Mycroft Holmes wore his intelligence on his face – it was in the careful way his eyes considered everything, the contemplative angle at which he held his head, even the deliberate pursing of his mouth before he spoke. These signs all pointed to the presence of a sharp mind, but could not indicate how remarkable or prosaic the level of that intelligence was, and Mary was rather surprised by her own assessment, which was: too clever to think he'll be forgiven.
She kept that in mind as one of his assistants poured tea for the two of them. The shortbread he'd provided was rich and delicious and he didn't touch a crumb. It looked like he was paying penance all around.
The manner in which she was given her assignment was informal, just a short discussion over tea, and it sounded fairly simple. Keep an eye on the man with whom she'll be sharing a flat, make sure he's eating and sleeping and generally keeping himself together. Could he be a former operative of Mycroft's, burnt out and in need of care? Might she, in the not-too-distant future, be another such, assigned a caretaker of her own?
That was the thought that made her set her teacup – such a nice set, clean white china with a faint golden stripe – down. Mycroft had kept the conversation light, mostly centred on her, though why it should matter that her gallery specialised in French art or that she liked to cook was utterly beyond her. "Is this –?" she started to ask, hoping he'd interrupt her. Of course he didn't.
"Is this what, Ms. Morstan?" he asked politely.
"Is this a seduction assignment?" was not something she wanted to say, not to Mycroft Holmes, whose keen eyes had sized her up very effectively. "Is this an immediate assignment?" she asked instead, and he smiled graciously.
"You'll have to meet with John, but I'm sure he will agree to flatshare with you, my dear." He checked his pocket-watch and frowned. "I have an obligation to which I must attend. Please stay and finish your tea. My office will provide the details." He stood and gave her a nod and then one to his assistant, who entered just before he left.
Mary took a self-conscious sip of her tea, which had gone lukewarm. Mycroft's assistant poured fresh for both of them and sat down, surprising her, as she hadn't expected a chat, just an envelope with further instructions. "John Watson's worth watching," the woman said. "I'd have asked for the assignment myself, if he didn't already know me. He thinks my name's Anthea, by the way. Don't let on that you know me, or Mycroft, or the name 'Sherlock Holmes' and you should be fine."
"I don't know you," Mary said, surprised into total honesty. The prospect of her first assignment was daunting, nearly overwhelming.
"That's as it should be," Anthea said serenely. "You'll do well."
The question was no easier to ask of Anthea than it had been of Mycroft, but at least this time her silence was met with an answer. "Your mission is not to seduce him," the woman confirmed, a slow smile growing on her face, "but you might come to wish it were."
She hadn't been expecting John Watson to be like this. From the hints Anthea had dropped, Mary had thought she'd be facing a colossus of a man, rugged and suspicious and confident. She found a man worn through with care and grief, uninterested in keeping body and soul together. He was unfailingly polite, even when he woke her with hoarse screams or declined her offers of jalfrezi or manicotti. He seemed not to notice how much information he let slip just by going through the motions of his life; certainly he had no inkling that she was charting his caloric intake, hours of rest, and general demeanour.
He did smile when she brought home a painting to fill one yellow expanse of living-room wall. "That's very nice," he said, and her heart lurched at the thought of him determined to make an effort. He was inexcusably dangerous, this broken man who never turned his sharp edges on her; she was hardly keeping perspective.
"I've always liked it," she admitted. "I don't know why it's never sold. Would you help me hang it?"
He was handy with a hammer and she let him drive a pair of nails into the wall to bear the weight of the heavy frame. The painting hung acceptably straight, and she let her hand fall to his shoulder in thanks. "Perfect," she said. "I'm in the mood for Thai. What do you say?"
"Oh," he said, seemingly surprised by the notion that they might share a meal. "There isn't a very good Thai around here," he offered apologetically.
"I make green curry that's been known to do the trick," she said, heartened by the fact that he hadn't shrugged off her hand.
"That . . . that sounds lovely," he said. "I could help?"
That haunted look in his eyes diminished, infinitesimally. He started working again, at a local surgery twenty minutes away by foot – to which he insisted on walking, despite his cane – and came home pink-cheeked from the chill in the air. Some evenings, he kicked her out of the kitchen and cooked dinner himself; those meals were inevitably macaroni cheese or beans on toast, but she didn't let him apologise or keep her from finishing every morsel on her plate. They'd fallen into a routine after: one of them washed up while the other dried and straightened up the flat. Watching telly or a film together was still a rare occasion; she had her reports to write – accounts for the gallery, was what she told him – and he liked to read, so they mostly spent the time in companionable silence.
She watched him, sitting opposite her, his bulky jumper rising and falling with each steady breath, and thought about running her hand through his hair and curling up on his lap. She thought about Anthea doing the same, a mean streak of triumph lacing through her at the thought that she at least was here, while Anthea would never be. Had Mycroft counted on this? Had he known that not only was she, as he'd mused aloud, John Watson's type, but that he was hers as well?
"Have I got sauce on me?"
"What?" she asked, startled out of her fantasising.
"Have I got sauce on me?" John repeated, smiling at her. "Serves me right for being greedy, I suppose."
She smiled back. "I'm glad you liked it. No sauce on you."
"Have the accounts got into a snarl?" he asked, folding closed his medical journal.
"No, it's me – my head's all in a snarl," she said truthfully. John was clearly off-limits; his nightmares had not ceased altogether, but each one featured the name Sherlock, and she had no business fantasising about someone yearning for someone else.
"Close up the books, then, and we'll watch a film," he offered. "I can make popcorn."
It was all gone one day. John did not hobble into the flat directly after work, nor an hour later with a carrier bag to explain the delay. The weather was nasty, so Mary told herself to give him a little extra time to navigate pavements slick with rain. She made cup after cup of tea. The secure mobile Anthea had given her stayed silent. John's went straight to voicemail, which might have meant he'd never had a chance to turn it on after his hours were over.
She ran for the door every time a branch, lashed by the wind, tapped against a window and finally forced herself to sit calmly and call Mycroft. "He hasn't come home, and I can't get in touch with him. Do you have eyes on him?" It was hardly lost on her that she was acting more like a panicked girlfriend than a cool-headed undercover operative, but she couldn't catch hold of herself.
"Shortly," Mycroft promised her in a voice rich with fear; even he had been emotionally compromised by the man. "Stay at your present location."
"Is Anthea available?" she asked. This was exactly what her presence was supposed to preclude; she had been meant to give John a safe space.
There was a silence, and then Anthea came on the line. "We'll find him."
"I'm so sorry," Mary said, despising herself for letting her voice break. "John –"
"I know," Anthea said, sounding not much better. Her tone shifted dramatically. "Take a bath, charge your phone, and get some sleep. If Mycroft hasn't found him by the morning, it will be our turn."
Obedient soldier that she was, she did as instructed as best as she could. The bath and the phone-charging were easily accomplished, but sleeping was difficult. John's nightmares must have been lingering in the flat, seeking any victim they could find; she tossed and turned, sweat prickling along her spine, and sat bolt upright in bed, a single word ripped out of her throat: Sherlock.
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