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The Least of All Possible Mistakes

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Three things happen very fast:

There's a shot from behind her, and it shatters the glass of her office wall before she realizes it's strafed her shoulder. George doesn't have time to properly register the sudden shock of pain before she's screaming, "Everybody down," over the sound of yelling in the bullpen, pulling Keifer lower by his collar.

Her knees have barely thudded against the carpet before the entire wall of windows facing the nosey marketers goes, shattering with a horrible din, glass raining down and slicing tiny cuts into her hands, the back of her head. She wonders, how many fucking snipers did Mycroft have on that building? just for a second before she hears pandemonium in the bullpen, screaming.

George thinks, Sally. She thinks, Hatcher. She thinks, Davison. She thinks she's going to be ill, and then John seizes her by her fucking injured shoulder and bellows:

"George!"

She thinks, Okay. Yes.

Her mobile's lost in the flood of broken glass shards halfway across her office, and George only thinks about calling the switchboard a split second before she realizes the foolishness of it. Someone must be reporting this. John's right, they need to clear the building, but they're cornered in her office and all of her people are outside, sandwiched in the line of fire between Moran and Mycroft's phalanx of long-range rifles, and she barely thinks, this is really fucking stupid, before she's moving on instinct, shoving her way to her feet.

It's ridiculous to think of how badly her hands hurt, but they do — there's blood smearing everywhere now — more than the dull throb in her shoulder, now. George peers over her desk in time to hear the first volley of shots end and see through the spiderwebbed, shattered-through glass of her office that the bullpen looks like a disaster zone. She can hear people yelling, see people starting to move. She doesn't see Moran.

George thinks, fuck it, and hollers:

"Donovan?"

There's a silence that drags on long enough that George thinks she's going to be sick, before Sally yells back, "I'm fine! Moran's gone and Hatcher's hit!"

"Jesus, so are you, are you all right?" John says to George.

She nods, reflexive, clutching at the edge of her desk and leaving blood smears across the paperwork there. She yells, "Hatcher, if you die, I'll kill you myself," and it takes too long — too heart-rendingly long by halves — for Hatcher to say back, shaking, "Yes, sir — ma'am."

And then there's nothing to do but press her forehead to the edge of her desk for a minute, to let the pain and fearfulness shake her like thunder rolling through her chest, down her spine. John's inspecting her arm, and George bears it for long moments — digs her nails into the cheap laminate surfaces she can reach and listens to her shuddery breaths — until he says, "Looks like it's just a nasty graze; stitches and you'll be right as rain."

"Right, thanks," George manages, and gives herself 30 seconds to be shattered, that and no more.

She's going to get up and check over her people any second now, distribute a description of Moran and a redundant APB, as she has no doubt Mycroft has every CCTV camera in the city trained for his face. She's going to go press hands to Hatcher, brush his hair out of his face and be very cross with him for frightening her so —

Except before George even finishes out 25 seconds of self-indulgent horror, John Watson's shoved away from the desk and run out the fucking door, shouting, "Moran!" as he goes.

"Shit," Keifer says.

If he says anything else, George doesn't hear it because she's tearing off after John, keeping the oatmeal-colored shape of his back in view and darting past her people in the bullpen, coat flaring out behind as she tries to catch up.

She yells his name, and he ignores her to go flying into the stairwell, and it's not until the concussive thud of her feet hit the concrete that she hears the echoing clatter of someone else running, sees the top of a man's head, and George clears the last four steps in one long tumble of adrenaline and panic.

Overhead, the atonal shrill of the building alarms finally goes off, and the pre-recorded health and safety-approved message starts to play as George slams into the hard corner of a handrail on the landing, clutching it to keep from spinning out and gasping at the hurt of it, to press her torn-open palms against anything.

The building goes from warily quiet to completely fucking mental in four seconds flat.

John freezes in the now-empty stairwell, listening carefully as the noises vanish under the panic and noise of NSY in chaos: they can't hear any individual footsteps over the rush, any doorways open and close in the banging. He'd gone into the stairwell and then gone into the din, and John says, "Fuck, fuck, he's getting away," as George gasps out:

"Won't happen, the building's gone on lockdown: two exits, both will be watched."

Bent over his knees, John snarls, "He's still got a gun."

George closes a hand over her shoulder to remind herself of the sting and her fingers come away the fresh red of a glistening pomegranate: split, burst open. "One less shot in it at least," she says, the last syllable of it swallowed up in a scream below them — punctuated with the sound of a single round, muffled by the fire doors.

John's gone before she can ask him politely, futilely, to head for the exits, to leave this to the professionals. He's just a flash of brassy hair and fierce shoulders, sailing down the last of the steps and bursting onto the third floor.

George follows him, trailing after him and hoping for what — for the best? that she can dampen the inevitability of this disaster? and she keeps him in her line of sight in through the fire door onto the third floor but loses him around a corner.

It's midday, in between shift swings, and traffic's relationship with its warren of cubes has always been theoretical, so the floor's empty but for aging computers and the suffocating, dizzy knowledge that Moran is here — John is here — someone's been shot here — and George has no clue where any of them are. The pain that had been a flare and then an impatient event in the back of her mind is throbbing through her now, a hot fire at her shoulder and bleeding sullenly down her arm, down her fingers, leaving a confetti of droplets as she tiptoes through the floor listening for footsteps, another gunshot, looking for John.

She finds Edith instead.

She's prone on the floor near the copier, fingers loose and palms open, her throat white like bone china. George falls down on her knees in the corridor, presses shaking fingers to Edith's neck, hearing her own breath desperately loud in her ears.

Edith's pale, mouth open like a hooked fish and the purple of her jumper is soaked through now, the gory red of clay and raw meat. George presses her other hand to the wound on Edith's chest, blood pooling out of her in rivers, oceans, the delta to the sea. She's staring upward blindly already, eyes unfocused on the ceiling.

George thinks about her training. George thinks about the emergency medical procedure she's known by rote for decades. George thinks about nothing at all, because she thinks that Edith is dying underneath her hands, and that no amount of George feverishly whispering, "Edith, hold on, just hold on, my love," will bridge the distance between the tinny sound of sirens beyond the NSY windows and the ugly carpet of the third floor — George's knees, soaked now with Edith's blood.

George leans over her, presses her forehead to the skin of Edith's cheek, and she wants to lay there and die, too, until she feels the hot barrel of a gun pressed onto the back of her neck.

***

Sebastian Moran says:

"Get up — she'll be dead in 20 seconds anyway."

George doesn't. She keeps her hand pressed in the oozing mess of Edith's chest, watching the light go dimmer in her eyes, her mouth going slack, the tension unraveling from her, shock calcifying into something else.

Moran doesn't shoot her, doesn't pistol whip her into submission. He just strokes the burning mouth of the gun across her skin, thoughtful, and George cups Edith's cheek in her cleaner hand — the one that isn't slicked hot with all her blood — strokes a thumb along her freckles, and watches the fog roll in, her last breaths hitching away.

George thinks about Edith's cat and her dodgy partner, Keith. George thinks about Edith's Silk Cuts and Edith's Somerset consonants snarling out the word "zygote."

"See," Moran sighs. "Now, up."

"Why are you doing this?" George asks.

Her knees hurt and her hands hurt and the robin's egg blue lining of her coat is smeared through with blood; she stands up, looks away from the body on the carpet, where Edith isn't anymore.

"You forced my hand," Moran says, matter-of-fact, unemotional, and when George turns to look over her shoulder, he looks unruffled, with a spray of close-impact blood spatter across the shoulder of his striped shirt. He has the same face and eyes, the same harmlessly attractive features. He has a gun in an unshaken hand, trained at the well between her collar bones, the metal soughing against her skin as she breathes.

George asks, "Keifer?"

"Do you know, I'm rather impressed by MI6's work on the paper trail, actually," Moran tells her, conversational. "The official records say he's still deployed in Afghanistan. There was enough corroborating evidence that even my former employer believed it."

George stares at him. "Why not run?" she says, her voice the rusted creak of a long-abandoned garden gate, aching with effort. "Why not just slip away?"

Moran's eyes go from calm to curious, and he has just enough time to say, "You really have no idea, do you?" before John Watson comes barreling in from the left.

John fights dirty, all unschooled desperation and ripped-open knuckles, with the viciousness of someone who knows that to lose the altercation would be worse than dying in the process. He slams Moran sideways into the hard edge of a government-issued desk in a tumble of limbs, swearing, taking Moran's split second of shock to close his hand around the gun.

There's a shot that goes wide — punching out an overhead light — and George reaches into the fray, clawing for traction, trying to pull the gun out of Moran's hands.

It's nothing like the hand-to-hand demonstrations from George's days at the police academy, the instructional videos from Hendon, the required training on plastic-smelling mats. This isn't even like chasing a junkie or a murderer down an alley or following Sherlock into the dark. This is uglier and more uncoordinated: grasping.

George hurts all over, isn't physically strong enough, is losing her balance as her heels sink into the berber carpet. It's too quiet, no scoring, just John swearing and Moran huffing for breath, and it's all over in a heartbeat — seconds elongating into hours — before she wrests the gun away from him, leaving a freely bleeding gash on Moran's wrist, John trying to land a punch and failing.

And she's triumphant, exhausted for maybe half a beat before Moran shoves past John and seizes her by the — fuck — shoulder, and George doesn't know what he does when his hands scrape down to her wrist but it leaves something inside feeling crushed and her fingers going numb, the gun slipping from her grasp as she shouts.

John's already got her by the other hand, dragging her backward and down a hall, by the time Moran is halfway bent down for his weapon, his eyes still trained on them, and George shoves them round a corner as he whips the barrel up.

George counts two shots, and John hisses, "That was a P250 Compact — he has at least 16 shots left."

Moran's 16 rounds versus George and John's no rounds are shite odds, and even though the sirens are wailing downstairs, she doesn't doubt they could be dead by the time Force Firearms gets up the three flights of stairs.

She says, "Go left — down that hall."

John doesn't move, and George doesn't have time for his doubt or his tactical mind, shoves at the sudden, immovable mountain of him until he's shifting on near silent feet down the dim-lit hall. There're no doors leading off it but the one on the end, and George doesn't exhale until they're through — in the relative safety of the sickening pink ladies toilet, an ancient electric heater coughing at them.

John's saying something about this being a dead end, emphasis dead, but George can't hear him over her own anxiety, as she tries to raise the window sash by the sink as quietly as possible. It hurts like a motherfucker to move her arm like this, makes her fingers weak with it, and it takes three tries to get any traction. The crackle of the shitty paint work makes her think about Edith's gel manicure clacking against it, the way even the tiles smell of nicotine and tar now, from the eons of women who've stolen away out of dick-measuring contests in NSY to steal a calming fag in here — leaning out this window, gray plumes of smoke dissipating over the skies of London.

"You'll have to jump," she says to him, over her shoulder, jerking the window the last inch upward, until the metal and wood and paint protest too much.

John stares at her. "It's the third floor — we'll break our legs."

"There's a ledge, six feet down, and a pipe with enough traction to hold you until the roof of the next building down," George says, the words tumbling out of her, and now all she can think is of Sherlock's fox-gleaming eyes, grinning at her in early January a lifetime ago, showing her his very favorite alternative means of entry into New Scotland Yard. "Go — you've got to go now."

John smiles at her, that reckless one that shrugs off his harmlessness and lets all his edges shine through. He says, "Ladies first, surely?" perched in the window, extending a hand to her.

George smiles back, because in that second she thinks of John and Sherlock and their broken hearts and their wild rambles through the undercarriage of the city — how they've convinced themselves that's all you need to know her, to claim a duty to her. George has walked London and loathed London and scoured pavements of Sherlock's blood, written in the police reports to each of John's blog highlights, held hands that needed holding. John may think himself as infantry in Sherlock's warzone, but this is peacetime, and London is no noir wonderland of high fantasy villains: it's thugs and thieves and murderers and bankers from the city, men complaining about the Olympics and little girls in rolled-up uniform skirts texting furiously on their mobiles. George knows London not like the back of her hand, but the way people know their homes in the dark — by rote, reflexive, wary of intruders.

She's always protected Sherlock as best as she could, and she owes John no less consideration.

"You may be a soldier, John, but this is my city," she tells him, and shoves him out the window as the door opens behind her.

The next one of Moran's 16 remaining rounds doesn't deflect on the glass of her office: its path is true.

***

There is no good place to be shot.

Every entry point is the promise of a wider exit; there's the potential for hypovolemic shock, death by hydrostatic shock, or suffocating from a pneumothorax while the ambulance fights traffic to get you to the nearest A&E.

The medical article in the packet the Metropolitan Police Service hands out cites a study done at a South London hospital between 1993 and 1994, with 42 victims, all male. They were all injured by low-energy transfer weapons, handguns. Sixteen had penetrating gunshot wounds to the head, neck, or chest, and half died.

George knows all of this from her decades on the force, absorbed it from emergency medics and police procedural manuals. She also knows that being shot in the gut is an agonizing way to go, and if Moran's bullet has punctured her stomach, then she has 15 minutes before the acid makes its way into her blood stream and it's over.

***

The blood in her mouth is fucking disgusting and George is frankly furious that the blank shock she's been promised is nowhere to be found. She's in too much pain to vomit from it, even; this is 30,000 on a 1-10 scale at the walk-in clinic, and her vision is fraying black at the edges.

"I was warned Watson was a nuisance, but no one said anything about you," Moran complains at her, and steps around her — the soles of his shoes slicking up in the pool of blood George is producing — toward the window, slipping his gun into a back holster.

George swallows and regrets it, whiting out for a beat. "You still haven't told me why," she says, but she's not sure how clearly the words come out.

She's slumped down on the floor; she doesn't remember getting there, but as far as she's concerned, the immediate worst part of all of this is the fact that her hands are smashed against the cold tile and her blood is still hot pooling around her fingertips. It's surreal. It's otherworldly. It's horrible. Had Edith bled this much?

"Believe me, Detective Inspector, this is more trouble than I was paid for," Moran sighs, and contentious, pauses long enough to press an affectionate hand to her cheek. He says, "But I could hardly disappear neatly with your man closing off my promised avenues of escape, could I?"

George realizes that somewhere in between Moran's two sentences, the blood on the floor and the disgusting touch of Moran's hand have become the only warm things in the room. She's freezing, staring straight ahead at the scratched-up door of a bathroom stall in the January air, wind billowing through the opened window, her skin a sheet of ice over her dying muscles.

She closes her eyes because she doesn't want that to be the last thing she sees, and then in the darkness she tries to draw up something she does and all she has is panic, a fear that chills her from the inside outward.

It's out of cowardice more than anything that she forces her eyes open again, turns her head away from the stall, toward the door —

Where she sees Anthea planting her feet and lifting a gun, eyes blazing.

George hears the two shots, but doesn't see them, and then she's hearing fucking Sherlock Holmes's voice in her ear, supernaturally calm as he says, "I will never forgive you if you perish in this dull manner."

***

George comes out of it a few times — of what to where, she has no idea. But she comes out of it a few times. She gets flashes: the pockmarked ceiling whirring past, blinding lights; her mum, her face bloodless. She hears stuff more frequently, but none of it's worth listening to: the sound of atonal flatlines or crying or the soft shuffle of trainers on tiles, immediately familiar after a lifetime haunting the A&E.

She feels muffled in cotton, and thank God for it, because the occasional flashes she isn't are excruciating, the same immediate, breathtaking, shattering pain she'd felt at the Yard. It flares out from her gut and goes past her fingertips, until it's a halo of searing agony and she hears herself in distress before there's a flurry of movement and she's knocked backward again, put down into opiate darkness.

At some point, shortly after George has convinced herself she's probably not dead, she gets up the energy to open her eyes. It's hard, moving her head is exhausting, breathing in and out is exhausting. She looks at the blur of gray and dark spots in front of her for a long time before she blinks — exhausted already — and she sees —

She sees Sherlock.

His dark curls are shorn away to a razor-sharp cut and his eye is a dark, ugly purple bruise, narrowing as he frowns down at her.

"You are comically susceptible to infection," he tells her.

"I'm in hell," George croaks sadly, and goes back to sleep.

That theory gets shot the next time she wakes up. She's on her back and there's a fucking tube in her throat and her sudden panic sends a heart-rate monitor screaming as loudly as she wants to. Chaos reigns for almost a minute before her mother's there — her eyes happy but her face ashen, and then Gillian is smoothing her hand through George's hair, whispering, "Calm down, my love, calm down."

These things keep happening, over and over again. George falls asleep and wakes up and falls asleep — exhaustion and drugs kicking in. Her mother is there; her stepfather is there. One time, she wakes to see John sitting at her bedside flipping through her chart.

The tube is gone again, but her throat still hurts and she's desperately, desperately parched, and before anything else, she croaks, "Water." She's useless until he's helped her consume half a cup of ice chips, at which point she flicks her gaze toward the records — still in John's grip — and grinds out:

"That's private."

John favors her with a tired, crooked smile. "I was the nearest trauma surgeon on premises," he says to her, reaching over, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and stroking his fingers over the curve of her cheek, tender. "My hands have been inside you, George."

She frowns anyway. "What happened?"

"You've had four surgeries," John tells her, closing her chart. "The bullet nicked your intestine. We had to remove your spleen. And then because Mycroft wasn't being terrifying enough, you developed sepsis."

"What's sepsis?" George asks.

"Not good," John clarifies, annoyed, and inspects something on the tower of machines parked next to her bed with an impatient look on his face.

Swallowing is still terrible, but she doesn't taste blood in her mouth anymore. George wonders who had to clean her teeth, who washed her hair — soft on the pillow — who scraped the blood out from underneath her fingernails. She wonders where her coat is.

"Hatcher?" she ventures, and she's not sure if she wants to know but she must. She'll need to call his family; she'll need to see him herself; she'll —

"He's fine, George," John says, interrupting her escalating worry. "They're releasing him in a week."

And then she's dizzy with relief, feeling suddenly exhausted with the effort of everything. She mumbles, "Good — good," and asks, "Moran?"

Here, John smiles. "Anthea shot him in both knees. Mycroft collected him."

"Oh, good," George says, "good."

One time, she wakes up to Anthea playing Fruit Ninja, leaning an iPad against George's hip where she's lying on her side, pain a banked discomfort underneath her skin. Anthea's ghostly pale, her hair pulled back in a messy bun, but her gray sweater-set and twill skirt are flawless. There's a pistol on the bed next to Anthea's left hand, safety off, pointed at the door, and she's hovering over George protectively, just inches between her cheek and George's fingers, limp on the hospital blankets.

George says, "Hi," and puts a hand in Anthea's hair.

Anthea stares back, wordless, for what feels like ages, a year. Her eyes are red, vessels blown, and there are lines around her mouth. There's a bucket of Haribo Starmix on the bedside table next to her BlackBerry, turned off at last.

"Are you all right?" George asks, because in the late afternoon light, Anthea looks achingly young, hurt. Without the phone, her hands look very small.

Anthea still doesn't answer, just swallows all the words balanced on her tongue, George thinks. But that's not enough to keep her eyes from going bright, wet, to keep her lashes from going damp and leaving shadow traces on her face, and George rubs a thumb across Anthea's cheek. She says, "Thank you for shooting Moran in the knees."

"Thank you for not dying," Anthea replies, finally.

"As if I'd give him the satisfaction," George says, her mock bravado as fragile as she feels in this hospital bed, all her bones light as a bird's under the heavy covers.

Anthea puts a palm over her own cheek, over George's fingers — warm skin over George's cold hand. "You came very close to giving him the satisfaction," she whispers.

"But I'm here now," George promises. She'll never know why she feels better offering up comfort than taking it, but she watches the tension unravel from Anthea's face in tiny increments and feels something go lighter in her chest. "I'm going to be fine, now, thanks to you."

And Anthea's only answer is to press her forehead against the curve of George's hip, the shape of the rolling English countryside beneath the blankets, and shake for long, long minutes — until there's the squeak of footsteps and George's mother sweeps into the room with two steaming cups of tea.

George stays up almost half an hour that time, listening to her mother's round vowels and Anthea's soft consonants, their voices a comforting hum in the background. As she's tipping over into sleep again, she hears Anthea say, "Has anyone told her, yet?"

***

Awareness looses its ephemeral, gauzy haze soon enough, and then George wakes up in low-grade and increasing pain, all the discomforts that had been theoretical through the morphine starting to slice into her. Without the constant stream of heavy opiates, the long nights at the hospital go from cocooning dark to unbearable, loud, endlessly interrupted. Her mother is at her side every day, and Anthea has appropriated a corner, reaching ever more astronomical heights on Angry Birds; John shows up more often than not to inspect her charts and chat up her surgeon. Her moments of consciousness get longer and longer. One Thursday she realizes she's been awake all of an hour and that Edith is dead and George feels a sort of empty, wrenching hurt that sends her straight back again, searching for the oblivion of sleep.

***

George has always just got on with it, whatever it was, so the arresting nature of being grievously injured is a deeply annoying revelation. There's no work to distract her, and her — admittedly lengthening — periods of awareness are plagued by the demands of doctors and nurses, her ever-present visitors trying to verify the state of her health. George wants to yell that there's a crosshatch of surgical scars on her, she's missing her spleen, and they'd had a tube down her fucking throat until a week ago, how do they think she's doing? but even that is too dear a price, most times, and she just gives in.

So it's two weeks (or so John tells her) before George manages to stay awake long enough to call Edith's family, to call her dodgy partner Keith, to stay cold and broken wide open on the telephone, conveying her regrets. She doesn't tell them the way Edith had been alert and awake, terrified and dying in obvious pain. She says that it was fast and that Edith probably hadn't even been aware, that she'd slipped off with the same coy quickness she had for managing traffic's clashing personalities. She tells them it was a privilege to be among Edith's friends, that she's sorry she missed the service, that she'll come by for tea and to trade stories about Edith's Silk Cuts, her husky laughter, the way she'd been — in some small way — George's best friend, at least in little fragments of all their shared spaces, in their shared days.

It doesn't help; she doesn't feel better. If anything, she feels worse, propped up on a bank of pillows in her hospital room listening to the machines percuss in beeps and hisses around her, staring at the ceiling dry-eyed — cried out.

There's a knock at her door then, a neat double-rap, and George puts a hand over her eyes and croaks, "Yes?"

"I told them it might be better if someone broke the news to you gently first, but everyone decided to be difficult about it," says Sherlock.

George takes her hand from her eyes and looks down, down the length of the hospital bed to the dead man standing in the doorway. He's wearing his Belstaff coat and his hair shorn short — just like in her dream, earlier — and in addition to being thinner and tired, he still has a hideous black eye.

"So," he continues. "I'm not dead."

She stares at him. It takes three tries to say, "I — I beg your pardon?"

"I'm alive," Sherlock repeats, impatient. "Not actually dead."

Stupidly, George points at his face. Lifting her arm is a horrible idea, and she regrets it immediately when it pulls on muscles she didn't know she had that are connected to aches in her stomach she also didn't know she had. "What happened to your eye?"

Pulling a face, Sherlock says, "John overreacted."

"To...your not being dead," George reasons for herself.

Wronged, he says, "Yes, the day you were shot." He presses careful fingers to his face. "And then again when I approached him last night to ask if he was finished having his irrational tantrum about the misunderstanding."

Irrational tantrum, George boggles. Misunderstanding.

Before Sherlock can add whatever tart and cunningly bratty thing is perched on his tongue, she asks, "How are you not dead? Why did we think you were dead?"

He looks away here, abashed, a tenseness to his features that was hidden before, and George watches him flip through her medical chart, looks at the torn knuckles of his hands, his birdlike wrists. The ghost in her room looks like the boy from long ago, hanging out of his first floor flat window like a lunatic, hollows in his cheeks and a wildness around the edges of him. This isn't the man she last saw, who'd composed himself into a sort of domestic bliss in the odd trappings of Baker Street, with the odd companionship of John Watson. She doesn't know what to think. She hopes if this is a near-death experience, if she's flat-lining in her bed and her nurses and doctors are calling a code blue wherever she actually is, her mother isn't nearby to watch it happen.

"I was given a choice between my death or John, Mrs. Hudson, and your's," Sherlock tells her latest lab panels, running his fingers down the page. He's quiet, terse; she thinks this is Sherlock struggling under the weight of hurt. "Choosing myself was the only acceptable option."

"Yet here you are," George whispers.

He looks up again, looks up at her from beneath his eyelashes, and George thinks this is what he must have been like as a boy: rabbit-hearted with anxiety. She doesn't know how she feels, is strangely flat, and probably in an hour or a day or a week she'll well up with cold fury, will burn everything Sherlock owns, will burst into tears.

For now, she waves a hand at him, waves him closer.

Sherlock comes, wary, in halting steps that look foreign on him, and as he gets closer she sees him more clearly: there's a scar on the corner of his mouth, an ugliness to the white of his skin, dark bruises under the unblackened eye, too. There's a nasty burn on his neck. His body, to her, is an open book of suffering, of going without, and George thinks about the way he said, "only acceptable option," and knows that when she is able to feel angry with him, she'll ache for him, too.

"Are you going to hit me, too?" he asks, suspicious, a foot out of her abridged reach.

"It would hurt me more than you right now," she says impatient. "Bend down."

He does, sullen, and George reaches over for him, fingers shaking until she touches the severe fringe of his hair, cut short, feels her nails scraping across the milky skin of his scalp, warm under her hands.

"You cut your hair," she mourns, palming his face now, turning it up to meet her gaze.

Sherlock sighs, but doesn't pull away. "It was a liability."

"As you did what?" George asks.

That shadow comes back, flickers across Sherlock's face. "Moriarty died, but he left a syndicate — they couldn't be allowed to carry on."

In another life, George thinks Sherlock would have meant that the puzzle was too good, the crime too thrilling, the opportunity to prove himself cleverest too irresistible. Now, she's not sure. She's known Sherlock to love John and chase puzzles that hurt him all the same, but George is holding the face of a man she knows even less than she'd known Sherlock, before.

"But it's done now?" she asks. Surely it must be.

"I came back," Sherlock says, and there's a tenor in his voice that sounds older and wiser and wounded, "as quickly as I could."

"You broke my heart, you bastard," George tells him. "I cried over you."

She doesn't know what his months away have been like, exactly, at what cost Sherlock's found himself here again in her hospital room. She doesn't know what he's seen or done, but she can imagine, she can read between the telegraphed lines as he puts his hands over hers — still pressed to his narrow, sickly face — and meets her gaze.

"You were alive to do it," he says. This is a version of Sherlock who hesitates, who's lost the reckless sense of immortality he'd always worn like a mantel. "You, John, Mrs. Hudson, you're all furious, but you're all alive to do it — that's all that mattered to me."

He curls his index finger around hers, until they are holding hands in some small way, and George can't even begin to explain the way her chest hurts at it, to feel Sherlock clinging.

He says, "That's all that mattered to us."

The word drops like a coin and George feels rather than realizes the implication.

"Oh," she says, and her wrists and elbows go weak, her whole body goes weak with it, hands dropping like sudden weights back to the covers and her arm aching with it — the least of her bullet wounds just a dull throb now.

Sherlock peers at her face with a curious urgency that had been absent before. This must be new; the rest of it, Sherlock had deduced hours, days, weeks, months in advance, perhaps as soon as he'd vanished from London, he'd known what he'd return to.

"I can't tell what you're thinking," he admits.

I don't know what I'm thinking, George doesn't say. "Of course he helped you."

"He had to," Sherlock answers. "He owed me."

That could either be an accusation or an excuse, but George doesn't care either way. She doesn't know if it's the thousands of antibiotics or blood thinners or opiates coursing through her system, but she doesn't have the energy to do anything but ache, comprehensively, helplessly, all over.

She was wrong, earlier, when she thought she was cried out, parched, because it comes again, an undertow, her vision blurring.

"Lestrade," Sherlock starts, and George cuts him off.

"Go away," she tells him. She curls up on her side. "Just go away."

He does, but he lays a hand on her first — it's cold on her shoulder blade through the hospital gown — before he leaves, holding the hospital door open for the neat clicks that signal Anthea's return.

She lays a hand on George, too, but it's lingering, this touch, and laced through with sadness.

"Did you know?" George asks, muffled, wetly.

Anthea doesn't say anything, but she doesn't need to. And George isn't angry with her, not really, since Anthea has always been the keeper of secrets not hers to give away, but it is funny — wretched — to think of how close to hand absolution had been the entire time George's heart had been breaking open.

"I don't want to stay here anymore," George says. "I want to go home."

Anthea's quiet for long moments, but the way her thumb rubs circles against George's elbow is telling. When she does speak, finally, it's to say, "Whatever you need, Detective Inspector," and it plunges George through years, back to the gala at the Ritz and endless supply of champagne: Anthea asking if George wanted a pony, what kind, saying that Mr. Holmes would be back presently.

***

Moving out of the hospital — which had been a private room in what looked like a private home in Hampstead — is an ordeal. The doctors are far too professional to fret like common NHS surgeons, but they sigh elaborately over her charts, and although they sign off, they sign her off into the care of another phalanx of medical staff. It's a complicated mess, stabilizing and strapping her down and attaching various pieces and accessories to have her moved. Everyone fusses a great deal. Another version of her, an earlier, different, less perforated version of her would have been mortified by the spectacle of it all, made ill by the underlying knowledge that she's relying heavily and shamelessly upon someone else. George, circa 2012, post-operative, could give a fuck. There's a tube up her fucking urethra, she has one less spleen, and John Watson has had his hands inside of her. The least the world can give her is her way.

***

The Lyall Street house, for its many stories and rooms, had always felt bizarrely cozy: George lived there with Mycroft, and sometimes Anthea. There were occasional visitors, but they felt, if not unwanted, intrusive all the same. The house was at once very large and very small, and there had only ever been room for its permanent residents.

When George moves back, the house unfolds like a map of the world. Her mother has a bed moved into the massive dressing area and there are an army of nurses who have either taken over the various guest rooms or have taken to squatting in the sitting room, for they aren't ever absent. There is Anthea, who is a constant shadow, perched in the armchair that has migrated from the bathtub to the bedside. There is also John.

"So, Sherlock," George croaks, rousing slowly from sleep to find him sitting on the edge of her bed, nosing through her medical file again.

The frown on John's face darkens into a scowl. "Sherlock," he says.

"Not dead," she continues, and adds, "Apparently," as John turns to do his now-familiar visual inspection of her — to touch her pulse and check her eyes, run his fingers across the palms of her hands. She never knows what he's looking for, exactly, but the tightness around his mouth eases as he does it, so she doesn't mind.

"Apparently," John agrees, gruff, and glances at her from beneath his lashes. "I assume you saw his eye."

She grins at him. "Yes, I did," George answers. John helps her up, pushes pillows behind her back until she's propped at a 45 degree angle and he can inspect the wound on her arm. He asks:

"Anyone tell you the whole story yet?"

George shakes her head, lets him pull up the hem of her soft hospital gown and inspect her surgical scars. They're hideous. There's not much else to say. One day she thinks she'll be able to look at them without wanting to throw up, because vanity in the face of near death is foolish, surely, but she doesn't know when that day will be. For now, she just turns her eyes toward the ceiling and swallows hard around the visual memory — the ugly stitches that are barely holding her closed.

John's fingers run close to her wound, not touching. He makes a humming noise; it's in a catalog of his Doctor Sounds George knows too well now. "Would you like to know?"

"I don't really care," George admits, because this is John, after all, "but tell me anyway, so I know how angry I ought to be when he shows his face again."

"Very," John promises her, laughing. Probably because being furious is exhausting, and they've all slept badly for months — a season. He begins pulling the hospital gown downward again, over her bandages, over fragile new skin, and George moves for him when his fingers tap her this way and that. Death and sex are two unsettlingly similar types of physical intimacy, she has realized. "I gather you've deduced he faked his jump."

She sighs. It hurts. "Fuck," she mutters, and adds, "Yes, even I managed that. Cheers for punching him, by the way."

"It was my pleasure," John says, smiling. "Anyway, in our latest conversation, he revealed that he apparently hung around London long enough to verify we had, in fact, survived his 'death,' and went on the lam." He drags George's covers back up, over her belly and up her chest. "That arse went to his own bloody funeral."

George remembers Eugenia and her cold, stricken expression. Maybe it's only the sepia of realization and the inconstancy of memory, but upon reflection it's a look more of misery than loss. In the shadow of the parish church, George imagines Eugenia had wanted to say something, that she'd seen George's red eyes and bloodless mouth and had wanted to tell her everything. If anyone should have been spared the fiction of Sherlock's death, then reasonably, it was his mother, but it doesn't make George hate Mycroft or Sherlock any less.

"I'm glad I didn't give him the satisfaction of crying, then," she grits out.

"Yes," John says lightly. "He complained about that length."

"Tosser," George says, and flings her good arm over her eyes, pressing her face into the crook of an elbow. "Then what?"

"Then he tortured me for a bit about how I had betrayed some completely illogical and non-traditionally masculine expressions of emotion about his death, and I was forced to hit him in the face again," John reports. "Which derailed the conversation for a long time."

"Of course," George says. "As your crying hardly made him less dead."

John is quiet for a long time before saying, "He went to Krakow, first, after London."

She lifts her elbow and peer at John's drawn and unhappy face. "To — dismantle Moriarty's remaining network?"

"Through any means necessary," he says lightly. "Then Moscow."

George thinks of her sunny kitchen; Moran standing in it with a teacup. "The subway bombing," she murmurs. "That was him."

"Among other things," John says agreeably, but with a briskness to his tone and as he is rising to his feet. "By this point I was threatening to beat him some more and the conversation deteriorated significantly."

She smiles, and it's genuine. "I'm honestly surprised you held out as long as you did."

"He'd broken into Harry's flat, I had no choice but to listen," John says.

"He'll just let himself in again and finish you know," George warns him.

"Shan't," John disagrees. "I'm back at Baker Street; he'll stay away if he knows what's good for him."

It's such a ridiculous sentiment that George starts laughing, hard enough that even the raw burst of pain doesn't stop her. Sherlock's never been interested in anything good for him until he'd gotten interested in John, and watching him stand in front of her with an expression full of indignant menace is mental — completely mental.

Later that day, Anthea is curled up next to her in the giant bed, dressed in a camel-colored pencil skirt and a dove gray blouse. They've joined forces in an attempt to unlock level eight on the Logo game, but level seven is monstrous with unknowns.

"So that was it? He blew up the Moscow subway and came home?" George asks, as Anthea tries every known variation of the name "United Airlines" on the game to no avail. "Also, I think that might be Delta."

Anthea types in "Delta," which goes through with a dismal 25 points. "And set fire to the file rooms at the European Commission and shut down the subway system in Beijing for six hours and offlined an aging nuclear plant in Kanto, among other things," Anthea says, distracted. "Not everything could be kept out of the press, especially with Mr. Holmes seeking to make ever-larger, more headline-grabbing disasters, but we made an effort."

George stares at the phone screen, at an oval with stars in it and a gradient blue background and mumbles, "Headline-grabbing?"

"There were several fights about this," Anthea returns. The I was very annoyed by the redundancy of it is implied. "Kia?"

"Well, Sherlock's never done anything quietly," George allows. "And it's not Kia. I'm reasonably sure Kia is just KIA."

Anthea tries Hyundai and their enemy the red X appears. "More like he was desperate for John to suspect he wasn't dead," Anthea sighs, and deletes her guess.

George says, "Try Subaru," and "I beg your pardon?" in almost the same breath.

Anthea slants George a look, too innocent. "It's just a theory," she says, but she says it the same time the game announces, LEVEL 8 UNLOCKED, so it feels more, it feels revelatory. It feels like another piece of a much larger truth.

***

It takes almost a week for Sherlock to show his face again. She's at once touched and annoyed by his restraint. She's bubbling over with questions, so that when she sees the bobbing fringe of his shorn-short hair lurking just outside the kitchen, she shouts:

"Get in here, you pillock!"

He gets, but it's with suspicious steps.

"You seem improved," he says, and stays in the doorway. He's graduated to a new pair of skintight jeans, but at least he's put on a button-down shirt. If his wardrobe is any indication of his mental state, then he's halfway between functional and functionally batshit, which George supposes is about as well as any of them are doing.

"Over here," she instructs impatiently. "And stop being such a coward, I'm still not well enough to hit you."

Thus assured and with dignity, he approaches, asking, "Why are you up and around? Aren't your intestines in slivers or something?"

The rotation and force needed to land a meaningful hit on him would be too painful to consider, but George is well enough to let him loop her arm into his, to lean heavily against him and walk with torturously small footsteps around her kitchen per the instructions of her fascist doctors and John. She's also well enough to snatch a piece of his skin between two fingers and twist.

Sherlock hisses like a wet cat, but George just keeps slumping against him, glowering out of the corner of her eye. "They were nicked," she corrects, and too sore for small talk, goes on to demand, "What's this I hear about you trying to get John's attention while you were supposed to be quietly playing dead?"

"I did no such thing," Sherlock lies, stiff.

George is aware of how unattractive disgusted realization is on her, and yet.

"Moriarty's network was a deeply entrenched and near-impenetrable vertical," he went on, condescending. "It's hardly my fault that my efforts to dissemble it were necessarily spectacular."

George snatches the still-reddened skin of Sherlock's arm again, threatening. "So spectacular that despite your brother's best efforts, the media became engaged?" she asks. "What did you do — send a press release?"

They've progressed all the way from the sink to the aga now, and George huffs for air a bit, leaning heavily against its warm body, free hand arrayed carefully to avoid a burn. The garden is bleached white from exuberant sun overhead, and any minute now her mother will be back with Anthea in tow, arms overflowing with the makings of several day's worth of stodgy British fare.

She must be looking better, because Sherlock actually ventures to slap her fingers away from him, looking as wronged as a Victorian schoolmarm.

"No, I made a statement — "

George glares at him.

" — statements," Sherlock revises. "It's hardly my fault if people were clever enough to translate them — which, I might remind you, didn't include you or John."

George pinches him anyway, more viciously this time, and listens to him let out an indignant squeak, which she ignores in favor of saying, "That is for getting my intestines shot to slivers, you ridiculous shit."

He pinches her back, at which she shouts, "Fuck!" and he snaps, "And I am hardly the reason your innards are in pieces. I'm afraid that honor rests proudly with my brother."

The fact that Sherlock is the type of rotten human being who would assault an invalid is forced to the side for the time being.

"I beg your pardon?" George asks. "Explain."

Sherlock sniffs. "Honestly I don't know what you've been doing: laid up in bed with almost zero avenues for entertainment and you somehow haven't deduced this already?"

George bites back her reflexive answers to this, about how recovery is boring, yes, but it is also horrible and consuming. She doesn't talk about how they're stepping down her narcotic intake, so she's in constant, unrelenting low-grade pain; or how shitty and invasive and humiliating it is that after more than three decades of doing all sorts of things in private, now an entire medical community — John Watson inclusive — is privy to the color of her urine and the frequency of her bowel movements. There are the lost hours eaten away by her misplaced and ridiculous self-pity (for the scars) and better-justified self-loathing (for Edith). She doesn't shout at him about all the interstitial moments, all the half-thoughts she arrests mid-completion, and how she's been staring at the ceiling of the hospital room, her bedroom, at the walls, at Anthea, and all the time desperately thinking of anything but Mycroft — how his absence has left holes in her.

The effort of not saying any of it is draining, but it's not worse than the look that would flicker across Sherlock's face if she does. It's foolish of course, because Sherlock is a grown and exceptional man, but to her he'll always be that wild-haired boy whose jagged edges cut both ways. George can't bear to hurt him.

"Intestines, shooting, still convinced it's your fault, etcetera — out with it," George manages, snappier in tone than in sentiment.

Sherlock huffs. "It's simple deduction, Lestrade," he lectures. "He sent you away."

It's shocking how much that still hurts. Enough so that George snarls, "Simple how?"

"Think, Lestrade," he demands, narrow-eyed now. "Does it even make sense he would send you away if I were dead? Why would he want you — the only person by all accounts who can tolerate him for multiple hours at a time, romantically even, despite how horrifying I find that prospect — away from him if I were genuinely spattered on a sidewalk somewhere? What would be the point?"

George stares at him and doesn't say, I thought he blamed me.

"And if, as your expression betrays, my wretched despot of a brother had actually blamed you for my expiration, I've no doubt you'd fully appraised of that sentiment, rather than harboring self-generated guilt on the subject," Sherlock went on, impatient. "No — this was obvious, this was glaring. Mycroft Holmes abandoning a woman in a morgue corridor in a torrent of emotion? Nothing could be more suspicious: he wanted to protect you, and foolishly imagined that simple absence would help serve as a firewall when in reality it only underlined his frankly embarrassing attachment to you."

She felt her eyes widen. "Morgue corridor?" she asked. "Were you watching?"

"Irrelevant," Sherlock declared, which meant yes, yes he had been. "What's of substance here is that given those circumstances, it was all too easy for Moran to identify you as leverage and — " he waved at George's midsection " — eventually shoot you in some brutal, common outburst."

As soon as she was well, George was going to stomp Sherlock into a greasy smear.

"Are you telling me that you knew Moran was Moriarty's partner and you let him call John and I in for repeated interviews in confined spaces?" she asked. "Let's not even discuss his tendency to sexually harass me in dimly lit corners of the Yard."

In another life, Sherlock would have scoffed and gone off on part two of an epic poem about his own cleverness, and how he was balancing the risks every step of the way, Lestrade, cease your extremely dull panic.

In this one, in this incarnation, his face is drawn. His voice is quiet. He says, "No — I knew Moriarty had at least one partner, or else who would be taking the kill shots, but we didn't know who." Sherlock falls silent for a second, one that drags out to an everlasting minute. "It was stupid to think he'd go on the run when everything of value was in London, still."

George can't help but think about how Sherlock had nearly brought governments to their knees over the pale smoke of imagined love with Irene. She thinks about Mycroft's face — the weight of his fingers on her cheek — in the fireside light of the study, telling her he would burn London to ashes over her.

She wonders how they couldn't have known, when it was so obvious to her, obvious to John, obvious to Kitty Riley and every person who had ever made an insinuation about Sherlock and John on the Mills & Boone wall at NSY. She wonders how they could have calculated every risk and possibility and completely ignored their most glaring vulnerabilities, the bruises writ large across their hearts.

"It was an oversight," Sherlock murmurs, the silk of his voice hoarse around the hard consonants.

George reaches up so she can press her hand against his gaunt face, to press some warmth into his skin, to catch his gaze. She doesn't know what she's looking for, exactly, in the hurt blue of his eyes. She just wants to know that it's there, that he isn't playing at penance, that he'll deserve it when John inevitably forgives him. She wants to know that he's taken this to heart, wherever it lives: with him, with Baker Street, cupped in John's hands.

"I did cry for you, you bastard," she whispers to him, softly confessing.

Sherlock winces. "I know. Mycroft was very cross with me."

George smiles, involuntary. "How cross?"

"I'm reasonably sure he sold me, briefly, into the sex trafficking industry in Romania," Sherlock mutters, and like that, George can feel the moment sealing itself behind them, the edges shuttered in conclusion.

Walking her from the ground floor to the first floor and her bedroom again is fraught. Even with the installation of a lift on the staircase, there's the business of plodding her way to the staircase, and then the business of her mother and Anthea returning before she's gotten all the way there — Sherlock's long-suffering boredom heavy with sighs in her ear the entire time — and there's a great to-do about her being reckless with herself. All in all, it's another half-hour and an absurd amount of shouting before she's back under the covers of her bed, still peering up at Sherlock's studied indifference as he inspects her charts.

"Should I forgive him?" George asks, without the question passing through any of her mental or verbal filters. It explodes out of her.

Sherlock's eyes, when he looks up, are sharp.

Only George doesn't care anymore. She just wants to know. "Should I?" she asks again.

"I would say 'no,'" Sherlock starts, "because he's a helplessly interfering fascist, and his association with you genuinely upsets me."

George arches a brow. "You would say no?"

"But," he continues, looking sick with himself, "I suppose I hope you do."

"Why?" George asks, because Sherlock's explanations have framed the mysteries of her life for more than half a decade now — it's been his reasoning that's helped grieving families and solve puzzles. Why not this one?

His smile, this time, is self-deprecating. "Let's say I view it as an indicator of whether or not John will be equally understanding."

"I have permission to shoot to kill, Mr. Holmes," Anthea says from the doorway. Her voice is pleasant, but she's double-fisting a Haribo bucket and her BlackBerry.

"And so, I leave you to her tender mercies," Sherlock declares, and whirls away.

"Your mother is downstairs making a fish pie," Anthea reports, as Sherlock's footsteps clatter down the stairs and into the front hall.

George pulls a face.

"I've already called for takeaway," Anthea goes on, toeing off her heels and reaching for the iPad by George's bedside. "Jonathan Creek?"

"Please," George agrees, but between the length of the day and the warmth of Anthea's shoulder under her cheek, she's asleep before they hit the first shot of the windmill.

***

It takes a week of shuffling around the first floor of the house, shuffling around the kitchen, shuffling around the garden, before George shuffles up to the secret balcony she'd discovered during the apogee of her misery. She sits up there for hours, wrapped in her robe, clutching her arms close, looking across the sweep of Mayfair, of the park, toward the palace, at Sir Kenneth's SmartCar.

George supposes there is a battalion of highly trained snipers with long-range rifles located strategically, otherwise there's no way she'd be left alone here so reliably. She brings books, cups of tea, the iPad. She always brings her mobile — clutches it in one hand or the other: the modern-day equivalent of being tongue-tied.

She starts and restarts her messages. She starts and restarts dialing. When the screen's turned off, there's the tell-tale marks of her fingertips across the same five spots on the glass, archeological evidence. She wants to make him tell her the unabridged truth, to grovel for forgiveness, to prove Sherlock right and ease the infectious doubt in her, to convince her he loves her now the way he did before.

In the end, she sends:

Sherlock said you helped him because you owed him.
What did you do? GL

Mycroft answers texts from her either not at all, or under 2 minutes, and after 15 have crawled past, George is tapping out, You're a right cunt, do you know that? when her phone whistles at her, coy, the screen glowing.

I told Moriarty about him.
It was a bid for his cooperation.
Failed, obviously.
MH

And then, a beat later:

You need a blanket.
MH

George, reflexively awful, writes back: No blanket. Running mild fever. Why did you want his cooperation? GL

Destruction of his network.
It's sorted now.
I'm sending Anthea.
MH

George wants to write back, where are you? and why haven't you come to see me? and don't you miss me? except then Anthea's clattering up the staircase in the closet, looking nearly put-out and bearing the afghan off the sitting room sofa.

It goes on like this, the days stretching out. She goes for x-rays and doctors come to see her. The nurses change shifts. John and Sherlock alternate visits, as if she's a child for whom they have joint custody. Sherlock brings her gifts stroke bribes of cream buns from the Asian bakery, clandestine curries from Brick Lane, peony petals from Columbia Street Market. John brings her reassurances she's healing — slowly, but well — and he eats the cream buns, the clandestine curries, runs his rough fingers over the petals.

"Will you forgive him?" George asks, idly curious. She knows John will, but she doesn't know if he knows he will.

He arches a brow at her, nods at her mobile. "Have you forgiven him?"

"At least yours is making an effort," George retorts.

"He's sleeping rough out behind Mrs. Hudson's bins," John answers. "That's not making an effort: that's stalking."

She smiles, and it surprises her a little to find she means it. "In the Holmes lexicon, that's actually quite sweet, you know."

"You're a sick woman, George," John informs her, and strips her out of her soft, too-big t-shirt for inspection.

She might be sick, but it doesn't make her wrong. And the next time she finds herself sitting on the balcony, drinking Irn Bru to prove a point, she looks down for Sir Kenneth's SmartCar, the familiar neighbors, and sees a black sedan instead, parked quietly in front of the house.

George fumbles the soda can, her mobile, the edge of her blanket. It takes two tries before she manages to disengage the lock screen, and even then, her fingers are shaky as she texts:

Is that you then? GL.

This reply, like the old ones, like the hundreds stored in her history, is lightning fast.

Stop drinking that.
It's toxic. Who gave it to you?
MH.

The laugh that bursts out of her hurts, but in the best way.

I asked if I could have a glass of wine and was told it was the worst possible thing I could be drinking right now. I begged to differ. GL.

It's ridiculous, of course, but George thinks she can hear his sigh from here on the second floor, looking down at the gleaming roof of the car and through the bulletproof glass and sound-killing insulation. She thinks she can imagine his face, the severity of his suit, what pocket square he might be wearing. She thinks about her anger and her embarrassment, and how compared with her mortifying yearning for him, they seem small and spiteful in comparison.

She curls a hand against the railing and dials him.

"Hello," she breathes, when the line connects.

The silence on the other end is endless. Then: "This is the liquid equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face, Georgiana."

She's glad she's already sitting — her knees go weak at her name. She's never liked it, consciously, and it's baffling to be so greedy to hear its vowels and consonants in his mouth. She wonders if Mycroft's missed her, too, and shuts her eyes against it.

"Georgiana?" he repeats, with a barely calm urgency she finds obscurely pleasing.

"Tell me you were sorry to do that to me," she murmurs, barely above a whisper, her eyes still closed. It's not what she'd thought she'd say, but it must be what she's wanted all along, hidden underneath her tongue. "Tell me it hurt you, too."

Mycroft's answer is slow. "Yes — I was. I did," he tells her, and it sounds gouged out of him.

She exhales, shaking. "Did you regret it?"

"I tried not to think about it," he says. "I had Anthea watch you very closely."

"Anthea?" George asks.

"Because I couldn't bear to," Mycroft tells her, and it's so easy and unembarrassed and flatly, abjectly miserable George has to press a hand to her mouth to seal in her reflexive absolution.

She hangs up, frantic, and stumbles back inside, pulling two stitches in the process and spending the night on the sitting room sofa meditating on a single page of The Weaker Vessel and staring into the banked fire in the room. There aren't any easy resolutions here, and George finds herself thinking about the statistics on second marriages, the staggering numbers that were against her in the first place, and wonders how the algorithm changes when accounting for Holmeses — when accounting for this, whatever it is, and if there is even math for these probabilities.

"Did Dad ever do anything you found unforgivable?" George asks her mum, the next day, when the afternoon light is pooling across the kitchen floor.

Her mum just looks thoughtful, a touch sad, saying, "What's unforgivable anyway? Isn't anything you do forgive forgivable?"

George stares at her, mouth dry. "Is it that easy, then?"

"George," Gillian sighs, "there is nothing easy about it."

She sleeps badly that night, pain waking her up at odd intervals, but it's half-two in the morning and George doesn't want to bother her nurses, to limp down the hall until she can find Anthea. So she lies on her mostly-uninjured side and stares at the stack of books on Mycroft's side the bed: Wodehouse, The Pillars of Hercules, Delta of Venus. He doesn't use bookmarks, nor does he fold down the corners to save his place, tries not to leave a mark. But the spines are all cracked-white and broken, the ragged pages waterlogged from her baths, from overturned glasses of mineral water ("Sparkling, please") thoughtlessly overturned. There is a pair of reading glasses, smudged with fingerprints, and a receipt, unearthed from somewhere and left behind.

Holmeses only seem otherworldly, George thinks to herself, woozy with hurt and philosophical. Their advantages larger but their flaws more dangerous; they are as human as she is, as John is. They live alone, but they're bad at it.

She unearths her mobile from where she's shoved it under a pillow and calls him.

"You're in pain," he says, instead of hello. He sounds stricken, as if he hurts, too.

"Was it the only way? Sherlock faking his death? You couldn't have...dispatched men to have it handled?" George whispers to him, like their secret conversations from not very long ago, held in the cathedral of their bed linens.

"It wasn't the only way," Mycroft says. "But the other options were worse — messier. They were no guarantee of safety, with a larger possibility for loss of life. It was not a good decision, only the best choice we had available."

She hums to herself, believes him. "How did you not know?" she asks now. "About Moran?"

"It was not actually my intention for you to be shot, Georgiana," Mycroft says, but at least he sounds properly wretched about it.

"You are not allowed to be shirty with me about this," George replies. "They had to remove my spleen."

His silence this time is tense and very dangerous. "I am aware," he promises.

"So?" she demands, a little louder.

"Very early on, after I first met you — "

"Had me kidnapped," George interrupts.

" — I brokered a...territorial agreement in London," Mycroft continues, bland with studied disinterest. "And in the process, for various reasons too complicated to detail, Kings College lost a small property that had a car park adjacent."

George remembers this, but through a different lens. She remembers Tom storming home in a frightful mood, raving about how someone at the university had bollocksed everything and had his car taken away. And in the subsequent days she remembered him making vain efforts to retrieve it, and how it was nearly a week later they'd located it — more or less dismembered — in an impound lot a mile outside of Tottenham.

"You arranged for the assassination of my ex-husband's car," George says, wondering.

"This cannot be a surprise to you," Mycroft says, impatient. "I identified Sebastian Moran as suspicious the first moment he arrived at Scotland Yard — but I made that judgment as he touched your hand."

George reaches out to touch the edge of the Anais Nin. It's been well-loved.

"You were jealous," she concludes.

"He was spotless in the records, had a well-papered trail, and there was no reason for my suspicion of him beyond the knowledge you'd made him a cup of tea and been in the archives room with him — barefoot, at night. Jealous — " he spits out the word, disgusted " — is an inadequate term, and I overcorrected."

George thinks about this for long minutes and comes to no conclusions. It's simply something that happened, like Mycroft trying to trade Sherlock's secrets for Moriarty's compliance, like Sherlock being an architect of her and John's continued danger with his desperate hope. Nothing will change these things; the only way out is through.

"This is impressive," she says at last. "You are much crazier than I had thought."

Mycroft makes a long-suffering noise. "I've woken one of the nurses for you," he informs her. "She'll be in shortly to administer a painkiller."

"Oh, God," George says, horrified. "It's 3 a.m.!"

"You called me," Mycroft says.

"You're different," she hisses, hearing a knock at her door and Wendy, the night nurse, calling out, "Ms. Lestrade?"

When Mycroft says, "Oh, thank God," it comes out trembling and genuine, and George hangs up on him again.

***

She and John compare stories the next day over tea and a small mountain of Pret brownie bars that he brings as an offering.

They are still only privy to part of it, they're sure, but enough to gather a semi-cohesive narrative. Mycroft told Moriarty about Sherlock; Moriarty used the information to blaspheme Sherlock in the media, to push him off the roof. Blackmail, apparently, is catching, and it was used to secure Mycroft's participation in Sherlock's deception, after which point certain people were abandoned, certain other people went into a decline, and many things were dismantled and exploded.

That's a trite reduction, factual if not comprehensive. Sherlock had come back brittle, literally scarred, but by the time George is ambulating the stairs freely, John's capitulated and let Sherlock move back into the Baker Street flat, and she can think of no better, nor any more desired, caretaker for Sherlock.

"Congratulations," George commends him. "You gave in even faster than I expected."

"Sod off," John quips, unwrapping another brownie. "What about you, then?"

George looks out the window, at the unrelenting gray mass of London, letting the chocolate melt across her tongue. "I'm...trying to figure out the right thing to do."

John makes an unattractive sound. "George — there is no right thing to do," he tells her, not without sympathy, and whatever else he might say is swallowed up by the shrill noise of his mobile phone, lighting up where it's lying on the table.

She doesn't bother to look at the screen. "Sherlock?"

John frowns. "No," he says, sounding strange, and holds the phone up for her inspection. "Do you recognize that number?"

George's eyes round. "Shit," she says, and reaches for the television remote. "We'd better check the news."

"George?" John asks, still holding the phone, which is still ringing madly.

"That is the newsroom number for The Daily Mail," George tells him, as the tiny countertop television springs to life, the BBC newsreader's mouth moving on the screen, saying:

"...in a shocking turn of events, private detective Sherlock Holmes, who had been presumed dead by his own hand, was spotted at Scotland Yard today."

George and John stare at the telly.

"Oh," John says, breathy, "I'll kill him."

Over the next five days, George receives no fewer than thirty voice mails from various media outlets. In between, she receives a dozen texts from Sherlock, complaining that Mycroft is being unhelpful in reviving Sherlock for the land of the living, and that his credit cards have been stopped, and that if she were any kind of ethical police officer at all, she would put a stop to the gross abuse he's being forced to endure.

She ignores him, but it feels normal, ordinary, not fraught with hurt. The times she sees him on the television — as cameramen and photographers chase him everywhere now — his curls are growing back in, he's reclaimed his tailored, tarty suits.

***

Guy Fawkes day begins with several representatives of the Metropolitan Police Force arriving at George's doorstep. They bring their best wishes for her wellbeing; their repeated, profuse apologies for the slings and arrows she'd endured in the entire Sherlock debacle; a fulsome desire for her to make a media appearance post-shooting in order to quell the outpouring of public concern, both for her and at perceived incompetence at the Met; and an offer to kick her up the management ladder to DCI.

It ends with some drunken hooligans setting a number of cars in Hoxton Square on fire, and George finds herself sitting in the garden watching the news through the kitchen window — sound too faint to be heard — thinking about the next day, the day after, the month after, and what she wants during all of it.

The reality she's been avoiding is that this entire mess isn't a singular extraordinary instance of metastasizing chaos. This is just an example of an ever-present possible reality when your reality is framed by Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. Mycroft was wrong, before, to call her life the first chapter of a disaster story — it is their lives, all of them, that are pieces of a spectacular novel of potential calamity.

And John is right to say that there is no right thing to do, no decision that will untangle everything and leave no mark.

She's alone for the first time in an age, her mother with Ben visiting his children, the nurses in between shifts, Anthea deputized to conquer Waitrose for the weekly shop. George doesn't have to make any decisions now, she can just sit in the brisk evening air and stare into the sky looking for wisps of smoke — or she could pick up her phone and make the mistake that will make her the happiest.

***

Come home. GL.