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The Least of All Possible Mistakes

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One of the primary reasons George wants more women in leadership in the Met is because she’s stuck braless the rest of the day on account of most of her coworkers being men, and all the people who might have an extra bra being too far beneath or beyond her on the chain of command, and therefore inappropriate to ask. She hopes Anderson’s enjoying all 36 excruciatingly B of her; Dimmock’s already brained himself on a pole, which is more a comment on how badly he needs a new girlfriend than the magnificence of her breasts.

It actually wouldn’t be an issue since it is with equal parts gratitude and irritation that George knows that she doesn’t really register as female with most of her coworkers — ridiculous slander about silver foxes aside — except that when she meets Sherlock at the front desk at NSY to sign them in, he glowers at her tits and sighs, aggrieved.

"And you’re still not wearing a bra."

"Yes, thank you for that," George says, quietly perishing of mortification on the inside and trying to scrape up her dignify enough to ignore the all-knowing and already-gossiping grins of all the PCs and secretaries and random passers-through in the lobby. "Upstairs with me, please, so that I might kill you as you deserve with fewer witnesses."

Sherlock trails her into the lift, John stepping in last and hitting the button for the third floor reflexively.

"Hardly a real threat when I’m so vital to your exceptional solve rate," Sherlock declares, imperious, as the elevator creeps up.

"I did all right before you came along and started declaring my lingerie status to everybody, too," George reminds him, and glances at John. "Has he deleted it, then?"

John grins back at her. "Entirely. With prejudice," he tells her, affectionate, and not for the first time George thinks that of course these two lunatics found one another, the only inmates in the vast asylum of London crazy enough for each other. She’d be sentimental about if the pair of them weren’t so completely frustrating.

"Deleted what?" Sherlock asks, glaring between them suspiciously.

"This can’t be good for him," George says to John. "He’s going to give himself a stroke."

"I’m all right with that — the alternative being that I get to live with him mid-tantrum in perpetuity," John says philosophically, and George can’t help her snicker.

Sherlock, who is clearly capable of working himself up to a froth whether or not he still retains the memory that George and Mycroft have carnal knowledge of one another, snaps, "I’m sure whatever I deleted was excruciatingly useless!"

John leans into Sherlock’s shoulder, teasing, "It’s about her love life," in a loud whisper, as they step out of the lift and into serious crimes.

"Then I’m sure it’s intolerably dull," Sherlock declares, long legs eating up the corridor toward the bullpen. "Obviously a reasonably new relationship, probably with someone wealthier and older — and a touch into slightly shadier sexual practices."

"It’s true," George agrees. She shouldn’t be encouraging this, but it’s hilarious.

John tells Sherlock, "You have no idea how much you’re going to regret having connected all of those dots when you deduce this all again," which just about sums it up.

"Impossible," Sherlock tells them both, dismissive, tracking George as she makes her way past Dimmock’s office and Sally’s desk. "Lestrade’s love life is sure to be as boring as all of those horribly plebian murders she knows not to bother me with."

George rolls her eyes, pushing into her office. "Anyway, you'll love this," she tells him. "That explosion — "

"Gas leak, yes?" Sherlock interrupts.

George grins. "No."

She can hear the spark of interest in his voice. "No?"

"Made to look like one," George clarifies, and goes to her desk, shoving aside her scarf and the interoffice folders that have made their way into her inbox in the five minutes she’s been away as John asks, "What?"

"Hardly anything left of the place, except a strongbox. A very strong box," she tells them, and hands Sherlock an envelope, his name scrawled across it in neat blue ink. "And inside it was this."

He snatches it from her, taking it to the lamp in the corner to look more closely. She’s always seized by a moment of unaccountable tenderness when he does this sort of thing, vanishing down into his own head before her eyes. George wasn’t lying when she told John she doesn’t know Sherlock. She still doesn’t, and no matter how many childhood anecdotes Mycroft tells her, his little brother will always be unfathomable, his brain a riot, the stirrings of his heart well-hidden, but George at least knows that in moments like these, he’s wholly present, entirely alive in a way that many people never are.

"You haven’t opened it," Sherlock murmurs.

"It’s addressed to you, isn’t it?" George allows, hanging back and letting Sherlock look and look, while John hangs back so he can look and look at Sherlock. "We’ve x-rayed, it’s not booby-trapped."

"How reassuring," Sherlock says, but all the venom is dampened by obvious curiosity. "Nice stationary. Bohemian."

There’s an incredible amount of shite on George’s desk, about half of which she can’t actually account for, which leaves her waving for Sally to come in and fix it and asking, "What?" in distraction.

"Czech Republic," Sherlock explains, short like a shot. "No fingerprints?"

George shakes her head. "No."

Sherlock’s looking at the envelope in raking light now, the orange glow of the bulb deepening the blue of his name. "She used a fountain pen," he says. "Parker Duofold, meridian nib."

"She?" John asks, stepping closer.

"Obviously," Sherlock says, which John parrots as his flatmate opens the letter carefully with a knife. George can’t see the contents, just the tension coiling up Sherlock’s back, and then John sputters:

"That’s the phone. The pink phone."

"What, from the Study in Pink?" George blurts out, pressing in closer to get a look. It is the same: older model iPhone with a rubbery pink case, no scuff marks. And there’s Sherlock and John huddled around it again, months later, still dashing into and out of life and death situations like boys at play, and George letting them get away with it.

Sherlock starts off distant, murmuring, "Well, obviously it’s not the same phone but it’s supposed to look like — " before he jerks around, barking, "Study in Pink? You read his blog?"

"Of course I do," George tells him, because of course she does.

John’s incredibly unenthused and sparsely populated blog had been one of the first things Sally’s background check on the man had turned up. Being a dedicated and experienced officer of the law and still completely convinced Sherlock was going to ask John to put the lotion in the basket, Sally had set up a Google alert. The rest was history.

"We all do," George goes on. "Do you really not know the Earth goes around the sun?"

It’s either incredibly good or incredibly bad timing, because there’s Sally all of a sudden, standing in the doorway snickering, and John wearing a face George had seen frequently on Tom when he’d known he’d be spending the night on the sofa. Mycroft, perhaps betraying the fragile nature of their current peace, absolutely refuses to go to bed angry and makes himself six times as annoying as Sherlock has ever managed to be by dint of his having assumed access to her bedroom and a tendency to create flow charts about their disagreements.

Turning back away from John with the type of slowness that promises a louder and much more embarrassing domestic later in the privacy of their own home, Sherlock returns his attention to the mobile, saying, "It isn’t the same phone. This one’s brand new. Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to make it look like the same phone — " he spares another pouting glare for John " — which means your blog has a far wider readership."

The phone, when it turns on, announces, "You have one new message," into the tense silence of George’s office, and after a beat comes five tones at one second intervals: flat, commonplace, utterly and universally recognizable.

"Was that it?" John asks, on behalf of everyone.

Sherlock’s mesmerized now, peering at the phone and saying, "No, that’s not it," as the mobile pings and a photograph loads up.

The picture, when George manages to shove her way in between Sherlock and John to see it, is only incrementally more interesting: a damp-looking room with deteriorating wallpaper. Overall, it reminds George very strongly of some questionable flats she’d called home during uni, but nothing more or less than that.

"What the hell are we supposed to make of that?" she asks. "An estate agent’s photo and the bloody Greenwich pips?"

Sherlock still has that sorcerer’s look in his eyes. "It’s a warning," he breathes.

When John Watson tenses, George can feel it in the room like the vibration of a stereo speaker, thrumming in the floor. John is kind and friendly and unassuming. John also invaded Afghanistan and likely shot a man for Sherlock the first day they met.

"A warning?" John asks.

"Some secret societies used to send dried melon seeds, orange pips, things like that — five pips," Sherlock says, and George thinks — fond in a sad way — that he hadn’t learned that reading mystery novels in the shade of a tree like other boys, but probably buried somewhere in the ancestral Holmes estate from a government manual after Mycroft had fucked off to Eton and left him wandering the grounds like a restless, intractable ghost. "They’re warning us it’s going to happen again," he murmurs, and already darting out of her office, says to no one in particular, "I’ve seen this place before."

"Hang on. What’s going to happen again?" John yelps, trailing after, and Sherlock spins to says, "Boom."

Sherlock must have made a deal with the devil at some point during childhood, because never has George had better luck acquiring taxis than when she’s standing next to the man, and it’s only a few moments before they’re tumbled into the back of one and headed for Baker Street.

"What are you thinking?" George asks, and when Sherlock ignores her in favor of the phone, she sighs and turns to John. "What’s he thinking?"

John’s smile is also too good for Sherlock, but George, being female, is used to the art of letting friends date horrible men. "Might I remind you I’ve still known him five years less than you," he tells her.

"Ah, but you two are all cozy now," George returns, grinning.

"Oh, not so cozy," John answers, that little gleam in his eye, and George finds it entirely plausible that his Yard-anointed nickname of Three Continents Watson is factually accurate when he grins at her in that exact manner.

"Stop flirting," Sherlock interrupts, not looking up. "John is constitutionally incapable of not having a go at any beautiful, pre-menopausal woman but I seriously doubt your partner would appreciate you giving Dr. Watson a leg over, Lestrade."

George beams. "True — he gets so jealous."

"Oh, Christ," John laughs, covering his face.

This, Sherlock finds interesting. "Really — jealous?" he asks, looking up from the phone finally as they draw nearer to the flat. "I wouldn’t have thought you had much patience for men so inclined."

"Oh, under normal circumstances, no," George admits, because it’s true, and Sherlock is the truest judge of character she knows, despite his avowed disinterest in it. "But his isn’t driven so much by insecurity as a profound inability to share."

"Common," Sherlock declares. "Sparking his possessive tendencies must have some sort of incredibly base sexual compensation for you, I imagine."

"George Lestrade," John says, breathless, eyes wet now, "you are the most singularly cruel woman I have ever known."

"Why?" Sherlock asks, frowning, his brain probably whirring and whirring and continually getting a 404, File Not Found page.

George, in lieu of answering either John’s accusation or Sherlock’s query, says cheerfully, "Oh, look, Baker Street."

Sherlock gives both her and John suspicious looks, but subsides at the promise of a more interesting mystery, tossing the driver a few notes and striding into 221B. Mrs. Hudson says hello, ignores the impatient tone of Sherlock’s voice, chatters all through locating the keys to the basement flat, and then editorializes briefly about its lack of popularity, all while Sherlock and John make like teenaged boys and ignore her, and George curses being socialized female and her obligated if poorly feigned interest.

By the time she manages to shut the door to 221C (who knew?) and get downstairs to provide a modicum of adult supervision, it’s in time to see a pair of trainers in the middle of the wholly uninspiring room — surrounded by that florid wallpaper, sickly green paint, a filthy fireplace and a single mirror, propped up in a corner. It smells like mold, the watery light flickering, and George feels seasick, tension winding up her spine.

"Shoes," John says quietly, the word trailing into a flat question, and Sherlock steps toward them, impatience radiating, until John stops him, his voice a bark — and this must be what Captain John Watson sounded like to his men in Afghanistan, that steel core and sandpaper edge — as he snaps, "He’s a bomber, remember?"

In 2005, George had been a detective sergeant, and at about 8:50 a.m. on July 7 she’d been at the Costa nearest to New Scotland Yard on the phone with her mum. Five minutes later, she’d spilled her coffee and run. Mostly what she remembers of that day is in searing detail; the pieces that stay with her are the way she’d spilt her coffee, the way everybody had stared as she’d bolted, how she’d gasped, "Mum, whatever you do, stay indoors today," and hung up to call Tom, and the infinite seconds where her heart had broken and revived a dozen times before he’d answered, sleepy and fine, to say he was running late and what was going on? He’d heard on the news something about an power surge on the Underground? She remembers having to lean against the fucking pole that held up NSY’s sign — spinning away overhead — and gasp, "Jesus Christ, thank you, oh, thank God." George remembers bombs and hates them.

Now, in the guts of Baker Street, Sherlock crouches down, balancing on his gloved fingertips and the balls of his feet to lean in, take a deep breath of the shoes as the tension burns and burns and the phone rings — terrifying — into the silence.

"Fucking hell," George whispers, under her breath, and Sherlock presses a button on the phone, saying low and measured, "Hello."

The pause is long enough that George is torn between annoyance and fear, but when the voice comes, it’s crying, echoing over speakerphone.

"Hello, s-sexy."

***

The next week is a horrible blur.

Sherlock and John are fighting so obviously that George wants to tear out her hair, to shout that they can have their fucking feelings later because there are innocent people who’s relying on them for her survival, and how miserable is that? How completely terrible? That Sherlock Holmes has finally drawn in a criminal playmate as brilliant as himself and all of London is their chessboard. It’s one of those sickening truths about Sherlock she’s always known but likes to ignore: he helps her out for the thrill, not out of any sense of duty. It’s why the boring cases get ignored, why he’ll lose interest, why he’ll forget to tell her he’s sussed out the criminal sometimes, why his eyes are shining so fever-bright right now, dashing around London with John growing increasingly grim-faced at his heels.

They save Susan Dearborne, who’s been sitting in her own sweat and piss for twelve hours, who sobs hysterically the entire time the bomb squad works to deconstruct her semtex cage. They save Gavin Ashwood, who’s lost feeling in his extremities from standing in the cold, his knees locked up and his feet swollen into his shoes, who has to be wrapped up in all the shock blankets Sherlock didn't need.

George has six fights with her superiors because she doesn’t have time to discuss procedure with them — especially not if this discussion is going to dovetail into an agonizing negotiation over her most infamous unnamed informant. They say they’re letting her go out on a limb, that they’ll give her just enough rope to hang herself. George thinks fuck the lot of them, because they hadn’t heard the phone calls, they’re not running themselves ragged chasing after Sherlock’s deductions, trying to shake out someone mad enough to make Sherlock look half in love. They want to call a counterterrorism task force; they want to alert the Home Office. George doesn’t care what they do or if they do all of it — they just need to let her do her job.

Mycroft’s tied up with one of those somethings he can’t talk about at all, taking defensive positions at his office or at his club. George is glad for it. If he were here, she’d just pick a fight, and Mycroft never shouts back at her when she’s upset like this, sees right through her misplaced fury. He just sits there and takes the abuse until George gets tired or her voice cracks and she trips out of anger and directly into abject guilt, crying angry tears at herself.

The Lyall Street house, when she gets there the end of the second horrible day, is empty and lonely-smelling: no tea or toast or marmite, just the stale afterimage of Mycroft’s aftershave and grapefruit cleaner the housekeeper uses. George sorts the mail and makes herself an omelet, leaves it half-eaten in the breakfast room and curls up on Mycroft’s side of the bed, feeling profoundly sorry for herself.

She sleeps badly and barely. Early in the war story days of her and John figuring out the paces of one another, she learned he can sleep anywhere: standing up, sitting in mud, in dirty medical cots. He’d trained for it in med school, long before they ever shipped him to Afghanistan, where he was the envy of his men there, too. George is a light sleeper, easily drifting and easily drifting awake at the shock of a dream, at a change in elevation, at a rumble on the train, a faraway sound — at the weight of Mycroft’s body moving to sit on the edge of the bed.

She blinks twice, eyes feeling gummy, rolls back enough so she can look up at him.

"Hi," she rasps out, and when he just frowns at her mulishly, she croaks out a laugh.

His hair is a mess, hanging in dark wisps across his forehead and his jaw’s a touch swollen, probably hot and hurting to the touch, and George reaches over to collect one of his hands and fold possessively into her own. She presses a lingering kiss to the knuckles: warm skin and the cold metal of his ring, holds it close to her cheek on the pillow.

"Did you finally go to the dentist, then?" she asks, smiling into his fingers.

In lieu of risking a lisp, he just nods.

"Of course you did it in the dead of night, otherwise, however could it be dramatic enough for a Holmes," George laughs, and yawning, curls in around herself more tightly for a beat, squeezing his hand as a talisman before she forces herself to get up, to say, "Come on, I’ll make you a smoothie."

Mycroft sulks abominably all through breakfast, drinking sullenly and with a straw, and George knows she’s not encouraging any grown-up behavior. She combs through his hair with her fingers, presses understanding kisses to his temple, and curls up with him in the breakfast room, creating sign language just for the two of them. An eye-roll that means Sherlock, the wrinkle of his brow that means long day, nonsense in southeast Asia, the curled backs of his fingers stroking down the line of her throat, and how it means, hello, Georgiana and I missed you all at once. It’s the nice part of the day, the good feeling she holds onto in the shower and as she puts on her coat and scarf and lets Mycroft fit a hat on her, tucking her hair behind her ears.

"You should stay home," she says to him. "Nap. Make Anthea come here for work."

He smiles and George smiles back, and they both know he’ll be back at his office in less than an hour — out the door as soon as she’s vanished down the street.

"Fine, fine," George sighs, good-natured, because she trusts him to know his limits, even if she doesn’t like them. She drags him rudely down by his loosened tie for a quick kiss, light across his mouth, and heads for work, where she’s intercepted in the lobby by John and Sherlock, whose expression as he’s perched near reception betrays an exceptional level of bloody-mindedness today.

"Oh, Christ," George says. "What now?"

"Connie Prince," Sherlock demands. "I need to see her body immediately."

George looks at John. "Oh, he needs to see her body, does he?" she asks.

"Immediately, even," John repeats, smirking, and indicates the pink mobile Sherlock is clutching inside a gloved hand. "Another call."

Scowling, George doesn’t bother to take off her hat. "Leaving aside the fact that I asked you to submit that into evidence yesterday, Jesus — fine, let me ring around."

Sherlock frowns at her. "Whose hat is that? You never wear hats. You’re constantly cold but you never dress properly for it."

"Shut it," George instructs him, and presses her mobile to her ear.

He does, but it’s temporary, and when they all pile into her Golf — Sherlock commandeering the passenger seat and pushing it all the way back to fit his stork legs — and John settled primly in back, he starts again.

"I’m only intrigued because your inability to dress for the weather is one of your selective and extraordinarily confusing vanities," Sherlock informs her. "Clearly, this has something to do with the lover you’ve taken."

In the backseat, John starts giggling, reflexive.

George slants him a look. "This is not you shutting it," she says mildly.

"I would have thought you’d spend more time mourning your marriage," Sherlock says, but without any judgment, just flatly speculative: he doesn’t care either way. "Anyway — far more importantly: tell me they have not begun any embalming processes."

"Lucky for you, England’s bureaucracy has been on the same tea break for twenty years, so no," George tells him. "They’ve only just finished the autopsy last night."

Connie Prince on the slab looks nothing at all like the big-voiced woman on the telly, all her eye shadow washed away and her lips blue. George’s professional life revolves around dead bodies, but it’s still strange to see the before and after, to know how Connie Price moved and shrieked laughing and now to see her so quiet under Sherlock’s merciless inspection and miniature magnifying glass.

"Connie Prince, fifty-four, had a makeover show, my mum’s addicted," she says, after she’s cashed in four favors and pulled rank two times to get them access to the body, plunges them into the sterile chill of the hospital morgue.

Sherlock glances up at her through his lashes. "Not anymore," he says, and turns back to the body. "So. Dead two days, according to one of her staff, Raoul de Santos, she cut her hand on a rusty nail in the garden. Nasty wound. Tetanus bacteria enters the bloodstream — goodnight, Vienna."

"I suppose," John says, circling around, like he and Sherlock are tethered together.

"Something’s wrong with this picture," Sherlock murmurs, and George can’t help making an inquiring noise. Sherlock’s entire consulting career is like a Greek tragedy: drama and destiny and the need for a chorus on the side. "It can’t be as simple as it seems or else the bomber wouldn’t be directing us towards it — something’s wrong."

And then they’re both looking her over: John with a doctor’s eyes and Sherlock with impatient ones. George used to be upset by this, the strangely invasive way that Sherlock studies the dead. It’s irrational to be angry on their behalf, they’re so long past caring, and Sherlock isn’t doing any harm, just searching for evidence. Maybe she’s more numb to it these days, or maybe whenever she supervises his inspection of a body, she’s just remembering him humming Flight of the Bumblebee, but it unsettles her less now, sits more comfortably in her chest. One day, if she ends up on a metal table with a question mark hanging over her, she thinks she’d like Sherlock to take her case, that she wouldn’t mind being the subject of one final, obnoxious deduction. If it’s boring, all the better: fitting punishment for his behavior the entire time she’s known him.

"John," he calls, "he cut on her hand — it’s deep. It would have bled a lot, right?"

John’s checking the autopsy results, glancing up from the paperwork and back to the body like he’s verifying the medical examiner’s work. He says, "Yeah."

"The wound’s clean," Sherlock says. "Very clean. And fresh — " he snaps his magnifier shut, slips it into his pocket as he unbends " — how long would the bacteria have been incubating inside her?"

John looks thoughtful a beat before saying, "Eight, ten days."

Sherlock was brilliant before he met John, but he was never happy about it, always rushing from one fantastic deduction to the next case, ravenous for the next piece of evidence. Now with John watching — with John thinking Sherlock’s brilliant and that his work is fantastic — there’s a smile, more jumping, an occasional, ludicrously childlike flash of delight.

Tom used to say, when they’d just met, "How can anyone be scared of you as a police officer? You’re so smiley." George was shy and awkward and bad at dating as she ever was, and never managed to say, I’m not smiley — I just can’t stop smiling when I’m with you. She remembers what that meant then, and she wonders what that means now, watching Sherlock and John locked into one another’s endless orbits.

John’s traveled all the way back around to Sherlock’s side again, and he says in the silence after Sherlock’s query, "That...cut was made later."

George looks down at Connie’s face. "After she was dead."

"Must have been," Sherlock says. "The question is how did the tetanus enter the dead woman’s system — " he leans toward John, just a half-step closer but suddenly enclosed in a little bubble, just the two of them " — you want to help, right?"

"Of course," John answers, stumbling.

"Connie Prince’s background, family history, everything. Get me data," Sherlock instructs, and John nods and vanishes: practical and endlessly reliable.

Sherlock’s being more conciliatory than usual, the "right?" appended to the end of his demands a little off key, a touch out of character and just shy of condescending. George guesses this is as close as the man can come to making allowances. George once threw Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots across the room at the 490-page mark because she couldn’t bear to read about that woman making any more foolish romantic decisions; running around with John and Sherlock is like watching it all over in homosocial technicolor, sometimes.

"There’s something else that we haven’t thought of," George says, when Sherlock winds around Connie and heads for the door, calling over his shoulder in disinterest:

"Is there?"

"Yes, why is the bomber doing this?" George asks, because she’d bet the crown jewels that Sherlock knows. "If this woman’s death was suspicious, why point it out?"

Sherlock leans back to tell her, "Good samaritan," so sarcastic it almost sounds sincere.

"Who press-gangs people into being suicide bombers?" George goes on.

"Bad samaritan," Sherlock rejoins, that sincerity winding back to sarcasm again.

"I’m serious, Sherlock," George says, barely resisting the urge to grab him by the collar and shake him. "Listen, I’m cutting you slack here, I’m trusting you, but out there somewhere some poor bastard’s out there covered in semtex and he’s just waiting for you to solve the puzzle."

Unsurprisingly, Sherlock looks unmoved.

"So just tell me," George concludes, annoyed that she’s begging, "what are we dealing with here?"

There’s that gleam in his eye again, that makes George’s stomach sink into her shoes.

Sherlock breathes, "Something new," and whirls out the room.

George gives herself a minute in the too cold of the morgue and to shudder out two breaths before she forces herself to chase after him, to dive back into it. Sherlock spends the entire ride back to Baker Street in pensive silence, mulling over something he’s not interested in discussing, if the way he flagrantly ignores her four separate attempts to initiate conversation is anything to go by. They get another phone call from the bomber — the old woman’s voice is shaking horribly, and George forces herself to go a bit dead inside, so she can focus on what’s being said — to say, "You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?" and to remind Sherlock they’ve only three hours left. Both are true, and for so many reasons, George has nothing to say about either.

She sits around the flat waiting for him to come up with something until her breathing becomes, quote, intolerable! Must you respirate so loudly, Lestrade? and she goes downstairs for tea and a moan with Mrs. Hudson.

"If I were you, I’d be grinding laxatives in all of his food," George tells her.

Mrs. Hudson smiles beatifically. "Oh, I’ve been tempted, dear. But with those boys, how can you even tell what’s food in that awful fridge of theirs?"

"Valid," George agrees. "Probably the take out is a defensive maneuver."

Mostly to be a twat, she makes Mrs. Hudson come upstairs with her, so both of them can respirate loudly at Sherlock — who glowers at her murderously while he maintains benign politeness for his telephone call — as he stalks around the room frowning at things and rifling through piles of paper.

"I’m going to miss her," Mrs. Hudson says, admiring placidly all the photographs of Connie Prince’s body that Sherlock’s thoughtfully pinned to his wall. Figures that he and John live here. Maybe everybody at 221 Baker Street deserves one another. "She taught you how to do your colors. For example: I shouldn’t wear cerise. It drains me."

"I don’t buy into that," George says loyally. "I think you’d look lovely in cerise."

"Forcing me to entertain suicidal ideation over the subject of your asinine conversations isn’t going to make me think any more quickly," Sherlock shouts at them.

Ignoring him, George continues, "Anyway, I think that colors business is bollocks. According to her I should wear gray. As if my coloring can handle any more gray."

"Your hair is silver, dear," Mrs. Hudson assures her. "And very pretty."

Sherlock, in the background, makes an agonized sound that gets interrupted by his phone and then a cry of, "John!"

"It’s almost embarrassing how he lights up like that," George observes, watching Sherlock dash around the flat gathering camera equipment — some of which has obviously been stolen from ITV — and pulling on his coat and scarf.

Mrs. Hudson smiles indulgently as Sherlock bangs out of the flat, jumping down the stairs two at a time and calling over his shoulder, "Stay there! Don’t touch the testicles in the fridge!"

If three hours wasn’t forty minutes ago — so now they have two hours and twenty minutes — George would have shouted something back, or deliberately stolen one of John’s gloves and touched Sherlock’s fridge testicles just to irritate him. But all she can do is stare at Connie Prince, dead on Sherlock’s wall, and panic, feel helpless, feel sick rising in the back of her throat.

Mrs. Hudson clutches her hand, comforting.

"Breathe a bit, love," she says.

"Right. Sorry," George manages.

"Sherlock and John are clever boys," Mrs. Hudson says, and gives George’s fingers a squeeze. "It’ll all be fine — you’ll see."

***

It’s not fine. They don’t save Margaret Hesher, and her flat and half her tower block goes with her, taking eleven other people down in the rubble and flames. And even though George swears and swears and resorts of begging, Bombs won’t let her go into the scene to look, to look for something, anything, any trace.

"There’s nothing there for you, George," Dan says, not unkindly. "It’s just pink mist and bone fragments and a fuckload of burned quilts. You’ll have it all — just not now."

The case is on the highest level need to know basis, which means George knows and Trackwell knows and the commissioner knows. Sally know something’s going on, but she also knows enough not to ask. The Home Office has its own sticky fingers in it, and Yard’s bomb squad is in British Gas uniforms when they investigate the building. She has no idea how they’re going to convince the Tottenham Council to take the rap for this, and George thinks, I bet Mycroft has ways.

"Georgiana."

She blinks. She’s holding her mobile to her ear.

"Georgiana?" Mycroft says again, more urgent this time.

"Hi," she says, awkward. "Hi. I — I don’t think I realized I was calling. Sorry."

She can hear the television in the background of his office: BBC1, relentless coverage on the gas main explosion, discussion with various experts on London’s aging infrastructure, public advocates furious people are being put at risk in this manner.

"I doubt you can say anything to me about it, but I can tell from the news cycle it hasn’t been a good day," he says.

George covers her face with her free hand. It’s half ten already, the late shift wandering the building — people George knows in passing but doesn’t really know at all. Her desk lamp’s on but the overhead’s off, and her little office is sepia colored. Her eyes hurt and her throat hurts and her chest hurts. There’s nothing else to be done today. Sherlock and John have been debriefed, and Met and Home Office techs have cloned the phone, although George has no doubt that they won’t pick up the calls Sherlock is getting. It’s dark and cold and this terrible day is both unending and over already.

"No," George croaks. "Not a good day."

Mycroft hums, thoughtful, over the phone, and she can hear papers shuffling, a woman’s voice in the background coming closer, and the transfer of a phone.

"Detective Inspector Lestrade," Anthea says, comfortingly flat as ever.

George laughs a little, aware it sounds wet and pathetic, but Mycroft is actually terrible at cheering people up and it’s sweet that he knows it. "Hi," she says. "Time machine."

"Forbidden due to a NATO treaty," Anthea replies.

"Time turner?" George tries.

"J.K. Rowling withholding schematics," is the answer, and before George can ask Anthea to find Superman and have him fly around the Earth so quickly it spins backwards, she says, "Mr. Holmes is tying up some loose ends — "

George can’t help but ask, "Literally? Is he hanging people in the next room who’re more than ninety days late paying their tax?"

" — and then he’ll meet you in front of New Scotland Yard in half an hour," Anthea finishes smoothly.

"Look at that," George says quietly, "just what I needed."

There’s a shifting noise on the other end of the line, the television turning off, and Mycroft’s voice in the distance, indistinct underneath Anthea’s, "Of course, it’s my job."

Mycroft’s at the wheel of the car that pulls up in front of NSY, and George slides into the passenger seat chilled through, shivering harder in the sudden warmth than she’d been shaking standing in front the building, hat pulled down over her ears and Mycroft’s gloves huge on her hands.

"I’m sure you did everything you could," he says to her, when they’re idling at a red light waiting for it to turn, London quiet and frigid around the car.

George just stares straight ahead: at the shuttered stores and still-open newsagents, the university students running around in tights and high heels, shrieking laughing in the city — everyone happy in their ignorant vulnerability. Of course George had done everything she could, but that’s the shittiest part of it, isn’t it? That she can kill herself trying and there’s nothing to be done, nothing in all of her training or planning. She could be better than herself, faster and more dangerous and think more quickly and it still wouldn’t matter because she just watching this one — it’s Sherlock’s show.

"How are you you, when Sherlock is Sherlock?" George asks, instead of talking about how she feels or how the day went, the way she just wants to go home and give up, lie still in the foyer and let Mycroft pick his way gently around her, cover her up in a blanket and leave her alone.

He’s quiet for a long minute, the car filling in the space with low purring — it’s a Bentley Continental GT this time, in a gunmetal gray; she still likes the persnickety Aston Martin better — before he says, "In terms of absolute intelligence, I’m only slightly cleverer than my brother, just a few points."

George smirks, knee jerk. "Somewhere out there, Sherlock just vomited blood, and I bet he’s already deduced why."

"Not too far off from his actual reaction when we were tested as children," Mycroft allows. "But I’ve always been lucky in that those few extra points meant I understood people. Sherlock doesn’t. We’re all baffling to him."

It’s a quick drive, just under ten minutes, from NSY to the Lyall Street house, and traffic is light by this time of evening on a weekday — past Christchurch Gardens and crossing Buckingham Gate — the city orange night around them. George worries about all of it, every single person: the woman in the fucking Pizza Express and the boy stumbling into the Caffe Nero, the couple walking down the street, Mycroft’s awful neighbors.

"I remember when he found the Carl Powers case," Mycroft says. "It was a logical inconsistency, naturally, but what left its mark was how Sherlock couldn’t use that to leverage anybody else into taking an interest. He wanted to know how people ticked, why they did what they did, why they all failed to see the truth."

"So, what, his endless quest for the most interesting murder, that’s not his morbid curiosity, it’s his secret way of reaching out for humanity?" George asks, frankly disbelieving, because she’s never bought into Sally’s argument that Sherlock’s heartless and on the brink of a killing spree, but she can’t imagine him concealing a secretly throbbing love of humanity, either.

"God, no," Mycroft laughs. "No — but people are Sherlock’s greatest mystery, us and the mad things we do. It’s the only puzzle he hasn’t conquered. Crime is just one of the more interesting of the mad things we do."

At the house, up the stairs, after Mycroft’s stripped her of her clothes and her foul mood, he runs her a bath and sits on the edge of the tub: trailing his fingers into the water and along her collar bone, the line of her arm, curiously tracing a nipple.

She sighs into it, into his touch, eyes sliding closed. "Sherlock always says he’s bored, horribly bored by everything — what about you? If you’re even smarter than he is."

"Meaning I," Mycroft says, a smile in his voice, "am smart enough to find my own entertainments," and his hand trails down the line of her sternum, past the well of her belly button and the curve of her stomach, his finger slipping between her thighs.

George’s sigh melts into a groan. "I always knew that bastard just needed to get laid."

"Well, as long as you don’t volunteer," Mycroft says.

"Disgusting," George says, dragging him into the water with her as punishment, getting his shirt and trousers soaked through and sending a tsunami across the bathroom tiles, "it’d be like committing incest with an uncooperative family pet."

They end up having to sleep in one of Mycroft’s eight zillion other bedrooms because the combination of water and slick and semen that they inflict upon their own makes it uninhabitable until the housekeeper does some sort of exorcism.

"Poor Claire," George says as she’s drifting off to sleep.

"Your pity’s misplaced," Mycroft says, still running a hand up and down her back. "I’ll be mocked about this for years."

George smiles into the pillow, eyes closed.

***

She dreams about sitting in the back of her father’s cab, trapped in between Mycroft and Sherlock along the seat while John perches on a fold-down. It’s brightly gray outside the windows, and every building they go past explodes. It’s not exactly a bad dream, too strange for her to feel anything but strangely about it, but she wakes up half-nauseated anyway, to the sound of her mobile manic in her ear, SHERLOCK FUCKING HOLMES blinking ominously at her across the caller ID.

***

Both to defy expectations and because with the wind chill along the fucking Thames, it’s -10 celsius, George wears a scarf and the hat Mycroft put on her yesterday and his gloves that she’s still appropriated and a pair of fleece-lined wellies with her trousers tucked in. It’s probably the least attractive she’s ever looked, which given some of the scut work she did as a constable, is really saying something.

She’s drunk three flat whites already since she managed to eject herself from bed, and basically the only non-shite thing that’s happened so far today is the steady stream of text-based cruel editorializing Mycroft has about his morning meeting. Uncomfortably, George suspects it’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

If you keep this up, he’s going to raise govt withholding out of spite. GL, she warns him, but mostly so he’ll smile a little today.

The answer comes two minutes later, as George’s walkie is crackling to life, saying, "Warning, Holmes alert. Repeat: warning, Holmes alert," and her phone screen bleats at her, He’s only cross because his mistress is ignoring him, if his cufflinks are any indication. Please push Sherlock into the Thames if he’s rude. MH.

She’s still grinning when Sherlock comes stalking toward her on the shore, already pulling on gloves and with eyes only for the body in the shallow water and rocks, John trailing in his wake. The coroner’s pronounced, but held off on the rest at George and the Home Office’s request, which he’d taken with about as much grace as could be expected.

"Why are you smiling?" Sherlock asks her, sneering. Clearly, at some point during the last days he and John had reversed places on the penalty sofa.

George just smiles at him sweetly. "Incredibly depraved sexual intercourse."

"Dull," Sherlock snarls and makes for the body.

"Do you reckon this is connected then? The bomber?" George asks, instead of telling Sherlock about Mycroft’s prodigious oral fixation. She’s saving it for a special occasion, one day when she’s really going to want to make his life hell.

"Must be, odd though," Sherlock says, crouching down near the body, eyes searching. "He hasn’t been in touch."

George winces. "We must assume some poor bugger’s primed to explode, yeah?"

"Yes," Sherlock allows, but it’s not anywhere as impatient as George would have expected. She wonders if that’s what he and John were fighting about last night, this morning, this entire case. Sherlock sounds cold and oddly subdued.

"Any ideas?" she presses, watching him inspect the body.

"Seven. So far," Sherlock tells her.

George gapes. "Seven?"

Sherlock’s response involves peering at the dead man’s eyebrows, poking at his shirt, peeling off one of his black socks, and jerking his head for John to examine the body, too. George waves him to it, since the coroner’s already sworn a pox on her and any progeny over this bullshit, so she might as well. At least Sherlock hasn’t showed up this time with a meat thermometer and asked John to demonstrate how to take a liver temp. That had gone over so well with Heller he’d written up a foul note for her in the autopsy that included no fewer than six references to being long overdue for retirement.

John’s exam is less silent.

"He’s dead...about twenty-four hours," John says, checking rigor. "Maybe a bit longer — might be drowning, but he’s got all the classic signs of asphyxiation."

George leans over to watch the little swirl of brassy brown hair at the top of John’s head as he inspects the body.

"There’s a little bit of bruising around the nose and mouth," John goes on, and indicating the man’s face, his hairline, he adds, "More bruises here — and here."

In the background, Sherlock pecks away at his BlackBerry and mutters, "Fingertips."

"He’s late thirties, I’d say," John concludes. "Not in the best condition."

"He’s been in the river a long while, the water’s destroyed most of the data," Sherlock declares, looking up finally from his mobile to stare at them crazily. "But I’ll tell you one thing — that lost Vermeer painting’s a fake."

George stares at him. "What?"

Sherlock, true to form, ignores her to say, "We need to identify the corpse — find out about his friends and associates — "

It’s very hard not to pick up one of the many rocks on this beach and throw it at his face, but George forbears.

"Wait, wait wait wait," George interrupts. "What painting? What are you on about?"

"It’s all over the place, haven’t you seen the posters?" Sherlock says, frowning at her like she’s disappointed him (again) with how dull she’s being. "Dutch old master, supposed to have been destroyed centuries ago, and now it’s turned up — worth £30 million."

George isn’t ashamed of her lukewarm verging on cold relationship with the art press, so she asks, "Okay, so what has that got to do with the stiff?"

"Everything," Sherlock breathes. His face is one of pure, mad joy. Fantastic. "Have you ever heard of the golem?"

"Golem?" George says, frowning and shaking her head.

"It’s a horror story, isn’t it?" John cuts in. "What are you saying?"

"Jewish folk story, a gigantic man made of clay," Sherlock tells him, turning round to catch John’s eye with a glint of almost-affectionate approval. George is going to have to print him out one of those So You’re Having Some Feelings, It’s Probably Not Appropriate To Arrange Crime Scenes As Dates pamphlets. "It’s also the name of an assassin. Real name, Oscar Zunza, one of the deadliest assassins in the world, that — " Sherlock points to the body " — is his trademark style."

"So this is a hit," George says, more to herself than anything.

The man lying on the beach is ordinary and small and very sad looking, the way a lot of bodies are after their inhabitants have gone, and George can’t imagine someone as nondescript and plain as their victim looks being the object of such a crime. He’s wearing department store socks and looks too commonplace for this.

"Definitely. The golem squeezes the life out of his victims with his bare hands," Sherlock says.

"But what has this got to do with that painting?" George asks. "I don’t see — "

It’s while heaving an enormously put-upon sigh that Sherlock moans, "You do see, you just don’t observe — "

"All right, all right, children, calm down," John cuts in, which is probably for the best since her hands had been inching toward Sherlock’s miserable face and the temptation to hold his head in the Thames like a childhood bully had been rising fast in her blood. John asks, "Sherlock — do you want to take us through it?"

In a life prior to John Watson, getting explanations out of Sherlock was like pulling teeth from a lion. Now, it’s more an issue of setting it up so that Sherlock has sufficient reason to show off. It’s a good thing George has zero ego about her job.

"What do we know about this corpse?" Sherlock begins, circling the body like a shark. "Killer’s not left us with much, just this shirt and the trousers. They’re pretty formal. Maybe he was going out for the night. The trousers are heavy duty, polyester, nasty."

John and George share a look at that. Posh arsehole, is their shared thought.

"Same as the shirt. Cheap," Sherlock goes on, oblivious with all of his Harrow-educated consonants. "They’re both too big for him, so some kind of standard issue uniform, dressed for work then. What kind of work? There’s a hook on his belt for a walkie talkie."

"Tube driver?" George tries, and feels moronic the minute it’s out of her mouth, a sentiment reflected in Sherlock’s disgusted look.

John offers up, "Security guard?"

"More likely," Sherlock says, sounding relieved that the entire world isn’t so offensively stupid. "That’ll be borne out by his backside."

George is getting a migraine. "Backside?"

"Flabby," Sherlock says with summary finality. "You’d think he led a sedentary life, yet soles of his feet and the nascent varicose veins in his legs show otherwise. So a lot of walking a lot of sitting around, security guard’s looking good. The watch helps, too. The alarm shows regular night shift."

"Why regular?" George asks, mostly to be obnoxious at this point. "Maybe he just set his alarm like that the night before."

"No no no, the buttons are stiff, hardly touched," Sherlock says. "He set his alarm like that a long time ago, his routine never varied. But there's something else. The killer must have been interrupted, otherwise he would have stripped the corpse completely. There’s some kind of badge or insignia on the shirtfront that he tore off, suggesting the dead man worked somewhere recognizable. Some kind of institution. Found this inside his trouser pockets. It’s sodden by the river but it’s still recognizably..."

He holds it up for John, who obligingly says, "Tickets."

"Ticket stubs," Sherlock tells him, fairly overflowing with low-grade approval. "He works in a museum or a gallery. I did a quick check. The Hickman Gallery has reported one of its attendants is missing. Alex Woodbridge. Tonight they unveil the rediscovered masterpiece. Now why would anyone want to pay the Golem to suffocate a perfectly ordinary gallery attendant."

And why, George wonders, would the gallery be reporting him missing? Woodbridge’s body has been in the water for a day, probably, but that warrants a phone call home and a stern lecture from your manager on your voice mail. Two going by without a thoroughly apologetic call might warrant a ring from HR. It’ll be minimum three or four before a workplace thinks to call the police and file a missing person report.

"Inference: the dead man knew something about it, something that would stop the owner getting paid £30 million pounds — the picture’s a fake," Sherlock concludes.

"Fantastic," John says, smiling. George wonders if he even knows he’s doing it, if he can stop himself, or if Sherlock just triggers happiness like a chemical reaction in John, the way that people do sometimes, if they’re very very lucky.

Sherlock shrugs, too studied in casualness to be anything but entirely pleased. For him, it’s so schoolboy sweet it’s almost diabetic. "Meretricious," he dismisses.

"And a happy new year," George says, because there’s no way in hell she’s telling the Met and the Home Office this cockamamie Golem nonsense. If nothing else, bloody Interpol would get involved and then she’d never be able to do her job again.

John looks back down at the body. "Poor sod."

"I better get my feelers out for this Golem character," she prompts, mostly because at this point she knows it’s better to goad Sherlock into doing something by threatening to do it poorly with her, quote, apparently revoltingly plebeian and thoroughly embarrassing skillset, end quote, than to request it.

"Pointless, you’ll never find him," Sherlock cuts her off. "I know a man who can."

"Who?" George asks, like reciting the lines of a play, barely hiding her grin.

"Me," Sherlock says brightly, already starting for the steps back toward the OXO Tower off at double speed, leaving John barely the time to look despairing before taking off after him.

George cups her gloved hands around her mouth, shouting, "Have fun! Stay warm! Call if there’re shots fired!"

John’s answer is two extremely rude fingers; Sherlock doesn’t bother at all.

"It’s like I haven’t learned my lesson at all," George says philosophically, four hours later, standing in the lobby of the planetarium and feeling extremely zen for how completely furious she is. "It’s like I think that telling you asshats to call in case there are shots fired is a safe, fun, playful thing to say, and not taunting fate at all."

Sherlock wrinkles his nose. "Asshats?"

"I learned it from the traffic pool," George snaps. "How the fuck did you break the planetarium and where did you get this bloody gun? Why shouldn’t I let those officers drag your arses back to headquarters?"

Behind her, she can hear the officers in question sniggering. According to Sally, it’s major Yard gossip currency to see George tearing into the legendary Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. She can’t imagine why. She feels like she has some sort of rage-induced seizure at him on a quarterly basis, but then again Sherlock enduring her screaming at him for any length of time is telling of his affection for her — she’s seen others try it before only to have Sherlock wander off in boredom.

John raises a finger and smiles at her. "Ah — fourth victim?"

"You haven’t even gotten a call yet," George retorts.

"But we will! Don’t you see? The Vermeer is a fake! Why else would someone have sent the most expensive assassin in the business after that woman?" Sherlock reasons, voice escalating. "We’re wasting time! We have to go to the Hickman."

Police Sergeant Davison — originally from Leeds, cried during sexual assault training; George has first dibs on him when he inevitably joins Serious Crimes — cuts in here to say, "Yeah, right, mate. There’s a dead woman in there and you two are beat to hell and have a gun."

Sherlock angles his sneer around George. "If we have a gun, why would we have choked her to death?" he demands.

Absolutely straight-faced, Davison says, "Probably a sex thing."

John actually bursts out laughing at Sherlock’s expression.

"Sherlock," George says, steeling herself, "honestly, a hundred percent, no tricks, no time to waste. Do I need to get you to the gallery now?"

He meets her gaze, solemn as a church. "Yes, a hundred percent, no tricks, no time to waste — yes."

When George’s D had been situated in front of an S and she’d been shackled to this hideous warthog of a DI, Vincent Branton, she’d been ordered to throw Sherlock off of a case. Insubordination would lead to a bollocking, which she was all right with, which would come with an additional side of Branton eyeballing her like discount meat the entire time, which George was not all right with, and she’d cuffed Sherlock’s delicate and wildly flailing wrists mid-protest and hauled him to her police car. She’d been halfway back to Montague Street because she’d never had any fucking intention of arresting him and punishing herself with paperwork for it, when Sherlock had pressed his stupid gaunt face into the barrier between the back and front seats and hissed, "Lestrade — if you do not take me to Dunloe Street, someone else will die, a hundred percent, no tricks, no time to waste." George will always be the woman who had looked at his red-rimmed eyes in the rearview mirror, hissed, "God damn it," to herself, and taken a U-turn down fucking Bishopsgate out of faith — neither blind nor ever misplaced, she hopes.

"Fine, Christ," George sighs, and looking to Davison, she says, "Right — I’m taking these two into my custody. The handcuff keys, please?"

PS Davison gapes at her. "You’re joking — there’s a dead body!"

"I know," George says, placating. "When all of this is over and done with, the commissioner will almost certainly scream that at me, too, and I will note your very pragmatic objection. But, until then, the handcuff keys."

Davison hands them over. "You’re an absolute mentalist," he tells her, awed.

"I’m even worse when you work for me," she says, clapping him on the shoulder and tossing the keys to Sherlock.

They’re piled into her car — Sherlock pushing the passenger seat all the way back again — when he confides, "Davison’s puerile crush on you has worsened threefold now, you ought to know. He’s liable to vomit out a confession anytime in the next month, depending on how frequently you see him."

George glares at him as she puts the car into gear. "Your brother likes to watch."

In the backseat, John puts his face in his hands, and in the front, Sherlock goes utterly white, sputtering, "I — what?" and the rest of the trip to the Hickman is occupied with Sherlock making rapid-fire deductions and then deleting them in panicked agony.

He’s either over it or he’s done serious, lasting damage to his short-term memory by the time they reach the museum. George isn’t bothered either way, since when they get out of the car Sherlock appears to be as brilliantly annoying as ever, scamming his way past security to get them in to see Ms. Wenceslas, the gallery director. The conversation is civil for roughly five minutes before Sherlock says:

"You probably don’t recognize me from our earlier conversation because you’re too busy panicking about the fake Vermeer you have hanging on your wall, I understand."

John says, "You were here earlier?"

Ms. Wenceslas says, "Excuse me?"

George says, "For fuck’s sake."

They end up in the viewing room, stark and painfully white but for the single painting on the wall at eye level. It’s an unremarkable little thing to her: a nightscape with slightly blurred edges, tired paint, and a layer of veneer over everything that’s a sickly yellow, either with age (Ms. Wenceslas) or contrivance (Sherlock).

"It's a fake," Sherlock mutters, frowning down at his phone. "It has to be."

Ms. Wenceslas, in a jagged-edged couture gown and a perfume of desperation that just reeks of guilt, says, "This painting has been subjected to every test known to science."

"It's a very good fake, then," Sherlock retorts, turning on his heel to glare at her. "You know about this, don't you. This is you, isn't it?"

She ignores him in favor of settling her hands on her hips, tilting herself at George with a well-cultivated curl of her lip, and George narrows her eyes instinctively. She knows that look on a woman and the sort of appraising put-down that always follows.

"Inspector, my time is being wasted," Ms. Wenceslas says, sounding steadier now, comfortable in her refined disdain, ordering George around. "Would you mind showing yourself — " there it is, the up and down look George has been waiting for: to take in her off-the-rack clothes and muddy shoes, her cheap haircut and her wrinkles, all the irrelevant things that do and don't define her " — and your friends out?"

The pink phone rings, clanging, echoing in the gallery, and Sherlock turns it on speakerphone, barking, "The painting is a fake."

The silence after is deafening.

"It's a fake," Sherlock tries again. "That's why Woodbridge and Cairns were killed."

Still nothing — a distant intake of breath, and George can't tear her eyes away from the phone, its toxic pink case in Sherlock's ghostly white hands. They haven't gotten a call and a countdown this time, but she has no doubt there is a victim, that their seconds are ticking down.

"Aw, come on, proving it's just a detail," he insists, sounding the kind of cocky he sounds when he's scared, when he's nervous, when she'd told him he could either stop doing cocaine or be punched repeatedly in the testicles because doing cocaine wasn't an option. Sherlock snaps, impatient, "The painting is a fake. I've solved it. I've figured it out. It's a fake. That's the answer — that's why they were killed."

On the phone it's another breath, quieter this time. It's damning and Sherlock knows it.

"Okay," he says, into the air over the phone, near-pleading. "I'll prove it — give me time. Will you give me time?"

There isn't a silence this time, just a boy's voice, shaking, saying, "Ten," floating out of the speaker of the iPhone, and Sherlock whirls back around to the painting, frantic.

"It's a kid?" George says stupidly. "Oh, God, it's a kid."

"What'd he say?" John asks, looking gut-punched, gutted.

"Ten," Sherlock whispers, back to them. "It's a countdown, he's giving me time."

"Jesus," George murmurs, and over the sound of blood rushing her ears — she can't bear it, to lose another tower block like that, or what if it's a school? dozens of dead kids in their jumpers and polished shoes — George hears Sherlock talking feverishly to himself, to the painting, chanting, "It's a fake — how do I prove it? How? How?"

The boy is down to eight when Sherlock turns to Ms. Wenceslas, shouting, 'This kid will die — tell me how the painting's a fake! Tell me!" And she shifts, momentarily moving her weight between the heels of her guilty stilettos before Sherlock's gaze shifts to the floor and he changes his mind, says, "No, shut up — don't say anything. Only works if I figure it out."

"Seven," the boy says, voice muffled now from the way Sherlock's clutching the mobile, a tearful beat to Sherlock's frantic hissing at himself, pressed close enough to see the craqueleur of the painting, the thousands of tiny brush strokes that knitted it together.

George tries not to watch, stares at her feet, her brain running through the possibilities and knowing the inevitable: mobilizing the bomb squad at this point is meaningless, they've no clue where this child is, if there're any other people, too, who will be hurt when there's an explosion. Their best hope is standing in front of this painting wild-haired and listening to the boy count, "Six," and George begs, "Speeden up," as John croaks, "Sherlock," because they both know it, they all know it.

And as the boy is saying, "Four," Sherlock lets out a gasp like someone's voice breaking over orgasm and says, "Oh — at the planetarium, you heard it, too," whirling around, manic-eyed and beaming, pacing with the methamphetamine thrill of a mystery, shoving the phone at John. "Oh, that is brilliant, that is gorgeous."

"Three," comes the countdown, as John asks, "What's brilliant? What is?"

Sherlock just laughs, checking something on his own phone and moaning, "This is beautiful — I love this," and George explodes with, "Sherlock!" just as he doubles back, seizing the mobile out of John's hand to shout into it:

"The Van Buren Supernova."

The quiet that follows lasts forever, George waiting for her insides to rust for fear of moving, until the kid opens his mouth again and says, "Please, is somebody there? Somebody help me."

George doesn't hear anything Sherlock says, just seizes the phone and goes off somewhere quiet, pulling out her own mobile at the same time, saying, "Hello — hi. My name is Detective Inspector George Lestrade. You're going to be fine."

No more counting, no more voice in his ear, and the boy starts crying in earnest.

"You're a girl," he says. "Girls aren't named George."

"They are if they don't like being called Georgiana," she says to him reasonably, drawing from some hidden well of balance maybe everyone pays into as they grow up for moments like these, when there's a child crying who needs you to be perfectly calm. "Can you tell us where you are? I'd like to send my friends to come get you."

"I'm at Hamleys," he cries, blubbering now, barely audible over his tears and any composure gone now there's a police officer on the phone. "I'm with all the model cars."

You sick fuck, George doesn't say out loud, to whoever set this up. She breathes through her nose to tamp down the nausea and ignore her mental calculations about how many hundreds of families and little kids are wandering around in Hamley's right now, buying Stieff bears and Hello Kitty figurines, and says, "That's good — what's your name?"

"Joe," he weeps at her. "I'm Joe. Please don't hang up."

"I won't," George promises him. She won't. She holds up her other phone to her ear, where Dan is already shrieking down the line at her in escalating worry. "I won't hang up — here, you'll enjoy this. I'm going to swear at some police officers now."

He laughs a little, and then laughs a little harder, still tearful, as George does exactly that, and he's back to inconsolable by the time the phalanx of the bomb squad and the Met police evacuate Hamleys and meet him on the fourth floor. George hears Dan in the background saying, "Hey, I hear you've got our DI Lestrade on the line?" over the shuffling of cloth and equipment.

"Yeah," Joe says, brave like no little boy should have to be. "She's nice."

"Joe," George hears Dan say, "let me tell you: that woman is bloody amazing."

***

George doesn't feel amazing. She feels delicate and poised to burst, like one more thing heaped on top of all the others might have her committing arson. She drives like a bat out of hell with her sirens blaring, ducking past the PCs on scene at Hamleys — every fucking tourist in London gathered on Regent's Street to stare and gossip as she goes, scowling at a cluster of Japanese housewives — just as she hears the "All clear!" call singing through the store. Joe, when she meets him face to face for the first time, is a handsome boy no older than seven, his face swollen from tears. He says, "Are you George?" and she says, "Yes, hello, nice to meet you finally, Joe." He clings to her like a limpet until his parents arrive, and then he rockets off from her side, shattered again as he hurls himself into his mother's arms. George watches as the woman sinks into the carpet of the store: Joe's mother is holding the back of his head like he's a baby and she's supporting his neck, the father wrapping his arms around them both, crying silently, his shoulder shaking. George feels a sense of gratitude and longing and grief so strong it makes her weak in the knees.