This is offered in memory of Edward Hardwicke and with apologies to Joseph Campbell.
Four at the Thousand Faces
A dream, John Watson told himself. This has to be a dream.
He faced a wall of fog that devoured light and swallowed sound. Turning in place, he was careful not to take a step; it felt as if one wrong move might send him falling off the edge of the earth. He put the fog behind him.
Ahead, draped in veils of mist, rose a stone building. It called to him as clearly as if it had voice.
With a glance to his left he found Sherlock, a dark exclamation point in the greyness, long coat flowing, scarf tucked just so, an expression of utter fascination lighting him up from within. Oh no, this wasn't boring in the slightest.
A look to John's right showed him Lestrade. The detective inspector wore no coat, merely a nondescript suit and a plain white shirt, both rumpled. Silvering hair stood out in all directions, mapping the path of his fingertips, and stubble glistened along his jawline.
"Bloody hell," Lestrade breathed in wonder, meeting John's gaze with wide eyes.
Beyond Lestrade, Mycroft Holmes folded his hands over the handle of his umbrella. Immaculate and commanding as always, he surveyed the landscape as though he owned it.
"Right," John said. "Any ideas?"
"No data," Sherlock said.
"I really couldn't say," Mycroft said.
"I need to go there." Lestrade pointed at the building. "Don't know why, though."
"Yeah," John agreed, feeling the pull. "Me, too."
"What's the last thing you remember? Anyone." The demand was Sherlock's.
"I was in my office at home," Mycroft said. "I poured a brandy, returned to my desk, and opened a report to read, the last one of the night. I already knew what it said, but one goes through the motions."
"Leftover takeaway and crap telly," Lestrade added. "Never made it past the sofa. Thought I was too knackered to sleep."
"Sitting on the edge of my bed," John explained, "trying to work up the energy to do my physio exercises for my shoulder. I don't think I ever did." After a beat, "Sherlock, we can't be, not all four of us, I mean–"
"I've offered no theories," Sherlock said. "I need to observe." He nodded toward the building.
They moved forward as one, side by side.
John certainly didn't feel like a projection of his own subconscious or the figment of anyone else's imagination. He patted at his body and found it substantial enough. His favourite jumper, the colour of oatmeal. His keys and mobile phone in his pockets. His service sidearm at his back, tucked into the waist of his jeans.
He wore no jacket, and yet he felt no chill.
Could this be some ambush of Moriarty's creation, designed to entrap them? No, John knew it in every fibre of his being, even though he couldn't begin to explain how.
By unspoken agreement they paused as they drew up to the building. Modest and square and surrounded by a wide stone portico, it seemed as old as Stonehenge and every bit as imposing. Except for the sign.
"Now there's a combination you don't see every day," John said, intrigued.
In reply, Mycroft raised an inquiring eyebrow and Lestrade frowned in confusion.
"I mean the sign," John said.
They blinked at him.
"What about it?" Lestrade asked.
"The sign. Over the doors."
After a moment, John continued, "The sign: 'The Thousand Faces Tea Room and Shooting Range.'"
Mycroft and Lestrade exchanged glances. John looked to Sherlock, but he was on one knee, examining the cobblestone walk, oblivious to their discussion.
"What," John tried again, slowly, "do you think it says?"
"'The Thousand Faces Pub,'" Lestrade said.
"'The Thousand Faces Gentlemen's Club,'" Mycroft said at the same time.
John took a deep breath and pursed his lips. Curiouser and curiouser. 
"Sherlock, humour us," John said. "What does that sign say, above the entry, there?"
Glancing up and narrowing his eyes, Sherlock said, "How clever. Why is that clever?" He rose to his feet in one swift motion. "'The Thousand Faces Mortuary and Concert Hall.'"
For a moment no one spoke.
"It wants each of us," Mycroft said.
"Looks that way," Lestrade agreed.
Just then the massive doors swung open with a sound of creaking timber. A figure emerged, and all of the breath left John's lungs. Small and slight, the girl was old enough to be considered a woman, but only just. The simple cream gown she wore, gathered against her body by gold cord, nearly glowed against her olive skin and long black hair.
She had the gravity of entire planets in her dark eyes.
Her face appeared proud and stern, but as she considered them her expression seemed benign. Then she descended the stone stairs to stand an arm's length before them.
Gravely, she began to speak. The words sounded like gibberish to John. He shared a blank look with the other men.
The young woman abruptly stopped, gave a sigh, and rolled her eyes. As a delicate blush climbed up her neck, no words were needed to communicate her exasperation and embarrassment. Then she plunged delicate fingers into the fold of her gown, withdrawing a handful of items.
She handed small metallic badges to Mycroft and Lestrade, and then passed by John to present the last to Sherlock.
A huff of air, almost a chuckle, came from Lestrade. "Just go with it," he said aloud, although the sentiment seemed self-directed.
"It seems the thing to do," Mycroft agreed, sotto voce. "When in Rome."
Lestrade and Mycroft affixed the pins to their lapels. Sherlock merely blinked at his.
"Communicator," Lestrade explained. "With a universal translator."
Mycroft's expression managed to convey both pity and contempt as he took in Sherlock's bemusement. "He's deleted it." 
Throwing a glare in his brother's direction, Sherlock considered Lestrade's lapel and then attached his badge as the detective inspector had done.
The young woman held out something different to John. It was violently yellow and wriggling.
Aw, bloody hell, John thought.
Tipping his head on one side, he placed the Babel fish in his ear. After a few involuntary shudders and spasms, he straightened again and nodded. 
"Hail and well met," the young woman said. "This is The Thousand Faces, where all heroes are welcome." 
Heroes? John wondered.
"Those of us who have been here for the longest time share the happy responsibility of greeting new visitors," she continued. "I am Antigone, and I am pleased you have joined us. If you will permit me, I will complete your invitation. I am familiar to these stones, and they will recognize my touch." 
Moving a step closer to Sherlock, she gazed up into his pale eyes with sombre concentration, which he returned in kind. Then she raised her hand and, stretching, placed her palm to the centre of his forehead, leaving it there for several heartbeats.
When she turned her earnest face up to consider John, he couldn't help but smile. Her fine features shifted in delight, giving his kindness back to him. After a brief pause, she reached out and placed her palm over his left hand, where it lingered.
She bestowed a similar smile on Lestrade, whose lips quirked in a bashful, boyish grin. When she touched him, she placed her hand over his heart and held it there.
Her expression grew serious again as she contemplated Mycroft, who regarded her with equal solemnity. At last she raised her hand to cup his long throat. John could see Mycroft swallowing beneath her fingers.
"Thank you," Antigone said, when the ritual was completed. "Now then, please join me." She led them up the steps.
Before the doors, she faltered. "Oh, forgive me. If we could pause but for a moment, please. Out of respect."
When they had gathered in a silent group at the far side of the front portico, John followed Antigone's line of sight and realized they weren't alone.
Opposite them on the other side of the entry stood a lone figure, slender and tall and ramrod straight, dressed in the elegant but understated attire of a Victorian English gentleman. He stared out at the fog. His finely carved features appeared more beautiful than handsome, although the severe sweep of his dark hair and the haughty set of his thin lips gave him an air of scorn that bordered on cruelty.
Only once did he glance in their direction. His attention passed over the others to rest solely on Sherlock, whom he inspected from shoes to curls. Then he sniffed in apparent disdain and refocused his attention on the cobblestone walk.
Moments later the shape of a man emerged from the mist, broad-shouldered and faintly limping, wearing a bowler hat. As he drew closer, John could make out the lines of a sturdy body beneath his tweed, a kind face and warm eyes and greying moustache.
On the portico, the elegant figure positively transformed, the harsh angles of his face easing into a portrait of joy. His arms opened, and a faint "Ah!" escaped his lips. Several long-legged strides put him at the top of the stairs.
The approaching man smiled and waved.
John felt certain he was witnessing something that deserved respectful privacy, and yet he could not look away.
In a voice as choked as it was rich and deep, the man on the portico said, "My… dear… fellow."
"I have," the other replied, walking more briskly, "I fear" – he huffed – "kept you waiting."
The tall man's shoulders shook with a near-silent laugh, and he blinked rapidly.
The two met at the midpoint of the steps. The man in the hat extended his square, blunt hand, which the tall gentleman caught in both of his and cradled between long fingers.
John knew he wasn't meant to hear the whispered confession, or the tears that cultured accent couldn't hide, and yet somehow he did. "As I'd predicted, I was lost without my–"
"There, there," the new arrival said with a gruff voice, clearly fierce in his affection. "No longer, and never again."
The gentleman nodded, drew his considerable dignity about himself like a cloak, and cleared his throat. "Yes. Yes, I shall hold you to that, my good man."
As the two proceeded to the doors, shoulder brushing shoulder, Antigone said, "Welcome home, Doctor."
The newcomer removed his hat and inclined his head. "Thank you, my dear. Thank you very much." With a polite nod to the four men beside her, he followed his companion through the doors and into the building, a protective hand at the other's narrow back. 
John studied his shoes, deeply moved.
Beside him, Lestrade crossed his arms and raised his chin. "So, are we dead, then?" he asked, steady and straightforward.
Antigone shook her head, and her gaze softened. "No, only sleeping after dangerous trials. Your stay here this time will be brief, good heroes, and we hope you will enjoy others in the future. But if you so choose it at the end, you may make this your final home. The Thousand Faces welcomes permanent lodgers."
"You say heroes…" Sherlock began.
"You could not have journeyed to this place if you were not one," she said simply. "I recognize it, and the stones recognize it, even if you do not see it in yourself."
Raising a hand, Antigone deflected their replies. John realized that a blushing Lestrade had drawn a breath, as if to protest, while Sherlock and Mycroft wore matching – if fleeting – scowls of scepticism. He himself felt only painfully and absurdly humbled. After a moment he straightened a bit where he stood, and a beat later he sensed that Lestrade did the same.
She considered each of them in turn. "After you depart today, you will not remember your time within these walls. If, however, you find comfort or encouragement here, you will take that with you.
"I suspect you will want to begin in the wing for the Contemporary West, but of course you are free to venture anywhere you wish."
Wing? John thought. The building was square, and he doubted it could hold a single ballroom.
"Let me guess," John said, scrubbing his hand across his face. "It's bigger on the inside." 
Antigone grinned and graced him with a decidedly undignified wink before moving toward the doors.
"I wonder," John said, "if this is what those fandom people online call a 'mashup.' Or is it 'AU'?"
"How about that collective unconscious thing?" Lestrade asked, gesturing vaguely. "What's the word? Archetypes? Um… monomyth?" 
"Platonic ideal forms," Mycroft murmured, perhaps to himself. 
All eyes turned to Sherlock.
"How many times must I say it?" the consulting detective huffed, though the twitching of his lips and flexing of his fingers betrayed his excitement. "It's a mistake to theorize before you have data."
As the doors opened, music spilled out to flood the air around them.
"Wagner," Sherlock noted.
"The King's Singers." That from Mycroft.
"The Clash," Lestrade added.
"Actually" – awed, John chuckled – "it's Gerry Rafferty. 'Baker Street,' in fact."
The fresh thrill that coursed through his veins was echoed in Sherlock's eyes. No, not boring at all, this.
As John passed through the open doors, he mouthed the words without giving them voice:
"When you wake up it's a new morning,
The sun is shining, it's a new morning,
And you're going, you're going home…"
"New people!" came an exclamation. "I love meeting new people."
It seemed their arrival had interrupted a game of darts in the main hall. Walls and floors of gnarled wood, stained and aged to a cinnamon warmth – most definitely not ancient stone – provided a cosy atmosphere of welcome.
A young woman with honey-coloured hair bounded ahead of her friends to greet them. She wore workers' coveralls that had been softened by loving, homemade touches, including a patch in the shape of a teddy bear.
"This your first time?" Her excited words gave no opportunity for answer. "Something else, ain't it? I've explored all over and haven't even left this wing yet. The whole place is humongous. And everyone's so interesting."
Three other women gathered beside her. One was an exotic beauty who appeared to John's eyes like a cross between a queen and a courtesan. Another reminded him of Antigone, with a young body and old eyes, except this girl paired heavy combat boots with her flowing shift.
The third woman possessed an air of authority as well as carefully reined menace. If ever an Amazon had travelled to the old American West… By force of will, John repressed guilty adolescent fantasies of warrior women before he could embarrass himself. 
The two groups of four considered each other for several heartbeats, and John was struck by the sudden sympathy and knowledge that seemed to flow between them, as if each of them had recognized someone truly familiar, even kin, in the face of a stranger.
Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, they reordered themselves and stepped forward to converse in pairs.
The commanding woman offered John her hand, which he shook. "Zoe. Always proud to know a fellow soldier."
"John. Likewise," he agreed.
"It's a shock, at first, meeting people here like this. You get used to it."
"Good." John licked suddenly dry lips. "Dear God. That… it's beautiful."
"What, this old thing?" Her lips curled into an expression that seemed both fond and feral as she glanced at her hip. "She's a good old girl. Helped me and mine out of a predicament or two."
"It's… Sorry, I don't mean to stare, but…"
Crossing her arms, she peered down her nose at him. "Y'know what they say: show me yours and I'll show you mine."
As he surveyed the others and the room beyond them, she added, "No one bats an eye if you're carrying. Some folks 'round this place have swords. Hell, some have lightsabers."
With a practiced move he then produced his service sidearm and offered it to her. She whistled as she accepted it.
"Pistol man, are you?"
She shot him a glance through her dark lashes. "Funny, would've guessed something more like a SIG-Sauer P226. Then again, I'm no expert on antiques."
"Yeah, well." He coughed. 
With a grin, she drew her lever-action carbine from its holster and held it out to him. He ran his fingers along the barrel and then cradled it, testing its weight.
"Called a 'Mare's Laig,'" she explained, "'cause it kicks at both ends."
"Reminds me a bit of an old Winchester model. Maybe 1892?"
"Must be. You're not the first to say it." After a thoughtful look, she said, "Looks better in your grip than in most others'."
He tightened his hold on the weapon, knowing her words for the honour they were.
As she eyed his pistol from every angle with evident appreciation, she said, "Just remember: mine's bigger."
"Bet you say that to all the blokes," he replied, and they both laughed. It felt… God, it felt wonderful. Freeing. As if someone understood.
For a moment, he indulged his curiosity and listened to his nearest companions.
"… my eye on this man, decent and kind and handsome like you, and I swear, if his hair ever gets all glittery-silvery like yours" – this from the vibrant young woman who had greeted them so enthusiastically – "I may just tie him to the bed and never let him up again."
John couldn't be certain if Lestrade was chuckling or choking. A bit of both, perhaps.
On John's other side, the woman-child in the boots peered up at Sherlock in much the same way that Sherlock peered down at slides under a microscope. "You see, and you comprehend," she said.
"I observe," he countered.
"Come," she demanded. "There's someone you need to meet. Two someones. They're the same. Only in two separate timelines. So they're different."
Taking Sherlock by one bony wrist, the girl clomped off across the hall. To John's surprise, Sherlock followed without protest.
And it was fine, John thought, contemplating the work of art that was the smooth carbine in his calloused hands. It was all fine.
The four men parted ways without discussion, without plan, instinctively satisfied that they faced no danger in this place and would find each other again when the proper time arrived.
John had embarked on a quest for something to drink – originally, a cup of tea, but now he thought he'd welcome something stronger.
Thus far he'd wandered past an assortment of samurai, a charismatic hunchback (whether an admiral or a count, John remained uncertain), a blue and bald woman who claimed to be a plant, and an older gentleman who wore a cardigan, carried a strawberry milkshake, and asked John if he wanted to "get high and talk string theory."
John fervently hoped the latter never crossed paths with Sherlock. 
Ducking in a side door, he found a chamber with walls formed by a massive aquarium. The light shimmered and danced as it reflected off and refracted through the glass and water. Fish of every conceivable shape and size and colour darted in all directions.
To a heart scoured raw by thirsty sand and baking sun, the room was a balm.
Too late he discovered the cluster of furniture tucked into a corner, and the petite woman in the severe suit on the sofa, curled around a worn copy of Moby-Dick.
"Sorry," he said, backing toward the door. "Didn't mean to intrude."
"No, wait." She removed her glasses and tucked a fall of ginger hair behind her ear. "Nothing here is a coincidence; I've learned that much. You're welcome to join me. There's wine in the carafe on the stand, if you'd like a glass."
As he helped himself, he had the impression she was examining him, and he rather thought he knew how a cadaver felt during an autopsy.
She gave him an encouraging smile when he settled himself in a chair, however. The time passed very quickly after that.
"Why would this place conspire to bring us together? I assume you have a partner. Or colleague. Or associate." At his nod, she said, "Me, too. They call mine Spooky."
"They call mine Freak."
"Let me guess: half the time you're in medical mode, hoping he's not hurt too badly for you to patch up. Half the time you've got your gun in hand, chasing after him like some glorified bodyguard. And half the time you're trying to translate the crazy things he's said into something comprehensible. You know what that means."
Deadpan, John said, "You end up with three halves."
"And the fact that makes sense to both of us proves just how crazy our lives have become since we've met our respective partners."
He raised his glass in wholehearted agreement.
"I'm new to this," he said, "so please feel free to share any words of advice, Doctor… um…"
"Scully. My mother's the only one who calls me Dana." 
"Good to meet you, John. So, does yours have a sister?"
"The proverbial elephant in the middle of the room?"
"A whole herd, actually."
Folding her legs beneath her, she rested her cheek on her hand and gave him the hard-won rueful look of the perpetually resigned. "Get used to it. It never gets any better."
John sighed. Then again, he hadn't expected anything different. To be fair, Mycroft did have his uses. Most importantly, he cared about Sherlock, after his own fashion, whether Sherlock welcomed his concern or not.
"Be sure you have an ally, preferably one with some authority," she continued. "The kind of friend who's willing to break a few rules – and quite possibly himself – to help you both when no one else will."
He thought of Lestrade. "Done."
"Sometimes the solution to your mystery will raise more questions than it answers. Sometimes the thread you're following will unravel and leave you empty handed, and sometimes it will prove to be a single filament in an immense web of conspiracy designed to ensnare you, crafted by hands you'll never see."
Really, he thought, she was rather eloquent. Or perhaps it was the wine.
"And sometimes, that grotesque thing that looks like a giant mutant flukeman will turn out to be—"
"What?" John asked, shocked.
"Exactly that: a giant mutant flukeman."
"Right," he said, and took another swallow. And another.
"What's the worst thing you've done since you two started working together?" she asked.
He never considered refusing to answer.
"I could say I killed a man, but that wasn't the worst. I'm not even sorry. It had to be done." Several heartbeats passed. "I allowed a criminal to use me against him. For a handful of minutes – moments, really – Sherlock thought I'd betrayed him. The longest moments of my life."
"It doesn't sound like you had much choice," she said, matching his quiet tone. "But that doesn't help, I expect."
"I shot my partner," she said, after a time.
John raised an eyebrow.
"I shot him to keep him from doing something incredibly stupid and throwing away the rest of his life." She shrugged. "Like you said: it had to be done. The alternative was unthinkable."
With a frown, she added, "It didn't make cutting him open or stitching him up any easier, though, knowing I was the one who put that bullet in him."
A pause stretched out between them.
Meeting John's gaze again at last, she said, "Don't get me wrong: there are days I'd be more than happy to shoot him again."
His effort at keeping a straight face was only half-hearted. "Cathartic, was it?"
This time she raised her glass in a mock toast. "Like you wouldn't believe."
From the vantage point of the intimate balcony table, Mycroft Holmes found that he could survey the whole of the cosmopolitan café below. He was by nature a man who preferred to sit with his back to the wall, to keep his eyes on every entrance, to monitor comings and goings.
To deflect attention away from himself, unless absolutely necessary. To fix it on others, constantly.
"You found the ideal location, Ms Serra," he said. 
A serene smile played across the woman's dark features as she poured their tea. Even in motion, she had a stillness about her.
"Please, call me Inara," she said. "This is a favourite spot of mine. One can find a moment of quiet here, without losing touch with the unique chemistry of this place.
"I find that individuals who have much entrusted to them, who think more of service and duty than self-indulgence, rarely have the opportunity to experience such quiet."
Mycroft nodded. "It's most welcome," he said in a hush.
They drank from delicate china cups without conversation, watching the patrons on the main level. Something taut and tense began to uncoil inside of the man as the peaceful minutes unfolded.
When a young waiter approached their table, Inara rose and intercepted him. She returned to Mycroft carrying a crystal glass and silver spoon.
"Dessert for you," she said, placing the chocolate mousse before him. "With the compliments of the party downstairs in the right corner." With a graceful hand, she indicated a gathering below them.
Six chairs fitted around a circular table, subtly paired into three groups of two each. Mycroft already had formulated some thoughts about the assembled individuals as he observed the room.
The slight man in the black turtleneck with the shaggy blond hair was a Soviet Russian – no, a former Soviet Russian. The dark-haired, dark-eyed, sophisticated man in the fine suit beside him was American, to be sure. Both exuded professionalism and, only a bit below the surface, danger.
The next pair, too, was American: one white, one black, both handsome, both deadly serious behind friendly grins. Their clothes might suggest a professional sportsman and his trainer, but their demeanours, their eyes, told Mycroft that neither was playing a game.
Fortunately, Mycroft sensed nothing but genuine respect aimed toward him. This haven's guests, he reminded himself, posed no threat to their own.
The chic couple was British, Mycroft could tell. The woman was lovely as much for the fierce intelligence in her eyes as for her classical features. As she sensed his regard, she nodded and gave him a half-smile more fascinating than the Mona Lisa's. Her dapper partner, after sharing a warm look with her, turned his eyes up toward the balcony and raised his umbrella, handle-first, as if in salute. 
Unexpectedly touched, Mycroft took up his own umbrella and returned the gesture.
After additional smiles and nods were exchanged, the six at the downstairs table returned to their private discussion.
"It's one of my favourites," Mycroft said, admiring the mousse and mentally cursing his omnipresent diet.
"They are spies, after all," Inara said. "Some of the very best. It's their business to know things."
As she refreshed their tea, she offered another comment with seeming nonchalance: "Not that it's relevant to you, of course, but I've discovered that nothing edible here has any calories. It's one of the many wonders of this place."
"Is that so," he said, as if the information were inconsequential.
To his disappointment, he found even that knowledge to be a lever insufficient for moving his anticipated guilt. Some walls of self-control, patched and reinforced over the years, were too thick to breach easily.
After further consideration, he added, "Ah, I don't suppose you fancy chocolate mousse, my dear?"
Smiling, she turned back to him, a spoon from the tea service already in hand. "A joy shared is a joy doubled?"
"My thoughts precisely," he said, relieved and… liberated.
Together they savoured both the dessert and the comfortable, blessed silence.
Sherlock slouched in the overstuffed chair, crossing his long legs at the ankle, steepling his fingers as his eyes darted back and forth between the aged figure and that man's younger, alternate self.
The pointed ears. The pointed brows. The pointed logic of it all.
Already this surreal sanctuary felt more like home to him than any residence of his family's ever had done.
"… at which point I put the situation into a more helpful context for the crew," the elderly one intoned in a throaty rasp, "noting, 'As an ancestor of mine once said, once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'" 
For a moment Sherlock's breath caught. "You said this?"
"That's…" He'd never before entertained the thought of progeny, intellectual or otherwise. "That's good. Very. Good of you."
"I surmised that you might find it gratifying," the white-haired Spock said, inclining his head.
"I assume that you solved the mystery by tracing the neutron surge to a Bird of Prey capable of firing photon torpedoes while still cloaked." This mouthful came from the younger Vulcan.
The jargon might have been unfamiliar to Sherlock, but he gleaned its meaning readily enough.
My method worked, he thought. And then, with smug abandon, Of course it did.
"Precisely." With an air of satisfaction, the elder Vulcan indicated a board spread out before them. "Now, may I interest any of you in chess?"
"The tri-dimensional kind's more fun, Prime," the girl in the combat boots pouted from across the table. Then, mercurial, she grinned slyly. "I always beat Reboot here." 
The younger Spock pointedly ignored her and glanced toward Sherlock. "Are you familiar with the tri-dimensional version of the game?"
"Not at all," Sherlock answered, levering himself upright. Planting sharp elbows on the table, he leaned in toward his companions, offering a grin of his own. "But I think you'll find I'm a very quick study."
Lestrade found the indoor arboretum by chance, if there was such a thing in this place. It reminded him of visits to his gran's in the countryside, by far his happiest memories of his youth, worlds away from the rough streets and the rougher bullies who roamed them.
It hadn't always been convenient, having a sense of right and wrong, a natural sympathy for the underdog, and a face some called "pretty as a bird's," all before he'd had a man's full-grown strength to use in their defence.
No point in dwelling on that, was there? he thought. The bullies would always be bigger, either literally or figuratively. That didn't excuse you from the responsibility of giving them a fight.
Turning a corner, lost in the solace and hope of green growing things, he nearly stumbled into a large figure draped in a brown robe, kneeling in an attitude of humility in the centre of the walk. Long-haired, bearded, and unadorned, the man appeared as rustic as his wooded setting.
"Ah, good." The voice was surprisingly gentle and soft for such a powerful frame. "I've been waiting for you."
A very short time later, Lestrade felt as if he'd known Qui-Gon Jinn all of his life. They sat together on a bench nestled under the outstretched arms of a willow, trading the Jedi Master's flask back and forth, sipping something Lestrade couldn't pronounce and could only barely swallow. 
"If I had a page for every time my padawan said, 'Do not defy the Council, Master, not again,' I could fill the libraries of three star systems." His rumbling chuckle sounded tired as well as unrepentant. "Of course, by trying to follow the will of the Force, I am doing only what I was trained to do, in some cases by those very same Council members themselves."
Lestrade let out a long breath. "I know, mate. My sergeant thinks my consulting detective – well, the fact that I consult him – has ruined my career. I should've made DCI three times over now, at my age, with my experience level and case closure rate, and that's not even counting the cases Sherlock's solved. Instead I live day to day, one cock up away from suspension or worse."
Lestrade's shrug seemed like a guilty confession, but he felt lighter for the sharing. How long had it been since someone had listened?
"Guess I should be grateful I've no one at home to be disappointed or ashamed at my so-called 'lack of ambition.'"Lestrade paused as the echo of the words ached in his chest.
"Thing is," he continued, "I've got the same ambition I've always done: to stop people from killing each other. If calling on Sherlock sometimes buys me days or even hours, it could save a life. I must be too thick to see how that's wrong. So I'll do it 'til they take my warrant card."
Qui-Gon nodded in commiseration. "The administrators forget that procedures and rules are tools to help us gain an end, not the ends themselves. When some tools prove less effective than others, we should feel no obligation to use them. And when other tools prove better, it is our duty to employ them."
"Yeah, that's it." Lestrade folded his arms across his chest, hugging himself. "I couldn't look at myself in the mirror, if I thought I could've had a killer before he struck again, but I was too bloody proud and proper to get Sherlock's input. What're a few insults, at the end of the day? Compared to knowing a monster's off the streets?"
For some moments they were still. Lestrade thought he heard running water, as if from a distance. It was a soothing sound. When Qui-Gon once again held out the drink, Lestrade accepted it.
"Remember this," Qui-Gon said, after a time. Each word held weight; each fell like a boulder. "You may have sacrificed your career, but you have done so to remain true to your calling. The noblest of these require us to surrender ego, surrender self, in order to serve others. That is true valour."
Flustered, Lestrade feared his companion had misunderstood. "No, no, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I'm some hero," he protested. "I'm just a regular bloke trying to do the right thing, and I can't always do it alone. I'm desperate enough to grab for help when it presents itself, that's all."
"Forgive me." Qui-Gon pinned him with an earnest gaze. "I utterly fail to see the distinction."
If Lestrade's throat grew tight, he blamed the fiery liquid in the flask.
When the carafe was empty, and increasingly exaggerated tales of dissection mishaps during medical school became alarmingly hilarious, Scully agreed to lead John back to the entry hall. She took him the long way around so that he might see more of the wing for the Contemporary West.
Every imaginable style of area seemed to exist, from formal ballrooms to indoor lakes, libraries and art galleries to gardens and saunas. The vast majority of the spaces were designed simply for relaxation, discussion, and meditation. A sense of peace pervaded every corner.
Scully proved to be a most patient guide.
Sometimes John felt fleeting sparks of recognition as they passed fellow visitors – the remarkably short, hairy-footed fellow, who was "that pleased to shake your hand, Mister Doctor Sir," and the willowy young blonde with the coveralls and tool belt and single, bizarre glove, who appeared too shy to speak – but at other times Scully made specific introductions.
There was George, the aging and limping Scot, who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders and told John to "get on yer bike, laddie." There was Jarod, the young man with childlike innocence and haunted expression, who explained to John that he, too, had "been a doctor once." There was G'Kar, who spoke quite like a gentleman and looked quite like a lizard.
And there were the ones so unthinkably young, gathered together at tables by a quaint bakery that smelled of fresh bread: Meg and Charles Wallace, Ellie and Lee, Katniss and Peeta, Lauren, Kivrin, and indomitable little Coraline. 
John repeated their names to himself, although he suspected that he would lose them soon enough.
Scully seemed to reserve special compassion for a tall, auburn-haired man with an imperious voice and eyes that suggested he never slept. When he stalked up to her and barked out a series of abrupt questions ("Where am I? What do you want? Whose side are you on?"), she responded with measured reassurances that implied this was a familiar routine. He grew somewhat calmer, a colt still skittish but no longer threatening to bolt at the first unexpected sound.
"They say, 'It takes a Village'…" Scully sighed as they left the man pacing, and her tone held the pain of half-healed wounds. John had enough tender scars of his own to appreciate when not to prod at others'. 
Several chambers and corridors later, Scully was leaning close to John, explaining the significance of the unique facial tattoos worn by a cluster of students from Tulsa, Oklahoma, when a dark-haired man materialized behind them. He pushed sunglasses of deeply questionable taste to the top of his head. 
Blinking sleepy-looking eyes, he managed to infuse his monotone with an extra shot of apparent boredom: "I would dredge up some macho territorial posturing about now," he said, eyes fixed on John, "but I'm pretty sure you could kick my ass."
He turned a doleful gaze on Scully. "And I know for certain that she can."
Scully rolled her eyes. "Really, Mulder," she said, indicating the glasses, "Elvis again? Doesn't that get a bit old?" 
"What can I say? I'm a hunk of burning love." He shrugged. "As a matter of fact, 'open mic night' never got around to Elvis. Instead, a Vulcan harp duo had a jam session with some new guy playing the violin. You missed quite a show."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, John said, "Was this new guy tall and skinny with black, curly hair and a long coat?"
"As a matter of fact, he was. Thought he had that vampire look about him, or maybe a trace of alien DNA, but it turns out he's human." Mulder sounded disappointed.
"This is John," Scully said. "John, this is Mulder, my partner."
"Hi, Mulder," John said. "My partner's the one who was playing the violin."
"Good to meet you," Mulder said, without inflection. "I've got to say, he knows how to rock out with his Spock out."
John shook his head, at a complete loss for words.
"I've been imparting my questionable wisdom to John about the life of a detective," Scully explained. "So far, I've managed, 'Trust no one, except those whom you can trust,' and 'Deny everything – except, of course, the undeniable.' Anything equally helpful to add?"
"Sure," he agreed, striking a pose. "Despite what great histories and literature and films might suggest, the ultimate fight between the forces of truth and those who would hide it isn't a standoff between two gunfighters at high noon… It's more like a cosmic game of whack-a-mole."
John and Scully shared a look. Yes, it was a sign of how crazy his life had become that this, too, made sense. The fact that Mulder and Scully still could joke about it, however, gave him genuine hope.
Lestrade could not recall the last time he hadn't felt exhausted, in spirit as well as body. Usually he struggled not to think of it, much as someone at a great height tries not to look down and judge the potential fall. Better to push ahead, keep the momentum going. But here in this green and tranquil spot, he began to feel rejuvenated from the inside out.
Silence with Qui-Gon was as comfortable as conversation, and the trees seemed to be sympathetic companions in their own right. Lestrade breathed deeply and stretched.
He did not sense the couple or hear their approaching steps on the walk.
The two came into view around the turn in the path without announcement, and Lestrade could not help but stare.
The man's appearance was a study in contradictions: the colourful turban with its single feather, the fringed buckskin leggings and booted feet, the formal coat of a British Brigadier General over a plain homespun shirt, the heavy medal around his neck like a crusader's shield.
His step was all the more impressive because of its utter lack of affectation or self-awareness. His demeanour was one of a man who considered himself a servant to all rather than a master to any.
As remarkable as the figure seemed, Lestrade could only spare him a passing glance and acknowledging nod.
The woman was the most earthy presence he had ever felt. She was a baby's first cry and the scent of freshly tilled soil and the splash of spring rain on naked flesh. She was birth and faith and promise. The colour of Lestrade's skin and the continent of his ancestry made no difference at all; whatever new era she heralded would be the one he embraced. Her approach pulled at his mind and his chest and his groin; her passing left a cramping spasm of emptiness in its wake before his surroundings reordered themselves into peace. 
Later he wondered if she had been beautiful. He assumed so, but all he remembered was brown skin and black eyes, an ankle-long tunic of pale, supple leather, and a feeling like electricity climbing up his limbs to quicken his heart.
He felt new.
"That man…" Lestrade rasped, then cleared his throat.
"Some flesh-and-blood individuals transcend the material of history books," Qui-Gon explained. "Not unlike your King Arthur, who is now more a creature of legend than fact. You should meet him, incidentally; you'd find much common ground, I suspect. I would be more than happy to introduce you." 
Lestrade paused for a beat to digest this, then continued. "The woman?"
"She has never been alive, as you would define it. Then again, one might say she has always existed." The contradiction did not concern him in the least, Lestrade could tell.
"Did you… did you feel that?" Lestrade asked.
"Oh yes." The severe mouth quirked into a crooked smile. "Trust me: it never gets old, either."
With an incredulous laugh, Lestrade ran a hand through his hair.
The next moment a flapping sound preceded the appearance of a great snowy owl from over the treetops. At first Lestrade thought the bird travelled in the wake of the breathtaking couple, but soon he realized the creature was herself a heroine.
"Ah, hello there!" Qui-Gon extended his arm, and the owl alighted on it. "Lestrade, meet a good friend, Hedwig." 
"Hello, Hedwig," Lestrade said, smiling.
The Jedi Master retrieved an envelope that the owl carried. "I do believe this is for you, Detective Inspector. I suspect you have one more stop to make here before you leave us."
With a chuckle, Qui-Gon handed a folded parchment to Lestrade, and then stroked a preening Hedwig with a gentle hand.
The four men descended the steps from the tower together, each still clutching his invitation, each contemplating his new tie.
"I thought they'd make me a Hufflepuff," Lestrade mumbled, as if to himself.
"You heard Molly," John said. "Arthur and Neville both thought they'd be Hufflepuffs, too. And they were wrong." He elbowed the detective inspector, and then flapped his own scarlet and gold stripes. "This makes us honorary housemates, yeah?"
"Cheers, mate," Lestrade laughed. "Next time, we've got to visit that indoor quidditch field."
"Luna says the blue complements my eyes," Sherlock pronounced, apropos of nothing.
"It looks quite striking on you," John agreed. "And the Ravenclaws definitely are not idiots. Or boring. They really appreciate your genius."
"At least there's enough of them to have a team for... anything," Sherlock said, raising his voice.
"Some do prefer to run with the common herd, that's true," Mycroft said, admiring the emerald and silver of his tie. "I for one am gratified by the opportunity to represent the few and the remarkable. Besides, Severus and I have much in common." 
Sherlock snorted, but he let the matter drop.
Odd, how the staircase seemed to have shifted during their time in the tower. It deposited them back into the wood-panelled entry hall. The room appeared to be empty, save for the honey-haired young woman who had greeted them, who now sipped a drink garnished with a colourful miniature umbrella. 
"Have a good time?" she asked, smiling with every part of her guileless face.
"Fantastic," John said, and the others nodded their agreement.
"Shiny. Just wanted to see you off. Hope you come back real soon."
Hopping off her stool, she walked over and offered her hand – damp and cool from her glass – to Mycroft and Sherlock, both of whom shook it. She winked at John and gave him a tender one-armed hug. For a moment she lingered before him, biting her lip, and then she thrust her drink into his grip.
Turning, she launched herself at Lestrade, capturing his face between her fingers, pulling him down for a kiss on the lips. It wasn't a friendly peck. As he overcame his shock and began to respond with enthusiasm, she moaned.
"We'll wait for you out front, yeah?" John said to Lestrade, setting the glass on a nearby table. Taking each Holmes by an elbow, he headed for the door, smiling to himself with something like joy.
In the grey glow of the mist that hung about the portico, John noted the change in each of his fellows: Lestrade appeared less weary and worn, Mycroft less distant and cold, Sherlock less manic and frustrated. He himself felt consoled, although that hardly seemed the right word. It simply wasn't big enough to encompass the subtle healing that had been wrought inside of him.
Antigone touched them again: Mycroft's throat, Lestrade's heart, John's hand, Sherlock's brow. When Lestrade made to return the communicator badge, she shook her head.
"It stays with you, as part of you. You shall have need of it again, when next you visit."
She held out her arms, as if to embrace all four of them at once. "The world requires its heroes. As you have taken comfort and strength here, so too do countless others by knowing your example. You carry even the best and bravest on your shoulders. Never doubt the fact you change the world by being who and what you are.
"You will be reinvented and reimagined and rediscovered countless times, and each soul you inspire will be as the first. And the lives those souls touch will number more than the stars.
"Rest well, good heroes. Wake renewed. Take our hopes with you."
After bows and nods and quiet words of thanks, the men willingly took to the cobblestones and walked four abreast until the fog swallowed them whole.
 "Curiouser and curiouser" is a quote from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
 Star Trek: The Next Generation
 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
 The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
 Antigone by Sophocles
 Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes and Edward Hardwicke's John Watson from the Granada Sherlock Holmes television series
 Like the TARDIS in Doctor Who
 The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell
 "Allegory of the Cave" in The Republic by Plato
 Women in order described:
Kaylee, Inara, River, and Zoe from Firefly/Serenity
 Browning L9A1/SIG-Sauer P226: In "The Great Game," Moriarty identifies John's gun (as carried by Sherlock) as one, while it was, in fact, the other.
 People John meets in order of appearance:
Samurai from The Seven Samurai
The hunchback is Miles Vorkosigan/Admiral Naismith from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series.
The blue bald woman is Zhaan from Farscape.
The older man with the milkshake is Dr. Walter Bishop from Fringe.
 Dana Scully from The X-Files
 Inara Serra from Firefly/Serenity
 Spies in order described:
Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo from The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott from I Spy
John Steed and Emma Peel from The Avengers
 Direct quote from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (written/directed by Nicholas Meyer), quoting Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet."
 Prime is Mr. Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series.
Reboot is Mr. Spock from Star Trek (film 2009).
The girl in boots is River from Firefly/Serenity.
 Qui-Gon Jinn from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
 People John meets in order of appearance:
Short, hairy-footed fellow = Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings
Willowy young blonde = Sydney Bloom from VR.5
George = George Cowley from The Professionals
Jarod = The Pretender
G'Kar = Babylon 5
Meg and Charles Wallace = The Time Quintet by Madeleine L'Engle
Ellie and Lee = The Tomorrow Series by John Marsden
Katniss and Peeta = The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Lauren = Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Kivrin = The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Coraline = Coraline by Neil Gaiman
 The auburn-haired man with questions is Number Six from The Prisoner.
 The students from Tulsa are from The House of Night Series by P.C. and Kristin Cast.
 Fox Mulder from The X-Files
 The man and woman on the walk:
Tecumseh, the historical Shawnee leader of North America's largest pan-tribal Native alliance, also known as Native America's King Arthur
White Buffalo Calf Woman from Lakota Sioux mythology
 King Arthur from Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
 Hedwig from the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
 All references are to the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling.
Molly and Arthur are Molly and Arthur Weasley.
Neville is Neville Longbottom.
Luna is Luna Lovegood.
Severus is Severus Snape.
 Kaylee from Firefly/Serenity
Vital Stats: Originally written in June 2011.