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The Least of All Possible Mistakes

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Sherlock ignores her thirteen separate texts, with George offering him so many dead and putrefying things over the next few days she feels like a fucking housecat. Mycroft gets tied up in knots with something at work, but he doesn't do anything terrifying like take two hours out of the day to have languorous sex with her at the Lanesborough like that one time so George assumes the world isn't about to end.

She and John spend a number of nights at the pub steeped in one another's silences, until one day John bursts out with, "I just didn't know, you know? That he loved her. That he could have loved her. I would have been more careful."

It's a sentiment so completely and stunningly stupid George just says, "You're joking."

"Sherlock doesn't like people! How was I supposed to know?" John protests, as if Sherlock isn't mental about him.

"I'm getting a new GP, because you're a fucking moron," George tells him seriously and without further elaboration. The very last thing George needs in her life is to sort out the hellscape of Sherlock's love life with his lunatic flatmate.

On New Year's Eve, while George is wasting the last two hours of her workday watching Never Mind the Buzzcocks on BBC iPlayer, Sherlock calls.

"What," she answers the phone.

"Lestrade," he says, too evenly. "We've had a break in at Baker Street. Send your least irritating officers and an ambulance."

George throws a stress ball out the opened door of her office, where it bounces madly through Serious Crimes and sends half the bullpen ducking and everyone else looking up. Sally's the first one to catch George's eye as she says loudly, "Bloody hell — is anyone hurt?" just before she yells, "Hey, officers, medics to Baker Street."

"Christ," Sally says and goes for the phones.

"No, no, it's the burglar," Sherlock carries on over the line, silky smooth. "He's got himself rather badly injured."

George narrows her eyes, which makes Davison — whose pulled up short in the door of her office — freeze like a sighted animal. "How badly injured?" she asks Sherlock.

"Oh, a few broken ribs, a fractured skull," Sherlock tells her dismissively, and curling his tongue with satisfaction around the syllables, he adds, "Suspected punctured lung."

George covers her face with a hand. "Oh, God, Sherlock. What have you done?"

"He fell out of a window," Sherlock lies.

"Yeah, fucking right," George swears at him. "Stop falling people out of windows. I'll be there shortly."

Selcuk in dispatch, when she calls to verify they've got units in motion, takes the time both to berate her for questioning his professionalism and swear at her half in Turkish and half in Essex, saying bloody of course it's her pet detective throwing people out of windows on December 31.

There're already PCs and EMTs on scene when she gets there, and George has barely a minute to be confused before she gets inside the house and sees John dabbing at a vicious-looking scrape on Mrs. Hudson's chin, saying soothing doctor things and feeding her cups of tea.

"God, Mrs. Hudson," she says. Mrs. Hudson's got that fragile look of someone's who's been badly handled. "Are you all right?"

The smile George gets is watery, and so is Mrs. Hudson's. "Oh, I'm fine now that the boys are home, dear."

John says quietly, "She's just a bit shook up. Cuts and bruises, that sort of thing."

"Well, I'm sure the opened window got your burglar right back," George says dryly, avoiding John's studiously innocent face and leans in to press a comforting kiss to Mrs. Hudson's unhurt cheek. "I ought to buy you some pepper spray."

Mrs. Hudson's laugh is shaky but real. "You should buy me some new bins, that horrible man landed right on top of them."

It shows. The man's unconscious, has no identification, and is one giant wound, by the time George swings round to the ambulances to get an eyeful before they take him to the A&E. George spares herself the inevitable fighting by taking Sherlock's statement herself, leaving Davison and Sally with Mrs. Hudson and John. It's dark when they're done, and George watches the second ambulance — the one where the medics had clucked, looked over Mrs. Hudson, and exchanged the pleasantries of long acquaintance with John — leave, standing next to Sherlock on the sidewalk.

"And exactly how many times did he fall out the window?" George asks, hands shoved into her pockets.

"It's all a bit of a blur, Detective Inspector," Sherlock says, and slanting her a meaningful look, adds, "I lost count."

"I hate you," George tells him meaningfully. "And I'm leaving now."

***

She's not surprised when she gets a call later that week to let her know that the case has been referred to the U.S. Embassy.

"They'll sort it out on their end," Chief Inspector Kerrigan says in his thick-as-porridge Brummie accent.

"Sure they will," George says, because she knows how this will go.

Kerrigan laughs, and George always echoes with a smile when he does. Kerrigan has four children and the same number of wives; he's always the first one to buy a round and the last one to leave the pub, and he'd sat with her in the ladies toilet at the White Hart one night in the early days after Tom, rubbing a hand up and down her back while she cried against a sink. "Don't worry about it, mate," he'd said to her. "I'm professionally fucking divorced." He likes to tell George that one day he's going to get a stubborn mutt and name it after her.

"Thank fuck, too. One less thing your plate, George," he says, ignoring her with the skill of a much more seasoned manager. "Sound happy about it, you miserable harpy."

"This is why your wives keep leaving you, you fat arse," she lectures him, but she's smiling too hard for it to be truly scolding.

A week later, when she calls the embassy, they say thanks for her interest but the file's been sent off to the appropriate regulatory bodies and been sealed on their end.

"Doesn't it ever bother you?" Sally asks her, when George tells her she can stick the latest file in the Baker Street saga down in the archives. "That we get these fucking impossible pieces of their frankly ridiculous lives and never know all of it? They could be doing anything up there! That flat could be filled ceiling to floorboards in body parts — and not body parts he conned off that poor girl in the morgue, either."

The particular problem with knowing Sherlock Holmes is that early on, you have to make a choice: you're either all in, or you're all right with never knowing the truth of a thing, for it to dribble out to you by accident or in fits, little surprises or not at all.

George is a detective for a reason, and she's good enough at it to know where to lay the foundations of her Chinese wall. Being all in with Sherlock means something complex and impossible; she couldn't possibly endure it. As far as George can tell, the only one who has — and who's thrived — in the nuclear hothouse of Sherlock's life is John Watson. It means hiding illegal guns all over the flat and violin at 3 a.m., collecting ASBOs like 20p pieces, and living forever on the knife edge of complete chaos. John loves it; George can tell. He glows with it; his stride is more confident, he smiles more, he laughs louder.

The idea had been seductive long ago, but she'd had Tom to consider and midnight calls from mad amateur detectives weren't the sort of seasoning her already volcanic marital fights needed. She'd worked with him on cases, which Tom had endured, but Sherlock had asked her to go with him on a random experiment once to dredge something out of a pond in Yorkshire at 4 fucking a.m. on a Tuesday, standing on her doorstep with a pool net and gleam in his eye. For a minute, George had been so curious her teeth had ached, but she'd said, "Jesus Christ, Sherlock — no."

"Yes and no," George tells Sally, because Sally's at two years and counting in Serious Crimes now and she's been mad at Sherlock the entire time. "If I knew, then I'd have to know — if that makes any sense."

Sally narrows her eyes, disbelieving. "So — what? Avoiding paperwork?"

"It's not paperwork that's the problem with Sherlock," George says, sharp. "And you're a good enough detective to know what actually is."

It's a mulish expression and not a chastised one on Sally's face when she says, "We're police officers. We should be figuring this stuff out."

Sally is the only daughter of an upwardly mobile family. She got into police work because she wasnts to do good, but Sally had imagined walking the beat and saving people, translating that into promotions. She's smart enough for it, savvy enough for it, but the way she hates Sherlock is symptomatic of something George has been hoping would go away on its own.

She's a good detective, taught herself how to pay attention. As a kid she wasn't content like Billy from the chip shop with her lot in life and she wasn't brilliant like Rachel, either. She's average, but she's always been keenly aware of it, known it enough to know to draw the boundaries of herself appropriately. George has no ambition, really. She doesn't want to be the chief inspector and she's in no rush to be a DCI. She does her job because she likes helping people. The other stuff is incidental.

She's clever, not extraordinary or talented the way Sally is, the way Sally has been since the first time George had stumbled across a gawky PC already dog-earring a study guide for the detectives' exam years ago. Sally doesn't hesitate and she doesn't bother with hunches, just quietly collects the evidence into an avalanche and then dares you to disagree. One day, Sally's going to be the commissioner of the Met. She's relentless and untiring, and because she's thrice-damned by being beautiful, black, and a woman, discarding all-too-human weaknesses has been the only way Sally has ever known. George loves Sally with a big-sister bittersweetness: delighted to see her blow peers out of the water by sheer virtue of wanting it more and crushed because every review's another obstacle course, because men can be lazy but Sally can't even have a bad day.

But underneath all those gold stars and fraught political tensions, there's still the kernel of that woman with hair tied back severely, using the hood of a patrol car as a desk, and she's a good one down to the bones. Sally should keep that, hold it close.

"At some point, you're going to have to figure out which you want more, Sally," George tells her, all her consonants softening again and reaching for her bag, "to save people, or to save people on your terms."

Sally stares at her, but she doesn't say anything.

George smiles, but it's one of those tight, polite things that won't defuse any of the bombs she's leaving in her wake.

"Night, Sally," she says, quiet, and goes.

Anthea is keeping watch in the hallway outside the study when she gets home, stabbing away at level 800 on Angry Birds for BlackBerry, one stocking foot curled around the leg of the chair she's appropriated from the sitting room. She looks annoyed and gaunt, and through the study door, George can just make out Mycroft's low, angry tones, which is enough proof of life for tonight.

"Have you eaten at all?" George asks, hands on her hips and frowning.

"You're out of Maltesers," Anthea demurs, her lipstick gone missing by this time of night. George's menstrual supply of Maltesers is only two little bags stuffed in with Mycroft's organic, hand-milled oatcakes, though, so that hardly a dinner makes.

"Jesus, the two of you," George complains, and goes to the kitchen.

She makes four pesto, mozzarella, and tomato sandwiches in the panini press her mother had given them as a late Christmas present, and steeps a pot of tea with water just short of nuclear and piles it all onto a tray. She says, "Here," and sets it down in the hall near Anthea's shoes, abandoned near a towering ficus.

"He won't eat," Anthea says. "Sherlock forwarded him a study three weeks ago saying fat uptake is more intense when you consume it while furious."

George ignores that to bang on the study door. "Oi, tosser, there're sandwiches out here," she tells him through the wood and reinforced steel before turning back to Anthea to say, "Those sandwiches better be gone when I come back down here — I don't care which of you eats them, but I cooked them and my feelings will be hurt otherwise."

Mycroft doesn't come to bed that night, but Anthea's asleep in one of the guest rooms the next morning and the tray outside the study is empty, nothing but crumbs and a stained teapot and cups. George tries the door — unlocked — and pushes in, peeking left and right to see the smoldering remains of a fire and Mycroft glowering crazily into it.

"Hello," she says, hanging back in the doorway.

His eyes are red, capillaries burst, when he looks up. "Hello."

"Are you done being furious?" George asks, and doesn't ask what he's been furious about. Her legs are cold under her dressing gown, the scalloped hem of her nightgown whispering against her knees.

Mycroft smiles tiredly. "Anger proved itself useless," he admits.

What George wants right now is to cross the room and curl up with him on the armchair, so she does, tucking herself against him in the chair and feeling the warm leather through the thin robe. She smiles as Mycroft pulls it over her legs, covering her up and holding the fabric in place with a palm, wrapped around the outside of her thigh.

"You know Sherlock probably mocked up that article just to piss you off," George says, her cheek pressed against Mycroft's shoulder, one arm folded up and her fingers tugging at his collar.

He sighs. "The margins weren't even right — sloppy work," Mycroft complains, and curls the arm around George more tightly.

"Should I worry?" she asks, dreamy and still a bit asleep, the last soft fragments of their bed clinging to her. She feels drugged with warmth from where their bodies are pressed together — the familiar feel of his three-piece suit against her skin. It's half-six on a Sunday morning, and this is George's perfect moment, the one she'll carry with her all week. "Should I call and make my peace with Tom?"

"Even if the world were ending you should feel free never to call your ex-husband," Mycroft informs her generously.

She smiles into his chest. "But what if he's sorry?"

"Your mother and I agree I'm better for you," he quips, and George can feel him smiling into her hair. "Stop teasing. I'm fine."

She looks at him seriously. "Did you eat any of my sandwiches? Or did Anthea fall asleep because she had all of them and slid into a coma?"

Mycroft is a Holmes and thus a practiced and fluid liar, so when he says, "Don't be ridiculous, as if Anthea could eat four sandwiches," George takes it as her cue to get out of his lap and say, "Right, that's it — come on. We're having breakfast."

He finds her attempts at hollandaise vile, and George can't seem to teach him how to soft poach an egg properly, so they divvy up breakfast duties. Mycroft is putting an artistic scatter of minced chives over the eggs benedict by the time Anthea staggers downstairs, looking rode hard and put away angry, her hair in a violent poof extending from the right side of her head.

"Here," George says, setting a plate and fork in front of her. "It's smoked salmon."

"He didn't eat any of the sandwiches," Anthea tells George, and neatly cuts her breakfast in fours, the orange gold of the yolk bleeding across the plate as Mycroft glares at her.

George pours Mycroft a cup of coffee. "I already knew that," she assures him. "Don't worry — your punishment will come when it's least expected."

"I look forward to it," Mycroft says, smiling, like he really is looking forward to it, whatever she has in store for him, and George figures, fuck it, and leans over to kiss him slowly good morning. He's unteachable. That whole family is. She may as well enjoy it.

***

One of the nice things about Sherlock and John becoming internet famous is that the news photographers and paparazzi stop taking pictures of her. Everyone wants shots of Boffin Holmes and his sidekick Watson, and George sanctions an entire wall in her section of the Serious Crimes bullpen for her people to paper over with clipping and subsequent editorial comments. She tries to keep the gay romances to below an R18 reading level, but she's not trying that hard.

Occasionally, she ends up in the background of one or another of these images, usually far outplayed by the upturned collar of Sherlock's coat, his cheekbones prominent in what John likes to call Sherlock's "Love Me, I'm Ridiculous," pose.

Anyway she's blaming Gareth Hartley and his bloody picture in the London Times for why, on an otherwise uneventful Thursday, the phone on her desk rings and it's Eugenia Holmes. The conversation starts with Eugenia saying, disapproval and worry heavy in her voice, "You look exhausted!" and deteriorates into George arguing feebly, "It's how I always look in these photographs — my own mum doesn't even worry about it anymore." That's a mistake, because Eugenia makes a sound of pure sadness as she asks, "Your own mother doesn't even worry about it anymore?"

Forty minutes later, when Mycroft calls to say, "Apparently we're spending the weekend at Epperley House," George's response is: "Shit."

She can hear Mycroft's raised eyebrow over the line. "Dare I ask how this happened?"

"Can't you tell her no? You're busy, aren't you?" George asks.

Mycroft is always busy. One time she'd been forced to claw him soundly on the thigh when mid-coitus, his bloody mobile had gone off and his hand had crept toward it meaningfully. George has a strict rule where if someone has their cock inside of her, she ought to have his full attention, and no matter how many put-upon faces Mycroft makes, she believes it to be a just and reasonable requirement. "Given what a horrifically low bar that is, if it's not going to work out for you, I could always go find someone else to put their dick inside of me," George had told him, and suggested a number of candidates, including John Watson, Dimmock, or that actor who plays Martin Crieff on Cabin Pressure.

Mycroft had made an ugly, petty expression of annoyed jealousy as he'd sulked, "It's fine, they can leave a voice mail if it's important," to which, "You have no idea how lucky you are I'm in love with you," had been the only possible reply from George.

"She pointed out we abandoned her on Christmas day and that Sherlock is a horrible child and won't come and see her," Mycroft replies, long-suffering. "And then she made up a series of gratuitous lies about the state of her health."

Tensing, George asks, "Is she poorly?"

"My mother will outlive us all," Mycroft says with a telling and grim certainty. "She's also taken pains to explain how I will be working from the estate over the weekend so she can see to you properly and also force you to try on all the family jewelry."

"My argument about a lack of occasion to wear the diadem failed, didn't it?"

"My mother is the type of woman who believes every occasion is the proper occasion to wear a diadem," Mycroft says fondly. "It could be worse: I managed to convince her that a surprise visit to your mother would upset you."

George smiles. "Well, there's that."

So they end up headed for Sussex again for the weekend, Mycroft at the wheel, equipped with a bluetooth headset and with his suit jacket off, shirtsleeves rolled up. George, curled up in the passenger's seat, tries to ignore the frankly terrifying things she overhears of his conversations and read Bonk! at the same time. It's an unseasonably warm day in early spring, and the air is the sweet green smell of fields and earth and rain, and George eventually gives up on the book to stare dreamily out of the opened window — letting the wind whip across her cheek and tangle her hair.

She feels like they've crossed a faerie hill somewhere in between London and the long drive of the house Mycroft grew up in, and George blinks lazily in the Friday evening haze — pink and dark blue melting into one another at the horizon — as she climbs out of the car and stretches her limbs when they reach Epperley House.

There's a bite in the air now, the threat of cold, but then Mycroft's hands are on her, pushing her against the metal of the car and pressing hot against her front.

This close, the height difference between them shows, and George tips her head back and smiles up at him, lazy and chilled, wraps her hands around his waist to link her fingers at his back — where she can feel the line of his trousers underneath his waistcoat. In the half-dark his eyes are luminous, and all she can see are the traces of auburn in his hair and the line of his nose, the tired pink of his mouth.

George has loved like this before — with unthinking constancy and oftentimes humbling depth — and it's hurt her, it still aches like John Watson's war injury. But given the option of being safe or having Mycroft's hands huge on her hips, George will choose danger every time. The DNA of love is clever like that, keeping you on the oxytocin high of it until you've already been knit together with another person and find yourself suddenly aware that you need them, that you've entangled, that to separate for oxygen would feel impossible. George has no defenses against it, will lay down her shield every time.

"Yes?" she asks, because it's been two minutes now that Mycroft has been staring at her. George is always curious to know what he's deduced of her — how many of her secrets are actually telegraphed by her eyes, the flicker of an eyelash.

"Nothing," Mycroft tells her, sounding distracted, "just," and kisses her lazily, with the assurance of time: sultry and open-mouthed and then filthy with intent.

Right now, George is happy, the way people are almost never happy, and she clings at it greedily, lets it seep through her pores and press deep into the marrow and bone so she'll have it when she's no longer on her tiptoes, leaning against the Aston Martin, kissing Mycroft as the sky goes a deep, soft midnight overhead.

Eugenia serves lasagna and embarrassing joy for dinner, and the way she keeps looking at Mycroft with a combination of disapproval and reluctant pride makes it clear that George and Mycroft had an audience for the way they'd all but reproduced against the car. The only reason George hasn't gone to hide under the table in sympathetic horror is that watching Mycroft squirm is fascinating.

"Maybe you could use your influence on Sherlock," Eugenia says to George. "Make him see how cruel he's being by leaving me abandoned and in shambles."

George arches a brow at that, and fittingly, the downstairs maid chooses that moment to sweep through to clear the entree dishes and refresh their wine, murmur something about how the cook has a marvelous pavlova for afters. Mycroft, made of posher stuff, manages to restrain himself to a meaningful click of his knife against his bread dish.

"I'm abandoned at the very least," Eugenia insists.

"Mummy, Sherlock is only exercising reasonable caution," Mycroft says. "Surely he's deduced the way you've been desperate to entrap poor Georgiana with precious stones — God only knows what you'd do to John."

George kicks him under the table, which turns out to be redundant because over the table, Eugenia raps his knuckles with her coffee spoon at the same time.

Immediately after dinner, Eugenia shoos George off to bed with the strength of maternal insistence. George, who hadn't even known she was tired, falls asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow, a hand stretched over Mycroft's side of the bed, his voice faint from where he's walking around downstairs.

It's hours later — it must be hours later; the room has the cold stillness of ages — George wakes up to Mycroft's hand on her face, his palm cupping her cheek.

She says, "Hello," voice scratchy with sleep, and stares up at him, where his eyes are slivers of light in his shadowed face. "Are you just getting to bed?"

"I received a phone call not long after dinner," he says, running the pad of his thumb over her eyebrow. "I found myself thinking."

George hums. "Always dangerous for you Holmeses."

His smile, when it comes, is heartbreaking and small, and it wakes George up completely. She unearths herself from the covers, feeling the cold air prickling at her skin as she watches Mycroft watch her, both of them limned with orange light from the hall outside the opened bedroom door.

"Everything okay?" she asks. Do I need to call my mum? she thinks.

"Everything's fine, or will be anyway," he says.

It's a lie but not an enormous one, and it makes George wonder how many secrets he carries with him all the places he goes, if he has a cyanide pill in his tooth or a kill order like in the spy books. She's been idly curious about how much of her his superiors — does Mycroft even have superiors? — know, or if George is a carefully guarded secret, kept in a walled garden of Mycroft's life, where she shares a plot of earth with his mother and brother and his childhood. George thinks sometimes about the things he's done and how far he'd go, if he's ever killed anyone, if he's ever done something unforgivable, if he's ever let people die. John told her, early on, that Sherlock called Mycroft the most dangerous man he'd ever met. To George, Mycroft is just a man who avoids dentist visits, has nosey, overprotective instincts, and kisses her against cars. These things are real, even if they are only real to her.

"But I was thinking," Mycroft goes on, and the hand on her cheek strokes down her neck, over her shoulder, down her arm. "I was thinking that if it wasn't going to be all right — if tonight was the end of everything, I would rather be with you than downstairs waiting alone."

George draws him under the covers, clothes and all, tucks him in close and presses his face against her throat so she can wrap her arms around him. It's irrational to think she can protect him from any of the things that keep him awake at night, but she can't turn it off, wouldn't know where to begin. All she can do is press lingering kisses onto his brow and let him squeeze her breathless, too tightly under the covers, as she strokes her fingers through his hair until his exhales even out.

He's gone when she wakes up in the morning — which she was expecting — but back that night, and not alone, either — which she was not.

"You are supposed to be dead," George says, when in the front hall at Epperley, she meets Mycroft, Sherlock, Anthea, and a ghost with dark hair and striking pale eyes, draped in a gown made of something synthetic that juts out and clings in all the most beautifully asymmetrical places.

Irene Adler — who George had looked up, triggering every single web blocker at the office to scour the woman's website — looks triumphant, languorous with satisfaction, and she's hovering close enough to Sherlock to make him twitch, his eyes downcast. George wants to reach over and draw him behind her for safekeeping, but then Irene's smiling at George, predatory, sighing in appreciation.

"Oh, you're interesting," she says, stepping closer, hand outstretched.

George is only a half-step back on her heels before the tip of Mycroft's umbrella snaps against Irene's naked ankle: precise and terribly dangerous. He says, "No further," and to George, he murmurs, "The household?"

George says, "Asleep already," and looks between Sherlock and Irene as she does.

Irene hasn't moved an inch — smart, George thinks — but she's still grinning, her eyes eating everything up, and George is suddenly, aware that she's wearing one of Mycroft's shirts over old jeans and no shoes, her toenails painted a vicious red. She's hasn't got on any makeup and her hair's in a state and George may as well be naked, the way Irene's staring. It's a harrowing sort of inspection, and George thinks, still, don't move an inch, to keep herself from shifting her weight back and forth, from fidgeting, from looking away.

"You must be very special," Irene says. "Secret wife?"

George holds up her left hand — no ring — and stays silent.

"Oh," Irene purrs, "I am so pleased to meet you."

George raises an eyebrow at Sherlock, who continues to glare at his Italian shoes, and then to Mycroft, who's suddenly fascinated by an ugly painting on the wall. Anthea makes a distracted noise about preparing a room and vanishes through a side door, taking the circuitous route through the downstairs music room and the butler's pantry.

"The feeling's not mutual," George says finally, because she remembers John telling her about Sherlock composing, the long hours of heartrending violin at Baker Street, the way he'd gotten even thinner and paler, his disquieting good behavior.

"The fact that you exist at all is a marvel to me," Irene goes on, favoring Mycroft with an indulging smile that George wishes she could claw off Irene's face. "Do you know that they call your boyfriend when you're not around?"

George knows she's glowering. "Sir, I imagine," she snaps.

Mycroft shows a flicker of a smile at that, but Irene shows all her teeth.

"Curiouser and curiouser," she breathes, hungry, and the line of her gaze feels like the trail of unwanted fingers between George's breasts, down the line of her sternum and scraping over her belly.

"I'll just — go elsewhere now, shall I?" George asks, trying to ignore the way Irene is watching her.

"For the best," Mycroft agrees, and clears his throat. "We'll be in the mahogany room."

"Oh," the woman coos. "Is it soundproof?"

George says, "Don't," reflexively. She doesn't even know what she's forbidding or why she's not leaving as quickly as her legs will carry her, but she's loathe to leave Sherlock here, not when he looks like that, or when Mycroft won't look at him at all.

"No need to worry, yours is entirely too well-behaved for me already," Irene says innocently. "I like mine still needing a little — " she looks over at Sherlock " — breaking."

"Stop it," George snarls, and barely keeps herself from adding, leave him alone.

Irene turns to Mycroft again. "Is she real then? Not engineered from a list of component parts? She's darling, Mr. Holmes, but no polish, not beautiful enough to be the caliber of professional that would catch your eye — "

George's face burns. She should have left ages ago, as soon as she realized Mycroft wasn't unaccompanied. She's no business being here, and —

"Stop talking," Sherlock hisses at Irene, with a barely banked violence. George feels her eyes widening in shock, looking at the way Sherlock's face is ugly with fury as he says, "You're not to talk about her."

Irene looks shaken, but it only lasts a second before she's gathered up again, flawlessly cruel and grinning. "And here I thought I was the first woman who touched your heart."

"His heart isn't what you touched," Mycroft says, unsettled enough to sound venomous versus flat — unsettled enough that when he directs his miserable little caravan toward the mahogany room, he lingers in the hall so he can whisper, "I'm sorry — " and George can stand on her tiptoes and kiss away the rest of that sentence, murmur, "I know. Don't worry. Go. Take care of Sherlock."

He stares at her a moment, and then another. "I wish you would marry me," he sighs.

"I would," George promises him, and seals another kiss over his mouth. "If you asked."

The mahogany room actually is soundproof, still echoing with the memory of Mycroft and Sherlock's father with its dark paneling and heavy furniture, the constantly-blazing fire. George ends up taking up a defensive position in the kitchen, staring through the hall at a heavy door with everybody behind it. Her back's to the aga, and she's rocking a high stool at a dangerous frequency, feeling the mug of tea in her hands go slowly freezing as the minutes creep past.

Almost an hour later, Sherlock is the first one out of the room, victorious and cold. George barely manages to ask, "Everything all right?" before he's gone without an answer, disappeared into one of the swallowing midnight shadows of the house, only his footsteps up the grand staircase giving him away.

Anthea's next, a much-subdued Irene trailing her. George holds her tongue and watches them go, listens until the ancient door of the house opens and closes and nothing's left but the whisper-ticks of clocks and the hum of the fridge, the wind barely audible through the shuttered windows.

She waits almost a quarter of an hour before she gives into her own curiosity and abandons her tea to tiptoe to the door of the mahogany room. It's warmly lit inside, fire still crackling away, and Mycroft is standing in front of it looking pensive. The chamber is all long shadows and orange-sienna light, Persian rugs and handmade furniture imported from Italy during the early Renaissance.

"Is it over, then?" George asks, hanging in the doorway. "Everything sorted?"

He looks up at her, smiles crookedly. "In a sense. Although I suspect Irene Adler will always have a place in Sherlock's heart — though she failed on account of her own."

"Because she wanted him?" George asks, stepping into the room now, and darting nearer to the fire, feeling the warm prick at her icy fingers and toes. "I doubt a woman like her would be so foolish as to be duped by lust."

"But we are all duped by love," Mycroft comments absently, and closes his hands around her own, rubbing them together to scrub some heat back into her skin.

George frowns, and when Mycroft raises her curled fingers to his mouth to press a kiss there, she asks, "Do you really think that?"

Mycroft looks torn. In all cases, Mycroft's preference — at least toward her — is for omission or nondisclosure versus an outright lie. He'll talk around it; he'll change the subject; he'll say he can't say. But those are matters of state and this is a matter between them, and Mycroft knows she won't play along here.

"I think love is associated with intoxication for a reason," he says finally.

"Oh, so you're drunk on me right now?" George scoffs, and Mycroft just replies, quick as a shot and absolutely certain:

"Yes. I am."

George steels herself against her knee-jerk instinct to smile at him, to kiss him, to sweep this away like so many other tiny everyday irritations. Mycroft knows the way he knows everything how she folds under the weight of his gaze, and he uses it like he would a gun or a cutting word.

"That wasn't love, Mycroft," she says evenly. "Whatever was going on between Irene and Sherlock? That was not love."

Now it's Mycroft's turn to deploy the eyebrow.

"She hurt him," George says, with a certainty that doesn't have any physical evidence behind it. But she knows women like Irene, and the way she'd touched Sherlock had telegraphed entire novels.

"He was cruel to her, in the end," Mycroft says, and after a beat, adds, "I don't think we're like them, if you're worried."

"I'm not worried," George says, tugging her hands away so she can scrub them over her face. She's tired suddenly, her head hurting, and she can't quite shake of the memory of Irene's curiously gleaming eyes, her genuine, delighted surprise.

George knows half the reason she and Mycroft work is because she doesn't think about it too much, just follows her instincts, the tug on her heart, his beckoning hand into their bed — but now she wants to know what Irene saw, what Irene thought. She'd ask Sherlock if he wouldn't throw a wobbler at her. She doesn't want them to end the way everything had ended tonight: in aching silence, Anthea leading her to the car.

"What did she see?" George asks. It bursts out of her. "When Irene Adler was looking at me and smiling like that, what did she see?"

Mycroft's expression is grim. "Confirmation of a suspected weakness."

It's less romantic when it's a legitimate concern, George decides, but mostly she wonders what the clues were, before Irene had gotten to the door at Epperley House and known for sure.

"And you always eliminate weaknesses," George ventures.

"It's not a hypothetical I enjoy entertaining," Mycroft says, flatly disinterested, and retakes possession of her left hand, stroking a thumb across her knuckles and down the backs of her fingers to the joints and back again. George used to think, he likes my ears the best, or no, the collarbones, when he would get distracted like this, leaning a part of her body by touch. By now, George knows he intends to learn all of it, that he's taking his time. "And another reason it was imperative to neutralize her."

Mycroft looks the same as he ever does to George: pressed and tucked and carefully tied in a Windsor knot, as flawlessly put together as she's ever seen him, stepping into an out of a thousand anonymous black cars and perched at his desk in Whitehall. He's wearing a pinstriped suit and a silvery-gray tie and a hundred years of stress in the creases on his forehead and — a dotty red pocket square she recognizes because it belonged to her in a former life, a scarf left over the back of Mycroft's bathtub wingback.

George runs a hand across his chest, the fine stitches and seams of his jacket. "This is mine, you thief."

She feels his smile more than she sees it. "It was an indulgence," he tells her.

"Is it what gave you away?" George asks.

Mycroft covers her hand where she's pressing against the scarf and the fine fabric of his pocket. "Among other things," he allows.

George turns her hand over in Mycroft's grasp and watches him watching her palm as she asks, "What will happen to her now?"

"She'll run, most likely," Mycroft says mildly, disinterested.

"Is she in danger?" George asks.

Mycroft says, "Not from me," and after a beat, "Would that bother you?"

George thinks about Adler's snake eyes in the front hall, the long nights where Mycroft's been gone. The horrible look on his face earlier, after the call and when he'd let himself be consoled with sleep. She thinks about Sherlock's expression, the hurt anger in his voice, and the fact that any person who can so deftly earn Sherlock's infatuation and Mycroft's hatred is dangerous.

"It should bother me more," George admits, and says, "Come on — bed."

"There's actually one more thing to do," Mycroft says.

They end up in the garage and scouring the surrounding grounds for two hours, taking the spark plugs out of all the cars on the estate. George also removes the battery from a golf cart and disables a backhoe the builders working on Eugenia's new conservatory had left behind the stable. The mental image of receiving a phone call from the local police after they arrest Sherlock trying to flee Epperley House at half-four in the morning, going 17 kilometers an hour on construction equipment, is vivid.

The spark plugs and batteries and such end up in Mycroft's room with them because it's the only place they know Sherlock can't bring himself to check for fear of catching George and Mycroft engaged in 'intimacies.' George admits she's been encouraging this phobia.

"It could almost be read as a sign of tenderness," George proposes, half-asleep already, Mycroft's face buried in her hair. They're curled up together on the left-hand edge of the bed, because George likes to let her feet dangle over the side, and Mycroft likes to press himself along her spine as they sleep.

He makes an unconvinced noise.

"If he really wanted to leave, he could brave coming here and steal the spark plugs, or there're always taxi services," George goes on around a yawn, eyelids getting heavier.

Mycroft says, consonants slurring in exhaustion, "None of the local cab services will come here anymore, and I told him I'd have John sent back to Afghanistan if he burst in."

George laughs, blurry. "You wouldn't."

"He doesn't have to know that," Mycroft argues, rotten like every older brother that ever existed, and kisses the soft curve where her neck melts into her shoulder in pleading. "Go to sleep — please."

"Fine," George agrees, "but I'm telling Sherlock about this tomorrow morning."

She means it, too, except that the next morning she wakes up to Sherlock creeping under Mycroft's bed, looking for spark plugs.

"They're not down there, you wanker," George says, because now that the Holmeses are in her life, of course these are the first words she would say out loud on any given day, still prone in bed and all her limbs heavy underneath the covers.

If Sherlock's expression wasn't one of pure mutiny, he would look angelic in the warm morning light: dark curls, pale eyes, his cheeks red from fury.

"I've checked everywhere else — they have to be here," he declares, and adds matter-of-fact, "There were entirely too many to use your vagina as a hiding place."

From behind her, Mycroft growls, "Kabul."

"Beast," Sherlock retorts, and lights it out of their room. "I'll walk!"

Eugenia must intercept him before he can leave on foot, though, because half an hour later, when George wanders down into the kitchen, Eugenia is peacefully sipping her morning tea while Sherlock makes cinnamon buns with a fascinating degree of resentment. George wonders if you can taste hatred in food.

"Good morning, darling," Eugenia says, and favors George with a kiss to the cheek, already preparing a second cuppa. "Sleep well?"

George grins. "Yes," she says, "and Mycroft and I are starving."

From the digital ovens double-stacked near the aga, Sherlock makes a pained noise.

But at least he's not the miserable of yesterday night, where he'd been angry with hurt, feeling embarrassed and used. This morning's irritation and impatience is ordinary, the kind George is used to, that she barely registers anymore. She's glad for his misbehavior, his terrible selfishness and tantrums, because it means at least he's all right. George is always surprised by how she went from tolerating Sherlock to feeling a reluctant tenderness for him, custodial affection, and she's still staring at his sullen profile when Mycroft sweeps in a few minutes later, already dressed, and kisses her.

He says, "Good morning," and George smiles back.

"Yes, it is," she agrees.

"No," Sherlock says in the background, "it is not."

"Kandahar," Mycroft sing-songs, and Sherlock barely has time to open his mouth before Eugenia intervenes with:

"Speaking of Afghanistan, Sherlock, when am I going to meet this doctor of yours?"

The cinnamon swirls are delicious. So is watching Sherlock slowly caving like wet paper under his mother's arguments.

***

George isn't surprised when John tells her a few weeks later that Irene's in America in a witness protection scheme, that Sherlock won't ever be able to see her again.

"It's for the best, really," John says, faux cheerful.

They're in their pub again on a quiet Tuesday, their odd hours lining up for a 3 p.m. drink, huddled together near the back of the counter. John looks tired, bags under his eyes, like he knees a good twenty hours of sleep and a long reprieve before he goes back to Baker Street again.

"Do you really think so?" George asks, because by now, John must know Sherlock better than anybody else in the world. Mycroft and Eugenia may love Sherlock, but John's the only person who has to live with him, and who elects to stay in spite of everything. She's wanted to ask before what John had thought of Irene, but she'd always gotten tongue-tied: it wasn't the right moment, or hell, Sherlock was there.

John's quiet for a long moment. "She was bad for him," he decides.

"Sherlock doesn't like things that are good for him," George points out.

"Well, he'd better learn," John retorts tartly, waving for another drink, his face an expression of pure, grim determination. "And fast — I've just agreed to help him quit smoking cold turkey."

When the bartender comes to them, George intercepts to say, "Make my gentleman friend's a double. He's going to need it."

***

George supposes even Sherlock's broken heart can be repaired by time, because she's in Portugal with her mother — "Let's go somewhere, George, just you and me," she'd said, smiling, happy, well done Dr. Undershaw — when she gets a text from Mycroft.

Sherlock's broken into Baskervilles. 
John has assisted by pulling rank.
You'd categorically refuse to supervise, correct? 
MH.

"Oh, is that Mycroft, then?" Gillian asks, leaning over George's mobile screen and smiling. Behind her the pool is a glimmering aquamarine and the sky is white with cotton fluff clouds, and George thinks her mother looks beautiful. "Tell him I'm sorry for stealing you away."

George rolls her eyes. "No need," she says. "He's complaining about his brother breaking into military installations."

Gillian makes a sad noise. "How on Earth Mycroft turned out so well when Sherlock's such a mess, I'll never know," she mourns, secure in her ignorance of how completely terrible Mycroft is in his own unique and terrifying ways.

George replies:

I will go and babysit them if you are concerned enough for me to pull a Lysistrata on you until Sherlock learns some manners. Obviously, timeline indeterminate. GL.

Mycroft's answer takes forever to come, but when it does, it says:

I'll send Dimmock.
Give Gillian my best.
MH.

"Yeah," George tells her phone. "That's what I thought."

A week later, George sails back into London and Scotland Yard with presents, a flush from the sun, and charity in her heart.

"How was it?" George asks Sally, when they convene in the break room to exchange half-hearted gossip. It hasn't been the same since George had quietly called Sally to the carpet, and George doesn't think it will be again.

Sally's smile is genuine though, this morning. "Fine on our end, not so good elsewhere."

She nods over at Dimmock, who's hunched over his desk with a particularly fragile moue of pain seemingly etched onto his face.

"Poor man," George observes, grinning into her cup.

"He wouldn't speak for a week when he came back," Sally says. "Just sat at his desk looking tragic and pale and glaring at your office."

George rolls her eyes. "Men are fucking useless, Jesus."

"Amen to that," Sally says, and startles, looks away, as if she remembers suddenly that she's still angry with George, that there's a lingering wound between them.
"So what's on the docket, then?" George asks, hurrying to finish her tea, because hopefully burning her tongue will make her chest hurt less.

"Surprisingly little," Sally says. "Murderers have been quieter than the thieves, lately."

"And what have they been thieving?" George says, looking toward her office, where the thin stack of pending documents has reproduced in her absence into a substantial mountain. Quiet murderers just means more time to sort out the aftermath of their more active peers, awaiting trial or appealing or requiring a fresh set of eyes on a case.

"Ugly German waterfall paintings, apparently," Sally tells her, distracted, and consults her mobile. "I'll flag you if anything comes up?"

George nods. "You know where to find me."