He's spent the last twenty years doing things that most people would think of as certifiable. But, he gets away with it, because it works. Before…" he runs out of steam for a moment, and she realises that he is thinking about the fake suicide and being away for two years. "…before he did his disappearing act, whenever he worked a case with me, I had someone keep an eye on him, to stop him bolting off on his own to chase a suspect, or put himself in danger."

"Did it work?"

"Not always. And when it didn't, his brother used to make it clear that I wasn't abiding by the rules. Then John Watson came along and I could relax a bit; he watched Sherlock's back, and injected a bit of sanity into some of the more hair-brained schemes. Since he's been back, though— well, you know that he kept John at a distance, so I won't go over all that again. And, at the start when he got back, the cases before Christmas, it didn't seem to matter; it was like he had raised his game. The Tilbury Trafficking bust and then the City fraud- they're huge. And although he took risks, they seemed more measured. I mean, hell…this is the guy who took apart Moriarty's network, so who am I to tell him what he can and can't do? He made sure that when he was working a scene with us, it was all according to the book. He wasn't even rude to my team- which was definitely a step in the right direction. But…" he tapered off, "…well, you know how it ended, with him using, then the breakdown. Since Hartswood, I've only worked three cases with him. The first one he was…a bit tentative, but all done by the book. The second time he did something really crazy." 

"Such as?"

"Sherlock wanted to interrogate a suspect who was in the middle of a confession, I told him no and quoted the rule book at him. He went off in a sulk, and then spent three days off God knows where doing things he shouldn't have done, taking risks he shouldn't have taken, to prove the guy was innocent and I am an idiot."

Greg shifts in his chair, shaking his head. "I am in a way; it's my fault. I told him that he had no proof, so I couldn't let him do what he wanted. Then three days later, John Watson shows up and tears a strip of flesh off of me, because Sherlock went off and drugged himself so he'd present the right symptoms to get onto an experimental treatment trial that he suspected was being manipulated. A patient had been murdered to keep the truth from coming out, and he said it was the only way to get the proof I had demanded."

"Do you think he knows that he overstepped the mark?"

"Well, we talked about it, as much as one ever does with Sherlock. That's me saying things, and him generally ignoring it. And now just a few days ago, he got involved with something really nasty, a case that ended up with his brother showing up and taking the whole case away from not just Sherlock, but the police, as well. "

She decides he's set the scene enough. "So, ask me what you want to ask, and I will tell you if I can answer it."

Greg looks out the window for a moment. When his dark eyes come back to her, there is an equal measure of worry and sadness in them.

"Is he okay? I mean, really? Is it safe for him to be back doing cases?"

"What do you think?"

His brow creases. "I don't know. I used to know. I was the one who argued with his brother that he couldn't, shouldn't stop Sherlock from working cases; it's what the man lives for. But, if he's going to get himself in trouble or even killed doing it, then should I be the one aiding and abetting that?" Greg's distress is clear.

"You're worried that you are enabling his impulsive risk taking."

Greg nods.

"You feel guilty."

"Sure I do. You have no idea…"

"Tell me more."

He snorts. "I'm the one who arrested him on those trumped up charges. When he ended up on the roof of St Barts, all I could think of was that I'd been the one to push him over the edge. And unlike John Watson, I had the telephone recording— the one where that Irish nutter threatened to kill me along with John and Mrs Hudson if he didn't jump. For weeks, months, I kept thinking if I hadn't arrested him, if he hadn't been a fugitive…if I'd known what to say to stop him from going up on that roof. If I hadn't been be a target. Me…it was my fault he died."

She shakes her head firmly, then takes a moment to push a wayward wave of her auburn hair back into place. "You weren't to blame, but he has to deal with the fact that he let you think that. In the tape you let me record before you went to Hartswood, you told me about your reunion, but you didn't talk much then about how you must have been hurt by his lying about his death. John Watson was angry about that betrayal of trust. But, you said you forgave him when you first laid eyes on him, returned from the dead. Why?"

"Me? There was nothing for me to forgive him for. What shocked me was that he wouldn't even let me get my apology to him out of my mouth; wouldn't hear of it. Wasn't my fault, he said. He forgave me."

She smiled again, "and you have no idea how important that was for him."

Lestrade looks puzzled.

"Sherlock doesn't apologise very often, does he?"

Greg snorts. "No way. I used to think it was just his arrogance. But I came to realise that a lot of what he does is because he doesn't understand what's going on in other people's heads. Especially people he knows well. He doesn't understand that people who care about him would take offence."

Diane smiles. "He sometimes understands more than he lets on. The 'I-don't do-empathy' thing is part of his protective camouflage. The sociopath label can be quite useful as a way of making people keep their distance."

Lestrade's eyes narrow a bit, as if he isn't sure how to tell her he disagrees. "He thinks differently than we do; and that's okay. He doesn't need to apologise, not to me, not to anybody, for what he is. The whole bloody world owes him an apology right now."

Her smile broadens. "You really do like him."

He looks a bit embarrassed. "Yeah, I do, God help me." Then his face goes through a whole series of micro-expressions too fast even for her to pick up on. He ends up looking at the floor, as if the Turkish carpet is something new and fascinating.

"What's wrong?"

"Years ago, Mycroft Holmes accused me of using Sherlock, of taking advantage of his abilities, to help solve my cases, to help my career. He said I was endangering a vulnerable person. Given what happened after he…disappeared, I realise how much I had come to rely on him for solving my cases, for giving my MIT the best clear up rate on the force. And now that he's back, I wonder if I'm being selfish again, leading him into taking risks that he shouldn't be taking."

"Have you ever thought that one of the reasons he wants to solve cases so much is because it gives him an excuse to be with you?"

With a snort of derision, Greg leans back in the chair. "Not on your life. He lives for solving the crimes; I'm just an accessory, a useful means to an end."

"Don't say that; don't even think it, because it isn't true. If all he wanted was difficult cases or intellectual challenges, he'd stay working for his brother. You do him a disservice when you don't recognise that part of what he wants is to be useful to you. You were one of the three people targeted. Mycroft wasn't. You matter to him."

He looks uncomfortable. "Then that makes it almost worse, because I've let him down, not looked after his best interests."

Diane thinks that through, as the silence lengthens. She decides that she can't let him get away with such a mistake; it is important that he understands this. If it comes a little close to that grey area between keeping confidentiality and helping a client, well…so be it.

"You're not my client. But, I have a duty of care to my client, and that means I won't hold any punches when it comes to you, Greg. He let you in at Hartswood, when no one else was allowed anywhere near him. And it's not the first time. He knows that whatever he does, however awful it is, it can't destroy your faith in him. It's called unconditional love. He doesn't think he gets that from Mycroft, and right now, he's still wary about John, given his initial reception and the added complication of Mary. Those two are trying their damned best to convince him otherwise, but, right now? Sherlock needs you most of all, Greg, so don't you dare say you think you should stop working with him. And don't withhold your approval of what he does. Or your disapproval either— if he's done something daft, then tell him. He needs you to set boundaries, not run away.

"Whatever you do, don't stop him from working with you. He'll take that as the final sign that what he did when he went off the roof cannot be retrieved. Right now, he needs hope. Without that, I worry about him. He's making progress, but it's never a straight line to recovery. If he thinks it wasn't worth it, if he thinks he shouldn't have come back because the people he cares about don't want him here … Well, Esther Cohen told me that Sherlock has never valued his own life; I don't want you to test that theory, so keep working with him as a way of showing him that you do."

He looks shocked. "Really?"

"Yes, Detective Inspector, get back to work, preferably with Sherlock, as soon as possible. You both need it."

He nods, and leaves.

As Diane watches from the window, she sees Greg heading towards the rail station; is it her imagination? Perhaps…but she thought there is a spring in his step.

oOoOoOoOoOo

Sherlock is standing in front of the Baker Street wall, which now hosts a calendar with numbered days being marked through with a big red X. A marker pen was being manipulated through his fingers in an intricate bit of hand juggling.

"What progress are you making on the dress? It's on the critical path. You need to make a decision soon, because the cost will affect the budget for everything else. If you spend the average amount—that's £1,590 in the UK last year— that will leave you with only a thousand pounds to cover John's suit hire, the rings, the service fees, photography and the honeymoon, which is clearly impossible. You're going to have to find something cheaper."

Mary has come on her own today, because John is having a lie in this Saturday. He'd spent most of Friday evening staking out a suspect with Sherlock, and come home tired but elated—and way too keyed up to sleep. "The Case of the Poison Giant" is what he is going to call it, and had told her that he will be using the day off to sleep in late, and then type it up for the blog.

Sherlock, on the other hand, seems totally un-fazed by the night's exertions, and is full of energy and focused determination. He keeps playing with the magic marker pen, as he goes through each step of the detailed project plan. Most of the morning's questions involve the next steps about the reception.

The venue has been agreed: the Arnsworth Castle is perfect. She and John had gone up last week, and agreed the deal with the Manager, who was only too happy to give them the Orangery for free, and the bridal suite; they only had to pay for catering at cost, which came to fifty pounds a head, including wine. John had been suspicious, but Simon Edwards assured them that the hotel was delighted to be able to make the gesture "in light of Mister Holmes' work in saving us last week from a horrible incident that I cannot go into for reasons of national security."

That saving left them with half of their budget for the rest of the wedding: church fees, rings, clothing and the honeymoon. And the largest expense in that was most likely to be the dress.

Her silence in response to his latest question makes him turn away from the board and look at her briefly—almost as if he is unsure whether his question might not have been well received. He is still a little hesitant when they are on their own together, and she knows that he is making an effort to moderate what John calls his "all too brutal honesty."

"It's hard, Sherlock. I've had a look—but nothing is right." Then she amends that, "actually, the problem is meI'm not right. I'm too short for my dress size, so almost everything in the shops is either too big, too long or just God awful."

She has spent hours searching online, and more than a couple of afternoons while John and Sherlock went off on a case, but she is starting to despair of ever finding a wedding dress that she can not only afford, but actually consider wearing.

The wedding dress styles in all the magazines play up to women's fantasies, but in practice suit no one other than a six foot tall couture model— a sort of stick insect with just the right curves in all the right places. The dresses on offer to this mythical creature seem endless variations on just two themes: the first is the meringue cream puff with a huge billowing skirt, strapless with a tight balcony shelf or plunging neckline, where everyone's eyes would be drawn to her breasts or bare shoulders—neither of which in her case are, in her humble opinion, worth a second look. And she hates the harsh, hard fabrics— so white that they bleach out her fair skin and make her hair look dull. The stiff net petticoats and hard bone work in the one dress she'd tried on in the Selfridges bridal department had more in common with a suit of armour than something she will actually enjoy wearing.

But, the alternative is even worse. The second "style of the moment," as all those stupid magazines gushed, is the Hollywood starlet in a satin sheath that sometimes included a fishtail train. She loathes the slinky fabrics that will show every lumpy bump of her well-padded self, unless she was so corseted up that she won’t be able to breathe. Both styles are doomed to fail on someone like her and she is beginning seriously to worry that whatever dress she can afford will end up being both monstrously uncomfortable and hugely embarrassing.

Two creases between his eyebrows have appeared. "If that's the case, why not have one made for you?"

She laughs. "You have no idea how much it costs to get someone to design something; just altering an off-the-peg dress costs a fortune. I guess I will just have to keep looking."

"Isn't this something that your Best Woman is supposed to help you with?"

She smirks. Sherlock seemed determined to use that title; he wasn't willing to recognise the gender distinctions in nomenclature. She rather likes him for that fact.

"Janine is too busy. I took Sarah Chambers with me on my expedition to Selfrdges last week, but she's a nurse like me at the practice, so when we both disappear during a work day, it's a pain for the rest of the team. Anyway, one look on her face was enough to confirm what I already knew— the only dress I could even remotely afford there looked horrible on me."

"Why does her opinion matter? What did John say?"

"It doesn't work that way. The bride's dress must not be seen by the groom until she shows up at the altar."

He gives her a startled look. "That seems…rather high risk. Why?"

"It's bad luck."

He makes a face that is halfway between a frown and confusion. "That's stupid."

"Maybe, but them's the rules, Sherlock. And I intend to do it all, no matter how illogical."

He keeps flicking the marker pen between the fingers of his left hand, then looks back at the board. "I may have a solution for you." He stands up on the sofa and pulls down the sheet of paper that says "Dress" on it. Turning it over, he pulls off the yellow sticky note underneath and hands it to her.

It has an address.

"It's at the end of Portobello Road; tell her I sent you." He turns back to the wall, while the marker pen continued its wayward journey through the fingers of his left hand.

By lunch time, they've finished the decisions about the meal to be served at the Wedding breakfast. Mary knows enough of John's taste in food to make choices; she's been cooking for him for the past year. Sherlock tells her to make the Arnsworth Castle to give them a sampler tasting before committing for sure: "A Sunday lunch for free, as you need to be saving money. You can use the trip to time the train journey and see how expensive the taxi ride is from Sawbridgeworth Station to Saint Mary The Virgin's church in Sheering."

An hour later, heading back to the Metropolitan Line tube station, Mary decides to take a detour before going home. No time like the present. She takes the underground to Paddington and then carried on to Westbourne Park, walking northwest up Portobello Road.

The moment she comes down the side street of Golborne Road and sees the window display of the dark navy facade, she is entranced. Pushing open the door, she is transported into a world of old-school elegance and nostalgic romance. There is a delicate scent in the air of rosewater and lavender, even gardenia. Everywhere she looks she sees pieces of vintage lace. She just stares in amazement. The dresses hanging up on the walls, the gossamer fragments of lace, bead work and pearls are suspended from the ceiling; it’s like stumbling upon a treasure trove.

Mary finds herself breathing a sigh of relief. At last! 

The display cabinets are the sort you'd find in a home rather than a shop. Amidst the satin shoes and button gloves, there are photographs in silver frames, of brides from the past century.

"They're wonderful." She must have said it out loud, because a rich contralto voice answers, "Oh, I am glad that you like them." Then the door at the back of the room opens more widely and a woman walks out carrying a tray of tea with a broad smile of welcome. "Hello, I'm Jane Bourvis."

She is in her sixties, with blonde-grey shoulder length hair, a sensible black jacket over trousers, and a face that is more striking than beautiful. Around her neck she wears a number of gold necklaces and a pair of reading glasses on a chain. Eyes that wear their laughter lines like badges of honour are scrutinising her with pleasure.

"You're Mary Morstan."

"Oh, I should have known that Sherlock would warn you."

That gets a laugh. "Warn? No, not at all. He just phoned and said to treat you like royalty—and he gave me enough about you to be instantly recognisable. I have to say that his powers of observation are probably honed on criminals, but his description of you is uncannily accurate."

The older woman gestures to a comfortable arm chair. "Take a seat. I've just made a pot of tea. We can share it and talk about what you're looking for."

Mary gazes around the room. "I think I've found it. It never occurred to me that vintage was the perfect choice—but it is, and I've never seen so many beautiful dresses."

Jane laughs again. "Well, I wish everyone had that reaction; I'm afraid that vintage wear is a marmite thing— you either love it, or hate it. This morning I've already been a referee in a fight between the bride who wanted nothing more than the latest fashion, and her mother, who wanted to pass on her own wedding dress, have it re-modelled to bring it up to date. World War Three that was. The daughter stormed out of the shop shouting that it was positively ghoulish to wear someone else's dress."

While the woman is talking, Mary's eye has been drawn to a particular panel of fabric on a hanger. It is lace coloured a delicate cream, patterned with paisley shapes and flowers, with tiny beads of glass and pearls highlighting some of them. It catches the light, but not in the crude way that a sequin would have. She gets up to look at it more closely. "It's wonderful."

"Edwardian—I bought it in Bolton; it was part of a dress made for a woman who was going to India to get married to a civil servant out there." She points out the shape of a palm fan, picked out in tiny glass beads. "She chose a tropical feel for that reason; but it has a story. When she got to India, she found her fiancé had died of a fever, so she kept it as a token of her love for him, even though she never got married. By the time it got to me, most of the fabric had perished;so many women didn't know how to store their dresses properly back then. I think it was the great grand-niece who decided to bring it to me to see if it was worth anything. This was all that was left, but it is enough for a bodice, if you like it."

She unclips the hanger and brings the piece down. "Follow me."

Jane leads her through the door at the back of the room, into another one which is lit from above by a skylight. "Take your jumper and blouse off. Let's see how it looks against your skin."

She drapes the fabric panel across Mary's bare shoulders. "Turn around."

Mary turns to see that the walls behind her—and even the door they had come through—have mirrors on them and she takes in the sight. The soft patina of the lace's age is so mellow compared with the harsh modern white wedding dress that she had tried on in the department store.

In the natural light from above, the tiny glass beadwork and the soft pearls draw the eye to the shapes of the fronds and some of the flowers. The effect of the creamy soft colour makes her fair skin almost glow with health.

"Perfect."

Jane smiles. "Let me take some measurements, and then I will work up some designs for you. I've got plenty of other pieces that we can use to create the skirt and the veil. Something simple for both, but with enough to carry the theme forward and make it a cohesive whole."

Mary sighs. "But, it's going to cost the earth." She pulls the panel from her shoulders and hands it back to the woman.

"Not at all. You'll be paying only for the fabric pieces—and those at cost. The design and the sewing are on me. It's the least I can do for Sherlock."

Mary gives an incredulous laugh; "Don't tell me- you owe him a favour? What on earth could he have done to help you? He's the one who said weddings were so not his scene. How do you even know him?"

Jane hangs the panel back on the hanger and picked up a clipboard, writing Mary's name across the template image on the top page.

"This shop would not be here if it weren't for Sherlock Holmes." She picks up her tape measure. "I've always sold vintage clothes here; the Portobello Road is famous for it. But I decided twelve years ago to focus on wedding dresses. I'd only been at it for about eighteen months when I picked up my first big commission- a titled young lady wanted to re-purpose the lace from her grandmother's dress, which had been made in the 1940s. She was marrying into a very famous Italian family from Milan, and are…well, serious names in the fashion industry. The groom's older sister ran the family's bridal wear brands, and wanted her to wear one of the family’s designs, especially since the wedding was going to be held in Milan, where the couple had met during fashion week. In her opinion, all English designers were pessimo, that's Italian for abominable, beastly. I had to look it up."

She pulls out a soft measuring tape. "Lift your arms, please."

Mary obeys.

"Breath in."

She obliges, and stands up straighter for good measure.

"And now out- all the way; we don't want you fainting for lack of oxygen."

She smirks, but does as instructed.

Jane smiles, and lets the cloth tape measure out a good inch, then notes the figures on her pad.

She measures the length of Mary's right arm and the width of her shoulder, noting down the number before continuing on to the left arm. "My client was determined to wear something English, but didn't want to offend her future sister-in-law, so she chose to re-use her grandmother's lace. It was a very diplomatic choice; the groom's family couldn't argue with a family heirloom."

Jane is now measuring from the floor to Mary's waist."Will you wear high heels or flats? How tall is your fiancé?"

"He's five foot six and a half."

Jane smiles. "…and very proud of that half inch, I am sure."

Mary giggles. "We fit perfectly and I like to tease him that it's the reason why he's marrying me."

"So, a small heel, not much over one inch."

Jane now stands back and looked at Mary. "Drop your trousers, Miss Morstan."

Mary complies, but feels awkward standing there in her bra and pants, a little exposed.

Jane gives her a gentle smile. "You are a little self-conscious about your figure."

Mary nods. "I'm not one of those young things that want to show off my naked back, arms or shoulders. I'm forty years old and look like it, too; I don't want to be mutton dressed as lamb."

Jane snorts. "Hello magazine has a lot to answer for—or rather the youth cult's fascination for celebrities does. The first half of the twentieth century knew that women wanted to look beautiful on their wedding day— not like a piece of meat in a market. Thankfully, the market is starting to turn in my favour; demure is becoming fashionable amongst the monied classes, who don't need the bling of celebrity dresses. When I first started out, it was harder."

She measures Mary's hips. "It's not easy for a small business like mine. I can't afford catwalk shows or big fashion shoots for the magazines. I'm only me—so I can't go traipsing all over the country to all these wedding fairs. Advertising is expensive; I have to rely on word of mouth, which was really hard when I was first starting out. So, that dress for the Milan wedding was a big deal for me; the fashion elite all over Europe would see her in newspaper photographs."

"How did Sherlock get involved with a wedding in Italy?" Mary's curiosity is piqued.

"Hold your hands out in front of you, please." Jane slips the tape around first Mary's left wrist and then the right. "The dress I made for the English bride was perfect, if I do say so myself. She came in for the penultimate fitting, and was just thrilled with it. The only thing left to be done was the hemming, because she'd found it difficult to find the right pair of shoes to go with it. I locked up the dress in my cupboard," Jane gestures to a door at the side of the room, "and went home certain that this dress was going to bring me to the attention of all the right people."

"Imagine my horror when the next morning I came in, unlocked the door and found that someone had taken a pair of scissors to the bodice- ripped a great big gash all the way down the front."

Mary's shock shows in the face reflected back in the mirror. "Why would anyone do that?"

Jane smiles ruefully, "My reaction, too. And then I went on to think about who would do such a thing, before trying to figure out the how. Of the three, the how was the oddest. Back then, I was the only one sewing." She pulls on one of the chains around her neck, and extracts the two keys that lay hidden below the neckline. "I keep this hanging on the door knob of the dress room when I am in the shop, and take it home at night. One key for the room, one for the shop. So, I couldn't figure out how it had happened— and without that, who and why were just impossible."

"So, you called Sherlock Holmes?"

Jane nods. "The police were useless. All they said is that there were no signs of forced entry and no fingerprints. I took the dress apart, replaced the damaged panel and sewed for almost eight hours straight, but then panicked at the thought that it would happen again. So, I took the dress home with me, and slept with it hanging in my bedroom. But, was that enough? The dress was due to be picked up the next day on her way to Heathrow for the flight to Milan. If whoever had done this had murderous intentions towards the bride, then surely I had to tell her. But I was terrified of doing so—I mean, really, could a dress become an accessory to murder? How could I tell a bride about something so sinister? What if it was an act of vandalism aimed at me, rather than her? I was just in a mess. So, I called him."

"And he solved it."

"Oh, yes. Didn't take him long either. Once I'd told him the story, he took one look at my appointments book, and asked me about a client who had come in six weeks before, by the name of Cinghiale. It was easy to remember them because the mother and daughter came in all smiles and looked interested, and we agreed a brief, but then when they were supposed to come back to look at my designs, they didn't show. The phone number and address they left was a fake, so I didn't get paid for the design work either."

"Then he asked me if I spoke Italian—which I do not— sat at my desk and used my laptop to do some research. Within a few minutes, he showed me the coat of arms of my bride's future husband—right smack in the middle of it is a boar, a wild boar, which in Italian is Cinghiale. He figured that the groom's sister was determined to make the bride wear one of her designs. She'd hired someone to get into the shop, take an impression of my keys and then gain entry at night. Sherlock called it a reato di orgoglio, a crime of pride. The sister would come to the rescue of her brother's bride by providing a dress at the last minute when some vandal had destroyed hers, the story would gain them even more publicity, and everyone would be happy."

Jane pulls a gilded dining chair out from the side of the room. "One last thing to measure. Take a seat, please."

Mary does, and then watches with a bemused smile as the designer measures the spread of her bottom on the seat.

"This one is to ensure that we make the skirt full enough that you can actually move in the dress, and be comfortable. It is sad that a lot of wedding dresses look great when you are standing up for the photos, but are absolute hell to sit in during the reception. Will you be dancing in it?"

"Of course, so it can't be so long that I end up in a heap on the floor— but I don't want my ankles to show either." She wonders if John knows how to waltz. It would be rather nice in this type of dress to do the first dance as something more appropriate than a disco tune.

Mary has to ask, because she cannot imagine the scene. "I do hope that you didn't let Sherlock anywhere near the bride? He'd not the most tactful soul. He would have told her everything, and that would have spoiled the wedding."

Jane laughs. "Of course not! I told her that I would ensure her mother took the dress from me, and kept it under lock and key at the hotel; no one should see it before the wedding. I made up this ridiculous story about how I'd surprised a paparazzi trying to break in to photograph the dress; that it was a sort of exposé he was after, to embarrass the sister-in-law, and that her mother must not let the dress out of her sight at any point." She puts the clipboard down. "You can get dressed again."

"All's well that ends well." Mary pulls her clothes back on, while Jane goes over to a bookshelf set into the side of the room and pulls out two thick books.

"These were produced by a photographer who specialised in weddings. His father's shop was bombed in 1941, but he'd taken his albums home with him and kept them in the cellar. I bought the whole lot of them when the son retired in 1989— and they are so useful for giving you some ideas about the sort of style you'd like. We'll go back into the warmth of the front room, I will fix you another cup of tea, and let you browse to your heart's content. When you see something you like, just tag it with a yellow sticky."

Mary spends a pleasant hour doing just that, enjoying the family photographs of brides she'd never known. It made her nostalgic, and for the first time in decades, she thinks of her own mother, and the sadness of having to leave everything behind. She has told John that her parents died in a house-fire, and that all family memorabilia had gone up in smoke. In some respects, there is an element of truth in that falsehood. She had been the one who set fire to their old home, after her father died; it was necessary. Her past had to be eliminated— no trace could remain. No photograph, no letter, no official record. Expunged from history. She tried to conjure an image up. Had she ever seen a wedding photo during her childhood? Probably not. Weddings in the Czech communist era were civil ceremonies, with rules strictly applied by the KSČ, the Komunistická strana Československa. Why make a fuss about the practical joining of two comrades? There were no religious elements or wasteful fripperies like wedding dresses.

Perhaps that's why I want the fairy-tale version. This is for you, mum and dad.

Chapter Text

After Mrs Hudson insists on Sherlock stopping for a cup of tea, he shoos her out so he can resume work. He is on his sixth iteration of the day. Every step of the project plan is reconsidered— each objective, with its attendant retinue of activities, and every activity is considered in terms of a great number of specific timed tasks. He's made an error somewhere on the 214th to 220th tasks, all related to the transport of guests and it has thrown the whole calibration out. To solve it will most likely cost money. He really needs Mary to sort the her clothing costs soon, if at all possible. The dress cost can be managed via favours, but shoes and something he still does understand— a going away outfit— need to be factored in. How does going to the airport on the way to the sex holiday require clothing out of the ordinary? There are so many things that baffled him still. As one task is done, another can be planned— costs calculated, timetable scheduled, risks assessed, contingency steps taken to hedge that risk. Decisions to be made could then be raised with the various parties, and then letters or e mails exchanged, evidence of confirmation and contract.

The data that can be seen up on the wall are for John and Mary, and show only a fraction of the clues he needs to run the whole programme of calculations, identifying the critical path and dependencies afresh, each time a single task is completed. Sherlock keeps it in his Mind Palace; he's built a temporary extension called the Orangery. It will be demolished immediately once the last bill is paid.

He sighs and closes his eyes. It is the 217th step. He's underestimated how long the taxi out of Sawbridgeworth station takes to get to the church in Sheering and return; the one minivan that serves the village won’t be able to cope with the volume, so he'll have to investigate a bigger firm from Harlow, down the road.

He starts over—the seventh iteration. Every time he finds a flaw or makes an adjustment, he has to resume at the beginning. It has become a ritual—at first just to persuade himself that he could do this; he can control the process so that John and Mary got the wedding they deserved, rather than the one they could afford. Then, as time has moved on, the ritual of running the whole thing through every time has taken an edge off of his anxiety. If he didn't do it this way, something will go wrong. He always "missed something," and repeating it again and again means that he won’t.

Iteration—the word suits the task perfectly. He can hear Mycroft's stentorian tones as he defines the word; "It means the repetition of a mathematical or computational procedure applied to the result of a previous application, typically as a means of obtaining successively closer approximations to the solution of a problem. In other words, practice makes perfect. Try again."

At the time this was said, Sherlock was wrestling with his shoelaces; he was seven. Mycroft had already informed him that most children had mastered the motor skills required between the ages of five and six; he had done so himself at four.

"Not important." Sherlock had shouted this, because his brother was making him anxious, and that made it even harder to deal with the laces. It was easier to find the finger positions on his mother's violin.

The shout had invoked a sigh from the fourteen year old, and an eye roll. Sherlock knew both were indications that Mycroft was losing patience— that, and his tendency to use ever bigger words. Ever since he'd gone away to prep school, when he came back home he used big words with Sherlock, who knew what some of the words meant. If he didn't, he found them in the dictionary later and always remembered them after that.

The shoelace in his left hand wriggled out from the thumb and first finger as if it had a life of its own, and the loop he'd made disappeared. He huffed, and started over again. All of it made his hands want to stop holding the laces at all; he'd feel much better if he could just flap them and forget about the shoes.

He stood up and slapped his shod foot down in front of Mycroft. The untied laces flapped onto the floor, his hands mirrored the motion. "You do it."

"Then you will never learn."

"I can't do it when you're staring."

"Then sit on the sofa. And I will sit in the chair and read my book. I won't watch. When you've done it right, tied and untied and tied again a correct bow on each shoe, then we will be ready to go out."

"I want my wellies; they don't need laces."

This got the eye roll again. "You need to be dressed properly, Sherlock. Wellies are not proper footwear when you are dressed like this". Mycroft straightened Sherlock's blazer jacket, and buttoned the top button on the white shirt that itched like mad and made Sherlock want to rip it off and throw it out the window. The dreaded tie was still on the hanger; Sherlock wouldn't even look at it. He absolutely hated the tie; it felt like a snake was trying to strangle him.

"Once your shoe is tied properly, then I will do your tie for you; a Windsor knot is just… beyond you." He picked a piece of fluff off the jacket sleeve and then gestured to the sofa. "Everything in its proper place; otherwise you will embarrass us."

Sherlock felt his lower lip protrude a bit and wondered why his face did that when he was upset by Mycroft's obvious signs of disappointment.

"Tie your shoes, Sherlock Holmes." That was delivered in a tone used to order the staff about, like Father used on occasions. Mummy never had to resort to it, and she didn't order Sherlock to do anything either, but Mycroft eventually got annoyed and started ordering him about.

It was ever thus, Sherlock muses as he looked at the evidence wall over the sofa. Mycroft taught him all about OCD. I must have driven him mad.

As a so-called "adult", he now has some sympathy for his brother's attempts to create order where there was none in his life. And having watched Mycroft over the years, he also knows that his own constant reiteration of every step of the wedding plan is now becoming compulsive. Too many people trivialised the notion, and simply called anyone with an attention to detail "OCD".

Sherlock knows better. It isn't the detail, or even the ritual rehearsal of all of the details that made someone develop the pathological behaviour disorder, it is when that behaviour interferes with everyday life.

This whole wedding interferes with my life. That is a fact, and one he cannot avoid thinking about. Unless he fills his mind up with the minutiae of it all, he will think about things he shouldn’t. Re-calibrating the plan, going over it from start to finish, he knows that it is a form of avoidance behaviour on his part. But he is no more able to stop it than he'd been able to learn to tie his shoelaces at four, as Mycroft had. We're wired differently.

It isn't just the worry of getting something wrong, of some mistake on his part spoiling the wedding. There are other things that are lurking in the shadows, too. If he turns fast enough, sometimes he catches a glimpse, hears a rustle or a whisper that tells him he is being foolish. But then the impression, the hint of something, just dissipates, burnt off like a morning mist, if he tries too hard to really see what the problem is.

He turns his back on his anxieties and faces the wall, diving into the mundane, turning his attention to the wedding invitation proofs, the sourcing of a florist, a photographer, limousine driver, the "extras" needed to deliver this particular performance to the standards required. The wedding gift registry has been set up with the John Lewis Partnership. As they are already living together, it is important to indicate what the couple really needed, or run the risk of duplicating toasters and the like, or ending up burdened with something neither of them actually liked. Sherlock thinks it is a logical approach. He likes the logic and the order of it all; being able to tick off one task gives him satisfaction. It soothes the anxiety.

Actually, it is more than that. The feeling is relief. Each tick represents one more thing he hasn't cocked up, made a mess of, or missed something important about. The mistakes he's already made so far are usually something social, a bit of odd protocol, myth and superstition that seem to be the warp and weft of nuptial events. To tick the box makes at least one ticking bomb safe.

At the moment, he needs that reassurance, because too many other things that he once enjoyed doing are becoming…problematic. Take case work, for one. He's come back from Hartswood with John's assurance that he still wanted to be "involved" in cases, as much as he could, given his job and his need to spend time with Mary "that isn't all about wedding stuff". So, Sherlock has been very careful, choosing to contact him only when the cases seem both interesting enough, but not the sort that will take ages of round-the-clock activity or that will end up putting John's life at risk.

But he can’t always predict. That is the nature of crime. What John is today writing up as "The Case of the Poison Giant" is just one such example. Someone had targeted John again. This time photographs of six pearls had been sent to John by email. That had annoyed Sherlock enough for him to "borrow" John's laptop to find the sender. That led them to the Wapping warehouse belonging to Daniel Brennan—a very dead Daniel Brennan. Even the manner of the death had been tailor-made for the Consulting Detective. Someone had known that Sherlock's curiosity would be piqued by the use of a murder weapon in the form of a poison dart. And not just any dart—not the sort that vets used to put a wild animal to sleep.

"This is an Amazonian tribal dart." He’d held it between tweezers borrowed from the Forensic team, and drawn it closer to his nose, taking a deep sniff.

John had noticed his smile. "How is it that a poison dart can actually make you happy?"

"The thrill of discovery, John. This is a proper dart, fired by a blowgun, not an air rifle. But I need to examine it further to see just what kind of poisoner we are dealing with. We might be lucky; the toxin of choice comes from the Amazonian tree frogs."

The CSE had given him a look. "Toxin of choice? You do know that makes you sound a bit..um…weird?"

It was way beyond the skills of the Forensic Service, but right up his street, so Sherlock had taken back to Baker Street swabs of the dart's poison and spent two happy hours investigating. On Sherlock's instructions, John took custody of the laptop, once it had been dusted for prints. Two matches came back—the dead man's and those of a convicted thief by the name of John Swandale.

Lestrade had wondered if Brennan might have stolen it, and this was a revenge killing.

Sherlock just shook his head in mock sadness. "Really, Detective Inspector; is that the best you can do? If the hit was orchestrated by Swandale, then surely he'd make sure that the laptop got back to him."

He took the laptop and said John would have a look while he investigated the dart.

It took Sherlock all of ten minutes to crack Swandale's password. "I have my doubts about a criminal whose password is the name of his first major theft." He sniffed and handed the laptop over to John. "You take a look; I want to do something more interesting."

One look through the microscope lens had told him that the poison he transferred from the swab onto a slide wasn't a derivative of curare— that was a plant, whose sap produced a blockage at the junction of the neuroskeletal systems, affecting the axon gateways of the synapse. Curare was basically a muscle relaxant, which in sufficient doses could kill. Boring.

At the obvious signs of animal cell structure rather than plant, Sherlock's smile reappeared. "And now the question is whether this poisoner has used the Rolls Royce of tree frog poisons, or settled for something more easily obtainable."

Phyllobates is a genus of amphibians that he'd studied before at Cambridge. Sherlock had particularly enjoyed the challenge of trying to distinguish the biochemistry of the toxins produced by phyllobates aurotaenia from that of phyllobates bicolor; he'd done a mid-term paper in his second year of biochemistry on the subject. Remembering that fact made him think— if he didn't know that Moriarty was dead, Sherlock would have said that this new puzzle was worthy of his five pips game. The six pearls made a connection with the five pips just too obvious for words. But, who knew enough about him to create such an elaborate scheme?

His anxiety had ratcheted up a notch when John called him over to the laptop. "Swandale's definitely implicated, if not actually the killer. Take a look; he's got the floor-plan of the warehouse on his desktop, and the file data says it was last accessed an hour before the murder."

Sherlock had ransacked the machine code for ten minutes, and then nodded. "This is his, and it has enough data on here to give a prosecutor ample ammunition."

"Then why leave it behind?"

Sherlock had just looked at him. And then sighed. "Obviously, so we could find it, John. There can be no other reason. He's not a complete idiot. So, Swandale is challenging us."

"Why would he do that?"

"Perhaps the more interesting question is why would a jewel thief be hired as an assassin and why would he use a murder weapon more commonly seen in the Amazon? Both are rather…exciting."

John had given him that a-bit-not-good-look. "What makes tree frog poison so exciting?"

Sherlock had launched into the explanation. "The steroidal alkaloid of tree frog poisons is a neurotoxin that acts on the sodium ion channels of cells- keeping them open and permanently blocking nerve signal transmissions to the muscles. It's a particularly effective cardiotoxin, too- paralysis followed by massive release of acetylcholine in the nerves and muscles, destroying the synaptic vesicles."

John had looked none-the-wiser for those facts, leading Sherlock to wonder yet again why British medical professionals specialised on their fields rather too early.

The next half hour had been spent narrowing the choices. He could hardly contain his excitement when he’d realised that he was having his first proper look at the venom produced by phyllobates terribilis, whose batrachotoxins were so lethal that a mere swipe of the golden tree frog's skin is fatal.

"The native tribes capture the frogs, and keep them in little cages- a constant supply of weaponry." He'd always rather liked the idea that the frogs didn't have to die; they got a cosy lifestyle and were well fed in exchange- a truly symbiotic relationship.

When he’d recounted these facts to John, the doctor had seemed to pale. "What antidote should I be getting my hands on if you make a mistake? Acetylcholine actually helps on plant toxins, but you're saying that would be the wrong thing to use on this."

"There is no known antidote, and it's always fatal— usually within five minutes."

"You're making me nervous." John had started pacing in the living room. "One touch of that stuff and you could die. Be sure to clean up properly, or you'll be responsible for Mrs Hudson's death when she comes to clean up after you."

"Relax, John. I've handled neurotoxins before." He’d waved his gloved hands at the doctor, but did not take his eye away from the lens of the microscope.

"And that's supposed to make me less nervous? We should be in a sterile lab, and you should be in a biohazard suit, not a Spencer Hart."

"I know what I am doing. However, your pacing is distracting, and that is not a good idea at the moment."

John had stopped moving, immediately. "Why can't Mycoft's lot do the technical work? They've got labs set up for just this sort of stuff."

He hadn’t answered that because he knew that if Mycroft got involved, he wouldn't be allowed to pursue the case to its logical conclusion. His brother is still being annoyingly over-protective these days. Sherlock had identified the poison from almost the first look at the slide, but he still ran the tests because he never knew when he'd get the chance to work again with a real sample. He didn't tell John that he didn't need the test results to know where to go next. That was the problem, really—a bit like the wedding planning. He was consciously avoiding the big picture, and losing himself in the details- on purpose.

In both cases—the wedding and this poisoning one— thinking about the big picture makes him unbearably anxious. The trap set up by James Swandale's laptop had been too obvious, too crude to be taken terribly seriously. Swandale…the diminutive man was almost too well known as a jewel thief, had done time only once, but otherwise had used his lack of height to great advantage in his chosen trade. He'd been chosen because of this fact, and his method of murdering Brennan had also been chosen just as a way to entice Sherlock and John into a trap.

Why else hire Swandale as an assassin? His use of the pygmy blow dart to kill Brennan was…interesting- but certainly not in his normal modus operandi. Like a moth to the flame, Sherlock's attention had been drawn to the trail of files on the laptop which led to the dwarf's next target, Giles Conover.

Sherlock had asked John to locate Conover's home, which turned out to be one of those newly built houses in the style demanded by the nouveau riche these days. He looked over John's shoulder at the house particulars online. It had been bought by Conover six weeks ago, and RightMove was still listing it: Abbots Wood, on Heathfield Road, Taplow, near Maidenhead.

He had then closed the laptop and told John to go home.

"No, Sherlock. Where you go, I go."

"Not necessary. I can do this on my own."

"I'm not questioning your competence, but I am going with you."

"John, your presence is not required."

"Nor is yours, Sherlock. You could just hand all of this over to the police. Call Lestrade."

"By the time he could get things sorted with the Thames Valley police force, it will be too late. I need to catch Swandale."

John had tilted his chin and glared. "Why?"

"Because all this is an engraved invitation. I want to know who is setting this trap. It's not Swandale; he's not bright enough, and he doesn't have a grudge against me."

"Why are you taking this so personally? Maybe it's just another crime. They do happen now and then. Boring, I know, but it isn't always about you."

"Need I remind you that you were sent the six pearl photos? That makes it personal."

John had nodded. "Yes, it does. Personal…to me, not you. If you think I'm going to let you go without me, then you've not learned a damned thing since you got back."

Sherlock had turned and pointed at the wall over the sofa. "I've made a serious investment of time and energy making sure you survive until a certain date in May. Mary will not be happy if I end up being the reason why the groom can't make the wedding."

"Shut up, Sherlock. This is non-negotiable." He’d shouldered his coat on, and handed Sherlock his Belstaff. "While you're wittering about weddings, a murderer is at work."

Sherlock wonders whether John’s blog post will do justice to the case. He closes his eyes and remembers the sequence of events as if it were happening in real time.

The train to Maidenhead from Paddington Station takes nearly an hour; then the taxi up Cliveden Road drops them about a quarter of a mile past the iron security gates of Abbots Wood. By the time they work their way over the security fence and through the undergrowth from the road, it is late.

From the evidence they stumble over on the lawn, the venom of the Brazilian tree frog is certainly effective at taking out the rock star's pack of Dobermans, but at least it means that Sherlock realises that the dwarf is as good as a Yawalapiti at using the blow gun. They get into the house through an open French door, presumably left open by the murderer.

There are no lights on in the house, and no sound.

When John pulls out his gun, Sherlock whispers, "I thought you stopped using that when I was dead."

The doctor rolls his eyes before whispering back, "Since you insist on coming to these parties unarmed, I took a little precaution."

As they pass through the garden room, down the hall, past the kitchen, Sherlock realises the house’s decor is a minimalist white, with touches of black, which makes it surprisingly easy to see even in the dark. But he is wary; the open plan of the rooms will give a blowgun a clearer target. He hugs the walls, and John follows suit. In the entrance hall, the grand staircase goes up a floor, and also down. John nods his head up with a question in his eyes. But Sherlock has seen something rather amazing hung on the wall: a Daisho. He takes the Katana long bladed sword but leaves the Wakisashi short sword. The tempered steel whispers free of its scabbard.

John is grinning, and silently mouthed the word "pirate."

Sherlock smirks, but then a faint noise from upstairs catches their attention. They go up the staircase, slowly. Sherlock keeps calculating trajectories for a dart, and tries to keep John behind him as the pair ascend. At least the marble means no creaking floorboards to give them away.

They find the middle-aged rock star in the master bedroom, tied to an exercise bicycle positioned in the bay window. He is bound and gagged so all he can do is dart his eyes towards the side.

Sherlock stops at the door and whispers to John, "don't go in any further until I say so." And then he enters, hugging the wall to the left, until he reaches a doorway into what is presumably the bathroom or dressing room; the door is open. He looks back at John and nods, so the doctor comes in, announcing "Mister Conover; we're here to rescue you." But he stops when Sherlock gestures, and goes no further. If the killer is in there, he is not going to get a clear line of sight unless he makes himself known.

When the mouth of the blowpipe appears at the dressing room door, angling to take a shot at John, Sherlock pounces with the sword. In the battle of a bamboo tube against Japanese steel, it is no contest. The first swipe takes off a meter in length. Undeterred, the dwarf tucks the remaining length of the blowpipe under his arm, ducks under Sherlock's grasp and bolts into the bedroom. John can’t shoot without risking the bullet hitting the Consulting Detective or Conover. Swandale takes advantage and is out of the room in a flash and climbing up the stairs to the roof. Sherlock follows in hot pursuit, with John bringing up the rear.

Ping. Sherlock's mental rehearsal of the previous night's activities comes to a sudden halt, and he pulls out his phone. He'd set up an email alert to tell him when John publishes anything on his blog. He links out to the site and reads down the page to the end.

We escaped, obviously. Sherlock's good with a sword and I'd bought a gun. One of them went off the roof and the other's currently in prison.

We never found out who was trying to kill us. I felt we should investigate further but Sherlock had already dismissed it as boring and irrelevant.

"No, not boring, and not irrelevant. Just too dangerous for you, John." Sherlock realises that whoever had put John in the bonfire is upping the ante. He's deflected John's worries as much as he can, but has not been successful with his own.  Those had led him to a sleepless night, rather than the post-case crash that he normally endures. For him, the lesson is clear. He will need to be extremely selective in the future about what cases he takes on when the doctor is with him.

He draws breath, trying to settle his nerves. Then he turns off his phone, slips it into his pocket and faces the wall again. Sherlock starts the eighth iteration of the day, and wonders how many more he will need before he feels calm again.

 

Chapter Text

"I need your advice."

Molly puts down the rib cutter and turns away from the body to look at Sherlock. "You need…my advice? About what?"

Sherlock interprets her tone of voice as projecting both surprise and scepticism, as if the very idea of his seeking advice from her is somehow preposterous. He decides that the best strategy is to be honest. In this case, he isn't trying to get access to experimental material or to manipulate her, he just needs specialist input from a disinterested third party, someone with more experience than he has in such matters.

"Sherlock?"

He realises that the gap between her question and the reply he has yet to make has somehow widened when he wasn't paying attention. That is happening more these days now that he is living alone. He takes a while to think things through before he says them, sort of drifting inside his own head, unaware of time passing. There are occasions when he completely blanks out Mrs Hudson, without realising she is in the room. But, this time he needs to talk to Molly; he just isn't sure how. He wonders if it might be better to explain the wedding to Molly in an autopsy metaphor, to make her feel more comfortable.

His anxiety levels ratchet up another notch. I don't have time for this. The pressure to tick another box or two has driven him to Barts and he needs to get back on schedule. He can’t waste time trying to decipher her moods, or translate what he wants into something easy. He pulls a folded sheet of paper and walks over to the empty dissection table.

"You're a woman." His tongue stalls on that.

She giggles. "Glad you noticed." Molly lifts her Perspex visor and then slips it off.

"…engaged to be married. Therefore, the wedding process should not be alien to you. It is to me." He pauses for a moment, then his tongue catches up again, "… so tell me how to avoid making mistakes about the guest list and invitations."

"Mrs Hudson told me that you're planning the wedding for John and Mary. I thought she was joking. I wouldn't have thought that…um…" Molly ends rather abruptly with "…well, it's way outside your comfort zone."

Sherlock is getting increasingly irritated by the number of people who question his aptitude to plan the wedding. He bristles and let rips: "On the contrary, my skills are transferable when I can be bothered. I'm better able than either or both John and or Mary to grasp what has to be done at every step and in what order, and at what cost to project manage the entire process. It's no more complicated than a good serial murder case, if considerably more tedious." He realises that all that has come out rather quicker and angrier than he had anticipated.

"Whoa, Sherlock; I'm not saying you can't do this." She looks startled by the abruptness of his tone.

He gives her a strained smile, and decides to resort to humour. It is a fall-back whenever he thinks he might have said something awkward. "In The Case of the Best Possible Wedding, as John would call it on his blog, it's actually easier to get answers to the questions because no one is going to go to jail because of what they say to me."

Sherlock knows his ploy has worked when she raises her hands with a smile as if surrendering. "Start your interrogation, Sherlock. I'm willing to confess what I know. But why don't you ask John and Mary? It's their wedding, after all."

He points to the paper. "I don't want to undermine their belief in my ability to organise their wedding by seeming to be too stupid about these things." Sherlock shifts his shoulders; this is so awkward.

"You're never stupid, Sherlock."

He remembers what happened at Christmas three years ago, and then watches as she does, too. He almost cringes inside as she qualifies her statement, "Well, rude maybe, but never intentionally hurtful…anyway." But she says it whilst smiling, and Sherlock is again perplexed. She had been upset at the time when he'd reeled off his deductions about her, but is now smiling. What does that mean?

Is she teasing him? Sherlock finds it hard to identify Molly's motivations and behaviours whenever the conversation strays outside the technical issues of pathology and autopsies. When does her humour become sarcasm, and if this is sarcasm, what does it mean? Is she criticising him, or "being polite," whatever that is supposed to be? There are times that he rather wishes that she was still as tongue-tied and reticent in his company as she used to be. Ever since he's been back, her reaction to him is different. He had trusted her with so much, and she'd kept his secrets. It creates a sense of obligation on his part; he knows he should try not to hurt her feelings, but it is so hard.

At the moment, Sherlock feels like he is trying to pick his way across a minefield— at any point he is going to step on someone's feelings with catastrophic results.

He keeps his eyes on the list, and decides to plough on. "It's about social etiquette. They're working on the invitation list, and they keep referring to the term plus one. I understand the definition in theory, but I don't understand what it is in practice. Why can't they limit an invitation to just the people they want to be there?"

"Because it's the way things are done, Sherlock. 'Plus one' lets the invited guest choose the person they want to come with them."

This puzzles him. He repeats what she had said, "…They want to come with them…" to buy himself some time. Once he has processed what that meant, he asks, "Why would an invited guest bring someone who doesn't know John and Mary well enough to deserve their own invitation? Why would a person attend a wedding of someone they didn't know?"

Molly's eyes tell him one story. She is giving him what he thinks might be a kind and sympathetic look, but then she is also biting her lip, too, as if stifling a laugh or maybe trying to hide her amusement at his stupidity.

She explains, "Because the invited guest wants to share the event with their Plus One, whoever they are. It's a party. John and Mary want people to have fun, so they let the guests choose who they want to have fun with."

He sniffs and taps the list. "Then why did they invite Mike Stamford and his wife by name? Why are they choosing for Stamford? His wife doesn't know John; they got married when John was in Afghanistan. Why does a wife get mentioned, but your fiancé didn't?" He points out her name on the list, "Molly Hooper, Plus One. That implies you're free to choose, but you've already chosen Tom." Then he gives her a pointed stare, as if daring her to argue with his logic.

She flushes a bit pink. "We're not married yet, Sherlock. Maybe I'd rather have a girlfriend come with me, or even come alone. Tom and me—we're not joined at the hip, you know."

"Joined at the hip…" He hears himself echoing her phraseRepetition grounds him, a form of communicating in the now that needs no engagement with the brain. Then he catches up. "What does that mean?" An odd image comes into his head, of a four-legged person trying to walk.

"It's just a saying, Sherlock. Sort of a metaphor…or is it an analogy? I never know which is which…it means that two people are inseparable."

"Inseparable…" He rolls his eyes, seeing John and Mary, each with a pelvis that is somehow fused with the other's at the hip. Marriage...the wedding is an operation by the surgeon called Doctor Watson to create this bone bridge that cannot be removed. And he is assisting in the operating theatre.

Reality kicks in. "Are you saying that you won't be inviting Tom to the wedding?"

"I don't know. He might not want to come, given the guests are my friends, rather than his or ours. Even after we're married, I'll keep my own friends."

"But you are getting married. You've made your choice; everyone else becomes irrelevant."

She winces at that but he doesn't know why. Sherlock looks away from her, back down at the paper. He's done something wrong, again, but he doesn't know what. It drives him mad at times. He feels ashamed, as he always does when he finally realises he'd done something stupid.

Feeling perplexed and embarrassed catapults him back into his childhood, where everything he did seemed to crash into relationship rules he didn't even know, let alone understand. This isn't the first time he's misunderstood Plus One.

The first time it was his brother who had ticked him off. "How can you not know that you've just upset Mummy and Father again by asking him whether he is going to invite his girlfriend to go with him to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Dinner? Sherlock, we've had this discussion. You know what happened the last time; are you asking him to hit you again?* What you said was just so hurtful to Mummy, too." Mycroft's reproof was clear.

"But…the invitation on the mantel didn't have Mummy's name on it; it just said 'Plus One'. So, I thought that meant the other woman he spends time with; otherwise, they'd put Mummy's name." He was cross. Being nine was no fun. No matter what he did, he always seemed to get people shouting at him.

Mycroft had rolled his eyes and then glared. "I've been told I have to explain this to you, so I'm going to do what I was told. In there." He pointed to the door of his father's study. They were at the London townhouse, where Richard Holmes had organised a meal for Mycroft, who was on an exeat weekend from his last term at Eton. His birthday was in four days, but he'd be back at school by then. Mycroft had said he wanted to celebrate by having a meal with the whole family, and then go to a piano recital on Sunday.

Sherlock stomped into the study and turned to face Mycroft. "So, tell me what you have to tell me, and then let me go upstairs. I didn't want dinner anyway." He was in a right strop, and he didn't care whether Mycroft was bothered or not. He'd always hated his own birthday, and he thought everyone made far too much fuss about Mycroft's.

Mycroft just looked at him, with that face of disappointment he put on when Sherlock had done something wrong, yet again. Then he said, "All I wanted was for us to try to be a family, able to share a meal in some semblance of good spirit. By raising the issue of Father's infidelities again, you've made it impossible for them to put that aside for just an evening."

Sherlock was still angry. "That would be lying…It's pretending; everyone says I mustn't lie, so why can they? Why do you want them to lie?"

"You are so…" Mycroft hesitated, but then glared down at him. "…so impossible. Just go upstairs and leave me to sort out the mess you've made, again."

He'd stormed out and up the stairs at speed. That night, Sherlock chose to sleep under the bed rather than in it. Somehow, it felt safer that way. And he'd stayed in his room and wouldn't come down to say goodbye when Mycroft went back to school. When he got into the car with Mummy, his Father had spoken to her through the rolled-down window. "Next time, leave him behind at Parham. I won't have him spoil our time with Mycroft again."

"Sherlock? Are you alright?"

Sherlock registers the fact that Molly isn't at the side of his mother's car— and neither is he. That was then, and this is now. Molly is looking at him with some concern; he must have zoned out again.

"I'm fine." It is his stock answer these days. It is a rote answer for him; one of a drop-down menu of stock answers to people asking questions. It no longer has any meaning for him. What is "fine" in the current context? He has no idea. He just knows that saying anything other than that means that people will start doing things to him that he doesn't like. He wields the word like a shield.

"Why do you need to know the names of the Plus Ones? What difference does it make?"

He can’t tell her the real reason: because one of them might be the person who is trying to kill John. He knows that it would sound paranoid. After the six pearls, his anxiety levels are now out of control. He also knows that if he confesses that fact to any one, it will get back to the others. He knows that they talk about him. If he hadn't known that before Hartswood, he certainly knows it now. Mycroft, John and Mary, the therapist Diane Goodliffe, George Hayter, even Esther Cohen. They talk about him when he isn't there, and it makes him feel—well, actually, he finds it hard to deal with that fact.

Scared is the simplest way to sum it up.

It is symptomatic of his troubles these days. Just as he needs to be competent at social interactions, he is actually regressing. Without the day-to-day friction of having to get along with John in his living space, he is always struggling to get back into gear when in the presence of others. Crime scenes are the only place where he really feels at ease, because no one really expects conversation from him— just a solution.

It had been easier when he was Lars Sigurson. For two years, he’d switched between personas with relative ease. In the presence of any other person, he could be Lars, one of Moriarty's operatives, acting the role as if he owned it. Lars was smart, articulate, focussed and managed to project just the right combination of arrogance and veniality that made him totally convincing to the criminals he was working against. He’d spent months building up the scripts, doing his research, learning his lines. Sherlock had inhabited the role as if a second skin; posture, gesture, voice and language. Only when on his own was he able to shed that skin and be himself.

Now that he is back, it is harder. He has to shed Sigurson, but resume being Sherlock Holmes.

John had been wrong when he’d said, "You love this….being Sherlock Holmes."

When he'd answered "I don't even know what that's supposed to mean," the flippancy confessed a truth. He doesn't know, but others seem to think they do. Even with John, the persona of Sherlock Holmes is defined as what the doctor believes he is, rather than the truth. He'd not seen any of Lars Sigurson, or what he'd gotten up to when not inhabiting that role. John bases his beliefs only on what he had seen in the past, rather than what he observes about the present. And in neither case is it the "real" person he now is.

Out of sight, out of mind. In his case, there is more truth to that than he would ever allow anyone else to know. He is only Sherlock Holmes when he is in the presence of people for whom that identity has meaning. And that means repressing the things that Mummy had taught him were "not normal". When the doctor had been living in 221b, Sherlock had at times let himself relax, show a little bit of the "real" person he was, but even so, he'd triggered John's "a bit not good" and "timing" comments when they were in other people's company. In the confines of the flat, it had been the violin, his sofa time-outs and his experiments that expressed his true nature. Even then he'd not indulged in some of the more blatant behaviours that he would have preferred to use to ease his anxieties. John’s tolerance had its limits.

One of which he suddenly realised he is doing now without even being aware of it. He's been running his finger up and down the edge of the guest list, feeling where the slightly rough texture of the paper meets the cool slick metal of the table. The contrast is just the sort of stimulation that helps to settle his sensory distress, when he is anxious.

Sherlock isn't the only one who noticed his stimming; Molly is watching his finger, too.

The pathologist's question is still unanswered, and he watches her growing look of concern at his lack of response. Sherlock has a terrible moment of disorientation, seeing himself and her at the same time, as if from a point elsewhere in the room. It’s like watching his blatant stim in slow motion through one of Mycroft's cameras— hideously embarrassing.

He wills his finger to stop. He draws breath. Say something, anything.

"Do you think invited guests would mind if I asked them to tell us the name of their Plus One when they RSVP'd?" This comes out much faster than he would have liked, but it might work. Sometimes it is best to deflect a question he doesn't want to answer by asking one of his own.

She appears relieved by the fact that he's said something and gives it some thought. "Well, sometimes they won't know until late on; that could delay acceptances."

He frowns. "That's not acceptable. There are always a few that can't or won't come, but then John and Mary will have to invite others to take their place."

Now she looks surprised. "Why?"

"Because the venue costs have to be guaranteed; minimum number is fifty. So, if people don't come, that's wasted money. They can't afford to waste money."

Now the pathologist is giving him an odd look. "Okay, but…um- that's not the question you started with— why do you need to know the names of the people, as opposed to the numbers?"

Sherlock realises that he'd underestimated her listening skills. He has been over every possible outcome of not knowing who is on the list and therefore not being able to vet them carefully. Repeatedly, from the best possible outcome to the worst most catastrophic one, and everything in between, in great detail as to how/why each could happen, and the likelihood of each outcome. Despite knowing rationally that the most catastrophic outcomes are not that likely, he still feels wildly anxious over the possibility that the person who is trying to kill John will show up at the wedding.

Molly now wears an expression of real concern, and he knows that he is not holding up his end of the conversation. He hates conversation; it is so inefficient. The frustration at not being able to control the situation is making his jaw hurt.

Sherlock decides to risk a half-truth. "Hotel security needs to have the names—we have to keep uninvited people out."

She tries to stifle a smirk. "It's not a nightclub; you don't need a bouncer. I mean, who would gate crash a wedding?"

"Paparazzi would. Criminals would, if they want to disrupt things as a way of getting revenge for us putting them behind bars. We have enemies, Molly."

"Oh!" She looks startled. "I hadn't thought of that."

"No, well, I have to think of things like that. And contain the risk so it doesn't alarm John or Mary."

"Okay, I get it now. Well, look, the simplest thing is to wait until the people with a plus one say yes, and then when they do, you can contact them by phone or email to ask about their plus one. That way, you can do it without tipping off John or Mary that you're checking up."

He nods. She's just validated his original idea. It will allow him to vet the guests, quietly. He's wanted to try it out on her, but by coming up with it herself, it makes it easier for him. Phoning these people will be next to impossible- he loathed speaking on the phone. If he can’t see the other person, it is hard to know anything about them; he relies on his visual acuity to observe the truth. But, if phoning is the only way to keep John alive, then he'll steel himself for the ordeal.

"Thank you, Molly. That's a good idea."

She gives him a tentative smile. "What else can I help you with?"

Given how difficult this first question has proved, his resolve to tackle the others withers. He can only manage so much awkwardness at any one time.

"I'll come back later to ask you about other stuff."

She smiles back, and this time, he is able to see it as relief. "Yes, of course. It's nice to be useful to you on something that doesn't involve a dead body."

He sweeps up the guest list and strides out of the mortuary. Another box ticked. He starts the ninth iteration of the wedding plan in his head that day, moving through each step as a way of grounding himself. It has become a soothing process, a bit like one of the Tibetan mantras. Repetition and perseveration could be useful traits, not simply evidence of his defective mind. With each box ticked, it is another step forward through the mine-field. He is determined to get this right— his gift to John, his atonement for all the hurt he has caused his friend.

Halfway up the stairs to street level, his visual grasp on reality fragments. One moment he is not even thinking about going up the step, and the next moment nothing makes any sense at all. What his memory tells him should be a window letting light into the stairwell becomes a blank rectangle of white, disassociated with anything else other than the taste of iron. Bannisters are straight dark lines, unconnected to anything. They speak to him in the key of G major, and smell of cinnamon. Behind him from somewhere he hears sounds, but cannot tell what they are. Voices? A door opening? He doesn't know; the noise doesn't make any sense and it frightens him. He grabs almost blindly at the stair rail, missing it completely as his depth perception deserts him.

There is a sharp pain in his right knee, and he looks down but can’t make sense of what he sees. Rationally, he knows he has fallen, and the edge of the step has jammed into his knee. Sherlock puts both hands onto what he guesses is the step, afraid that he is going to keep falling through a floor that he cannot trust as being there.

Then there is something beside him, and he shies away, unsure of what it is. There are noises, and then he feels pressure on his arm, and under his shoulder. Frightened, he shoves it away and moves away to the right, where he collides with something metal. Grabbing it, he levers himself upright. Then fright derails into flight and his mind disconnects from his body as it moves of its own accord, oblivious to what his disordered senses are saying.

As he makes it out of Barts onto the street, he is able to ease his panicked panting long enough to close his eyes and take a deep breath. When he opens his eyes, order has been restored. Whatever has just happened is over, but it leaves him badly shaken. Losing control like that is a sign that he needs to find somewhere safe, soon. He calls over a passing taxi and throws himself into the back, saying "Pentonville Road".

He cannot go back to Baker Street; not in this condition. It is no longer the place it had once been. Mrs Hudson is wrong when she said that while he was away she'd "kept everything just like it was- just how you like it."

It’s a lie. The version of the flat that he took with him in his Mind Palace was perfect—everything in its proper place. No matter what hellhole he ended up in, no matter how often he had to come to terms with new places, strange faces on the road to dismantling Moriarty's network, none of that mattered as long as he could retreat at the end of the day to his Mind Palace version of 221b.

Once back in London, Sherlock cannot help but compare his Mind Palace version of Baker Street perfection with what confronts him each morning. Everywhere he looks, he can see what isn't there: John. His things. The physical evidence of their co-habitation. There are gaping holes in the fabric of the flat, and they are all he can see. The place hums a funeral march in the key of D# minor.

Everything has changed.

The count-down on the wall shows him that the change is irreversible. A ticking bomb in the train carriage of his well-being and there is no off switch. It is enough to drive him to the comfort of old habits. Fighting off the cravings just tightens the noose of anxiety. So far, he is still clean, but having his transport system constantly awash with the adrenaline of anxiety makes it hard to control his other forms of release.

Being aware of Big Brother via Mycroft's surveillance cameras means Sherlock keeps the more obvious behaviours under control while in the flat. But, now, when the pressures seem to be increasing, when his anxiety levels are rising, when he keeps being confronted by the fact that he is no closer to solving the problem of who is trying to kill John— well, he can’t keep up the façade on a twenty four/seven basis. He needs some down time.

Which bolt hole is best?

At this time of the year, a lot of his choice spots are cold, damp and miserable. Leinster Gardens is over a tube line; noisy as hell and he doesn't think he could cope with that at the moment. The bolt hole of choice is on Pentonville Road; he'd used it for the de-frag after he broke and re-broke his wrist for the third time in Gloucestershire. But a twinge in his knee reminds him of just how hard it is to gain access to it. And the fact that a medicine chest of pain relief in more than one form would be there, too.

He opts for Dagmar Court. It has a number of advantages. Although it is highly likely that both Lestrade and Mycroft are aware of the place, he won’t be gone long enough for them to start looking. Sherlock presses the red button to connect the microphone in the back to the cabbie. "Changed my mind; head for Tower Gateway." There is one particular place where he knows he can change taxis without being spotted on camera, and yet is busy enough that Mycroft's surveillance team would be chasing shadows for hours. He then switches off his phone and removes the sim card and the battery, slipping both in his pocket with the useless phone, now confident that his movement will not be traced.

Half an hour later, as he limps south on the Isle of Dog's Thames pathway, he leaves the trendy buildings of Canary Wharf behind him and heads for the more mundane Samuda Estate; its five buildings house some fifteen hundred people. Built in the mid-1960s, it is now managed by the Tower Hamlets Council, which suits him perfectly. As the third most deprived borough in the country, Tower Hamlets doesn't have the revenue base to do up the derelict underground car parking areas that had been built, but then fallen into disrepair. This is council housing; every resident is sure to be on housing benefit. Security has always been dodgy; the locals know better than to park cars down there—it’s like an invitation to have them broken into or stripped down and left on blocks. That said, not many can afford a car, even a clapped out banger. The place is definitely down-at-heel. Graffiti abounds, drugs change hands, squatters try to move into the underground space. The council threw in the towel in the late 1980s and the garages were blocked off, and left to rot*.

Sherlock is heading for a bolt hole he has not been to in more than four years. It had once been a convenient place to stop in and enjoy the cocaine he's just bought from the dealer who worked the Samuda estate. He needs it for a different reason this time. He's finally put a name to it— that shadow he keeps catching out of the corner of his eye, the high pitched whine just beyond even his range of hearing. It is depressing really, to be able to give its howling song a name. Well, it is a lament, actually—or perhaps a dirge—called depression.

It affects him in a way that most people in his life have never understood. Because he doesn't express emotion the way that most neurotypicals do, it is rarely diagnosed as such. People see and judge his behaviour, but don't observe what it means. But he knows it for what it is. It’s a beast that lives in the dungeon of his Mind Palace. For the most part, he tries to ignore it. And succeeds, often enough. He buries it at the deepest levels, along with some unpleasant memories of people he'd prefer not to think about. Moriarty is down there. So is his father. Both are next door to the black thing called depression.

But occasionally, a keening whine rises up from the subterranean levels into the corridors of his Mind Palace. Like fingernails on a blackboard, he hears the scratch of its claws on his skin. It makes him want to run, to scream and join in a chorus with the beast's howling. To really, finally let loose. He tries to anchor his mind, stuff his ears with the cotton wool nonsense of John and Mary's wedding. If he fills his day with the ridiculous paraphernalia of their nuptial rites, he might be able to drown out the howls coming up from the basement. Jeremiah Clarke's trumpet voluntary becomes a shield; he turns up the volume loud, and ignores the mournful loneliness in that howl from the bowels of the basement.

But the anxiety creeps in the back door, seeps in through the pores of his skin, becomes locked into his muscle memory. Sherlock moves like one who is aware of the hunting wolf about to break loose, running down the corridors. He resolutely looks away, not willing to make eye contact with the beast in his mind's eye. I'm not prey; look elsewhere. I'm fineThe beast throwing itself against its chains in the basement knows better. It is just biding its time.

As a result, Sherlock knows he has to do whatever is necessary to get his senses back on track. The incident in the Barts stairwell is the first sign of the door to the basement being torn apart. The situation calls for extreme measures.

As he picks the locks on the door guarding the stairs down to the car park of Dagmar Court, Sherlock can hear the sound of the beast in the harsh squeal of rusted metal being forced to yield. He uses his pocket torch to find his way across the debris-strewn garage area to the far corner— an abandoned store-room in which he could find some refuge from what was hunting him. As he comes closer, the dopamine rush of anticipation pushes away the adrenaline of anxiety.

The room is full of stale air, but he doesn't care. The torch shows him in the evidence of dust that no one has been in the room since he'd last used it. No furniture, nothing but bare walls and concrete floor. Because he'd thought it possible that refurbishment of the garages might happen while he was away, he'd cleared out everything the last time he'd used it, and not bothered to re-stock it yet. Perfect. He wants no distractions, no temptations. Just solitude, away from the beast.

Sherlock takes off the Belstaff and his suit jacket, hanging both on a hook on the back of the door, left there by some caretaker decades before. He then toes off his shoes, followed by his shirt, vest, trousers, left sock, right sock and finally the underpants, all of which he carefully folds and stacks. It is cold, but naked feels good—no friction of seams, no rasp of fabric, or restriction of leather shoes. The cold gives his skin something else to think about.

He carefully measures a quite mild (for him anyway) dose and then injects the cocaine. A moment later, he sinks down with his back against the cold cement block wall and just…lets go.

Like a snake sloughing off an old skin, he sheds the restraints that keep his hands in check. His right hand finds the point where the wall and the floor met, and his index finger begins to test the different textures. The twin sensations obliterate thought, and replace them with focused stimulation. Sherlock switches off the torch, welcoming the dark. That is a distinct improvement. The EMDR therapy has eliminated his PTSD trigger of darkness and bright light, which is a relief. There are no similarities between this and the Chinese hell-hole he'd been locked in. This time, with nothing to see, his eyes can rest, knowing that he is in control of light.

His left hand begins to move in what is a wrist-strengthening exercise learned long ago. His physiotherapist who gave him the exercise had no idea he had handed a fifteen year old boy with a broken wrist the perfect excuse to stim. Then he gets his toes in on the act, each one clenching in order and then releasing, in time with the hand flap and the finger stroke.

Repetitive physical actions give Sherlock the means to escape the beast. Locked into the process, he is able to slip his mind into neutral, to ignore things that are causing anxiety. He is able to control his stimming, and will not get lost in it; ten minutes of each ritual will be enough to re-set his sensory functions. First, the physical stims with his hands and feet. Then he will turn to each sense. Oral and taste – in the dark, he will run lips and then tongue over different surfaces— his skin, the cloth of the Belstaff, the wall, alternating with a soft bite of his lips— just to the point of pain. He finds the pain intensified the taste and scent. Already, the pain in his knee is providing useful background music to soothe his nerves.

Sherlock then tests his hearing. Like a bat, whistling a single tone— almost a drone— and then moving his head right and left, to note how the pitch and echo changes when he alters his position, first close to a wall, then away. Repeating that same whistled tone exactly— the same pitch and length of time, every time. If he runs out of breath or breaks the drone of the whistle, he has to start over.

Then he'll work on getting his visual sense back on stream, using the torch to shine a light on a particular surface—as many different textures as he can manage, getting up very close to it and observing what he sees. Then he'll back his eyes up a foot, and do the same thing to that surface, registering the differences.

Finally, he puts it all together. He puts his torch into the pocket of the Belstaff, shining the beam onto the ceiling. The single beam of light is used as his anchor, when he goes to the middle of the room and executes a series of pirouettes en dehors on his left leg, as his right knee isn't up to it at the moment. Spins are the final stage, when he can use all of his senses to recover his balance. His dance teacher at Harrow had never realised what relief Sherlock had when he was finally able to spin without the other boys looking at him like he was someone demented.

"If you have to stim, Sherlock, find ways to disguise it." His mother's advice still holds true more than two decades later. In this case, he can ditch the disguise; the walls of the store room in Dagmar Court gave him shelter from judgment.

The endorphins released over the hour soothe him. Together with the mild cocaine rush, it is enough to sweep aside the excess lactate that has built up in his blood system, driven there by his anxiety. People rarely understood that stimming has a purpose.

At the end, he is so cold despite the physical exercise that he is pleased to get dressed again. As ever, he dresses in exactly the same routine as he had been taught by his mother when he was four. Every single time he's gotten dressed since that day, he hears her voice, quietly counting out the steps, which he always hears in his mind:

"One, the underpants. Two, right sock. Three, left sock. Four, vest; Five, shirt. Six, trousers; seven, belt. Eight, shoes. Nine, jacket; Ten, coat. Don't forget, if it's cold outside, the plus one. Remember eleven."

His hands take the scarf and double it over, slipping it around his neck, forming the loop by opening his left hand and then pushing the two ends through the loop with his right hand. Then he pulls the ends with his left hand and it settles properly against his throat.

Time to be Sherlock Holmes again.

Chapter Text

 

The pain in his knee beats a lovely rhythm with his stride, keeping up the sensory stimulation. There isn't a sound from the basement levels of his Mind Palace. Sherlock feels better than he has for weeks. He is so relaxed that he is nearly at Crossharbour DLR station when he remembers to put his battery and SIM card back in the phone.

Immediately, the red light at the top of the phone blinks and the phone vibrates.

He taps the messages icon and scrolls.

3.12 pm Molly rang- said you had a fall. You ok? It is John's number. He deletes it.

Then two in rapid succession from Lestrade:

3.45 A body, 29 Ryder Lane, SE4 1YW. Weird, definitely *not* boring.

4.06 Where are you? CoD = elephant! Zoo keeper and Watson on way.

He types a reply.

4.26 ETA 4.46. Keep the elephant there SH

He takes the DLR six stops south, under the Thames and then on to Lewisham station, only ten minutes. From here, it is only a ten minute walk to Ryder Lane. His bruised knee will hold out.

Lestrade greets him at the door of what appears to be yet another one of the identikit 1930s semi-detached houses that lines Ryder Lane.

"You're not going to believe this, but there is a real, live elephant in the middle of the crime scene." Sherlock hobbles past him into the hallway, where he can see John Watson standing in the dining room, along with a number of white clad forensic officers, obviously loitering with intent. The doctor comes out into the hall.

"What happened to your leg?"

"Not now, John." Sherlock heads for the back of the house, where the living room is likely to be. John follows; Lestrade brings up the rear, saying "Watch out. We haven't cleared the room yet."

Two steps into the room, Sherlock stops and John does, too. Despite being told what to expect, it is still a shock to see a real live elephant in the living room. It is being stroked by a handler wearing a green waterproof jacket emblazoned ZSL on the back in big white letters. Nevertheless, the elephant clearly doesn't like the intrusion of new people; it raises its trunk and trumpets a challenge that is definitely ear-splitting inside the room.

The assault on his senses floods his brain. The unexpected sight, so out of context in the room, is punctuated by a one hundred plus decibel noise, and underscored by the rank aroma of both urine and shit. The white living room carpet is fouled with the stuff.

The handler speaks quietly. "Just stay where you are." Then he resumes stroking the elephant, and her trunk lowers again. He is feeding her something from a bag by his feet. A low rumble can be heard from the animal.

Through the sliding patio doors, Sherlock can see a large van reversing up the back garden, adding its reversing beeps to the soundtrack of the crime scene.

"Do you know this elephant?" He asks the question very quietly, but pitches it just loud enough to reach the handler.

"Yep. This is Myana. She was supposed to be on her way last night, on Turkish Airways flight 1984 from Heathrow. Before you ask, I have absolutely no idea how she got in here, or why. And if you give me ten minutes, I will have her out of your way."

"She may be a witness." Sherlock points to the crumpled form, only half of which he could see from where he is standing. The sofa is between him and the rest of the body. "Or even the murder weapon."

The handler shakes his head. "Not this one; she's not a killer. Her mother was. Mya killed her keeper, Jim Robson, in 2002. Myana is her daughter."

Sherlock sniffs, trying to get past the overwhelming scent of animal dung. "You're from Whipsnade."

The handler nods.

"I remember the case." He snaps on his pair of blue latex gloves.

John's eyebrows rise. "The case?"

"Coroner's inquest concluded that Mya killed her keeper with malice of intent. She trapped his legs with her trunk so he couldn't get away and repeatedly stepped on his head*."

The look on John's face tells Sherlock he is imagining the damage. Behind him, Lestrade whispers, "Gross."

"Hmm." The van's reversing beeps have stopped, and two men also in ZSL gear are now opening the back doors and lowering into place a ramp that has metal fences, to ensure an animal would board. The patio doors are slid open just far enough to meet the fenced ramp.

The handler begins to push on Myana's chest, leaning in with his weight. Obligingly, she backs up to the left of the coffee table and then executes a three point turn before following the handler up the metal ramp and into the truck. John closes the patio doors, as Lestrade yells back down the hallway, "Coast is clear."

Immediately, three white suited Forensic officers come into the room. They stop for a moment on the threshold, obviously stunned by the scent and the mess. Then one heads for the patio door to dust for finger prints, while a second joins Sherlock where he had crouched down beside the body. The third starts taking photographs.

John joins him, too, looking over the consulting detective's shoulder at the wound in the dead man's head. The doctor comments, "The elephant has an alibi, unless it's learned how to fire a gun."

Sherlock stands up, a little unsteady on his injured knee, before grinning. "Don't be so sure, John. An elephant's trunk has over forty thousand muscles compared to the human body's paltry six hundred and thirty nine."

Lestrade is standing with his arms crossed, his expression a mixture of bafflement and annoyance. "So, what the hell is an elephant doing here, instead of in a zoo or running around the plains of Africa?"

"Not Africa, Lestrade. Myana is Elephas maximus, not Loxodonta. The Asian elephant is more genetically similar to the extinct woolly mammoth than to the African elephant."

"That doesn't answer the question, Sherlock. What does an elephant, any elephant— African, Asian or European— have to do with this dead body?"

"There's no such thing as a European elephant; can you really be so ignorant about zoology?"

Lestrade loses it. "What the hell has a full grown bloody elephant got to do with this body?"

"Myana is not a full-grown elephant; she's only two meters tall, and less than twelve years old, with another meter to go before she reaches full maturity. And the blood is not on the elephant; it's on the floor." Then Sherlock points to something else, a sports bag lying up against the wall, between the television and a bookcase. "Not just under the body; it also appears to be oozing from that bag as well."

Immediately, the forensic officer by the patio doors zeroes in on the sports bag, and uses his gloved hands to pull the zipper. Lestrade and Sherlock lean over the man's shoulder to see what is in the bag.

The photographer is in action, too, the flash in repeated use, as his colleague pulls something out of the bag.

Lestrade gives voice to his dismay. "That's a hand. A severed hand."

Sherlock grunts an agreement. "And there's more where that came from, if the amount of blood is anything to go by."

The officer by the body comes over and spreads a plastic sheet onto the carpet. "Keep it separated from the elephant shit and piss. The lab's going to have a hard enough time."

By the time the sports bag is empty, they have enough parts to make up a human body. John thinks the butchery had taken place post mortem, "But here and soon after she died, because my guess is there is more blood here than you'd expect to find, if she'd been killed elsewhere."

The severed head's rictus grin stares up from the plastic sheet, her short brown hair plastered to the skull by blood.

"White female, Mid-thirties. Musculature well-developed; either she was a gym fanatic, or did something in the martial arts. Possibly military." Sherlock is talking to himself now, and looking at the pieces of blood-soaked fabric. He finds what he is looking for and holds it up.

"John, your professional opinion, please. You've seen enough blood soaked versions of this fabric."

John's brow furrows. "Enough for a lifetime. That's a light olive anti-static cool max combat T-Shirt; part of the British Army's PCS."

The forensic officer has taken a fingerprint off the severed right hand onto his electronic scanner. His laptop is open and on the coffee table. It pings and all eyes zoom in on the message.

"Identity withheld. Contact S&ILs."

"Oh, shit." Lestrade's expletive is echoed by a sigh from John. Sherlock is already in motion, spinning away from the pair, while pulling his phone out and hitting speed dial.

A moment later, his brother answers. "What is it this time?" There was the usual blend of annoyance and boredom being used to cover concern that Sherlock is ringing him rather than texting.

"Someone is taking exception to your people these days. One dead confirmed by finger print." He gestures with his hand at the body by the sofa and then says to the Officer, "See if this one is playing for our side, too." Then he turns to John. "Take a photo of the woman's head, and send it to Mycroft."

"Where?" His brother's tone has shed the ennui and become utterly focused.

"29 Ryder Lane, SE4 1YW." John takes the photo and sends it by e mail.

"Let me talk to Lestrade. At least, I assume he is on the scene. I can hear police procedures going on in the background."

"That's not necessary. Tell me, and I can tell him."

"No. Hand the phone over. NOW."

"Piss off." Sherlock cuts the connection. He wants more time with this most intriguing case.

Barely three seconds later, Lestrade's phone rings. His "hello" is a tad wary. The silence lengthened as whatever Mycroft is saying to him makes the Detective Inspector's eyebrows ascend his forehead.

"Alright, alright. Keep your shirt on. We'll get out just as soon as one of your people shows up. But, I'm not walking away from a crime scene until I've got someone to pick up the ball."

More silence, as Sherlock deduces from Lestrade's posture that a rather heavy duty series of threats is being made.

"B…" Lestrade is going to say 'bye', but changes it to "bugger just cut me off. We've got ten minutes at most. But I'm supposed to take you two out of the house right now."

Sherlock glares. "No."

"Yeah, he said you'd say that. I'm to tell you that he'll have my head instead of hers on a platter in front of the Chief Superintendent if you two aren't out on the pavement in three minutes." He points to the ceiling. "Big Brother will be watching. Apparently, he's got drones in the air already."

John's eyes widen. "Bloody hell, this isn't Afghanistan."

Sherlock is in motion. He picks up the CSE's laptop. "Any joy on the other body?"

"Nothing yet, so probably not one of ours."

Lestrade walks over and plucks the laptop out of Sherlock's hands, giving it back to the officer.

"And on that note, we're out of here."

Less than a minute later, Sherlock is pacing up and down the pavement outside of the house, still limping slightly. The pain now annoys him, almost as much as his brother's attitude. The relaxation of the afternoon's private session at Dagmar Close has evaporated. Now, a new kind of anxiety is taking hold while Lestrade keeps going on about the elephant. "They must have delivered the elephant the same way the Zoo collected him."

"Her." Sherlock mutters as he passes the DI.

Lestrade rolls his eyes. "What difference does it make whether the elephant is male or female, Sherlock?"

"None." He is so annoyed by his brother's interference that he is being reduced to monosyllabic answers.

Lestrade carries on. "So, someone comes with an unknown victim accompanied by an agent, shoots him on the spot, kills the agent, chops it up and stuffs her body in a bag, and puts an elephant in the room. Why?!"

Sherlock whirls about to face the DI. "Can you really be so dense? Everyone knows the saying, the elephant in the room. It is a metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed— an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss."

"So, you think the murderer has gone to all this trouble—kidnapping an elephant, driving it here, killing and then dumping the bodies and the elephant in here—what, just to make a point about something that no one is addressing?" Lestrade's incredulity makes his voice rise with each word.

"Yes. That much is obvious, even to an idiot." Sherlock rolls his eyes, to make his ridicule obvious enough for even Lestrade to register.

"Well, pardon me."

As three black cars turn onto Ryder Lane at speed, John calmly asks "What's the issue that no one is addressing?"

"That is the proper question to ask, John. And unfortunately, my brother doesn't want me to find out the answer. But whoever is engineering this little crusade against his agents does. And that is rather intriguing, don't you think?"

oOo

From the Personal Blog of Doctor John Watson:

"Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for what we found at 29, Ryder Lane in Brockley.

Greg called us in. It was a typical suburban house in a typical suburban street. But inside that typical suburban house were two bodies. And an elephant. An actual elephant. Standing there in the middle of the room looking, well a bit bored, to be honest.

And... sorry! It's another one that I can't actually blog about because of the Official Secrets Act! I've probably said too much as it is. Although I'm not as bad as Sherlock. The amount of times I've had to stop him telling people about it."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"მივხვდი!*"

He pauses the recording. The exclamation is full of emotion, but it is beyond Sherlock's vocabulary to know what it actually means. He's been learning Georgian on the sly for the last seven days, but keeping that fact well hidden from anyone who might be monitoring his laptop. The idea that someone is doing just that is not paranoia. He knows from past experience that his little 'incident' this morning in the Barts stairwell would have led various people to confer, and the injury to his knee would have been picked up by Mycroft's drone outside Ryder Lane. By now, his earlier movements in the Isle of Dogs would have been traced, and suspicions raised. He is living on borrowed time.

Sherlock had brushed off John's questions about the knee injury ("I tripped on the stairs up from the mortuary; a consequence of looking at my phone and reading Lestrade's text instead of looking at where I was going. Accidents happen.")

After Lestrade and his team had departed, the pair had stood waiting for a taxi that Sherlock ordered on his phone. All John had wanted to talk about was the elephant.

"Really, John- not so surprising. Someone wants to make sure I am paying attention. The question is who, and why does my brother want me not to do so?"

Then he’d changed tack and distracted the doctor by talking about the latest update on the guest list. "Mary needs to be more forceful with her bridesmaids; the plus ones need to be resolved sooner rather than later, if we are to get the invitations sorted. You don't want too many at the Wedding Breakfast and not enough at the evening dance. The Arnsworth Castle Hotel want numbers confirmed three weeks in advance."

John had rolled his eyes. "Take a day off, will you? This marriage isn't a military expedition, Sherlock. It will get sorted."

"We have 67 days left, John. That's under five hundred hours, given that businesses don't like working more than nine to five these days. It's sooner than you think. There are things that have to happen."

"You seem to be getting worked up about this stuff- and you getting worked up just sets Mary off."

"Sets her off? What does that mean?"

"She starts worrying about the cost of everything, and now she's started talking about taking on some agency nursing work, just to be able to afford more."

"Neither Mary nor you needs to spend more money. It's all under control."

He had seen that the doctor was getting annoyed. Good; the distraction is working. The more John gets annoyed about the wedding, the less likely he is to notice just how keyed up Sherlock is. The benefits of his session at Dagmar Court are fast becoming a distant memory. Events since then are cranking up the adrenaline and the anxiety back to depressingly high levels.

When the taxi that Sherlock had ordered by phone arrived, because John was due at the clinic shortly Sherlock had given the cabbie that address. When the cab had stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of the South Circular and Camberwell Road, he’d hopped out and slammed the door behind him.

John had slid across to follow Sherlock out, but Sherlock kept his hands on the door, keeping it shut. John rolled down the window. "Oi, where are you going?"

"I'll take the Thameslink back into the City; need to do some research."

Before the doctor could say anything, the light had turned green and the taxi moved off, leaving John staring at him through the back window. He had faked a smile, waved and then walked down Denmark Hill to the station.

Thirty eight minutes later, he is now sitting at the Guildhall School of Music Library, pretending to look at a score of the Sonata Number Two in A Major for solo violin, written by Eugene Ysaÿe in 1923 in honour of the French violinist, Jacques Thibaud. When he isn't working on the wedding, he has been working on the other problem— the one that somehow links what is going on with Mycroft to whoever had put John into the bonfire, and had sent him the photos that led them to the dwarf and the rock star— and another appointment with near death. Right now, he isn't sure which of the three problems is driving him the most crazy.

It is the second of the four movements that he is reading, entitled "Malinconia". It suits his mood perfectly. On the same screen that he has used to order the score, he now has the YouTube recording by Gidon Kremer playing it, with one earpiece connected to that. What no casual observer would realise is that the second earpiece is connected to a phone in his suit jacket's right pocket. And that is playing a conversation that he dare not listen to anywhere in the vicinity of Baker Street.

He thumbs the rewind button.

"მივხვდი!"

The recorded exclamation irritates him. Ever since returning from the Arnsworth Castle Hotel, Sherlock has been coming to terms with the fact that his brother is lying to him, again. He's gone through a series of emotions of his own, and if he'd been the sort to resort to swearing, he would have. After all he's been through with Mycroft, all his efforts to stop his brother interfering with the Sigurson Plan, the idiot still thinks he can keep something from Sherlock. The man was, is now and ever shall be infuriating.

Once Sherlock had identified the body of the S&IL agent in the carpark in the industrial estate, Mycroft had been intent on keeping Sherlock out of something. Their oh-so-brief conversation at the hotel, where the killer nearly took out another of Mycroft's contacts, told him enough to know that this was important, really important. His brother is an accomplished liar, but that has never stopped Sherlock from being able to read him.

On the phone, Mycroft had said, "Under no circumstances are you to get involved. This is off limits." And now his abrupt ejection of Sherlock and John from Ryder Lane, where yet another of his agents died…well, if that isn't a red rag to a bull, Sherlock doesn't know what would be. And at the hotel Mycroft had been stupid enough to issue threats, not just against him but also against Lestrade, if Sherlock does not keep out of the case.

Even before the threat, Mycroft's manner during the scene in the hotel library had been decidedly odd. Sherlock could see it in his body language the moment he’d clapped eyes on him. As a result, the threats were not unexpected. Sherlock's rule of thumb is simple; the more rattled Mycroft is, the more he resorts to authoritarian command, and the more dictatorial he is, the more likely that he is trying to hide something important from Sherlock. In the space of a few seconds, his brother had escalated the threat level to the point of total destruction of not just his consulting detective work with the Met, but Lestrade's career, as well.

For that reason alone, Sherlock has to consider his next step very carefully. Few people understand his brother as well as he does; normally, Mycroft does not need to throw his weight around. In most situations, he is able to think his way around the problem and manipulate people so he doesn't need to pull rank or make threats. If he is being forced into using this most blunt of instruments, then something is wrong, very wrong.

Sherlock had predicted that he would be forced to hand over the USB stick he'd recovered from the Georgian contact. So, even before his brother arrived on the scene, he’d gone hunting. He’d found what he was looking for in the staff room at the annex where the kitchens were. Not just the memory stick the killer had stolen from the body in the carpark, Sherlock had also found the waiter's phone and the USB cable in the same pocket of the biker jacket that also held the stick stolen from Mycroft's dead agent.

Rating his chances of keeping the sticks as nil, he’d downloaded the contents of both memory sticks to the man's phone, and then slipped the phone and the cable down the front of his pants. He figured his brother's people wouldn't be smart enough to realise that he'd made a copy. Even if they searched him, British politeness tended to extend to body searches; there was something about feeling up a man's genitals that generally put them off. The only time he'd found an exception was when he was carrying drugs— then everyone seemed to suspect every square inch of skin, not to mention various orifices.

In the end, he hadn't needed to keep it there for long. After his brother had left the hotel, while Sherlock stuffed himself back into the biker leathers, he’d moved the phone to a more comfortable place. He’d been terribly tempted to take the time to see what the data meant, but he had to be patient, because Lestrade must not know. Sherlock could not risk the DI becoming involved.It was bad enough that Mycroft was willing to threaten Lestrade simply because he'd accompanied Sherlock. Whatever is on those drives, his brother's threats are enough to tell Sherlock that the data was important. Making sense of it would require privacy and time to think, even after he'd managed to read the files.

For the past five days, Sherlock has felt his prize burning a hole in the wall of his Mind Palace. What's going on, brother mine?

The violin music beats a sombre dirge in one ear as Sherlock reaches in his jacket pocket and touches the rewind icon on the burner phone's menu yet again, then counts the seconds back. He looks at the notes that he had written out on the pad beside the score. He is re-coding those notes into music, so any one of his brother's minions sent to spy on him will be fooled into thinking he is just doodling about the obscure violin piece. Just to be sure, the cipher code is based on a piece of his own composition, one that has never been written down. That technique had kept Mycroft at bay years before, when Sherlock returned from the pool in south London, knowing that Moriarty would not be stopped from using John to get at him, unless he moved to the offensive himself. GCHQ had never been able to crack that code, so he should be safe now.

He taps the play button again. At two minutes and eighteen seconds in, "მივხვდი!"

There it is again. An exclamation for certain, maybe even an expletive, but not one he recognises. Sherlock feels so frustrated that he is getting a headache. The stress of trying to multitask at this level of complication generates a lot of adrenaline and anxiety. His left leg is jiggling up and down under the desk; there is really only so much pressure he can suppress. His injured right knee just throbs along in time.

He forces himself to concentrate, deliberately twisting his knee to set off a ricochet of pain to help ground himself. Sherlock finds the Georgian language something of a trial. He'd never bothered to learn any of the Kartvelian languages before now, of which Georgian is the principal one. Not for the first time, he wishes he had Mycroft's innate ability with languages. Sherlock is fluent in sixteen languages, but his brother has three times that many, and is able to pick up a new one whenever he needs it. The gibe about how slow he had been at acquiring Serbian had been in part sour grapes on Sherlock's part; he's always had to work harder at oral communication than his brother.

Sherlock approaches all languages, even English, as if it is a code; one simply has to find the key to decrypt. But proto-Kartvelian languages share little with other Indo-European languages, so it isn't simple. He'd started with some audio translation apps, but discovered rather rapidly that the eighteen Georgian dialects complicate matters. True, there are just enough standardised features in the dialects to be reasonably intelligible to one another, so it should have been possible to use computer assisted translation to get at least some of the words out.

Unfortunately, the conversation on the phone is rendered into gibberish by every translator app he's tried, so it is not one of the eighteen dialects. His assumption, that because the Georgian Iuri Malkhaz Chkhetidze was one of the speakers they were speaking Georgian, is clearly proving wrong. The two Word documents on the dead agent's USB might have revealed more than the recorded conversation. But when he’d opened them, he had realised that the letters of the Georgian alphabet that appeared made no sense. It must be encoded.

So it is back to basics. He listens again to the recording, and hears the voiceless uvular plosive characteristic of so many of the Caucuses languages. To the casual ear, it sounds a bit like a K, but Sherlock knows differently. This is articulated with the back of the tongue with no nasal outlet, so the airflow is blocked completely. He practices putting his tongue in the right place. It feels exceedingly odd, and that makes his mind go off on a tangent about whether the physical characteristics and motor skills needed to pronounce such a language is part of the cultural inheritance, or whether genetics could play a role.

FOCUS! He doesn't actually say the word out loud, but it is close. The anxiety that is now his 24/7 companion is pushing adrenaline to the point where he can’t concentrate. In frustration, he pulls out the earpiece to the violin music, put down his pencil and closes his eyes.

The trouble is, he knows exactly what he needs to get out of this little mess. And its name is benzoylmethylecgonine— C17H21NO4, to be more precise. After injection, within three minutes he'd be able to solve this problem and move on. The other issue— the threat to John from whomever had put him in the bonfire, and sent him into the line of fire of a blowpipe and poisoned dart— well, that needs attention, too. If he gets well and truly high for long enough, he might just be able to think his way around that one, too. The lure of cocaine is never what Mycroft assumes it to be. For Sherlock, drug use is simply a logical, rational choice. He thinks about suppliers he could reach without being seen between the Guild Hall Music Library and Baker Street.

Later. Taking drugs might solve the coding problem, but it would bring even closer the coming confrontation with his brother, and he isn't ready to throw in the towel just yet. Sherlock resumes his process of elimination. Taking a deep breath, he opens his eyes again. There are five main families of languages indigenous to the caucuses. If it isn't Georgian, then perhaps the conversation recorded on the phone is in one of the "sister" languages of Georgian, and he would have to work through the Mingrelian, Svan and Laz languages to see which might be involved. Idioms abounded; clearly, the conversation is between two minority speakers who have a shared vocabulary.

He's used the burner phone to do internet research about the languages, assuming his own phone and his laptop are being monitored. Having to do this without tipping off those who are watching him is annoying; it just slows the whole process down. He's had to make two trips to the loo since arriving at the library because there’d been times when he’s just had to look at the phone's screen to make sense of the research.

The fourth time he replays the three minute and twelve second exchange, he finally realises what is missing. There are no glottal stops. While that might be because the words didn't come up that used them, there is also the possibility that it means the language is Svan, because both Laz and Mingrelian use glottal stops and the other does not. Sherlock rewinds and replays, this time listening for more intense ejectives, which are also supposed to be a difference. Then he realises he is hearing more vowel sounds, which clinches it for him— this is Svan. And he's not been able to find any translation apps relating to such a rare language. This makes the Word documents even more difficult, because it is probably a double cipher. First, from Georgian into Svan, and then a simple number substitution, based on a shared code— probably a book owned by Mycroft, Iuri and whomever had produced the documents.

Layers, upon layers, upon layers. He hits the replay icon again on the YouTube recording, and turns the page of the score, to keep up appearances for his little audience. It is a choice of either repeating the "Malinchonia" movement, or switching to the first movement, titled "Obsession". He thinks both terms applied to his current mood.

Sherlock closes his eyes for a moment and tries to deal with the rush of rage that he would have to learn not only Georgian, with its bizarre script, but also a language so rare that UNESCO rated it as officially "endangered"; fewer than 20,000 people in the world know it. Svan is spoken only in north-western Georgia, near to the Russian border, in a rural mountainous area sitting uncomfortably between the disputed territories of Abkhazia and the Ossetiyas, a place of continuing conflict between the Russians and Georgians. Svan is no longer taught in any schools, and in the Soviet era the Georgian authorities had banned the use of the old Svan script, forcing the speakers to learn Georgian, and even destroying any documents that were not in Georgian using the Georgian script. Relegated to oral use only, the language is dying. All of which make it rather useful as a communication tool between two people who want to keep their conversation private.

Sherlock groans. Learning Georgian will not teach him Svan, and learning both would only be the beginning. As his research reveals, Svan comes in two dialects; the more common Upper Bal dialect has eighteen distinct vowels. Compared to the six vowels of English, this increased the complexity of both the written and spoken language of Svan to excruciating levels. Sherlock is not a patient man, and this is testing his auditory abilities to the point of destruction. Only the fact that his brother is so determined to keep him out of the case keeps him at it.

Even if he manages to translate this recorded conversation, he is going to have to grapple with the problem of the cipher used on the document that he'd copied over from the USB belonging to Chkhetidze and also the file on the first USB, the one carried by Mycroft's courier. The Georgian script is hellish enough; adding an encryption doubles up the pain. Add a third layer of complication in the shape of the Georgian script being used by a language that had split away from Georgian in the second century BC—well, no wonder it is taking him a bit of time.

He can hear in his mind palace a superior sniff. "Really, Sherlock. It's not that complicated. Just imagine if English were written in Cyrillic; the same is true for Svan written in Georgian." His brother's avatar just waves a hand dismissively. "Off you go and do your homework. You know there are no easy shortcuts."

"მივხვდი!" This time he mutters the blasted word out loud, and then an exclamation of his own escapes. "OH!"

The relative lack of vowels and the presence of a glottal stop suggested that this one word might be other than Svan. He headed for the loo again, and keeps his peripheral vision attuned to the other people in the library. The pair of eyes that follows him out of the room belong to the young man sitting four desks along and against the back row, who undoubtedly has the look of one of Mycroft's minions. Too clean cut and proper to be a post-grad music student. He would have to have words with his brother. If he keeps recruiting from public schools he is going to get his people killed; they are just too obvious.

In the confines of a stall, he takes out the phone and clips the exclamation, passing it through the Georgian translation app.

"Fuck." The quiet almost mechanical voice that utters the translation does not give the word the same impact as the Georgian ejectives did.

He sighs. What bloody use is that?! He's already identified one of the voices as belonging to Iuri; the man provoking the swearing is the unknown quantity. A deep voice, and one made gravelly by what was likely to be too much smoking.

He wonders if he is approaching this the wrong way.

"Stupid!"

In a moment of realisation, Sherlock realises that most Svan speakers would probably also speak Georgian. Apps were useless, but he might be able to find a bilingual person willing to translate for him. Within a minute, he's found that ethnic Svans had distinctive surname endings: almost all ended in '-iani'. He switches apps to the London phone book and started searching.

He finds what he is looking for on LinkedIn: Gela Giorgi Dadeshkeliani, a descendant of a princely family from Svaneti, banished from the territory when the tsarist Russians absorbed it in 1858. Refugees of noble families often ended up in London, and this man is no exception. In 1919, the LSE's Reader in Russian Institutional Politics was a Dadeshkeliani; his great grandson is now working for Microsoft in the UK, and a Cambridge graduate. Thank God for LinkedIn. As luck would have it, the thirty year old is a Trinity graduate. He sends off a quick e-mail, and is gratified by an almost instant response.

When he gathers up his things, and returns the music score, Sherlock can feel the minion's eyes watching him. When he heads out of the Guildhall Music Library, he can hear the footsteps of Mycroft's man on the concrete stairs. No matter. The Game is on, brother mine.

Ninety minutes later, Sherlock is leaving Cardinal Place, the spanking new Microsoft offices at the top of Victoria Street, wearing a deeply satisfied smile. And he is carrying a brand new Surface, with the translation he needs of the conversation. He's downloaded the two documents from the burner phone onto it, as well. Gela had been happy to loan him a dog-eared Svan-Georgian dictionary, now safely snuggled next to the tablet. He's disabled the Surface's wifi; this little beauty will be his stand-alone secure device to crack just what is going on. If it is never logged onto the internet, then Mycroft and his security team will not be able to find it or its contents, so long as he keeps it hidden.

Gela's translation of the conversation had been happily given. Sometimes it helps having a tabloid reputation, so Sherlock had used it to get the man's co-operation. Offered the chance to help the Consulting Detective in a top-secret criminal investigation, the third generation immigrant jumped at the chance. "To be honest, Mister Holmes, most of my work is in sales, and it's a bit boring and repetitive, so the chance to do something exciting to help a fellow alumnus? Fuck yeah, bring it on!"

According to Gela's translation, Mycroft's contact Iuri Malkhaz Chkhetidze is speaking to an unknown Svaneti asking him about secret plans to move someone or something across the border from Georgia into Kabardino-Balkaria, under the cover of a mountain climbing expedition. It is clear from the conversation that Iuri is paying the man for information about someone else's plans. A tour group from Western Europe is to tackle Mount Ushba in Georgia, which will be the cover to move a package close to the border. It will be smuggled across the border and taken thirty kilometres into the Russian Federal Republic, where another mountaineering group is due to be climbing Mount Elbrus.

The package is to be carried by a person who will join the group in Tbilisi, stay with the tour group at the base camp while the climbers made their ascents, and then be taken across the mountains to join the base camp of the other group, which intends leaving via the airport at Mineralnye Vody on a flight to Moscow. But no matter how Iuri asks the question, the Svaneti man does not know what the package was, who would be carrying it, nor when it will be taking place. Iuri's frustration had boiled over into the one word expletive in his own native language.

The information is important, just not enough. And it leaves Sherlock wondering whether the answers to those questions are in the documents, which means he needs to find that code book.

oOo

The agent is ushered into Mycroft's office at the Diogenes Club. Stephen Rawlings has never been to the Inner Sanctum before, but then he'd never before been assigned to shadow the brother. Some in the service said it is a sign of favour, others mutter that it is high risk and fraught with opportunities to fail. Whichever it is, Rawlings is nervous. Worse than seeing the headmaster at Eton.

Holmes' PA is also in the room, and Rawlings wonders if he should report with her there.

The S&IL director just rolls his eyes. "Spit it out. She knows more about your surveillance target than anyone apart from me."

Rawlings recounts his trip to the Guildhall Music Library, the sources the brother consulted, the fact that his digestive system wasn't working very well, because he'd gone to the loo three times in the hour he was there.

"He looked a bit rough, if truth be told, and was limping on his right knee, sir, when he left. Took a taxi to Victoria Station, then walked across the street to Cardinal House. I followed him in and realised it's Microsoft's London HQ. He had an appointment, and went through security, then upstairs. He was there about three quarters of an hour and then went back across the street, got into one of the cabs at the station rank and back to Baker Street, sir."

"Who did he see at Microsoft?"

"It took me a while to wheedle it out of the receptionist. The guy's a director there, called George Dash… no wait, that's not right." He stumbles, trying to remember the correct pronunciation. Grimacing, he grabs his notebook out of his suit pocket, flips open to the right page and pronounces, "…Dadeshkeliani."

"მივხვდი!"

Mycroft Holmes’ one word of reaction makes no sense to Rawlings, but the anger with which it is communicated is clear, whatever the language.

The look on his PA's face tells him she shares Mycroft's dismay.

Chapter Text

"Hmm…you've lost a bit of weight, Mister Holmes." The grey haired tailor is adjusting the charcoal morning suit jacket on Sherlock, using the cushion of pins attached to his wrist to mark where the material on the back would need to be taken in a bit at the waist.

The second man working with John has a smile that he is trying to hide, but the doctor can see it in the mirrors that surround them at Henry Herbert, Gentlemen's Haberdasher of Savile Row. John has taken the afternoon off to join Sherlock for the second fitting of the suits that are being produced for the wedding.

"Whereas you, John, have put on weight, but he's too polite to say so." Sherlock seems keyed up, almost fidgeting under the fingers of the tailor as he does his pinning. "You'll need to be dieting as much as Mary is at the moment. She is panicking that she won't fit in her dress."

The younger assistant tries to smooth things over. "Never mind, sir, that is the benefit of custom made; adjustments are always possible, even up to the last minute." He reaches under the jacket to loosen the silk strap at the back of the dove grey waistcoat that John is wearing under the charcoal wool tailed jacket. "That's better."

John sighs. "I really didn't need to be reminded of her current state of mind, Sherlock. All this palaver… I would have been perfectly happy with a MossBros hire suit."

Both tailors look askance, but it is Sherlock who sniffs, "You might have been, John, but neither Mary nor I would have. No off the peg suit fits me; you know that. And I have been told by the bride not to upstage the groom by getting something tailored to fit me while you turn up in something plebeian. Mary made that very clear."

John snorts. "Well, maybe I am a plebe, but heaven forbid that you had to adjust your standards downward. You can be a posh git sometimes, Sherlock."

"Speaking of posh gits, lucky for both of us that Mycroft is footing the bill for these." The bespoke suit is Mycroft's wedding present. Sherlock straightens his back, stretching his arms to get more of the double French cuffs to show. He loosens the light grey almost silver tie a trifle. "If I have to break the habit of a lifetime and wear this noose to satisfy Mary, then you can manage the right clothes to mirror her taste."

There is the muffled sound of a mobile phone emerging from the changing cubicle at the back of the room. John recognises it as Sherlock's – the opening bars of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. John has always thought that piece of music rather ominous. Sherlock uses it for the calls being forwarded from the number given on his Science of Deduction website for prospective case work.

"Would you like to answer that, sir?"

Sherlock shakes his head. "No, I know who it's from. Ignore it. This is more important."

John wonders at that statement. He would never have predicted that Sherlock would take his duties as wedding planner more seriously than The Work, yet several times in the past week, since the elephant in the room at Ryder Lane, Sherlock has turned down cases. Today when John arrived at the Savile Row shop, Sherlock had been already in the fitting room, pacing. He seems on edge, antsy.

John surveys their appearance in the mirror, with a slight frown. "Why is it you look like some bloody relative of the Queen and I end up looking like a butler or an undertaker? Maybe we should have gone for the lighter grey jackets, instead of this one." He fingers the fabric, which is the darkest of charcoal grey, with a very fine, almost invisible black stripe.

The tailor behind John looks horrified. "Oh dear, no sir. Light grey jackets are only for the races. You wouldn't want to be mistaken for someone without the dress sense to know that."

John sniffs, "The only one of the invitation list who might know the difference is standing right next to me, or his brother." Then a mischievous gleam appeared in his reflected image. "I don't know— maybe I should wear a kilt; after all, Watson is a name of Scottish origin."

"Mary would be aghast. The Watson tartan plaid is a rather garish bright blue, green and yellow with a red line. Impossible clash with the lilac shade of the bridesmaid's dresses."

"Careful there; you're insulting my forefathers."

Sherlock's lip quirks, and he turns to the tailor. "Next thing he'll be wanting one of those lurid American tuxedos with satin lapels and a gaudy cumberbund."

The older tailor's eyes widen in horror. Both Sherlock and John smirk.

The doctor contemplates his look in the mirror. "I'm not really arguing; this looks great. It just seems an extravagance— and I mean, really…when am I ever going to wear this kit again?"

The tailor slips into the smooth gear of reassurance. "Of course, sir; that is the advantage of the groom's outfit instead of a bride's wedding dress. While one hopes that she never has the occasion to wear hers again, the gentlemen's morning suit is an excellent investment because it is the staple formal wear of the British social season. You can wear it to any of the events from Glyndebourne, a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, or the races."

Sherlock's smile grows. "And there's always Mycroft's funeral to look forward to- I'm sure there'll be a strict dress code for that event. Perhaps we should plan ahead and get a black waistcoat to match, while we are at it?"

John stifles a chuckle. "Getting on well with your brother these days?"

"No; not at all. He's being a bigger prat than usual. So, let's increase the cost; we will  have the second waistcoat, in funereal black."

"As you wish, sir." The older tailor nods, as he finishes his pinning. "I understand that the bride is organising the pocket watches for your waistcoats, but perhaps you would like to do the fitting for your top hats and gloves today?"

Sherlock eludes the tailor's grasp and reaches over to his tablet sitting on the chair at the side of the room. He flips the cover open, swipes the calendar icon, and then frowns. "Not today. Too much on. When we come back for the last fitting on the 29th of April; it's not like our heads or hands are going to grow in the meantime."

John smirks. "That depends…solve another couple of big cases and that could make your head swell."

The day has been like that—banter back and forth. Sherlock is in one of his super-focused, tightly wound up moods, and John is trying to use humour to soften the hard edges.

"We have a timetable, John. And every minute counts. Two more stops."

On his knees, putting the finishing pins into the hem of John's trousers, the assistant comments "it would be useful, sir, if at the final fitting you could bring the shoes that you intend wearing at the wedding, so we can use the heel height to get the hem just right."

John looks down at the black shoes poking out the bottom of his trousers. "What's wrong with these?"

The tailor rocks back on his heels, a look of astonishment on his face. "Oh, sir, brogueing is never acceptable on your shoes at a wedding. That would be as hideous as wearing patent leather dancing pumps. One must invest in a plain toe capped leather shoe."

Sherlock interrupts before John can argue the sartorial toss. "Never mind, John. The next stop is Barkers on Jermyn Street, a ten minute walk from here. We might as well splurge and get you a pair of handmade shoes; Mycroft can afford it. From there, we need to get to Selfridges before four thirty."

John is puzzled. "What for?"

"Not a what, a who— Phillipa Craddock to be precise. I am reliably informed she is the best florist for traditional weddings. She's sparing us the pain of a trip to East Sussex. She's doing the flowers."

"And what favour does she owe you?" John is learning that this is a better question to ask than to raise the subject of how they could possibly afford a society florist.

"She was born at Parham; her father was head gardener for my mother."

"Why does that entitle me and Mary to anything special?"

"She once promised my brother she'd do the flowers for free, for whichever of us got married first."

John tries to puzzle that one out. "But neither you nor Mycroft are…"

Sherlock interrupts with an impatient gesture. "Your wedding is the nearest I am ever going to get to a nuptial ceremony, John, so I might as well call in the promise. At least I get to play a part in yours. Phillipa is delighted; I think she has despaired of either of us ever tying the knot. I need to pick up her sample photo-books to take them to Baker Street. Mary's going to arrive at the flat after her shift ends at five, to make her choice, and catch up on the timeline of activities."

John is now resigned to the fact that their entire wedding is being financed by people who owe Sherlock some sort of favour. He might be sticking to John's rule not to spend his own money, but his friend seems to be calling in every debt owed to him to make their day as special as Mary wants it to be. The thought both touches and disturbs John in equal measure, but he isn't sure why.

The phone in the cubicle repeats the Bach. Sherlock scowls at the noise, walks over to the door and shuts it firmly, muting the sound.

It is a half hour later, when the sales assistant at Barkers on Jermyn Street is taking the measurements of John's right foot that Sherlock's phone goes off again. He ignores it and after two rings, it must have gone to voice mail again.

John decides that he's had enough of Sherlock's martyring. "That sounds like a most insistent client."

"Prospective client. I haven't decided." Sherlock's left leg is jiggling with impatience.

"Look, if this …wedding stuff is getting in the way, just take a break. It's not like you to turn down The Work."

"Nonsense. We have a timetable to keep to. Tomorrow you have an appointment with the photographic agency; please don't forget about that. There are things to be done, places to go, decisions to be made. There is less contingency than ever."

John worries about this frenetic burst, but doesn't know how to voice his concerns about Sherlock without sounding a bit anxious himself. The last month has revealed a new side of Sherlock that he is still trying to understand. The PTSD of Hartswood is gone; the EMDR has worked for him in a way that it hasn't really for John. But what has replaced the flashbacks and reclusiveness is an edgy energy and a level of control-freakery that borders on manic at times. That in itself isn't unusual, but in the past that sort of focus and direction has always been focused on case work.

A sales assistant passes John a beautiful plain black leather shoe that probably cost more than his last month's paycheck. Sherlock sniffs. "No, the stitching is too obvious, and the shine too bright."

"Whose foot is this going on, Sherlock—yours or mine?" John decides that a case is probably exactly what Sherlock needs to re-direct his energies toward something more interesting. "What's it about?"

"What?" Sherlock looks up from the offending shoe at John, obviously confused by the question.

"The case?"

"Oh." He reaches over to his coat, tossed in the chair next to him. Digging into the Belstaff's wide inner pocket, Sherlock pulls out his tablet. "He sent this email three days ago. Read it for yourself. This…" he gestures at John's feet "…only needs your feet, not your eyes."

The doctor scans the email. It is long—usually a sign of a boring case, a trivial one that someone thought terribly important but which usually never even warranted a reply from Sherlock.

Mr Holmes, I am a PhD student at Goldsmith's College, University of London—and I have a case for you, one that your blogger Doctor Watson will call "The Case of the Invisible Roommate". I share digs with a fellow student Alan Flanagan, and we are both media students working on Virtual Reality as new immersive media experiences. A week ago, he walked straight into me while I was standing in the middle of our lounge, nearly knocking me over. When I asked him why, he said he had not seen me there— I was invisible, and had only reappeared when I started talking to him. We both had a laugh, and sort of forgot about it. Until it happened again. This time he actually sat down in the chair I was already sitting in— and said I wasn't there when he looked before sitting. The same phenomenon has happened four times since—and not always in our flat; it's happened twice at Uni. In one class he started talking to a friend of mine about me, as if I wasn't there—and the friend didn't see me either. They both freaked when I started talking to them—calling me a disembodied voice. I thought it might be a joke—an elaborate hoax, but then another student none of us knew walked by and when Alan asked him whether there was anyone standing beside him, the stranger said, 'No'. This time it took almost fifteen minutes before they said I started to return to normal—a process they swore took at least five minutes. He says it must be a side effect of my spending so much time in my VR; I'm losing my corporality in this world.

Will you please take this case? I am afraid I may be losing my mind- and my body!

Kind regards, Jack Griffin

John mutters, "He's having you on, Sherlock."

Just then, Sherlock's phone goes off again. This time he pulls it from his suit pocket and scowls at it.

"Go on, answer it. Put the poor sod out of his misery."

With a put-upon sigh, Sherlock thumbs the connect button. "Hello, Mister Griffin." Within a few seconds he rolled his eyes at whatever is being said on the phone.

John says, sotto voce, "well, he might be invisible, but he isn't inaudible."

"Tha…" But whatever Sherlock was going to say, the person on the other end of the phone ignores his attempt to interrupt their flow of thought. Sherlock's frown turns into an outright scowl. Unable to get a word in edgeways, he pulls the phone away from his ear, closing his eyes in frustration. John can hear a tinny voice continuing to speak, but isn't able to distinguish the words.

Finally Sherlock's patience snaps. He bellows, "SHUT UP!"

The sales assistant measuring John's left foot visibly flinches.

Sherlock puts the phone back to his ear. "Mister Griffin, I will think about what you have said, and if I can make any sense of it, I might contact you again. Right now, however, I am BUSY. Goodbye." He thumbs the phone off quickly, before the student can respond.

The Consulting Detective throws himself to his feet, and starts to pace around the sales room. "Why are people so thick?!"

John smiles. "What's happened now?"

"He swears that he can't see himself in any of the mirrors. Called up in an utter panic and demanded I go over there and see for myself."

"So, why don't you?"

Sherlock starts to say something, and then stops, suddenly distracted by something. He picks up a shoe from the wooden shelf beside where he had been pacing. "This is the one."

The sales assistant looks up at the Consulting Detective. "Good choice, sir. The Exeter in black calf, a traditional Derby that is classic, yet modern. It never goes out of fashion."

"Comfortable, John. You'll be on your feet for several hours and need to be able to dance in them, too."

John sighs. "Dancing…" He shakes his head. "Mary wants us to do something traditional as the first dance— a waltz or something. I haven't got a clue."

Sherlock hands John the shoe and then continues on his journey. John feels the softness of the leather. It is amazing. Sturdy leather sole, but not the hard stiffness that he usually associates with new shoes. The brogue pair he is wearing now he's had for almost twenty years. Four soles and three re-heelings later, the shoes are as moulded to his feet as if they are slippers. But, this black shoe is in a whole different class.

"I could teach you." This is said in a rather tentative tone; Sherlock has stopped pacing and is now looking out the plate glass window onto Jermyn Street.

John doesn't hide his surprise. "You? When did you ever learn how to dance? I wouldn't have thought you'd have the patience for that sort of thing." He tries to imagine how someone who doesn't like physical contact and had gone to an all-boys public school could have possibly learned ballroom dancing.

There is something slightly defensive in Sherlock's reply. "It's a good way to improve co-ordination and balance. I had to work hard at those, but hated team sports. Dancing is easier because it involved music."

That made sense. John smiles. He is still learning about Sherlock—never one to volunteer anything about his past ("It's passed, John, by definition not important") just occasionally little snippets come out that surprise him, like this one.

"I've got two left feet, and in front of the wedding guests, I'll probably make a mess of it."

The sales assistant smiles politely. "I can assure you, sir, having just measured yours, you have both a right and a left foot. Your shoes will be ready by the 11th of May."

"Excellent." Sherlock answers for him, as John ties his own shoes back on. Then the taller man is suddenly in motion again, pulling out his tablet and rapidly scrolling onto the internet. "I've added it to the list."

"What?"

"A couple of lessons…. The first just on your own; once you've got the basics, then Mary can join in, without you feeling like an outright beginner."

John starts to laugh, shaking his head. "God, you're almost as bad as she is about this."

"Bad?"

"You know what I mean." John gives him a grateful smile, opens the door of the shop and gestures for Sherlock to go through. "Lead on, Macduff."

Sherlock frowns. "That's a common misquote. What Macbeth actually says is 'Lay on, Macduff' to goad his foe into attacking."

"Whatever…what I meant is, you lead, I'll follow."

"You'll have to lead when you're dancing. Not good to let Mary do that."

Ninety minutes later, they cross the threshold of 221b, armed with two shopping bags of photo albums from the florist. Mrs Hudson greets them in the hallway.

"You're late, Sherlock. I do wish you'd tell me when you have a client appointment. I'm not your secretary or your housekeeper but it would be useful to know when you are expecting company. I've taken the young gentleman upstairs and given him a cup of tea."

"Who?"

"He didn't say; just that he'd spoken with you on the phone this afternoon, and that you'd agreed to see him."

John follows Sherlock up the stairs, but then almost walks straight into him when the man stops suddenly, two steps into the living room.

"John…"

There is an empty suit sitting in what he still thinks of as his chair, as if there had been a body in it that had just…vanished. A cup of tea is on the side table beside the chair, steam still rising from the cup. The arms of the suit are positioned as if the flesh inside has been resting on the arms of the chair. There are shoes at the bottom of the trousers, laces tied neatly and looking as if the feet and the legs to which they were attached have just faded away.

Sherlock says, "Mr Griffin, I presume?"

John starts giggling, but when Sherlock doesn't join in, he stops. "Sherlock; it's a gag, a prank. There's no such thing as invisibility."

"Not true. There are at least three known solutions that create the effect of invisibility. That suit could be a hologram. The email said he and Flanagan were involved in Virtual Reality- the technique of augmented reality has been used to approximate invisibility since the 1960s; all you need is a garment made of highly reflective material, a digital video camera, a computer, a projector and half silvered mirrors called a combiner." This comes out at the rate of knots, Sherlock's usual deductive stream is cranked up just that little bit faster by the agitation he's been showing all afternoon.

"Sounds a little far-fetched….I don't see any of those things lying around, do you?" John is finding it hard to keep a straight face.

But Sherlock is taking it seriously. "That's the point, John. You wouldn't see any of those things. He could be hiding anywhere in the room." He starts darting about the room, thrusting his arms under the table, onto the seats of the chairs, the sofa, into corners.

"Sherlock, will you just stop? This is crazy."

"No it isn't. The US, Japanese, Canadian and Israeli armies have all been testing invisibility cloaks. The science is straight forward; treated fabric bends light, shields against infrared and thermal imaging cameras, and can be programmed to project an image that renders the object invisible because it blends in with the background."

"But, look…the suit is empty." John walks over to the suit and lifts an empty sleeve.

"That doesn't mean anything. He could be hiding under a Vatec multispectral 3D combat camouflage blanket projecting the same fabric as your chair."

Sherlock strides over to the chair and pokes behind the suit. When his hands find nothing other than the chair, he turns and looks around. "Or he could be anywhere in the room." His voice is getting increasingly worried, making John begin to wonder why Sherlock is taking it so seriously.

"Why? Why would someone do this? These two media students are just playing you."

Sherlock doesn't stop. He climbs up onto the bookcase and starts waving his arm in front of it, as if to interrupt some projected image. "How do we know they're just students? Taking them at the word of an email? It could be Mycroft testing out some new equipment, spying on me."

"Now you're being paranoid, Sherlock." John crosses his arms in front of his chest, his scepticism clear. "Why would your brother announce the fact by sending you an email?"

"Just the sort of thing he'd do to try to wind me up." He starts to toss down books from the top shelf, papers and files start to rain down onto the floor.

"Sherlock…."

"The Canadians call it quantum stealth; they're working on a paint that bends light, allowing someone to blend into the background." He nimbly leaps from the bookcase onto the mantelpiece, and then to the bookcase on the other side of the fireplace. The shower of papers and books continue.

"Sherlock!"

It is the tone of army command, and it makes Sherlock stop, and turn around, still precariously poised on the bookshelf. "What?"

"Mary's due to leave work any minute now to come here and you're wrecking the place."

Sherlock hops down.

"Call her; tell her it isn't safe. Not until we are sure the flat is empty. In fact…" He scoops up the two shopping bags full of photo albums. "…take these and go home; she can make her decisions at your place. It's not safe for you here."

John laughs out loud. "Sherlock…this is crazy. The only thing I'm in danger of is getting beaned by a book thrown by a consulting detective who is taking a prank too far." He stops. "Oh, is this you? Have you set this up to try to make me believe in an invisibility cloak? John sniggers. "I know I can be gullible, but I'm not that gullible."

Sherlock looks confused. He puts the two shopping bags down. "I'm not playing a practical joke, John. This is serious."

Whatever John might have said gets drowned out by the sound of his mobile phone going off. He pulls it out and looks at the number. "It's Mary." He thumbs the connection icon and puts it up to his ear. "Hi, Love. Are you on your way?"

"Nope. Change of plan. I was halfway out the door of the clinic and threw up rather spectacularly all down my uniform."

"Oh. Wow, that sounds nasty. Do you think you're coming down with something or was it something you ate?"

"No idea. I've been nauseated since this morning. I'm heading home for a shower and clean clothes."

"Well, Sherlock just said I should take the flower books home to you, and save you the trip. So, I'll head off now. Just get home; I won't be long. Love you; bye."

He looks back up from the phone to Sherlock, who looks concerned. "Mary's just thrown up. She said she's been feeling ill for most of the day, and is heading straight home."

Sherlock holds out the two shopping bags again. "Good."

John gives him an odd look. "No, it's not good that she's ill."

"I didn't mean it that way. I meant, it's good she's going home. And you now have an excuse to go. Take these and leave now."

He takes the proffered bags, but gives Sherlock an odd look. "Are you going to be okay here?"

"Why shouldn't I be?"

"Well…I don't want to find out from Mrs Hudson that you've taken the place apart looking for an invisible man."

"Go, John. Now."

The doctor is torn. With Sherlock acting quite as strangely as this, he’d have preferred to stay around, and see if he could calm him down. But Mary is in need, too, and hers sounded more urgent, so he says his goodbye to Sherlock and Mrs Hudson on the way out.

Just under an hour later he makes it through the front door of his flat and is relieved to see Mary in her pyjamas and robe, sitting on the sofa. She greets him with a smile.

"Feeling better?"

"Yes. The shower helped and so does the peppermint tea."

John puts the shopping bags down and sits beside her, then reaches over to lay a hand on her forehead.

She smirks. "No, Doctor Watson, I do not have a fever."

"Well, that's good news."

"But I am off food tonight. Can't face the idea of cooking supper, so you're on your own."

John frowns. "You need to eat something. How about I fix some scrambled egg? Just a little?"

She shakes her head. "I won't starve, love. In fact, I could do with losing a few pounds to avoid looking matronly at the wedding, so this is one time I will take advantage of the fact that I'm not hungry."

"Well, here's food for thought then." He gets up and pulls out the photo albums from the florist. "Sherlock says you decide whatever you want—he's put a list together of what is required."

The list is lengthy: bride's bouquet, button holes for John and Sherlock, different ones for the ushers and the pageboy, Archie; corsages for the bridesmaids, then flowers for the church— the porch columns, altar and the arrangements tied to the end of every pew. Then it goes onto the Arnsworth Castle Hotel, with the top table arrangements, the guest tables and the floor standards, one in each corner of the room. Then the bridal suite, and dried flower petals for confetti. Mary opened the first album he puts on the coffee table, and snorts at the photo— a huge, gorgeous arrangement of white flowers on a tall Grecian column. "And how did he convince a florist to do for this sort of thing for the price we can afford?"

"Noblesse oblige. She grew up at his family estate, and said he would get flowers for free at his wedding. He says ours is the nearest he'll ever get to one, so he's cashed in the promise."

A few worry lines appear on Mary's forehead. "He really is giving this event everything he can, and yet…"

"What?"

"Oh, John…no matter what we say, he must be worried about what will happen between you two, once we're married." She puts her tea cup down and hugged her knees to her chest. "I feel like I'm taking his best friend away from him." Her eyes tear up. "And, what's worse, he's arranging his own execution."

"Hey…" John sits down again beside her and pulls her into a hug. "Stop this. I've said it before, I'll say it again. It isn't either/or. I will marry you and we will build our life together, without me losing him as a friend."

"Then why isn't he taking you on cases anymore?"

"He is. We just had one where there was an elephant in the room. And today, when we got back to Baker Street there was an empty suit waiting for us."

"What?"

"It's some uni students pranking him, I think, pretending to be clients. Funny, but I can't say he got the joke."

John leaves her to the photo books of flowers, while he cooks himself some scrambled eggs.

Later, when Mary has slipped off to bed, he watches a bit of a late night talk show, thinking that it is just the sort of inane discussion that would have had Sherlock shouting at the television. His mobile vibrates on the coffee table where he had left it next to the flower books. Muting the telly, he picks up to see an incoming text.

23.10 Cracked it. We were drugged at Selfridges and taken by the cab to a replica 221b. A camera projected the suit onto the chair. SH

John texts back, 23.11 LOL. Who would do such a thing?

23.12 Ninjas, ordered by Lord Moran. The suit never existed; a hologram projected by mirrors. SH

23.13 Moran's dead- you told me so yourself.

23.14 All we have is Mycroft's word on that. SH

John sniggers. He starts typing,

23.14 This afternoon I was there, Sherlock, remember? Spoke to a *real* Mrs Hudson on my way out; no fake flat, no hologram. You've been pranked, so stop digging yourself in deeper.

23.15 I'm serious. SH

23.15 I'm seriously tired, and going to bed. Joke's over. Good night, Sherlock.

John switches the phone off, and heads towards the bedroom, still smirking. He slips into bed alongside a warm, sleeping Mary. As he drifts off, he's started to write a blog post about it— the Hollow Client.

Back in 221b, Sherlock puts his phone down and eyes the Ninja who is sitting in John's chair. At least, he thinks the man might be a Ninja. From head to toe all in black, with just a slit through the face mask for his eyes, the apparition looks the part, right down to the epicanthic eye-fold. On the other hand, he could be from China or Korea, just disguised as a Ninja, but the antique Samurai sword across his knees suggests otherwise.

"Who are you?"

There is no answer to his rather tentative question. On second thought, he couldn't be sure he'd even voiced the question; he might have just thought it.

Sherlock tries again. "Why are you here?" This time his ears register the sound of his voice.

There is a shrug, and then in the Japanese dialect favoured by the Yakuza, the apparition speaks to him.

"You should know the answer; this is your hallucination."

Frustrated, Sherlock looks around the facsimile of 221b that he keeps in his Mind Palace. "I need to think straight, about John, about who has been trying to kill him four times in the past five months, and whether there is any connection to what happened in Georgia, whatever did happen."

The Ninja removes his mask, and it is James Moriarty. "Then you should've taken cocaine, doofus. You know ketamine messes up your concentration."

There is a reason he's opted for ketamine, but not one he'd like to admit to Moriarty. “It was a low dose—not recreational, not the sort to create hallucinations. Anyway, go way. You're supposed to be dead. "

Jim shrugs. "Am I? But, then so were you." The Irishman lifts the sword and balances it on his hand, giving it a wolfish smile of appreciation. "So beautiful. So sharp. A bit like the way your brain used to be, before you let your pet mess it up so much." Moriarty gives him one of his manic laughs, and then tutts at him. "If you weren't so weighed down by sentiment and anxiety about losing your only friend in the world, then you'd have figured out Mycroft's little mystery by now."

Sherlock closes his eyes, not wanting to face what his Mind Palace is telling him. The Moriarty avatar isn't one he'd consciously let out of the padded cell in the basement, and it is a sign of his current mental fragmentation that the bastard has somehow made it out on his own.

Sherlock had made the call to his dealer from the changing cubicle at the suit fitting, while he was supposed to be getting dressed. He'd popped open the back of his phone and swapped in the SIM card from the burner phone, just long enough to make the call. He'd hidden the Sim in the lining of his Belstaff, knowing that neither Ketavan nor Mycroft would deprive him of the coat for long.

When they'd got to Phillipa Craddock's florist boutique in Selfridges, he'd excused himself to go to the loo, while she talked to John. Once in the quiet of the department store's Gents, he'd met the dealer whose discretion he could count on, paid for the ketamine hydrochloride and took the first dose in the stalls. He’d had to pay extra for the delivery; normally he picked it up at Barts, where the man worked. A low dose, just enough to steady his nerves. He'd ridden out the fifteen minutes of the drug's anaesthetic impact in the back of the black cab on the way to Baker Street.

Once John had left the flat, he’d taken the second injection and sat down amidst the shambles that he'd made of the living room, books and papers scattered in a mess.

As the full impact of the drug takes effect, Sherlock avoids looking at the side of the room over the sofa. He can’t allow all the minutiae to keep distracting him. He keeps his back to the baleful threat on the wedding wall, and contemplates his future. John is going to get married and disappear into domesticity. He knows that. And it is okay, because it makes him safer than if he was still at Baker Street.

But that thought is little consolation. If there has been someone here using an invisibility cloak, then it could be the same person who had put John in the bonfire, or the one who had led him to the dwarf with the poisoned Amazonian dart. Would the next attempt succeed?

I'm not being paranoid, as long as I don't know the answer to that question.

The whole situation is starting to get on Sherlock's nerves. Too many unsolved cases. All this failure is just too much to bear.

"Oh, Sherlock…" This taunting call is uttered in the high-pitched, sing-song voice he's come to associate with Richard Brook, the children's actor persona that used to such good effect at the end.

The Moriarty avatar is not letting him go. He opens his eyes, to see that at least it is no longer dressed in Ninja disguise. This is the dark suit and navy wool coat that he'd worn to the Barts rooftop, complete with a bloodstain down the shoulder. Sherlock had not needed to check the corpse for a pulse; the scent of gunshot residue had been mixed with that of cranial fluids, blood and splattered grey matter. That scent now fills the room, bringing back the memory of those short moments of panic, when Sherlock had realised it was the worst case scenario— he would have to fake his death and disappear. Seven of the thirteen scenarios had given him a chance to tell John before he vanished. Four of the other scenarios could have led to a reveal some weeks later.

If only. If only one of those scenarios had been possible, he wouldn't now be planning the end of his friendship with John, in order to save his life by marrying him off to someone who would be able to keep him safe in a way that Sherlock can’t. All that effort to take apart Moriarty's network had not been enough to protect John. The mere existence of Sherlock threatens John's life— that is the harsh reality of his return.

He pinches the bridge of his nose, waiting for the second dose of ketamine to do its job. He knows he is fighting off depression. It has been lurking for weeks. He is always vulnerable to a dip in mood after a stint in rehab. And no matter how they dressed it up, Hartswood was rehab.

It is like his brain chemistry can’t cope with being clean for too long. Cases are being dull in the extreme, or frustrating as hell. The Georgian connection, the dwarf, and now this invisibility lark. Sherlock closes his eyes again, takes a deep breath and tries to avoid putting his hands in his hair and giving it a tug. If Mycroft did have a camera on him, that would be a give-away, a tell-tale sign that he is struggling.

The ketamine should lift the depression long enough for him to figure a way out of this mess. The medical establishment are starting to realise what he's known for at least a decade— using the drug creates a dissociated state, a dream-like pause that re-booted his brain in almost the same way as ECT had when he was a child. With one huge redeeming feature— it doesn't lead to amnesia. He has bought enough to get him through a week of treatment, and if he is lucky, the benefits will lift his mood out of depression for a couple of weeks without anyone noticing. He needs to hold things together until John is safely away on honeymoon.

Sherlock gets back to work.

Chapter Text

"Hello, Miss Hooper; please let me take your coat. Do take a seat."

Diane Goodliffe gives the young woman a welcoming smile, and gestures to the chair. She takes in the slightly eclectic choice of clothes, the long hand-knitted scarf, a sensible pair of boots. It is cold outside, but her therapy room is warm enough. She tries to keep it a happy medium between cosy but not so warm as to put her clients to sleep. In early March, it means changing the thermostat several times a day.

Beginnings are always important with new clients, many of whom would be ill-at-ease and anxious about even admitting that they were seeking help of a qualified therapist. Miss Hooper had contacted her by e mail to request the appointment, and the one brief call they'd had to set the time told her that the prospective client was a little tongue-tied and nervous over the phone. The woman had said she only wanted to pay for only a single session, "just the one" before giving her credit card details. That was fair enough- a lot of clients wanted to try a therapist once, just to see if the relationship would work for them. Diane worked hard at avoiding pre-judgments; it made no sense to try to jump to any conclusions before she'd even met her.

But this young woman certainly looks uncomfortable and on edge, almost as bad as she had sounded on the phone. She sits as instructed and waits for Diane to hang up the coat and take her own seat across from her.

"Um, Doctor Goodliffe, I need to explain something."

Diane smiles. "I'm not a doctor, Miss Hooper. I'm not a psychiatrist, either, just a qualified therapist. You can call me either Diane, if that is comfortable for you, or Miss Goodliffe, if you'd prefer something more formal. It's entirely up to you." She kept her contralto gentle and warm, sensing her need for reassurance.

A flicker of something in the dark brown eyes. Impatience? Diane stills her reactions, trying to be open to the moment.

"Diane, then, but you have to call me Molly."

The older woman gives an encouraging smile. "Molly…how can I help?"

"I'm not here for myself, but rather for a friend."

Diane tries to keep her face neutral. This could be the truth, but it could also be a convenient dodge. Sometimes "a friend" is a term used by people who are not willing to take ownership of their own problem the first time they met a therapist. She has to be truthful, so says simply "I can't help a person who isn't in the room and hasn't consented to therapy. But I can help you, if you are concerned about someone else and need guidance on how to deal with the situation."

Molly nods. "That's just the point. My friend is one of your patients. Detective Inspector Lestrade said I should tell you what happened; that you would know what should be done."

Oh. "Greg Lestrade…then you're talking about Sherlock Holmes? How do you know him?"

"I'm a forensic pathologist working for the Guys and St Thomas Hospital Trust. You won't know who I am; no one that you've been talking to will have mentioned me. Not Sherlock; especially not Sherlock. But, I know them all. The detective inspector, John Watson, even his fiancé Mary- I've met her. And I've known Sherlock for years." She stops, as if debating something. Then in a resolute tone, she continues. "Just so you understand- I was the only one of those people who knew he was alive, when the others didn't. I'm under no illusions, though. He needed me to make his disappearance work, so he told me. But, Sherlock trusted me with that fact, that I would keep his secret for the whole time he was away."

Diane considers that, and wonders about its significance. But it doesn't really change her mind. "I haven't seen Sherlock for nearly a month now. I'm not sure whether he would even think that he was still a client. Even if he did, I can't talk about him. That would be unethical."

Molly nods, but is looking down at the oriental carpet that is on the floor between them. "I know that. I just want to tell you something, and then you can decide what to do with that knowledge. And, if you can suggest anything that I might do, well…that would be good, too."

"If you've been speaking to the Detective Inspector, did he tell you why Sherlock was seeing me?"

That gets her a nod. "Yes, of course; he told me about the PTSD and that it came from …stuff that happened while Sherlock was away. The Detective Inspector told me that you'd helped Sherlock a lot; that's why I thought I should tell you that something else is happening. Sherlock is not okay. No matter what he says now about being fine."

Diane doesn't want to encourage her into thinking that she could be more helpful than she's already said, so she does not reply, but rather opens her hands in a gesture that says 'and?'

"I know what Sherlock is like. He doesn't talk about what he feels. I've always wondered if Sherlock was somewhere on the Autistic Spectrum. He calls himself a high-functioning sociopath, but that's not a proper medical term. When he told me that, I was curious and researched. That's what I do for a living; figure out puzzles in people who cannot speak for themselves. He's neuroatypical; even if he hasn't been officially diagnosed, that much I can figure out."

Diane cannot confirm or deny, without breaching client confidentiality. "You know I can't say anything about this. But, I can ask you why you are concerned about Sherlock. Let's start there."

"Over the years I've known Sherlock, he's got better at some things, like…well, it's hard to describe. Some of the things- his rudeness, for example- well, if you didn't know him the way I do, then you might think he was just…a bit eccentric, but nothing else. Lots of people just assume he's arrogant because he's a genius, and don't think any further. He was far worse in the early days."

The Sherlock that Diane has come to know as a client manifests few of the things she associated with people on the Spectrum. He is articulate, could communicate well with others and is capable, if reluctant, to express emotion. The recent drug use and the difficulties he had been going through adjusting back to life in the UK were related to his being tortured. The PTSD had been the focus of their therapeutic work, and the EMDR treatment a resounding success.

"Has something happened recently to change your view about him?" Diane probes and then waits, as Miss Hooper seems to need time to gather her thoughts.

"A few days ago, Sherlock came to the lab where I work; he had some questions to ask about John and Mary's wedding. You know he's John's Best Man and is planning the wedding for them?"

"No, I didn't; that sounds wonderful. " Diane is genuinely surprised and delighted to hear the news. "It's a great opportunity for him to work on building a normal relationship with John and Mary."

Molly draws breath. "I don't know about that. I'm not sure he sees it that way. I think it's …I don't know, something that he thinks he owes John, something that he has to do in order to keep John's friendship. But, he's obsessing about it- getting really fixated on trying to control every little detail, and getting anxious about it, too. He used to come to the lab regularly when he was working on a case, or to collect specimens for his experiments. But, he doesn't do that now; in fact, I've hardly seen him show any interest at all in his experiments since he got back. That's not like him."

The young woman stopped for a moment, a frown forming as she looked down at her hands. When she looked back up at Diane, there seemed to be a quiet determination- as if she'd made a decision. "It's probably not my place to say this, but, I'm worried about him. The only time he's come to see me in almost six weeks, and he wanted to talk about the wedding guest list. He was pretty worked up about it. All that wedding stuff he's doing is sort of …I don't know…a smokescreen?" Her hands are twisting anxiously, in her lap.

Diane tries to assess what the pathologist's concern is. Could it be that she had welcomed Sherlock's professional attentions before, and is now upset simply because he is too busy these days with other people? "Why do you think that? Are you saying that he isn't capable of doing something to help his friend?"

Molly shakes her head. "No, you don't understand." She looks away again, this time at the vase with the silk flower in it. "Um…that's my fault, sorry…because I'm not explaining things right. He'd do anything for John; he even faked his own death to help protect him. So, the wedding stuff; Sherlock would do something that he's not comfortable doing, because it's helping John. It's not that; it's just… something's not right. He's acting like he's okay, trying to keep people from knowing what's really going on, about how upset he is."

"Miss Hooper, it's common for those who care about someone on the Spectrum to misinterpret their actions- to impute an emotional meaning when one might not have been felt by the person. Is it possible that Sherlock has just been changed by what happened while he was away, that the things he used to enjoy before are no longer as important to him, and that you are just picking up on those changes?"

This time, Molly shakes her head vehemently. "No. This is more. I think he's sad again. Sad that nothing is the same as it was, that nothing will ever be the same."

"Sad? Have you ever thought that sadness might be an appropriate emotional response to the situation? This is a difficult time for him- transitions are. The Watson wedding is a life event for Sherlock- a person he lived with, worked with, someone he took such extreme measures to protect- perhaps the only person he considers to be a friend- is getting married. What you see as sadness may be a sign of his emotional intelligence; he could be coming to terms with the change. That would actually be a step forward for him, to be able to express his sadness."

"I've thought of that. But it's more than sad, the way you or I would feel things. I think he is depressed. And that might lead him to do things he shouldn't do."

Diane wants to give her the benefit of the doubt, but wonders whether the young woman is over-reacting. Sherlock had showed classic signs of PTSD, complete with triggers and meltdowns. She had not observed any signs of clinical depression. Cautiously, she offers, "Is depression something that you have studied much? I would have thought a forensic pathologist wouldn't have a lot of opportunity to diagnose it."

Molly's cheeks flush. "I know enough that depression in autism isn't expressed by the usual symptoms. What I saw three days ago is that Sherlock is really struggling. Some of the stuff that I read about people on the Spectrum- well, I've never seen him do any of it, so I didn't think it really applied to him. But, when he showed up earlier this week…it was like something out of a textbook. And I have checked again, reading up on the symptoms." She ends a little defensively by crossing her arms.

"Such as…?"

"Echolalia, to start with. I mean…usually, he's so quick; just bites the head off of anyone who can't keep up. 'You know I hate repeating myself.'- it's like a slogan of his. Yet he kept doing it- repeating what I was saying, before answering himself. And there were a couple of times that his answers didn't come out at the right time- like he'd lost track of the conversation. It was weird."

Molly uncrosses her arms and straightens her back in the chair, her posture showing her determination. "Something's not right; I can tell, but when I asked him, he said he was fine. But he always does that. Then he sort of bolted out of the room. It was so strange…I decided to follow him up the stairs, to see if he was really okay. I called out to him, but he ignored me and kept going, as if he hadn't heard. Then he fell." She stopped, and the frown of worry deepened. "He's usually so fluid in his movement; he's incredibly coordinated. But he just completely misjudged a step and then missed grabbing the bannister. He came down hard on his knee- must have hurt like hell. I rushed up to give him a hand, but he just shoved me off, staggered to his feet and then ran away up the stairs, like he didn't recognise me- almost as if he was afraid. I thought maybe he was having a PTSD flashback. By the time I got outside, he was already getting into the back of a taxi. He didn't even look back."

Diane thinks about the sequence, and begins to wonder if Molly is right- that Sherlock is having problems.

The pathologist continues, "I once told him I don't count. That was before…before he staged his death. I think he was surprised that I had seen his sadness back then. He showed up on the last night and told me I did count, but I think that he just said it to get me to agree to sign the death certificate when he faked his suicide. Sherlock is…like that. He doesn't...didn't realise that...I would have done it for him, even if he hadn't said that I counted. But, over the years while he was gone, I worried about him, all that time...on his own…He told me that it wouldn't be hard to pretend that he was dead, because it was quite likely that he'd be killed at some point." Molly stops, her eyes filling. Then she calms herself. "Of course, I was so happy when he came back."

Diane realises that Molly is twisting an engagement ring on her finger. Oh. The realisation becomes a revelation. She loves him. And while Sherlock was away, the young woman had done what John had done- found comfort in another.

Diane's heart goes out to her. From what she knows about Sherlock, she doubts the feelings are requited in any meaningful way. The pathologist knows that, too- she'd admitted as much when she'd said earlier that Sherlock was not likely to have mentioned her.

The therapist has seen over the past three months just what caring about Sherlock means. Each of those who had come to her and spoken to express their fears, all of them cared so much for him. But, Sherlock has no idea that he could inspire this degree of loyalty, or create an emotional tie in the people who were his support network. They are what give her hope that he will come to terms with all that has changed and is still changing in his life.

Diane wondered if the same could be said about the young woman sitting in front of her. She decided to seize the initiative. Whatever was going on with Sherlock, there was a person in some distress in front of her, and she wanted to help.

"Miss Hooper, I can see that you care about Sherlock. I know that coming here to talk to me is a demonstration of that fact, and I respect it. Does his return cause you…difficulties of a personal nature?" She tried to ask the question in a fairly oblique style, but if Molly wanted to talk about it, she would see the therapist was willing to do so.

Molly blushed red, and stammered. "No…n…no. You misunderstand. I'm engaged. I'm happy. Tom is a wonderful man. He's lovely… and normal. Nothing to do with bodies…crimes…any of that. He's…good to me…I mean good for me." Then she steadied. "What I think about Sherlock is nothing to do with me and my private life; it's just I am…concerned that no one else sees what I am seeing."

"And what is that, Molly?"

"He's teetering on the edge. And no one seems to know that behind the act, he's coming apart at the seams. Someone needs to do something before it's too late."

"Have you talked to John Watson about this incident in the stairwell?"

The pathologist shook her head. "No. I'm…" She stopped, derailed for a moment by uncertainty. "I'm not sure he wants to hear this. He would think I'm interfering. He wasn't very happy to learn that I knew about Sherlock being alive, when he didn't. He and Sherlock, well…it took him time to get over his anger. I don't want to make him angry at Sherlock again."

She looked down at her hands. “I don’t know the ethics of this; if I tell you something in confidence about Sherlock, can I trust you to use the information to help him?”

“You’ve come all this way to tell me something, so it’s best you do.”

Molly sighs. “I think he’s using again. Drugs. Not the usual, at least I don’t think so.”

"Do you think Sherlock would talk to me about this if I were to contact him?"

Molly gives a little laugh. "No. Not a chance. But you can talk to the others. And I think because you aren't as close to Sherlock as they are, you won't be deflected. They'll listen to you, in a way that they won't to me. Sherlock won't listen to me: I'm not really sure he listens to anyone, which is why I'm here. He's good at avoiding people and… stuff like this. And everyone else, his friends and family, love him and want him to be well, so they don't want to see that he isn't. You're more objective. Because you've managed to help him in the past, then you must be good at what you do. I'll trust you to do what is necessary."

The pathologist gives a little nod of her head, as if content now that she's done what she'd come to do. "That's all I have to say. I won't waste anymore of your time."

"It's not a waste of time if this conversation has been helpful to you."

A firm look takes hold on the face of the woman opposite her. "It's only helpful to me, so long as you're willing to do what is needed for Sherlock, Miss Goodliffe." Molly stands up and collects her coat, removing an envelope from her coat pocket, putting it on the little table. Diane rises from her own chair.

"Thank you, Miss Goodliffe. The payment for this session is in the envelope. Goodbye." She doesn't look back.

Diane waits until the front door downstairs closes. Then she fishes her phone out of her handbag and starts scrolling down for Esther Cohen's number, praying that she had not deleted it last month.

oOoOoOoOoOo

The woman whose name is definitely not Anthea watches her boss and worries. She’s handed him the file on the movements and activities of Sherlock over the past four days, and all of it shows that he is getting closer to deciphering the Georgian mystery.

"He really can’t get to the truth, can he? He didn't have the USBs for more than a couple of minutes, did he?"

Mycroft gives her a wan smile that reveals volumes. "He obviously found a way to make a copy. And has deciphered enough of the conversation now by finding a Georgian who speaks Svan."

"How? Even I would struggle to find someone like that living in London."

Mycroft sighs. "Irrelevant now, my dear; what's done is done. We need to keep more than one step ahead of him on this now. And that means I need to know more about his movements."

The young woman whose real name is Ketevan** Ioseliani pushes her long dark hair back over her shoulder as she leans over to open the file in front of Mycroft. Photographs of Sherlock walking down the North Thames Pathway extension on the Isle of Dogs are on top.

"He left Barts limping, and disappeared in the vicinity of the Samuda estate for about ninety minutes. We've got two men there undercover now trying to find out if he approached any local dealers, and where he might have gone. There is CCTV on the estate, but no sign of him on it."

Mycroft slides the top photo off, to reveal the picture taken by the drone. It is an odd angle, but even at the height of the camera, Sherlock's distinctive Belstaff betrayed him, and the presence of John Watson beside him on the pavement was also clear. The two men seem to be arguing, if the doctor's body language could be properly judged at this overhead angle.

She voices what she thinks her boss is thinking. "It was unfortunate that the Met found the body first; just our luck that the MIT assigned to it was Lestrade's, and that he called Sherlock."

Mycroft sighs again, and this time rubs his forehead, as if getting a headache. "I am beginning to think that luck is not on our side. What did our team find at Ryder Street?"

"The remains of Simone Dewberry methodically dismembered and put into the sports bag in situ. Our latest comms with her was the night she died. But she didn't reveal where the meet-up was going to take place. The other body is tentatively identified as her contact, Tamaz Giorgaszi, but we’ve sent off his fingerprints to Tbilisi to be sure."

Now Mycroft puts his hands down on the folder, and she sees his determination in that gesture. "Send a team into Baker Street; look for his stash. His behaviour says he's either using already or soon will. While you're there, find the device that has the files on it. We can't take the risk. If he deciphers them, then he will know enough to start building an identification. And we have to stop him doing that, at all costs."

She nods. It is the logical thing to do. But she does not want to leave him to think through the horrors of what was happening on his own.

"Sir, we're running out of contacts we can trust. The whole network is being targeted."

"It would appear so. And that has…" he seems to have to reach for the word. "…consequences. I am beginning to question the security of our arrangement. Either someone is attempting to locate him through our contacts, or…" It is as if Mycroft couldn't or wouldn't voice his fears.

She is the only one with whom he could have this conversation. The only person he trusts enough to share in the secret. It had been so at the beginning of their relationship in 2001, when he had first come to Tbilisi and recruited her as part of the arrangement to deal with a prisoner whose identity would be kept a secret. She'd seen the man whose vocal cords had been removed into his new cell, and then left for London to report that fact to Mycroft Holmes.

"I could go back, sir, to be sure."

That makes him look up from the folder in surprise. "No, my dear Keta, I could not risk you. You know far too much now—not just about this, but about everything I do. There are people in Georgia who would find you too tempting a target. Besides, I promised your father I would keep you safe, in exchange for the arrangement."

"But we need proof, sir, that the prisoner's still alive and where he belongs."

"The blood is his, and it's fresh."

She knows as much as he does that those facts do not mean that Fitzroy Ford is still incarcerated in his private cellblock in Gldani prison.

Mycroft shrugs. "The SDS director has assured me that the agreement is intact."

She can hear in his voice the fact that he is trying to convince himself as much as her. "But can you trust the new man? My father has reservations."

Mycroft smiles. "Avtandil always has reservations. It was a shame he retired in 2004."

"It wasn't his choice, sir, as you know."

They both know well enough. The role of the head of the Georgian security service is never an easy one. Her father had managed to survive the 2002 slander campaign that targeted both him and the head of the National Security Council. Political motivations had run rampant that year, and proved too much for the NSC's Nugzar Sajaia, who’d committed suicide with his service weapon. Keta's father was made of sterner stuff, and he’d survived in office for another two years.

2004 had been a terrible year for the British who were interested in keeping a particular prisoner incarcerated in Tbilisi. The special relationship between Mycroft Holmes and the Georgian Security Service had to be re-established through three changes of director in the space of six months. Ketevan knows better than anyone that in their own way, both of her boss's brothers are high maintenance.

Mycroft is still trying to downplay the seriousness of the situation. "And your father is not always right. Life was easier under Gela Bezhuashvili, it has to be said. At least he gave us five years of stability."

He pushes himself back from the desk and got to his feet. "Perhaps it is time for me to do a little legwork of my own. As Gela's successor, Davit Sujashvili doesn't seem to want to leave Tbilisi, so I should pay him a visit. Arrange the flight; tonight if possible, or first thing tomorrow morning."

She draws a sharp intake of breath. "Wouldn't that be risky, too?"

He gives her a raised left eyebrow— his way of showing scepticism. Over the years, she has become as adept at reading him as he is of her, so she answers her own question. "They wouldn't dare, is what you're thinking. But, because I am a mere minion, I'd be fair game." She sighs; it is logical.

That makes him smile, one of his genuine ones—rare and for that, all the more special. "Not a minion, my dear. Never that, more of a helpmate."

She can’t help the tinge of blush. "Flattery? How unusual, coming from you."

"I have high standards, which you generally meet. And I will expect the same from you while I am gone. Under no circumstances is Sherlock to suspect anything other than the fact that I am consulting my contacts on the current situation in Libya, and so incommunicado. Go to the trouble of filing a false flight plan. I am beginning to think that little brother picked up some rather deplorably good hacking skills while he was away on his gap year adventures. Now, where are the files I need for my meeting with the Defence Minister?"

She hands over the file, and tells him the car is already waiting outside. "I've contacted Miss Forester to get your white tie cleaned and ready for the ambassador’s function on Wednesday. Assuming your plane lands on time, you should make the event. Lady Caroline texted to say she will meet you at South Eaton Place."

"Thank you, my dear. What would I do without you?"

She smirks. "You'd be less well prepared, turn up ten minutes late on occasion and probably in the wrong clothes, although still impeccably dressed. You do tend to forget the minor details when having so many of the world's problems on your plate."

Shouldering on his coat and picking up the file, he retorts, "That's why I have you, isn't it?"

She’s never bored. Organising Mycroft Holmes is demanding, but rewarding, and the rest of the afternoon and early evening pass quickly. By seven, his trip is sorted apart from one detail that she will have to do from home. She's laid the false trail through the services. Since Sherlock has established his own relationship with MI6 through Elizabeth Ffoukes, she can no longer be trusted with the real information. So, the meeting with Libyan contacts taking place over the border in Tunisia is communicated in the usual form— an exchange of diary data between the PAs of each of the service heads, with the Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office.

At seven fifteen, she collects her protection escort— a fresh faced twenty-seven year old graduate of Sandhurst—and heads for Piccadilly Circus. Descending to the Bakerloo Line, the woman who is notAnthea chats to Lucinda Palmer as if they are just ordinary co-workers at some boring office job, and then the pair alights at Lambeth North. Lucinda is telling her about her date for the evening and some club in Tottenham they'll be going to later.

When they get to the front door of the rather non-descript apartment block at Number 19 Gerridge Street, she sends Lucinda off. "Enough— I can manage a flight of stairs in a secure apartment block on my own. See you tomorrow morning at 7.45. Have fun tonight."

As she walks up the stairs, Ketevan is already prioritising her agenda. It is half past midnight in Tbilisi, but she knows her father suffers from insomnia, so is probably still awake. Even before fixing herself a supper, she needs to get onto the fake Facebook profile they share to send a message that to someone else's eyes will be a totally anodyne exchange. Only he, she and Mycroft are able to decode it.

Once inside the front door, she secures the locks and then sees that the tiny strand of tape under the door handle into the living room is still intact. Ketevan breaks the seal and does the usual room visual scan to see that nothing has been disturbed. Satisfied that protocol has been properly followed, she flops down on the sofa and opens her laptop. Kicking off her shoes, she starts to write the message that she will need to encode.

It is never simple. The process involves three levels of encryption, any one of which would have stymied anyone other than the three people who use it. The message will be sent in English, but then translated at the other end into Georgian, which would include the coded elements that then had to be translated into Persian. She pours herself a glass of white wine from the fridge and takes it back into the living room, and sips while checking where the Georgian translation of the English would carry the coded message.

Now, for the second level of coding: as it is already Thursday the 21st of March in Georgia, she will need to set the next level of code using the third chapter and twenty first line. The letter that will start the substitution must be keyed to the time of the message being sent, so she'll take the second letter in Persian script used by the book's author, Hakim Abu ʾl-Qasim, a man better known in the West by his penname of Firdowsi. She pads back down the hall past her bedroom to the door into her little study. It’s a box room really, too small to be anything but a child's bedroom. She'd lined it with bookshelves, installed a comfy reclining chair and an internet connection—her hideaway. She checks that the long dark hair she'd stretched across the door handle above the latch is still there, and enters the dark room.

"Edzebs raghats?***"

As she registers the fact that there is an unknown man in her study, the floor lamp by the chair snaps on and she blinks into the light that is shining directly into her eyes. Her brain catches up with her ears first, and realises that the baritone is familiar, even though she isn't used to hearing it in that language. She snaps, "Sherlock, what the hell are you doing in my apartment?!"

She reaches for the switch by the door and turns the ceiling light on, which reveals the long-limbed man lounging in her recliner, wearing a smirk.

"Well isn't it obvious? I'm enjoying your reading collection." He gestures around the shelves lining the walls.

Ketevan wills herself to keep calm, and to keep her eyes on Sherlock. Whatever else she does in his presence, she must not look at that particular space— second bookcase along the right wall, third shelf from the ceiling, seventeenth book in from the left, amidst the poetry books. Under no circumstances could she let him know.

She watches as the smile on his face broadens. He is still avoiding eye contact, so he must be observing her with his peripheral vision.

He drawls, "Oh, he has taught you rather well, hasn't he?"

Offence is the best defence: "Answer my question, Sherlock. How did you get in here?"

"Don't you think I'd be able to find the little unique signs of Mycroft's signature tradecraft? The tape on the door, the hair on the latch? He taught me, too, you know. Well, I say 'taught'. Not intentionally—he'd never do that willingly. It was just a case of observing what he did and then realising why he did it. I was seventeen and I spent a summer at the townhouse. I learned a lot that summer."

She fires her second salvo. "What on earth did you say when I walked in?"

"Oh, we both know the answer to that." He smirks, but keeps his eyes on the bookcases. "I haven't had the opportunity to hear a great deal of the language, so apologies for the accent. You could always offer to tutor my pronunciation." He lounges back in the chair and looks at the ceiling.

"I don't know what you are talking about. What I do know is that I am tired; your brother has run me ragged today, and I want time off." Then, as if it had suddenly occurred to her, "How did you find out where I live?"

He snorts. "Don't tell me that you haven't read the file that was on Mycroft's desk when I got back from Serbia. You probably prepared it— that's what you do: pre-digest his information to make it easier for him to swallow. You've read the gory details. You know exactly what I am capable of."

She rolls her eyes. "Am I going to have to call your brother to get you out of here? Maybe I should just recall my escort and have you removed at gunpoint."

He looks at her now, and she can see his eyes properly for the first time.

"Oh, bloody hell— Sherlock! You're high!"

He grins. "Mmm; yes. Just enough to prepare myself to figure out a puzzle. Why my brother chose you as his PA. Needed to focus, so I could figure out which of these is your cipher book."

Her heart sinks. But she doesn't allow that to change her body language.

Sherlock is in full flow, and doesn't seem to notice. "You shouldn't have left your personal laptop at home. If I can get into Mycroft's, yours is no challenge. And however much you've learned to alter your sentence construction to pass for a native English speaker, one of your Facebook friends seems to have a rather Kartvelian cast to his English. That's your Georgian contact— a relative of yours, I think."

"You're so far gone on cocaine, you're delusional. I'm definitely calling your brother." She turns back to the door.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Ketevan." He is on his feet, moving with feline fluidity, putting his weight onto the door just as she tries to open it.

He is close behind her, too close, in her personal space, with an arm either side of her. Oddly, she isn't frightened. She turns back towards him, to realise his face is much nearer to hers than she expected. He is making rather more intense eye contact than she expects from him, and for a moment, he holds her there with an almost animal magnetism. She can smell his cologne— Penhaligon's Hammam— a heady melange of Turkish rose, musk, sandalwood. The exotic undertones are such a contrast with his brother's scent. Blenheim Bouquet is English aristocracy personified— cool citrus and pine, with a just a hint of lavender. Clean, ordered. The contrast between the two brothers has never been more pronounced than at this moment. Too used to seeing him through the prism of Mycroft's fraternal concern, she is for the first time ever, truly aware of Sherlock. A pair grey green eyes pin her back to the door, his pupils dilated as if by desire. He wets his lips and smiles.

She shakes off the sensation, and runs for cover. "What's a ketevan, some Serbian swearword?"

He smiles again, and this time, it is gentler. "Ketevan, the Georgian for Catherine— it's a lovely name— suits you. You should tell your relative that he shouldn't have sent you a greeting on your name day for the past decade. That's what made it easy to deduce you. On the Russian Orthodox calendar, it would have been the 7th of December; in the Catholic calendar, it's the 26th of November. But your name day is the 26th of September when those messages arrived, because you're named after Queen Ketevan, martyred in 1624 on that day in the modern Georgian calendar."

He doesn't know my surname. She starts breathing again. "I am definitely calling your brother. You are off your head. He'll not be amused that you're using again."

"He's already deduced it. But he won't have predicted me being here with you. He tends to think of you as his own private possession. How does it feel to be owned?" Again, he is looking at her with an almost feral pleasure in his gaze.

She narrows her eyes at him, ducks under his arm and walks further into the room. He might stop her from reaching her phone in the living room, but she isn't surrendering just yet. This was a test of wits.

He laughs, a full throaty baritone. "So, does he call you Keta or Keti?"

"I have no idea what you are talking about, Sherlock, but I do know it's time to stop playing silly games. Just get out of my apartment NOW!." She puts every bit of annoyance and anger she has into that word, in the hope of getting through to him.

"It's no game. I've been thinking about the likely code book. One that you, your relative and Mycroft might legitimately have on your bookshelves. I have an eidetic memory for the contents of Mycroft's bookshelves in the townhouse, but that wouldn't help if it were just up to Mycroft— I'd have no chance of figuring out the particular book—and he knows it. But, with two other parties involved, that narrows the field considerably."

Don't look. She wills herself to be still. She focuses on the view outside her second floor window, over the little strip of darkness that is the grass behind the block of flats. Then she decides to try to throw him off the scent and casts a quick glance as she turned, just catching a glimpse of the politics section on the bookcase near the door.

He comes closer to her back, and bends to whisper in her ear, "Now who's playing games? Ketevan was martyred not in Georgia, but in Shiraz— that's in Iran. Brings Persian poetry to mind, doesn't it?"

He's fishing. Don't let on.

But any chance of her keeping control is punctured when he follows up, "It's not hard, you know. Books on your shelves and his. You have twenty three poetry books, all in the native languages in which they were written. Interestingly, he has over sixty—and there are twenty duplicates on both your shelves. Only nine in English, but seven in Persian. So, is it Rumi?"

She turns to face him again, studiously avoiding looking at the section of the bookcase that holds her poetry collection.

He wrinkles his nose. "No…too sentimental; love poetry? Don't think so—not his style. For the same reason, I'd kick out Hafez. You've got a volume of Nizami Ganjavi, but he doesn't."

She stills her breathing, concentrating on keeping it slow and steady.

"Maybe Omar Kayyham? The philosophy and mathematics would appeal to Mycroft; but the poetry is rather hackneyed for his intellectual taste."

She realises he is toying with her, provoking her. She forces a calm smile.

The smirk returns. "You've been looking everywhere but the right place, and that tells me everything I need to know." He glances at that place on the shelf before continuing "Sometimes, what you don't do is just as revealing as what you do."

He walks to the shelf and draws out a fat volume.

"Deducing the right one is easy. There is one author he'd favour, if just for the title alone: 'The Book of Kings', Firdowsi's Shahnameh. Of course, Mycroft knows all sixty thousand couplets by heart. He's such a show-off, never could resist memorising the world's longest epic poem."

She closes her eyes in defeat. Game over.

 

Chapter Text

"Good evening, M'Lord."

His housekeeper greets him at the door to Number 2, South Eaton Place. Mycroft takes in her slightly anxious manner, and gives her a faked smile designed to reassure, as he slips out of his coat and scarf. Before she can say anything, he forestalls her.

"Thank you, Miss Forester. The security team has already advised me." He keeps his tone calm, even though his actual thoughts are anything but. Now is not a good time to be expressing anything of what he is actually feeling. Mycroft has elevated to an art form his ability to manage a crisis behind the façade of utter placidity, and right now he needs to be a veritable Michelangelo, so he focuses on the purely domestic. "Did Lady Caroline ask you to provide our two guests with some refreshment?"

"Yes, M'Lord. They opted for tea, which I served fifteen minutes ago."

Behind him, the chauffeur rolls his carry-on bag into the hall. "We'll need to leave again in twenty minutes, sir, if we are to make the reception in time."

That will be cutting it very fine; his schedule has been tightened by the delay in landing his plane: "congestion" on the flightpath. Mycroft's burdens had gone from overwhelming to somewhere impossibly heavier when the call from security had come in on his way home from the airport. "Sir, Lady Caroline has just admitted two visitors to the townhouse— Miss Diane Goodliffe and Doctor Cohen."

Because he had been alone in the back of the car, he had allowed himself to put his hand to his head in dismay, but he was able just to stifle the accompanying sigh, so no discomfort had been expressed to his head of personal security.

"Not to be helped, Chalmers; thank you for the warning." Crisp, business-like. No need to let anyone know what he really thought.

Mycroft had then spent the next forty minutes inwardly cursing this latest case of bad timing. Traffic was tediously slow around Hammersmith—even the flyover was nose-to-tail traffic. He’d had time enough to phone Ketevan again. He'd dared not risk a call to her from Tbilisi; who knows who might have been listening? But after his two days' absence, once on British soil he'd been disappointed not to find her in the waiting car. He’d tried to connect as soon as he got in the car, only to find his call going straight to voice mail, again. Her phone was almost never on voice mail, and when he’d got put through to it again, his level of anxiety had ratcheted up yet another notch. Even though his previous call would have left a caller ID she'd recognise, this time he’d left a message.

"Call me now."

He’d kept the tone of his voice mail message to her sounding routine— not the scream of alarm and worry that he was actually feeling. Mycroft needed to be able to talk to the only person alive who would really understand what is going on in his head at the moment.

The appalling traffic around Cromwell Road had given him yet more time to realise that he just needed to calm down. His PA is entitled to a private life. Although what he'd discovered in Georgia had been terrible, it wasn't especially time sensitive. Mycroft had spent a few moments in the back of the car to compose himself. He had been exhausted by the trip, both mentally and physically, but too agitated to contemplate rest. He knows for certain that sleep tonight would be impossible. At home alone, he would have been driven to keep working, even though he knows he is far from peak performance.

In fact, for that very reason, Mycroft has not cancelled his original plans for the evening. He is actually looking forward to the diplomatic reception for the new Head of EU Mission as a bit of down time to be spent with Caroline. For just a few hours, he needs the solace and distraction of her company in the splendid surroundings of Whitehall's Banqueting House. Mycroft realises that she had become an oasis of calm in his mind, and after his discoveries in Georgia, he is in sore need of that respite.

Now standing in the hall of his townhouse, looking at the bamboo cane handle of his furled umbrella as he passes it to Miss Forester, he cannot help but think of the old adage, it never rains, but it pours. As horrible as the past two days have been for him, if Sherlock's therapist and the psychiatrist have joined forces to arrive at the townhouse without an appointment, then his brother must be deteriorating rather faster than he had predicted. And that throws an unexpected spanner into his plans for this evening at the very least.

Pausing in the hallway for a moment, Mycroft takes a deep breath, and then pushes open the door to the front sitting room.

Lady Caroline is already dressed in an elegant emerald green evening dress, sitting in her favourite chair; the two other women are rather uncomfortably perched on the settee, their formal posture influenced no doubt by their reasons for being there. The furniture is French antique; he had reinstated his mother's heirlooms after his father died, including a pair of hand-coloured prints of hunting scenes by Carle Vernet, a relative from the French side of her family. Mycroft has always found the bright, feminine room a pleasant reminder of her exquisite taste, and it usually calms him.

One look at Esther Cohen's face eliminates that effect.

"Oh, dear—a deputation." What might have come out flippant manages to end up sounding like more weary resignation.

Lady Caroline flashes him a sympathetic smile, and then stands. "I'll give you some privacy."

For a moment, he hesitates and almost asks her to stay. But, out of the corner of his eye, he sees Esther give a tiny shake of her head as if to say, not a good idea.

But he isn't quite prepared to throw away his evening respite. "Before you go, my dear, let me find out how long this is going to take."

Briskly, Doctor Cohen answers, "Too long to make the reception that Lady Caroline has been telling us about. Sorry, you will need to make your apologies."

He sighs, and Caroline puts a hand gently on his arm as she passes. "No problem. I'll contact the chargé d'affaires, then change and wait for you in the conservatory when you're done."

"I'm sorry, my dear, having you come all this way from Wiltshire for nothing. Tell Mrs Forester about our change of plans; she'll fix you something light for a meal." His own stomach is so acidic that he's been off his food for the past thirty six hours— ever since he'd looked through a particular prison cell door and not seen the person he so desperately needed to see in there.

Mycroft hears Caroline shut the door quietly behind her, as he turns to the two women. Esther Cohen is wearing her concern like a suit of armour. He's come to know that look over the years, and it no longer surprises him. The other woman takes more deducing. He's only met Diane Goodliffe a few times—once before Hartswood and then only in passing at the Manor House in Reigate.* She exudes an aura of conscious controlled calm; no doubt, she is well trained in handling relatives of her clients.

Suddenly tired of all the politeness, he snaps out, "So, are you proposing an intervention? Or is this an early warning?"

The auburn-haired therapist is slightly startled by his sudden bluntness, but the older psychiatrist takes it in her stride. "That depends on you, Mycroft."

He drops wearily down into the chair that Caroline has just vacated, catches the trace of her Cabochard perfume and closes his eyes for a moment, using the scent to ground himself. Then he opens his eyes. "Why? What's he done now?" He puts a little more stress on the last word, to underline his irritation.

Esther defers to the therapist, who begins to speak in her quiet contralto. "It's more what he might do that brings us here, Mister Holmes. I had a visitor yesterday: a Miss Hooper, whom I believe you know. She told me about the last time she saw Sherlock and his state of mind at the time. I would not normally discuss a client with someone, but Sherlock has terminated our contact. When I tried to contact him after her visit, his text was…to the point." She recites from memory: "No further need of your services. Goodbye."

He sniffs. "Yet, for some reason you chose to ignore professional ethics and got in touch with Doctor Cohen."

Goodliffe nods, slowly. "There are circumstances when the person's well-being require action be taken. I consulted a medical professional, and …"

"…here we are." Esther completes the sentence.

"So, what is it this time?"

Perhaps it is her age that gave her courage, but Doctor Cohen snaps, "It worries me that you don't know the answer to that question yourself. I understand you've been away, but it's not like you to be too busy to notice or to listen to those you pay to keep an eye on him. If you had bothered, you'd know that he's had at least one episode of disassociation and sensory meltdown. There is a strong suggestion that he is taking drugs.He's lost control of some of his executive function, and was showing perseveration symptoms before he disappeared off the radar two days ago.  These are symptoms I haven't seen from him in more than a decade— and we both know how it ended on that occasion— with an intentional overdose. When was the last time you spoke with your PA?"

The apparent non sequitur disturbs him. There is no way he can answer her question with the whole truth. He hadn’t actually spoken to Ketevan, but the text he’d received on his way to the airport told him that Sherlock had managed to get his hands on the code book. His countdown had started ticking then. It was only a matter of time before Sherlock knew more about that someone being held in Tbilisi; Mycroft knew it would take his brother some time to decode the two files, even with the code book. And then he would need to think about what it meant, because that would not be clear from the data on the two files. He'd know that there was a person of interest in Georgia and that something or someone was being moved—but, thank God, not enough to know who that someone was or why he'd been incarcerated there. There are less than a dozen people in the world who knew the prisoner is Mycroft's half-brother— well, a dozen, if you counted Fitzroy Ford himself in that list. But, knowing Sherlock was on the trail had put even more pressure on Mycroft to find out what he needed to know in Tbilisi.

Unfortunately, it had turned out to be the worst case scenario. No, that was inaccurate; it was even worse than he had feared. He'd gone there thinking that the worst would be to find that someone is killing his agents because they are trying to discover what lies behind his "the Georgian Connection", as Lady Smallwood once called it, and just who is languishing in the Gldani prison.

What he'd found is far, far worse— the stuff of nightmares, if truth be told. When he’d looked through the prison door window, the person inside was not Fitzroy Ford, not the man he and Ketevan had personally escorted into the prison in 2001 for crimes committed against quite a number of states. Ford had managed not only to escape, but he'd put in place a substitute who was willing to endure solitary confinement and play the part demanded of him. The blood that was supposed to be proof of Ford's continued incarceration has been duly drawn each month from an imposter.

DNA doesn't lie. But, what Mycroft had not factored into the arrangement is that the record held by his service against which the sample was tested could be altered, and he would never realise the difference. The positive match could be reported to him, and passed onto Magnussen without him realising that it was fraudulent. The monthly contact reports, the photographs and video footage that had been forwarded to London as additional proof were therefore all lies—fabricated earlier but doctored to show them as current, even though regular tests were supposed to have been done to ensure that was not occurring. In short, somewhere in his own service, there is a traitor willing to do Ford's bidding.

Mycroft had gone from total disbelief straight through complete panic and onto incandescent rage, while standing there looking dumbfounded at the prisoner who was not his half-brother.

Under questioning, it had taken him only two hours to realise that the mute imposter was simply a patsy who had been blackmailed into taking Ford's place and knew nothing about exactly how and when the switch of prisoners had occurred, nor about the extent of corruption in the whole chain of command, from prison officers all the way up to the head of the Security Service in Georgia and beyond into the UK, where the record held by the MI6 facility had been altered, so the tests would be declared positive.

That had set Mycroft off on another frenzy of interrogations in Tbilisi— private occasions, orchestrated by Ketevan's father who had been willing to call in every favour he'd ever been owed. Unfettered by British legal rules about interrogations, he’d uncovered a truth that is shocking. The plot to release Ford had started nearly four years ago.

For years, whilst still in his specially constructed solitary confinement cell block, Ford had been in daily contact with a network of associates and able to start planning his escape. When it finally came to the escape, Mycroft had been otherwise pre-occupied, watching the final stages unfold of his brother's plans to take on Moriarty. As long as the blood samples, the photographs, video footage and verbal reports from his agents confirmed every month that his older half-brother was still in his Gldani cell, Mycroft had been content to focus his attention on the imminent departure of his younger brother, off on his little crusade to destroy Moriarty.

As soon as Mycroft had realised what Ford had done, the pieces started to fit together. The recorded conversation in Svan on the USB proved the key to unraveling the timing of Ford's escape. The "package" referred to in the conversation must not have been about some future attempt to smuggle a person over the border from Georgia, under the guise of a mountain climbing expedition. What the informant had not realised was that this transfer must have already happened, three or four summers ago. Although he couldn't pinpoint the exact date, Mycroft had been able to confirm that the person taken over the border had never spoken a word, and knows that this is because his half-brother no longer had a working pair of vocal chords.

The new head of the Intelligence Service, Davit Sujashvili, had been more than willing to help Mycroft and Ioseliani uncover the extent of his predecessor's failings. According to the files, the guard who’d opened the channels of Ford's communication had been steadily promoted, eventually reaching the position of Chief Warden of the service keeping this particular prisoner secure. Under interrogation, the man revealed that the former head, Gela Bezhuashvili, had met Ford before, in America, when the Georgian was a 'mid-career student' attending the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. As soon as Gela Bezhuashvili had been appointed the new head of the Georgian Intelligence Services, things had begun to change. Ford had been at work, plotting his revenge for the past forty-two months.

When Mycroft had learned this, watching the prison warden being subjected to a form of interrogation that he would never have been legally allowed to use against his own prisoners, he'd felt nauseated. A few minutes later, heaving up bile in one of the most disgusting toilets he'd ever been in, all he could think of was that at any time over the past four years Fitzroy Ford could have destroyed both him and Sherlock, by tipping off Magnussen and getting him to print in his newspapers the story of how in 1996 Mycroft had killed three men to cover up his brother's murder of Stephen Mason**. Lies, but believable, given the evidence.

No sooner had he realised that fact, another had come chasing after it, to make him heave again. Mycroft had finally realised who had "commissioned" Moriarty's attack on both him and Sherlock. Because mere publication would not have been enough for Ford, he wanted Mycroft to suffer, and he wanted Sherlock dead, his reputation destroyed first.

Somehow, from somewhere, Mycroft has found the means to keep going, if only to find out exactly how Ford had managed it and is still managing it. All that mattered now is stopping Ford from wreaking his final revenge.

Mycroft's new understanding has allowed him to pull the threads together in the plot that has more twists than a Persian carpet. The murder of the agent that Sherlock solved in the Lee Valley carpark is probably a loose end being tied up— the man had served in MI6 before coming to S&ILS— perhaps he was the one who’d changed the DNA record. Or it could have been the female agent who ended up in pieces in the sports bag at Ryder Place. He wishes he still had the assassin taken captive at the Arnsworth Castle Hotel while trying to recover the file that had been on the USB brought in by Iuri Malkhaz Chkhetidze. Unfortunately, the cyanide he'd used to try to kill Mycroft's man wasn't the only poison the man had in his possession. He'd recovered consciousness in the copter, but even cuffed, he'd been able to use his tongue to break a capsule lodged in one of his fillings. And his target hadn't much help either; he is still in a coma, nearly brain dead from the cyanide.

Dead men can't be interrogated. That is something Ford had told him once, long ago, standing over the bodies of the three men that he had just killed using a gun that had Mycroft's fingerprints all over it.

"Mycroft? When did you last speak to your PA?"

The fact that Esther Cohen has had to repeat the question makes him grimace, and close his eyes. He is so tired. "Two days ago."

"So, you didn't know that he's disappeared since then?"

That makes Mycroft snap his eyes open again. "Disappeared?" The thought of Sherlock going AWOL at the same time that Ford is out there somewhere makes Mycroft's stomach clench to a whole new level of tightness. As he fights back a wave of nausea, he tries to calm himself.

Do not panic. The same scenario had occurred during Sherlock's two years taking down Moriarty's network but Ford had not found him. In an odd way, being undercover and out of London might well have given his little brother protection in a way that Mycroft would not have been able to do. His mind now starts drawing connections between various threats over the past four months— the bonfire and the Westminster bomb, to name just two; then Sherlock's latest escapade with the six pearls, the dwarf and the poisoned dart.

A small voice in his head cautions against over-reacting. It might be hyperbole to suspect Ford's hand behind every botched case, dead agent or unexplained mystery.

And yet…

The very idea that Ford's shadow might be somewhere in the background of the attempt to blow up Westminster when just about everyone in authority in British Intelligence had been in the vicinity— it would have been a perfect form of revenge on the services that had imprisoned his half-brother. With Lord Moran now dead, there is very little chance he'd ever be able to track down the connection, to prove what he is now imagining.

Dead men cannot be interrogated. He can still hear that snide comment, uttered all those years ago, in that peculiar trans-Atlantic accent of his half-brother.

Before he can follow that thought though, Esther Cohen interrupts.

“Yes, disappeared. No forwarding address, gone to ground, and any of the other metaphors you've used in the past to describe Sherlock's favourite avoidance tactic. This is either a breakdown or a relapse and the question is what you are going to do about it?"

Diane Goodliffe appears to wince at the forthright directness of the psychiatrist's challenge, and she offers in a more conciliatory tone, "I've contacted John Watson, who has put out some feelers through what he called Sherlock's 'homeless network'—that was yesterday. He's heard nothing."

All Mycroft can think about these revelations is why Ketevan has not managed to find a way to get a message to him about this. Abruptly, he stands up and says. "Forgive me ladies, but I need to make a quick phone-call." He strides out of the room and straight into the loo between his study and the conservatory, where he throws up.

When he emerges, he nearly walks straight into Caroline, whose worried face betrays the fact that she must have heard him being ill.

"Are you alright? Have you come down with something? You look…"

He cuts her off. "Touch of food poisoning. Something…rather indigestible, I fear."

She takes hold of his shoulders, her concern for him transmitted by the gentleness of her touch. "Poor you; how could you have ever thought of going out tonight?"

"Give me a few more minutes. I need to make a call."

"Can't it wait? I can give your apologies to Doctor Cohen and Miss Goodliffe: why don't you go lie down?"

For a moment, he wishes he could just let himself be comforted by her. But, that will not solve the problem, and he straightens his back. "I'll be done soon enough." He slips out of her arms and goes into the study, feeling her eyes follow him in there.

Mycroft calls his surveillance team.

As his rotten luck today would have it, the new man, Stephen Rawlings, is the duty officer on tonight. "Sir.  You're back. We have a situation."

"So I gather. Why haven't you or my PA called me before now?" He lets more than a little of his irritation out to express his displeasure.

There is a brief pause. "She was the one who texted to say we must not telephone you—not until you landed and contacted us."

"When was that?"

"Yesterday morning, sir. And she said that your brother would be 'off the grid' for a while and not to worry about it."

Why would Keta be protecting Sherlock? It makes no sense. "And just when did he elude your surveillance?"

"Disappeared the night before last, sir. His phone is still at Baker Street. Your PA's text said she was on the case; we were ordered to cease trying to locate him and she said she would inform you once you got out of the meeting with the Libyans."

So, at least she is sticking to the script of his whereabouts. Ketevan is the only one who knew where he'd really been. Is her absence and Sherlock's coincidental? The universe is rarely so lazy.

"Sir?"

"Very well, Rawlings. I want you to resume trying to find him. Contact me immediately if you find any trace— but do not under any circumstances approach him. Do you know where my PA is? She isn't answering her phone."

"Um, the text said she was with your brother, sir— on the same mission."

"Mission?" He lets his incredulity escape; "And just what was that?"

"Her text didn't say."

"Trace her phone now— and get me a location."

"I'm sorry, sir. It's not been showing up on any system at the moment. It went silent after the text was sent."

There are too many unpleasant scenarios swarming into his tired mind to make sense at the moment. "Track it back. Find the point of origin of that text and contact me as soon as you've located it."

He's just about managed to return his facial expression to its usual inscrutability as he re-enters the front sitting room. "Ladies, I thank you for your concerns, but you will have to leave this to me. My people are investigating and you can rest assured we will find him and deal with the situation."

The therapist's body language relaxes, telling him that she is willing to accept that. Esther Cohen's, however, shows anything but acceptance.

She stands up, unwilling to let him dominate her from his standing position, even though she is a good foot and a bit shorter than he was.

"Mycroft. This is serious—and we need to discuss this in more detail— it's not just something to be swept aside, or dealt with by others. Why Sherlock is missing is more important than the actual fact that he is. Talking to John and Mary, and what Diane learned from Miss Hooper suggest a real problem. Self-medication when he is depressed is a risk— and you know as well as I do that his pattern is to relapse badly one to two months after a stint at rehab. We are in that danger period. Why are you ignoring him?"

"As if I could or would ignore him." Actually, he'd give anything to be able to do so, to know that Ford was still in his prison and that the only thing he had to worry about is his brother's deplorable drug habits.

Esther ploughs on, "You know how badly Sherlock handles life transitions; well, John's marriage is just such a transition. He's about to lose the person around whom he’s structured his life for the past four and a half years. As we heard at Hartswood, even when he was away, John Watson remained in that role. Sherlock's been apparently obsessing about the wedding planning as a way of not facing the situation, and Lestrade says he's turning down cases left, right and centre. If no longer taking an interest in The Work not a sign of depression, I don't know what is. When was the last time you spoke to him?"

Her challenge cuts rather to the core of the matter. His most recent exchanges with Sherlock had been related to the two incidents involving Georgians—and had been terse to say the least. He’d had to shut down his brother's line of inquiry, and he is beginning to feel the same about Esther's. Mycroft's ability to manage his usual façade has been so battered by the events of the past two days that he is going to lose control if he doesn't.

He gives a dismissive sniff. "We spoke a few days ago, briefly—related to a case he was working on—one that I cannot discuss with you. I saw no evidence of what you are describing. In fact, I had to tell him to cease his involvement in something that is really none of his business."

Esther starts shaking her head. "You don't learn, do you? Do you remember what I said to you in the summer before he went up to university?"

Curtly, he replies, "You said a great many things that summer, Doctor Cohen. To what do you refer specifically?"

"I told you that you must not lie to him, and that it's not the mistakes he makes that matters; it's how he deals with them—and how you deal with him when he does. If he thinks you are going to…" she pauses as if trying to choose her words carefully, but then forges ahead, "…disapprove, or if he thinks you are lying to him, then he won't be honest with you. He's always done that. How do you know that his decision to cross your path on this case of yours isn't actually the only way he can get you to notice what is happening to him?"

He resists the temptation to roll his eyes again in exasperation. "If you think this is his way of attention seeking, then you don't know my brother as well as I have assumed you do for all these years. Sherlock hasn't sought my approval for anything he's done since he was seven years old."

"Since Hartswood, you've been rather conspicuous by your absence from his life, Mister Holmes. May I ask why?" The quiet contralto of the therapist cuts across the glaring match going on between Esther and Mycroft.

He lets something of his irritation at the interruption show. "That is at his request, Miss Goodliffe. He's not dependent on me anymore. He just spent two years on his own proving that, making sure that I could not be a part of what he was doing."

Esther bristles. "You're still punishing him for that, are you?"

The therapist gets to her feet and approaches the arguing pair. Her stance is not threatening, as if Diane wants the effect of her joining them to calm the conversation down. She says, "There is a difference between being the all-seeing, all-knowing figure controlling events in his life and the role of being supportive, helping him to understand and deal with his emotions. In John's absence, you'll be the only person he will let take on that role. How does that make you feel?"

Mycroft looks down at the woman. He would have given a lot to be able to express to her what he really felt, which is nothing short of terrified. Right now, given the fact that every moment he is in Sherlock's presence his brother would be trying to deduce who is at the other end of the Georgian connection, keeping his distance is necessary. But, he cannot tell her any of that. He decides that attack is the best defence.

"Surely, that is something that you and Doctor Cohen are trained to deal with? Sherlock does not seek, nor does he welcome contact with me."

His answer seems to pain the auburn-haired woman, but it is Esther who responds first. "You are the most significant figure in Sherlock's life— whether you like it or not, Mycroft Holmes. When he needs you, will you be there for Sherlock?"

Without thinking, he answers, "Of course, I will. I'm always there for him. He knows that."

She raises an eyebrow. "Does he? Really? Then why are you avoiding him now?"

Words fail him.

Esther waits. He is still struggling to find something to say when his phone vibrates.

"Excuse me." He watches her face express her frustration at the interruption.

The text is a location in northwest London. He hits re-dial. "Dispatch a team. I will meet you there."

Mycroft puts his phone back in his pocket. "Excuse me ladies, but duty calls," And he leaves them without another word.

oOo

"Why? I want to know why, Sherlock."

"You know the reason."

Actually, he is probably right. Ketavan had not understood his actions at first, but now she is beginning to realise how Mycroft Holmes' little brother's brain actually works, even when he is high.

She lifts her arms up to stretch her shoulders and her neck pops as she tilts her head first left and then right. She is feeling the effects of her captivity. The past forty eight hours have crawled by. He's left her only twice that she has been aware of, for somewhere in the region of an hour each time. Probably to top up on the drugs. She finds it interesting that he would be reluctant to do so in front of her.

The small windowless room had been set up with the basics. There are bottles of water, a clean mattress for her, and a pair of buckets with tops that are removed and emptied when he goes out, so the place didn't reek. She's been given food, too. She hasn’t seen him eat and he does not seem to sleep at all.

As soon as she'd realised that the game was up in her flat, she'd thought for a moment about resisting, but as soon as the idea occurred to her, his baritone rumble of a chuckle had been followed by a gentle, almost bemused comment. "You know there is no point. I have no intention of hurting you, so just bear with me for a few minutes."

Sherlock had bound her hands, gagged her, put earplugs into her hears, blindfolded her eyes and then escorted her from her apartment building— down in the lift and into what she guessed was the basement garage. Throughout it all, he was gentle, and kept asking her if it was too tight or uncomfortable. It felt more like a drill than the real thing. Then she had been helped into what she assumed was the back seat of a car, strapped in with a seatbelt, her cuffs looped by some sort of belt or tie to the headrest in front so she couldn't reach anything like a door handle. She’d tried to keep track of the time elapsed and the direction of turns, but after some forty minutes, had to admit that she had no idea where she was being taken.

Then the same process of being moved occurred in reverse, except that there had been no lift involved. Sherlock picked her up out of the car. She'd always thought he didn't like to be touched; hadn't Mycroft said that to her once? But, when she was being carried, cradled in his arms like some damsel in distress, Keta had realised a lot of things about Sherlock. There is whipcord muscle under that Belstaff.

He's stronger than he looks. And warmer, too. She's never been in close physical contact with Sherlock before, and his Hammam cologne is carrying an undercurrent of sweat and tobacco— it is a rather heady aroma.

Sherlock had carried her down what she guessed was a flight of stairs into what she assumed was one of his infamous bolt-holes that the Surveillance Team had not yet discovered. The he’d gently removed the blindfold and gag, taken out her earplugs and uncuffed her.

"Are you all right?"

She had snorted. "What… you mean apart from being kidnapped, held against my will and being treated like a prisoner?"

He’d nodded, but his slightly sheepish smile showed her that he too found the situation almost amusing.

She's read the file; she knows what he was capable of, so there is no question of resisting or trying to escape. That said, she realises she isn't frightened— rather, more than a bit intrigued to know what he was up to.

Looking around, Keta had realised as prisons went, this one wasn't bad. It was clean and comfortably warm. Sherlock had sat down in one of the other two chairs in the room. That made her curious. Who was he expecting to take the third chair?

His brother, of course. This whole kidnap scenario is being staged to get Mycroft's attention.

He had watched her look at the empty chair and draw her conclusions. He'd chuckled and said "Let's see how long it takes him to notice your absence."

Time had crept by, and Sherlock had told her to take the mattress and catch some sleep. "If he hasn't noticed yet, then he's either asleep or otherwise engaged; might's well make the most of it."

After trying for a while to stay awake, she'd given up and left him to his work on the decoding— using her laptop, she noticed. Even with the Shahnamah book, going from English, into Georgian and then into Persian would take time. She had wondered what he would make of her last Facebook post and whether he'd spot the coded message she'd left for her father: from Georgian, into Persian and then English, eventually he'd be able to read it as "expect package am; special delivery" —not particularly original she had to admit, but it was her father's phrase for Mycroft.

"He's special, Keta— the whole of the British Government in one neat package; don't let the placid exterior fool you. Holmes is the cleverest person alive. You will be safe with him. Learn what you can; he can teach you more than I will ever be able to here."

When she'd woken up, she had no idea how much time had passed; Sherlock had taken her watch off before they left her flat. She'd stretched and then realised she needs a pee.

"Use the yellow bucket. Then wash your hands with bottled water, into the drain in the corner."

She had smiled ruefully. Both Holmes brothers like to show off that they know what she is thinking without her having to express it. He'd turned his chair away to give her a modicum of privacy, and for that, she is grateful.

When he turned around again, she'd seen him typing something into her phone.

"What are you saying to him?" She'd known he'd be texting his brother, but pretending to be her.

"The truth."

That made her laugh. "About this? Are you tired of waiting? You could have used your own phone for that."

"You just told him that I arrived at your flat and took the book away from you and I am working on the code."

"Why would you tell him that?"

He had smirked. "Because you're right; I am bored with waiting. Whether he shows up now, or waits until he's back from his little plane trip will tell me a lot about what's on those files, even before I finish decoding them."

There'd been no reply to his text, at least none that she’s heard, and nothing much happened, either. He'd given her a sandwich, which she'd eaten, and she had more water. Hours passed with him engrossed in the file that was up on his Surface, whilst rifling through the pages of her copy of the Shahnameh. She'd known it wouldn’t be too long before he’d de-coded the two documents. She'd started thinking about the contents and what he would make of them. The first is simple: just the report of the prisoner's past month in a Word file. The second file contains embedded images: video, stills of that prisoner. Mundane and rather meaningless, if you don't know where, when or who is involved.

Time stretched out. He left the room, after apologising for cuffing her to the cast iron water pipe alongside the mattress. He'd unlocked the door and then locked it again from the outside. She'd been bored while he was away, and decided that she rather enjoyed watching him work on the code. She's not really had the opportunity to observe him properly at such close quarters for such an extended period of time. CCTV isn't the same. It doesn't catch the essence of the man.

Whereas Mycroft is all about a metallic almost cast-iron solidity, exuding assurance and authority, his brother is more like quicksilver. Even when engrossed in the decoding, his body moves, as if driven by the restless energy that characterises his thought processes. They are so different— and yet so alike.

She'd decided he is taking stimulants; even in the dim light of the room, she can see his pupils are as dilated as they had been when he was at her flat.

He'd stood up and stretched at one point and then had a pee himself, turning his back on her.

She sat on the mattress, to give her back a chance to rest from the hard plastic chair. Eventually, Sherlock had put the laptop away, and just sat staring at the wall for a long while, no doubt processing what he had discovered on the files, and putting the data together with the conversation he's translated. Even then, he wasn't motionless. His hands moved, as if he is shifting something that isn't there. She's seen him do this before, on footage from the flat and knows that he has a virtual evidence board.

She must have drifted off at some point, because when she wakes up, he has turned his chair to face her, and Keta realises that he must have put some elements together. She doesn't think that Sherlock really expected her to answer his questions. But she is surprised by the direction of his first question.

"You started working for my brother in 2001. Why then? Why did he need a PA from Georgia? You weren't trained by MI5 or 6, and you are far too intelligent to have worked for GCHQ. Your English was excellent. Good enough to pass for a native. How did that happen?"

It is asked in a conversational tone— the sort of "getting to know you" approach one might take on a first date. That thought makes her smirk. Sherlock Holmes' idea of that involves kidnapping and handcuffing, then small talk in an interrogation room. Some of the slightly edgy, predatory intimidation of the confrontation at her flat is still there she notices. Unlike Mycroft's solidity and mineral certainty, his brother is the exact opposite— all fluid motion, just barely held in check. For the first time, she understands what CCTV fails to capture—his animal magnetism.

She does not feel threatened by him. Keta knows that he will not harm her, because she is sure of one thing— if Sherlock did hurt her, Mycroft Holmes would ensure he would regret it. She is safe in the assurance of his brother's protection. She knows it; he knows it, too. Perhaps for that reason, she feels she can deal with him as an equal, no matter how strange her current situation.

"I'll answer your question, but you'll have to answer one of mine in exchange."

That earns her a quirk of a smile and a tiny nod.

"I am English. I was born in this country and I have an English passport. My mother was English. I went to boarding school in Kent. Then did languages at Canterbury before going abroad."

A knowing smile blooms on Sherlock's lips. "Daddy's favourite little girl," he whispers.

She realised he is looking at her intently, deducing her blatantly. All she can think of is how differently his brother does the same thing, but always behind a façade of polite sociability. Mycroft is a master at hiding his deductions; Sherlock is shamelessly blatant in his.

"You're about the same age as me, maybe a year younger. He recruited you in Georgia. I was in rehab at the time you showed up."

"Actually, you'd gone walk-about. I'm surprised you even remember meeting me; you were rather high at the time."

Keta remembers it well. When the telephone call had come through from the rehab facility, she'd been in the car with Mycroft, working with him on the way back from the airport, briefing him on the meetings he would be facing later that day. They'd been working together for about three months, but he was already trusting her to a degree that sometimes startled her.

The man her father called 'The British Government' had rolled his eyes in dismay at whatever was being said on the other end of the phone call, before he snapped. "I thought the fees you are being paid would have sufficed to guarantee you kept my brother securely locked up." There was another delay, presumably while the medical staff made their excuses, then Mycroft had asked, rather wearily, "How long has he been out?"

For a moment, Keta had wondered whether something had happened in Tbilisi, but then she’d realised he must be talking about his other brother, whom she'd heard about vaguely, from the other S&IL staff. She had looked up from her Blackberry and then pointedly out the window. There had been no real way to give her boss the privacy that this call seemed to demand.

"Very well. I will find him and return him as soon as I can."

The intercom to the chauffeur had been clicked on with some force. "Stimson, head to West Wickham." Then he’d been on his phone to the office, with someone she assumed was manning the surveillance desk this afternoon. "Someone seems to have missed the fact that my brother has left the Priory. Get onto the CCTV and give me a direction of travel and last known whereabouts."

The order had been given in what Ketavan was beginning to recognise as his most authoritative tone of voice- the "do-as-I-say-right-now-and- you-might-live" tone. He managed to sound even scarier than her father, and that was saying a great deal.

Mycroft started scrolling through his phone numbers, then connected with one. "Good afternoon, Doctor Cohen. Whatever you said to him today, he's gone walkabout. Any ideas where?" It was as nonchalant as if he were asking a neighbour about a dog that had gone astray.

Whatever this doctor said, it had given Mycroft enough information to think about in silence for the next ten minutes. When the car crossed the Thames, heading south, the phone had rung and he answered.

"Yes."

After listening for a minute, he’d replied. "Don't approach him, and don't let it happen again."

Mycroft thumbed the intercom again to the driver. "The Omega Café on the A232. He's sitting out front, apparently."

He’d turned to her with a slightly strained smile.

"I suppose, my dear, as you are one of the few souls on earth who knows about my elder sibling rotting in a prison cell, I should introduce you to my other brother, Sherlock. At this moment, he's supposed to be in a securely locked room at a rehab centre. Ironic—my two siblings behind bars. The two facts are not unconnected."

Mycroft had looked out the window, as if deciding something. "My dear, I am going to trust you with information that is even more important than a state secret. Under no circumstances must Sherlock ever learn that he has an older half-brother. That is something I have successfully managed to keep from him ever since I myself found out about the blood ties to the man you know to be rotting in Gldani prison. My half-brother is a bastard in more ways than one; he has tried on several occasions to have Sherlock killed. He is also the person behind addicting Sherlock to cocaine when he was seventeen. And we are still dealing with the consequences of that."

The car turned off the Streatham High Street, taking a left onto the A214. He’d kept his eyes on his umbrella handle, rather than look at her.

"My dear, I would not burden you with this tedious family history, except for one fact. No doubt, there will be occasions when Sherlock requires my attention when I am not available. So, it is best you know it all now, so that if needs be, I can trust you to do the right thing."

As the car made its way southward through Norwood, he then told her the story of his younger brother. Of the whys and wherefores that led him to be Sherlock's legal guardian. Of the trials and tribulations of his time at school, and then university. And how, unlike her, his little brother had not yet been able to find a way to make the transition from university into employment and life as an independent adult.

"He is under continuous surveillance, as a protected family member. I use my own people in preference to the SO6 people; well, it seems sensible." And he had told her about Sherlock's drug problems that had ended with his sectioning two months ago. "He's in the Priory hospital in Hayes, chosen because it is only a mile away from Doctor Cohen, who works at the National Autism Centre at the Bethlem Hospital. He's been her patient since he was ten- she met him there when he'd been admitted after trying to kill himself with a drugs overdose. He was in a paediatric clinic at the time, being treated for a major depressive episode, mutism, and catatonia."

The idea of a ten year old trying to kill himself with drugs had shocked her. Keta's exposure to drugs had been very limited. Her university days had been spent studying and her girlfriends had no idea she was from Tbilisi- her mother was from Norfolk, and holidays were spent at her grandparents' house in Barford, eight miles from Norwich. She'd stayed away from boys. The uni lads were, well…just so immature compared to the young men she'd had limited contact with in Georgia. To say her father was protective was an understatement, but then she'd done little to provoke him, and had agreed to take this position with a man her father trusted completely. After three months, she’d known why and agreed with her father's opinion of the man now sitting beside her in the car.

Whatever she had expected in terms of her boss's reactions to his brother's drug use, the reality had been quite different. He’d asked the chauffeur to drive up Croydon Road, and then park along the front of a parade of perhaps a dozen small ground floor shops, the flats above were in a mock Tudor style. Mycroft had gotten out, and then almost on a whim had leaned back into the car and said, "Come with me."

Keta had walked with him to the far end of the parade, to a small family owned café called The Omega. Out front were four metal chairs and two little tables. Only one chair was occupied by a lanky youth with rather wild dark hair. He was wearing a pair of sunglasses, and dressed in jeans with a hoodie, smoking rather furiously. There had been three empty espresso cups in front of him, and the crumpled remains of an empty cigarette pack. He did not look anything like her boss, and she would not have assumed that they were related.

Mycroft had stopped in front of the youth and held out his hand, palm up. "Let me see it."

The young man had blown a smoke ring at him, somehow turning it into an act of extraordinary insolence. Then he’d stubbed out the cigarette and reached into the pocket of the hoodie, handing over a scrap of paper, which Mycroft had read.

"Not very original this time."

Sherlock had grinned. "Little short of cash, so I had to settle for cheap and cheerful."

"What did you expect? This is leafy suburbia."

"There are two secondary schools within a mile of here and there's some sort of college up the road; I thought that would surely be a source of income for some more enterprising dealer."

Mycroft had rolled his eyes. "Nash College is for students with learning difficulties***, a place that might be appropriate for you, Sherlock, if you can't learn to manage your deplorable habits better."

For a moment, Keta had watched the young man go completely still, and something fierce seemed to take hold of his features. Sherlock had taken off his sunglasses, so the full weight of his glare could be seen— as well as the dilation of his pupils.

Then he seemed to register her presence for the first time. "Oh! Your recruitment tastes are improving. She's better than your usual identikit Etonians." He was looking at her with intense scrutiny— and that's when she saw the family resemblance.

"Get in the car. I'm not about to let this little mishap derail you."

"I wasn't going anywhere—just wanted to show you that I could, if I really wanted to."

Mycroft had reached down to help his brother get to his feet, but the young man evaded his grip and stood by himself, then headed off rather wobbly towards the parked car.

Her boss had sighed, and fished a twenty pound note from his wallet, dropping it beside the ashtray full of fag ends.

Sherlock had given a sarcastic half salute to the driver standing beside the car. "Afternoon, Stimson. Ta for the lift. Could have used you earlier when I was popping out for some light refreshment."

She had been struck at the time by the fact that Sherlock was totally unabashed about being caught, and that her boss did not seem particularly distressed by his escape from the hospital. Through all the travails that had followed over the years, that first occasion had always stuck with her.

The memory emboldened her. "I've answered yours, Sherlock, so here's my first question for you—why are you high again? I thought that was all behind you now."

"Do you have any idea what is like to have Mycroft running your life?" He smirks. "Yes, of course, you do. He's like your father, only on steroids. Bigger, smarter, scarier. Someone to look up to. You're not afraid of him, though; you've never had reason to be. You trust him, because he trusts you. You'd do anything for him, anything to please him, to live up to the trust he puts in you. You have no social life, but that doesn't bother you at all, because you get your kicks out of being indispensable to him. You're needed— and that's what you want, to be seen as invaluable to someone as powerful as he is."

He is right, and she doesn't mind the deductions. If he'd asked, she would have said something to the same effect, if not in the same words. He looks away, over at the empty chair. "Now imagine if he doesn't. He doesn't trust you. He doesn't think you are worthy; you're the stupid one, the defective, the disappointment. He has absolutely no need of you; in fact, you are an embarrassment, an encumbrance, a nuisance."

When he looks back at her, she realised he isn't sparing her. "So, if you were me, Keta, in that situation what would you do?"

"Don't put your drug habit on him. He's not the one who takes the pills or injects the drugs, Sherlock."

Sherlock laughs and shakes his head. "I don't blame him. The only time I feel good about myself is when I'm high. It lets me pretend I'm normal. Cuts through the chemical disaster that is my brain, and allows me to concentrate. I'm using drugs now because I need to concentrate, so I can find out why he is lying to me again."

"Sherlock…" Keta looks at the empty chair. "You can ask him yourself when he gets here. How much longer do you think he will be?"

"That depends on when he calls your team and gets the message you texted them."

"When was that? What did I say?" He must have used her phone when she’d been asleep.

"That they were to stand down their surveillance on me and you until you texted again. We're on a mission, it would seem, and must not be interfered with."

"How long do you expect our mission to last?"

Sherlock sniffs. "Well, he's certainly not doing what you put in his diary. So, no trip to Tunis for talks with Libyan contacts. He's gone to Tbilisi, trying to track down something related to the prisoner mentioned in the file. He's gone himself for some particular reason, because whoever is behind the recent murders is making him nervous and unsure about whether he can rely on his usual chain of command in Georgia. This is clearly a private trip, which tells me a lot. He's so lazy that he wouldn't go himself unless he cared a lot. And here's my next question for you, why is he lying to me, and what does it have to do with the prisoner who is planning to escape from Tbilisi? Why would my brother care so much about that fact?"

At that point, Ketavan tries very, very hard to make sure that she betrays nothing of her relief. Yes, he has put everything together correctly. But, she now knows that Elizabeth Ffoukes had not told Sherlock who the prisoner is. It is the only loophole in the whole construct. When the decision had been made to incarcerate Fitzroy Ford back in 2001, Ffoukes had been in the room, and she’s one of the very few people in the world who know that the traitor Fitzroy Ford is related to Mycroft. Back then, Mycroft could not have predicted that eleven years later his little brother would forge his own working relationship with the DG of MI6. Ffoukes has denied telling him, but it the whole experience has strained the relationship between her boss and the MI6 Director.

She just smiles. "As I said, you'll have to ask him yourself."

Sherlock shrugs and looks back down at the phone. "When he lands, he'll get them to trace the text back—I made no attempt to hide our location."

"So, how long will it take him? Let's make a bet." She makes her voice playful, teasing.

He looks up at her again. "You're very confident."

"I have every reason to be."

He draws a shaky breath, and she realises that her comment has made him sad. "Sherlock, why does that bother you?" His reaction surprises her.

"You've known him for less than half my lifetime, and yet he trusts you more than he has ever trusted me. He knows you won't have told me anything."

"Then what is all this …" she gestures around the room, "…for? Why go through this little charade?"

He won’t meet her eye. "To prove a point. I'm not going to give up. He is more than happy to continue lying to me, and yet willing to trust his secrets with you. I'm not stupid; you know exactly why he's gone to Georgia, and it's the same reason why he keeps you close to him. You're important to him in some way that I will never be. Not his fault. I was born this way. You're worthy of his trust; I'm not."

"Sherlock…" She wants to find a way, to make him see what she knows, that Mycroft loves his brother in a way that he cares about no one else. "You're so wrong about this." It makes her both sad for Sherlock and yet angry, too. He has never understood the pain that his plot with Elizabeth Ffoukes had inflicted on his brother. She had spent two years watching worry and guilt eat away at Mycroft.

They both hear a noise somewhere outside the room, above them.

"Want to bet? When he walks in the door, his first thought will be about you, wanting to know if you are all right, if I have harmed you in any way. You'll see."

The next sound they hear is a ram that smashes through the lock, and then the room is swarming with black uniformed men. Sherlock does not resist when they throw him off the chair and onto the floor, cuffing his hands behind his back and then drag him out of the room.

She is on her feet, shouting at them not to hurt him, when Rawlings appears at her side and pulls her away from Sherlock, as he is taken away.

When a moment later Mycroft walks in, he glances around the room, takes in the sight of the Surface tablet, her laptop and phone—and then the three chairs. He rolls his eyes, "Did he really think we were going to sit down and have a cosy little chat?"

"Sir…"

"Did he harm you in any way, my dear?"

"No, of course not."

Her tone of voice expresses some of her disappointment in him for that question. It earns her a raised eyebrow. "Stockholm syndrome? I would have thought you'd be glad to see him suffer a bit for what he's put you through."

She shakes her head vehemently. "It wasn't like that. What will happen to him?"

Mycroft hears the protective tone in her voice, and comes closer to face her, looking very intently at her. "What did he do to you? When he's high, he can be impulsive and …rather uninhibited."

To her surprise, she finds herself blushing. "No, sir, nothing like that. He treated me well. He just took me with him to keep me out of action long enough to do the decoding. And he wanted to…" she comes to a halt, not sure how to put it into words. Lamely, she finishes, "…I'll explain it in the car."

Outside the office block, she realises it is dark— and late. Agents are loading a black paneled van with a limp figure, and she finds herself hoping that they won't hurt him in the process.

"We'll take you home, my dear."

Mycroft opens the car door for her, but Keta hesitates, her eyes on the black van pulling away. "Where will he be taken?"

"Baker Street. Rawlings will babysit tonight. I'm too tired to deal with Sherlock now. I've learned over the years that he escapes prisons, if I'm foolish enough to put him in one." He suddenly stops. "Oh, Lord…the irony of that."

"Sir?"

He gestures into the car. "I'll explain, once you've debriefed me on what he did."

In the car, on her way home, Ketavan explains, noting as she speaks how tired Mycroft is. When she tells him that Sherlock has deduced the existence of the prisoner, but not his identity, she expects him to be relieved. The fact that the good news is not taken as such set off alarm bells.

"What happened, sir? What did you find?"

He gives her a pained smile. "Take the worst case scenario and then treble the horror, my dear. Our pigeon flew the coop some time ago, and has been out for the past three years planning our Armageddon."

"Gone?!" She whispers this, so shocked that she doesn't have breath to make it louder.

"Indeed. In the wind, plotting his revenge."

"Will my father be safe?"

"That is a good question. We don't know the extent to which Ford will target those who played a peripheral role; my guess is that he will focus most of his efforts on me and Sherlock."

She thinks it through. "He had to have someone in London, someone to falsify the records."

"Presumably. I'll think about that tomorrow. I will need your help."

"Sir, why won't you tell Sherlock about Ford? He could help, too."

Mycroft stabs her with a sharp look, as if seeing her for the first time.

"You have not said anything, have you?"

There is just a hint of menace that she has never heard directed towards her before. Ketavan feels like someone has opened the door of a deep-freeze. His suspicion hangs in the air between them.

"No, of course not. But, I … " she stops, struggling to find the best way to put it. "Given the situation now, sir, might it not be better that he knows? I mean, what real harm could there be in his knowing?"

Mycroft's face is stony. "Apart from having to confess that I've been lying to him for the past twenty years? Sherlock already thinks the worse of me; learning about that might just about destroy any hope of him ever listening to me again. And he needs to listen, now that Ford is back on the scene."

He straightens his tie. "The second reason is that in his current state of mind, if Sherlock were to learn that the only person he has ever loved— our mother— abandoned her first child, even if he was a bastard, it would destroy his memory of her. I can't do that to him. His mental state is too fragile to deal with that now." He looks out of the window into the darkness. "And Ford has tried to have Sherlock killed at least twice, by my reckoning. There is only one scenario worse than that."

"Sir?" She doesn't understand what could be worse than Sherlock being murdered by Ford; she thinks that Mycroft would give his own life to stop that from happening. That Sherlock did not know this fact just makes her sad, somehow. "What could possibly be worse?"

"What do you think would happen if Ford ever managed to convince Sherlock to join him? Two against one? I doubt I'd be able to win, given those odds."

The rest of the journey passes in silence.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 14   T Minus 53

Mrs Hudson puts the tray down on the coffee table, and pours tea.

"We're not expecting the Queen, Mrs Hudson; no need to use your best china."

Mrs Hudson gives Sherlock a slightly offended look, but softens it with a tiny smirk. "I like to keep up standards for your visitors. No need to poison people with whatever passes for your version of washing up a mug."

"Thank you, Mrs Hudson. Quite kind of you, I am sure." Mycroft gives her his patronising smile, the one Sherlock has always thought he keeps in his repertoire to manipulate the servants at Parham.

She passes them both their cups and then looks back at the tray. "Should I pour one for…?" She nods towards the kitchen, where Stephen Rawlings is standing.

Mycroft replies before Sherlock can. "No, he's just leaving." He casts a meaningful eye into the kitchen. "Rawlings…you won't be needed for the next hour or so."

He then looks back at Mrs Hudson, who takes a moment to take the hint.

"Well, then; I'll leave you two to…" she hesitates, choosing her words carefully before continuing, "…discuss things."

She is followed downstairs by the agent. When the door is shut behind her, Sherlock drinks his tea, being willing to risk burning the roof of his mouth, rather than give Mycroft any eye contact. He counts the footsteps going down the stairs, the clunk of the front door being shut behind Mycroft's agent, and then the sound of Mrs Hudson's kitchen radio being turned up loud. She is clearly expecting the two brothers to start arguing, and past experience has told her this could get noisy. Sherlock doesn't blame her for wanting to avoid conflict; he'd have liked to have done so himself, if only his brother would have obliged.

Mycroft puts his full cup of tea back in its saucer. "How you can tolerate her plebeian taste in tea, I will never understand, Sherlock."

As opening salvos went, it is passive, almost conversational.

Sherlock doesn't look up, but takes another deep swallow of the tea. Whatever he thought about the relative merits of PG tips, he won't give Mycroft the pleasure of agreeing with him.

"Do I get a list this time?"

The question gets him a glare. "No need; I'm clean. I'll even take a test, if you want."

The glare is answered with a dismissive sniff. "That's probably true, but only because stimulants have such a short half-life, and you haven't been given the chance to resume your binge. Well, we did clear the flat out and install a baby sitter. I don't need a test to prove what I know to be true, because I believe my PA, who said you were clearly using stimulants."

"I wouldn't have had to, if you'd been honest with me."

"You've been using that excuse for far too many years, brother mine. It wears exceedingly thin these days." Mycroft studies his fingernails.

"You've been lying to me for far too many years, Mycroft, and your protestations of honesty are increasingly threadbare." He snaps this, rather waspish.

If truth be told (and he'd rather die than admit it) Sherlock is feeling the effects of coming off a three day stimulant binge. He wants nothing more than to raid his bolthole stash for something to take the edge off, just a benzo or three to help him sleep, or even a touch of opiate just to slide him gently down. Instead, he'd been transported back from the bolt hole in a black van and frogmarched up the stairs to the flat by four of Mycroft's team. The brawny agent Rawlings then unceremoniously stripped Sherlock of his clothes and handcuffed him to the bed, before sitting down in the corner to watch him. One of the other three agents rotated through every six hours, and not one of them proved willing to say a single word to him, no matter how much he provoked them through deductions about their personal and professional lives. His Serbian guards had been more vulnerable.

When he had needed to pee, one of the agents sat on his legs while the other did the necessary to direct the urine into a plastic bottle. He was given water through a straw, but no food. For the rest of the night and all the next day and night, Sherlock had gone nearly mad trying to keep his agitation under control; come downs were never easy, and doing so under this degree of constant scrutiny and invasion of his personal privacy had been unbearable. This morning, one of the agents arrived to tell him that he could get up, washed and dressed— his brother was coming to see him.

His hand does not tremble as he puts his empty tea cup back in the saucer.

Mycroft tuts, "Still dehydrated? I would have thought thirty nine hours would be enough to sober you up."

Sherlock counter-attacks. "How's Ketavan? Brought her up to date with all the Georgian gossip yet?"

Mycroft just looks at him. "I am going to assume that you bear the person in question no personal ill-will. As a result, you will not refer to her by any other name than the one she has given you. To do otherwise is to put Anthea at risk."

"Oh, dear, have I offended your sense of ownership?" It is less a question, more an observation. "Just who is it in Tbilisi that has rattled the bars of your cage so very hard? I don't think I've seen you quite so…irritated and worried in years, maybe even decades."

Of course, to anyone else's eye, Mycroft would have appeared unchanged, as unruffled and rigidly controlled as ever. But, Sherlock knows differently. The infuriating thing is that all his efforts to decode the files and put the data together have showed him that the end of the rainbow is in Tbilisi, but he has absolutely no idea what or who it is that has distressed his brother so much. From what Sherlock has been able to gather from Mycroft over the past ten minutes, he's put this mystery on as high a level as the time when his brother had discovered the Sigurson Plan. There is a difference this time, however; Mycroft is not angry with Sherlock on this occasion.

And that fact puzzles him even more, because the kidnapping of Ketevan had been designed to do just that. After years of experience, Sherlock knows that Mycroft revealed most when he is able to make him angry. Yet, Mycroft is not rising to the bait. In fact, he is distinctly avoiding the more blatant reprisal that Sherlock had expected. When he'd been manhandled by the agents into the back of the black van, he'd assumed he'd wake up in a rehab unit. It wouldn't have been the first time. So, despite the irritating presence of his brother's minions, his being held prisoner in the flat is an interesting wrinkle that Sherlock is still trying to work out.

Mycroft does not reply to his barb about his cage bars, but simply stands up and walks over to the tray on the coffee table to deposit his still full cup. Then he starts reading the Wedding Plan on the wall over the sofa.

"This is the first time I've had a chance to peruse your little distraction. Is it working to keep John Watson and his fiancé at arm's length?"

"Don't be so patronising, Mycroft. I'm immune to your attempts to play mind games with me."

Mycroft purses his lips, scrutinising the Gantt chart next to the map. He sniffs. "Neither of them realises that this is just a form of intellectual stimming, indulging your appetite for perseveration."

"Mycroft…" This is uttered in a warning tone, as Sherlock gets to his feet and closes the gap between them.

His brother is wearing one of his annoyingly knowing smiles. "Well, don't take my word for it. Your little pathologist friend spotted it, too. And now she's passed on the news to your latest therapist, and thence to Doctor Cohen, who both came to me— a veritable deputation of cognitive specialists to say how your executive functioning is being compromised. I must confess to not believing them at first. But looking at this…" he gestures to the wall, "…well, there's clear evidence of decreased flexibility and sub-optimal planning."

"In what way?!" Sherlock fails to keep the outrage from his voice. He has worked hard to manage the whole process; nothing is being left to chance.

"You're vetting the guest list— but you're not doing the same with the suppliers— any one of which could be using the wedding as yet another opportunity to prove to you yet again that threatening John Watson motivates you."

Sherlock turns his head to the side, as if hardly believing what he is hearing. "Why the sudden concern about John? You're the one who's been telling me he's got on with his life. Marriage will put enough distance between us that he won't be a target anymore."

Mycroft allows himself a stifled snort. "Is that the justification you give yourself as an excuse for this waste of your talents?"

"You'd prefer me to chase up a loose lead or two in Tbilisi?"

This time he does get the expected reaction— an ice-cold blast of dictatorial authority straight from the freezer. Mycroft went very still and then said through clenched teeth, "You will not even think of leaving the country, brother mine. I have put a stop on your passport; you won't get out of the country without me knowing it. And if you ever thought of using the false passports you must have stashed away as souvenirs of your gap year adventure, be assured that Georgian authorities have your visuals on a watch list."

Sherlock grinds his teeth before snarking, “Now we are getting somewhere. Such extreme measures… you are in a tizz.”

Mycroft reaches out and took a very firm grip on Sherlock's arm, turning him away from the wall to face him. "Listen very carefully, Sherlock. This does not concern you. It is merely the relic of something that happened a decade or more ago in the security services, and none— I repeat, NONE— of your business."

Sherlock stiffens at the physical contact, and shifts his gaze to where his brother's hand is gripping his arm. He thinks that whatever truce between them, formed after the Serbian debacle, ended the moment Mycroft laid his hand on his arm. Time for another flanking manoeuvre.

Deducing his thought processes, Mycroft adds, "It won't help you to run to Elizabeth Ffoukes this time. She will not help you in this matter. No one will. If I even suspect you are thinking of leaving the country, then you won't be given the courtesy of being returned to your flat; it will be confinement in a more secure facility. I won't need a sectioning order; it will be a matter of national security."

Sherlock keeps staring at the offending grip on his arm.

Eventually, Mycroft releases him. "Go back to your wedding planning, Sherlock. If you want to keep John Watson safe, then you need to stay off the drugs. It might embarrass the groom if his best man has to miss the big day because he's in rehab. And stay put in London, or you'll end up behind bars, unable to perform your duties for the Watsons on their 'Big Day'."

Mycroft turns away from the wall and walks to the coat hook. He puts his coat over his arm and collects the umbrella.

"Take your babysitter with you, Mycroft; he's not needed here."

"I'll be watching you, brother mine. Stay out of trouble, will you?"

Sherlock doesn't give him the courtesy of a reply. He walks over to the Wedding Wall, and starts a new sheet of paper. Writing "Suppliers on Site", he notes that they too will need to be vetted.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Sherlock, have you heard a single word I’ve said?”

Mrs Hudson’s acerbic tone brings him to the surface. He’s got a built in instinct for detecting a particular level of annoyance in someone that requires a response—it’s a skill honed from years of experience of not paying enough attention and then suffering the consequences when irritation erupts into aggression.

Not that Mrs Hudson is the type to resort to violence, but still…

Perhaps a glance will suffice. He turns his head to look at his landlady who is standing by the kitchen table, hands on her hips, arms akimbo, her very posture telegraphing annoyance. No, he can tell from her body language that a response is required. 

Sherlock grimaces. “Try again, Mrs Hudson. At the moment, my head is rather full of all that.” It’s a lie, of course. The real evidence board is in his Mind Palace, where he’s been working. But, she won’t know that, so he waves in the general direction of the wall behind the sofa which is festooned with notes, photos, maps and just about every conceivable bit of wedding paraphernalia.

“That’s just my point, young man. You’ve forgotten the most important part.”

A twinge of anxiety flares in his gut. He’s still feeling the side effects of his stimulant binge which kept him functional during Ketavan’s kidnapping. Ketamine always plays hob with his digestive system. His current drug of choice is kinder, but it can’t mask the physical consequences of his choice of anti-depressant. A month of gut rot have cost him weight, a fact that the tailor commented on at their final fitting.

“What have I forgotten?” The idea of missing something important at this stage strikes terror into his heart. It’s almost as disturbing an idea as what he’s been trying to work out in his Mind Palace this morning: what is Mycroft up to in Georgia, and why has it him stressed him out so?

“The speech. Honestly, Sherlock; you really only have to do one thing at John and Mary’s wedding, and that’s to give a good speech and lead the toast. That’s what a Best Man is for, after all.”

She tuts at him. “I took advantage of you being away yesterday morning to do some hoovering in here and looked at your wall. Not a sign of the speech on it. You can’t wish it away, you know. So, I thought I’d help. I’ve been to the library this morning and found you a book. Just follow the instructions; shouldn’t be too difficult. I’ve left it on the kitchen table, along with a couple of scones.” 

“I’m sure I can find whatever platitudes I need on the internet, Mrs Hudson. It’s a veritable font of wisdom on such matters.”

“You need to get down to it," she insists. "Writing it is only the start; you’ll need to check it with someone you trust—not John; it mustn’t be John—and then time it, memorise it, and practice delivering it. I’m about to go out shopping but if you want help when I get back, just ask.”

Mrs Hudson is already on the stairs before Sherlock reaches the kitchen. Her voice drifts up from half way down. “You mustn’t procrastinate any longer. You know you have to do it.”

The front door slams shut as he picks up the library book: How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech by John Phillips. It looks well-thumbed, and the rather plain cover features a bland design of two champagne glasses. Sherlock sincerely hopes that there will be something useful in it. His internet research has proved severely disappointing on the subject of creating a speech that would be more than just a cesspool of cliché.

He opens the book to scan the table of contents and sighs. In fact, the book is about all of the Best Man’s duties, not just the speech. A lot of the chapters cover things he has already done; the Wedding Wall of Woe over the sofa is testament enough to that fact. Calendar dates marked through; the pink-coloured strings denoting activities that are reserved for Mary as opposed to those for John. Fabric samples, photos of flowers, floor plans and sheet music. He needs help on none of that.

It’s the speech that is the Everest. He hates public speaking, ever since he was at school and had been required to stand in front of a class; it’s a recipe for disaster for someone like him. He knows that John is a bit alarmed about what he might say, and Mary has already made it clear that he mustn't talk about John in a way that will be embarrassing to him.

Even if it isn’t on the wall, Sherlock hasn't forgotten the speech, so Mrs Hudson’s admonishment is therefore wrong. It hangs above his head like a sword of Damocles.  The rest of the wedding planning is not difficult, just tediously detailed. The speech is something entirely different—it carries with it the potential disaster of him ruining the wedding by doing it wrong. The speech is supposed to be funny but not offensive, neither too long nor too short, entertaining to listen to by people who know little about the groom involved, revealing of something about the relationship between the groom and the best man. Finally, it should honour the groom’s choice of bride, as well as thanking all the various volunteers: bridesmaids, ushers, etc.

The determining factor seems to be, above all else, the word “appropriate”.  How is he, of all people, expected to know what is appropriate? Sherlock knows he is the master of miscommunication; his childhood and teenage years are riddled with disasters that have had serious repercussions for others. In times of stress—and yes, John getting married is stressful—Sherlock knows that there is a high risk that he will make a mess of this, and that he will end up disappointing John and making this less than what the magazines all describe as “the best day of my life”.   Even John had used the phrase.

Parties, events, gatherings—all suffer from one irredeemable awful fact: they involve people.  The guest list is there, shouting its ugliness at him. The idea of being in the same room with all those people is enough to make his skin crawl. To have to stand in front of them and speak is worse than anything he endured in Serbia. That was honest pain suffered in solitude; this time, it won’t be just him who suffers. Surely the people that John and Mary have invited do not need to be thanked in a speech; they’ve had little or nothing to do other than show up on the day and witness the wedding, eat the food, and dance to some ghastly disco music.  They are the audience being paid to attend the performance; how very odd the whole thing is.

In the face of the inevitable, far from procrastinating, Sherlock is in danger of obsessing about the speech to the point of total paralysis. There are companies advertising online that they will write a speech for you, but how is that remotely possible when every bit of advice he has read suggests that the speech has to be personal, insightful, pertinent to the groom? To make matters worse, Mary has no father alive to give an equivalent address, so has made Sherlock aware that his will be the only speech of the reception.  The very thought of it makes him even more anxious.

He opens the window to get a bit of fresh air into the flat, hoping that the chill of early May will wake him up. He hates draughts, so slips on his camel dressing gown before sitting down at the table and opening his laptop.

“Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends…”

A half hour later, he has typed twenty-seven sentences and deleted each and every one as soon as he'd read them on the screen. 

Perhaps it is not too late. Should he tell John that he can’t do this, and ask him to make Lestrade Best Man instead?  But… how would this fit with John’s desire to be up there “with the two people that I love and care about most in the world”?  Would it not be a betrayal of that assertion, of John’s claim that Sherlock was his best friend, “of course”?  That John matters to Sherlock has never been in doubt, but that John would think that of him is too precious to risk.  This is more than forgiveness. It is absolution, it is Sherlock’s protection against all the hurts that the world might throw at him. Not just a friend, but a best friend. How is that even possible? How could he betray that friendship by failing John in this?  He’d been willing to jump off a roof to save him from a sniper’s bullet, worked tirelessly to destroy Moriarty’s network to keep him alive.  Surely a speech is not beyond the realm of possibility?

He is trapped. Given the anxieties attached, there is a real possibility that his communication deficits will raise their ugly head at the most inconvenient time, striking him mute just when the moment has come, to make him figuratively bleed out from embarrassment in front of John. He doesn’t care about the guests. He doesn’t know most of them, and those he does know are well aware of his faults. But, he can’t ruin John’s wedding; he has to find a way to do this.

Suddenly, Sherlock realises that there is someone to whom he can turn: Lestrade. He had been speaking the truth to John when he’d said that Lestrade is a man and “good at it”.  Perhaps Lestrade could write the speech, and Sherlock could memorise it and deliver it. At least the man knows John, and other people seem to find the DI at least mildly amusing at times. 

Sherlock gets his phone out and sends a text message, then another. A moment later, he is so anxious that Lestrade is not answering immediately that he sends two more in rapid succession.

oOoOoOoOoOo

Once the police cars, the helicopter and the ambulance have all been stood down, Lestrade is sitting in John’s chair and glaring at Sherlock, who has taken his seat opposite. 

“Sorry.” Sherlock tries to make it sound like he means it. He knows how to fake contrition though he tends to be unwilling to use it unless justified. In this case, he realises that Lestrade had drawn the worst possible conclusion from what had admittedly been a somewhat ambiguous set of messages.

“Yeah, well. Don’t ever cry wolf again or I’m going to end up losing my job over it.” He is still fuming.

“I do mean it. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Sherlock can interpret Lestrade’s expression: it’s exasperation. He’s seen it often enough on the face of the DI and his brother. It’s the look that greets nearly every mistake he’s ever made. 

“Says the man who blithely jumped off a roof to save his friends.”

Sherlock shrugs. “That I could plan for; the thirteen scenarios were more complicated than planning a wedding but even so, none of them asked me to do anything I can’t actually do.

“So, what’s so difficult about giving a speech? You’ve stood up in a courtroom often enough. Christ, my team thinks that you give speeches every time you deduce a crime scene.”

“It’s different. A crime scene is simple; all I have to do is observe and tell you what I see. A Best Man speech…” He points to the book. “It says I have to make jokes. And I have to tell stories about John and why he is getting married. A speech is entertainment. You write it, and I’ll deliver it. You’ve been married before; you understand these things.”

“No. John chose you, not me. You are his best friend. What you say needs to be all you.”

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

Lestrade thinks about it. “Why do you think John chose you as his Best Man? Why not start there?  You know him better than anyone. So, you can talk about why you think he is getting married.”

“I don’t know why he’s getting married. It seems so… pedestrian. A wife, two kids, a house in the suburbs; why would anyone want that, let alone John?”

“Marriage is more than that; it’s a commitment to be with someone for the rest of your lives. It’s about raising a family, being a parent, building a future together.”

Sherlock throws his hands up in frustration. “That’s just the point! Any and all of that can be done without getting married. Marriage as an institution is ridiculous, and a wedding an antiquated festival of sentiment that is past its sell-by date. The whole thing… the hypocrisy of a church service for two people who aren’t remotely religious, the absurdity of Mary choosing three women who she barely knows to be kitted out as bridesmaids in dresses they will never wear again, just as an excuse to have am expensive party they can’t afford, and then go away for a sex holiday. The whole ritual is bizarre in the extreme. And the guests are conniving in the crime.”

During his diatribe, the DI is looking at him with increasing alarm in his expression. When Sherlock pauses to take a breath, he jumps in: “You need to avoid being obnoxious, Sherlock. None of that can be in your speech.”

Sherlock glares. “So, I have to lie, do I? First you tell me that the speech has to be me, and then you tell me that I can’t be me. If I say what I believe is the truth, then it is going to be seen as inappropriate and rude. I am going to ruin things; do you really think I can mouth a load of platitudes I don't believe? What is the point of that? It won't sound like me, and John will recognise that." He sighs. "Just arrange to have a triple murder case on the day of the wedding, and then I’ll have an excuse not to attend. I am sure it will go better without me.”

“No. You are going to write the speech, and deliver it.”

“I don’t know how!”

“Then say that. Tell the audience that you don’t get it. But, for John’s sake, tell them that you are doing something you don’t understand because you care about John’s happiness and respect his choice. Tell people why you care about John Watson.”

Sherlock must be making a face at such sentiment, because Lestrade glares at him and says “Yes, you do; we all know it, so just tell people what he’s like and why you care, and why they should care, too. Help everyone be glad for him that he has found someone like Mary. Then, make the toast, wishing them all the best in their future life. That’s all it really needs, Sherlock. No need to make a mountain out of this. You can do it.”

oOoOoOoOoOo

 

“You’re staring. It’s annoying.”

Molly is sitting with her arms folded, watching him from her stool. “It’s an experiment,” she says.

That makes Sherlock look up from his microscope, just enough to be able to see her in his peripheral vision. “What sort of experiment?”

“If I tell you, then it will influence your behaviour and ruin the data set.”

My behaviour…. You’re conducting an experiment on me? Why?”

“I’ve been observing your behaviour for some time. Every time you come in to the lab to update this database. It’s been a convenient cover, hasn’t it.”

That should have been a question. The fact that she said it as a statement, rather than a question, tells Sherlock that he’s been rumbled. He sighs, but does not immediately rise to his own defence.  He’s run to the lab for a number of reasons, one of which is to procrastinate about writing this wretched speech. The other reason is currently coursing through his veins, making him less anxious than he’s been for the past month.

Instead of answering Molly’s rhetorical question, he picks up the next test tube, uses a pipette to extract enough of the Thames river water, then carefully stains it before slipping it onto the stage. After focusing, he sets the pollen database running.  It’s a sample which Molly had taken a half hour ago from the lungs of a drowning victim. The body had been pulled yesterday from the water, where it had become entangled in the mooring cables of a houseboat moored on the side of Regent’s Canal.

Molly must have decided that he is ignoring her. She resumes: “When it was just once a week, I didn’t really notice. But, it became more often. You stopped two weeks ago, and for a while I thought things were improving, but you’ve been in twice this week. The database doesn’t really take that much effort, but you obviously want an excuse to drop in to Barts.”

“Problem?”

She frowns. “Yes, of course it is. My experiment is to see whether you’ve taken any of the drugs you’ve been procuring from someone here at the hospital before you come to do this testing. That’s what confused me because, at the start, you came to the lab first and must have picked up the drugs on your way out. Then is stopped for almost a month, but this week, it’s escalated to the point where you needed to have a fix before you show up down here.”

Sherlock sincerely hopes that Mycroft has not bugged the mortuary. If Molly has just inadvertently betrayed his arrangement, that could complicate matters in the last few days before the wedding.

He’s the epitome of cool calm as he notes down the first pollen match that the database has identified. “Large concentration of Betula. The question will be whether that exceeds the concentration of Quercus pollen. If the oak is more evident, then the victim was drowned upriver and dumped in the Regent’s Canal.”

Molly ignores this attempt at a diversion. “I have observed that your hand is not shaking. That’s what tells me whether or not you’ve used before coming here. It’s a bit like a drunk, driving oh-so-carefully; you’re like that, more deliberate, and just a tiny bit slower in the procedure.”

He turns to look at her. “Why does it bother you to the point of wasting your time like that?”

“You worry me.”

He shrugs. “Not necessary. This is not a problem and not something that warrants your concern. It’s not really any of your business.”

“Yes, it is. When you asked me to keep your secret, when you involved me in lying, then you became my business.”

He doesn’t answer. In part, it is because he has absolutely no idea what to say to her.

“I want to know why.”

“Why?”

“Because what I do next depends on your answer.”

He sighs. “It’s under control. Not a problem, as I said, and nothing that should concern you.”

“Just answer the question, Sherlock.”

There is a toughness to Molly now; since his return she’d stopped being flustered in his presence. Now, she seems more judgmental, if a word has to be found to describe her mood.

“There are things afoot that worry me.”

Tentatively, she offers: “The wedding?”

“No. Of course not.  Why does everyone think I have any problems with John’s marriage? I don’t. It makes him happy, which is good. He deserves to be happy.”

“What, then? Or rather, why?”

“There are unsolved cases that I cannot talk about. National security and all that. And some of those endanger John. Think of them as remnants of the same problem that led to Lazarus. To make sense of it all, I need to focus, and the careful use of chemical stimulants enhances my thinking.”

“Are you getting help again from that therapist?”

He narrows his eyes, deducing her question back to first principles. “You’ve been talking to others about this, behind my back.” There is no reason why Molly would know about either Diane Goodliffe or Esther Cohen, unless someone else had been discussing him with her. “You are all talking behind my back.”

“Not all. John and Mary don’t know. The Detective Inspector doesn’t know either; at least, I don’t think so. Not yet.”

He swivels his stool around so he can face her. “Is there a threat in that statement, Molly?”

She gives him one of her pained looks, telling him that he’s been rude again.

He doesn’t care. “There are things going on that I can’t talk about. You have to trust me on this, Molly. It doesn’t affect my ability to do what is needed—for the wedding, and in solving cases. In fact, it helps. Later, when all this is over, I can do without.  It’s not an addiction, just controlled use.”

“Abuse, you mean.”

He sighs, and then wields the only word he knows might make a difference. “Please?”  Dropping his shoulders a bit, he adds: “You’re the only one I trust at the moment. It’s not abuse if it means I can get John safely married and away from here.”

“Safely? What does that mean?”

“I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. You have to accept that there are some things that I cannot discuss.”

“You know you can always talk to me, if you don’t want to talk to that therapist. She was nice.”

He shakes his head. “She helped with things that happened in the past. She’s no use at all in what’s coming. Just… bear with me, Molly. I know what I am doing.”

“You’re going to promise me that you will stay clean from now until the wedding. At least.”

“Or?”

“Or I tell John.”

“No. You mustn’t interfere.”

She crosses her arms. “Promise.”

Sherlock sighs. “Alright. I promise.”

“To be sure, I’m going to have a chat with that assistant in the hospital dispensary—the only guy who has been on duty every time you’ve come in to work on the database—and I’ll tell him that I will report him if he supplies you with anything more.”

“That isn’t necessary; I gave you my word.”

“Belt and braces, Sherlock. And promise me that you will tell me if things start to escalate to the point where you want to use. I’m going to be watching you now, and I will know if you’re losing control.”

“Deal.”  He turns back to the database, which has just registered a concentration level of oak pollen twice that of birch. “You can tell DI Hawkins that your murder victim was drowned somewhere near the Imperial Wharf marina in Fulham.”

oOoOoOoOoOo

Sherlock positions his chair to face the wall of wedding woe. The calendar days on the wall have been marked off with their big red Xs.

The wedding is so close now that he should be able to manage it on autopilot. No matter how much his brother is bugging the flat, there is one place that Sherlock knows is safe from scrutiny—his Mind Palace. To any casual observer, he will appear to be looking at the wedding plans when, in fact, he is solving a much more important problem. 

Before he’d left Barts a trip into a storage room had allowed him to consume the last of the drugs he’d picked up today. Since the Keta debacle he’s been careful to avoid carrying any drugs. Short of a blood test, there is no way his brother is going to be able to know that he is maintaining just enough of a buzz to escape notice.  But given that Molly has exposed his source, he took the whole lot. Best take advantage of it while he had it.

While the first rush of the cocaine had been at its best, he’d written the speech in the back of the taxi. He would go through the motions of writing up note cards, a little aide memoire should he get side-tracked by the sensory impact of the whole ceremony. It would do. It won’t be terribly conventional—using one of their recent cases as the ‘story about the groom’—but, he’s made sure that he is the one who ends up being described unfavourably and not John. After all, he's certain that most would agree that he is the “most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet”.  It’s a line his Harrow chemistry lab partner had once delivered about him. Sherlock strongly suspects that, for most people, it would be considered a fitting description of him, and one that should entice a laugh out of the audience. He doesn’t want to make jokes at John’s expense but doesn’t mind making them at his own.

The speech he has prepared is not long—seven minutes at best. Short is good, in many ways. In fact, right now, all he wants to do is get John on a plane and out of the country as fast as he can.

Once he and Mary are safely away on their honeymoon, that’s when Sherlock can go hell-for-broke on the Georgian case and try to figure out who has been targeting John.  While he’s on his sex holiday, Sherlock can finally get down to the real business of linking the bonfire and the six pearls. As if those were not enough of a threat on their own, he has come to the view—unsubstantiated as yet—that the two things are somehow linked. He doesn’t know how. It is a case of intuition fighting with his natural scientific resistance to forming judgments without all of the data. It’s all plots within plots, wheels within wheels, something so complicated and long-term that not even Mycroft can work it out.

Accelerated by the cocaine, Sherlock’s mental acuity is drawing conclusions from the data that he would otherwise have missed. To start with, his brother’s behaviour is more worrying than anything else. Sherlock has never, ever seen him so rattled. Not by Moriarty, not even by the Sigurson Plan. If it is that big, then it needs addressing with whatever chemical stimulants he can use to prise the truth out of the data. Once John is out of the way, Sherlock can go the whole hog, keep his high going long enough to make sense of it all.

No matter how often he goes over the data sober, he can get no clear indication of who has been kept prisoner in Tbilisi, or why his escape could matter so much to Mycroft. That they are linked to the slew of S&ILS agents and contacts being killed is obvious. Sherlock's intuition is telling him that the Georgian stuff is somehow related to the John case, and that is part of the reason why Mycroft has been so odd and offhand. 

The evidence wall in his Mind Palace is populated by an entirely different set of materials than what is up in 221b. No seating plans, guest lists, or menus. In this virtual version, the wall is split into three. The who’s-trying-to-kill-John third has the photo of the tree frog alongside St-James-the-Lesser church.  There are photos of both Mary Morstan and John in that third of the wall. The skip code is accompanied by a map with their route and precise timings for every step, with strings leading out to the text messages that had been sent by whoever put John into the bonfire.

A photo of a London Underground sign for Sumatra Road sits on the boundary between the John section and the S&ILS third; Lord Moran is caught there on camera. The gunpowder plot was aimed at the heart of the British intelligence community, but John had been cast as a Guy—too close to be co-incidence. A photo of an elephant also sits on the boundary, mocking his stupidity. That had been a message about something obvious that he should be getting but isn’t, thanks to his brother pushing him right out of that case. He puts a photo of Mycroft in the S&ILS section, sticking a drawing pin right where his heart should be if he’d had one. This section contains quite a number of dead bodies: the agent in the East London carpark, alongside a photo of motorcycle tyre tracks. Then there is the assassin in the library, and his victim, still alive in name only.  The photo of a dead agent at Ryder Lane sits alongside one of the bleeding hold-all.  No wonder the photo of his brother is scowling at the mayhem in his area.

The third section has the thumb drive, the recording of the Svan curse, a list of Georgian prisons (there are fifteen, Sherlock has discovered).  A map tracing the journey of the suspect package out of Georgia and into the Russian Federation is there, too. The staff badge of Ketavan and a torn page from the Shahnameh take pride of place on it. This section is different from the S&ILS section in that it is older, and somehow linked to Keta being recruited years ago. The thumb drive sits on the border between the two sections, meaningful to both, enough to warrant Mycroft’s extreme reaction.

But, there are no strings drawing any of these together to the blank sheet of paper right in the centre of the wall, which has to be meaningful for all three sections. In his mind’s eye, Sherlock draws a silhouette of a man’s head and shoulders on the blank sheet and then a large question mark. There had been a time when he’d wondered if John was being threatened by some posthumous plot, a dead-man’s switch put in place by Moriarty before he died. But, after weeks of picking at this theory, Sherlock has discarded it. Too much of the two attempts on John’s life had been extemporised, and neither really carried the characteristics of a Moriarty plot. Sending the skip code message to Mary rather than to him clinched it as something new, because the Irishman had not known about her. The six pearls case and its attempt to draw John into an ambush with a poison dart was too preposterous to be a real threat; more like a jokey sort of game designed to show Sherlock that John was not safe so long as they continued to work cases together. It had lacked the sophistication and subtlety of Moriarty. No, someone else is involved.

Mycroft has always been a scoffer when it came to supposed posthumous plots by Moriarty. “The man is dead, Sherlock. I saw the body. So did you. He had too much of an ego to really give a damn what happened when he was no longer around to play his little games.” 

There is someone more dangerous out there.

Given what Moriarty had cost Sherlock, the thought of someone worse is sobering. It sets off a craving in Sherlock for a top-up, but he squashes that idea. Molly would be true to her word, and he can’t risk John finding out. Sherlock needs him to stay oblivious and then move out of the line of fire. Once he's out of the cross-hairs, Sherlock can take whatever drugs he needs to crack this case wide open.  

In the meantime, he decides he needs a cup of tea. In the kitchen, watching the steam rise from the kettle as it comes to a boil, he considers whether there is anyone still left in the Moriarty network who could be behind the plots. As Lars Sigurson, he’d had unparalleled access to the names and profiles of the key contacts and the Dark Angels Moriarty had recruited to protect himself. The only exception to that had been in the UK: Moriarty had managed his home territory offline, which had left rather a black hole.

Another exception had been in Georgia. The network had been very thin there. The main Caucasus base for the network had been Azerbaijan. The Baku roll-up had not taken Sherlock long: most of it involved smuggling of arms, drugs and people across the semi-permeable borders into Russian territories and the disputed areas being fought over on the borders. A few files passed to the right people, mostly competing criminal networks, generally did the trick, although sometimes the local justice system was indistinguishable from the criminals they were supposed to be hunting.  It had not been a high priority for Sherlock. It’s something he regrets now, given how Mycroft’s people are being targeted. Sherlock has never, ever forgotten that Moriarty’s original target had been his brother, and that he had initially been seen as simply a way in.

Who is the man in the middle? Who is the puppet master pulling the strings?

Annoyed that he’s coming down, Sherlock puts the Mind Palace evidence wall away.  He won’t make any more progress in his current state. It’s going to be a long twenty days before the wedding. He just hopes he can stay clean until the honeymoon.

Irritated, he downs the scalding tea and goes to get his violin. He launches into an approximation of the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Penderecki. Originally composed for fifty-two violins, Sherlock has devised a solo version. It’s so fiendishly complex that the Polish composer had to devise his own notation system, and Sherlock had considered it once as a way of encoding the information that he wanted to keep away from Mycroft.

He hopes that Mycroft is listening; sounding more like nails on a blackboard, the composition should be atonal enough to make the man's ears bleed. Serves him right.

Chapter Text

 

He’s standing under the clock tower of St Mary’s church, waiting for his ride.  When the disco music and, well…everything… had become more than he could bear, he’d left the hotel and walked here. Mrs Hudson’s comment about how sad it was to leave a wedding early loops endlessly in his head.

Am I sad?

He’s just solved one attempted murder and prevented another, rescuing from a grisly death someone who apparently mattered more to John than he did. He’s also delivered a wedding to remember to the two people he cares most about in the world.  Watching the two of them dance to his waltz had made him briefly content because they looked happy. The shock and then delight on John’s face when he was told that he was to be a father had been amazing, too. 

All that said, Sherlock can’t shake the melancholy that has dogged his footsteps on this second visit to the Church. For a moment, he feels like he’s returning to the scene of a crime. In front of the porch, the rose petal confetti still lies scattered, making him wonder who will sweep it up.

An hour later, he’s had four cigarettes and spent the time thinking about what lies ahead. Ignoring the chilly wind, he’s used the nicotine hit to bury himself deep in his Mind Palace.

When the timetable that is indelibly etched in his brain after so many months of planning reminds him of the now, he comes out of contemplative mode to glance at his watch. He can just see the luminous green dot on the hands, confirming what his instinct has told him—it is six minutes past midnight. He already knows that the church clock bells in the tower behind him are silenced from eleven pm until eight am, in deference to the wishes of the villagers of Sheering, who want to sleep undisturbed.  It’s an odd bit of trivia he’d picked up when investigating the church as a venue for the wedding. Tonight, however, there should have been something else to wake them up.

He’s wondering what might have delayed the timetable, but then is relieved as he hears the first boom echoing across the fields between the church and the Arnsworth Castle Hotel.  A sparkling rocket ascends into the dark sky over the grounds of the hotel, and he watches it explode into a blossom of gold and silver sparkles.

He doesn’t need to hear the delighted oohs and ahs of the wedding guests to know that the display is appreciated. Mary had wanted fireworks, and Sherlock had called in a favour with a connection of his in Chinatown, so the festivities could end with a suitable bang. After more glasses of champagne—well, at least for John—watching the twenty-minute show, the wedding couple will retire to the honeymoon suite.  Some guests would be leaving at half past twelve to catch the last train from Sawbridgeworth to Liverpool Street, departing at five minutes past one. Others would be ferried by taxi to the cheaper hotels surrounding Stansted airport.

He knows what is dragging him down is, in part, a post-case crash, but not all of how he feels can be chalked up to that. Ten hours ago, John Watson and Mary Morstan had become man and wife. Tomorrow morning, after a champagne breakfast, the married couple will be taken to Stansted in a limousine to catch their flight to Malta. 'Sun, sand and sex' is what Mary had wanted, and John will be delivering exactly that with one week on the main island and another on Gozo.  He’d taken extra locum work on during the last three weeks before the wedding to pay for it and insisted on making all the arrangements himself. Sherlock had encouraged him to do it; his work commitments and the honeymoon planning kept him out of the line of fire. He had used the interlude to handle a couple of demanding cases that were designed to delude Mycroft into thinking that he was keeping his nose out of his brother’s business.

If he’s lucky, Sherlock will have more than the honeymoon to deal with the real problems that have been rattling around his brain for the past five months. The impending collision between Mycroft’s Georgian problem and the who’s-trying-to-kill-John problem has become urgent. His brother seems to be keeping his distance at the moment, which should give him the room he needs to run at these issues without interference. He knows that two weeks, even with chemical assistance, may not be enough to solve the cases. He will have to keep John at a distance when the couple return from honeymoon. Perhaps Mary’s morning sickness will keep him tied to home; Sherlock hopes so. It’s the start of the escape velocity plan, as Sherlock has come to call it. There must be a public distancing between him and John now, preferably something that throws the newly-weds right out of his orbit, and in a way that gets widely known in public. The blog going silent is one way, but there are other ways to make sure they keep their distance, ways that he will keep in reserve for now.

Whatever fears Sherlock had about putting John in danger, that concern has escalated dramatically after tonight’s deduction. He has no doubt that Mary’s pregnancy is a game-changer.  When, or rather if, John tries to resume contact after the honeymoon, Sherlock will point out that his pregnant wife needs him; there can be no more adrenaline kicks to be gotten from working dangerous cases.  As a father-to-be, the man must naturally prioritise Mary and their child. When the coming crisis arrives, John’s priories should shift to protecting his nearest and dearest.

End of an era.

Marriage and a family will change John, but it will also change Sherlock. He is aware that tonight, something seismic has shifted in the equation of his own life. Set free from the responsibility of keeping John happy, he is now able to pursue The Work without fear, without scruple. The ghost of Lars Sigurson still lurks in the back of his mind, and occasionally reminds him of its existence.

In the distance, the fireworks are continuing, but his ears also detect the rumble of an oncoming motorbike. His mind-map traces the journey it will have made up the Harlow Road, under the M11 whose distant dull roar of traffic can be heard even at this hour.  Deducing the speed from the oncoming sound, Sherlock times it so that he’s ground the stub of his cigarette out just as the BMW comes into the gravel drive.

When the visor of the black helmet is lifted, there is a flash of white teeth in the darkness.  “Hello, Sherlock. Sorry I’m a few minutes late. Too many bloody roundabouts in Harlow; had to keep my speed under the limit to avoid tripping the cameras.”

“No problem.” Sherlock is already at the rear of the bike, rummaging through the pannier box for another biker’s jacket and helmet. Once there is space, he folds up his Belstaff and puts it in. “Where’s the rest of it?”

“Inside pockets of the jacket. On the left are the pharmaceuticals; the right has the syringes.” There is a giggle. “First time I’ve ever been a Deliveroo bike; personal service with a smile.”

Latief Kohistani’s accent is pure South London, but he’s a first generation child of two refugees who escaped the conflict in the northernmost province of Swat thirty years ago.  He’s been working in Barts hospital pharmacy while studying for his MPharm degree at UCL. The only way he can pay his tuition fees without bankrupting his parents is by running a small business on the side, selling medical grade drugs to a very special list of clients. He is very careful, incredibly discreet, and can be trusted because he has too much to lose if he is caught. Luckily, his position gives him the chance to over-order and under-stock just enough to keep his client list happy.  If it hadn’t been for Molly Hooper’s powers of observation, Sherlock would not have had to pay for out-of-office delivery, which does not come cheap. Nor does the limousine service.

Once he’s shouldered the leather jacket on, a quick pat of the pockets confirms Latief’s advice, and Sherlock lifts his right leg over the back of the bike. “Take the back roads. No need for us to show up on a traffic camera before junction 6.”

“Once we’re in London, where to?”

Sherlock has given this some considerable thought. “South. Head for London Bridge; I’ll direct you from there.” 

The work he is about to start requires some special consideration. He can’t possibly do it from Baker Street, where his every move is monitored by his brother’s minions. He has to maintain the fiction of being there while disappearing on occasion to do the real work.

He’s sourced a new bolt hole, one that his brother will not have found, and which would never occur to John. It’s in the New Hunt’s House at Kings College’s Guy’s Campus. Open twenty-four hours, the building has a regular flow of all-hours pedestrian traffic and an underground carpark from which the stacks can be accessed. Hiding in plain sight is simple when a bolthole is as easy to access as this one is. There is unused storage space down in the basement levels, being held in reserve to house the new materials that will eventually be moved there from the old Barts hospital pathology building. It’s just one of the interesting opportunities created by NHS Trust mergers.  It has electrical power, and coded locked doors which had been easy to hack. To anyone accessing the entry data logs, a security guard is making a regular sweep of the lower levels. That Sherlock is that security guard would not occur to those managing the building’s security.

It was one of the special skills he’d developed while breaking up Moriarty’s network. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?* Security systems made by humans can be hacked by humans, and are rarely scrutinised by non-experts. Even those who should know better have a habit of thinking themselves invulnerable.

With power and heating on tap, the New Hunt’s House bolthole is private and comfortable enough for him to work in when high on stimulants. Only after a session will he need to find a more conventional place to use opiates to manage his come-down. He’s spotted a nearby drug squat, complete with a doorkeeper and minder who stays sober enough to make sure that the users are still breathing. That’s important. No crash and burn for him; this double case needs a careful plan of long-term micro-dose chemical management to get him to the place where he can crack it wide open.

“Hold on.” Latief guns the engine and they take off heading south to Newman’s End and then Matching Tye. They’ll go through seven villages on their way south. The name of the last one, Fiddler’s Hamlet, had made him smile when he’d seen it on Google Maps. His own violin is safe in his room at the Arnsworth Castle Hotel, along with the morning dress and his other kit. Tomorrow morning, Mrs Hudson will be returning to Baker Street in a car he’d arranged, and the hotel has instructions to load his luggage in with hers.  

Tonight, everyone assumes he will be staying at the hotel, which gives him a head start. 

So, a new era begins.

oOoOoOoOoOo

Thirty-three point eight miles to the south, a meeting is underway. It had started late because the House of Lords had been sitting late tonight, debating on the final stages of the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill. To her eyes, the participants seem tired, but adrenaline is keeping them awake. The Parliamentary Oversight Committee meets in Portcullis House, because it has a dead room—a place so secure from any kind of surveillance that it can host discussions that must never be recorded or mentioned. 

Even the minutes being taken by her as Lady Elizabeth Smallwood’s private secretary will be circulated and then immediately destroyed by the recipient; no copies are ever made. The paper is specially treated to white-out at even the hint of a camera flash or a photo copier. She makes sure that each one of the five copies is typed on an old-fashioned typewriter, to avoid any computer system being hacked. Even the ribbons are burned. 

Vivian Norbury is sitting at the back of the room, as is customary. No place at the table for her; she is all but invisible. Luckily for her, her hearing has always been acute, and her shorthand is uniquely hers. No one else can read her verbatim record or make sense of it—well, with one exception who no one but she knows about. When she’d first started the job, she’d worked for Sir Andrew Middleton, who had set up the S&ILS. It had been the advice of the Deputy Director, Fitzroy S. Ford, to switch into a unique code, and she’s always thought it was typical of the man’s thoroughness. She’d hoped he would get the top job; she would have loved working for him. Always so cool and calm in a crisis, even to the end.

Unlike the current Director, she notes.  Mycroft Holmes looks tense; his body language is conveying his dismay at the news he has just given to the assembled members.  Lady Smallwood is so shocked that for a moment she just stares across the table in disbelief.

“At least FOUR years? How is that even possible? How on earth could you have been so negligent?”

Vivian has trained her face to remain utterly disinterested. She knows that it is in fact over five years; just another sign of Lord Holmes’ incompetence that he thinks it’s only four. 

He takes Lady Smallwood’s criticism on the chin, and snaps, “My initial investigation shows that once the proof of life routine had been subverted, the rest of the charade was fairly straight forward. The DNA record against which the monthly blood sample is checked must have been altered without us knowing, so to all intents and purposes, we all believed Fitzroy Ford was still incarcerated.”

“The Georgians must have known.” Sir Edwin snipes from his end of the table. He must sense the weakness in Holmes’s admission and is quick to pounce.  Vivian enjoys the thought of him getting some revenge for all the times that Holmes has put him in his place over the years.

“The upheaval in the security service there did allow a certain…complacency to develop.” Mycroft Holmes is trying to sound confident, as he continues, “But, our vetting didn’t spot any connection between the prisoner and the Head of the Sakartvelos Dazvervis Samsakhuri who was in place four years ago.  Yet, somehow he was subverted.” 

Wrong. She’s even written the word in her unique shorthand, unable to resist. The only person capable of decoding it apart from her would be sent a copy and probably smile at this point.  Fitzroy Ford’s chosen man in the Georgian Security Service had been slowly but surely promoted up the food chain in Tbilisi since the day they had first met at a conference seventeen years ago. Even before he had become Director, he was putting into place the escape plan for his mentor.

“What are the consequences?”

Mycroft grimaces. “Unknown, for now. We are looking into several… recent incidents to see if there is a connection to Ford.”

“Such as?” Lady Smallwood’s shock is turning to anger.

“The Guy Fawkes Night bomb, almost certainly. It is just the sort of revenge plot I would expect from Ford. Almost everyone of any significance in the British security system was there in Westminster that night for the initial debate on the bill. Unfortunately, as Lord Moran is no longer alive, we cannot interrogate him about a possible connection to Ford.”

Mycroft shifts in his chair and draws breath before resuming. “Then there is the recent spate of deaths relating to our Georgian connections; that also bears all the hallmarks of Ford. He’s been clearing up loose ends is my best guess.”

 “Guess? I hope we can do better than that!” Lady Smallwood turns to Elisabeth ffoukes.  “What else can we lay on his head? Is there more?”

“I am afraid so, Lady Smallwood. Once we have investigated further, it may be proven that James Moriarty’s intervention here in the UK was, in part, prompted by Fitzroy Ford.”

The peer’s eyebrows rise up her forehead. “What is the evidence?”

It’s the DG of the Security Services who answers, “With the benefit of hindsight, Moriarty’s campaign here in the UK seems out of character.  It didn’t fit in with his world-wide criminal consulting business. Targeting the Royal Family, for example, through that Adler woman. And then the stage-managed crimes and the trial to show how he could manipulate the justice system here. Those were far too public to fit his usual MO. More specifically, the attempt to destroy the reputation of Holmes’ brother was atypical. It all betrays the hallmarks of a personal vendetta, but nothing, I repeat, nothing in our investigation ever turned up a reason why he would do such a thing.”

Lady Smallwood sits up straighter, her normally impeccable posture now revealing a bit of anxiety.

“Well, Moriarty’s dead, thank God, so it is somewhat academic. Mycroft, what are you going to do about the current situation?”

“I am going to find Ford.”

She raises a sceptical eyebrow. “I thought your field days were long over.”

Mycroft sits up straighter in the chair. “There is no one else with the requisite knowledge of the target. It all has to be done under the radar, with the bare minimum of manpower, which is why none of the regular services can be involved.  There can be no paper-trail, especially given that the bloodwork switch implies that Ford has an inside collaborator. No one outside this room can know what I am doing.”

Slowly, she nods. “Whatever happens, there has to be complete deniability. There is no one apart from those here who know about Ford’s treason and incarceration. We need to find out where he is, how he got out, what resources he may have accumulated.  It may take you some time, most of which will be spent out of the country. I am assuming he won’t be in the UK?”

“Unlikely. He would only take the risk if he thought there was something he had to do himself. His style is to use others to do the dirty work, often without even knowing they are being manipulated to do his bidding. Only at the final blow will he bother to turn up, most likely to gloat.”

“How dangerous is he?”

Mycroft blinks twice. “More than we can possibly imagine.” 

She taps the wooden table. “Then you should enlist the support of your brother. He’s done credible work as an irregular in the past, and could be useful to you now, especially if the only solution is extermination. He seemed to have fewer scruples about that when he was on his private mission against Moriarty.”

Vivian looks up; she needs to capture the moment because Ford will want to know Holmes’ reaction to this suggestion.

“No. Absolutely NOT.” A rare show of anger—she notes this in the margin, followed by He’s seriously rattled. 

Holmes leans forward, his face set sternly. “First, Ford has to be captured alive. His contingency plans are far too lethal for any of us to consider. If he dies, information will be released that will take decades for this country’s intelligence services to recover from—it would be worse than the Philby affair.  Second, need I remind you that the condition made at the time of Ford’s exile still applies?” He looks around at each of the others in the room, excepting her, of course. She is as invisible to them as the chairs they are sitting on. 

“Only those in this room know of Ford’s treason and how we dealt with him.  Sherlock is not relevant to this investigation, and the condition I set back in 2001—that he never finds out that Ford is his half-brother—that is still in force. In any case…” he hesitates and Vivian Norbury looks up from her pad. “I have reason to suspect that my younger brother may be succumbing to old habits. Drugs, I am afraid. Not trustworthy in these circumstances where utter discretion is needed.”

Vivian makes a note on the pad, adding the symbol which substitutes for an exclamation mark. 

“Who will be a Number Two in your absence? S&ILS needs to function without you for a while.” 

Always practical, Lady Smallwood; it’s something that Vivian has always liked about her.

Mycroft nods. “Charles Standish, current Deputy of Strategy & Policy. He doesn’t know anything about Ford. Good man. I will be taking my PA with me; she’s fluent in Georgian, Russian and knows the whole backstory. She’s Avtandil Ioseliani’s daughter.”

OH! Vivian hadn’t known that, so maybe Ford didn’t either. She scribbles furiously. He is going to be so pleased with her work. She’s had so little to offer him over the past two years, but this is pure gold dust.

She’d had started work for Lady Smallwood soon after Lord Holmes had become Director of S&ILS.  He didn’t suit her style, tended to treat her as some sort of glorified recording device. Sir Anthony had been kinder. Holmes’ aristocratic airs and his assumption that his intellect was superior to anyone else’s got right up her nose. That PA of his had showed up one day, too, and complicated matters, making it hard for her to feel good about the job, given how side-lined she’d become.

The person who should have succeeded Sir Anthony had known how to get the best out of her. “Vee”, Ford had called her. “Vee for Victory,” and he would give her Churchill’s two-fingered salute, calling her his secret weapon.

Shameless—she knows it—how much she had thrived on his praise, and missed him when he was gone. She’d been in the room when they’d sentenced Ford and secretly cheered when he’d been defiant.

When the contact had come six years ago, she’d been happy to oblige, secretly delighted to be Ford’s insider. “Be my eyes and ears,” he’d said. She had missed the man’s tenor voice; they’d robbed him of that. His mechanical voder makes him sound horrible.

“It’s only temporary, Vee. Don’t fret. They can do miracles nowadays. A full laryngeal transplant, and I will sound like myself. Or, at least like the closest possible approximation.”

The money that had appeared in her bank account in exchange for information was a Godsend; just enough for her to put aside for the deposit and then the asking price for the cottage in Cornwall. She wasn’t greedy. Ever since her husband had died in 1983, she’d been worried about how she’d ever be able to retire.  Her tiny place on Wigmore Street might have a great address, but the one bedroom flat is on the sixth floor of a building with no lift. The entrance is right beside a hairdresser’s shop. Worse still, her part of the top floor has a sloping roof and dormer windows that look north, in the perpetual shadow of taller buildings one street over. She’d not been able to afford anything more when George’s death left her without his pension. Silly fool; he’d not put anything aside, thinking he would live forever.

No one is immune to death, not even Lord Holmes. The thought of him going head-to-head with Ford makes her smile.

No one notices.