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The Least of All Possible Mistakes

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The meeting is brief and mostly perfunctory, with professional standards explaining to George her rights in this inquest, walking her through the process. George tries to listen but none of it's sinking in. Trackwell and Chief Inspector Potter are both present, which is fantastic, and George is silent as a grave for most of it, eyes fixed at a spot over Moran's shoulder where the plasterwork on the conference room is beginning to crack. Everybody's tea goes cold twice over in the ice of discomfort.

"Do you understand the seriousness of this investigation, Detective Inspector Lestrade?" Trackwell asks, stony-faced and plotting. Someone will need to be martyred for this not to touch the larger body of the Met, and George can already feel the sting of a fucking tourniquet.

"I'm aware of the seriousness of this investigation," she parrots back, because she can't say, Fuck you.

Trackwell says, "Your old cases will all need to be reinvestigated for fraud."

"I'll be leading that inquiry," Moran steps in, frowning down the row before he turns back to George with a sympathetic look on his face. George has always hated the overly nice doctors the most. "We'll be seeing a lot of each other in the coming weeks."

Potter, scowling, can't resist. "Frankly, if I may make an aside — "

Moran sighs. "Chief Inspector, please — "

" — it must be said that it's frankly ludicrous that this situation went on so long," Potter goes on anyway, because he's the type of man who chases children off of his lawn and says cruel things to his daughters, George bets. "How you were able to conceal his involvement in such a staggering number of sensitive cases really betrays — "

"There was never any concealment," George interrupts him, her voice flat and cracked open like the bed of a dead lake. "I never made any attempt to conceal Sherlock Holmes' involvement — any more than I would do to protect the identity of any other informant. He was on the books. He was in the files. He's testified at two-dozen trials." 

Potter colors. 

"You shook his hand once," George continues, her voice growing steady as her blurry anger hardens into something certain. "Just outside the Royal Courts of Justice. He made a twatty comment about your tie and you laughed it off because you were so chuffed about the case we'd just closed. With his help."

Potter's furious red has gone a bit green and sickly, and George refuses to look away, keeps her eyes dead level with him and her face stony. Potter doesn't have the right to say anything about Sherlock Holmes. He should remember if that he's going to imply that Sherlock is George's pet fraud, that the first part of that description is George's. She could claw Potter's eyes out with her bare hands.

She asks, "Are we done?"

"That's it for today," Moran answers obligingly, breaking the tension in the room. "Detective Inspector Lestrade, thanks for coming in."

George shoves away from the conference table and lets herself out.

***

On the sixth day she confesses to her mother, and the worst part is sitting on the phone listening to her mother cry and letting her own tears well up and over, broken glass in her throat. George doesn't know what to say, and neither does her mother, because their lives and their shared histories have been shaped by terrible things, but this is something new and novel in its awfulness. 

She's been sleeping on the drawing room sofa under a blanket from the most remote and unloved of the guest rooms. George can't go into her bedroom, where Mycroft's clothes fill up half the closet and his shaving kit is scattered around the double sinks and it still smells like him in their bed. The conservatory and the sitting room are the only safe spaces with the study overflowing with Mycroft's books and his desk and his jade plant and the kitchen stuffed full of his collection of gluten-free crackers and a recipe for the Splenda version of Victoria Sponge tacked up on the fridge-freezer.

"He loves you, duck," her mother says. "He'll be back once he gets himself a bit sorted. Be patient with him."

George wants to say, Will he? Really? You have to promise, and I miss him and He scraped his nails in me, through an open wound but all of it just lives in the back of her throat like the beginnings of a scream. 

Underneath the immediacy of her empty house and the concussive, nauseating hurt of Mycroft is the sharp and chilling reality that's Sherlock's gone and not coming back. This isn't like his season-long vanishing acts in rehab, when he emerged pressed and polished and perfectly furious; he's dead in a pine box of Mycroft's choosing, and George is thinking about that night with the cabbie and John's gun — when she'd felt her heart stop and rushed the flashing lights of the ambulances. George remembers how John had blasted his way into her notice that first night and branded himself across Sherlock's heart, how she'd thought that if Sherlock had ended up dead because of everything she let him get away with, she didn't know how she'd go on.

She's lost people before, attended police funerals, mourned for colleagues and friends. Sherlock is both, and more, and at the same time, neither. George knows it's stupid, but she feels like prior to her tacit permissions and pulling strings, Sherlock was brilliant chaos with no particular end goal — it was only with the Yard that he became a target, that George helped paint it over his chest.

But to think this way is to strip Sherlock of his own decisions: from kicking the drugs to keeping John to solving mysteries to pitching himself off the fucking roof of Bart's. Anderson and Sally may think George babies — babied — Sherlock, but he wasn't actually a child. 

It probably doesn't matter the right answer in this case, to wonder endlessly whether or not she was truly complicit, because she's alone in this house and sitting in an armchair drinking cognac alone because she feels she is, and George has gotten confessions from sobbing, hysterical people with far less cause for guilt.

She wonders where Mycroft's staying, if anybody is worrying about him. In the small hours, when her spine hurts from being crunched up on the sofa, she wonders about things that spiral outward into abject absurdity, but that intrude on her like a sudden vision of gore. She can't see Mycroft to verify, so her brain fills in all the empty spaces with the worst possible outcomes: crushing, untended grief, ignoring sleep entirely, stealing and eating all of Anthea's starmix, fucking five diamond pros in at the Ritz to distract himself. 

Swallowing around her sharp-edged grief, George finds it woven through with anger. It sits and grows carcinogenic in her stomach as she thinks of the ignominious way Sherlock's left them all behind. She can't bear to think about Eugenia in her massive house or John and the way Mrs. Hudson said he was nonverbal when George had caught her on the phone to get some proof of life.

George keeps checking to see if her camp of photographers has gone away or gotten bored so she can stomp over to Baker Street and smother John with her worry. The crowd stays more or less constant, fluxing up or down one or two photographers, until half-four, when George looks out the window — more from bleak curiosity than any genuine hope — and finds the entire street deserted.

"Shit," she says into the window pane.

Her breath's still steaming across the glass as the doorbell rings, echoing through the entry hall and the downstairs reception rooms in a quiet chime.

The video feed for the door buzzer shows Anthea, and George has to scrub her hands along the hips of her battered jeans for long, shaky-breathed seconds before she gets up the courage to open the monstrously heavy door, dragging it inward with all her weight.

On the other side of it, standing on the front step, Anthea is immaculate: in unwrinkled linen with her hair drawn back from her face in a tight fishtail braid that falls over her left shoulder. Her face is flatly impassive and her eyes are red, capillaries burst from exhaustion or stolen-away crying jags in the ladies, George has no idea: Anthea is a much-loved puzzle for the way she's never come undone. She'd holding a document box and wearing Tory Burch flats.

"Hi," George says, standing frozen near the line where the parquet floor of the entryway changes over to the smooth paving stones of the step.

Anthea offers her the box. "Your things," she explains. 

George stares a long time before taking it, before asking, "My — how? From where?"

"Mr. Holmes is a thief," Anthea says, without her usual bland affection, and George wonders crazily if they're fighting again, and where, if they don't have the proscribed battleground of the kitchen and their designated weapons of sugar and toast at hand.

"O—kay," George allows.

Because Anthea always knows exactly what George needs, she reaches over and lifts the cover of the box.

Inside is a magpie's collection of things George doesn't remember going missing: a single earring; an old warrant card of hers, its corner broken off from long abuse; a rolled-up and heavily defaced copy of a program from the night Mycroft had tricked her into going to see part of the Ring Cycle with him; a tube of lipstick, the same one she'd worn on their first date; Post-It notes, dozens of them. There's the appalling paperback romance novel she'd bought at St. Pancras and lost during the same trip, a bracelet she remembers abandoning in the change tray of Mycroft's BMW not so long ago. There's an extra mobile battery, a fold-up reusable grocery bag that used to live in her purse, a series of printed out recipes, marked up in George's looping script. 

It feels like a man's fingers pressing against a bruise over thin skin: a deep, rounded ache that flowers open in her chest. She thinks about Mycroft sorting through his things, rooting out every trace of her, erasing them, the places where they have their hooks in each other, where their scars have grown over and wound together like the limbs of trees in deep forest. 

George's lungs empty.

"I'm also to tell you the Holmes family will be holding a private service for Sherlock tomorrow. A car will be sent for you, 1 p.m., if you wish," Anthea goes on, impassive around the little grenades of her words, and the silence as her first sentence dies away lasts for geologic eons before she says, "Mrs. Holmes would like for you to attend. She would like to see you."

George croaks, "I'll go — I can drive myself." 

"It'll be at the parish church at Rye Harbour," Anthea tells her. "In the family plot at half-three in the afternoon."

George stares down into her box, at takeaway menus with her writing in the margins — What do you want? OK, a circle around the vindaloo — and a LUSH bath bomb still in its paper wrapping, a METROPOLITAN POLICE fridge magnet.

"Was that it?" George asks. "Is that everything?"

It can't possibly be just this — these little things. George doesn't believe in the sweeping, epic romances Rachel used to read in their teens; she doesn't even believe in the effortless love of her twenties and thirties. But she does believe that love is stubborn, that it seeps into the groundwater, that Mycroft wasn't lying when he whispered it into her spine, when he smiled it against her mouth, when he'd said he wished she would marry him. 

Anthea is quiet, not the effortless, certain kind that George has known in her since the beginning. It's hesitating, considering, an everyday, human silence that begs a question, and it goes on for long enough that George glances upward to see Anthea's eyes gone redder, her mouth bloodless as she says:

"I can't give you what you want. I can't give you what you need."

George must have been waiting for it because the tears that come have only been barely banked, flooding in like a levee's given way.

"And for that," Anthea whispers, raising one hand to George's cheek — burning under Anthea's cool fingertips — touching the corner of George's mouth, "I am truly sorry."

The kiss, when it comes, is chaste and sweet and waxy with gloss. George closes her eyes into it, leans into it, lets Anthea lean into her. It lingers like an apology between them, and George breathes in the smell of Anthea's French perfume, feels the rough palms of Anthea's hands on her face, and when they break apart, Anthea exhales, "I'm sorry. I don't know what to do. I'm sorry."

George thinks that her heart must be a secret only to herself, that everyone around her finds the defenses she's only ever half-heartedly kept up even more porous than George had thought. In nearby rooms and winding corridors, Mycroft and John and Sherlock and Sally and Anderson have all made their homes, and Anthea's carved out a space, too, in the annex near the shrine George has kept empty for Rachel all these decades. 

She's hates this, seeing Anthea's surface fractures, and George shoves the box aside onto one priceless Restoration sideboard or another so she can wrap her arms around Anthea's shoulders, drag her in close for a hug. 

"It's fine," George promises, runs her hands up and down the shaking curvature of Anthea's spine, strong under the fabric of the dress. "I'm okay — thank you for coming."

Anthea doesn't hug like someone who knows how. She fists her strong hands in George's jumper instead, near the hem, sucking in graceless breaths for long, horrible moments on the doorstep. 

She says, "I have to go," in between shuddering exhales. "I have to go."

George presses her cheek against Anthea's temple, feeling tenderness like a garrote. She nods, putting a hand against the back of Anthea's neck, murmuring, "It's all right — you'll be all right. It's fine."

Anthea doesn't pull away carefully, she shoves herself free of George, cuts a foot between them. When she turns to go it's with a clatter of her shoes skittering too quickly down the step. There's a black car waiting, and Anthea doesn't let the driver open the door for her, jerks it wide in a panic and vanishes inside.

George watches the sedan pull away, stands there for minutes that melt into a quarter of an hour before her phone buzzes with a text in the back pocket of her jeans:

Go back inside. The security detail is about to release the photographers.

She doesn't move. She writes back:

Is this Anthea? 

There isn't an answer, and George thinks about standing there until she forces a reply, but then Pete Caster from the fucking Sun is the first arsehole back trotting down Lyall Street, so she swears under her breath and slams shut her front door instead.

***

On the seventh day, her camp of photographers has thinned, but not by much.

George puts on a black pencil skirt and black jacket, sensible pumps, the professionalized uniform of law enforcement in mourning. She shrugs on a black trench and whispers, "I can do this," and goes for the garage. 

Mycroft's left his cars here, his sensible BMW and the Aston Martin sitting as abandoned as George is, and she stares at them both, thinking about braving the paps to get at her Golf, parked slightly crookedly round the corner on the street next to Sir Kenneth's SmartCar. She wonders about the optics — the Met media team are always talking about optics — of taking one of Mycroft's painfully posh cars. She thinks that all things even, she could give a fuck, and gets in the Aston Martin.

The shouting starts as soon as the garage door opens and she pulls out, thankfully half-muted in the cabin of the Aston. In one of Mycroft's slightly loopy monologues about why he loves it the way men love carefully cloistered exotic mistresses, he'd talked about the design, and how it's one of those beautifully sleek things you can outline in a single penstroke. It means the photographers don't have any ugly bits to cling onto as they chase her down Lyall Street, shoving their massive lenses against the driver's side window and jogging alongside the car.

Pete, who is as relentless as he is ugly, knocks on the lower edge of the windshield as George grits her teeth and tries not to step on the gas to mow down a few of his stupider colleagues, darting around in front of the vehicle on the short street.

"George, you dressed for a funeral?" he shouts at her through the glass.

She grits her teeth against the urge to fire off a witty retort. George will never forget the inhumane torture of having to sit in with some publicist freshly trucked out of Goldsmith's — who'd seemed fairly harmless until the door to the conference room had shut and George had gotten the bollocking of a lifetime for her completely harmless quip that may or may not have threatened bodily injury upon a member of the Metro's reporting staff for crossing police tape for the twelve thousandth time. George has been lectured about talking with the media until her ears have turned inside out, but it all boils down to don't.

"Is it for Sherlock?" Pete carries on, well-versed in having one-sided conversations with people who are mutely furious. "Where's it being held? There's been no public notice."

George is saying, "Pete, if you don't get off my fucking car in it's going to be your funeral," before she can send her brain the DO NOT ENGAGE warning, and Pete grins at her through the window and throws off a fucking flash in her face because he knows he's won — got a foot in the door.

"Be a sport, George," he lectures her at a mild bellow. "No one's going to come round to your side of things if you keep acting like such a cunt."

She claws at the steering wheel. "You're a disgrace to humankind, Pete," she hollers through the window, because she's snapped, lost it, obviously gone completely off the rails, better judgment evacuating itself from her brain.

"And you're fucking gorgeous when you're angry," he rejoins, shameless, and winks. "Come on then, Georgie, give us something."

"I'm giving you to the count of three," George informs him loudly. "One — two — "

Pete, despite being a bottom feeder of the worst kind, succeeds and thrives because he's a clever bottom feeder of the worst kind, and by the time George drops a lead foot onto the gas he's wisely fucked off out of the trajectory of her vehicle. In her dust, he waves and shouts, "I'm filing a complaint about this!" but he's grinning as he does it.

It's eighty miles from central London to Rye Harbour, itself fifteen miles out from Epperley, and George spends the two hours it takes her to get there barely paying attention to the road. She's afraid to listen to the radio and she can't let her mind wander lest it head straight for troubled waters, so she lets the lines of asphalt hypnotize her, her body drift out on autopilot, following red brake lights and narrow country lanes.

St. Mary's Parish Church is bigger than it sounds, medieval and added onto, with stained glass window coloring the floors and a church tower that overlooks the town — all of it settled neatly, purring, in a plot of green and fenced in by a low stone wall.

Sherlock's service is short, graveside, and Church of England. George stands in the damp grass and thinks that he, of all people, would have preferred cremation, to go out in literal flames. There's no real eulogy, just comments delivered by the parish priest, and George wonders about the dozen-odd people gathered here, their coats and jackets flapping in the wind, and wonders who they were to Sherlock, who they are to Mycroft and Eugenia, to be included for this moment. John's nowhere to be seen, but George guesses she can understand that.

Aside from her father's funeral, where George and her mother had leaned against one another to keep from falling into the grave with him, George had mostly felt numb at these things: graveside or at a church service, mixing at wakes afterward. She doesn't feel anything here, either, looking at the black earth of the churchyard and the elegant marker for Sherlock's grave. She supposes he might object to the sentimental claptrap and religion being introduced into the proceedings, but Sherlock would probably endure any amount of sentimental claptrap and religion on account of his mother.

Eugenia, where she stands at the right of the grave, is wearing a black straw hat and a half-veil, her face colorless and blank, a hand tucked in the notch of Mycroft's elbow. Her nails are digging into the fabric of his black suit, and Mycroft looks sickly gray and wrung out, staring fixedly at the dark wood of the coffin being lowered slowly into the ground. It hurts to see him, but differently than she'd expected: an angry, impatient ache where George had thought she'd feel the twist of a knife.

George wishes — stupidly — that she could go over and slide her fingers in between Mycroft's, interrupt whatever he's thinking by putting her cheek against his shoulder. Or maybe she just wishes that she wasn't standing here alone, awkwardly apart from the clustered groups of aristocrats and MPs that make up the locus of attendees.

And then a slim palm is closing against her own. George startles, slants a look to her left to see Anthea standing suddenly next to her, lacing their fingers together because she's has always known what George and wanted and what George has needed, so of course she'd know now when the two are one and the same.

They watch Eugenia — hand trembling — throw a fistful of dirt into the gaping hole in the Earth before darting away, swallowed back up by her a cluster of women in black. Mycroft is slower, let's his handful of dust seep in a shower from between his fingers, pattering softly against the top of Sherlock's casket.

Anthea asks, "Do you — ?"

"No," George whispers. She can stand here, just barely. She can't imagine feeling the grit of the grave dirt under her fingernails.

Anthea squeezes her hand. "Okay," she says. "All right."

The sky is a crisp, Pantone light blue and the clouds lead white, and George feels outside of herself, miles-removed: her fingers and toes feel strange where they attach to her hands and ankles, her skin odd on the inside of her clothing. Sherlock was a privilege and a punishment, but mostly he was one of hers: long-limbed and preening and spoilt. George had loved him — still loves him. She's left her sadness in her house, in the afghan from last night she'd drawn over her head, in the bathtub in slowly cooling water, into the skin of her palms, when she'd covered her face and gasped for breath into them, curled up against the closed door of the Lyall Street house and ripped up so badly she doesn't know where to start drawing herself closed from exposure.

Death is a black cat that steals into unexpected moments and places, and grief — if she's felt it — has never come at culturally appropriate times. It's curled away, hidden, to surprise her mid-washing-up, as she's driven to work in the morning, as she's climbed into bed at night and remembered the way her father had sung to her as a baby and found herself dismantled, gutted.

Right now, George feels cold and very still, but she knows the grief that's gone for now and that will be back too soon.

***

George tries to leave early, before the locus of attendees head off to Epperley for what promises to be a bitterly, joylessly intoxicated wake. She's almost gotten away with it, too, except that Eugenia is waiting for her in the ivy-shadowed archway of the side church door, red-eyed and weighed down. She takes George's hand, presses a heartfelt, apologetic kiss to it. George murmurs, "Eugenia — what are you — ?" until the woman interrupts to say, "I'm so sorry, Georgiana, I am. Please, forgive them," and before George can burst into sympathetic tears or ask what the hell Eugenia is talking about, Mycroft appears out of nowhere and herds his mother away.

He doesn't look at George at all.

***

She ends up at Baker Street, after.

The camp of photographers is at least twice the size of George's and significantly more diverse. She sees the usual suspects (Stella from the Sun, Daily Mail's Leo, Victor from the Guardian, who still owes her five quid) and a dozen unfamiliar faces, too, packed into Speedy's drinking endless cups of tea and probably soaking up Mr. Chatterjee's bitter, jilted gossip. His abortive love affair with Mrs. Hudson has taken on epic proportions thanks to the bored romantics at the Daily Express digging into the Earth's molten core for a seventh-day story. It's a weird time of evening when nobody's expecting visitors, so only Victor notices her arrival, and by the time he manages to get himself untangled from the cheap metal chair and out the door of Speedy's, Mrs. Hudson's already let George into 221 and shut the door roundly in his face.

"That young man has been the prime offender in leaving cigarettes all over my step," Mrs. Hudson says by way of hello, and with brisk affection kisses George on the cheek and says, "I'm so glad you've finally come."

George forces a grim smile to her face. "Sorry it's taken me this long."

Mrs. Hudson pats her hand forgivingly. "I've seen the papers, dearie. You've a lovely house and a lovely front walk and it's been heaving with these awful reporters, too."



"Yes, well," George says, just to fill in the awkwardness of that moment. She looks up the narrow stairs, to the cracked-open door of 221B. "He's home, then?"

Sighing, Mrs. Hudson says, "Nowhere else to go, not now." She nods up the steps. "It'll be good for him to see some more familiar faces."

Yes, that is true, George thinks crazily, because what would be best for John is if Sherlock were to suddenly reappear.

"Go on, then," Mrs. Hudson says quietly, and George turns to her.

"I — I don't even know what to say," she admits, lost.

Mrs. Hudson smiles and gives George a shove at the stairs. "You'll muddle through. Go."

George goes — up the steps that creek under her shoes, feeling her heels sinking into the carpet, around the tight landing and the last few steps. In the upstairs hall, she hears nothing, no sign of life, and when she peers inside — shoving the door open by tiny increments — she realizes it's because John's frozen on the sofa, staring across the room with his hands clutched together between his knees.

"Heard you downstairs," he says, abrupt. "Come to check on me?"

"Hiding here," George corrects, still hanging in the doorway.

John looks — like normal. He's not gaunt with misery or thinner. His hair is military neat and his clothes are clean and unwrinkled. He looks a picture of high-functioning severity, and George supposes that maybe it's what the military had taught him: the motions for when everything else is fucked up. George knows her hair and her face are a picture of her unhappiness, leaking out at the seams where John's kept his under lock and key, boxed away in the metal cage of himself.

"You weren't at the funeral," George says.

John shrugs. "Sentiment," he says, parroting a ghost. "Dull."

She joins him on the sofa, sits a respectful foot apart, staring beyond the pair of armchairs — always turned toward one another, just like boys with secrets and secret handshakes — and the kitchen and the skull to the dusky interior of Sherlock’s room: austere in his absence.

"We should have grief-stricken sex on his bed," George says suddenly.

John’s laugh sounds punched out of him, a touch hysterical but genuine.

"Oh, he’d hate that: feelings and semen," John says, still giggling. "We could cry and fuck in the missionary position and get it all over his duvet."

George rolls her eyes. "Christ, the duvet," she says, because one time Sherlock had declined to assist her on a case because the bedding in his room needed a rigorous and specialized laundering process that meant there was only a singular dry-cleaner clear across town qualified to do the fucking linens. It was imperative they were done immediately.

"Yeah, fitting punishment," John decides. "Might even be worth risking the government-sanctioned assassination."

"No need to worry about that — I’ve been dumped, with prejudice," George declares. She looks at John, at his shocked face, and says, "You can be my rebound shag."

John blinks at her a few moments. "You’d have to get a new GP."

"Or we could just combine pelvic exams with something more recreational," George says, half-mad and desperate, suddenly, to make John laugh again. George is sorry she can only know a fraction of what John feels right now — that he’ll be so utterly alone in this. It’s always like this when it comes to Sherlock: George desperate to do something and knowing it’s pointless to try.

"Do you know," John says, smirking at her, "this it the first time in our acquaintance I am genuinely uninterested in sleeping with you?"

George sniffs. "Fine, so be it," she says. "And when you're having your crying wank, know that we could have been having awkward, unenthusiastic sex."

John's smirk, which had been bitter and hurt anyway, is mostly sad now.

She goes back to staring at Sherlock's door, into the cavern of Sherlock's room.

The last time she was in there, it was a month ago and she'd come over with Chinese and a DVD because Mycroft was in Beijing and despite Sherlock's best efforts, he and John were George's ambiguously gay friends. John had been getting the dishes and setting up the movie, and George — because she'd lost rock-paper-scissors — had to flip Sherlock out of his bed, where he'd cocooned himself in no fewer than six quilts, suffocating himself in a sulk. Previous incidents where she and John had just left him there had resulted in even more dramatic sulking, so front-loading the pain had been decided upon as the most logical course of action. Sherlock had eaten all the shrimp toast, confiscated the prawn crackers for an experiment, and then become engrossed in the plot of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which of course he'd never read before. John had distracted Sherlock by explaining Ford Prefect while George had stolen back the confiscated prawn crackers so they could savor them along with Sherlock's cry of rage.

"It doesn't make sense," George hears herself say. "He was happy."

Next to her, she can feel the temperature drop ten degrees, and when John says, "He was discredited," his voice is level like he's giving a sitrep.

"You believed him," she says. "I believed him. Everybody else who matters believed him."

Before John, during the barbarian days of Sherlock's uneasy relationship with the Met, he used to solve cases all the time and never tell the detectives in charge — smugly pleased with his own cleverness and new data, and forget to mention it for days until he ran across George and declared his genius. Recognition only matters to Sherlock among certain audiences; winning the awe of commoners is boring, pointless.

John closes his eyes, looks every year of his age and all of Sherlock's, too, weighing him down. George wants to touch him, to run fingers down his arm, take his hand, stroke the curve of his skull in comfort. She can't help but think that it'd be like sticking a hand in a lion's cage: John might let her get away with it, but for how long?

"He wanted me to see it — he made me watch him do it," John says, hoarse, and George feels her nails digging into the soft flesh of her own palms as her fists tighten. "He was such a fucking arsehole."

She reaches between the bars, closes a hand over John's wrist. There's nothing to say.

She sits with him until the sky goes from gray to pitch, until Mrs. Hudson goes quiet downstairs and all they can hear is the noise of the traffic dim through the thick walls of the terrace house. The Baker Street flat has always been terribly comforting, a nest of forensic papers and wild experiments and John's raucous laugh, Sherlock's flirtatious violin, bookended by houses left and right and perched like a cat above the cafe. George feels like Sherlock and John have always lived here, that they will always live here, that maybe this funny little flat with its awful wallpaper and beautiful old floors has been holding its breath all these years — waiting for them.

"You don't have to stay," John croaks finally, after more than an hour.

George thinks about the drive home, about the photographers that are probably trading shifts now downstairs. Mostly, she thinks about how if she leaves, it'll be John versus all the ghosts filling up the flat, just her versus all the ghosts filling up the house.

"Let's watch TV," she says, and kicks off her heels, curling up on the couch with her toes tucked under John's thigh — where the sofa leather is warm from his body — and undoes a button on her blouse as John watches her, almost smiling.

"Does this mean that the awkward sex is still on the table?" he asks, and leans back into the couch, sliding an arm around her shoulders. He's warm and comfortable and leaning her weight against him is an entirely different experience than pressing herself into Mycroft — who is almost always wrapped in the precise origami of his suits, who touches her with a casual possession — but it's still good. It's better than being alone.

"Maybe later," George yawns, and smacks John on the knee. "Telly."

He reaches for the remote.

Sometime after 1 a.m., in the middle of their fifth episode of Restoration Roadshow on Yesterday and three-quarters of the way through a fucking awful bottle of Scottish whiskey, John says:

"He made me his suicide note. Did I tell you that? I didn't tell the cops that."

George blinks slowly and doesn't remind him she is the cops. "No," she says instead, over-enunciating around the booze. "What did he tell you?"

John shrugs, like this was some forgettable exchange outside the Tesco, like this isn't something he's memorized and hidden away in the marrow of him. It's that moment you know talking about it is too huge, that to open the door is to be consumed, all you can ever do is discuss the context of it, maybe peer inside for the briefest of moments. Anything else would be — fittingly — suicide.

"He said he was a fraud," John says, as flat as Earth must feel right now to him, frozen and unmoving. "He said I should tell you, and Mrs. Hudson, and Molly that he was a fraud, that he faked all the crimes."

George says, "Oh, Jesus."

John closes his eyes, swallows. "He told me to keep my eyes on him."

Most people George meets, she meets on the worst day of their lives: the day she knocks on their door to say their son or daughter is dead, that their partners have been killed, that something awful has happened, that their lives are about to be ruined.

The way she murmurs, "John," and puts a hand between his shoulder blades is the way she's done it a million times before. George has always thought that if she can't bring back their loved ones, the least she can do is bear witness. So she goes with the family liaison officers, she sits on the settees and sofas and drinks everybody's absentminded tea, and lets them shatter in front of her.

John falls apart like a house struck in an air raid. It's deafening silence and the bottom falling out, a dust cloud kicking upward, pluming from of the bones of the structure as the sturdy lines give way and decimate the perimeter. John puts his hands on his mouth, seals it with his trembling fingers, and when that's not enough he covers his face with his palms — his whole body shaking to rubble.

"How could he?" John asks, muffled. "How could he do that to me?"

John Watson has invaded Afghanistan and enlisted for a tour of duty with Sherlock; he's sassed her and rolled his eyes over semi-severe wounds and hidden illegal guns all over the flat. He's not fragile or small enough to fold up inside George's arms, and she wouldn't try it with him. John doesn't want to be comforted.

"What can I do?" she asks, desperation seeping into her voice, curling a hand in the hair at the back of his neck. "Is there anything I can do?"

His laugh at that is wet and mostly drunk, and he sways into his own hands, neck loose and his body shambling as he scrubs at his face, at his cheeks until his fingers are slicked over, too, with the tears neither of them are talking about.

"Just — help me up the stairs," he says, finally. "I'm fucking exhausted."

"Okay," George says, and sits with him until he stops shuddering.

Putting John to bed isn't that hard. She can carry most of his weight and she does, dragging him up the steps — his leg is faltering today, nerveless — before she strips him with professional detachment and draws the covers up his chest with very personal tenderness. She sits on the left side of the mattress, where John isn't curled into himself with misery, and falls asleep leaning against the headboard, a hand on his shoulder, turned away from the shut-tight curtains.

***

A month after Sherlock's death, George's encampment of paparazzi has dwindled to two at any given time, with Pete being a frequent visitor, but mostly she guesses to reassure himself she hasn't killed herself or anything.

One morning, he leaves her an offering of Chelsea buns and flowers and a note saying, "Sorry we're twats," on the front step. George would be touched except he takes a picture of her stepping out of the house to pick them up, baffled, in a dressing gown and bare feet, and the cutline in the paper reads: SUICIDE DETEC'S POSH COP IN SHAMBLES! In retaliation, she leaves him a number of packages of shite ham slices and pork pies, which she knows he can't resist and that give him ferocious heartburn. Theirs is a relationship fraught with contradictions.

The press has cycled through stories of Sherlock's fraudulent detective business, the crimes he appears to have actually solved as grateful clients come forward, George's assignations with Sherlock's wealthy older brother, and less salacious discoveries like George has been boringly dating and then living with Sherlock's brother who works at HM Revenue. Discussion of him ends at that point, although George can't really tell if that's because even in the midst of a bubbling scandal discussion of upper-middle management at HM Revenue is too boring to endure or if Mycroft had made a few calls and shut it down. Considering his full name is — somehow — never mentioned, it's probably 20-80 Mycroft.

George is studiously not thinking about her suspension from work, because to mull the summary destruction of her two-decade career with the Met makes her so furious her vision whites out. Between the gaping absence of case, the grim realization that about 99 percent of everybody she considers a friend these days is at the office, Mycroft's categorical shunning, and self-imposed isolation, George has a lot of free time. Boredom is exponentially worse when it's shackled to misery.

Since she isn't watching the news, and there're only so many episodes of Top Gear and QI XL a person can watch in one go without chancing madness, she's been reduced to cleaning the entire house out of desperation. On the one hand, it's an exercise that leaves her increasingly impressed with Claire, who appears to be the type of woman who wipes down all the house baseboards with dryer sheets to prevent dust from sticking to them. (Of course she is; Mycroft hired her, after all.) On the other hand, it also leaves George annoyed when she finds a hidden doorway in one of the guest room closets that leads up to a tiny balcony she'd always assumed — looking at it from outside — belonged to the neighbors. George wonders how many other passages there are like this, that belong to Mycroft, what places he would have never invited her and doors he'd never have unlocked.

It devolves into her sitting on the secret balcony drinking shiraz at two in the afternoon, reading the Guardian's Sherlock live-update stream on her iPhone.

She stays there until it gets dark, when twilight begins to bleed across the London sky, and Sir Kenneth's SmartCar pulls up to the curb, sending George scuttling back into the house when the beams of his headlights blind her.

***

The investigation is half out of her hands, and half dumped in her lap.

All in all, George is hauled into NSY a dozen times after the first brief meeting to answer for herself. It's tense but not combative, because the IPCC panel is closed and nobody needs to score political points like this is the fucking phone hacking inquiry. It's boring and uncomfortable and humiliating, like she's in court but there's no prosecution, just an endless series of scummy defense lawyers and no jury or other witnesses to defray the discomfort. They ask a lot of "yes" and "no" questions, and George offers up a lot of "to the best of my recollection"s, and they break for coffee and continued awkwardness in the halls after an hour or two go by each time. At least twice every time she gets called in, George ends up half-yelling that they're working off of the false presumption that Sherlock was a fake, and wasn't that the point? To determine whether that was fact or fabrication? And Moran calls for an end to the day's hostilities, favors George with an apologetic look, and schedules another interview.

She runs into people she knew from past lives in the hallways sometimes. There's Dimmock, whose arrival for the IPCC panel had ushered in a spate of military intervention and a series of heavily redacted reports. There's Gregson, who'd been Sherlock's favorite punching bag — apparently — before he and George had started going crime steady. George blanks Anderson when they pass each other when she goes out and he goes in, and she and Sally stare at each other, once, for a long, wrenching moment in the ugly overhead lighting. She sees Molly's back once or twice, always dashing away as quickly as possible.

There are lawyers and other officers, incidental players and extras who've lived in the fringes of George's awareness for years. There are victims George remembers a little, victims George doesn't remember at all; all of them remember George. Martin Havistock hugs her outside the ladies' toilet for finding his daughter's killer. Then there's Susan Corcoran, who George remembers vividly: wild-haired with her eye makeup running, screaming on the step of her terrace house swearing she'd get them back when Sherlock neatly dismantles her serial extortions. A man named Charles Hammond says, "You and that crazy bugger made all the difference for me and my boy, Inspector," and George just swallows hard, because she and Sherlock had brought Charles the drowned body of a ten year-old boy, and no peace at all.

Most bizarrely, sometimes she runs into John. He's always impeccable for these things, his collar in perfect right angles and his tie up tight, hair neatly shorn, and at these moments, he wears his exhaustion like another star or bar on the uniform.

This goes on for ages, weeks, months slipping out from between her fingers.

***


George finishes every half-finished book on her nightstand. She reads the New York Times that keeps getting delivered to the house. She watches CNN, because BBC is still spending most of its time alternating between coverage of the phone hacking inquiry — it's been a public relations bonanza year for the police — and Sherlock. She has Sunday afternoons with her mum. She goes for drinks with Edith and Margaret, who tell her Met gossip and say that Serious Crimes is a constantly simmering hothouse of mutiny these days, and that Kerrigan has barricaded himself in his office in a bid to let the inmates take over the asylum as punishment for Trackwell and the chief superintendent.

She and John spend a lot of time in their twee pub of choice, drinking Staropramen in the solemnity of shared silence watching 24-hour cable at two in the afternoon.

"So," John says, watching smoke plume on a shaky video feed of a subway bombing in Moscow, the sound of a BBC correspondent faint in the background, "how's suspension?"

George rolls her eyes. "How's hermithood?"

"I will have you know I went outside twice this week," John retorts.

On the television, part of a cement facade gives up the ghost and collapses. George slants John a sideways look. "Is that two including this? Because one is a legally binding Met inquiry and journeys into the outdoors to acquire alcohol don't count."

"They do," John protests. "They do, in fact, count."


"You need to get a job again," George says, because John's never appreciated the tiptoe or the soft touch, and she doesn't have it in her to try her hand at either right now. They've both been shut-ins the past three months but at least George isn't doing it voluntarily. "You have to get out of the flat."

John stares into his beer.

The rock-solid case against Sherlock is beginning to erode. It's difficult to argue that all the crimes were faked if most of the crimes weren't: there's a litany of people who write letters to the newspapers or agree to interviews saying they've personally been helped by Sherlock, and that nobody fakes that level of genius or arsehole behavior. The coverage starts to turn like an ocean liner: slowly, with extreme care.

But it's taken its toll on John, aged him by years and made him heavy with it. He looks like the John Watson she first met, that night in Brixton when he'd been as baffled by his circumstances as she by him, before she'd known him as a good and reliable friend, the love of Sherlock's life. Or George supposes he is; she never asked and wouldn't, now, it'd be cruel. And anyway, maybe there's not an easily understood designation for what John and Sherlock were to one another: catalysts? co-conspirators? important.

"You're one to talk," John says finally, after a long pause, but his heart's not in it.

"That's why you have to do it for both of us," she lectures. "Look at us: we used to be the responsible ones and now we're both on the dole and drinking during daylight."

John lips at his drink. "Inquiry not going well?"

"My kangaroo court is going swimmingly," George says with blithe levity she doesn't feel. "My sources inside the Met say it's currently hemorrhaging purpose as the news cycle reinvestigates Sherlock's old cases more quickly than the force."

"I drink to the media, then," John says, wry. "How quickly they turn, and turn again."

"Don't get too excited," George sighs. "There'll still be a witch burning."

"The question being: who'll be the witch?" John says, which is so depressing George preemptively orders them another round.

She's drunk by the time the cab drops her off home at half-four, which is why when she finds Sebastian Moran sitting on her front step and asking if he can come in for a bit, she says, "Fuck it, why not."

***

George makes him tea because she's (mostly) English and it's reflexive.

She's already set the electric kettle to boil before she notes him taking note of the house: the kitchen with its massive high ceilings and Georgian windows, the French doors that open out into the garden with its high walls and climbing ivy, the cheerful yellow aga and the subway tiles behind the stove and its French range.

It makes her self-conscious for the first time in a long time about the house. George's mother had ooed and ahhed the first time she'd been over, and John — in the brief moments he's darted in while Sherlock sullenly refused to cross the threshold — had waggled his brows meaningfully. But that's family, and they're allowed to tease, and anyway that was ages ago.

Moran's careful inspection of the house feels invasive in a way George has a hard time explaining, and he's running his hand along the countertop when she clears her throat and asks:

"So why are you here?"

He looks up at her, considering. "Sorry. I just — got a bit thrown," he admits, and waves around the kitchen, out the doorway to the sitting room, where the late-afternoon light has dyed the shell-colored walls the color of blushing peonies and saffron. "This is not what I was expecting."

George arches a brow. "What were you expecting?" she asks, mostly to be a twat.

Moran must sense it in her voice. Grinning, he says, "Something less Upstairs Downstairs — maybe a little mess to telegraph your mental state. That sort of thing."

She's not in the mood to explain her fucking mental state, and she's never talked about Mycroft with anybody. She barely talked about Mycroft with Mycroft, so George just smiles tightly and busies herself with the tea ball, with hot water, and lets the muscle memory of this carry her: pouring milk and locating the sugar dish and finding cups.

"Either they're paying you a lot, a lot more than me, or it's the mister," Moran goes on, talks at the tightening line of George's spine. "How's he holding up?"

George forces her jaw to unclench. "He's with their mother."

"You didn't go?" Moran asks, and it's just casual enough that George thinks, too casual.

She turns around and asks, "Sugar? Milk?"

"Both, please," he says. In the kitchen light, his eyes are very pale, the color of ice cubes.

"And you can stop digging," George informs him, keeping her voice light. "I don't want to talk about it. So if you're not here about official Metropolitan Police business then — "

Moran holds up two hands, palms open, chagrined. "I apologize," he says. "It's just — " he looks around the house, and it suddenly feels huger and quieter " — is it really all right for you to be alone right now?"

"Did one of the reporters send you so that he could get a great photo of me throwing someone out of my house or are you just naturally this irritating?" George asks, because she wouldn't put it past Pete, who'd left a note on her front step that read, I swear to be less of a cock if you let me use your bloody toilet. The nearest Starbucks is a fucking league away.

Moran grins. "Sorry. I'm not helping my case am I?"

"No," George says shortly, and the kettle punctuates her point by coming to a boil.

Now it's Moran's turn to clear his throat. "Look, let me cut to the chase: the reason I'm here is to tell you the committee is looking to close the investigation into Sherlock."

George feels her lips part, the place where her elbow is touching the cool metal of the fridge, listens to the hiss of water simmering behind her. It takes her a beat before she manages to ask, "I beg your pardon?"

"Declare that Sherlock is a force for good after all," Moran clarifies, and George doesn't wince at the present tense the way she would past. "Clearing you by extension."

George asks, "Why?" reflexively, because she doesn't need the IPCC to declare her a good officer. She's always been one.

"I don't know if you've noticed, Lestrade, but the public fervor has taken a distinctly different tone of late, even leaving aside the fact that none of Sherlock's so-called faked crimes appear to have been faked," Moran says, leaning back against the counter, hands curled around the lip of it, and George keeps looking at his forefinger and thumb against the granite. He keeps taking the measure of her, studying her the way George knows coppers always size people up: not leering or interested, just taking note.

George doesn't feel happy or relieved. Mostly, she feels pissed, because what the hell was the point, then? Why bother with the commission, the inquiry, with dragging her name through the mud and linking Sherlock with a fraud? Why did three rainforests of news coverage hold more weight than George's years working with the Met? Or Sherlock's half-decade of dubiously consensual cooperation with the force? Even thinking it, George knows it's naive, like sketching out an ideal across the image of reality, but she can't shake it: that immediate twist of hurt, the sting of betrayal.

"You really haven't been watching any news at all? Not the subway bombing? The fire at the European Commission?" he asks, curious, trying to tease something out of her. He cocks his head to the side. "That gang roundup in Warsaw? None of it?"

She ignores him to say, "What's the catch?"

He doesn't answer for a long time, but he doesn't answer in a way that echoes with something unspoken. He's still looking at her like he can read an answer to something she doesn't even know in her, in the slope of her shoulders. It makes George want to throw the kettle in his face.

"Hey," she snaps, and he blinks like he's startled but too good to show it. "I asked: what's the catch?"

"They want a public exoneration," he says finally. "This has been ugly and increasingly embarrassing for the Met, the IPCC, and there's that fucking picture of you everywhere."

George must stare a little while too long, because he elaborates.

"It's the big, bad Met versus poor abused genius Sherlock Holmes now," Moran tells her. "And it doesn't help that he's widowed an army surgeon and your bloody gorgeous face is all over everything, looking bleak and brave and sticking to your story about how he was a fucking hero."

"He's helped hundreds of people," George says, automatic.

Moran points at her — finger and thumb like a gun. "You see? Like that. It's why they want you."

"And, presumably, John told you to go fuck yourself," George guesses.

He shrugs, not really embarrassed the way he should be, but then George supposes you get your loyalties and doubts surgically removed when they hire you for Professional Standards. "John doesn't work for us," he says.

"I'm not going to stick to a script," she warns him.

"I wouldn't expect it," Moran promises.

George frowns. "Do they expect it?"

"They shouldn't," Moran says, and he's smiling as he says it.

***

Chief Superintendent Potter looks like he's inches from vomiting blood and Trackwell's face is stony the entire time the IPCC chair is making closing statements at the Sherlock Holmes inquiry. It's the last day, and the venue is absolutely heaving with people, moved out of unromantic interior conference rooms at NSY to a massive chamber at QEII, which means tripling the number of vultures since all the phone hacking reporters are bored shitless at this point and everybody covering Parliament wanders over from Westminster during a smoke break. George isn't being lectured or harangued today, she's here purely as ornament, sitting silently next to John in the front row listening to carefully worded comments closing the investigation into Sherlock, offering insincere condolences and undeserved self-congratulations for mortal turpitude. Like most of these things that starts with a bang, it ends with an uneasy detente.

Afterward, Kimberly from the Met's crisis communications firm — rumor has it they're currently employing four — clotheslines Garett Tucker from the Times and shoves him and George into a meeting room, ignoring the bloodlust among the remaining ladies and gentlemen of Fleet Street.

"Sweet merciful Christ," Garrett says, clutching at his collar and clinging to the wall. "I thought Kitty Reilly was going to rip out my trachea with her bleached teeth."

Outside the door, George can hear Kimberly — who must be seven stone dripping wet and carrying a toddler — swearing, "Off the record, if you try follow her out to her car, Reilly, I swear on my grandmother's grave I will burn down your house."

George has known Garrett since before he made good and escaped the tabloid ghetto, remembers him as a mousy boy with hungry eyes and dumb questions from the Daily Express, who used to stalk her DCI in sex crimes and once tripped into a trashcan on Embankment. She appropriates a cheap computer chair with green and gray-flecked upholstery and leans back, crossing her legs.

"Why you?" George asks, and listens to the sound of Kitty Reilly's vehement protests just outside the door, which contain liberal helpings of words like "preferential treatment" and and "continuing pattern of ethically questionable interaction with the media."

"Hell if I know — probably I've been the most consistently secretly sympathetic," Garrett says, settling primly into a nearby chair. "Which I'm not, because I'm ferocious and unbiased and a fearless crusader for the brutal truth — "

George cuts in with, "Don't you have a crush on John Watson?"

Garrett fumbles with the battered Pukka pad he's tugging out of his backpack, his face going a florid and telling red as he sputters, "You tell me how any red-blooded gay man is supposed to resist having a crush on John Watson."

"What did you really promise her?" George asks, because the devil's bargains between the media who cover the Met and the Met have always been perversely fascinating. For example, George once unbuttoned an extra two buttons on her blouse, tousled her hair, and let some arsehole from the Sun take a photo of her like that in lieu of filing an official police report for the way Sherlock had stolen his trousers at a crime scene for what he claimed was SCIENCE.

Garrett pulls out a digital recorder and waves it at George, who nods at him as he says, "I said I'd let her check quotes before we publish on your commissioner for the next six months," and retrieves a fistful of batteries and a biro from the front pocket of his bag.

The interview's no better or worse than George had anticipated. Garrett starts her off with a couple of softballs about is she glad that the inquiry is over before he asks if she's angry about the commission. George tells the truth: yes, she's glad the inquiry's over; yes, she's angry about the commission. But she does understand it, or at least she's always known it was going to happen; she doesn't like the politics of the Met but she's cognizant, and while she's not fluent, she's conversational in them. She doesn't say "betrayed," or "disgusted," because she's a fucking grown up and she loves her job and her people too much to burn the bridge that gets her back to them. George declines to answer a half-dozen questions about her personal life that Garrett seems irritated enough by that she's sure his editors are making him ask them.

From outside the door, at the fifteen minute mark, Kimberly knocks and hollers, "You've five minutes left before I'm bundling her out of the building, Tucker!"

"How do you feel about Sherlock, now?" Garrett asks, not missing a beat, bland in a well-practiced way that George wishes she had at her disposal.

She can feel her own mouth flatten, her jaw ache from tension. George knows she's giving Garrett his touching anecdote for the story, a segue into her vulnerability for the second half of his article, but at least her voice is steady when she says, "I feel the same as I always have."

Garrett writes it down, hand flying across the notebook. "That is?" he prompts.

"Surprised," George admits. "Grateful he helped with cases. Baffled by him."

"And his suicide?" Garrett presses.

George sucks in a breath and says, "I said baffled, didn't I?"

Kimberly pushes open the door. "I'm ending this," she declares. "Inspector, let's go."

"That was not five fucking minutes!" Garrett argues.

George just lets them fight it out while she gathers up her coat and staggers to her feet — her toes aching in her heels and oh Jesus Christ, are these the shoes she'd worn that horrible day? that she'd been standing in in the morgue? — and numbly tumbles the last thing she says over and over in her head until she's out of the room and plunged into the flotilla of reporters again.

The Met had sent her a car for the inquiry, and she's still thinking, baffled — baffled, when Kimberly hands her off to a phalanx of PCs. There's a police cordon and sawhorses to stymie the worst of the press, so George just keeps a careful watch to where her strides are eating up sidewalk on the way to the car, letting herself be herded because she can't stop being fucking baffled now that she's reminded herself she is.

"Inspector," someone says, pulling open the door of a black car, and George barely mumbles a thank you before she's sliding inside, hands sliding across —

Fuck.

Hands sliding across butter-soft cream leather.

When she looks up, it's to Mycroft sitting in the next seat over, staring fixedly ahead. He's wearing a slate gray pinstripe and his collar's so stiff she feels a sympathetic flare of discomfort just looking at it. He's sallow and flawlessly put together, hands closed around a folder in his lap, and when George U-turns to climb the fuck out of the car, the door is slammed shut in her face.

He says, "Please don't make this more complicated than it needs to be, Georgiana," while she's still staring out the window, where through the one-way glass she can see Garrett scribbling furiously as they pull away from the curb.