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Pas si lmentaire II: Tu m'as Manqu? Started by: LondonHolmes on Apr 11, '19 11:30

It was suffocating to be stuck in London, a physically offensive sensation that grated at every nerve. Two days ago he'd yearned to be back here, but now the familiar streets and faces and sounds were like a cage, penning him in. 

And Alexander held the only key.

The Consulting Criminal had been happy to bid good-bye to Paris; now he would have given anything (almost anything, not Elliot) to get back there.

Paris needed him now, and he'd made the foolish mistake of stepping away from it, of coming home, only to be ensnared by Alexander's machinations, by Elliot's reasonable assertions that if Georges Alexandre had been targeted, it may have something to do with them, and they were safer here, where they had protection.

But the crime hadn't happened here, and he had no access. He had no Cruz in with the gens d'armes, nor Donovan, nor any of the others. No one he could wheedle for information. No one who needed his assistance – no, no one who wanted his assistance, because it was needed, now more than ever, for an innocuous man whose only connection to the Consulting Criminal was a faked letter.

The damned letter. It had been the first thing he'd asked about – the baby had been the first thing Elliot had asked about. She was fine, predictably, at home with the mother when Georges had vanished en route to his home from some promotional event.

There was no answer about the letter. Alexander could find out, but he had refused, insisting his brother leave it in the hands of the French authorities, that London was not to get involved – but he was involved, because the timing couldn't be coincidental.

Georges had gotten them to Paris – or at least his name had – and Georges had vanished almost immediately after they'd left.

The detective who had flown over to interview them certainly hadn't missed that connection, but persistent questioning – London's persistence, not the French officer's – hadn't paid off, and without any actual responses or information, nothing he could deduce did more than generate more questions.

It hadn't helped that Cruz had been there, putting the brakes on every time London had been getting somewhere.

But Elliot – he was on his side. In the absence of any official information, or permission to leave the country, there were still ways of getting what he needed. Alexander's authority didn't extend to inside the apartment – Elliot was very clear about that, had been from the beginning. A quick but thorough sweep had prevented Alexander from listening, and it had been Elliot who had suggested the gens d'armes.

It had taken longer than London would have liked, longer than it would have with Scotland Yard, but the system was new to him. Different. Still, there were back ways and hidden entrances, and he was an expert in those.

Nine and a half months playing dead, moving like a ghost through the world, had sharpened more than just his physical ability to go undetected.

The search into the gens d'armes' system left him not much wiser than he had been before he'd accessed all their information. There was no crime scene – the hired vehicle Georges had been using had vanished, along with its driver. Some very unlucky junior officer was now tasked with scouring traffic, trying to catch one car in a city of millions, but without knowing the route, the possibilities were almost endless.

Without a crime scene, there were no forensics, no clues.

Nothing.

The driver's agency had been forthcoming at least, although that too had led nowhere. Three years employment with that agency, impeccable credentials, clean record. Georges had used this particular driver before, so no reason for him to be suspicious.

That would make it easier, of course.

Presuming the driver had been involved, and not himself a victim of a carjacking, a body not yet discovered.

There were too many variables – the elated feeling that normally drove London stalled by the fact that nothing could be tied together. There was nowhere to start, aside from the scant information they already had, which was nearly as good as nothing.

It had to be Georges himself. There had to be something in his past, some overlooked detail that would mark him out as a target.

Had the Consulting Criminal been in France, he could have chased down these fragile leads, spoken to people, picked up on all the poorly concealed hints and tells that were better than lighted signs would have been. He could have found a hidden trail and followed it through the city's streets and alleys and hidden places.

But here– he was trapped once more.

"He can't just be gone!"

Elliot's eyes widened slightly, lips parting to voice a reply; London held up a hand quickly, forestalling whatever the doctor was going to say.

There was always a trail.

Always.

Except when there wasn't.

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He narrowed his eyes, gaze skimming over the memory of a sweeping landscape of hills and rolling meadows, rocky outcrops against a pristine sky.

They had just been gone. From London to Wales, one moment to the next.

"Air traffic," London said.

"What?"

"We were taken from here to Wales by helicopter, Elliot, but there had to be some record of it. A flight plan logged – can't fly over the city without someone knowing where you are and where you're going."

"But– wouldn't that be a bit suspicious? 'Oh we're just flying to northern Wales in the middle of the night.'"

"They'd have used a different end destination. Somewhere that took them through the area, where they could have flown to afterwards."

"So you think someone flew Alexandre out of Paris? Out of France?"

"I don't know," London murmured.

He had no idea. It was possible. If Georges had been taken from France altogether, finding him would become exponentially more difficult. But there were other ways to get out of the country, no checks traveling between most continental European countries, and ways around the security going through the Channel Tunnel.

Whoever had taken Georges knew what they were doing.

The person who had taken them had known what they were doing.

"But why?" London demanded, surprised that Elliot started, surprised at the sound of his own voice. He hadn't meant to say it, not out loud, but now he had a sounding board, even if Elliot hated the subject.

"Why what?" Elliot asked.

"Why would she take him?"

Elliot was startled again, pulling back the way he always did now at the mention of her – always torn between which woman they were talking about before figuring it out. It was too complicated, all the ridiculous, unnecessary baggage piled on top of them, like a weight he needed to dislodge to think clearly, but one that he couldn't crawl out from underneath.

"You think– you think she did this?"

"She's done it before," London said shortly.

"Yeah, but–"

"And the symbols in the tunnels! That paint was fresh – within a day or two of us being down there. Someone knew we'd find it. Someone also knew we'd find him."

"But why?" Elliot asked, echoing London's question.

The Consulting Criminal pushed himself to his feet, confined by the length of the room, the objects that filled their home suddenly obstacles in his way, hemming him in. Baker Street, London – they were never meant to be prisons, but he was trapped here, as surely as he had been in Wales – more so because Alexander was keeping him here, not trying to get him out, but he needed to get out, to be where he'd just been, he needed access, contacts he didn't even have in the Paris police force and–

"Deep breath! Hold it!"

The command rooted London, his body obeying without any input from his mind. Part of him was alarmed at how well it worked, how readily he responded to Elliot's military voice, the tiny piece of resentment swallowed by the ability to refocus, and by the fact that he knew Elliot would never do this to him in public, never let his weaknesses show.

"Good. Let it out. Slowly."

Piercing blue eyes watched him intently until Elliot was satisfied that London was back on track, but the tension didn't leave his muscles, stiffening his shoulders, and London knew his partner would pay for that later.

It could wait.

It would have to.

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They were already running out of time.

"There was nothing in the novel," Elliot said. London nodded, mechanically. He'd read it. He'd made Elliot read it. A tenuous hope that the story line would have touched on something familiar, perhaps even reflect Sarraf and Sir Richard's deaths, that he could make a direct link to something George knew about that he shouldn't have.

Georges had friends in the gens d'armes. It could have been something from one of their cases.

As far as he could tell, it wasn't. Maybe small details here and there, but nothing that should get a man abducted.

Vaguely, London wondered if Elliot would have enjoyed the book under normal circumstances.

He hoped so.

There were too many places to start. None of them stood out as promising, or even likely.

Everything he had built here – and rebuilt since returning – seemed useless. He understood London, how it breathed, how it moved, how to turn its spies and markers and keepers to his own needs.

None of that mattered now.

He was in the wrong place, knew the wrong people.

London paused, aware of Elliot watching him, careful and evaluating. Something nudged the edge of his mind, something wrong about this isolated, helpless feeling.

It was imposed. Artificial. He didn't know anyone in the gens d'armes but not for nothing had he developed all those contacts in Scotland Yard, hammering the important ones back into shape after a nine-month absence.

Alexander was keeping him trapped here, in a place that was never meant to be a trap, but there was no reason it had to be. Physically, perhaps. But there were ways around it, and if he couldn't go to the information, he would force the information to come to him.

No one else was going to solve this.

It might be a ploy, a dangerous dance, and London was aware that he was being pulled into it, but stepping back wasn't an option. Not for himself – this game, he would have walked away from, much to Elliot's surprise, and probably much to Elliot's relief, but there wasn't a body, whose fate was already sealed.

There was a man, with the misfortune of having been roped into something he was not part of.

She owed him. She owed him for Elliot, for those three interminable days in Wales knowing there might not be any more Elliot, and now she owed him for this.

"Get your things," London said, registering the flash of surprise in Elliot's blue eyes, the way he moved for his wallet and keys almost immediately, any questions unvoiced. "We're going out."

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Out was to the Yard, with its perpetual hustle and bustle, and London had been rehearsing the entire operation in his head, planning for every contingency and measuring precisely what he could use against Cruz – information ("blackmail", Elliot would probably call it), wheedling, bribery, concessions.

He knew every turn, every potential protest, every counter move, by the time the doors slid shut behind them.

He had planned for every single change of circumstance – except for Cruz not being on shift.

London felt circuits stalling, blinking rapidly as he tried to account for new information, plan around it, but he was too slow – even for him – and they were being ushered into Dimmock's office by Dimmock himself, the door click shut decisively behind them.

"You've been told to stay out of this," he said, putting his desk between them, fists resting on the dark wood like little barriers of their own, eyes fixed on London to exclude Elliot from the warning – or the accusation.

"There's no–"

"Greg's told you, Holmes," he snapped. "This isn't our case."

He drew a deep breath to retort, arguments already lining up, personal observations flickering through his thoughts without any effort – and those stopped him, made him pause, because there was some subtle shift in his stance without any real movement, some nearly hidden light in his eyes.

"But Greg isn't my boss, and you're not an officer," he continued. "So what do you want?"

"To talk to the wife," London replied promptly. Now Dimmock did look at Elliot, a silent question that made the Consulting Criminal huff, because Elliot wasn't responsible for speaking on his behalf – even if it did sometimes make it easier when dealing with idiots – but no one took his protestations seriously, as if Elliot was somehow the arbiter of rationality.

Little did anyone know.

Elliot made some small acquiescing gesture, as if to suggest that it might help, and London swallowed a disgusted snort.

Of course it would help.

"I'll see what I can do," Dimmock said. "And you'll wait here. Both of you. Without touching any case files."

Elliot made London behave – it was grating, to be unsupervised in a DI's office but unable to take advantage of it. And Elliot was being disgustingly reasonable, disregarding London's caustic comments about loyalty.

Any attempts to get up and make even a cursory examination were met with a suggestion that if London chose to do so, he might consider how long he'd like to be sleeping on his own. Deterred, London settled, not above glaring reproachfully at his obstinate partner (who was ignoring him without any apparent effort).

He fidgeted, tugging at his cuffs and trousers, actually twiddling his thumbs, vainly wondering how to make inane small talk with Elliot if only to pass the time, but not succeeding in puzzling it out. Dimmock's return was a relief, and Elliot finally let London up when he beckoned them to join him.

"You're in luck," he said. "She wants to speak to you."

"Of course she does," London sniffed, not deigning to acknowledge Elliot's derisive snort or Dimmock's raised eyebrows.

"I remind you that her husband is missing," Dimmock said, tone boarding on sharp. "Be nice."

"Nice won't find her husband," London said, letting his voice dip with chilly disdain.

"Nor will being an arsehole," Dimmock replied.

"He can't help it," Elliot said. "It's part of his charm."

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Dimmock rolled his eyes but led them to another office – obviously unassigned to any particular officer if the lack of personal touches was any indication. Dimmock greeted Georges' wife – Juliette Richard, London knew from the files – in passable French, with only the briefest flicker of her eyes aiming a caution at London. He nodded, glancing at Elliot who shrugged – London would, of course, be able to translate the entire conversation for Elliot's benefit after the fact.

"Remember, nice," Dimmock muttered under his breath as London moved past him to sit at the desk with a phone placed in the centre of a dimly lit room.

"Can you find him?" she demanded before London could even draw a breath. "Mister Holmes, can you find my husband?"

London barely hesitated, aware that any delay might bring intervention from Dimmock, who certainly hadn't been expecting this. But this was what he'd been waiting for, this chance, a real link to the case, someone on the inside who wanted – needed – him there.

"Yes," he said.

It was one thing for him to say yes, another to actually do it, and nothing would change for her, not really, until Georges was safely back home.

And London intended to see that Georges was safely returned home. The entire situation was insulting enough as it was; he was hardly about to settle for anything less than complete victory.

"What do you need?" she asked.

"Everything," London replied. "Everything about that night, about the last six months–"

"Why six months?" she asked.

"He showed you the letter? The one that was faked and sent to me?"

"Yes, of course."

"That was six months ago. Everything around that time – anything unusual, and I mean anything, Ms Richard, even if he changed the color of his socks or drank one more cup of coffee each day. Everything about the book, if there was anything strange about the story, anything deviation from how he'd written before, anything odd about his publisher or editor or unusual guests at book signings."

"You," she said bluntly. "You were unusual, Mister Holmes."

"I know," London said, unable to keep the curt tone from his voice.

"It was all he talked about," Juliette said, expression softening. "He was like a kid at Christmas. He kept saying he wished he'd thought to ask for a photograph."

"Tell me who he told, about our visit. Everything you can remember, Ms Richard. Anything, no matter how insignificant it seems."

She did, and London listened, committing it all to memory, pulling it all apart – every word, every intonation, every meaning, fragmenting all of it down to its frustratingly meaningless components. Juliette answered each of his interrupting questions, hanging onto patience with tight fists, and he could see Elliot doing the same, curling and uncurling his fingers like he did when he wasn't sure what to do, couldn't do anything at all.

London wavered internally when the sensation of nothing struck a familiar chord – it was like meeting her, the Woman, when no information had registered, his mind suddenly a blank slate letting him down. He'd seen all of Elliot's hints then – and still could now, and Dimmock's, and even Juliette's on the end of the phone connection.

Georges hadn't been a mystery to him – confusing, yes, but London had been able to read all the author's signs, even if he hadn't known what to make of them.

But this…

He felt wind whisper over his skin, saw the spiral of stars above him – and locked down the memory fast before it could get a grip on his nerves, show on his face.

There was always something. Looking back, he could see it on the Woman's face (fineness of the lines around her eyes putting her in her mid-thirties, makeup expertly applied, right-handed, expensive brands, just a hint of professional – artificial – tanning, no more than a mere suggestion, deception in her eyes, on the surface and buried), and if he could see that now, he could find something in Juliette's words.

He pressed her when she said she couldn't remember anymore, letting up only when it was apparent that it was really true.

"I need anything, everything you know," he said. "Documents. Passport, travel schedules, flight itineraries, birth certificates, your marriage certificate, whatever you can think of. Anything. Everything."

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It gave him time to dictate their entire conversation to his phone, and to Elliot and Dimmock, who were both making notes. London scanned each word as he spoke it, pulling it apart again, refusing to give into frustration. It wouldn't help. Would cloud his judgment. He needed that now, clear and focused, needed to keep himself open to any possibilities, to follow any path his mind led.

Dangerous.

In Wales it had kept leading him into the past, and he'd ignored it. To his detriment.

If it led him back to Wales now, he'd have to let it.

He wasn't sure if he could. Not with Dimmock here. Not outside of Baker Street.

It was never safe but the only time it was barely tolerable was at home, alone, with Elliot. Where no one could see the weakness but someone else who had lived it, where London could hold make a physical connection, hold onto Elliot to prove that Elliot was real.

But the rules had changed.

If he knew that now, he wouldn't be blind-sided if it came up.

He hoped.

The documents would be enough of a distraction when they came through. Dimmock made a pointed comment about printing at the taxpayer's expenses; Elliot reminded him they both paid their taxes. He rolled his eyes before excusing himself, saying something about having work of his own he had to do. 

Duty. 


Responsibility.


Dimmock's absence was a relief and a burden – it was easier with just Elliot, but one less person made more work for them. Some nameless constable was dispatched to provide them with coffee, which London ignored and Elliot indulged in.

Pieces slotted together, but all of the wrong ones – everything in front of him, spread out like a wave, bolstered what Juliette had told them, painted a picture, but not the picture he needed. Nothing matched up – if London hadn't known better, he'd have guessed Georges had been mistakenly targeted, the wrong man in the wrong place. The whim of a random crime, but this wasn't random and it wasn't a whim.

Not if she had taken him.

She did nothing without a reason.

And he was back at the beginning again, unable to puzzle her out.

Mother: Marie Charlotte Russeau.

London let it speak to him, suspending the moment just long to keep Elliot from interrupting, then scattered the papers in front of him again.

Mother: Marie Charlotte Russeau.

Father: Patrick Daniel Georges.

A Marriage certificate for the parents dated when Georges had been fourteen months old.

It wasn't unheard of. Perhaps more common now. Cold feet on the father's part? The mother giving him an out if he'd wanted it. He had decided not to take it.

There was no adoption certificate in their piles.

But things got lost. Slipped through the cracks, and a fourteen month old baby would hardly insist on keeping accurate records.

"Get Dimmock, now" he said to Elliot, who obeyed without question. Dimmock came back. No time to imagine the hope in Juliette's eyes, no time to play into it or reassure her.

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There was a sister.

Of course, that wasn't particularly surprising. The fact that Georges hadn't cared to investigate his biological father's family scarcely meant that family didn't exist.

Nor was it particularly surprising that Georges was younger than the sister by nearly three years. The emotional complications that other people heaped upon themselves were always tedious and very often ridiculous, but London had to admit – privately, because doing so out loud would only have it repeated back to him at inopportune moments – that it did help sustain his career.

What was unexpected was the sharp reduction in the size of the family Georges had never bothered with. There had been, at one point, another sister, the father, and the father's wife.

All three of whom had died twenty-one years previous when their vehicle had hit a patch of ice in the French Alps and careened into another car before smashing into an outcropping.

That had distressed Elliot, as these details so often did, but what troubled London was that the older sister, who had been a mere sixteen years old when her family had died, had effectively vanished.

"Can you blame her?" Elliot asked, pensive expression tinged with sadness that irritated the Consulting Criminal – Elliot didn't know this woman or her dead family, so what possible reason could he have to feel any sorrow over deaths that were two decades old? As a doctor, Elliot should know better to become emotionally entangled other people's issues.

But whatever distinction Elliot made between himself and his patients never seem to extend to London's clients. London restrained himself from pointing out this character flaw; he had no desire to start a fight – and they hardly had the time for one – nor did he want to dredge up old accusations about his lack of compassion.

"Yes," he snapped. "Her brother is missing and she could be invaluable in figuring out why he was targeted and where he might be."

"She doesn't know about him, Holmes," Elliot said. "How could she know anything about what happened?"

"Based on Georges not knowing about her, you conclude she doesn't know about him? Dangerous and simplistic, Elliot – for all we know, she's known about him his entire life and has something to do with all of this."

"Why would she–"

"I'm not saying she does," London sighed. "I'm saying we could draw that conclusion just as reasonably as yours because we don't know! If she were accessible, I could get the information needed to make an informed conclusion but I can't, because she doesn't have the consideration to exist anywhere."

"Her entirely family died when she was barely more than a kid," Elliot pointed out. "Maybe she wanted to get away from that."

"And now another family member of hers is in peril and she's avoiding that, too! No letters, phone calls or being seen out in publuc. This isn't simply a case of escaping her unfortunate past – she actively doesn't want to be found."

Elliot shrugged slightly from behind his stack of papers and London shot him a glare across the desks. Dimmock had unceremoniously evicted them from the Yard after the Consulting Criminal had managed to wrangle the information he'd needed from French lawyer who had handled Georges' adoption.

If pressed, he might have admitted it had been generous of him to let them stay as long as he had – but it would have been more so if she hadn't forced them out. Some pointed remarks from Elliot had prevented London from fully developing his observations that he was only sending them home to avoid having to explain the situation to Cruz.

"We don't have time for two missing people," he snapped.

"There's nothing you can do about her," Elliot replied. London drew a breath to deliver a caustic retort but swallowed it quickly when his partner raised his eyebrows with that infuriating knowing look he wore when he had something he hadn't yet shared. "But we could probably talk to her cousin who just happens to live here."

Isabelle Guillory, early to mid-forties, short red hair, hazel eyes, pictures selected to reflect someone who appeared both refined and outdoorsy, professional (publisher), married, no children, possibly owned a cat.

And lived in London.

"Get your things," London said, reaching for his scarf as he stood. "Let's go."

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"Should I be jealous?"

London deigned to raise his eyes from looking out the window to glance at Elliot across the small space that separated them in the back of the cab.

"Or worried?" Elliot continued. "I'm sure this could be considered stalking."

"We need to know where she is," London sighed. "I don't need to remind you that we don't have the luxury of time. There's no sense showing up at her residence if she's not going to be there."

The comment sobered Elliot and kept him from suggesting that London's normal pattern was to show up wherever he thought someone else should be and expect them to plan their lives according to his whims.

It was annoying how often that worked, but it was even more worrying that London was going out of his way to ensure they met their contact this time.

"We may need your expertise in this area," London said. He'd already given the cabbie Isabelle's home address, and had apparently satisfied himself that she was there.

"I don't think she needs a doctor," Elliot pointed out.

"That's hardly your only area of expertise," London replied, arching an eyebrow at the doctor. "I'm more than happy to admit that women are not my area of expertise."

A little traitor thought at the back of Elliot's mind piped up with the very unwanted opinion that London should have remembered that when dealing with "The Woman' AKA Irene.

It wasn't fair and Elliot knew it – there was no reason Elliot should like someone who'd had – whatever it was she and London had together all those months he was 'missing' and trying to bring her down. The Consulting Criminal still had yet to tell him exactly what she did with and to him.

Elliot was more than willing to admit jealousy on his part, but it had been more than that.

London had never had reason to mistrust Elliot's judgment but Elliot had never trusted 'the Woman' further than he could have thrown her.

Even that was probably too far.

"Women and medicine," Elliot said, keeping the rest to himself. "Got it."

"There are other things, too," London murmured.

"Are there?" Elliot asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Oh yes," London slowly replied and when Elliot turned to face him, he noticed the Consulting Criminal staring at him with a slight smirk.

Elliot got the message.

Loud and clear.


"Yeah, you can shut it right now," Elliot interjected, rolling his eyes with a sigh when the corners of London's lips continued to curl upward. 

Of course London wasn't being oblivious about it, but doing it deliberately to push Elliot's buttons.

"Here is fine," his inconsiderate partner said to the cabbie, who pulled over smoothly and with what Elliot thought was an expression of relief.

He clambered out of the car after London, surprised to see they were still a short walk away – probably only a few minutes – and wondered if this was the Consulting Criminal's concession to their relationship even in the midst of a case.

More likely it was because London didn't want whoever might be observing them to catch onto their destination just yet.

"Here we go," London said. "Shall we?"

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"A son? Are you sure?"

Elliot had been watching Isabelle carefully since they'd arrived, a very different type of observation than London's deductive scrutiny. He'd always relied as heavily on this – perhaps more so – than he had on Elliot's skill with medicine and women.

Elliot was good with people, knew how to talk to them, to get them to warm to him. London could (and often did) fake it, of course, and he would concede to the occasional genuine sense of connection, but he didn't have the patience to sustain it without good cause.

A man's life was on the line; there was no time for dithering or sympathy, but somehow, Elliot could work these things in without it wasting more time than necessary, without a client or witness or suspect shutting down altogether.

Isabelle Guillory, however, didn't require much finesse; London had intuited that immediately. Even now, faced with the fact that her uncle – her father's brother – had an affair that had produced a hitherto unknown child, she seemed more surprised than shocked.

"We are," London said, extending her a photograph of Georges. Her eyes flickered down to it, expression neutral at first, shifting almost immediately to alarm, and Elliot shifted beside him, not touching London but the movement catching part of his awareness, reading it for the response, noting the proximity.

"This is Georges Alexandre!" she said, looking back up, pale features noticeably paler now, eyes bright with the shock that had been missing at the revelation of a new family member.

"You know him?" London demanded.

"He's that missing man from Paris! It's been all over the newspapers there – I may not live there anymore, Mister Holmes, but I still have family there and I keep up with what happens. And yes, at it happens – ridiculous as it sounds – I do know him. I mean, I've met him, a handful of times."

"You're in publishing," Elliot said, realization finally dawning. London had drawn the connection already but had dismissed it almost as soon as it had formed; her company wasn't Georges', and he'd checked for any links between the two in the cab on the trip here but had come up empty.

"I am, but we don't publish him. I've read some of his novels," she gestured vaguely at the built in bookshelves behind her in the airy living room, the shelves themselves overflowing with books, sometimes two deep, or stacked on one another, an obvious contrast to the otherwise uncluttered, ordered space. "A couple book launches, some parties…"

"When was the last time you saw him?" London asked

"Maybe two years ago – it's not as though we knew each other well at all. We're really cousins?" For a moment, he heard the suggestion of her nearly vanished French accent, gone as soon as it came.

Isabelle shook her head before he could answer again, or before Elliot could elbow him in the ribs to prevent him for a helpful remark that would hurry this whole thing along.

"Well, Robert always had a very high opinion of himself, so maybe this is not so much of a surprise. But why would someone kidnap him? Do you think it's tied to us? Our family I mean?"

"Yes," London replied, making no effort to keep the bite out of his voice despite the warning look Elliot shot him. 

They didn't have time to dance around the truth.

"How?"

"If we knew that, we'd hardly be here. I need to contact his sister. Your cousin."

"Amélie?"

London gave a sharp nod, impatient, annoyed when Isabelle shook her head.

"You must have some way of contacting her," he insisted.

"I hear from her sometimes," Isabelle said. "Not often, maybe one or twice a year – if that."

"You weren't close growing up?" Elliot asked.

"A bit, but closer to Julie – her sister. Amélie was always more – I'm not sure. Independent? Very private. But after the accident, she checked out. She tried, I think, but I think she'd always seen us as extra to her family and she couldn't replace them with us. So she left."

"To where?" London asked.

"Everywhere, for a while. She lives in Argentina now – or at least she did when I last heard from her."

"So you do have some means of contacting her."

"Well I have an address – several, actually. She changes them the way other people change clothing. She was always like that though, easily distracted. Bored."

It made her harder to pin down, too, but London kept that observation to himself; if Amélie hadn't been interested in her father's family after losing her own, there was no reason she'd want to make herself easily accessible to them now.

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"She's sent me a few postcards and photos as well – do you want those?"

"Yes," London said, at the same time Elliot replied, "Please." Elliot raised his eyebrows when Isabelle vanished toward the back of the apartment; London scowled back, wishing it were cool enough outside to wear his coat. Elliot never felt quite short enough in the summers, and it was less effective to jam his hands into his trouser pockets and huff – somehow, the action lacked authority like that.

Isabelle came back, passing a small box to London, who passed it to Elliot to note down the address. If Amélie had stopped using it, its utility would be limited to them – but it was better than nothing.

Possibly.

The postcards were a handful of typical tourist scenes, mostly from South America – among them, London recognized Machu Picchu and Rio de Janeiro – but a few were from other major global landmarks: China, Tokyo, Australia...

Whatever Amélie had been looking for, she'd certainly traveled extensively to find it.

The messages on the backs of the postcards were fairly generic, written in a lazy scrawl, all in French. There seemed to be some genuine affection there, the type London would associate with someone who wasn't trying to leave a dead family behind, who thought fondly of her cousin and would send a small note about a place she'd describe in more detail later.

But perhaps that was simply a way of keeping her family at bay, making it seem like she cared enough to do reach out if only to avoid further contact.

The last picture was a photograph, older. The subject – a woman – was young, her long dark hair framing her face, squinting slightly at whoever was taking the picture, smiling despite the sun in her eyes. The background was a generic beach in a generic coastal city – London could have figured out where precisely had been important, but it wasn't the location it mattered, it was the young woman, recognizable despite the faded photograph, despite the years that had passed since the captured moment.

His immobility made Elliot look up at him, then peer over his shoulder at the photograph, and London felt his partner's shock, the way it warred with confusion and disbelief – denial even, because Elliot wouldn't want this to be real, would want to be wrong this time, but he wasn't.

"Jesus Christ," his partner murmured, and London could feel Isabelle's confused gaze flickering between them, trying to divine what was wrong, not comprehending. He wanted to crumple the photograph in his fist, hide the reality from Elliot, but that was unproductive and would scarcely have made a difference now; Elliot had seen it and knew. "Holmes, that isn't– Is that–"

"Yes," London said, keeping his eyes on the photograph, because anything was better than looking at his partner right now, "It's Mary."

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"I don't understand!"

London pressed his palms together, fingertips touching his nose, as he paced, thoughts racing down branching pathways, trying to find elusive connections.

"It doesn't make any sense!" Elliot's protest cut through the sleeting deductions but the Consulting Criminal barely noticed; some small part of him always insisted on being aware of Elliot and he'd realized ages ago it was better just to let it – it allowed the rest of his brain to focus on the problem. "Why would she take Mary's brother? What's the point?"

What was the point? The question chased itself around in London's mind – there was no obvious solution but there was a reason, even if it was unknown to him. Some connection, some tenuous link drawing the Woman and Mary together via Georges.

"Do you think he was involved in any of this?" Elliot asked. "Maybe working for her – Irene, I mean?"

London heard the reluctance in Elliot's voice, as if naming her was as good as summoning her. He gave his head a sharp shake, refocusing on his partner.

"No." It wasn't a guess, it wasn't just a possibility – he was certain Georges had nothing to do with this. He was a man trapped by a family he didn't know and that was where the connection lay. A mystery author whose own life had been – until recently – a relatively placid read, ignorant of characters behind the scenes of his own biology.

He'd never cared to know them, but now it seemed they cared to know something about him.

"You said she wasn't working for her. I mean Irene. For– Mary."

"No," London said again. Even if he'd been uncertain about the rest of the details, he was certain about this. Mary's actions spoke for her: two madmen faded into nothing more than memory when they became too unpredictable to be assets.

Her world was ordered, a control she dictated and imposed. No room for those who had lost their usefulness, no concessions for those who trod their own path rather than hers.

Mary did not play games.

The Woman did.

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It hit him suddenly, freezing him in place, halfway through a step, and he was dimly aware of Elliot demanding to know what it was and of the way his partner silenced himself – reluctantly but knowing it was important to do so – when London held up a hand.

He fixed his attention on Elliot, aware of the way it made his partner shift, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. Elliot's gaze flickered away before being drawn back up by London's unflinching one, muscles in Elliot's jaw and neck working as he swallowed, steeling himself.

London ignored the faint displeasure at causing Elliot any unease; he needed the focus more than he needed Elliot to be comfortable. Every sense was deliberately turned to his partner's presence, not just the sight but the smell and the feel, the way Elliot changed the air merely by being there.

And he was there. Solid. Real. He'd been in their apartment that morning, he'd been with London at the Yard and in the cab and at Isabelle's. He was here now, some understanding flickering through his blue eyes, and London loathed the fact that it was Elliot who took a daring step forward to close the gap between them, Elliot who reached out and caught his wrist, Elliot's fingers that tightened with a brief, reassuring squeeze.

He hated the fact that he couldn't do it, make that small yet immense gesture – the inability was weakness, he knew that even if his own brother would have called it a strength.

But it didn't matter to Elliot.

"No?" Elliot asked. London twisted his wrist slightly in Elliot's loose grip, wrapping his own fingers around Elliot's arm, feeling the steady beat of a pulse against his skin. He nodded once, the action more certain than he was, and let his mind skirt around the contours of memories that weren't nearly old enough for his liking.

Mary didn't play games.

The Woman did.

He was certain it was all there, waiting for him, bits and pieces that needed to be put together the way he'd been trying to do in Wales, and preventing himself at every turn for fear of what the memories might do.

But Elliot was here, right here, and Georges was not.

She had taken him and this was a game – at least to her.

And Georges wasn't the first person she'd taken.

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London's eyes slid away from Elliot's, narrowing unconsciously, letting the observation take him where it wanted – even when where it wanted was an abandoned and crumbling stone hut on a desolate Welsh hillside. He tightened his grip on Elliot's wrist, reaffirming the reality, unable to ignore the memory of desperation as he'd sought Elliot out in the darkness, then again, more systematically but just as futilely, in the daylight.

That had been a game too, of sorts.

Plucking him and Elliot from London, dropping them, separated, into the wilderness. The Consulting Criminal had had Cruz but the Woman had known what losing Elliot would do.

Four days hounded by a smothering fear – terror – that Elliot had been taken away from him permanently and irrevocably. That this, what he held onto right now, was as insubstantial as mist, not really his, out of his control.

Four days locked in his own mind trying to escape the suffocating possibility.

London would have figured it out faster if he'd been with Elliot, and Elliot would have got them home faster if they'd been together. His deductive skills combined with Elliot's army training. 

Solutions and survival.

But the delay hadn't been for him, not really.

Removing them had drawn Alexander's gaze away from London.

Long enough to…

"Oh," London said without hearing himself, aware that he must have spoken only by the shift in Elliot's stance, the slight change in pressure of fingertips on his skin.

Because they'd come back and there had been a faked letter in French, one body in place of another, a forgotten tunnel beneath the heart of London.

And the writing on the wall.

Not writing, no – symbols, meaningless at the time but linked directly to Georges via the cover of his latest novel, and Georges linked directly to Mary via the accident of blood.

Nothing had been stolen from Alexander – nothing physical. That would have been obvious.

Whatever it had been, Alexander had never even known he'd had it.

None of them had.

Until now.

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London hadn't taken the bait with the letter but the Woman would have other resources at her disposal. A name somehow linked back to Mary, the connection unclear… He would have uncovered it if he'd been interested in France when it had first come up, and he would have led her right where she'd wanted to go.

He'd passed up the chance – unknowingly – but it didn't matter because she'd solved the riddle anyway and taken Georges as neatly and as silently as she'd taken them.

"But why?" Elliot asked, pulling London back to the present, relieved he'd had the presence of mind to speak as he was thinking and save them the time it would have taken to go over it again.

"I don't know," London reluctantly replied.

Elliot looked slightly surprised by the admission but London ignored him; there was too much at stake for pretenses, and what he didn't know yet, he would learn.

"She doesn't know either." London heard the words before he'd registered the realization behind them, aware that Elliot's expression had shifted to confusion. Elliot shook his head, a short, sharp military movement.

"Who doesn't know what?" Elliot asked.

"Mary. She doesn't know about Georges."

"What?" Elliot demanded. "No! You told me not two hours ago that it was a stupid assumption–"

"A dangerous and simplistic conclusion. And it was. It's not now."

"Oh yes, because now you've thought of it?"

"Because we have facts! Two hours ago we didn't know that Amélie and Mary were the same person. We didn't know who Georges' biological sister was."

"So what? How does that change Mary knowing? You said it yourself: just because Georges didn't bother to find out about her doesn't mean she wouldn't have found out about him – or that she hadn't known her whole life!"

"Of course she bloody knows who George is," London sighed, silencing Elliot's attempted protest with an abrupt gesture. "Listen to me. Mary knows who he is because she follows the news and she follows us. Yes, yes she does." He tightened his grip on Elliot's wrist slightly, not enough to be threatening but enough to stop his partner from pulling away. There was no time for the finesse the situation needed, no time to spare Elliot's feelings or indulge the anger.

"You know she does, Elliot. Using the same means James did, because he was her man. But not in the same way. Not for the same reasons."

"And that makes it all fine, does it?" Elliot snapped. "You're happy to let it happen?"

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"How am I supposed to stop it?" London asked. "Would you stop writing your stories? Would you stop working with me? Would you have me stop working? Would you have us stay in the apartment without leaving for the rest of our lives? No. Because I can't bloody stop it, Elliot, because if I have to, I will go through everyone in London – and then beyond – because she is, as you said, keeping tabs. Nothing more. No, don't argue! She knew we went to Paris and she knew we met Georges there – possibly she doesn't know about the letter. Hard to say. She does know he's missing now, but she doesn't know why."

"How can you be sure?" Elliot demanded.

"Because if someone like Mary had a family member stolen, we'd have felt it by now. She wouldn't let anything stand in her way of getting him back, not if he meant something to her. London's underworld would be bleeding, Elliot, but right now, it's no more unsettled than it normally is. Mary knows a French author we've met is missing, but she doesn't know who he is to her. She may not even know who's taken him."

"So why bother then? Why take him if there's no connection between Georges and Mary – or between Mary and Irene for that matter?"

"We don't know there's not. I said the Woman wasn't working for Mary. There's obviously a connection."

"Obvious now," Elliot commented sardonically.

"Yes," London agreed, keeping the sigh out of his voice if only to avoid a fight they couldn't afford. "Obvious now."

He closed his eyes, trying to concentrate, a traitor thought snaking through his mind, artfully dodging his attempts to ignore it. Carefully, London disentangled himself from his partner's grasp so he could pace the living room again, hoping in vain that the familiar textures beneath his shoes would distract him, help him build a rationale against this terrible idea.

But there was no way around it, not this time.

If he didn't try, it was one powerful lead not followed and as much as he despised the idea of disloyalty to Elliot, London could not let that outweigh another man's life.

He paused, back to his partner, taking a slow breath to savor one last moment before he had to ask his of Elliot, then turned back, using another deep breath to steel himself.

"Elliot, I have to talk to her."

The shock in Elliot's blue eyes was mirrored in his stance, the way he tensed and drew back slightly, as if he could distance himself from the reality. As if not comprehending – or not wanting to – could change what had to be done.

"What–?" he asked. "Do you mean–?"

"No," London said. "To Mary."

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"Are– are you bloody serious?"

Even now, he wouldn't have put it past London – a flat, poorly timed joke or some impromptu experiment just to see how Elliot would react. But there was that look of reluctant firmness that Elliot had seen and had only recently recognized for what it was. London's lips parted slightly, as if he were about to speak, before he silenced himself, eyes flickering over Elliot's face.

"You want to talk to her," Elliot said flatly. "Mary."

London nodded, pursing his lips slightly, gaze locked with Elliot's.

"Jesus Christ," Elliot muttered, managing to disentangle himself from his partner enough to turn away for a few seconds before the sheer stupidity of the situation pulled him back. "You want to talk to her? You want to talk to her? No. No! This is insane!"

"Elliot–"

"What the bloody hell are you thinking! You want to talk to Mary? How's that going to work, Holmes? She's the bloody head of– I don't even know, some kind of international crime network! Are you just going to ring her up and have a chat?"

"Of course not–" London tried.

"Of course not!" Elliot shouted back. "Of course you're bloody not because of all the stupid ideas you've ever had, this one really takes the fucking cake, doesn't it?"

"Her brother is missing."

"I know that! The whole bloody world knows that now! And you know who took him – so what, you're just going to drop us into the middle of this, between Irene and Mary, because everything involving Irene has worked out so well for you hasn't it?"

Elliot knew he'd hit a mark; the way London drew back slightly was enough of an indication, but he didn't care. He also knew the Consulting Criminal knew it was true – James, Irene, they each added up to the same thing in London's mind.

That chilling challenge he craved, because it took the place of cocaine and boredom.

And Elliot had always gone willingly, because he needed the same thing.

But not this time.

"It's not about me," London said.

"It is for me!" The words were out of Elliot's mouth before the shock that registered when London's statement finally did.

London looked startled, grey eyes going wide, and Elliot felt suspended for a moment, caught by the realization he thought he'd buried – that the Woman could so easily pull London back into her trap and that he would go, almost willingly, for the chance of that dangerous distraction.

"What do you mean it's not about you?" Elliot demanded, refusing to let himself redirect the conversation, because there was no way in hell he was saying what he'd just thought – the last thing London needed was anything that resembled permission from Elliot, even it wasn't.  "She's been playing with you this whole time! Wales! Richard Douglas and Kareem Sarraf! Those symbols in the tunnel! The letter!"

"Yes!" London snapped, and the agreement sent a flare of irritation through Elliot, because it could mean more argument. "But it was about Mary! Georges was what Alexander had that he didn't know he had– that link to Mary that even Mary didn't know about! The rest of it, Wales and the symbols, that was–"

"That was what, Holmes?" Elliot growled, hands tightening into fists. London looked startled, deer-in-the-headlights, as if his brain had just caught up with his mouth. "You know what that was. You know."

A game. A stupid, sodding, reckless game.

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But even if he called it that, Elliot knew it wasn't. Not for him. Not for Cruz. Not for everyone who'd searched frantically for them for days. Not for all the people who had died.

Not even, he knew, for the Consulting Criminal.

It was for Irene, though. Just another means to an end, to get London interested, to get him to do her dirty work. Find out why Alexandre mattered enough to make it into some information Alexander must have had about Mary.

"And now a man's life is at stake, Elliot."

"So we find him!" Elliot snapped back. "Why the bloody hell involve Mary?"

"Because," London spat, patience obviously unwinding at what he clearly thought was Elliot's inability to keep up, "Mary doesn't know about Georges, but she must know something about the Woman! We need to know what that is! We need to know what connects them!"

"So what are you going to do?" Elliot demanded, folding his arms, shifting into a more military stance. "Ring her up and have a chat?"

London rolled his eyes, and Elliot bit his own lip on an angry retort.

"Hardly. Her old number isn't going to work anymore – nor are any of the addresses Isabelle gave us, especially if she knows we've been to see her cousin. She doesn't switch those out of boredom, Elliot, but out of calculated necessity."

"Great," Elliot sighed. "So what? You're the genius, you must have some plan."

"The newspaper."

"Newspaper?"

"Yes! It gets published tomorrow does it not?"

"What are we going to do with the newspaper, Holmes? You want me to write something asking Mary to do what exactly? Invitation for her to come around for a cup of tea and biscuits?" "

"No, of course not, don't be ridiculous. The only advantage we have here is surprise."

"What?" Elliot asked. London sighed, glancing away briefly, lips pursed in displeasure.

"We know that Georges is Mary's brother and the Woman knows that, but she doesn't know that we know! We can't go announcing that fact to the entire world! If she realizes that we know why he was taken, she'll alter whatever plans she has in motion and we risk not finding him."

"So we're going to do– what? Write a secret code?"

"Exactly," London replied.

"How?"

"I don't know. Yet. Get my violin. I need to think."

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Mary hadn't been expecting a post in the newspaper from Elliot, not when the Consulting Criminal had a case on. Still, it wasn't unheard of, both before London's faked death and since his return, and Mary made a point to keep track of what Elliot was thinking and what London was working on.

The post itself was unusual enough to raise eyebrows, and Mary read the introduction with sharp skepticism, surprised by the contents. She frowned, pensively, reading the poem a second time and then a third, eyes tracing meanings that might have been imagined but probably weren't.

She knew Elliot well enough – both personally and from having followed his writing since he'd met London Holmes – to know that this diversion during a case wasn't unusual. A man like London would have a proclivity for long periods of silence while he worked, and Mary was aware of the French author that had vanished shortly after Holmes and Elliot had been to meet him in Paris, which meant a critical case for him.

She wasn't sure what the connection was between the visit to France and the disappearance – or, indeed, if there was one – but she knew London had picked up on the case regardless. How far he'd gotten wasn't of particular concern to her; she kept tabs on him, but not on his every movement.

Generally, the result of his investigations was enough information for her.

But perhaps not this time.

Because, while Elliot writing during one of London's working silences wasn't unusual, the poem was.

Everything she knew about London Holmes – and that knowledge was extensive – suggested he was not the kind of person to write poetry in the depth of the night when sleep was elusive, and he had nothing else to do.

Play the violin, perform some experiment (with the possibility of an explosion making it all the more attractive), take to the streets to glean information from his homeless network – all of those things were habits he practiced routinely.

But his writing was scientific, clear, concise. Mary had never pictured him as the kind of man to take a literary flight of fancy.

Which meant the poem had been deliberately written and given to the newspaper – Elliot hadn't just happened upon it and put it up to annoy the Consulting Criminal

It meant something.

Mary closed her eyes, briefly, waiting for the after-image to fade from her vision, then opened her eyes again and looked at the poetry as math.

It was a code, and codes were patterns. It was directed at her, she had no doubt – doubtless London had his own ways of contacting the Woman if he so needed (not that Elliot would ever willingly let him) and Mary knew there was no one else he had to reach clandestinely but could only contact in this way.

Whatever it was for, it was buried in the stanzas.

On the surface, it might have been written about Irene; the references to the woman in the poem were suggestive enough to insinuate an intimate connection, but if London had written this secretly about Irene, there would be no way he'd have left Elliot find it, even accidentally.

A deliberate misdirection then, a poem that appeared romantic or yearning but was nothing of the sort.

Which didn't mean it wasn't about Irene – a superficial resemblance might be a means of pointing Mary in the right direction, although she could scarcely fathom why. The Woman's connection to London was an obvious one, both dangerous and enigmatic, something the Consulting Criminal craved and something Mary so disdained. She'd taken care to distance herself from James by the time Irene had insinuated herself into the periphery of Mary's world, and was far too cautious to pursue someone that high profile, even if she'd had those inclinations.

Whatever was message was buried in the poem, it went beyond the obvious association with Irene.

And, Mary knew, it had to be simple enough to deduce without being immediately apparent. The first word of each stanza meant nothing strung together, and was far too easy. The same applied to the last words.

Mary liberated a pen and notepad from a desk drawer and began trying skip combinations, jotting them down and crossing them out as she went, aware that the time she was dedicating to this was time away from other more important things.

But perhaps that was wrong.

It occurred to her that London may be baiting her, that she could be stepping into a clumsy and rather obvious trap, but the suspicion sat poorly with her, like a coat that was a size too small and made from cheap fabric.

The Consulting Criminal was trying to reach her, and it could only be for good reason because, if nothing else, Elliot wouldn't let him get away with it otherwise.

Mary crossed off another erroneous solution, refusing to be annoyed by the apparently random results they generated. London had chosen his words very carefully; she would be as considered in her examination. Like so many things in life, it would only become problematic if emotions were involved, if it turned into a game.

She touched on it suddenly, the pattern leaping out with a sentence that made sense, at least grammatically. Multiples of four, increasing from the fourth word of the first stanza to the sixteenth word of the fourth, leaving her with a simple, but baffling, sentence:

"She has your brother"

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They were hardly daring to breathe, both of them focused on the phone, which lay silently on the table between them.

When it rang, Elliot started slightly but visibly, pulling back as if to get away from the caller on the other end. London repressed his own reaction, reaching smoothly for the phone and holding it so Elliot could also hear if he chose to do such.

"You got my message," he said by way of greeting.

There was a short pause on the other end and he could almost hear Mary calculating whether it was worth a reply or whether this was, in fact, a trap.

"Mister Holmes, I don't have a brother."

London's gaze flickered up to meet Elliot's stormy one; his jaw was clenched in an effort to keep himself quiet. He met London's eyes, giving a curt nod, hands gripped so tightly his knuckles were white.

But a man's life was at stake, and Elliot knew that. 

"Unfortunately for him," London replied, "I'm afraid you do."

"I assure you, Holmes, if I had any living siblings, I would know about them. I've been thorough in tracking those close to me, and I'm disinclined to overlook details."

London saw Elliot's nostrils flare, his jaw working as he swallowed again a response. He held Elliot's gaze for a moment but kept himself still otherwise, gauging that any physical contact would be received as patronizing or a suggestion of weakness rather than reassurance.

"I'm certain you are," London replied, keeping his voice level. "In this case, there were no details to overlook."

There was a drawn out silence on the other end of the line, too long for a mere pause. London exchanged another look with Elliot, who drew a deep breath and gave a curt nod of permission.

He turned his attention back to the phone, if only because it was easier to focus on the small, unchanging piece of technology than it was to concentrate on Elliot right now. The silence coming from the phone was expectant – perhaps even discomfited – but Elliot's anger would be distracting if London let it be.

Elliot would never thank him for that. Not with another person's life on the line.

He explained about Georges' parentage, deliberately keeping his tone nearly inflection-less, offering no deductions or observations. The facts they had spoke for themselves; Mary's father – or, rather, Amélie's father – was listed only once in relation to Georges Alexandre, as his biological father in private adoption certificates.

It was clear enough that Robert had never known, and from the picture painted by decades old documents and Georges' own curiosity about his biological father, it seemed as though Marie had never bothered – or wanted – to tell him.

"Someone else clearly had access to this information," Mary observed. Any surprise she might have felt at the revelation – or any frustration at not having found Georges herself – was utterly absent from her tone. London glanced at Elliot again, wondering if the level voice belied the same sort of reaction on the other end of the line.

"Yes," he replied. "The Woman."

He heard the surprise in the silence now – it certainly hadn't been the name she'd expecting, if she'd expected any name at all. Doubtless Mary knew who was behind Wales but she couldn't have known why. If she had, Georges' existence wouldn't have been a mystery to her, and he very likely would have been protected, even without his knowledge.

"And how did she come across this information?"

"Via my brother."

There was another pause, this one more thoughtful, calculating.

"I suspect your brother is not overly inclined to share sensitive information with known threats to his precious government and country. I also suspect that time is not an abundant resource at the moment, so perhaps you'd like to share what you exactly know. Quickly."

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London bristled at being commanded like that, despite the obvious necessity. Elliot met his eyes, expression like thunder. This time, London did reach out; Elliot wrapped a hand around the Consulting Criminal's wrist, hard, as if clutching a lifeline. London repressed a wince, keeping his expression as neutral as his voice as he detailed everything they knew – the abduction to Wales, using their absence to turn Alexander's gaze away from information he didn't even know he had, the murders that led them into the tunnels and to the symbols that matched the cover of George's book, the faked letter, the meeting with Georges himself.

There was nothing new in there, not for him, even as London scoured every word he spoke looking for links he might have missed. With some effort, he dampened the frustration he felt at being on the brink, knowing he was skirting next to some vital connection but unable to see it.

"Why Irene?" Mary asked when he finished, and London studiously avoided Elliot's gaze now – this had nothing to do with him but he felt the weight of it anyway; if he hadn't been so easily captivated, so taken by the buzz of an intellectual equal, the thrill of a challenge, if he'd just kept all his wits about him… It might have been easier to step away from all of this and see if from the cool vantage point of objectivity.

It might have been harder for her to get to Georges through him.

He'd made himself vulnerable to that kind of temptation too many times – but he'd made himself more vulnerable through Elliot.

For a moment, London understood his older brother's constant overbearing frustration. He'd never be able to give any of it up. Not the dangerous delight. Not Elliot. He had pressure points. Weaknesses.

But so did everyone else.

"I don't know," he replied. "I was rather hoping you would."

"You know her," Mary commented. "I don't."

That came as a surprise. He and Elliot met each other's eyes again, nothing but startled shock passing between them.

"She worked with James. James worked for you," London pointed out.

"I know who she is, I know quite a lot of people. So did James. So, I'm sure, does Irene. Doubtless she and I even know some of the same people, although I suspect in very different capacities. I've never met her, and until now, I haven't had the least inclination to do so. Until now, she's had nothing I want."

"Presumably that means you have something she wants," London said.

"Indeed," Mary replied crisply. "I hardly think it's a stretch to assume that you don't know what this is; you wouldn't have risked contacting me otherwise."

"We don't," London confirmed, feeling the heat of the warning glare from Elliot, but they had little choice. Dancing around the truth only wasted time, and he still trusted Mary enough not to interfere with them unless they presented a direct threat.

The trick now, he supposed, would be avoiding presenting that threat.

The silence on the other end of the line drew out again; London held up a hand to keep Elliot from speaking. As much as he understood the necessity of moving quickly, pushing Mary would gain them nothing.

"I don't either," she finally said, and London wondered what the admission cost her – there was a trace of reluctance in her voice, faint but tangible. It wasn't a surprise either, not after she'd confirmed that she didn't know The Woman other than by name and by distant proxy through James.

If she'd known what The Woman wanted, they wouldn't be having this conversation anymore than they would have if London knew.

"It seems obvious that this won't do," Mary continued. "I can hardly operate remotely, nor can you reasonably keep me on an open line all of the time. We need to work on this together, Mister Holmes."

"We do," The Consulting Criminal agreed.

Elliot jerked, pulling away from him abruptly; London reached out like lightning, covering Elliot's retreating hand with his own, pinning it lightly to the desk. He met his partner's gaze, holding it steady, watching the flare of rage abate into hurt and denial, unhappy realization seeping in along the corners of the doctor's expression.

"I'm going to send someone," Mary said curtly. "I need someone I can trust working with you on this, and I intend to keep the last promise I made to you – you will not ever see me again. I know that Elliot's been quiet throughout this conversation, you've trained him well, but I imagine he wouldn't tolerate my presence very long."

Elliot's nostrils flared, gaze darting to the phone, the banked anger in his eyes sparking again.

"He's someone you know," Mary continued. "He'll be with you within the hour. I'm trusting you, but not because I have no choice. Our priorities are aligned here, but I assure you, I don't know Georges Alexandre, and I will protect put my people first if you force me to choose. Do you understand?"

Elliot raised his head again, giving London a sharp nod.

"Yes," London reluctantly agreed. "Completely".

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