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Her safe word is 'enough', because as soon as she meets Irene she knows she's never going to need it again.

She's twenty, out on her own for the first time, and madly in love with a wicked, wicked woman. Her life is a disastrous combination of post-teen rebellion, sexual obsession and the occasional class at Cambridge. She's a bottle of nitroglycerin that Irene knows just how to shake.

When she goes up she'll have the satisfaction of taking Irene and half a city block with her. She can hardly wait.

Irene insists on being called 'The Woman' or 'Ma'am', and after a week she can manage either with a completely straight face. Irene calls her 'pet' or 'my pretty little girl' or sometimes 'Miranda' - the latter only when they're in class together. They whisper and giggle and run their hands up one another's thighs under the desks.

They misbehave, oh how they misbehave.

She never wants it to end, even though she knows it will. Irene likes shiny new things, things she can't have. It makes Miranda think of magpies and ravens and other bright-eyed, avaricious birds.

They shoplift together and rush home to make love on their ill-gotten gains. Irene fucks her with the handle of a silver boar-bristle brush they stole earlier. The girl called Miranda sobs with joy as she comes apart over and over and over again.

She learns new things to impress Irene when the shoplifting loses its luster. Learns to whistle thirty-three distinct birdcalls, how to hack a bank's website in under thirty minutes and to field strip and reassemble a Glock blindfolded. She can hit a bulls-eye dead center from twenty-two meters even with Irene fingering her clit and purring naughtily in her ear.

It is completely bloody magnificent until the day it isn't.

She's not all that surprised in the end that it's Irene who uses her safe word first. She'd known, had seen it coming in a million different ways: Irene's eyes lingering on some posh chit at the club a little too long, the way she's started wearing stockings with seams and stiletto fuck-me pumps, that she can't come any more without beating Miranda black and blue with her wicked little riding crop first.

Yes, she saw it coming, but that doesn't make it hurt any less. "You're just not enough, darling." Irene's lips are impossibly red and comprised of straight, sharp little angles. She wants to kiss the red right off them, cut herself to pieces on the razor-like edges. She wants to shut The Woman up the only way she knows how. Irene just shakes her head and asks, "Are my seams straight?"

She watches her walk out of their student flat on four-inch heels and Miranda feels each and every step as though she were lying splayed out like the rug. Miranda wonders how she's possibly going to afford the rent. She thinks she would've preferred immolation after all.


Two months later she's in London crashing on a friend's couch and still hacking websites, but she's moved on to the Ministry of Defense. It's not the same, it can't be, but it gets her up and dressed in the morning. That's something.

She thinks she knows how this will end too. And maybe she's watched one too many episodes of Bad Girls, but prison scenarios featuring hard-faced women in dowdy jumpsuits now dominate her masturbatory fantasies. She wonders if they'll let her bring her boar bristle brush along inside.

What she doesn't expect is to be tossed into the backseat of a black Mercedes sedan with government plates on her way home from an internet cafe. Nor does she expect the nattily dressed tosser with the soft voice and razor wire smile. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miranda."

She just watches him, the way his suit falls neatly and impeccably from his wide shoulders, the way his hands rest lightly on the handle of a black umbrella, his close-cropped red-brown hair and slightly receding hairline. If he's here to arrest her he's going about it in a charmingly unexpected way. She much prefers the backseat of a Mercedes to the backseat of a patrol car.

"You might consider this an interview. I have something of an eye for talent, you see."

She searches for something lewd in either his words or his tone but there's… nothing. It's a simple statement of fact. He finds her talented enough to kidnap on a well-lit street in the middle of the day and whisk off to, well, she has no idea where they're going. Oddly, all she can bring herself to feel is profoundly flattered.

He smiles and it's less predatory, almost paternal. "I think you'd do well on my team. I assure you the compensation will be quite generous, and our benefits package is second to none."

She can't help running through every sex scandal she's ever seen in The Sun involving some naïve young political staffer. She can't help picturing herself in one of those spreads and wondering if she'll look ridiculous. Can't help wondering if Irene will notice. "I'm… I'm not really secretary material."

His lips twitch again. "My needs are a bit more… esoteric. You would be my personal assistant and your tasks would include scheduling meetings, greeting officials and diplomats, running the occasional errand, oh and I'd probably ask you to shoot someone," his voice is as smooth as his Italian silk tie, "from time to time."

Her trigger finger jerks automatically, and her hand suddenly seems heavier and more solid than it has in months. She wonders vaguely if this is what phantom limb syndrome feels like. Taking a deep breath, she hopes her voice doesn't shake too much as she says, "I thought you worked for the government."

"I occupy a rather minor government office," he agrees blandly and hands her a crisp white card with an office at 2 Marsham Street listed on the front. She wonders when members of the Home Office started hiring college dropout assassins and has to admit poli-sci has never been her strong suit. She flips it over to read the name Mycroft Holmes in a tidy, masculine font.

Her eyes meet his translucent ones. They both know she's going to accept the offer, there was never really any question about that. She thinks a position in the Home Office might suit her just a teeny bit better than a prison cell. All right, a great deal better than a prison cell. She likes the idea of working for a Very Important Person, she likes the idea of generous compensation, and, if she's honest, she rather likes the idea of shooting people.

He nods, almost to himself, and raps the glass pane between themselves and the driver lightly with his umbrella. "I'll expect you in my office, properly attired, at 9 o'clock Monday next."

She's clutching the card like a lifeline. "Okay."

"I took the liberty of directing a small wardrobe stipend to your… somewhat depleted account. I hope you don't mind." He doesn't look as if he gives a good goddamn whether she minds, so it's probably best that she doesn't. He pulls out an honest to god gold pocket watch as the car rolls to a stop. After a glance he snaps it shut and adds, "It's been a very real pleasure, my dear. I look forward to a productive working relationship."

She responds with what she hopes is a confident smile, but her face feels numb, as if she's just come from the dentist. A burly, well-dressed man opens the door and helps her out. She doesn't really need help but accepts it graciously. Somehow she's not terribly surprised to find herself right back where she started. She waits until the car has disappeared into the mid-afternoon traffic to dash to the nearest Chip and PIN machine to check her account.

The number makes her toes curl in her trainers, and she stands staring dumbly at it until a waiting man berates her rudely. She prints a receipt and slips it into her pocket. She pulls it out another three or maybe five times just to reassure herself it's real.

Before she heads to her friend's flat she stops to buy herself her first pair of obscenely expensive stiletto heels. By Sunday evening she can walk in them almost comfortably. She thinks she's ready. She quickly discovers she's profoundly wrong about that.


When she arrives, right on time, Mr. Holmes is waiting for her and greets her cordially. His suit is gray, his tie a pale blue, both complement his eyes rather nicely. He smiles and launches into a standard "Welcome to the team" speech, but gestures her over to one of the potted plants. She follows, baffled, and he directs her attention to a small device neatly hidden by its healthy leaves like a magician producing a rabbit from a hat.

Her eyes widen, and this time his smile is surprisingly toothy. He continues droning on about mail delivery times and how she can go about obtaining a parking pass should she need one. She's not really paying much attention to the words; she's too caught up in his silent tour. In all he indicates three more listening devices before saying, "Well now that bothersome business is settled, please step into my office. There are one or two forms I'll need you to sign."

She takes a seat before his frankly Orwellian desk. It's distinguished, intimidating, perhaps a bit stodgy but definitely elegant; much like its owner, she imagines.

"Apologies," he begins, settling into his own chair. "Every office has its little…eccentricities. Here I'm afraid that includes listening devices. Of course my patience with them extends only so far. I allow them in the outer office as a courtesy to certain interested parties but they are not tolerated in here."

He thumbs through a file that she notes, with a start, has her name typed in neat little letters on the tab. "I hope you don't mind, I created a plausible c.v. for you and cleared your security checks myself." It's just a formality; he doesn't actually expect her to object, so she doesn't. "You may wish to familiarize yourself with the former." And that's less a suggestion than an order.

"This is for you. My people have assured me it's quite secure. In general I prefer voice to text or email, but if discretion is better served by the latter I can be quite flexible." He hands her a BlackBerry phone, and she's never loved an electronic device more in her life. She swears she can hear heavenly choirs singing. This comes as a bit of a surprise, as she's had a profound, almost religious relationship with some pretty fantastic vibrators over the years. She clutches it to her chest and tries very hard not to squeal like a little girl.


And suddenly it's as if she's in class again, but this time she can't quite seem to soak the information in quickly enough. He introduces her to the inner workings of the government with a combination of care and patience that she's not expecting. He doesn't seem to be a firm believer in the philosophy of "sink or swim"… at least with her.

She wonders if it's chivalry and thinks there might be a bit of it lurking around the edges. The hand he offers her to exit the car, holding open the door as she strides briskly behind him, the hand in the small of her back as he guides her through a crowd. There are a thousand little gestures that indicate he's been well steeped in manners regarding the opposite sex. Is he the product of a single mother? Or perhaps he and his mother were simply very close? She only took an introductory psychology course so she's really not in the best position to say.

But she also thinks he likes the role of teacher, or at least fancies having a protégé to guide. She thinks she might be a placeholder for that role in his life but she doesn't mind. Not really.

At first she doesn't really see much of a difference between her employer and the hundreds of other identically dressed bureaucrats cluttering up each office and hallway. But it quickly becomes apparent that two things set Mr. Holmes apart, the first being that he doesn't seem to be a politician at all. For another she's not certain he has any superiors. She assumes he must answer to someone, after all she's forwarded a few calls from Buckingham Palace. Elections interest him on more of a theoretical than practical level, and though Prime Ministers may come and go, Mycroft Holmes remains a dapper, dispassionate constant. He is the central axis upon which the British government inexorably turns.

The second thing that sets Mr. Holmes apart is that he seems to know everything about everyone. It could, she admits, have something to do with the obscenely thorough CCTV coverage to which he has almost unlimited access. It must play a role in his apparent omniscience, but that doesn't fully explain it.

He sees things. No, he sees everything. And that's amazing in and of itself, but she doesn't quite grasp how that leads him to know what he does.

He notices her noticing, of course, and smiles with one side of his mouth. Then he points out some tiny, unnoticed detail in the world around her. Inconsequential, pointless little details that shouldn't mean anything seem to be speaking a language she can't quite interpret.

At lunch Mr. Holmes bids a polite farewell to one of the Prime Minister's aides. As the man walks away he leans toward her and says, sotto voice, "His cufflinks." One finger peels away from his ever-present umbrella to point at the retreating back of their recent lunch guest.

She blinks and attempts to discreetly eye him. The man's too far away, though, so she gives her employer an apologetic look. It's multi-layered, even if she had managed to see the cufflinks she'd have no idea what she should take away from the state of them.

"Mismatched." The way he says it makes her think it's the punch line to a joke she's supposed to find quite humorous. When she doesn't, he just smiles lopsidedly and allows himself a soft sigh. She wants desperately to avoid producing those sighs, but she's still new to the concept of real world omniscience.

It's overwhelming and exciting and terrifying all at once. She loves it, as scary as it can be to sit in a room with stony-faced world leaders discussing terrorist groups, civil unrest, nuclear non-proliferation pacts, it's also the most amazing experience of her life. The hours are mad, the work exhausting, and she can't honestly imagine herself ever wanting to do anything else.

They don't discuss the subject of her name for the first six months. She's noticed he simply refers to her as "his assistant" or "my dear" when they're in public together. It's not clear why, precisely, but she assumes he must have his reasons. Then one morning he says, "Miranda doesn't really suit you, does it?"

She's never thought so either; Miranda has always felt too small, like a crop-top she feels obliged to try to yank down constantly. "I've been called Mira," she offers a little hesitantly.

His expression plainly says, 'That's not all you've been called.' But he's always polite with her, gentle and patient, so he asks, "How would you feel about Athena?"

It's exotic and rolls off his tongue like cigarette smoke, slow and lazy. She smiles. "Athena?" Goddess of wisdom and warfare, she supposes that does rather suit her.

"You can still be Miranda here, if you like, but I think it might be wise to use an alias in public."

She thinks about it for a moment, and maybe she's been having a little too much fun with anagrams recently, but she can't help making a counter offer. "What about… Anthea?"

The smile she receives isn't carefully considered, it's small and tentative and absolutely genuine. She's almost certain she'd happily step in front of a bullet to earn another.