Sincere apologies for the five months of radio silence. If anyone is still interested, here is the long overdue next instalment to my latest story. I hope normal service has been restored. Only time will tell. (Fingers and toes firmly crossed!) Thank you for your patience. :)

Chapter Sixty-Nine

Squashed up against the door of the Underground train by the crush of bodies around her, Molly tried not to speculate as to how many of her fellow travellers were harbouring the flu virus that was currently rife in the capital - and, indeed, across the whole of Europe - knowingly or unknowingly spraying virus-loaded aerosols out into the closed confines of the car, with every exhale. She'd avoided being infected, so far, mainly due to the expedient that her patients were no longer breathing but she wished she'd had the foresight – like a number of other passengers – to wear a face mask. She made a mental note to stash a couple in her work bag, for future use. And not just the paper surgical masks, either. Preferably the FFP2 respirator masks, which afforded protection to the wearer as well as to those around them.

Mental note taken, she detached herself from her immediate surroundings and allowed her mind to wander back to the night before, when she'd turned up unannounced in Sherlock's bathroom.

He had been genuinely surprised to see her but also rather pleased – almost grateful. Curled up together in his Queen-sized bed, they had talked long into the night…well, he had talked and she had mostly listened. She deemed it something of a privilege that he was willing to open up to her now, to share his thoughts and feelings in a way he never had before with anyone, not even John Watson. Or perhaps especially not with John Watson because, although he was Sherlock's 'best friend', he could be rather reserved and awkward about sharing his own feelings and quite judgemental when it came to evaluating those of other people.

And Sherlock had an awful lot of thoughts and feelings to share – years' and years' worth - starting with those two years he had spent in deep cover, hunting down and destroying Moriarty's network of criminal organisations. And he'd begun with a confession.

'I lied to you when I told you I needed your help to fake my suicide.'

Molly didn't know what to say or even what to think. The night when he came to her in the Pathology Department, asking for her help, he seemed so genuine, so honest. But he was lying?

'Moriarty did slip up,' he went on. 'You were the one person he thought didn't matter at all to me; and you were the one person who mattered the most. You did make it all possible…but not for the reason I gave you at the time. I didn't need you to find that body.'

He was, of course, referring to the body of the lookalike that Moriarty had used to frighten the Bruhl children - and, consequently, plant suspicion on Sherlock - who had then been 'disposed of', once he outlived his usefulness.

'Or to fake the records,' he added.

'No?'

'No. Mycroft's people could have done all that, quite easily.'

'So why…?'

'I needed someone to know I was still alive; that I was out there, alone and in constant danger. Someone who would care; someone who would wish and hope that, one day, I would return, alive and in one piece…more or less.'

'But Mycroft knew. And your parents. Surely, they…?'

'Mycroft knew I was alive, alone and in constant danger but he would just assume that I was absolutely fine. I was doing what I enjoyed the most – chasing down the bad people. 'Slaying dragons', as he likes to put it. And my parents? They knew I was alive and on some sort of secret mission but they were never told about the danger or that I would be working entirely on my own with no back up of any kind.'

'So why did you choose me as your confidant?'

Sherlock paused to consider before replying

'Well, not because I entertained any romantic intensions toward you…not at the time, at least - although I do wonder whether, perhaps…' He paused again, his brow wrinkled in thought, but then resumed. 'I chose you because you were the one person whom I could trust to keep my secret. When I said I'd always trusted you I meant it. Not just your opinion, which of course I did…I mean, I do…but also your discretion. You are the most trustworthy person I know.'

'But John…'

'I couldn't tell John. He would have insisted on coming with me and then Moriarty's people would have known I wasn't really dead. And, even if I could have persuaded him not to come along, he couldn't have kept up the pretence of mourning my passing. He's no actor.'

'And I am?'

'You didn't need to act. You were heartbroken, just…not for the reason people thought.' He gave a wry smile, which was just discernible in the dim light from the bedroom window. 'You were riddled with guilt about having to lie to John, Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, everyone who knew me… I knew you would be and yet I made you do it anyway. I used you, Molly.' His voice was heavy with remorse.

'You didn't make me do anything,' Molly insisted, caressing his cheek with her hand. 'I could have said no.'

'But I knew you wouldn't.' He turned his head towards her and fixed her with his gaze. 'I knew you would have done anything for me. So, you see, I am a user. Those women were right, after all.'

Molly slipped her hand around the nape of his neck and threaded her fingers into his hair, returning his gaze with a fiery intensity.

'You did what you had to do. And so did I,' she declared, fiercely.

This elicited a sigh, a wistful smile and a press of his lips to her forehead.

'You have no idea how sorely tempted I was - on so many occasions, during those two years - to call you, just to hear the sound of your voice. You were my lifeline back to here, holding me in place, preventing me from slipping away. If it weren't for you, I'm not sure I would have made it back at all. I could so easily have ended up as a nameless corpse in an unmarked grave…'

'Don't say that!' she gasped. 'Don't even think it...'

He drew her close, in a gesture of reassurance that it hadn't happened; he was here.

'So, you see,' he murmured, 'when I said I needed you, I really did mean 'you', Molly Hooper. That's the real reason why you mattered the most and why I could not have done what I did without you. I needed a spiritual connection with 'home'. But I couldn't tell you that at the time, could I? So, I gave you a job to do, instead.'

Another pause, and then,

'To be honest, it's only very recently that I've even realised all this myself.'

Quite a confession, then. And such a special moment. But what came after transcended all that had gone before - a gentle, tender, passionate coupling which owed absolutely nothing to the tutoring of a certain dominatrix…she would, no doubt, have dismissed it as 'pure vanilla'…and absolutely everything to his desire to share with her a true and sincere act of pure love. Last night, he had given himself to her, with complete abandon.

The Tube train decelerated and came to a halt in Farringdon Street station. The door opened and Molly stepped out, joining the tide of commuters all heading off to their places of work. But, perhaps unlike many of her fellow travellers, she could now face the trials and tribulations of the day ahead secure in the sure and certain knowledge that she was loved, body and soul, by the man she had loved from the moment she set eyes on him - something she had never dared imagine, even in her wildest dreams.

ooOoo

'Come in, come in!' Siger Holmes declared, opening the front door wide and stepping back to allow his eldest son and his colleague to enter the cottage. He was sorely tempted to give Mycroft a hug but resisted the urge, resolutely. Mycroft was not much of a hugger, never had been, even as a small child - unlike Sherlock, who could hug for England…once upon a time. And, thankfully, seemed to have reacquire the skill!

'Father, this is Dr Eve Matthews; Eve, this is my father, Siger Holmes,' Mycroft intoned in his stiff, rather formal manner.

'Delighted to meet you, Dr Matthews,' Siger smiled, taking the doctor's hand in both of his, as was his habit when greeting acquaintances, new or old.

'Delighted to meet you, too, Mr Holmes,' Eve replied. 'And thank you for allowing me to visit your lovely home. It's quite a treat for me to be out of London, believe me.'

'Oh, you're too kind. It's very good of you to come all this way but, as you know, my wife is recovering from a recent accident so travel is difficult at the moment. And, please, call me Siger. Mycroft is the only 'Mr Holmes' in this family.'

As he spoke, Siger led the way through the house to the kitchen, where his wife, Maura, was ensconced in the easy chair by the Aga.

'Hello, Mummy. Please don't get up,' exclaimed Mycroft, approaching his mother and inclining from the waist to place a perfunctory kiss on her cheek.

'I had no intention of doing any such thing!' Mrs Holmes exclaimed, acerbically. 'Hello, Mycroft,' she added before directing a beady eye to Dr Matthews. 'I suppose you're the shrink, are you?' she asked, causing both her son and husband to cringe, inwardly.

'Eve Matthews,' said Eve, offering the Holmes matriarch her hand. 'And, yes, I am the shrink.'

Maura gave a lopsided smile. Eve had passed the first test.

'Can I offer you a cup of tea?' Siger enquired, keen to maintain at least a modicum of civility.

'Oh, they haven't come all this way to drink tea, Siger!' Maura exclaimed. 'Let's just get on with it, shall we? Mycroft! Help me up!' She flapped an impatient hand in her son's direction, prompting him to take her arm and assist her out of the chair. 'Come along, doctor. Let's leave these men to their tea drinking,' and Maura led the way through the house, slowly, making ample use of furniture and the wall for support.

'Yes, I'd love a cup of tea,' Eve returned, with a smile, as she followed Maura in the direction of the Snug. 'And, please, call me Eve.'

'I suppose you've come to convince me that my brother was a monster?' Maura Holmes declared, once they were both seated – she in the comfy chair and Eve in the leather one.

'Not at all, Mrs Holmes,' Eve replied. 'I never met your brother – before my time, I'm afraid – but I've heard an awful lot about him from people who knew him well and, unsurprisingly, opinions do vary quite dramatically. However, you knew him better than anyone so I would really appreciate your insight into the man who was Rudy Vernet.'

ooOoo

Sitting in his leather and chrome chair, Sherlock was deep inside his Mind Palace, where he had been for quite some time, wandering aimlessly along the many wood-panelled corridors, opening and closing doors to various rooms and not finding what he came here for.

He'd come there for answers. But what was the question?

Something had happened last night, something unexpected, something magical, something alarming…not least because he had actually used the word 'magical', albeit only in his own head. At least he hadn't said it out loud and, even if he had, there was no one here to hear it – thank God! But he needed to understand it, this 'thing' that had happened. So, where to begin?

Begin at the beginning…

They were talking…initially about practical things, like transforming John's old room into a dressing room for Molly, somewhere she could keep stuff, like clothes and toiletries. Then they had discussed, rather belatedly, the need to both get tested for sexually transmitted diseases - a sensible precaution at the beginning of a new kind of relationship - and had agreed that each would make an individual appointment at an STI clinic of their choice.

But then the conversation had taken a different direction and he'd shared with her something he'd only recently deduced himself – the real reason he'd asked for her help in faking his suicide – and it was after that that it happened…

They'd made love before - of course they had - but not like that. This was beyond all expectations, positively sublime. Entirely devoid of the bells and whistles that had always accompanied Irene's tutorials on the subject but somehow, deeper, more meaningful, all-encompassing. He had experienced a degree of intimacy last night that he had never imagined possible; a sense of being entirely 'at one' with another person, physically, emotionally and spiritually in perfect union; two souls but a single entity. And he had lain awake for most of the rest of the night, puzzling over it.

This morning, nothing was said. Molly needed to get to work so there was no opportunity to give the subject the time and space it deserved… But he needed to understand the how and the why.

Was this normal? Was it a common occurrence for people in a 'relationship'? Was it a natural progression? He had no way of knowing; his previous sexual encounters had been almost exclusively one-night stands. And he had never been 'in love' before. So, he could only deal with the known facts.

Fact One - Molly did not seem unduly affected by what had happened. Unlike himself, she had drifted off to sleep and slept soundly until the morning. And her general demeanour on awakening had not been exceptional. She was affectionate - but then, she always was.

Fact Two…there was no Fact Two. That was all he had.

This wasn't helping. He needed to adopt a different strategy…

Alternative Fact One - The phenomenon known as being 'in love' was a chemical reaction in the human brain. Not a chemical defect, as previously held, but a typical human response to specific external stimuli.

Fact Two – certain chemical reactions could be intensified by the process of distillation.

So, was this what had happened here? Had his chemical reaction to Molly been intensified via a similar process?

He was shooting in the dark. He had absolutely no baseline to go on. And it was frustrating! If only there were someone he could ask?

But that was out of the question. One could not just ring someone up, out of the blue, and ask them a question about their most intimate relationships…could one?

No! Mind Palace John exclaimed, emphatically.

But wait…Perhaps there was one person he could ask…

Sherlock reached for his phone and was about to dial a number but then stalled. Molly was at work, quite possibly up to her elbows in a dead body. Was this an appropriate moment to ask her opinion on such a delicate matter? Probably not. It would have to wait until this evening, frustrating though that would be. Instead of dialling Molly's number, he opened his emails and began to thumb through them, looking for any case of interest which might provide a distraction.

But it was no good. His thoughts kept straying to the night before. It was impossible to focus on anything else. With a huff of exasperation, he slammed his hands down on the arms of his chair and stamped his feet, in that petulant paradiddle of annoyance that John Watson had become all too familiar with, when they shared this flat together.

There was nothing for it. If he was to get anything useful done today, he had to have this conversation NOW.

'Hello?' Molly answered the call after several rings.

It was unusual for Sherlock to call rather than text so she had answered as quickly as she could, bearing in mind she was, in deed, about to eviscerate a corpse.

'Ah, Molly, hello…I need to ask a question.'

'Oh, OK!' she replied, smiling indulgently. 'Ask away.'

'What happened last night…you know, when we...'

There was a pause while she waited for him to finish the sentence but, when nothing was forthcoming, she assumed an encouraging tone and prompted,

'Yes?'

'Yes. What happened last night…between us…Has that…I mean, have you…That is to say, is it…Oh, for God's sake!'

For a man who prided himself on his verbal communications skills, it was frustrating not being able to put his thoughts into words. Fortunately, Molly knew exactly what he was trying to say.

'Sherlock,' she interjected, soothingly, 'what we shared last night was beautiful - and rare. It has certainly never happened to me before, in any relationship. I doubt it happens very often to anybody. It was very, very special.'

'For you, too?' he asked, his breath ragged with vulnerability.

'Absolutely for me, too.'

'Ah…Right...Thank you for clarifying…Yes, that's very…Well…See you later?'

'Yes, see you later,' she replied, grinning like a Cheshire Cat. 'Love you,' she added.

'Yes, likewise,' he replied. 'Good bye.' And, like a Will-o-the-Wisp, he was gone.

Molly shook her head, fondly, as she closed the call and returned her phone to the work top at the side of the mortuary, then pulled on a clean pair of surgical gloves to replace those she had removed to take the call. Being in a relationship with the world's only Consulting Detective was never going to be 'normal' but was absolutely all the better for it.

ooOoo

Mycroft quirked an eyebrow at his father, returning to the kitchen having delivered a tray of tea to his wife and their guest, in the Snug.

'All quiet on the Western Front,' Siger Holmes assured him.

Mycroft nodded, relieved. He'd had visions of his mother verbally eviscerating Eve Matthews – and himself. Though he knew Eve would not be phased by it, it would still have been acutely embarrassing.

Siger sat opposite his son at the kitchen table and took a sip of his own cup of tea.

'So, how are you, Mycroft?' he asked, not as a social platitude but with genuine concern. 'All these revelations about your uncle must have come as quite a shock to you, too. You were, after all, very close. How are you coping with it all?'

Siger was all too aware that his eldest child was loath to acknowledge any degree of vulnerability. Mycroft had been indoctrinated by his uncle to believe that to do so would be a sign of weakness. It was one of Siger's greatest regrets that he had virtually ceded his parental responsibilities to Rudi where Mycroft was concerned – and Eurus, too. If only he had been more assertive…but it was a bit late for 'what if's. However, he could at least try to be supportive now.

Mycroft would not have begrudged his father a generous helping of schadenfreude at Rudi's catastrophic fall from grace. For most of his married life, Siger had been held up to the image of his brother-in-law and found severely wanting. But looked into his father's eyes now, Mycroft saw only compassion and concern. He had expected nothing less.

'I do owe him everything…' Mycroft began but was immediately cut off by his father's interjection.

'No, son, you do not!' Siger declared, emphatically. 'Rudi may have opened doors for you but you took full advantage of every opportunity his connections afforded. You worked hard and earned every advancement. You are where you are today by virtue of your own ability. Don't ever imagine otherwise!'

Mycroft was taken aback by the vehemence in his father's tone – and was suddenly aware of a powerful sensation arising in his chest which felt entirely alien but, also, utterly irresistible. He had never felt such gratitude for anyone…with the singular exception of Alicia...and, as his breath caught in his throat, he closed his eyes to contain the rush of emotion which was threatening to overwhelm him.

'I can't deny, papa,' he began, once it felt safe to speak, 'that I feel sullied by my association with Uncle Rudi. I feel I must distance myself from him. And, to that end…' He paused momentarily, weighing up whether this was the right time or place to be broaching this subject but decided to push ahead.

'There's something I need to tell you,' he declared. 'You and Mummy, both.' His wrinkled brow told Siger that this was likely to be an awkward subject, especially where Maura was concerned.

'Well, why don't you run it by me first and perhaps we can decide how best to tell your mother?' Siger suggested.

Mycroft had been banking on his father suggesting such a strategy. He took a deep, preparatory breath and went for it.

'I'm selling Rudi's house. I don't feel comfortable living there now and I already have a buyer. They are happy to pay the full asking price and would like the sale to proceed as quickly as possible. I will be keeping some of the contents – a few personal items which have sentimental value…' Mycroft could hardly believe he had just used the S-word...'but the rest will be sold at auction. Some people from Christie's are coming next week to compile a full inventory and give me a valuation. Of course, if there's any particular items that Mummy would like, she's more than welcome. I wouldn't want to sell anything that she was especially fond of…except the house, of course. I know she's fond of that.'

'Only in so much as it reminds her of Rudi,' Siger assured him. 'And you're right, she won't be pleased that you've decided to sell but Rudi left the house to you so it's yours to do with as you wish.'

'Yes, well, that gift has become something of a burden but I intend to use the proceeds of the sale to right some wrongs.'

Siger waited patiently for Mycroft to expand on that statement.

'I will be making a large payment to the Trevor family, by way of compensation, though I'm aware that no amount of money could ever truly compensate for their loss. I will also grant an equal amount to Eurus, in order to secure her future. And, in addition to that, I have already agreed to fund any therapies she may require to facilitate her rehabilitation.

And the same amount again will go to you and Mummy, to compensate for Rudi's egregious abuse of our family's trust…Yes, papa, I insist,' he stressed in response to his father's attempt to protest. 'It's nothing more than you are owed, if only for the appalling financial burden he placed upon you, entirely to his own advantage.'

Siger thought twice about arguing. This sum of money, whatever it might be, would certainly make their later years more secure, especially should either one of them ever require social care.

'Sherlock, as you might imagine, has refused any share of the proceeds but, as my heir, he will benefit eventually. But, in the meanwhile, I intend to use what's left of the money to refurbish your ancestral home, papa - Musgrave Hall.'

Siger had not seen that coming. He was genuinely surprised.

'Musgrave Hall has stood derelict for far too long,' Mycroft continued. 'It was once a family home and it will be again.'

Siger's brow wrinkled at that declaration. A family home? Whose family? Was there something Mycroft hadn't told them?

'Once refurbished, it would be my dearest wish that you and Mummy come to live there, with me and…'

At this point, Mycroft realised that he had not yet broached the subject of his recent change of status with his parents. And now he felt strangely tongue-tied. How did one make such an announcement to one's mother and father?

Siger's expression was one of patient anticipation, not demanding but definitely expectant.

'You and…?' he prompted.

Mycroft drew himself up to his full height, looking for all the world as though he were about to address the Cabinet or a Cobra meeting.

'Papa, I have recently had the exceptionally good fortune to form a close and intimate relationship with a woman I have known as a friend and a colleague for many years. Despite the fact that she is infinitely my superior, in every way imaginable, she has seen fit to grace me with her presence in my life. When Rudi's house is sold, I will move into her house…temporarily, of course, since - once Musgrave Hall is refurbished - we intend to reside there together, as a couple.'

Siger supressed his amusement at the absurdity of the formal language his eldest son had chosen to announce this most significant development in his personal circumstances and, instead, he smiled broadly and, reaching across the table, clapped a hand on Mycroft's shoulder.

'Why, that's marvellous news! Congratulations, dear boy!' he exclaimed. 'And, I can assure you, your mother will be delighted! This will more than make up for the sale of Rudi's house!'

ooOoo