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End Game

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The lobby of The St. Regis was a masterpiece of seashell pink marble and gilded mouldings, gleaming beneath a trompe-l’oeil ceiling and a crystal chandelier.

Mycroft had never seen a more welcoming sight in his life.

As the doorman admitted them he felt Greg stall a little beside him, and glanced across in time to see Greg's mouth carefully close. His brown eyes were wide at the vision of wealth and elegance into which they'd stepped.

Mycroft's heart gave a protective squeeze. He placed his arm around Greg's back.

"We're here to celebrate our freedom," he murmured, his voice soft and quiet as he guided his partner across the glorious lobby. He could see Greg trying not to glance at the affluent people all around them. "I've spent two decades waiting for this moment. In the morning I'll examine my finances and make responsible decisions as to our future. First, I would like to be indulgent together."

"C-Christ... I want that, too."

"Mm. God knows we've earned it."

As they approached the desk, a uniformed young lady looked up with a smile.

Mycroft retained a gentle hand on his lover's back.

"Good afternoon. I wondered if you might accommodate us for a few nights... and I would like to reserve a table for dinner."

 


 

Ten minutes later, a porter opened the double doors to the Bentley Suite.

As their private foyer appeared, along with a white-gloved butler pouring out two glasses of champagne, Greg audibly inhaled.

"Oh, fuck off..." he breathed.

Mycroft laughed aloud. "Gregory...!"

"Oh, come on!" Greg said, now laughing too. Their butler desperately attempted to mask his smile as he topped up each of their glasses. "You can't walk me into something called 'The Bentley Suite' and not expect to be told to fuck off."

As the butler handed Mycroft a glass of champagne, Mycroft gave the man an apologetic glance.

"Forgive my partner," he said, smiling. "We've had a rather long day."

"Quite alright, sir." The butler handed Greg his glass. "If I can be of any help at all to you during your stay, do let me know. The phone here in the foyer is your direct line to me."

"Thank you. Some time alone together before dinner would be wonderful. We'll need to source my partner a suit, but we'd like to rest first."

"Of course, sir. I'll be here when you need me."

As he left, Mycroft took Greg quietly by the hand.

"Come with me," he murmured. "Let's see."

They had their own lounge and dining room. The bedroom was a picture of masculine elegance, all gleaming walnut veneers and white leather, with views from the balcony doors along Fifth Avenue. It was perfectly beautiful, perfectly safe. Mycroft had paid in advance for three nights; he suspected already they would be staying longer.

As Greg lingered by the window, gazing out with his champagne glass held to his chest, a look of utter wonder crossed his face.

Mycroft stepped up close behind him. He slipped an arm around Greg's waist, and rested his chin upon Greg's shoulder.

His lover leant back into his arms.

"Are you alright?" Mycroft murmured. He felt Greg breathe, stomach rising slowly beneath Mycroft's hand.

Greg took a moment just to process it, gazing out through the glass.

"New York," he said. He shook his head gently. "New York with you. Nobody watching us. Nobody listening to us. Just..."

The quiet hugged around them.

Mycroft understood. He nuzzled the corner of Greg's jaw, murmuring, "Just..." and watched Greg's eyes close in longing. Though roughened with the long day's stubble, his lover's skin was somehow still soft.

Mycroft had missed it desperately.

"You went through the process for me, Greg." He closed his eyes, overwhelmed with sudden peace. "You endured it... all of it."

The corners of Greg's eyes creased with a smile. "Would've been officially yours right now," he said, "if Fielding played fair. Signed and sealed..."

Mycroft felt something stir inside his heart. He stroked Greg's stomach through his shirt, watching him take a sip of champagne.

"I shouldn't have made you go through it," he said. "I should have terminated my employment the second I returned to England. I didn't realise how appallingly you would be treated... I'm sorry for what they put you through. I'm sorry I permitted it."

"Hey... s'alright, love..." Greg wrapped his arm over Mycroft's, fondly. "S'easy to think you don't deserve any better in life," he said as he returned the slow nuzzle, his voice soft. "Easy to think you shouldn't want what you want... sometimes you need someone to show you."

Mycroft's heart glowed against Greg's back.

"I want to be with you," he said. "I - want you to be here, Greg. Wherever 'here' might be."

For the first time, it didn't make him feel afraid. Nobody could dictate that he was not allowed Greg - not his employer, not his father. No-one would step into this moment and order it to end. It could continue indefinitely, one day and then the next, and he would make Greg Lestrade the happiest man who walked this planet.

As Greg's fingers wove through his, Mycroft held him tightly.

"I thought we were nearing the end, Greg... it transpires we were nearing the start."

Greg smiled, biting his lip. "Ends are over-rated," he said. "Let's just keep starting. Over and over." He turned his head, pressing his cheek to Mycroft's. "M'sorry about your job, darlin'. I know it meant a lot to you."

Mycroft stroked a quiet kiss across his neck. "I did not mean a lot to them."

He felt Greg breathe in. "You mean the world to me," he said, and Mycroft's heart swelled to twice its size.

"You are my world," he whispered. "Wherever life takes us, I will care for you. I will cherish you." He closed his eyes, murmuring around the lump in his throat. "You gave up everything for me. I will never forget."

"You gave it up for me, too." Greg's fingers curled with his own. A little guilt touched his voice. "All your duty."

Mycroft huffed softly.

"I'm realising 'duty' is a very one-sided arrangement," he said. "A noble word hiding a hollow imbalance. Care expected without reciprocation or gratitude."

As he kissed Greg's jaw, he said the words aloud for the first time.

"My parents - demanded a great deal from me. Their approval came on condition that I suppress my own needs in their honour... I called it 'duty'. I praised myself for my self-sacrifice. I believed in it so fervently that even my father's death didn't release me from his expectations."

Greg tilted his head, gently. He brushed his lips over Mycroft's cheek.

"Security services struck gold with you," he said. "You know that? You give, darlin'. You give, and you give, and you give."

Mycroft's heart ached. "I - want to give. To you."

He felt Greg grin against his cheek. "S'fine. I like giving, too - makes me happy. I like being needed... making a difference."

A shiver slipped down Mycroft's spine.

"Make a difference to me," he begged. "Give to me, Greg. I want you. I want all of you. I love you so fiercely I don't know how I'll ever express it."

"Darlin'... I love you too..." Greg flexed his fingers in Mycroft's grip, brushing, stroking and playing. "Take me places. Spoil me. I want an exciting life."

"You will. You will live a wonderful life."

"I want to see everywhere. All the world. Everything."

"Everything," Mycroft breathed. "Everywhere you wish."

"Give to me," Greg whispered, shivering. "Give everything to me. I'll give it all back to you, I swear," and as Mycroft reached down, brushing the backs of his fingers lightly over the fastening of Greg's jeans, he twitched in Mycroft's arms. "F-Fuck - don't tease me, My - please - I've not come in weeks - "

Mycroft brushed his tongue over the curve of Greg's ear, curling a finger around the button of his jeans.

"I believe we can declare ourselves the winners here," he whispered, as he undid the fastening. Greg inhaled, drained the last of his champagne in one gulp and set the glass aside. "We rather have the best of both worlds, don't we?"

"B-Both worlds?" Greg said. His voice cut in a moan as Mycroft began to ease down his zipper, painfully slow over the thickening of his cock.

"Mm. We've proven that we belong to each other - but in the end, there is no need. We're free to grow our love as we wish."

Greg's breath caught, his fingers tightening on Mycroft's wrist.

"I'll never need to worry," Mycroft said, lowering the zip all the way. "I never need to fear you're staying because a document binds you to me."

Greg shivered, biting into his lip. "You'll always know it's me. All me. Just love. All of it."

Mycroft's heart thumped.

"Greg," he whispered, and slid his fingertips beneath Greg's shirt, stroking his stomach and the waistband of his boxers. "Darling..."

Greg swallowed, head tipping back onto Mycroft's shoulder. "My favourite sound in the world," he managed, breath tight, "hearing you say my name like that..."

"Mm?" Mycroft eased his fingers inside Greg's boxers. The hardness there strained for his touch; Greg's hips arched into the wrap of his fingers. "I have missed my favourite sounds. I've missed them very much..."

"J-Jesus..." Greg stretched in his arms, panting already. "Take me to bed," he pleaded. "Now, posh. Please. Fuck me in New York and take me to dinner."

Heat blossomed through Mycroft's stomach.

"I love you," he breathed, pulling Greg away from the window.

As they fell into the bed together, Greg threw him over onto his back.

"I love you too," he gasped, crawled on top of Mycroft, and kissed him until their jaws hurt.

 


 

As they took their seats, Mycroft noted a quiet twitch cross Greg's face. He waited until the server had gone to fetch their wine, then reached across the table.

"Are you alright?" he asked, taking Greg's hand in his own.

Greg gave him a dark-eyed grin, eyes glittering. "My own fault..."

"If I've hurt you - "

"You haven't, love. Don't fret." Greg's fingers curled with Mycroft's, his gaze as warm and bright as the chandelier above their table. "I'm ten years out of practice, that's all."

Mycroft felt his heart squirm. "I was - perhaps a little - "

" - just how I wanted?" Greg said, biting into his lip. His foot brushed Mycroft's ankle beneath the table. "Did I get loud?"

Mycroft flushed. Some of it had been muffled into a pillow towards the end; the rest he would be rehearing in his dreams all his life.

"You were perfect," he murmured, and Greg's fingertips slipped beneath the cuff of his shirt, stroking his pulse point.

Greg grinned as he shifted.

"Your turn later." His eyes smouldered softly across the table. "Missed you."

Mycroft's heart expanded with his breath. "I missed you, too. Very, very much."

Greg reached a casual hand to the side of his neck, brushing against some phantom itch. The movement eased the midnight blue fabric of his shirt aside, just enough to flash the rosy pink bitemark now pride of place on his shoulder.

"Love you," Greg murmured, stroking it.

Mycroft inhaled very slowly. "I adore you."

"Can't believe they just sent me up a suit," Greg smiled, his eyes sparkling. "Suppose they wouldn't have let me into the restaurant in jeans, though..."

"It fits you beautifully." The sharp midnight blue was rather revelatory, Mycroft had to admit. Greg looked almost as good in it as he did in crumpled linen. "I'll have to acquire more clothing tomorrow... seeing as I currently possess a single outfit to my name, and it is this one."

Greg grinned, delighted. "Hit the shops?"

With you... in New York.

Dear god.

"It seems I'll have to make my peace with American tailoring," Mycroft said.

"Yeah?" Greg glanced down at himself - the shirt, the fitted jacket, the tailored trousers that had dragged people's eyes from their meals as he entered the room. "Think it's pretty sharp, to be honest."

Mycroft felt a smile pull at the corners of his mouth, pride bubbling desperately in his chest. "You look wonderful."

"Thanks, darlin'..." Greg bit his lip. "Am I still your bit of rough? Even in a posh hotel in New York?"

"Always," Mycroft said, brushing their fingers. He tipped Greg's hand gently onto the table, and traced a heart upon his palm. "I will always be grateful."

Greg grinned, watching. "I feel - free."

I am so glad. "What would you like to eat?"

"Christ... everything. I'm starving."

"Mm? The filet of beef looks good... there's a ten ounce option might just sate you..." Mycroft turned the menu with interest between his fingers, scanning down the list of desserts. "God help us. 'New York style cheesecake with chantilly crème'."

"When in Rome," Greg said, with a wink. "Two spoons?"

Mycroft felt his smile break into a grin. "Two portions, Greg. We are celebrating."

 


 

Greg's hands skimmed from his thighs up to his waist; Mycroft swallowed and let his head fall back. The touch was perfectly gentle, warm fingertips grazing his skin with love. The sensation skittered with each urgent thud of his pulse. It coaxed his thoughts away from the ache between his thighs, soothing him enough to breathe around it.

"Okay, sweetheart?"

Shivering, Mycroft opened his eyes and looked down.

Greg's gaze shone up from the pillows. He was almost decadently beautiful, his bare chest honeyed in the lamplight, his grey hair soft and scruffed from almost an hour of restless foreplay.

The look of protective love was overwhelming.

"I l-love you..." Mycroft whispered.

Greg's chest rose. His fingers curled at Mycroft's waist, tender. "You're amazing," he breathed. "You know that? You're perfect to me..."

Mycroft bit down into his lip. With care, holding Greg's gaze, he began to rock his hips.

Pleasure seared at once through his blood.

"Ohh..." Greg felt like heaven inside him, steel-hard and slick - just a little too big, just enough to feel stretched at the seams. Memories flamed through Mycroft in a rush. "Ohh, god - "

Greg's grip tightened at his waist.

"Fuck..." The whisper of longing heaved through Mycroft's senses. "Fuck, sweetheart - you're beautiful - "

Mycroft arched, breathing in, and leant back to brace his hands on Greg's thighs behind him. The curve of his own back felt good, giving himself to Greg's eyes, all his bare skin, the soft scatter of new bites trailed across his shaking body, the desperate strain of his erection as he rocked himself slowly on Greg's cock. Greg's restless hands followed the path of his eyes, stroking and touching - Mycroft's hip-bones, his sides, up over the stretch of his stomach, up to circle his nipples slowly with gentle thumbs. Mycroft dug his fingers into Greg's thighs at the soft little sting of sensation, bucking; he swallowed back his whimper.

"None of that," Greg breathed, and a hand left Mycroft's nipples to glide down his body, wrapping his cock in a snug sleeve of fingers. "Don't be quiet. Share with me, darlin'. Let me hear."

Oh, fuck - oh - fuck -

Greg's hand took up the rhythm of Mycroft's hips with ease, stroking and gently pulling, perfectly slow. The sheets were soft beneath Mycroft's knees; his lover's laboured breathing was familiar and comforting. He didn't want to chase his climax. He didn't want to come, not yet. He just wanted to slow-fuck, and gaze down at Greg, and let the whimpers rise up in his throat.

"That's it..." Greg shuddered beneath him, his eyes big and dark. He swiped his thumb over the head of Mycroft's cock to spread his wetness, make him slicker on every stroke. "That's it, beautiful... moan for me... make all the noise you want for me..."

It felt so good to make noise.

It felt good to fall into the pattern, pushing forward into Greg's hand then letting his weight drop down onto his cock. Stretching back, panting, Mycroft moved with just a little more force and felt Greg press into his prostate on every stroke now, nuzzling, building, over and over and slow and deep and the pleasure burned hot and tight across his back, his cock aching, his lungs straining for breath. Each gasp of air left him as sound. He wanted to fill the suite. He wanted everything in the room to know how good this felt, how deep Greg was, hear him overwhelmed with relief and love and joy as his partner moved inside him.

By the time Greg turned him onto his back, and with gentle hands parted his thighs, Mycroft was close from penetration alone.

He whimpered, trembling, and Greg caught his mouth for a kiss so hard it would bruise. Their jaws worked together, desperate; they drove their fingers through each other's hair.

As Greg nuzzled back inside him, filling him slowly to the brim, Mycroft cried out in frantic enjoyment. He twisted his fingers in the sheets, fighting the urge to writhe. His thighs shook as Greg eased inch by inch back inside his body. Deep once more, Greg's teeth closed gently on his neck. Mycroft swore, panting and whimpering, pleading with Greg to mark him.

Greg bit down, and began to move.

Fuck. Oh, fuck. Perfect, deep - slow and hard - pinning him, filling him, filling him over and over with a hot white pleasure so intense he barely recovered from each wave before the next welled over him. He could hear himself sobbing at the feeling, crying out, begging for Greg to make him come.

"Hold onto me, sweetheart..." Greg's breath stroked across his ear, his voice soft and rough, his back now slick with sweat beneath Mycroft's hands. "Hold tight to me - "

Panting, Mycroft crossed his ankles at Greg's lower back.

"Mm hmm?" Greg began to drive inside him hard, pounding, slamming, gripping him by the hips to hold him still, hold him just there, filling him, fucking him. "Come for me, darlin'... come all over for me... fuck, sweetheart, that's it - scream it out for me - "

Mycroft's senses blitzed into one. Touch and sight and sound and scent burned out with pleasure, nothing but pleasure, and for a few desperate moments there was no skin between them anymore. There was nothing separate. They were just two hearts, shining and singing inside of one form - and in the perfect safety of his lover, Mycroft fell apart. He came so hard he could barely cope, digging his fingers into Greg's back and arching up against him, sobbing as Greg fucked him slowly through it.

As Mycroft reformed inside his own skin, he found Greg shaking against him. Greg pushed close, moaning desperately against his neck. As the motion of sex grew wet, Greg gasping and swearing and whimpering, Mycroft carded his fingers through Greg's hair.

"Come," he breathed, brushing through the sweat-damp shock of grey. "Come in me, darling... give to me..."

Greg groaned, struggling, pushing deep and panting at full pelt.

Shining, Mycroft closed his eyes. Utter joy coursed through his veins.

"Come for me," he whispered, guiding Greg to kiss him. "Oh god, that's it... come for me..."

At one AM, massage oil and fresh cherries were requested to the Bentley Suite. At ten AM, housekeeping found a notice on the door asking not to be disturbed.

The notice was still there as the sun went down.

 


 

"You are Anthea Goddard?"

Anthea raised her chin, entirely calm. "I am."

The gentleman who addressed her was deceptively ordinary in his appearance - a suit of neat grey, a closely trimmed blonde beard, half-moon glasses. He had no name that she would recognise, and no history that she or anyone else could ever find.

Although the room around them was full of people, with members of the security services from almost every department present, she filtered them all from her mind.

This discussion involved only the two of them; their audience did not matter.

"You were personal assistant to Mycroft Holmes?" he asked, watching her with his careful brown eyes.

"I was." Not a sound disturbed the silence all around them. "I now assist a number of senior agents in the fulfilment of his duties."

He glanced gently at the single sheet of notes upon his lap. "You've offered yourself as a candidate to replace Mycroft, in the fullness of time."

Anthea held his gaze. "I have."

He nodded, simply.

"Please describe to me the circumstances surrounding Mycroft's resignation," he said, and without faltering, Anthea related them.

"Mr Holmes was forced from his position by the hostility and disrespectful treatment he suffered at the hands of Ilka Fielding, Head of Human Resources. Her vindictive behaviour towards him commenced when he expressed his intention to register an intimate partner - Gregory Lestrade, a Scotland Yard officer of excellent character and reputation. Miss Fielding then began a very ugly campaign of cruelty against Gregory Lestrade, rather than permit the relationship to be registered. As her files show, and as testimony from her assistant has demonstrated, she relied upon the most tenuous of reasoning to subject both Mycroft and his partner to viciousness. Her behaviour brought shame upon the security services, and has now led to the loss of the country's greatest asset."

He watched her in silence as she spoke, considering her words with care.

Anthea went on.

"I believe the widespread organisational problems we've suffered since are directly due to Mycroft's resignation." There were perceptible nods from all around. "He was a keystone of the British nation. His loss was wholly avoidable, and can be assigned in its entirety to Miss Fielding's decision to hound him."

"Was Mycroft otherwise happy in his position?" the gentleman asked.

"Mr Holmes was both happy and proud. His loyalty to the nation was without question. He had the greatest respect for the security services, and on a daily basis he gave his all in support of this organisation. A single aspect of his role troubled him."

He raised an eyebrow, interested. "What aspect was this?"

"The registration process established by Ilka Fielding," Anthea replied, "by which senior officials must have intimate partners authorised. It is deeply flawed."

"Please elaborate."

"I shall. In an attempt to lessen the costs of protecting senior officials' partners and families, Miss Fielding has made this process as gruelling as possible. It functions as a deterrent."

His mouth pulled slightly.

"The security costs involved are substantial," he reminded her.

"So shall be the cost of replacing Mycroft." Anthea held his gaze, unafraid. "Human comfort and company should not be considered a luxury by any organisation, least of all one so reliant upon the loyalty of its employees. We would not insist that senior officials forego eating, sleeping, breathing - and yet we insist that they forego intimacy. This system has cost us dearly and will continue to do so."

Gripping her hands behind her back, she added,

"Our technical resources are given maintenance, upgrades and security software, regardless of the cost. It is accepted as a necessary expense. In the same way, our human resources must be given the chance to form human bonds. They are vital."

"Regardless of the cost?" he said, and there was a brightness to his eyes.

"It is a necessary cost of business," she said. "I believe that every single department has been affected by Mycroft's loss. Many hours of additional work are now needed to fill the gap that he left. This needn't have happened."

There came nods and murmurs of assent from those watching.

"Mycroft has now settled in New York with his partner," she added, and risked a glance at the many people who had gathered to witness this hearing - the country's brightest and best, men and women who had dedicated themselves to its welfare. Today it would give them something back. "The two of them are very happy. Mycroft intends to establish himself as an independent financial advisor."

"Will he advise us?" the gentleman asked, to soft sounds of amusement from the gathered officials.

Anthea retained an entirely neutral expression. "Mr Holmes has said he would be happy to. His rates are very reasonable."

There was more quiet amusement.

"If I might suggest," Anthea said, "senior officials should be personally responsible for thorough background checks of any close social contacts, intimate partners or otherwise. At the stage of a committed relationship when a home is shared, security details might be revised. Human Resources should advise on this matter, not dictate - and certainly not deny."

Though he listened without reaction, Anthea noted him underline something quietly in his papers.

"And you believe the behaviour of the Head of Human Resources was a key factor in Mycroft Holmes's decision to leave?"

"Yes," Anthea said, her ribs expanding. "A critical factor. She jettisoned any semblance of a rational approach to her duties. It was shameful to witness."

"The cost to the British nation," said a cold voice behind her, "of providing security and protection for Mycroft Holmes's latest prostitute would have been astronomical."

Anthea inhaled, slowly - then turned.

Ilka Fielding sat isolated in a chair, quite calm, one leg crossed over the other. She looked as if she were the chair of this hearing, not the subject.

"Gregory Lestrade was not a prostitute," Anthea said, her voice calm and clear. "He would have been an asset to the country, supporting one of its hardest working servants."

Ilka glared at her with unmasked dislike. "The man was a security threat," she said, sharp. "He was disruptive, difficult and disrespectful."

"And justifiably so," Anthea said, sharper. "You were vile to him."

"The point of the registration process," Ilka said, coldly, "is to ensure that prospective partners are mentally sound enough to - "

"No," Anthea said, her heart tensing. "The point of the process is to give you pleasure. To flatter your authority. Greg Lestrade loved Mr Holmes to the point of enduring every moment of your vicious 'registration', and he did it with grace and respect. You insisted he sacrifice everything, and he did. You then denied him purely out of spite. The two of them have now fled the country for the sole purpose of being together. And if you haven't the humanity to understand why they made that choice, you are unqualified to manage human resources."

Ilka opened her mouth to retort.

"Enough," their superior said, his voice hard.

Instant silence descended.

Anthea held Ilka's gaze for a moment, calm, then turned back to face him.

"Do you believe this campaign against Mycroft was personal?" he asked her.

Anthea could feel Ilka's stare on the back of her neck.

"I believe it was both personal and frighteningly impersonal," she said. "As you can see, Miss Fielding interprets any attempt to register a partner as a personal affront to her unwritten rules. Her own authority is a source of savage satisfaction to her. She is supremely unfit to head a department within the security services."

"How dare you even suggest - " Ilka began.

Before she could say another word - before Anthea could turn, or before their superior could intervene - noise erupted from the officials all around. As if it had been planned to begin in this moment, angry voices rained down from the crowd.

" - false claims to her, told her she'd never see her family again - "

" - loss of his job - loss of his home - "

" - outright lies! Utter lies! - "

" - wouldn't even allow me to speak to - "

" - making veiled and vicious threats about her past - "

" - bribed to leave me! Bribed to back out of the - "

" - gone by that evening, thinking I'm a monster - "

As Anthea gazed around the crowd, her mouth opened.

Officials who normally wouldn't risk so much as an indiscreet smile were now raging and shouting. The noise came from all directions; it was deafening. One broken-hearted story ruptured into another. Names were shouted, names of people long gone, lovers lost and driven away.

Glancing over, Anthea saw Ilka pale and shrink in her chair, alarmed by the response - then her teeth gritted. Anger flared behind the panic. She shouted back, her expression warping.

"I was doing MY DUTY!" she raged at them all. "For god's sake!"

Her superior watched the scene, his impassive brown eyes taking in the sheer volume of fury.

He then visibly inhaled, leant back in his chair, and held up a hand.

As suddenly as it had begun, the noise withered into silence. Anger vanished beneath masks in an instant. All around the room, officials resumed their seats without a sound.

The calm that fell was heavy and shocking; it did nothing to drown out the reality of what had just occurred.

The gentleman regarded Ilka over his spectacles, greatly unimpressed.

"You always have much to say to me on the subject of your efficiency," he told her. "You ensured me that costs were falling with zero detriment to morale. You misrepresented the situation."

"Costs have lowered." Ilka's jaw tightened; she held his gaze. "I did my job and I did it well."

There were angry hisses, shouts.

Ilka pointed at the crowd.

"All these people," she said, staring at her superior and shaking. "All these people at their desks, working, for the good of the country. Not sprinting off at five o'clock, racing out of the door to - "

"Mycroft is not at his desk," Anthea said.

There were calls of agreement, and calls of other names. Some she recognised as former colleagues.

She turned to face their superior, her heart beating hard. "Fielding's methods only appear to work - and only in the short term. She has crippled the morale of the workforce. This cannot be sustained."

"I can see that," he muttered, raising an eyebrow. He glanced at Ilka - and Anthea had the impression that the woman was being given her last words.

Ilka knew it, too.

She faced him, pale and unmoved, her head high and her back straight.

"You sought me out for this organisation," she told him. "My track record told you I would cut costs, prioritise efficiency, improve productivity. You coveted me for those skills, and I used them."

Her eyes flashed.

"You now expect me to leap in front of you to take the bullet," she said. "If I do, you'll substitute me for someone who hands out employee benefits like sweets - and when you realise we're hemorrhaging money, you'll turn on them too. I am above this organisation. A pity, that you don't appreciate the good work I've done."

Cries of anger tore from the crowd.

Their superior barked, "Enough!" - and they were silenced.

He watched Ilka over his glasses for a moment, his eyes narrowed and his face hard.

"The need for senior officials to register partners is terminated immediately," he said. Anthea felt an entire roomful of people inhale as one. "We will be seeking a new Head of Human Resources."

Ilka's face flushed with anger. She said nothing, dropping her gaze to the floor.

"Escort Miss Fielding to my office," he said, inclining his head towards security agents. They stepped forwards at once to take hold of her. "I'll be conducting your debriefing immediately, Ilka. Your replacement will work alongside a new Director of Senior Official Welfare, who will liaise with all senior officials regularly to ensure that any security concerns regarding their partners and families are met. This issue is ongoing but will be resolved." He stood up from his chair. "Hearing adjourned."

In the corridor outside, as people thronged from the room in animated discussion, Anthea slipped into a window alcove for a moment with her mobile phone. Many other alcoves were occupied with senior officials doing the same; one space along, she could hear the Head of Finance stuttering into his phone.

" - i-if you'd - perhaps wish to have dinner with me this weekend... anywhere you like. I - know we've been friends for years, but I've - I've always - "

Smiling quietly, Anthea opened up her contacts.

The first text was to Mycroft. He would be waking up soon, nestled in his partner's arms in New York.

 

Fielding terminated. Dragged off for debriefing. Registration process suspended indefinitely. A x

 

Part of her wished he'd been here to see this; part of her wouldn't change his new happiness for anything.

She would keep an eye on Fielding's progress out there in the real world, and see how she fared. With the right strings pulled, it could be rather poorly.

Anthea was looking forward to it.

Biting her lip, she then scrolled on through her contacts down to 'S'. To the victor go the spoils, she supposed. Life was short; certain opportunities simply couldn't be overlooked.

Smiling, she opted for classic.

 

Regarding your previous kind offer... I haven't any plans for this evening. Perhaps you and I should have dinner. A x

 

The reply came in less than two minutes.

He picked her up at eight.