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The Least of All Possible Mistakes

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In her office, after, Sherlock is post-coital with smugness and coiled, waiting for the next episode of this to unfold, and George hears the name the first time: Moriarty.

"You know something, something more than you're saying," George says, watching PC Davison booking the curator, leading her away.

George has ordered her put on suicide watch and held in solitary. She doesn't think Ms. Wenceslas is particularly given to killing herself or aggressive violence in holding, but she is tied to someone who makes Sherlock's eyes glimmer like opals, and George can think of nothing more tellingly dangerous.

Sherlock, where he's still perched in a seat in front of her desk, makes a distracted noise.

She frowns at him. "Sherlock."

"I've heard the name once before," he allows, not meeting her gaze, the corner of his mouth tugging up.

George knows that smile, that secret little grin, because it's on Mycroft's mouth when he's alone with her and for John when Sherlock's particularly pleased with himself and it's here again — in the wreckage of everything, for someone who wants to burn London to its bones. She turns to stare at the pink phone where it sits on the edge of her desk, and hopes that when Sherlock ignites, he doesn't take everybody down with him.

***

When she gets home — after she spends two hours briefing the public information officers on what they can and can't tell the Guardian and what they can and can't let the Sun get away with making up — it's to Anthea on the sofa watching Jonathan Creek reruns with her stocking feet kicked up on the coffee table.

George frowns, dumping her diary and her mobile on the table next to Anthea's toes, and sits down next to her, asking, "Shouldn't you be with Mycroft?"

"Mr. Holmes has been delayed on a personal errand," Anthea recites, eyes never glancing away from the television. "He said I should tell you that he'll be home as soon as he can, and that we should order Thai."

George arches an eyebrow. "Did he actually say order Thai or do you just want Thai?"

"We speak as one voice, Detective Inspector Lestrade," Anthea returns seriously.

They order Thai. It turns out Gold is showing a Jonathan Creek marathon because one episode just bleeds into another, and George remembers watching these years ago and thinking they were charming but ludicrous. She should have taken notes, although it would likely be pointless: Maddie's a bit crueler than George could ever manage and Jonathan's a far more compliant detective than Sherlock could ever be.

"So what is this personal errand of Mycroft's?" George asks

Mycroft's personal errands fall into four categories: (1) Sherlock-related, (2) Mummy Holmes-related, (3) George-related, or (4) non-personal errands beyond Anthea's security clearance. George hates anything beyond Anthea's security clearance. It leaves her imagining Mycroft alone somewhere doing something terrifying, no Anthea or her BlackBerry to help.

Tonight, it leaves George thinking about the final pip, that singular tone remaining and who and what it might be for. It's been in the back of her mind all day, ever since Sherlock left her office and she'd sat there too distracted to do anything for hours. She wonders when it will come, and why it hasn't already; Sherlock's playmate hardly seems like the patient type. She worries about London. She worries about Sherlock. She worries about the unknowable abstract of Mycroft, because to think at length about his work scares her badly enough on a normal basis without the long shadow of the bomber hanging over them. She wonders where he is now — what he's doing.

Anthea eats another piece of tao hoo tod and says, "Prostitutes."

George's laughter is reflexive, breaking through her worry. "Did he tell you to say that?"

"He said to tell you something vaguely convincing," Anthea replies. "So: prostitutes."

"Plural, even," George ripostes. "Ambitious."

"The British government prides itself on professionalism and exceptionalism," Anthea tells her, and reaches for her pad kee mao.

George eats a spring roll and muses, "I wonder what kind of prostitutes Mycroft would hire," which begins a conversation that rapidly devolves into Anthea implying Mycroft spent his late twenties and early thirties hiring five-diamond pros and fucking them savagely at the Ritz. George barely keeps herself from tipping over into hysterical laughter ("Well, Mr. Holmes did endure two weeks of being a Beaver Scout, I'm sure he learned about knots then.") while Anthea maintains a straight face the entire time.

She wonders if this is how Tom felt: waiting in their dark house and watching anything but the news, staring at the telephone and hoping it rings, hoping it doesn't ring. She wonders if he's been quietly, steadily scared like she does now, unsettled and aware she should be more frightened than she is, trying to cover it by laughing.

George has always operated among the pantheon of known fears: gangbangers and thieves and generally uninspired murderers, and when she'd started riding a desk more than walking a beat, she'd given up the stab-proof vest and baton, too. She'd always thought Tom was a fucking lunatic, terrified for no reason, picking fights when she was late coming home or back with a scrape when he ought to have known she was fine and trained for it.

Mycroft doesn't operate in the pantheon of known or unknown fears. George doesn't know what he does; no one, maybe not even Anthea, really does. He vanishes ahead of the Korean elections and leaves a wake of subtle political shifts in the countries he doesn't visit. He's so need-to-know no one knows him at all.

George lives in his house and shares his bed and has convinced him to let her put an aspirin and manuka-honey mask on him and all she knows is that she's scared for him, that of course he's fine and trained for it and the cleverest man in the world. They've lost half an apartment block and twelve people this week, too many near-misses and no idea where to begin looking. They're chasing a ghost, and George has no doubt it's Sherlock and Mycroft who will get there first — she's just worried what she'll find when she catches up.

On screen, Jonathan is dealing with a dead, rented elephant when George gives up on eating and asks, "Is he all right? I mean — is what he's doing safe?"

Anthea doesn't pretend not to know what she's asking about. She sets down her Thai iced tea and her second box of tao hoo tod and takes George's hand into her slightly greasy one — an unthinkably human thing against Anthea's flawless perfection — to lace their fingers together and squeeze, eyes fixed to the television and utterly silent.

George passes out sometime after Maddie goes to America and Jonathan gets a new (old girlfriend) blond sidekick, and when she wakes up it's because Mycroft is pulling a blanket across her shoulders, draping it over Anthea, too, where she's slumped over and asleep on George's shoulder — their hands still linked.

"You're home," George says, and she sounds like she's crying. "You're okay."

"I told you I would be back as quickly as possible," he murmurs, and presses a kiss — lingering — to her forehead, where all of her stress gathers between her eyebrows. "Go back to sleep. I'll be here when you wake up."

He is, and so is Anthea. They're having a silent argument in the kitchen, the only kind they ever have. She's passive-aggressively under-sugaring his tea and he's putting the wrong kind of cheese on her cheese-and-marmite toast, and George sits at the breakfast table in the cloaking gold sun and smiles into her coffee — relieved, so relieved.

The last pip never comes. Or at least George doesn't hear about it, but John sticks particularly close to Sherlock, Sherlock is particularly ferocious when women flirt with his blogger, and Mycroft works from home the next three days so she guesses that something's happened, that something's changed.

"How are you not furious that this case just got snatched away?" Dan demands, later that week when they've been locked in together to finish their paperwork or die trying, handlers from the Home Office guarding the door to George's office. Everything they're writing down is going directly into the bowels of some unknown office in Whitehall, to add to some chapter she'll never have the security clearance to know.

She types, unknown bomber, and knows it's a lie. "It's bloody terrorism, arguing jurisdiction would be the dictionary definition of futility," she points out.

"George Lestrade, you are a fucking marvel," Dan grumbles, and goes back to banging on his keyboard, pecking with two index fingers across the letters, because typing is not a highly valued skill in the Met's bomb squad.

She's not. She's a coward. She should want this case, to chase it to the ends of the Earth, to take the name Moriarty and disclose it, uncover it, figure it out. But George has the instinctive hesitation bred into a hundred generations and she knows that here be monsters, that underneath the trappings of this case there's something else, and that whatever detente she has now is temporary at best. Sherlock's heard the name Moriarty once before and George knows she'll hear it again, that this like the geologic crawl of erosion is unavoidable, that it'll come again on silent feet.

George gets up in the mornings and goes home at night, she chases criminals and kisses Mycroft hello and goodbye and she still spends Sunday afternoons with her mum, watching bad telly and eating biscuits. But somewhere in her gut George is waiting — barely balanced, breathless — for something more, for this borrowed peace to explode.

***

Things do blow up, but they're fairly pedestrian — for her life and for some value of "pedestrian" in the context of Sherlock Holmes, anyway.

Criminals keep doing annoyingly illegal things in London, and people keep being killed in fits of passion or stupidity or ignorance; if George never has to talk a woman off the ledge in the aftermath of a tragic and inappropriately diverting scarfing incident ever again, it will still be too soon. Much to George's prurient delight, she gets to play front-row witness to a series of intensely hilarious domestics between Sherlock and John regarding the relative popularity of their websites, which has to be the most petty and ridiculous dick measuring contest of all time.

George had been worried in the early days that John was going to be too starstruck by Sherlock's intoxicating combination of insanity and danger — some people like that sort of thing; it explains a lot of marriages — to ever get any perspective on him. And then he'd started blogging about Sherlock's cases with equal parts self-deprecating charm, joy at justly humiliating his intolerable flatmate, and a steadying, ocean-deep kind of love.

"I like cigarette ash and fascinating retellings of your failures," George tells Sherlock, when he asks her which website she reads more, to which his response is to hiss at her like a cat and stomp off, John sniggering as he follows.

As predicted, Davison takes the detectives exam. He scrapes through with a shockingly low paper score and a shout of pure joy from Serious Crimes, which promptly snatches up the newly anointed DS Davison and tries to give him alcohol poisoning. George ends up having to give him a ride home, where he cries a little and tells her he wants to kiss her knees. George says, "I'm very flattered, but I'm seeing someone, and anyway, you are very scared of me, which wouldn't bode well for a relationship even if I wasn't going to officially be your boss come Monday."

PC Hatcher is making waves in traffic — how anybody fucking makes waves in traffic, George has no idea — but he's doing it, and she's already dispatched Sally to start seducing him with the promise of terrible hours and more excruciating responsibility.

"There's something wrong with you," Sally says to her. "How are those incentives?"

George signs off on something. She's not sure what it is but Sally gave it to her and stared meaningfully at where she'd drawn a big X so probably it was due a month ago.

"It worked on you," George replies, and Sally has an expression of such personal despair at that undeniable truth George is tempted to give her the afternoon off.

***

In the last clear week of autumn before winter seizes the city, Mycroft gets recalled to London from Moscow for something urgent and royal, a combination of descriptors he assures George instantly cancel one another out. For someone who's doggedly close-mouthed about what place in line to the throne he is, Mycroft's interest in monarchical intrigues is a baseline zero, so George suspects it's bigger than just embarrassing photos, illegal addictive stimulants, or poorly thought-out costume parties.

"Are you supposed to be telling me any of this?" George asks Saturday night.

Mycroft smiles at her and sips quietly at his scotch, sprawled in an armchair that had appeared next to the bathtub for stolen moments like these: George soaking off her week at the office and Mycroft watching her do it. Somewhere out there, Sherlock has a migraine and he doesn't know why.

"All I've said is that my current work involves the Queen," he points out. "Technically, I do work for Her Majesty's Revenue & Custom."

George is obligated to flick water at him for that, grinning when bubbles end up in his scotch. She surrenders her foot when he sets his drink aside to confiscate it from her, settling her heel into his palm — the bathwater leaving a dark patch on the knee of his trousers.

"Anyway," Mycroft tells her, studying pale skin of her ankle, "I plan on offloading the issue onto Sherlock, which means that there are sure to be several days of dramatics before anything is sorted — " he strokes a palm up the inside of her calf " — which leaves me free to pursue other avenues of investigation."

"Oh, is that what we're calling it now?" George asks, laughing.

That weekend, the phone's there, but Anthea's not, which is as close to off duty as Mycroft ever gets, really, so George takes another two days off and they make it a proper break. They take the Aston Martin down the winding country roads into the South Downs and George introduces Mycroft the concept of an M&S picnic, sitting together on a folded-out copy of the Telegraph and trying to keep pieces of plastic from escaping in the brisk wind across the rolling hills. It's too cold for it, really, but Mycroft just pulls a blanket out of the boot of the car and wraps it around them and says, "We should go on holiday," which is so completely ridiculous George overturns her personal-drunk sized bottle of M&S pink cava she laughs so hard.

"Where would we go on holiday?" George manages, still giggling. "The only reason we're here is because you don't care about the queen."

"Bite your tongue, I care about Lizzie enormously," Mycroft quips, to which the only appropriate response is to throw a grape at his head.

The day of driving leaves them on a the top of a hill outside of Bath, the car crunching over the white gravel drive in front of a Georgian B&B with all the windows blazing orange. The duke's suite is open — "Of course the duke's suite is open," George murmurs into Mycroft's shoulder at the reception desk — and they're informed about complimentary champagne and that breakfast runs between 7 a.m. and 10:30 in the mornings, and please call down in case they need anything.

"I wonder what the strangest request they've ever gotten is," George says.

She's sitting on the turned down bed — a massive thing with a gilded, scrolling headboard, an embarrassment of pillows — in an India teal camisole and shorts: one of those frilly purchases she'd made on the fly walking down Upper Street one morning past the dangerous nexus of Jigsaw, Whistle, and Hobbs.

Mycroft, where he's undoing his cuffs in the vanity, looks at her thoughtfully. "One time, I had to ask a hotel concierge for a pint of O negative and a car battery."

"Were you electrocuting someone's testicles?" George asks very seriously.

He smiles at her in the mirror, cuffs open, a flush on his face from the winter sun. He says, "Not his testicles," and George thinks, oh my God, I love you.

Once she's whispered it to herself, in the quiet of her own head, it echoes out and George can't stop thinking it, can't stop the way it wells up in her throat and telegraphs itself in a blush down her throat. She thinks, he can tell, he must be able to tell, and she's shy for the first time in forever, in a year, with him, pressed close in the dark. George kisses a little too desperately, is a little too eager to please, and she feels shocky with realization, her skin prickling, until Mycroft's curled up around her — his hand stretched across the skin over her heart, possessing — and he whispers it out loud, fearful but certain and into the knob of her spine like a prayer.

***

They've been back in London about twelve hours, and George back in the house, enjoying her rare day off after doing a round of errands for less than forty minutes when she hears fucking shots fired in Belgravia.

"Oh, of course this is you arseholes," George says, when she shows up five minutes and a few houses away — hair a nest, clutching her walkie talkie and warrant card, her gun tucked into the back of her jeans like a lunatic — to see John and Sherlock in the middle of it.

John frowns at her. "Davison said you were off."

"I am!" George yells at him. "I live round the fucking corner! Where the fuck do you two keep getting firearms?"

She is off, technically, and the last thing she wants to do is opt herself back into work a day early, so instead of banishing all the rubberneckers from the scene and assigning Sally and Davison to handle the interior of the house with the crime scene techs, she makes Sally assign herself and Davison to the house and chase off the rubberneckers. George contents herself with taking a cell phone video of Sherlock — stoned out of his mind and obsessively stroking John's coat while deducing and re-deducing what John ate for breakfast — being checked over by the EMTs and then eventually released into Dr. Watson's care.

"Sherlock," she says later, still filming. "Say hi to the camera."

He blinks at her very slowly from where he's sitting on the steps of the house. "Your breasts actually do frighten me a little," he tells her.

She palms his curls affectionately. "I forgive you for opening fire in my neighborhood."

"Do you live here?" Sherlock asks, operating on quarter-speed and swaying. "I would have deduced that, if I weren't so distracted — why do you smell like my brother?"

George rights his collar a bit. "Because I was having sex with him all weekend," she explains patiently, and adds, "Please stop deleting that."

"This is very mean-spirited, George," John says, from where he's filling out a ream of paperwork. It's all boilerplate, and if Sherlock and John hadn't personally offended everybody on the EMT crew here before, they'd probably just tick the boxes themselves.

She grins over her shoulder at him. "I'll send you a copy," she promises.

"Incredibly mean-spirited," John calls back, but he's smiling.

George doesn't get the full story for days, and when she gets it it's insanity at its finest: Irene Adler, Europe's most elite dominatrix, a mobile phone with photos that could bring down governments, and Sherlock being thrashed with a riding crop by a naked woman wearing his coat. George can't decide if she's sorry she missed it or glad she wasn't involved.

"So did I imagine it, or did you tell Sherlock you live near Irene?" John asks.

They're sitting in the what they've decided is their local, a helplessly twee little pub run by earnest thirtysomethings who'd spent their twenties backpacking through central Europe having intense feelings about brewing. Both John and George are a bit ashamed to like it as much as they do, but they serve (good) Czech beer on tap and have double orders of truffle chips; they're both too old to pretend that the music and smell of desperate loneliness in some of the other places nearby isn't a turnoff.

George rolls her eyes. "Please tell me you aren't surprised Mycroft lives in Belgravia."

"Please tell me I'm allowed to be surprised you live with Mycroft," John rebuts.

"It's been more than a year," George says.

"Which is also strange," John retorts.

George points a chip at him. "Says the man who lives with Sherlock."

John calls it a draw, on which George calls bullshit. She's at least getting laid; Sherlock seems actively invested in preventing John from getting his rocks off, if the last three girlfriends have been any indication. It's not good for anybody, not in the least because it leaves John desperate and making incredibly bad sex-related decisions that have consequences that linger for ages.

It all leads up to a truly sad moment, months later, when George gets talked into answering John's mobile phone and pretending to be his lunatic girlfriend who's licensed to kill and carries a badge. He's spun her a compelling tale of how his actual, current girlfriend is going to leave him kneecapped in a ditch if Helen, the clinging librarian, keeps calling to sob into John's voicemail.

"Why can't you make Sherlock do this?" George says, after she hangs up and hands the phone back. "He's crazier and more possessive than I could ever be."

John makes a face and orders her another pint. "I did, for a while. He told one of them he hated the smell of downmarket floozy all over me and didn't she know she was distracting me from far more important work."

"So basically, he was uncomfortably in character," George asks, grinning.

Pointing at her warningly, John says, "Don't smile at me like that, George."

"Why, is Sherlock going to tell you he hates the smell of downmarket floozy coppers all over you?" George asks.

"Ha bloody ha," John mutters into his glass, and George bets that's exactly the conversation he's going to have when he gets home to Sherlock's sulk. "Look — are you coming to our Christmas do or not, you harpy?"

George covers her face and mumbles through her hands, "No, because I'm spending Christmas at the Holmes's country pile with their mother."

John nearly chokes to death.

Apparently bored by George's inch-thick dossier and possessed of foreknowledge that George's mother and Ben were going away to spend Christmas with Ben's son in California, Mrs. Eugenia Philomena Holmes nee Beauchamp had sent a beautifully calligraphed note on thick, personalized stationary, extending her warmest holiday invitation. George — in an act of shocking cowardice — had left it sitting on the breakfast table for a week, afraid to touch it, before Mycroft had applied three tumblers of Scotch to the problem and confronted her over dinner.

"I'll understand if you don't wish to go," he had said. All the food on his plate had been systematically cut to smaller pieces and rearranged, except for the pork crackling, which he'd eaten in between tumblers one and two, probably for courage.

George, conversely, had eaten three servings of everything and couldn't tell any longer whether the nausea was terror at the thought of Mycroft's mother having her murdered and buried behind the boat house, or too much apple chutney. "It's not that I don't want to go," she'd explained hurriedly. "I just — surely I'm not what your mother anticipated."

She'd been horrified the minute she'd admitted it, but it was the cloud she'd been living under ever since Mycroft had met her mother. Gillian Lestrade thought her daughter's beau was clever and funny and well-employed, found his Oxbridge intonation endlessly charming, and always said, "I'm so glad you found such a nice man, George. Also, have him ring me if you can. I've a question about my tax." Christ only knew what a woman named Mrs. Eugenia Philomena Holmes nee Beauchamp would think of George — or more specifically, what she'd think of her older son with George.

"Georgiana," Mycroft had said, and there'd been such laughter in his voice she'd looked up, startled by it, only to see him wide-open smiling at her, eyes shining. "My mother anticipated she'd find me dead, cleaved to my desk, at forty-five."

George had let out a shaky noise of realization. "Oh."

"You should be aware there's a very high likelihood she'll try to give you some of the family jewels if we visit," Mycroft had gone on. "She may restrain herself to the late-Victorian pieces in an effort not to drive you away."

That had turned into a long discussion about how the Holmes family vault — "It's my design, actually, the only project Sherlock and I managed to implement that only came partially to blows," Mycroft mused fondly — actually contained pieces ranging from modern-day Harry Winston and Tiffany's to filigree work contemporary to the Sutton-Hoo hoard. By the end, George had been significantly drunker and too happy that Mycroft wouldn't die cleaved to his desk at forty-five to do anything other than say, "Yes, sure, of course we'll go to Sussex for Christmas."

Easier said than done. Her agreement to go is met with much ado by all quarters. Mycroft promptly vanishes on a six-nation week-long business trip punctuated by a series of texts that are all just effervescently cruel comments about the unnamed world leaders he's glowering into submission, lest they interrupt his holiday. Sherlock — who apparently took her request to heart during the Irene Adler fiasco and hasn't deleted anything (yet) — throws a tantrum so intense George feels it second-hand through John's pained emails. Anthea develops a twitch in her left eye, which seems to be compensating for how exquisitely bland the rest of her face is.

"I'm guessing this is a bigger deal than anticipated," George hazards when she goes downstairs for a glass of water at 2 a.m. and finds Anthea sitting in the den, typing feverishly and eating an entire tub of Haribo Starmix.

Anthea just looks at George with deadened features in the glow of her ThinkPad.

"Mr. Holmes has never taken off for the holidays," she explains. "Ever."

George tries to smile at her. "You could come with us?" she offers.

"I'm going to Cambodia," Anthea says, after which point it seems somewhat pointless to carry on with that line of conversation, really.

In the lead-up to the Christmas visit, George surrenders her lunch breaks to searching for a gift for Mrs. Holmes. Expensive, nice things are pointless, since if she's anything like her sons she is able and willing to buy herself expensive, nice things. In the months that George and Mycroft have lived in one another's pockets, all the presents they've exchanged have been — as George first requested — categorically worthless. Knowing that Mycroft could have anything in the world and chooses to want her is an opiate stronger than any drug George has ever found hidden inside Sherlock's boxspring; she doesn't need anything else.

She consults her mother, who goes slightly spare and starts crying.

"Oh, God, what the hell, Mum?" George asks, trying to staunch the flow of eyeliner down her mother's face with kitchen paper.

"It's just — he'll probably ask you to marry him soon, and," Gillian starts and the rest of it dissolves into further tears.

George has no fucking idea why her mother's upset about this since Tom's proposal had ended in her mother throwing a bloody party at the local. The rest of the afternoon is spent watching the Vicar of Dibley, which goes all right until the wedding episode, at which point, George says, "Fuck's sake," and just lets her mother weep all over her before going for the family albums to sob over ugly pictures of George during the eighties, too. Ben comes home in the middle of this debacle, but showing more wisdom than courage, sticks close to the wall and sneaks off to his office, ignoring George's pleading looks for rescue.

"And look, there's you," her mother says, pointing at a photo of George in an hideous, pea-green puff of taffeta standing next to Bill, the future chip shop owner, slanting a longing, ten-year-old look at George. "You were absolutely furious when we made you dance with him."

"Mum," George says, inspired, "you are brilliant."

Mycroft is easy, since whenever she brings him eggs en cocette he smiles. Sherlock flat-out refuses to participate, so she ends up trading him her cameraphone footage of him sky high for his compliance. John says, "Yeah, sure, why not," with studied disinterest, but George makes a note to make two copies as she arranges them to her liking in front of their fireplace of horrors. Typically, Sherlock refuses to exclude the skull, and it ends up perched on his knee — his right hand over its crown possessively — when her shutter clicks, John's face crinkled into a lovely smile and Sherlock's mouth tugged up into a smirk, which is as good as George is ever likely to get.

"It's insipid, right?" George asks Edith with the urgency of knowing Christmas is literally a week away. "It's rubbish, isn't it?"

Edith, sitting on the counter with her cigarette hanging out of the bathroom window, says, "It's precious as fuck and I'm sickened you've come up with it."

So after work on Friday the 23rd, George dumps her overnight bag, her gifts, Mycroft's overnight bag, and Mycroft — who had gone through three different time zones in two days and is worse for it — into her Golf and takes off for the countryside.

It's not a particularly long trip but the traffic getting out of London that night is miserable, and Mycroft drifts off to sleep in the middle, the orange light of the city petering out into the glare of the motorway. George keeps the stereo on low to stay awake and hums along with the refrains she learns along the way, tapping her fingers on the keyboard as they go, eventually peeling off the M roads and onto the As, that get less and less aggressively paved and more and more charmingly offbeat.

The house, when they reach it at half-eleven, is impossible to miss. Mostly because George has to drive through a forest, a charmingly dilapidated gate, a gate that looks charmingly dilapidated but has Mycroft Holmes written all over it, announce herself to a speaker set in a hollowed-out tree to an extremely enunciated butler, and then drive another half mile before the actual building comes into view.

George glares at Mycroft's sleeping face. "Minor Georgian estate my arse."

***

It's the housekeeper, Mrs. Caulfield, who lets them into the house and settles them into Mycroft's childhood suite in the east wing. Only George's pity for Mycroft's obvious exhaustion spares him the thorough mocking he deserves. She sits Mycroft down on the edge of his massive bed and helps undress him, fold him into the linens, and waits until the muscles in his face and shoulders go loose with sleep once more. George looks at his childhood bookshelves — overflowing with history and two separate, well-thumbed copies of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy — and draws the heavy curtains over the massive windows out to the rolling hills beyond. She's never felt her commonness more keenly. It eats away at her until George slides into bed, shivering with the chill of the house, and Mycroft sighs and drags her greedily across the acres of mattress. It's a small thing, but it makes her brave, and instead of staring into the cavernous ceiling all night, George dreams about her father's taxi again, driving on an interstellar highway with Mycroft giving him directions to the restaurant at the end of the universe.

***

Mrs. Holmes is elegant more than beautiful, with Mycroft's nose, Sherlock's hair, and velvety brown eyes. She looks almost as scared as George must, when they come across each other in the kitchen the next morning and freeze in surprise before Mrs. Holmes — a consummate hostess — musters a smile and says, "You must be Georgiana."

"Or George," George offers, because she's systemically inclined to hopeless causes. Resisting the urge to fidget is torturous. "Sorry we missed you last night."

Mrs. Holmes's face goes longing, and George suffers a moment of sudden, blinding tenderness for her, her very small hands in this very huge house, her boys grown up and gone away out of her reach.

"Mrs. Caulfield says Mycroft was dead on his feet," Mrs. Holmes ventures, still careful.

Courage, George, she thinks of her father saying, and George walks over to the counter to settle on one of the kitchen stools, because her plan to sneak downstairs for a poke around and caffeine without anyone knowing is already shot, so she may as well make the best of it. George smiles — that particular smile Mycroft says can undo sailing knots and melt away the worst of his moods — and says, "And he's still dead to the world," and asks, "Would you mind if I interrupt your tea?"

All in all, it takes about an hour for George to conclude that public school is the worst influence a child can have, because Eugenia Holmes is quite possibly the nicest woman George has ever met, and the only way Sherlock and Mycroft can be, well, Sherlock and Mycroft is that Eton did something to them.

"If it did, it did it to Sherlock in extremely short order," Eugenia — she'd forbidden George from referring to her as Mrs. Holmes within two minutes — says cheekily. "He was drummed out in less than a semester."

"I am wholly unsurprised by this turn of events," George laughs. "Harrow?"

"Two months," Eugenia sighs.

Pink morning is melting across the Sussex skies during that magic hour between 8 and 9 a.m. on winter mornings, light coming sluggishly out of bed. George is in jeans and a navy jumper with mother of pearl buttons at the wrists, her hair still wet and dripping. She's sitting at the breakfast counter with the massive aga radiating warmth behind her and Eugenia Holmes doing the same in front, leaning over her cup of Earl Grey and smiling at George with humbling affection.

"But not Mycroft," George says, smiling just at the thought of him, reflexive now — a direct line from behind the cage of her ribs to the corners of her mouth.

Eugenia laughs. "Mycroft was an entirely different type of problem," she confides. "What on Earth do you do with a child who was thirty by the time he was eight?"

"Intervene when he's forty-two, and before he dies cleaved to his desk, obviously," George says, teasing, into the rim of her teacup.

"And thank you very much for that," Eugenia says, with good humor and not a little touch of genuine gratitude that sings in the air for a long moment before she clears her throat. "Well — what do you say to a tour? Don't worry: since it's not Mycroft playing docent, it won't be historically comprehensive."

"Thank God for that," George says.

Epperley House is a sprawling 135 acres of estate, cottages, outbuildings, and gardens, and a further 700 acres of farmland that the Holmes family has rented out to local farmers and small holders for five generations now. Before Sherlock and Mycroft grew up in the country house with its stone face and Doric Venetian front doorway, it had been part of the dowries of two future duchesses, one lesser heiress, and then entailed down the male line to Mr. Sherringford Browning Holmes — a third son in one of those once-great families that had lost its title along the way.

Eugenia takes George through the parlors and drawing rooms and solars — each decked out in Christmas splendor — the library and the two studies, the music room with its grand piano and south-facing windows golden with mid-morning light. The grand foyer is playing host to a 20 foot tree, gleaming with spun glass ornaments and lights, a mountain of gifts underneath it. George peeks into Sherlock's childhood bedroom, papered over with news clippings and charts, a music stand in the corner, books stacked in unwieldy heaps all over every flat or semi-flat surface.

It's a sharp, crisp sort of cold outside, George's breath clouding with every outward breath, melting frost and shards of blue-green grass slicking her boots. Eugenia wears an ugly hat and falling-apart mittens and when she sees George's hands — dwarfed by Mycroft's gloves — smiles with mortifying indulgence.

They look at the garden, frozen in winter sleep, and the skeleton limbs of the trees in the orchard, the glassed-up orangerie, and George regresses to early girlhood in the stables, pulling off her gloves to touch the noses of the enormous, sweet Clydesdales and curious palomino who has a go at her hair.

They come back inside, red-cheeked from the cold, to find Mycroft perched tensely in the kitchen. He's a vision of relaxed control, which means he's so tightly wound he's probably about to crack one of his molars.

"You can breathe," George says, pressing a freezing kiss into the place where his neck and jaw. "Your mother was just giving me the tour of your minor Georgian mansion."

The twitch at her cold lips on his skin turns into a slight loosening at that, and Mycroft divides a wary look between George and Eugenia as his mother says:

"To be fair, it really can't compare with some of the Devonshire properties. But honestly, Mycroft, this house is hardly Georgian."

"Disputable," Mycroft argues, like he can't help himself. "There are clearly Georgian characteristics to the main building."

Eugenia frowns, and when she does, she looks exactly like Mycroft. "Preposterous," she declares, and George interrupts whatever Mycroft is about to say with:

"I take it back, I see the resemblance now."

It's a lazy day, one that Mycroft's obviously needed, if the way even his obvious worry at George and Eugenia interacting can't stop him from sliding off into an afternoon nap. They leave him slumped over in an undignified heap in the solar and go for the scrapbooks, which are wonderful and terrible — a lifetime of accomplishment and very few friends: always just Sherlock and Mycroft, standing awkwardly next to one another, and as they get older in the photographs, they stand further and further apart.

"Sherlock used to idolize Mycroft when they were little," Eugenia says.

George runs her hand over the photo, Sherlock as a fat toddler with an ebony black thatch of hair, fingers knotted in Mycroft's much-lighter locks. They're sitting on the edge of the millpond, under a willow in the lush green of full springtime, sunlight dappling.

"What changed?" she asks, distracted. 

"Oh, just Sherlock always thought they'd be just the same, him and Mycroft, thick as thieves. He still does idolize his brother, I think, only it comes across with a healthy dose of fraternal resentment, now," Eugenia sighs, turning the page to a series of pictures of Sherlock with a violin, serious-faced and chubby-cheeked.

The Eugenia of the photographs is younger and lighter, with the same warm smile and rounded edges, clutching her tiny sons to her. Sherlock, particularly, clings, and there's a photograph of her walking Mycroft to the edge of the shore — his toddler fingers reaching into the foamy lip of a wave — that makes George grin.

"Were they horrible?" George asks, slanting a conspiratorial look to Eugenia.

"Awful," she confirmed, long-suffering even now. "Constantly running off nannies and tutors and the like. For a year we couldn't engage a housekeeper on reputation alone."

George had to smother a laugh. "Did they ever get one up on you?"

"Certainly," Eugenia allowed, eyes crinkling in a smile. "But the key, my dear, is to make them feel miserable about it afterward."

George turned back to the photographs, to another picture of Sherlock holding his tiny violin and frowning passionately at a stack of sheet music, the image overexposed and the colors fading. Next to that, a photograph of Mycroft in his teens in cricket whites, looking entirely too solemn against the lush green of an English summer, his teammates dotting the field and not a spot on him.

"That is an enviable skill, Eugenia," George murmurs.

Eugenia reaches over and tucks a lock of George's hair behind an ear, the sort of motherly thing that only her own mother's ever done, and George feels terribly shy all of a sudden to be so — so. It's always like this with Holmeses: their affection creeping up like fog filling the streets, quietly and then all-consuming. She'll never know when Mrs. Holmes went from being curious about her to sorting out her hair, no more than George will ever know how Sherlock decided she had special access to his life, or when Mycroft had looked at her and thought, "yes."

"Georgiana, I have no doubt you could tie my son in knots far better than I ever could," Eugenia says, with a fondness that makes George go red, before mercifully turning back to the album and asking, "Would you believe that Sherlock packed himself into Mycroft's luggage for school three times?"

George exhales, shaking, relieved, and although the smile she musters is awkward, it is real, because she believes it, she absolutely would.

Christmas Eve dinner turns out to be a quiet little thing, Mycroft shooing George and his mother away from the aga with a determined look on his face and a blue and white striped apron tied over his button-down shirt.

"So all those nights when you had to endure my soggy pasta and dry roast chicken," George asks, wry and watching Mycroft do something fascinatingly violent to a duck, a sauce of brandy and star anise and oranges simmering away on the French range. "What the hell was that? Self-denial?"

Mycroft smiles at her innocently. "I'm told enduring great trials are a sign of love."

George glares at him.

"Oh, if you think Mycroft's cooking is impressive, you should see Sherlock bake," Eugenia chimes in, sailing back into the room with afternoon martinis and a manically happy look on her face. Her smile hasn't abated since breakfast, was steady through lunch, and George is worried Eugenia's cheeks are going to be sprained at this rate.

Like the royal family, the Holmeses open presents on Christmas Eve. It's an enormous act of will to bite back all the editorializing George wants to do about that.

Mycroft gets her the gloves that go with the hat he's already given her and a camel-colored coat with a robin's egg blue lining. She knows it's childish but she puts it on immediately, wrapped up in it and beaming and trying to ignore the way Eugenia is having a perfectly composed seizure of joy to their immediate right. George gives Mycroft a taser.

"Really, you shouldn't have," he says to her, but there's a laugh on all his consonants.

She reaches over to lace their fingers together, so she can draw up their hands and press a kiss to the back of Mycroft's wrist and say, "You never know when you might be swept away by shadowy figures and need it."

"Please, don't encourage him," Eugenia pleads, sounding stricken.

"Here, Mummy," Mycroft intervenes, as if the subject of his frequent kidnappings of people is a long-running yet ultimately meaningless discussion. "George brought you a present, too."

George's present fits neatly inside a box she'd braved John Lewis to buy, and isn't even in the neighborhood of the ash-colored pearls Mycroft had presented his mother, but George was never going to win in any competition where throwing around money and exquisite taste were the primary object, anyway.

Eugenia is the type of woman to carefully fold away wrapping paper and curl up the soft green ribbon George had tied around the package. It takes ages before she lifts the pasteboard lid, and looking down inside the nest of tissue paper, she says, "Oh," softly, in surprised realization, her eyes going round with surprise.

George clears her throat. "They're yours, so obviously you can imagine how uncooperative they were, so no group shot, sorry. But I figured you'd might like an up to date photo of them," she babbles, and adds, "Er — sorry about the skull. Sherlock refused to relinquish it."

It's not a particularly beautiful photo, but George has learned a few things after years hauling around crime scene cameras and she'd selected the bifold frame very carefully. Mycroft has been caught as he's making his way through a pile of folders at the desk of his study at home, the thin early sun of December pouring into the room. He's smiling — distracted by her — and there's a jade plant next to his diary, pages flipped open across his blotter, his tie loose and his topmost button opened: Mycroft Holmes, cut loose and casual. Sherlock and John are more posed, leaning toward one another, Sherlock seated and John standing next to the armchair, posed ludicrously with the skull as their third. The chaos of 221B is evident around them, and if you look closely in the corner, you can still see a Cluedo board stuck into the wall with a knife. They look happy, the intimate, unassuming sort of happy that George never thought she'd see on Sherlock.

"I just thought you might like it," George concludes lamely, and feels so massively stupid that if she weren't still hand in hand with Mycroft, she might flee the room in mortification.

Eugenia finally looks up, and her eyes are wet, and her smile trembling but real.

Mycroft leans in, ostensibly to brush a kiss over George's temple, but also to whisper, "You're doomed — no way you're escaping without jewelry, now."

Eugenia must have ears like a bat, because she snatches the very reasonably sized box that had been labeled for George and says, "My son is annoying but correct." George barely has time to say, "Oh, no, Eugenia that's really not necessary," before she's being hauled off, deep into the bowels of the house, beyond the wine cellar, Mycroft at the top of the catacomb stairs, saying, "I'll just wait here by the fire, shall I?" and grinning like a lunatic.

George is trying to explain, delicately, that when it comes down to it, middle-ranking members of the Met very rarely have opportunities to wear any kind of diadem, much less one crusted in yellow diamonds, when Mycroft's voice carries over the room intercom, saying:

"Georgiana, Mummy, apologies. There's been an emergency with Sherlock."

***

Eugenia takes their sudden departure with the stiff upper lip of an English war bride, drawing Mycroft in for a quick squeeze and then George close enough to press a kiss to her forehead, to whisper, "I'm so glad we finally met," before sending them off — Mycroft in an unmarked helicopter that erupts from the lawn of Epperley House headed for location undisclosed and George in the Golf.

The hours she's on the road are endless, just George and black asphalt, endless Christmas songs on the radio, and stomach-churning worry.

She wonders if Sherlock is all right but George tells herself that if he'd been hurt, Mycroft wouldn't have lied point-blank when Eugenia had asked about it. He'd said, "He's fine, Mummy — just something that can't wait, unfortunately," before his mobile had rung and he'd answered it, saying, "Yes — is it confirmed?" She wonders if John is hurt. She wonders if Baker Street had exploded again. She wonders if that final pip has come, if the whole thing was starting up again, and she's half-sick by the time her phone buzzes with a text message across the passenger seat of the car.

Sherlock is fine.
His dominatrix friend is dead. 
Going to morgue to ID body. 
Please tell Mummy all is well. 
MH.

"Jesus buggering Christ," George says to the screen of her phone.

She edits, heavily, when she calls Eugenia to break the news, although knowing Holmeses, George's "An acquaintance of Sherlock's has passed away, he's all right, but Mycroft's going with him to the morgue to identify the body," probably sounds to her like, "The naked woman in Sherlock's coat who beat him with a riding crop and apparently swanned away with his heart has turned up dead. He and Mycroft are probably being obscure at each other about it as we speak."

"Poor Sherlock," Eugenia sighs, tinny through the mobile speaker. "At least he'll have John there to comfort him."

George makes a slightly hysterical noise. "Yes," she forces herself to say.

Mycroft's quietly drinking himself into a state in the library when George finally gets back to the Lyall Street house, dumping her coat and shoes in the doorway, their bags still in her car. She still smells of cold air and the shitty roadside coffee she'd bought halfway home when she bursts in to ask him, "Well? Tell me I didn't lie to your mother."

He doesn't look at her, just stares into the fire as he says, too lightly, "You didn't."

George stares. "What — that's it?"

"I gave him a cigarette," Mycroft elaborates.

"That bad," she translates, and closes the distance between them, goes to her knees next to the leather wingback, closing a hand around Mycroft's ankle. "Hey — look at me."

DCI Partridge had given George a book on dog training before she'd taken semi-retirement out in the bloody Yorkshire countryside like a traitor, leaving George alone in the sausage factory of Serious Crimes with nary another pair of management-level tits. It had been meant in jest, sort of, but George had read it in the bath over the course of months and ended up applying it mostly by accident: be clear, be consistent, use positive reinforcement; your lack of attention is the most painful punishment. She'd done it with Sherlock from day one — feed him interesting unsolved cold cases when he's reasonably polite; ignore his texts when he's a twat — and she's glad for the practice.

Mycroft is the definition of self-possessed, unmoved, endlessly calculating and hypothesizing and considering. George will never win an argument with him if she gets tricked into discussing the relative merits of their mutual points of view; all she can do is draw the boundaries beforehand so he'll know how close he can tread. She's always been clear about this, about never needlessly demanding his full attention, but when George asks for it, she expects it, and she waits for his eyes to meet hers.

"What happened?" she asks, because Mycroft looks like he's been through the wars, face sagging with exhaustion and ashen. "Is Sherlock really all right?"

He takes a fortifying drink. "We argued."

"You always argue," George points out, because they do, and she thinks that most of the time, they enjoy it on some sick level.

"We do," Mycroft admits, and his smile is bitter as he says it. "He was...off balance. Surprised by his own reaction, I think."

George frowns a little, plucks the tumbler out of Mycroft's hands and sets it aside. "By — what? His reaction to Irene Adler's death?"

"He was upset, more than he wanted to give away," Mycroft says, and without the glass he cards his right hand into her hair, thumb pressed on the soft skin behind her ear, watching her mouth. "I told him caring wasn't an advantage."

George says, "Okay," because there's not much else to say to that.

Mycroft likes to imagine himself more emotionally adept than his brother, so maybe this is just another chapter in his managing nature: convince Sherlock his feelings are irrelevant to protect him from the ache of them. But that doesn't change the way there's a voice in her head that protests, but, and how something in her throat drops all the way to the well of her stomach, her eyes feeling suddenly hot and hurt.

She's still anchored to him, by his hand in her hair and their lives intertwined, how six hours ago they were opening presents with his mother, and George has to swallow around the fight she wants to start. She's on her knees in front of him in a house she thinks of as home, now, and her heart's been fragile in her chest for hours worried for his brother. What does he mean? Why's he told her this?

"He asked," Mycroft goes on, and he's searching George's face now, his own expression deepening into pain, "what would I do, if it were you on that mortuary slab — would I appreciate him feeding me platitudes."

Her hurt transmutes into worry. "Mycroft."

"What would I do," he says, low and with a razor edge. "What could my brother know of it. He deduced her once, and she surprised him. He's infatuated with the idea of her."

George smiles for him, wavering.

"It's Sherlock," she points out gently. The maybe one deduction was enough is implied.

"I deduced you, the first time we met, when I was looking at your furious back as I was walking toward you," Mycroft retorts, the rumble in his voice unsoftened by the lassitude of alcohol on his tongue. "I knew the whole of you in a glance."

"What makes you so different, then?" George asks, and she doesn't even know whose side she's arguing anymore, whether they're talking about Sherlock and Adler or Mycroft and George, if they're having a conversation at cross-purposes. She feels heavy and dense with everything unsaid, sore, fearful suddenly. "What makes us different?"

Mycroft laughs, his fingers in her hair turn into a fist.

"If it was you in the morgue, Georgiana, I wouldn't have been standing in the corridor smoking a cigarette," he tells her in a hush, his voice a rasp of considered horrors. "I would have burned down the hospital."

"Poor hospital," George murmurs, and Mycroft's face goes unsettlingly dark, still. George takes his other hand, his free hand, and puts it over the faint, rabbit-hearted patter underneath her breast, through the thin weave of her sweater. "But I'm here, I'm fine — see?"

Sherlock is all explosive declarations, dashing around with his coat flying, fiery and ferociously present; Mycroft's bursts of kinetic energy are all internal, locked behind deadbolt and key and iron-clad self control in his head, beyond the muscle and bone. George sees it sometimes, the interiors of him, through the pinhole camera of Mycroft's pupils, blown wide open and close, when they're in their bed and telegraphing all sorts of secrets. He's not cold: he's a barely contained wildfire, the kind of dangerous that's too cool to flare up and misstep.

"Her face was a mess," Mycroft says, those same dangerously soft vowels rushing out of him — ripped open and confessing — fingertips hot on her skin. "He identified her by her measurements. What would I have done?"

"Hopefully sent everyone out of the room before you pulled off the rest of the sheet," George tells him, trying for light and falling terribly short, because she can imagine it, too: the belly of Bart's, the church next door, Smithfield restaurants rollicking a street over, and Mycroft Holmes dragging the white sheet down her neck and clavicle, over her breasts and the curve of her belly — a nauseating parody of their living hours.

"Could I have walked away from you the way Sherlock did," Mycroft says, not really a question, and too deep into his own thoughts to hear her now. "Or would I have sat with you and searched for your heartbeat — like I am now."

George swallows, dry throat clicking. "It's not going to happen to me."

"You run with Sherlock Holmes," Mycroft contradicts, back in abrupt focus. "And you sleep with me — your entire life is like the first chapter of a disaster story."

The glare is reflexive, and so is the way it makes her dig in her heels, the way George shoves at Mycroft's knee to press in her point as she says, "I live with you. I intend to keep on doing it."

His eyes are very black as he says, "I should tell you to leave me."

"I wouldn't go," George shoots back, because she recognizes this now, the recursive back and forth, the way he just needs to underline and dot his Is, review all the things he already knows for sure. "My birth control pills are here and I like making you do my mother's tax. You're not getting rid of me so easily."

That surprises a laugh out of him, something startled and genuine, and those hands on her pull her up, drag her nearer, so that when he says it, it's kissed into her mouth:

"Georgiana, you are the most impossibly difficult thing I have ever known."