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The Least of All Possible Mistakes

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After that, George gets the distinct feeling the ball is in her court.

She’s not used to this part. Even leaving aside her staggeringly unsuccessful romantic career in her teens and her mostly-accidental series of drunk, football hooligan boyfriends in her twenties, it’s been a decade since she’s dated anybody but Tom. Several years ago, she would have claimed she was at least quite good at dating Tom, except of course he’d disagreed and preferred Laura Hilton, herpes, instead. Not for the first time, she’s grateful she’s too uncool to have a Facebook account, and can’t spent hours of her fucking life at work staring at their pictures and kissy messages to one another the way poor Dimmock is after his girlfriend had dumped him with extreme prejudice after the last interdepartmental rugby match. Gruesome. It was so emotionally fraught it’s topped George’s own debacle at the Christmas party.

The other problem being back then at least she had friends she could talk to about this sort of thing. Now, she has Sally (who must never know), Anderson (who must never know), Sherlock (who probably already does know, Jesus), and Dr. Watson, who’s so new to this entire mess she’s still referring to him by title and surname. Plus, the greater likelihood is that he’s already run screaming for the hills.

Anyway, it feels private, something to be kept close and secreted away.

She doesn’t even have enough time to worry about it properly since as soon as she’s back at work, she’s back to juggling several flaming balls.

Two weeks and several other cases go by before George realizes she’s committed almost zero time to the question beyond her now habitual evening two hours of DIY SOS and pasta or takeaway, gaping at the television and allowing increasingly inappropriate thoughts about Mycroft bloody Holmes to cross her mind. In a way, her frenetic worry — what must he think of her? — at her lack of action is indication enough as her what her next response should be, but then there’s the issue of her being terrified.

There is the common, everyday scared she feels because this is new, and her mother still likes to tell the story of how George had forced her father to taste-test every new ice cream flavor he brought home before she’d try it. There’s the additional layer of hesitation that comes from the fact that the last person she kissed had left her, walked away from the life they’d made together and told her she must have seen it coming. If she hadn’t seen it coming then, will she see it coming now? Can she ever know? She’s barely knit together; she doesn’t know if she can handle being torn up any more.

And then there is the issue of Mycroft and his aggressive stalking, the obvious falsehood of his minor position in the British government.

Recognizing it goes beyond ordinary levels of pathetic, George resorts to asking the only person she knows who’s actively dating.

“Well, government work is very stable, dear,” her mother says, plating up a dish of biscuits and settling into one of her squeaking kitchen chairs. She’s a bit rosier in the cheeks these days, her hair just a touch curlier, lipstick perfect. “But do you like him?”

Oh God. Yes, George thinks. “Oh, God. Maybe?”

Her mother gives her a disbelieving look. “You must be over the moon for this one.”

“The more important issue here is what I should do next,” George presses, since just because her mum knows her doesn’t mean the woman ought to be allowed to use such an unfair tactical advantage. “I mean — what the hell do I do?”

Her mother retreats into her teacup, coming up a moment later to say, “Well however should I know, George? You’re around young people all the time. What do they do?”

Pained, George says, “I’m around young people arresting them all the time, Mum.”

“Then do the opposite and you’ll be right as rain,” her mother declares. “Honestly, George, I’ve never understood why you’re such a ninny about this sort of thing. Any man should be counting his lucky stars to have your attention.”

George decides to eat all the biscuits herself and pulls the plate close to do so.

“Thank you for being completely and utterly unhelpful,” she says.

She ends up spending the night in her childhood bedroom, staring at her ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars and her walls plastered over with pictures of teen idols and newspaper clippings, her diplomas and certificates. She remembers being crushed up close with Tom in this twin-sized bed Christmas Eve not long ago, elbows in each other’s ribs and staying up late to whisper since the walls were paper thin at her mum’s house.

She thinks, God, I miss him, and then revises it to, God, I miss that, because more than Tom, it’s the easy intimacy of it she craves, the way she’d known him — or thought she had. George misses having someone to buy preposterous Christmas presents for, to make breakfast for, to kiss good morning, to watch her luggage at airports, and the truth is that she has no idea if Mycroft does any of these things, or if they’re all far too common for him. If underneath his apparent fascination with her civic responsibility, she’s too common for him.

“Well,” she says to her ceiling, clutching the covers under her chin, “I’ll never know unless I go for it, will I?”

There’s a thump on the wall over her head.

“That’s exactly what I mean, dear,” her mother calls back. “And anyway, he sounds like a nice boy.”

George puts a pillow over her head so her mum doesn’t have to hear her swearing.

***

She puts it off until Thursday, at which point her mother’s overly solicitous text messages become too much to bear: i googled him! very dapper! and ooo it says hes a career civil servant that’s nice isnt it? and shame about his hair youll have to bring him over i can fix that right up for him and denniss son at the licensing buro says hes never married b4 are we sure he likes women???

Mycroft answers the phone saying, “Detective Lestrade, what a surprise.”

“Yes, you sound utterly surprised indeed,” George says, instead of something coquettish and charming, because that gene had skipped her generation, her mother mourns.

Except Mycroft must find it charmingly coquettish, because he laughs. “Caught.”

George tries to bite away her smile and fails. She wasn’t this 13 when she was 13. “Well, as long as there aren’t any cameras in the ladies toilet, I’ll let this slide,” she says, because Georgiana Anne Lestrade is the type of woman who says ‘toilet’ to a posh man when she’s trying to ask him out on a date. Christ.

“I’ll have them removed immediately,” Mycroft promises smoothly. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your call today, Georgiana?”

She coughs awkwardly and turns to stare pointedly at her computer monitor, because mindlessly scrolling through cold cases will numb the awkwardness of this, she’s hoping. “Guilt, primarily,” she admits finally. “I’ve put off asking you to dinner so long my mother’s begun Googling you.”

George can hear Mycroft’s smirk over the phone line. “Oh, dear.”

“Any incriminating holiday photos I ought to know about?” she asks, babbling now, nervous. What if he’s changed his mind? What if she’d interpreted everything wrong? She’d been half crazy with exhaustion — why on Earth would she trust her judgment then? She’d been wearing brown shoes and black trousers that day for God’s sake.

“Nothing except for an exceedingly unflattering photograph on the HM Revenue website, I assure you,” Mycroft answers.

George blurts out, “My mum apparently thinks you look dapper,” and running on adrenaline before mortification can paralyze her voicebox like it had in sixth form, she forces herself to say, “So — dinner?”

There’s pause, the sound of pages turning. “Dinner may be...difficult for the foreseeable future,” Mycroft starts, and George knows instinctively he’s not letting her down easily because she’s been that person, too, flipping through her diary looking for an open space. “Brunch? This weekend?”

George glances at her desk calendar. “Saturday? Noon?” she asks, breathless.

“Done,” Mycroft agrees. “Preferences on location?”

George writes down OH HOLY FUCK under 12 p.m. Saturday, hands shaking like mad.

“Ottelonghi? On Upper Street? If you have no objections, of course,” she says somehow.

She hears a voice in the background, soft, and thinks it must be Anthea, moving around far more important meeting to fit this one in, and over top of it Mycroft says, “No objections,” all warm vowels in her ear.

“Good, great,” George says. “Um, meet you in front.”

“I look forward to it,” he says to her. “Until then?”

Probably, the U.K. is sliding ever close to financial ruin without his constant attention, but she still waits a little longer than she should to say, “Yes — until then,” because there’s something addictively good about having that attention all to herself, even just for a moment.

She spends a good ten minutes after hanging up with her legs kicked up on the desk staring at the water stains on her ceiling trying to get her breathing under control.

Sally interrupts her purgatory of self-doubt with a doughnut and tooth-rotting coffee.

“I’m fine,” George says, eating the doughnut in three bites. “There was no need.”

Sally just pats her on the arm. “You’re a good boss,” she says, patronizing. “I like you.”

George says, “Fuck off,” but it’s around the doughnut and the coffee so Sally rightly ignores it as the feeble protest it is by leaving another of each on her desk.

None of the scum in London has the decency to do anything that falls within the purview of Serious Crimes for the rest of the day, which is simultaneously maddening and probably for the best, since George’s effectiveness as a law enforcement officer would register at negative six. Friday, she has court. She spends the day in a dark gray suit and white shirt, wilting in the heat of the courtroom, feet screaming in her tan pumps. George feels like she spends half her life in court, but everybody assures her she’s good at it in the way she’s not good at press conferences. Court is facts and figures, evidence and probable causes; press conferences are almost always in the middle of investigations, when George has nothing to say and nothing to show anybody, just stuttering over her own awkwardness and knee-jerk defensive.

The night before her first date with with Tom, George had agonized over what to wear and meticulously shaved her legs over the course of an hour. She’d debated over the number of condoms to bring with her — was three slutty? or intimidatingly presumptuous? — and had Rachel over to do an inventory of perfumes trying to decide which would be the most mouth-watering and irresistible.

Friday night, circa present day, George does a load of laundry and pops into the Sainsbury’s to do her weekly shop. She ends up on the couch clearing out her DVR at about 8 p.m., eating tomato soup for dinner. For a moment, she actually thinks she’s going to manage this entire night without any sort of adolescent romantic meltdown when she catches a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror, sees the state of her hair, and promptly freaks the fuck out. About everything.

She falls asleep hours later in between a small colony of Tom’s clothes she’s decided to burn, and about a hundred dresses that fall into the “they were too slutty for me ten years ago” category, too filled with despair to go on.

It’s breathlessly blue-skied on Saturday, tiny wisps of cirrus clouds at the horizon, the last clear note of autumn before October begins to bleed sluggishly into winter. Upper Street is lightly peopled with morning shoppers and yummy mummies at pram, and George dodges a half-dozen girls cooing at the bags in the window of Oliver Bonas. There’s already a cross and decaffeinated line jammed into the doorway at Ottelonghi when she gets close enough to see inside its windows — half obscured by an embarrassment of tarts and popovers and chocolate cakes.

George is thinking, oh, Jesus, what the fuck was I thinking, staring at the crowd when there’s a touch on her arm. It’s an echo of the gala at the Ritz, one that turns into a hand, cupped around her elbow, the sudden press of a body close to her — proximity warm — and George finds herself smiling as she turns.

Mycroft is wearing a tweed sportcoat and gray sweater underneath, the collar of a pale blue shirt peering out, and he’s running his thumb along the outside of her elbow. George blames the way he’s looking at her for how breathless she sounds saying:

“Hi — hello.”

“Hello,” he says, and he pulls her in a little bit closer. It’s only the tiniest application of force, but George was balanced barely anyway, and then she’s near enough that she can curl a hand into the lapel of his jacket and rub her thumb against the grain, smile growing wilder and wilder as she watches his pupils dilate.

And just in that one second, George knows exactly what to do, a lock clicking open at his fingertips, and she says, “Mr. Holmes — does your jacket have elbow patches?”

It’s perfect, it’s absolutely perfect, and George feels like a skeleton key, doors giving way, because Mycroft laughs, eyes crinkling, before he tucks her in a bit more tightly against him — possessing — and admits, “It does.”

They’re blocking the door, and probably drawing a crowd, but George could stay here safely in the center of his focus for the rest of her life. She feels that great surge of vertigo, the scared-luscious thrill of looking down from a great height with nothing in between her and the fall but two steps and a decision, and George thinks that she can’t wait to jump, and that the fall might kill her but what a way to go.

She bites her lip, but the smile doesn’t go away because Mycroft’s eyes dart to her mouth, and she imagines what he must be deducing of her: Vaseline aloe vera lip balm, MAC Lady Bug lipstick applied twenty minutes ago with a nervous hand, chapped from the dry weather, tempted.

“We should go inside,” she says, watching him watch her.

The line in the door isn’t a problem, it turns out, because the geologic era of waiting turns into a series of small revelations: the pads of his fingers drawing across the back of her arm; the way they feel pressing down the curve of her spine, into the well of her back; the way he chuckles in her ear when she says, “You ironed those jeans, didn’t you?” George feels pulled out of focus, and every time reality intrudes — when their harried server apologizes and seats them side by side at the long table in the narrow belly of the restaurant, when the menus flop down between them, when the tea and coffee arrive — she feels startled, like the brunch and the restaurant are the ghosts in the image, and the weight of Mycroft’s fingers on the inside crook of her elbow is the only clear thing in the photograph.

“Do you know,” George laughs, sudden, and she’s blushing, her face is hot, “I don’t know why I chose this place — you probably hate it.”

He cocks his head at her, and George feels it to her fingers at toes. It figures that being the object of Mycroft’s attention would be like this: gloriously hypoxic, euphoria slipping in with the detail of things blurring away.

“Georgiana,” he says in a voice that should be too quiet to hear in the din, over the sound of babies and Saturday morning laughter, “I can honestly say that I haven’t noticed the restaurant at all.”

Her face must be a sight because when their waitress comes back, she takes one look at George’s expression before laughing and winking at Mycroft, promising, “I’ll come back in a moment — or six.”

Later, they’re turned like quotes, opened to one another and closed off from everyone else, their breakfasts going cold on the table between them. George puts her cheek in one hand, elbow on the table, and watches Mycroft’s face as she asks, “What’s it like?”

His face is momentarily undecided. “How do you mean?” he asks.

George glances away, at the waitresses floating between tables and the baby batting at the balloon nearby, the twentysomethings on a date, the couple on the rocks near the back. She doesn’t wave, but she knows Mycroft is following her gaze, looking around them now, too.

“What do you see, when you see this?” she tries again. “I mean — what’s it like in that head of yours? What are you seeing?”


“I’m not exactly making a deduction right now, Georgiana,” Mycroft demurs.

She arches a brow. “Just because you’re not doesn’t mean you’re not noticing,” she argues.

He makes a thoughtful noise, and allows, “True,” before he motions to the waitress for another cup of tea. He takes his with skim milk and no sugar, but George suspects the first cup of tea she ever brought him is still to his liking.

“Her name is Lara,” Mycroft says, as soon as the waitress is out of earshot.

George blinks.

Mycroft nods over her shoulder. “Don’t turn,” he murmurs, and goes on, “Ottelonghi is far too trendy to force its waitstaff into wearing nametags, but the girls at the end of the table are regulars, or perhaps friends of the proprietor, and they’ve been asking for our waitress by name all meal. She’s not new to London, but she didn’t grow up here, the accent she’s suppressing and the way she greeted us when she gave us our menus says West Midlands. She’s been here long enough to be self-conscious about her accent, but not long enough to be comfortable flattening it, either — six months, give or take. Either an aspiring model or actress, from the way she lied when you asked if she liked the French toast — it’s likely she hasn’t tasted most of this menu — and the way her cheeks are touch too hollow: this is her natural shape minus a about a stone.”

“Oh, about a stone is it?” she teases.

Mycroft sniffs. “To make a more exact determination, I’d have to see her naked,” he says, “which, considering I am having brunch with you in your favorite restaurant, is both undesirable and extremely improbable.”

“Good save,” George says mildly, and stirring another sugar into her cooling coffee, she asks, “Is it all right? I mean — is it overwhelming?”

He considers the question, long enough that George wonders whether he’s ever considered it before, if anyone during his childhood or teens or youth had ever looked at the Holmes brothers and been concerned about them versus their remarkable minds.

“My brother,” Mycroft says after a long beat, “on our first visit to the Louvre, decided to use its floorplan as his memory palace.”

George says, “Fucking of course he has a memory palace,” because she can’t help herself.

Mycroft smiles. “It always seemed so imprecise to me, and so inefficient, but Sherlock is a hedonist, no matter what he thinks, and he liked the marble and columns and the staircases — the rooms wide enough for even all of his observations,” he tells her, thoughtful. “I never had any patience for it. I imagine it must slow down the process of retrieval, having to wander so many rooms to locate a thought.”

“You may not use it, but do you have one? A memory palace?” she asks. Mycroft looks like he ought to have a memory file cabinet, everything neatly labeled.

“As an experiment, mostly, but yes,” he says.

“So not the Louvre for you,” George muses, trying to imagine something that would fit into Mycroft’s elegant pragmatism: everything in its place. “Is it a thing? A place?”

“Our house,” he says, and correcting course, adds, “the family home.”

“It’s an estate, isn’t it,” George returns, and it’s not even really a question.

Mycroft pulls an almost-convincing look of offense. “I will have you know it is only a minor Georgian mansion.”

“If Sherlock requires the enormous sprawl of the Louvre, how on Earth can you fold everything into a single house?” she asks. Sherlock would say it’s because he’s smarter than Mycroft, but Sherlock also believes he’s infallible perfection, that his brilliance will always make him necessary and perfect and untouchable.

“Well,” Mycroft says, leaning back to allow Lara from the West Midlands to set down another cup of tea, steaming hot, “I have always been tidier than Sherlock.”

George may not be a genius, but she is trained for this, so she takes a sip of her coffee, the sugar gritty sweet, and replies, “You didn’t answer my question though.”

He turns down to his teacup, fingertips tracing the lip of it, a frown tugging down the corners of his mouth. He looks pensive, but not angry, really, so she waits, letting Lara’s voice and the door and the kitchen and people and food sounds fill in the spaces. George wonders if there’s a drawer, a book, a nesting doll, hidden somewhere in Mycroft’s house that he’s looking for now. She wonders if he’s up to date, if she would be in the house, too, and where he might keep her. The conservatory? In the garden? Among the coffee mugs? Or maybe tucked away in somewhere, among the disordered linens of a four-poster bed.

“Right, while you mull that,” George says, glancing at the scowling crowd outside, waiting for a table as they linger. “I can’t bear the guilt any longer.”

She gets the bill and pays the check, ignoring Mycroft’s half-hearted attempt to intervene, and takes his hand to lead him from the restaurant. He’s still quietly thinking about her question, and she feels protective of him like this, as she laces their fingers together and weaves them down the aisle, around other customers and a running child, through the awkward doorway and back onto the street.

“Well?” she asks, when they’re clear of the crush of people and on the sidewalk, standing in front of a Whistle and down the road from the Angel, the movieplex, the Sainsbury’s where she buys yogurt and tampons and vinegar to descale her kettle.

“I think that I wouldn’t know how else to be but like this,” Mycroft says finally, looking amused in spite of himself. “Do you mind terribly?”

George feels something come loose in her chest, a worry that had been binding her and she hadn’t noticed, and the next breath comes easier. It’s a silly question, like asking George this late in the game if she minds that he’s slightly ginger and taller than she is, obviously fussy about his clothes — things that she had to have liked already, to be standing here with him on a Saturday morning, holding hands.

“Not terribly, no,” she says, and slides her other hand into her pocket, tugging him along by their palms, pressed close. “Come on — let’s see if there’re any actual antiques in Camden Passage.”

If she were playing this game with Sherlock, George imagines they’d be drummed out of every single shop they visit, and the yarn store preemptively for all the deliciously cruel deductions Sherlock wouldn’t resist making. Mycroft is exceedingly polite and deadly charming to all of the storekeepers, who end up tittering ridiculously and fumbling with their pricing guns and wares around him.

“Shall I buy you a present?” Mycroft asks her, when they’re standing in front of a store full of Japanese prints. “It would seem the traditional thing to do.”

George doesn’t really want anything, so she says.

“Maybe the ceramic bird,” Mycroft replies, utterly unflappable. “They’re supposedly very valuable, you know.”

George had physically recoiled at the bird, it was so horrible. “Oh, I see,” she says. “This is where you make fun of me for hating ugly garbage.”

“You could grow to love it,” he points out. “You grew to love Sherlock.”

“Bite your tongue,” George scolds. “Your brother I tolerate for the good of London.”

“Do you know, I briefly considered he might have feelings for you, in the beginning,” Mycroft tells her, gleefully evil. “I was prepared to bribe you to marry him.”

George kicks his ankle. “I’m so glad I tasered you,” she says, and she means it earnestly. If ever a people deserved tasering, it’s Holmeses.

“Me, too, in retrospect,” Mycroft agrees.

George doesn’t believe in ghosts or fate or that she’s destined for anybody. She’s always thought herself unromantic, common, achingly everyday, but right now George believes that there are ley lines in this narrow little paved road, the crowd outside the Breakfast Club getting ever louder. It feels like the pull of a magnetic pole, orienting her, the ushering gust of a summer sea wind sending her two steps closer, and George smiles and reaches up, frames Mycroft’s face with her hands.

“I just thought of something I need,” she tells him.

“Mummy won’t unhand those dancing photographs,” Mycroft quips, immediate, but he’s watching her mouth like he’d like to deduce the history of her life from her lips, and it makes George forgive him instantly, laugh as she mutters, “I swear you and your miserable brother are the bane of my existence,” and draw him down to her.

Mycroft is bossy and presumptuous, predatory in his invasions of privacy, and George knows she’s a little crazy to be here, to want such a person so badly. Mycroft is too polished for any of Sherlock’s ragged, glass-sharp edges, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous — genuinely dangerous — but George guesses she must like it, the thrill of it, to throw herself in between the world and Mycroft’s explosion.

He kisses in patient little sips of her: the left corner of her mouth, the swell of her lower lip, a thumb pressed into the divot of her chin so she sighs, opens up for him. She can feel the way he smiles into her at that — smug — and she shouldn’t encourage this kind of behavior except she likes it, except it leaves George impatient for him, one hand trailing down the to the tug on the collar of his jumper, going to the tip of her toes.

Mycroft’s other hand is pressed in between her shoulder blades, pressing her close against his chest, sealing off the space between them, keeping out the October chill. The little kisses are deepening with a scrape of teeth, the warm wet of tongue, and George bites his lip until he gives in, laughing, and she can take what she wants.

It’s lush more than heated, languorous, kissing Mycroft this way. George feels unhurried and indulged, his arm traveling the length of her back and his fingers sliding up to card into her hair, tilting her head back, so she’s murmuring nonsense words into his lips when he breaks away from her, hovering close so they’re breathing together.

“Is that what you needed?” he asks her, pressing his mouth to her chin.

Mycroft is running his thumb along her neck, making her shiver against the pad of his finger, and she startles away from the touch just long enough to miss it again, leaning back in for another, humming low in the back of her throat and feeling the endorphin rush of teenaged love filling up her veins.

It’s both exactly what she wanted and nothing like she thought it would be: perfect and a touch infuriating, which is an apt description of Mycroft in general if George thinks about it. She keeps catching him answering questions she’s been too cowardly to ask, telegraphing that little impossibilities that aren’t so impossible at all, and George thinks about worrying he wouldn’t do this, that ordinary people things like holding hands in the street and horrifying teenagers with a public kiss wouldn’t be for him. And here he is: standing in the October sunshine, her lipstick smeared all over his mouth, hair a wreck, grinning like he’s a boy and he’s just found something foul in the shed.

She laughs and darts in for two last, little-bird kisses — and he chases after her, leaning closer when she pulls away — and says casually, “Oh, that’s some of what I needed,” before reaching up with the cuff of her jacket to scrub at his face.

He submits to it mostly cooperatively, but not without a few faces that George decides are probably genetic markers for the Holmes boys.

“I hope your sundry spies are enjoying this,” she tells him, running her thumb along the corner of his mouth and unable to hide her smile. “Watching their boss look at if he’s been set upon by a clown.”

“Surely they must know I’ll order them killed if they feel the need to tease me at the water cooler,” Mycroft says to her in a way that is probably supposed to be lighthearted, but makes George narrow her eyes anyway.

George jerks on his lapel in warning. “I’ll report you for misusing government resources.”

“It would hardly be misusing if Anthea, as you know, hungers for blood at all times anyway,” Mycroft is telling her in a very reasonable tone, eyes gleaming, when suddenly Tom and Laura Hilton, herpes, and a stroller are there, very blandly making their way down the sidewalk — presumably to add to the noise levels at Ottelonghi.

“Oh, God, George,” Tom says, every word punctuated by his face going another shade paler. At his side, Laura Hilton, herpes, is the same wide-eyed that she’d been in George’s sitting room so long ago. How can anybody stay so ridiculously young when they’ve a baby and Tom, George thinks briefly before collecting herself.

“Tom, hi,” she says. A pause. “Laura.”

“Detective,” Laura says, and winces. “Ms. Lestrade.” Worse.

George makes a face, but decides to be petty by not saying, “Just call me George.” Instead, she turns to Mycroft, who is hovering conscientiously at her side, a bit behind and to her right, setting himself between George and the road like a gentleman when those rules still existed.

“Mycroft Holmes — Tom, and Laura,” she says.

He holds out a hand, and when he says, “How do you do?” it’s with public school vowels on all the words. Laura blushes when she shakes, and Tom bristles, asking:

“Holmes? As in Sherlock?”

“My younger brother,” Mycroft answers easily. “I’m afraid I am in his debt now. Without his constant acting out, I never would have met Georgiana.”

Tom swallows, throat dry enough he makes a clicking noise, and it takes a moment before he manages, “Right, well.”

He looks awkwardly at Laura, who looks awkwardly back, and George finds herself trying to gauge how in love they are — if they are at all — and mostly comes up blank. It’s strange to think there’s something of Tom’s she can’t know, even now, all this time apart. She hasn’t seen him since he came over to leave his house keys, bringing back some random trinkets of her’s he’d accidentally taken. She’d been hurt and he’d been quiet, and they’d gone out with a whimper and the the bang of her breaking a plate later that night, just dropping it on the tile floor of the kitchen to see what would happen.

She looks down at the baby buggy. “And this is?” she asks.

Laura makes pleased noise. “Oh, this is Fletcher,” she says, and reaches down to retrieve a baby: he’s got Laura’s dark hair and no other distinguishing characteristics, and mostly, George feels cold and a bit hollow looking at him — none of her usual rush of affection — and she doesn’t ask to hold him.

“Oh, he’s got Tom’s eyes,” George lies, because she has no idea what to say. Your child is very average and I’m surprisingly blase about him, which is nice. I thought I’d be volcanic or collapse or something.

“He’s very handsome,” Mycroft contributes, and takes the opportunity to slide arm across her back again, settling his hand at her hip, curling his index finger into the beltloop of her jeans: an anchor. It’s the type of touch at which Mycroft appears to specialize: invasive — desired.

Tom’s just staring at her, then back at Mycroft, and probably he’s playing the same game, trying to figure them out. George wonders if he’s having any more luck.

“So,” Tom starts, ignoring his baby and Laura Hilton, herpes, “are you two — ?”

Mycroft looks very pointedly at his watch, which makes Tom — who’s always been a bit of a watch fiend, actually — gape unattractively when he notices it, and says, “We are, indeed, running late.” He looks up, smiling blandly, and says, “If you’ll excuse us?”

George blinks when Mycroft plucks her hand out of the air and she catches up with the conversation, saying, “Right — sorry, gotta dash,” and whirls away, right into a gust of autumn wind that whips her hair into a frenzy, that has Mycroft smiling at her and pushing her fringe out of her eyes as they wait for the light to change at the intersection.

He walks her home, unhurried, telling the long history of his watch (which, excitingly, involves killing Nazis), and concluding when they arrive at her house, saying with a flourish, “And anyway, after that, my grandfather could hardly justify keeping it, so down to me it came.”

She resists the urge to shove him like a schoolboy. “There is no way that story is true.”

“That story is as much a Holmes family heirloom as this watch,” Mycroft insists, so cool butter wouldn’t met in his mouth.

“You’re a filthy liar, and I know because I’m an officer of the law,” George accuses him, grinning, taking her keys out of her purse. She’s asking, “Would you like to come in?” before she’s really thought it through.

George is at once hoping he does and horrified he might, and she finds herself standing in the opened doorway of her house, tension knotting down her spine.

Mycroft doesn’t answer immediately, just draws her in so he can kiss her again — lingering — and when he pulls away, he says, “Yes, but not today.”

***


After the business with the murderous cabbie, George genuinely doesn’t think she’s going see Dr. John Watson again. First off, Sherlock is vicious with his playthings, the sort of child that would love a toy to death in short order and then sulk resentfully at its lack of endurance. Secondly, although Watson had exhibited some characteristics — a well-hidden but apparently very deep streak of being absolutely cracked for one — that Sherlock likely found irresistible, there was being psychos in love and then psychos in love who had to live together. At uni, George had briefly dated a royal marine, and although the sex had felt like fighting a jaguar while falling off a cliff, she’d wisely never let him stay longer than the time it took her to peel herself off the kitchen table or the entryway wall or away from the airing cupboard.

Except then Dimmock had staggered back into NSY looking like he’d gone through the wars at the end of a miserable week, swearing at George about how could she stand them, that lunatic Sherlock bloody Holmes and Dr. Watson.

“What, seriously?” she asks, watching Dimmock drink cup after cup of scalding coffee like it will burn away the memory of his humiliation. George would tell him from personal experience it doesn’t work, but frankly it’s better to let new DIs learn this for themselves. “He’s still running around with Sherlock?”

“Yes,” Dimmock moans, bitter, before consulting his watch and moaning, “Christ,” before he leaves again, dragging his coat over his shoulders.

The rest of work is occupied with arresting very ordinary, boring bad people and enjoying it immensely. It’s a day of open-and-shut murders, with idiots running the minute she and Sally show up at their doorway, and George happily takes the opportunity to slam one of the miserable bastards against the police car as she cuffs him with cheerfulness of purpose.

“That’s police brutality, you bitch!” he shrieks at her.

“Oi, you haven’t seen anything,” Sally assures him. “She kills after mating.”

“I’m reporting you for that, Donovan,” George says brightly, and as punishment, abandons Sally to the paperwork and processing to catch a bus into the warehoused wilds of Shoreditch, where Mycroft meets her at the Aubin Cinema and they watch a crushing documentary about monkeys and language and George drinks to stave off embarrassing tears.

Dinner is old school and at the Hawksmoor. She makes him tell her a story about every country he’s ever visited, and that takes up all the time between their being seated and dessert, which means he’s only barely through a story about Borneo when his phone buzzes a centimeter across the soft white cloth of the table, reproachful.

He sighs at it, and George just tilts her head to the side, saying, “You know I don’t mind, don’t you?”

Mycroft favors her with one of those soft-eyed glances. “But I do.”

“Your job in your minor government post is very important,” George says, and folds the napkin in her lap, setting it on the table.

He has the good grace to feign chagrin at that. “I must also tell you I’ll be out of the country for a bit,” he says after a beat. “I should be no more than a week.”

George leans forward — pausing to flash their waitress an acknowledging smile as the plates and napkins and wine glasses vanish — and glances at Mycroft’s phone where it lies facedown against the table. George knows it’s not an accident that she’s never seen the screen of the phone and she wonders briefly if it should bother her to be so managed; like he’s married to work and she’s the mistress he keeps in a less-fashionable part of town.

“Can you say where you’re going?” she asks.

“No,” Mycroft tells her easily. “But I will bring you a gift.”

“I don’t want a gift,” George says reflexively, because Mycroft does things like spirit her away from hiding in her back garden into Surrey for dinner and dance with her at police galas, and she can’t imagine any gesture of his would be small.

He smiles at her. “What if it’s worthless?”

“I guess if it’s worthless, that’s all right,” she says slowly. “But only if it’s worthless.”

The check comes, and mostly to please her, he lets her split it between them, ignoring the way the waitress smiles indulgently between George’s NatWest Mastercard and Mycroft’s obsidian American Express. It’s the principle of the thing.

The less said about the ride back to her house the better. George is never going to be able to look Mycroft’s driver in the face again.

He texts her at 7 a.m. the next day to say he’s leaving and that he’s having Anthea look up the technical definition of “worthless.”

Something CHEAP GL, she writes, laughing at her desk. Most of Serious Crimes is exchanging worried looks, and Sally and Dimmock appear to be gossiping furiously.

This is Anthea. What if it is cheap in the local currency?

George types back, If you bring me heroin from Afghanistan, I am arresting you no matter how well-intentioned. GL.

The rest of the week deteriorates prodigiously.

On Monday night, about five minutes before she goes off shift, a pair of fragile-sounding new constables find a baby in the dumpster near Royal London, and that’s her night shot. George has been doing this long enough that she knows to detach for cases like these, but just because she won’t let herself feel grief doesn’t mean she can shut off the anger, so she sits in the security bay at Royal London until half-nine the next morning watching CCTV footage and drinking a league of bad hospital tea. It’s not a good case, and arresting the stupid 17 year-old girl who’d done it doesn’t make her feel any better. Dr. Cleary at Royal London’s paed’s unit calls George later that afternoon to say the baby didn’t make it, and she goes through the motions, says, “All right, thank you for letting me know,” before George goes to tell its mother, waiting down in holding now, the depth of what she’s done beginning to sink in.

George sleeps through most of Wednesday since Margaret had more or less kicked her out of the office and threatened the rest of Serious Crimes on pain of death from letting George back into the building. She takes the opportunity to weed out her knicker drawer and pop in on her mother for the rest of the evening to tease her about her dentist. They’ve progressed to the point where George makes a mental note to abuse her police privileges and run a background check on the man.

“You won’t find anything!” her mother protests over dinner from the chippie down the street. Bill’s fancied George since they were both just babies, and they’ve never properly been charged for fish and chips since he took over his father’s shop.

“I’m sure he’s a paragon of virtue,” George agrees, talking around a mouthful of potato. Primarily, she’s just going to check for dead prostitutes, missing ex-wives, or debt, which George thinks is very restrained of her.

Nicking one of George’s chips, having already made short work of her own order, George’s mum asks, “Well? What about you? That Mycroft fellow?”

“Uh,” George says, turning bright red.

“Oh, is he that good then?” Gillian Lestrade says approvingly.

Mum,” George groans.

Her mother pats her comfortingly on the knee. “I know you’ve always been a bit of a prig about these things, George, but men have needs.”

I’m turning on QI now, Mum,” George says very loudly.

Apparently kids are going to be the theme of the week, because George gets to work on Thursday only long enough for Sally to say, “Anderson’s meeting us at the scene, come on,” before turning and heading for the motor pool.

It’s PC Hatcher at the scene, looking pale and queasy, and George squeezes his hand — discreet — as she passes. She’d looked him up after he’d chauffeured her round London for the pink lady case: 24 year-old, originally from Manchester, earnest, with a notable goodness she hopes he can hang onto at this job.

“Tell me what you found, Hatcher,” she says to him kindly.

“Of course, sir — ma’am,” he stutters, and leads her past the crime tape.

George is glad for Heller, their coroner, who talks gently to the body of the little girl in the ditch and clinically to George when she draws near enough to hear. He points out perimortem bruising — blood dark along the backs of her thighs — covering up what he guesses are days and weeks older ones littering her arms and legs. She has one of those sweet, little-girl faces, thick lashes shuttered over baby-round cheeks; her dress is torn. Heller says there’re no signs of sexual assault, just the evidence of a long history of physical violence and little clues near the body besides: a cheap but very sparkly locket, a pink pony doll with a raggedy purple mane.

“Guilt,” George says, more for Hatcher than for anybody else.

“Guilt?” he asks.

George squats down, covering up her cold knees with the flaps of her coat, glancing back up to where Hatcher is maintaining five feet of distance between himself and the girl’s naked toes — painted a bubblegum pink and flaking.

“How can I tell?” she asks him. Aspires to being a DI, it had said in Hatcher’s file.

He stares at her for far longer than he needs to before turning to the girl, the body again, watching Heller’s quick hands taking a liver temp and declaring, “She’s been dead more than 24 hours — it’s not early rigor, it’s wearing off.”

“The toys,” Hatcher guesses, the words rushing out of him.

“That was a guess, but I’ll give it to you,” George allows fondly. She waves him down, and he goes to his knees awkwardly on the tarped ground as she points around them, at the pony, at the locket. “History of abuse, but the dress is mostly new, and her toenails are painted.”

He frowns. “They’re chipped, though.”

“Regular wear and tear,” George assures him. “Check with your girlfriend if you must.”

Hatcher colors. “Er.”

Sparing him further discussion on the subject, George says, “Heller says she was wrapped up in a blanket. This is a body dump, but it’s one that’s been done with some measure of love. Her hair is neat, she has her favorite things — the doll and the locket — and she was wrapped up warm. That all equals?”

“Guilt,” Hatcher says, more solidly now. “So — this was an accident?”

George shrugs, standing again and slipping her hands into her pockets. “Insofar as beating a child to death can ever be an accident,” she says.

In the background of the scene, Sally’s looking at a map with a couple of uniforms on the hood of a police car. They’re deep into North London, Sally’s old stomping grounds, and George redirects her attention to the girl again — watching Heller murmur her cheerful nothings as he zips her into the body bag, a promise he’ll have her out in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

“It won’t ever get easier, really,” she tells Hatcher, answering the question he’s thinking is too cliche to ask. She glances over to where he’s staring down into the shallow ditch where they’d found the girl.

“Oh,” Hatcher says in a hush.

She pats him on the shoulder and starts off for Sally. “But if it weren’t for us, nobody would be on her side at all, would they be?” she reminds him quietly as she goes.

Sally has some people back at the office looking through missing persons reports in the last 48 hours, and says she’ll get Heller to send them a photograph to show around the area. It’s legwork even George is happy to leave for someone else, although sadly today it’s PC Hatcher and his partner, named PC Andy, and who doesn't watch enough television to know why that’s funny.

George and Sally while away the rest of Thursday looking through missing persons files and on the phone with an already-hostile liaison from family services. Outside, it goes from fucking cold to brutally freezing, with clouds gathering in the afternoon to ensure weak winter sun doesn’t prevent frost from starting to spider itself across the windows in George’s office.

She gets a text when she’s standing in line at Pret, buying a crayfish sandwich, three brownie bars, and a cup of tomato soup:

Will be delayed.
Natives hostile, pedantic.
MH

“Fucking natives,” George sighs to herself. The girl at the register barely bats an eye at George’s purchases. The week after Tom had moved in with Laura Hilton, herpes, George had subsisted primarily on Pret brownie bars and an occasional Swedish meatball wrap.

Being a coward at heart, George hides in the shadow of NSY to reply versus texting in the warmth of her office, where Sally will see and make fun of her.

How long delayed? Everything else okay? GL

The reply comes less than 45 seconds later, which can only mean Anthea.

This is Anthea. He’s very cross, so probably a week.

There’s a follow-up in another 30 seconds.

This is Anthea. Don’t fall in love with anyone while he’s gone.

George glares down at the phone and types laboriously, fingers frozen stiff and trying to manage her purchases, too, Need bribe of unicorn. GL

There isn’t a reply, which could mean anything from Anthea being needed — presumably to assassinate a high-ranking member of whatever totalitarian government they’re currently visiting — or Mycroft discovering she’s been spreading lies about him via SMS or that she, too, is cold and wants to go eat her substandard lunch. It’s a sign of how gone for Mycroft George is that she’s considering this at all, she thinks glumly, and goes into the building and into the elevator to hate herself in relative warmth.

It’s a long day that goes into a long night, but by 7, Sally and George are reasonably confident they have a name: Aisha Baxter, a very slight eight years old. She lives with her father, Garrett, and a grandmother and four siblings in one of the council estates about a mile away from the dump site — or had lived, anyway.

The father’s a wreck when they get to the house, sobbing and asking to see his baby, and George spends most of the ride over to the morgue trying to figure out if this is delayed guilt or singular grief. His knees give out, looking at Aisha on the morgue slab, and when he raises his hands to stroke her hair, George thinks, thank God for that, at least, to see them unblemished: not a bruise, not a mark, no signs he slammed a child into the wall until her neck snapped less than 36 hours ago.

She catch’s Sally’s eye, and she’s off, back to the house for the grandmother.

***

Are you still up?
MH

I’ve decided to think it’s sweet you’re pretending you don’t already know. GL

I have looked into the unicorn issue.
They are still extinct.
MH

….You mean IMAGINARY. GL

I know what I typed.
Sleep well.
MH

***