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The Least of All Possible Mistakes

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The morning after, George is an hour late for work and feels manic the entire time. She polishes off four months worth of backlog paperwork by noon, has extremely civil conversations with Tom’s lawyer, her lawyer, Tom, and admin Margaret, whose sympathy during the low tide of George’s dignity has transformed back into caustic dislike. It might be associated with the amount of property damage Serious Crimes managed to kick up during one of their last arrests, but George refuses to feel guilty for it since she was on leave that week weeping into a bottle of Tesco brand table wine and wondering if her husband was leaving her because she’d never waxed her vagina.

Sherlock sends her a baker’s dozen of emails, all subject lined, “DELETED!” and none containing any body text. She texts Mycroft about it (He’s gone round the bend) and he tells her not to worry (I just popped in to Montague street; he’s alive if not particularly well) and George spends the rest of the afternoon drilling down through the geologic layers of paperwork on her desk.

The next six months George slogs through ordinarily horrible crimes, the ones Sherlock wants nothing to do with: domestics gone wrong, a dead girl in an alley, a hit and run in Whitechapel, a double murder in Hoxton. The actual muscle and bone of police work is unglamorous, repetitive, the collection of small and fairly common-sense facts until you’ve cobbled together a case. George arrests three people who confess on the way to the station. She chases three hoodies down an alley who think she gives a fuck about their possessing marijuana. George books them out of spite, and because they make fun of the dead girl: Julie Cowen, 17, runaway, two priors for prostitution. George goes to court three times to give evidence, and wears the blue sweater Mycroft gives her a half-dozen times before it’s murdered brutally in an accident at the dry cleaners. She’d be upset if Mrs. Jalalipoor wasn’t already having a fit and offering to compensate her. George has no idea what the sweater costs but it’s probably more than Mrs. Jalalipoor can afford to comp.

The divorce is too easy. They’ve always maintained separate bank accounts and George never bothered to change her last name. They don’t have any children, and Tom’s already written off the house; she doesn’t want any alimony. The whole thing is painfully polite — deadeningly civil.

It’s April when Tom breaks the news, the gray English winter dissolving into a similarly dishwater spring.

“You’re fucking joking,” says Edith, whose been George’s best friend in the ladies ever since the Christmas party. Edith works with traffic and wears easily a kilogram of eye makeup every day, and outside of the four dour walls of New Scotland Yard she and George have exactly nothing in common, but in the fourth-floor women’s toilet, they are cleaved to one another. “You’re absolutely fucking joking — you’re not even properly divorced yet!”

George looks at herself in the sink mirror instead of saying anything, mostly because she doesn’t know what to say yet. Tom hadn’t looked sorry about it, after he’d called her out and said they needed to talk, and mostly George gets that. Babies are happy things, happy occasions. She’s bought enough onesies and flowers and forks for enough showers to know that. At least he’d had the decency to break the news to her in person.

“He always wanted a family,” she says finally.

“Yeah, and now he gets to have one with a fucking zygote,” Edith swears, shoving open the window and lighting a cigarette before passing it to George.

George stares at its orange coal tip. She almost says, oh, I quit ages ago, but ages ago she quit because Tom hates smoking, hated the way it tasted in her mouth and the brown stains it left on her fingers, the way it sunk into her clothes. Right now, George is wearing a shirt her mum bought her at Peacock’s six years ago, black trousers she can’t remember purchasing, and mismatching underwear. She’s turning 38 years old in two months and the man she loved for ten years of that is going to be a father October.

“Yeah, go on then,” she says, and takes the Silk Cut. It’s an instant time machine to being 18 and having strong feelings about The Clash.

She spends the evening with familiar faces from the Yard under the false assumption that spending it alone would have been depressing. Having to shut Anderson down when he hits on her in increasingly disgusting and saddo ways is much, much more depressing than being alone.

“Not even a little tempted by him?” Sally asks, teasing, when they’re shivering on the corner together waiting for an open taxi.

George waves, frantic, at a silver cab that comes their way, still lit up.

“I’ve already been party to one instance of infidelity in the last twelve months,” she mumbles as the car rolls to stop in front of them. “Frankly, I’d rather not make that two — yeah, hi, Islington?”

Sally’s quiet all the way to her flat, and she’s quiet when she says, “Night, George,” and disappears into her doorway, as the cab carries on to George’s house. There, she falls asleep in front of the telly, the channel set to unending Top Gear reruns on Dave.

***

The next time she sees Mycroft Holmes, he’s for once not trespassing.

It’s some awkward and terrible to-do for various big names at the Met: everyone must be represented. Serious crimes had drawn straws and she lost. “Might be fun,” Sally had tried with false cheer. “Get dressed up, made up. Hair, all of it.” George had said, “Yes, so that I can make awkward small talk with hundreds of extremely important people who can fire me.”

Her mum does her hair. As an ex-stylist, it would have been sacrilege to trust it to anyone else, and anyway, George has always liked the feeling of her mother’s hands in her hair untangling her tangles, talking aimlessly about her trio of lunatic cousins. George’s mother had decided to excise all memory and reference to Tom out of their lives, talking around him and filling in the blanks with banal chatter and sighing — “Are you sure you don’t want me to color your hair? It’s all gray now.” — and speculating on which of their family friends has a nice boy her age.

“Boy?” George asks, tipping her head back. “You know I’m forty, right?”

Her mum shoves her head back down, frowning. “You’re thirty-seven — ”

“Turning thirty-eight in a week,” George says, almost gleeful. She’s never been regretful of her age, or the years of her life she’s already spent out. George wouldn’t want to be eighteen again or twenty-two or thirty, it was fun while it lasted but she’s glad it’s over.

Her mother jerks on her hair lightly, rebuking. “You’re thirty-seven years-old, which is far too young to be closing up shop.” There’s an awkward, nervous sort of pause. “You don’t want your mother to be dating more than you, do you?”

“Jesus, Mum, are you seeing someone?” George asks, marveling.

The rest of her hair appointment is understandably taken up by discussing her mother’s new beau. Growing up, George had never seen her parents kiss, but she’d never seen them walking together without holding hands, either; she knows what that means now. Her mother objects violently and for the sake of dignity against the term “boyfriend,” but George learns over the next twenty minutes that her mother’s gentleman friend is the local NHS dentist: a bit dreamy and mostly bald already, but apparently always ready with a quick laugh and some candy.

“He’s trying to secure future business,” George warns, grinning, because Dr. Ben Undershaw sounds like a nice man. “This one’s crafty. Might have to look into him.”

Her mother, blushing bright red, smacks George on the shoulder and says, “All right, all right, enough with your bloody teasing — go on, get dressed, and we’ll do your face up.”

George drives herself to the dinner and is equal parts grateful and worried when she hands over the keys to the valet. On the one hand, at least she doesn’t have to park it; on the other, she’s become rather fond of all of her internal organs, one of which she’ll surely have to sell for the luxury of curb service at the Ritz.

Early summer in London is confused weather: clearing skies and undecided warmth. Tonight, there’s a breeze curling around her shoulders, plucking away at the loose curls pouring down her back.

Her mother had spared George a more-elaborate hair confection and opted for simplicity, so her fringe is brushed — “Model bangs, they call them,” her mother assured her — gently to the right, elegant and unfussy. She’d vetoed most of the seventeen layers of concealer and shellack and blush her mother had attempted, and settled on red lipstick, a dark line of black fringing her eyes, mascara her mother swore wouldn’t run, no matter how much George drank or swore at her superiors.

Surrendering her coat is strange, and makes George wish she’d blackmailed Sally into coming instead, because her dress makes her think about Tom and how awkward she is outside of her skin or just showing it. It’s blue and sleeveless and there’s a spill of chiffon down the front of the skirt, the neckline in a deep v, and she’d loved the way she’d been able to feel Tom’s fingertips through it, when he’d touched the small of her back so long ago. She can still feel his fingertips through it.

Margaret the admin had drilled George on a list of people she was required to find and make small talk with, and George wanders into the ballroom — sweet Christ, it’s an actual fucking ballroom; there’s silk bunting everywhere — seizes the nearest flute of champagne she can find for courage, and goes for it.

She steels herself through small talk with a half-dozen of her superiors and their wives, who look alternately thrilled at the trappings and as shellshocked as George. They discuss the hours (“Awful”), they talk about NSY’s coffee (“Awful”), they talk about the latest lowlifes they’re not allowed to hit in the face during apprehension (“Awful”), and George is about to repeat the entire process when there’s a touch at her elbow.

George feels her body tilting, the way it’s done in the past, magnetized, weight shifting onto her back leg, and she says, “Mycroft,” chin tipping up so she can catch his eyes as she moves.

He smiles at her, a Home Office Smile that George knows well enough, and which deserves only her Metropolitan Police Force Smile in return.

It seems to startle him — as much as he’s startled her — and it jars a laugh out of him, and he says, “All right, noted,” before his face softens into something much more familiar. “Good evening, Ms. Lestrade.”

George winks at him, fond. “Good evening to you, Mr. Holmes,” she says dutifully, and she can’t quite glance away from him to look round the rest of the ballroom anymore — its flotilla of police wives and black ties — as she asks, “What brings you here?”

“Work, as I believe it’s the case with you as well,” Mycroft answers her. George suspects it’s even true, although not the truth, and he offers her his arm.

“If you ask me to take a turn about the room, I’m telling Sherlock,” George warns him, but she slips her hand into the comforting notch of his elbow anyway.

Mycroft looks like he fell out of an E.M. Forster novel, with a white bow tie and vest, looking extremely dapper and charming as fuck in the soft orange light of the ballroom. They discuss their hours (“Awful”), they talk about NSY’s coffee (“Awful”), and how Sherlock’s been behaving of late (“Categorically awful”). It’s the same small talk but entirely different, and all of George’s polite smiles bloom out into embarrassing giggles, the type that overflow you carelessly.

“You should get him a hobby,” George suggests, when they pause to swap out empty champagne flutes for full ones, Mycroft leaning six inches to the left, keeping her well-hidden from Deputy Commissioner Trackwell, who hates George with the fire of a hundred dying stars. George has no doubt Mycroft does it on purpose, and flashes him a grateful smile over the rim of her glass; Mycroft looks a bit lost for a second before he collects himself enough to say:

“Please don’t be offended when I tell you you were supposed to be his hobby, Georgiana.”

She snorts. “I’m offended. I’m offended and hurt,” she tells him, smiling crazily.

“My apologies,” Mycroft says to her, saucy, and asks, “How can I make it up to you?”

George is about to say something ridiculous like “cake” or “diamonds” or “tell me about the bloody Devil’s Punchbowl, you silly toff,” when Mycroft makes a noise of profound irritation — eyes sliding away from her to the other end of the room. She tracks his gaze to where the commissioner of the Met appears to be trapped in a soul-killing conversation with the mayor of London, who looks (a) extremely red in the face, (b) toxically drunk, and (c) like he hasn’t combed his hair in twenty years.

“Work intervenes?” George asks, after a beat and gently.

Mycroft slants her a look. “Sadly, yes.”

She lets go of his arm — fingers sliding on the fabric of his jacket, stubby nails scraping, it must only be seconds but it takes forever to break contact — and quietly tells him, “Go on then. No time like the present.”

He doesn’t go, not immediately, just turns so he can look at her. It leaves George standing there feeling exposed, her blush spreading down across her breast, until Mycroft heaves a sigh.

“You are an eminently practical creature, Georgiana,” he tells her softly, and from him, it sounds like the compliment it’s meant to be.

George is about to say, “my father always said it was my finest and least attractive quality,” when Mycroft takes her hand, and all the words die on her tongue.

“If you’ll excuse me a moment,” he tells her, and leaning over to brush a kiss over the back of her palm, he adds in hush against the skin of her wrist, “I’ll return as quickly as I’m able.”

There is just absolutely nothing to say in response to that, so George just watches him go in a stunned-stupid silence, hand still half-hanging in the air, blood roaring in her ears. She stands there long enough, staring as Mycroft neatly rescues the commissioner and then collects a rapidly paling Boris Johnson, for Mycroft’s assistant to sneak up on her and offer George another glass of champagne.

“For you, Detective,” the girl says.

George smiles at her gratefully. “Thank you…?”

The girl’s smile is attractively crooked, and just a touch naughty. Probably another highly desirable characteristic on her resume, in addition to the speed typing. “Anthea,” she supplies.

George raises her glass. “Thank you, Anthea.”

“I have been instructed to see to your needs in Mr. Holmes’s absence,” Anthea reports, timed specifically so that George will choke spectacularly on her drink. “Whatever those needs may be.”

Opting to stare at Anthea a bit, George manages, “My — you’re joking.”

Anthea’s expression shifts incrementally, just enough to telegraph that she would never.

“What if I needed a pony,” George says, just to be contrary.

“What color and breed?” Anthea asks immediately.

George rolls her eyes. “Or what if I said I wanted to make out a little?”

“I would need a moment to refresh my lipstick and brace myself for Mr. Holmes’s reaction,” Anthea answers smoothly, utterly unperturbed.

George feels herself go bright red. “Right, well, let’s say I need this conversation never to have happened.”

Anthea smiles at her. “What conversation?”

“Minor government official my arse,” George swears into her glass, and goes back to glowering around the room.

Forty minutes, three more tedious how-do-you-dos, and sixteen blazing fast text messages later, Mycroft reappears with a much-subdued looking Boris. The mayor hangs around long enough to stare unabashedly at Anthea, give George lifetime free use of the Barclays bike share program, offer Mycroft a shaky-cum-frightened handshake, and takes off like a shot.

“Well, that was surreal,” George says mildly, watching Boris go, a bobbing mass of white blond hair in the distance. “What was that all about?”

Mycroft rolls his eyes. “Oh, the Olympics. You know,” he dismisses, and asks Anthea, “Anything of note during my absence?”

Anthea, not looking up, says, “Detective Inspector Lestrade temporarily wanted both a pony and to make out a bit, but decided against both in the end.”

“Traitor,” George mutters, avoiding Mycroft’s gaze, although it’s not enough for her to ignore the amusement radiating off of him.

The rest of the night is reasonably painless, and she spends more of it than she should discussing modern policing challenges or gossiping about the other partygoers with Mycroft, randomly asking Anthea for impossible things (“Amnesty for the Dalai Lama in China”) and, most impossible of all, there is a dance.

George doesn’t really know how to dance at all. At her wedding, she and Tom had mostly held onto one another and swayed back and forth, laughing at their friends as they’d gone twirling around the floor. Anyway, George has also never been the type of woman you dance with, in nice gowns while everyone looks at her like the painting in a man’s frame. She’s always been comfortable sitting on the side, and it’s a little bit terrifying when Mycroft offers one gloved hand and says, “Indulge me,” before leading her out to the floor.

“Let me guess,” George babbles, to shut out the high-pitched nervousness ringing in her head. Mycroft is pausing now, midway onto the floor, pressing a hand to her back, just beneath the shoulder blade, and George wonders if he can feel her heart thudding through her lungs and muscle and ribs and skin on the other side. “You had terribly a terribly posh dancing master when you were a boy.”

He smiles at her, the real one. “Ah — Sherlock and I both did.”

And then George is too delighted to be scared anymore. “No.

Mycroft takes her hand, and George slides the other over his shoulder, palming the line of his tuxedo coat, relaxing into his hold as he says, “It was painful for both of us. I was too shy then to invite any local girls to the lessons, which meant Sherlock had to do.”

“No wonder he hates you,” George laughs, squeezing Mycroft’s hand in her own. “Are there pictures? Tell me there are pictures.”

The strings pick up, a high, sweet sound over the mellow notes of the cello, and Mycroft sweeps her out of stillness across the floor — her dress fluttering around her ankles, and everyone must be staring at them, it’ll be all over the Yard come Monday — grinning as he says, “If there are, they’re very well hidden. Sherlock’s spent every Christmas since he was twelve trying to find and destroy them.”

“Mr. Holmes,” George says, trying for serious and probably failing. She feels silly; she feels young; she can feel how widely she’s smiling. “I’ve thought of something I need.”

Mycroft’s fingers curl where they’re settled on her back, his thumb stroking the chiffon of her dress. “I’ll consider it,” he promises, and the music swells again.

That’s the last good day in a while.

***

“...The body of Beth Davenport, Junior Minister for Transport was found late last night on a building site in Greater London. Preliminary investigation suggests that this was suicide,” Sally is saying. She gets to read off of a sheet. “We can confirm this apparent suicide closely resembles those of Sir Jeffrey Patterson and James Phillimore. In the light of this these incidents are being treated as linked. The investigation is ongoing, but Detective Inspector Lestrade will take questions now.”

Detective Inspector Lestrade would rather set her own hair on fire than take questions right now, but the primary problem with having advanced to a level of management where she can make other people deal with her bullshit is that now, George has to deal with the press. Which is hard enough without Sherlock bloody Holmes somehow mass texting everybody, “Wrong!” in the middle of George treading water among the sharks.

“If these are murders, how do people protect themselves?” asks one annoying ginger in an ugly shirt, and George legitimately has to claim insanity when she says:

“Well, don’t commit suicide.”

Sally mutters, “Daily Mail,” under her breath.

“Obviously this is a frightening time for people, but all anyone has to do is exercise reasonable precautions. We are all as safe as we want to be,” George forces herself to say, already pushing away from the table when her phone bleats at her.

You know where to find me
SH

George manages not to swear in front of a roomful of Fleet Street’s finest, mumbles a noncommittal, “Thank you,” and gets the fuck out of there. She yells, “I know, I know, all right?” at the Yard public information officer gasping in fury just outside the press room, dodging two of her assistants, and George scampers off toward her own office for a defensive position against the inevitable shitstorm that’ll be raining down for that debacle.

Except it would take a finer woman than George to shake Sally, who dogs her heels and says, “You have got to stop him from doing that — he’s making us all look like idiots.”

Which George knows, and is resigned to, if not overjoyed by.

“If you can figure out how he’s doing it, then I’ll stop him,” she promises.

Sally asks, “Can I just kill him? Set it up to look like an overdose?”

George glances at Sally, who knows a little about Sherlock, but not enough to know that’s not exactly funny. “I think his brother might object,” she says, finally, dumping her phone and her files across her desk and making for the seat.

“Oh, and then who would take you dancing,” Sally asks, overly innocent, and runs away before George’s well-aimed staple-remover can hit her in the face for that.

It’s been a week since George has done more than collapse into her bed for a few snatched hours or run home to change clothes. There’s a small heap of mail collecting in her front hall — that she continuously trips over — and her coriander plant is dead and so are three people from completely baffling suicides using the exact same poison. The first case was sad, but not her problem, the second case was weird, but only on the periphery of her radar. After Beth Davenport, the deputy commissioner had raised six kinds of hell, hauled Lestrade into her office, and summarily dropped the entire disaster into her lap, saying, “I don’t care what you do — just fix it.”

Which is great, if you have someone you can hand impossible, probably-a-crime-but-how-is-it-a-fucking-crime? crimes to and say, “fix it.”

The suicides (?) are either a brilliant crime (?) or the most irritating fucking coincidence (?) in history: three victims with nothing linking any of them together — all found in empty buildings, showing no signs of struggle, and dead by apparent self-administered poison. The victims didn’t know each other; the victims’ families didn’t know one another; the victims’ friends nor their family friends knew one another. One lived in Knightsbridge, the other in Bethnal Green, the third in Clapham. Their routes to and from work and to and from their most commonly haunted haunts don’t cross over, and none of their internet histories have intersected, except in that they all apparently had a secret weakness for reading the Daily Mail. There hadn’t been a common point, a secret pact, no letters, or P.O. boxes. The Met’s forensic accountants have gone over their three victims’ lives with a fine-toothed comb, and beyond the affairs, the teenaged sexuality crisis, and a fairly obvious alcoholism, there weren’t any secrets — or any secrets that would have gotten them killed. Wives and friends and boyfriends and families had all already alibied out, and George has watched so many hours of London CCTV footage she’s genuinely beginning to think she’s losing her fragile grip on reality.

If this case wasn’t so fascinatingly strange, it’d probably go cold. She’d leave it in a pile on her desk of things she would return to occasionally, but the trail would get dimmer and dimmer as time passed. As it is, with all of queen and country breathing down her neck, George knows it’s a matter of time before Sherlock stops taunting her from a distance, and gets to taunt her up close.

She’s debating the irresponsibility of putting off another sortie with Sherlock versus the likelihood of someone else ending up dead when Sally clacks into the doorway on perilous heels, shouting, “There’s been another one!” She catches the frame, breathless, and adds, “Brixton. Lauriston Gardens. This one left a note.”

“A note?” George asks.

“Well,” Sally says, “she scratched RACHE into the floor.”

George says, “Jesus fucking Christ,” and grabs her coat.

“The deputy commissioner is furious with you, by the by,” Sally reports brightly, pacing George down the corridor. “Apparently you’re on the front page of the Sun online.”

“My mum will be calling any minute now, then,” George sighs, and waves Sally off. “Go ahead and secure the scene — I’ll be round shortly.”

“Oh, no,” Sally pleads, already knowing. “Tell me you aren’t.”

George pulls on her trench, sighing. “Then I won’t.”

She kidnaps a uniform out of the motor pool — who looks flatteringly breathless when she spins him round to face her, his tea sloshing out of his paper cup and her hand fisted in his collar — and directs him to Montague Street. The kid’s eyes go wide, because despite appearing to be 14 years-old and so new to the Met he squeaks, of course everybody’s already told him stories about Sherlock.

No one’s at the Montague Street flat, and George is frowning at the door buzzer when the landlord comes out — a man she’s had frequent occasion to run into at all hours of night and who on more than one instance suggested she was a prostitute — and informs her that he’s successfully evicted Sherlock, finally, and did she need a new client in the neighborhood. She gives him an ASBO on principle.

Sherlock evicted. Any idea where he is? GL, she sends to Mycroft, getting back in the car and ignoring the furious look on the landlord’s face.

There’s only a half-second wait before the reply.

221B Baker Street. 
MH

Another half second yields a follow-up:

That ASBO will never stick you know.
MH

“Good Christ, that family,” George complains to herself, shoving her phone into her pocket and saying, “Baker Street, please. Apparently he’s moved house.”

“So, are the stories true then, sir — ma’am?” he asks, stumbling all over himself, navigating London with shocking lack of skill. Recent transfer, George bets. It’s a ten minute drive, past SOAS, along Upper Woburn and then down the disaster zone of Euston to Sherlock’s new home, tucked away uncomfortably close to Madam Tussaud’s.

She has no idea what kind of stories they tell about Sherlock to the freshly inducted constables, but. “Yes,” she says, because torturing new hires is one of the few perks of her job.

Cor,” PC Hatcher says, obviously awed.

“You should stay in the car,” George counsels when they reach Baker Street. This is both because she wants a quick escape and because PC Hatcher is so ginger and adorably earnest that Sherlock would probably eviscerate him as an amuse bouche for the rest of her team once they get to the scene.

Hatcher nods. “Right, of course, sir. Ma’am.”

George thinks, he’s doomed, but gives him a tight smile and gets out of the car. The door to 221B isn’t locked, which could mean anything but probably nothing, given that it’s Sherlock. The first time she’d gone round to Sherlock’s old place at Montague Street, fully convinced she was going to find the place filled with taxidermied male prostitutes, Sherlock had been half hanging out of his living room window trying to attract lightning during an electrical storm.

There’re voices on the first floor, and George takes the stairs two at a time, only most of the way up when she sees Sherlock framed in the window, asking her, “Where?”

“Brixton, Lauriston Gardens,” she says, huffing. She’s been feeding her pain too aggressively at McDonalds, she thinks.

“What’s new about this one?” Sherlock asks, turning away vainly like a model searching for his light. “You wouldn’t have come to get me if there wasn’t something different.”

“You know how they never leave notes? This one did,” George says. “Will you come?”

Sherlock narrows his eyes. “Who’s on forensics?”

“Anderson,” George sighs.

Insert dramatic head turn. “Anderson won’t work with me,” Sherlock mutters.

“Well, he won’t be your assistant,” George tries, because today is not a day she cares about the many and sundry feelings Sherlock likes to pretend he doesn’t have.

“I need an assistant,” Sherlock says, a verbal pout.

George relives the memory of slapping him. “Will you come?” she repeats.

Ambivalent swishing, now. He must be shrieking with excitement on the inside, George thinks, exasperated, and watches Sherlock swish a second more before saying, too dismissive, “Not in the police car — I’ll be right behind.”

Thank you,” she says, and turns to go. An older woman and another man are in the room, too — purple dress, cane, is all she manages to register before she goes — and George nods in what passes for polite discourse for her these days.

She’s not expecting to see the man again at the scene.

“Who’s this?” she asks, wishing she’d worn trousers today so she wouldn’t have to tramp into one of these hideous blue bodysuits in a skirt. If it was just Sherlock, she wouldn’t give a fuck about dignity or if he might see up it, but now there’s a reasonably attractive stranger here who doesn’t need to know she’s wearing pants from La Senza.

“He’s with me,” Sherlock tells her, like that makes it all right.

“But who is he?” she asks.

“I said, he’s with me,” he repeats, at which point George decides she’s wasted about as much energy as she’s willing pretending to know what on Earth goes on in Sherlock’s brain. And that she’ll get a name and background check on whoever this bloke is later.

Jennifer Wilson’s upstairs, face down on the floor, dressed head to toe in an absolutely eye-searing color of pink. Sherlock, on the other hand, is as rotten and twatty as he’s ever been. He’s always a bit insufferable on the so-called boring cases, but this one’s so fucking annoying it ought to be right up his alley, and George is actually a bit baffled by Sherlock’s seemingly randomized escalation of hostilities until she glances over at the man with the cane — looking awkward in the blue suit, awkward in this room, but not awkward around Sherlock, murmuring astonishments under his breath — and thinks, oh my God, Sherlock’s showing off.

After being a bit player in the exposition dump of her own existence, with Dr. Watson adding occasional color, Sherlock asks her about the suitcase.

“What have you done about it?” he asks.

George frowns down at him, at his riot of dark curls. “There wasn’t a case.”

Boom. Flailing arms, put-downs, etcetera and so forth, Sherlock flying down the stairwell of the house — all the crime scene techs watching from the sidelines and collecting gossip to horrify the new recruits, no doubt — and poor Dr. Watson, hanging awkwardly at her side as she leans over the bannister shouting like a madwoman:

“What mistake?”

And Sherlock yells back, “Pink!”

Afterward, Anderson is in a snit, Sally says, “We should put a uniform on that poor doctor — make sure Sherlock isn’t going to skin him and use it as a coat,” and there’s still the subject of the suitcase.

Taking a wider-angle view than Sherlock’s certainty and certainty in his own deductions, the spots on the back of Jennifer Wilson’s leg could come from a hundred thousand different things, but George has also suffered Sherlock’s abusive genius enough to know that there probably is a case, so she calls PC Hatcher and sends him and a few other pieces of fresh meat out to rifle through all the skips in a half-mile radius of the scene. They probably won’t find anything — Sherlock’s likely gone through half the skips in Brixton and gotten the case, if there is a case, already — but it’s character building all the same. Also, joy of joys, it appears that Sherlock’s made off with her badge again, so she feels completely all right with deciding she’ll give him two hours before she goes to toss his apartment for her evidence. If he’s going to be a cunt, so is she.

It’s a fit of pique that has her sending the message. She and Mycroft are passing acquaintances, drawn together by the common and violently annoying thread of Sherlock, that’s all. So there’s no reason for her to send it other than as an editorial comment and fair warning, but she can’t resist.

Just a heads up. I’m going to kill your brother. GL, she texts Mycroft.

The answer is immediate. This is Anthea. We’re picking up Dr. Watson now.

“Bloody. Terrifying,” she tells the screen of her phone, and before she can reply and ask Anthea for a monkey’s paw, Sally calls up to her, “Lestrade! Cardiff’s on the phone for you about Jennifer Wilson.”

Her phone chirps again. He’s rather handsome.

George laughs. Is this Anthea or Mycroft? she asks, and calls back to Sally, “Yeah — coming down.”

RACHE turns out to be RACHEL after all, stillborn daughter 14 years ago, and George only thinks, like an electric shock and only for a moment, about Tom and Laura Hilton, herpes, before she clears her throat and says, “All right — I’m accepting volunteers for a drugs bust at Sherlock’s. First come first served.”

It’s entirely petty, but working with Sherlock is a catalyst for instant emotional regression. The flat’s charming, which George hadn’t had the wherewithal to notice the first time, and she’s very sorry to upset Sherlock’s poor landlady. The case is, no surprise, there — along with a chemical distillery, a number of hair clippings George isn’t thinking about, and in Sherlock’s bedroom, there’re about a dozen condoms filled with fuck knows what. She’s built up almost enough morbid curiosity to want to know when Sherlock and Dr. Watson burst back into the flat.

***

George knows better, really, than to hope that being abusive at Sherlock or lecturing him will result in anything other than him being abusive in return and making her rue the day she ever met him. Sherlock always, without fail, brings out the best of the worst of her, and she imagines this is the person she would have been with a murderously annoying sibling: stealing into his room, disordering his sock index, checking to see if he’s dabbling in creating a more-effective methamphetamine.

“What are you doing?” Sherlock asks, low and dangerous and glowering around the room like he doesn’t know where to start. Wisely, he manages to resist, since everybody here is just gagging for an opportunity to claim self defense. A brawl would be equal parts hilarious and a disaster since Sherlock bites and Anderson has an excess of fury to work off given the rumored state of his marriage.

George gives him a Look and leans back in the armchair she’s appropriated. “Well, I knew you’d find the case,” she explains patiently. “I’m not stupid.”

Heroically resisting the urge to diverge into an argument on that subject, Sherlock snarls, “You can’t just break into my flat!”

“Well, you can’t withhold evidence. And I didn’t break into your flat,” George says.

“Well what do you call this then?” he demands.

George smiles at him cheerfully. “It’s a drugs bust.”

John, who apparently has decided not to exercise better judgment, just laughs over Sherlock’s shoulder. “Seriously?” he asks. “This guy? A junkie? Have you met him?”

Righteous anger fleeing for wariness, Sherlock rotates on his heel, pressing two steps more deeply into John’s personal space than George has seen in a long time, saying, “John,” in quiet reproach.

“I’m pretty sure you could search this flat all day and you wouldn’t find anything you could call recreational,” John says, a laugh still clinging to all of his vowels.

Sally’s rundown on John Watson’s pages-long background basically boiled down to a post-it note on top that read, TOO GOOD FOR FREAK BUT PROBABLY MAD AS A HATTER, GIVEN FREAK ATTACHMENT. He looks generally unconcerned that there’re a dozen police officers tossing Sherlock’s flat, which is a good sign for his future interactions with Sherlock but extremely worrying as a commentary on his personality.

George spares a look for Sherlock here — shoulders tense, leaning close to John’s ear — and thinks either Sherlock’s experiencing the oh so pedestrian affectations of affection or she should give some serious consideration to Sally’s skin coat theory. Either way as soon as she’s not out of her mind over this case it’s going to be a memory to cherish, and one to misuse: needling Sherlock to explode into a Category Holmes hurricane when there’re no lives at stake is one of the more exquisite pleasures in her life.

John,” Sherlock says, voice lowered to a hush, “you probably want to shut up now.”

“Yeah, but come on,” John asks, smiling as he turns to meet Sherlock’s upper-case S stare, and George wishes she had popcorn or one of the crime scene cameras for the way John’s smile changes just a bit as he says, “No.”

Sherlock stiffens, and voice breaking, barks, “What?”

That grin comes back, and John asks, saucy, “You?

“Shut up!” is Sherlock’s reply, and George has enough time to think, Christ, it’s like watching primary school kids flirting, before Sherlock looks over his shoulder to say:

“I’m not your sniffer dog.”

Of course he’s not, because dogs are affectionate, can be trained, and come when called. Sherlock isn’t even cat material.

George nods at the kitchen. “No,” she agrees. “Anderson is my sniffer dog.”

Watching Sherlock’s face contort in momentarily wordless rage at the thought of Anderson touching his belongings is pretty fantastic, full stop, as is listening to him say, “What? Anderson, what are you doing here on a drugs bust?”

Anderson looks happier than he has in years. “Oh, I volunteered.”

“They all did,” George elaborates. “They’re not strictly speaking on the drug squad, but they’re very keen.”

Sally pops out of the kitchen. “Are these human eyes?”

Not missing a beat, Sherlock says, “Put those back!” sounding for all the world like an annoyed nursery school teacher.

“They were in the microwave,” Sally clarifies.

Of course they were, George thinks. Fucking Holmeses.

“It’s an experiment,” Sherlock tells Sally, imperious, and starts to pace.

“Keep looking, guys,” George intervenes, and pushing herself to her feet — which hurt almost as bad at her back, which has been punishing her for the night she spent on the sofa in her office all day — she offers, “Or you could start helping us properly and I’ll stand them down.”

Sherlock’s expression is 100 percent six year-old him, holding a hunger strike over short trousers as he spits, “It’s childish.”

“I’m dealing with a child,” George says, and moments like these, she sounds so much like her mother it’s horrifying. Gathering herself, she says, “Sherlock this is our case. I’m letting you in but you do not go off on your own — clear?”

“Oh — so, so what? You set up a pretend dugs bust to bully me?” Sherlock retorts.

George raises her eyebrows, and quietly, she reminds him, “It stops being pretend if they find anything.” 

The subject of Sherlock and his less than stellar record with substances is a secret she’s in no hurry to disclose to her team. She trusts Sally with her life and Anderson with her work, but George knows herself well enough to know that Sherlock is her pet project, her spoilt ingenue. Maybe once you’ve put someone’s head in your lap and stroked their forehead, waiting for the ambulance to come, you can never come back from that. If only she didn’t give a shit about him, her life would be easier.

He doesn’t look at her when he yells around the room, “I am clean.

Sherlock knows exactly how people lie, all the different ways they telegraph it. If he’d met her eyes with confident sincerity, she would have thought, oh, no, but he’s embarrassed and pissed and going to make her pay for this stunt for ages. It means he’s probably even being honest.

“Is your flat?” George asks, mostly because she knows instinctively there’s cocaine somewhere here. “All of it?”

“I don’t even smoke,” Sherlock sulks, rolling up his sleeve to show off a nicotine patch, which is adorable enough that George rolls up her own to show that they match, saying, “Neither do I,” because Edith and her Silk Cuts are life-ruining.

Sherlock’s reaction to that is half dejection, half plotting, which George decides to arrest mid-brew by saying:

“We found Rachel.”

It’s not a surprise, exactly, that in the following discussion that Sherlock doesn’t understand why Jennifer Wilson would have thought of a child she’s never really known in her dying moments. What’s surprising is Sherlock’s little pause, the way he shifts his balance, to ask, “Not good?” of John, because even though George has never managed to resist telling him off for failing at basic comprehension of human emotions, Sherlock’s never given a toss about it one way or the other.

“A bit not good, yeah,” John says in the awkwardness of communal silence.

“Look,” Sherlock asks him, his voice meant for a conversation between two people in the middle of the crowded room, “if you were dying, if you were being murdered, in the very last few seconds, what would you say?”

John’s answer is quiet as Sherlock’s question. He probably means it to come out as a query, but it emerges a confession: “Please, God, let me live.”

“Use your imagination,” Sherlock pleads, and John replies, quick and utterly flat:

“I don’t have to.”

It’s still not an answer, not even the beginning to one, really, except it triggers that thing that George has seen so many times now — that anger that rallies into an explosive moment of realization, Sherlock stalking around the room waving his arms and calling everybody stupid: cruel and sharp and dizzyingly brilliant. Like George, at once the worst and best version of himself.

Jennifer Wilson’s missing case hadn’t contained Jennifer Wilson’s missing mobile, either, nearly unthinkable for her not to have one, one of those painfully obvious things that isn’t obvious at all until Sherlock points it out — until he’s tracking it from his laptop and the signal is coming from inside the flat.

George lets out a breath. “Guys, we’re also looking for a mobile somewhere in the flat,” she calls out, and when she turns back to say to Sherlock, “right, you better help, your flat is a tip and it’s not entirely my fault, either,” John’s calling down at the line of Sherlock’s back as he disappears down the steps:

“You sure you’re all right?”

Sherlock mumbles something in reply, which George doesn’t hear because she’s glaring down the stairwell at his vanishing mop of hair, and then glaring back up at John.

“Where did he go?” she snaps.

John just stares at her innocently.

George flares up in fury that dies away to exhaustion just as quickly. She’d known it would end this way, but she’s never been able to stop hoping, and she’s angry every time she falls for it. Every time Sally calls her out on it. Every time Sherlock is Sherlock is Sherlock, and Jesus Christ, why doesn’t George ever learn?

They don’t find the phone. Out of adolescent wrath, George pulls Sherlock’s drawer of delicates — socks color-coded, pants folded up neatly — from his chest and dumps them all over the floor of his bedroom just to stay her urge to set the flat on fire.

“Why’d he do that?” she sighs to herself later, pulling on her coat and getting ready to leave, her team already sorted out and packed away, driving off in pairs and trios with new stories about Sherlock for Yard currency. “Why’d he have to leave?”

She’s not expecting an answer. Least of all for Dr. Watson to say, “You know him better than I do.”

She stops, jacket half on. Watson’s mid-thirties, her age or a bit younger. He’s got a solid, dependable look that George used to find crushingly attractive during her even more boring days as a younger woman, and he’s wearing a frankly awful oatmeal-colored jumper and has apparently been running around London with Sherlock Holmes all night. And now he’s here, sitting in Sherlock’s flat and comfortable like he’s allowed. George has found Sherlock passed out surrounded by his own piss and vomit, half-starved during the worst of his overdoses; she’s put him in overnight lock-up just to get him out of her hair, and watched him torture the guards over CCTV until she had to go home. George knows Sherlock finds lying tiresome, is vain as a popinjay, that he has an older brother who worries about him constantly, and that sometime in the last few weeks he was evicted from his flat near the British Museum.

She’s lived with the knowledge of his potential and the repeatedly crushing disappointment of him for half a decade now — George doesn’t know a fucking thing about Sherlock. About how he works.

“I’ve known him for five years, and no I don’t,” George says.

Watson smiles at her, one of those awkward, reflexive things you do around strangers who you have no clue what to say to — looks around the flat. It’s a mess, but it was a mess when George had come in, so she’s not fussed.

“So why do you put up with him?” Watson asks, harmless, querying.

“Because I’m desperate, that’s why,” she tosses out, too tired to be anything but honest at this point. She hasn’t got her badge, she hasn’t washed her hair in three days, her ex-husband’s a father, and the last six text messages on her phone are from her recalcitrant, violently uncooperative consulting detective’s brother’s assistant.

She’s most of the way out the door of the flat when she stops, pauses, because there’s another half to this truth, of course, the one that she doesn’t bother telling people anymore, because nobody who’s met him believes her, and Mycroft must know already.

“And because Sherlock Holmes is a great man,” she tells Watson, who looks entirely placid, unmoved, just considering, and George goes on, she says, “And I think one day, if we’re very, very lucky, he may even be a good one.”

As an apology for persisting on having hope for Sherlock, she sends Sally and Anderson and everybody else home for the night. As punishment for herself, she goes back to the Yard, eating ancient Hobnobs she left in her desk drawer for just this kind of soul-killing moment until Dr. Watson rings her, frantic, half an hour later.

When the call goes out — shots fired; one DOA — George is already en route to Roland-Kerr Further Education College, and Dr. Watson’s not answering his phone.

“Fucking of course,” she says to her car windshield. “Of course.”

Watson had looked too harmless, too entirely well-adjusted. What the hell had she been thinking? This was a man who was voluntarily spending time enduring Sherlock’s mistreatment and rough handling and seemed, by all accounts, disinclined to sever their relationship. Of course he’d be just as batshit as Sherlock, of course.

The uniforms and paramedics beat her there, and the scene is a chaos of police lights and neon yellow ambulances by the time her car shrieks to a halt, and her heart’s racing, shuddering in her chest, because obviously Sherlock can’t be hurt (dead), since if anybody is going to break his face, it better be her.

“Where is he!” she shouts, at everybody, at three different scared-looking young officers, including — finally — PC Hatcher, who yells back at her, “Ambulance, sir — ma’am!”

“Not the DOA?” she asks him, and he shakes his head at her, ashen.

“Christ, thank God,” she says, relief gushing out of her, liquid ice in along her limbs. George feels shaky and surprised by how shaky.

Sometimes, at her worst times, she forgets that even though he’s Sherlock, he’s still a civilian and she’s sworn to protect him despite himself. If one day it’s his dead eyes looking up at her because of a case she let him work on, George doesn’t know what she would do, if she would be able to carry on.

It takes her ages to get her shit together, searching for that deep breath that keeps eluding her, so she expends all of her nervous energy rallying the troops and inspecting their murdered murderer. Cabbie, dead from blood loss after a single gunshot wound from a small-calibre weapon, pills scattered on the floor. She’s not processing any of it properly though, and gives it up for lost to the forensics crew in favor of making her way back down to the car park, where Sherlock’s sat on the tongue of the ambulance, looking baffled.

“Why have I got this blanket?” he asks her, as soon as she’s close enough to whine at. “They keep putting this blanket on me.”

“It’s for shock,” she explains. He looks fine.

He also looks disbelieving. “I’m not in shock.”

He’s probably not, but. She says, “Yeah, well, some of the guys wanted photographs.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes elaborately, and starts asking about the shooter. Maybe Sherlock is in shock, because he’s halfway toward identifying Dr. Watson — John H. Watson, Captain, 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, trauma surgeon, far, far too good to be associating with the likes of Sherlock Holmes — before he shuts himself up.

The timing is suspicious as fuck, naturally, and if George supposes that if she were to waste even five seconds of investigative energy on this, she’d find a trail so categorically dead it could only have been covered up by Sherlock. But the good thing is that she’s not going to think about it at all; she’ll write up a file and kick it up the chain of command for further inquiry. As far as George is concerned, the cabbie — who was her specific mandate — is dead, and this miserable case is bloody over. Fine time for Sherlock’s Golderberg machine of a brain to go entirely offline.

George figures after that disgusting display, she ought to give them the night to get their stories straight, so she waves him off and says she’ll see him at the Yard tomorrow, and watches them go. Dr. Watson’s limp and cane are gone, and they’re giggling like children together, one dark and one light head bent in close, and George thinks that John Watson will end up being another man she knows for years without knowing at all.

Her phone buzzes.

This is Anthea. My employer is here.

George blinks twice. The beauty of text-based communication is she her reflexive what? is lost to the ages. Fumbling with her phone — it’s bloody freezing tonight — she manages to peck out, How come? GL

This is Anthea. He says it’s to check in on Sherlock, comes the reply.

“That’s what he says, why really?” George says to herself, laughing a little, but she types, Hang on a tick, I’ll come find you. GL

Anthea looks a slightly more distracted version of her ordinary blank expression, and Mycroft is frowning after where Sherlock and Dr. Watson are vanishing in a flare of Belstaff and military bearing. Mycroft looks thinner and tired, a bit washed out from the police lights, perched a dignified distance away from the police tape, and when she draws closer he turns toward her, tipping his head like he’s doffing an imaginary cap.

“Detective Inspector Lestrade,” he says, and when he says it like that, it sounds like Georgiana.

“Minor Government Official Holmes,” she returns, cheeky, and turns to Anthea. “Dodo.”

Not bothering to look up from her BlackBerry, she quips, “Successful extinct animal cloning not scheduled until 2014.”

“Hopes dashed again,” George says mildly, and looks back to Mycroft. “Well?”

“Well, what?” Mycroft asks. He has that rare, Holmesian look of unusual surprise: baffled by being baffled.

“Why are you here?” she replies, patient, smile creeping outward.

This time, he frowns, a genuine, unattractive look on his mobile face, and George laughs before she can temper herself for masculine vanity, pressing a hand to her mouth to keep in the worst of the giggling, saying, “Sorry, sorry! I mean — you look so wronged.”

“Long-suffering might be a better word for it,” Mycroft sighs, aggrieved. “It seems my brother’s found a colleague.”

George closes her coat more tightly around herself, hands under her arms, the chill seeping under her skin now where the layers will just hold it in closer to her. She’s good at what she does, sometimes she even likes what she does, and it just means that this feeling — cloaked darkly and lit up with police cars, standing round shady corners of London at all hours feeling the cold slip in — is as familiar as anything, as the weight of her own body sinking into bed.

“I dunno, colleague’s not really the word I’d use,” George muses. “They seemed thick as thieves, leaving here.”

Mycroft makes an annoyed tap with his umbrella, and George tries not to analyze how she can gauge his mood via rain gear at this point.

“Accomplice?” he asks, still irate, but just barely, clinging to it sullenly like a boy.

“Or a friend — could be good for him to have a friend,” George offers. She sounds a bit crazed from lack of sleep and she’s overly giggly, voice trembling with cold, but she supposes it’s not surprising: she’s running on a twenty-four-hour sleep deficit, this is a fall jacket, and Mycroft always seems to throw her entirely off her own axis.

“My brother doesn’t have friends,” Mycroft says, but says it neutrally, like it’s a fact he’s reassessing.

George shrugs. “I’d be his friend if he wasn’t such a fucking twat all the time,” she assures him, and giving into her shivers for a beat, she says, “Brr — right. That’s it, I’ve a few more uniforms to go shout at and then I’m off for the night. You should be, too, unless you want to get involved in the fascinating business of watching us photo document every inch of this building.”

Mycroft is silent for a beat, and George is about to awkwardly repeat her dismissal when Anthea cuts in with, “Sir, you were saying you wanted to discuss Dr. Watson with the detective? Or did you want that rescheduled?”

George arches a brow at the both of them. “Oh, I’m scheduled, am I?” she asks.

Anthea just gazes at her blankly; Mycroft, meanwhile, almost looks chagrined.

“Presumptuous, I know,” he says. “But it would be helpful if you were able to join me.” He glances over her shoulder, at the hive workers of crime scene technicians and officers still gathering around, the EMTs making notes — S. Holmes: flagrantly ignored shock blanket — and clears his throat. “Unless of course you’re truly obliged to stay and manage the scene?”

Under normal circumstances, George’s general low-grade need to be a control freak marries into an outsized guilt complex about her people being trapped doing work while she’s off not, but she’s cold and ravenous and none of these guys at the scene have been working on this bloody case or dealing with Sherlock Holmes the way she has. And the promise of being indoors and fed is so suddenly appealing George says, “No, not really. Let me go deputize someone and I’ll be right back.”

She does — not PC Hatcher, who manages to refer to her as sir-ma’am, again, bless him — and ends up following Mycroft’s almost invisibly black town car with her own, winding and winding until they end up past Liverpool Street Station, at a tiny restaurant off of Columbia Road, cars parked very illegally nearby.

George eats three separate orders of the salted almonds before their entrees come, trading notes with Mycroft on Dr. John Hamish Watson. She has her background check on him, and Mycroft has his own, but neither of them are truly interested in the black and white line items of Dr. Watson’s CV.

“How did they even meet?” George asks, eating Tuscan beets now. Thank God all of her vanity died in the police academy or else she’d never be able to face Mycroft again, the way she’s plowing entire acreages of food into her mouth.

Mycroft picks idly at his green salad. “Barts. Mutual acquaintance thought they might make good flatmates.”

She points at him. “This,” she says, “this level of detail you have about his life? This is why Sherlock hates you.”

“If he didn’t need so much looking after, I could stop straining myself looking,” Mycroft says innocently, as if he’s not an obvious voyeur at heart. George has a giggling, thrilling thought of the vastly expensive auteur pornography he must own, all suggestion of bondage through heavy curtains the next house over in Belgravia.

“I can’t imagine Sherlock living with anyone,” she goes on. George tries to visualize sharing a bathroom with Sherlock, surrendering her kitchen table over to his chemistry set, or what she’d do if she didn’t have the 3 a.m. insulation of turning off her mobile, if he could just come into her room and talk at her until she murdered him in self-defense. “God, I don’t think I’d last a day.”

Mycroft makes a thoughtful noise. “Our good doctor seems no worse for wear so far.”

George decides not to mention the giggling at the crime scene.

“Well, maybe Dr. Watson will be good for him, moderating influence,” George says, feeling ridiculous even as she says it. She can’t even imagine the effects of a moderating influence of Sherlock would be. Would he be Sherlock any longer? Shout less? Halve his tendency toward being a tosser? She’s not built for that kind of hypothetical.

She’s ordered rabbit and polenta, and it’s heavenly when it comes, redolent with spices and a touch gamey, the polenta studded through with crumbled parmesan. George isn’t particularly successful employing fork and knife onto the rabbit, and she’d be embarrassed by her commonplace table manners and sleep-dumb fingers if Mycroft didn’t keep up a running dialog through their meal: warmly affectionate, dryly funny.

George understands she can never really know the unique ecosystem of Sherlock and Mycroft’s relationship, but she knows she likes Mycroft. Being with him is effortless, oftentimes literally, and George feels uncomplicated sitting across from him, talking about how she came to work for the Met and the one time Sherlock got them locked in a car boot for an experiment — “I sprained his wrist for that one,” she remembers fondly — and he laughs at her when she caves and calls back to the scene out of sheer paranoia.

“You are very dedicated, Georgiana,” Mycroft says when she ends the call hurriedly, and before she can tense up about it, he murmurs, “We’re lucky to have you on the job.”

He’s watching her with something very like — very much like, George thinks, feeling herself go red, a blush gone wild over her cheeks, down the hollow of her neck, and her hands shake with realization, wine trembling in the glass until she sets it down.

“Thank you,” she says, shy again, vanishingly shy all of a sudden, and stares down at her plate, her heart heaving in her throat.

There’s a too long silence between them, that stretches and stretches until voices and the clinking of plates and silver from the rest of the restaurant steal in to fill in the spaces, and George tries to think of something to say and discards all of it, feeling suddenly overtired like a child at the end of a day, too tongue-tied to say what she wants or even know it.

Across the table, Mycroft shifts, just the sound of fabric moving. She sees him touch the end of a fork, righting it along a 45 degree angle on his plate as he says flatly, “I’ve made you uncomfortable.”

George looks up, saying, “No,” when she means yes, but I like it, “it’s just...been an extremely long week. Weeks.” She scrubs her hands over her face, sighing, “Eons.”

Being Sherlock’s brother, he sees it for the dissembling it is, but being Mycroft, and not Sherlock after all, he allows it.

“I’ve kept you too long,” he says, all public school manners now, flawlessly cordial.

The check is spirited away along with Mycroft’s ebony black credit card, and George is too tired to argue she ought to pay half. She doesn’t realize how tired she is, actually, until she finds herself standing at her car door, staring stupidly between the keys in her hand and the lock, trying the puzzle out the mystery of their combination and finding herself utterly stumped.

“This will never do,” Mycroft says, appearing suddenly at her side, and George barely manages to say, “What?” before he looks over her shoulder, instructing, “Anthea — please take her bag.”

George says, “Wait — what?” again.

Anthea takes her bag and Mycroft takes her car keys and herds her into the passenger seat. “Sit down,” he says, and frowns his marvelous frown at her until she complies, warning, “If you do not put on your seat belt by yourself, I shall do it for you.” The door is closed, and George registers — distantly — the sound of a discussion of logistics, but then the driver’s side door is opening and Mycroft is folding himself painfully into her Golf, long legs jammed against his chest until he slides the seat all the way back.

“You are very tall,” she tells him, clinging to wakefulness.

He puts the keys in the ignition, and when Mycroft looks at her again it’s with that humbling attention again, the full, searing weight of it like a finger pressed between the wings of her collar bones: intimate and incapable of being ignored, comprehensive.

“You should be asleep,” he murmurs, and George hears the engine turning over, sees the lights of the dash go on.

She closes her eyes, so she doesn’t see what his face does when she says:

“I was uncomfortable — in the restaurant.”

George feels blurry, tipped off that continental shelf into a bone-deep exhaustion that hurts, her skin and her eyes and her head aching for sleep, her brain slurring almost as badly as her speech. More alert, less deconstructed, she’d never be so stupid or have the courage to say it, but right now, she should, she can, and George doesn’t want to give up her easy conversations, her occasional co-conspirator — her accomplice and friend.

“But only because no one looks at me like that,” she confesses, tongue tripping over the consonants, “the way you did.”

She forces her eyes open, and it takes a second to resolve the image of Mycroft turned to stare at her, the amber of the stoplights ahead of them. It’s too dark, really, to read the expression on his face, and anyway, George would never presume to be able to decode either of the Holmeses, but he says, “I see,” like he really, truly does.

“Good,” she whispers back, eyes shuttering again, “okay.”

George wakes up ten hours later. Her mobile phone alarm’s been turned off, her bedside clock’s been unplugged, and there’s a glass of water and a note by her lamp, balanced on her half-finished copy of Georgiana: The Duchess of Devonshire.

You are on leave for the next three days, by order of your superiors at New Scotland Yard. I had Anthea leave your bag and car keys in your sitting room.
Mycroft Holmes

He has competent, impatient copperplate: practical, not effusive, and George rolls onto her back and stares at the note too long.

***

Thanks for dinner. And for seeing me home. GL

The pleasure was mine.
MH

***