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Mycroft is in Portugal when the text arrives.

It's unseasonably hot for Lisbon in November, happy couples and visitors and city dwellers swarming the sidewalks down below, their voices echoing upward through the opened windows. The doctors next door are adjusting the chemical cocktail availed upon Mr. Moran, both to keep him cooperative and to help him cope with his drastically changed circumstances. Anthea's laudable aim and unflinching willingness to deny medical intervention meant there are severe mobility and pain factors in play.

He's ostensibly reviewing several in-progress plans of action, in actuality reading through a record of Anthea's daily correspondence with the teams in place in London. Doctors, nurses, four rota of security for the house, for the neighborhood, in transit, on the off chance New Scotland Yard called. Mycroft is purposefully and quietly uninvolved in the particulars, a combination of an admittedly misguided effort at self-abuse and — again — Anthea's laudable aim.

So Mycroft is in Lisbon in November, sweat gathering under the collar of his suit, and he doesn't know if Georgiana is in pain, if she's sleeping, if she's having nightmares. She would say she doesn't have nightmares; Mycroft would say she doesn't remember them — waking up to the sound of her hitching breaths after a bad case was too commonplace in their bed, and Mycroft used to stroke her hair until she quieted, until she slipped back into the deep softness of dreamless sleep.

Mycroft doesn't have nightmares, precisely — he has his memory. Recently, he's enjoyed repeated, vivid dreams of arriving at New Scotland Yard to see Anthea covered in blood, her forearms dark with it up to her elbows, the ambulance wailing as it tears away. When he opens his eyes to any of a hundred anonymous ceilings, his brain fills in the subsequent details: listening to Gillian scream, the smell of blood in the hospital corridor, watching John Watson come out of surgery after 13 hours, grim-faced and telling them that Georgiana will need to lose her spleen. Mycroft remembers thinking how ridiculous that was; did she need a spleen? There were at least two dozen people in the A&E waiting room — he'd tear one out for her, bring it back packed in dry ice.

Mycroft's previous experiences with relationships have all been academic, transactional, or filial. He has no benchmark for how he should comport himself now, in the aftermath he has anticipated from moment one. He's carried on. He's eating and sleeping, working because the work matters. He has a hole gouged into his chest; he's homeless. He has no plan; he does not expect to be forgiven.

And then the phone chimes.

Georgiana is the variable that sunders his logic, who has ruined and remade everything.

Mycroft had lived an entire life before her, had already known the parameters of his forbearance and the shape of his anger. Mycroft is neither kind nor cruel, not given to emotional outbursts, measured in his actions, confident in his silences. He is a precise arrangement of self-selected traits. Before her, Mycroft never discounted his own judgment for bias, he was never grateful for a 3 a.m. telephone calls; he'd gone his entire adult life without giving himself a head wound on a coffee table. His existence had been curated and vital and blissfully complicated.

Georgiana alters the fabric of spacetime, her absences so enormous the gravity well is a vertical plunge, and her compliant silences — so out of character, so crushing — after Sherlock's constructed suicide managed to chase Mycroft out of rooms, away from the sound of a clock tick, from the accusing noise of Anthea turning pages. She's an imaginary number, gives shape to a whitewater of impulses Mycroft had always been spared, leaves him gasping, jealous. By every objective measure, to have touched her hand that first time, in the hospital corridor was an error; to have taken her to dinner on Columbia Road was a mistake; to have stood in the clear yellow sun in Islington, staring into the wide-open loveliness of her face was the fatal moment.

The truth is this: if the only way to return to Georgiana's side is to crawl, Mycroft would do it. He would hate every second, he would burn with humiliation, he would be grateful to be given the chance. He would arrive at her feet and beg to press his face into her knees. Mycroft's most mortal of sins is pride, but he's learned in the last months his pride has poor judgment and worse prognostication, that it has no structure at all in the face of his longing.

He'd told the truth, years and years ago, when Georgiana asked: he'd known her in an instant, deduced the whole of her from her gait and her profile and the particular way she'd tucked her hair behind one ear. But Mycroft finds her a book worthy of endless study, new chapters and pages emerging, new margin notes left by the people who have written on her. Mycroft thinks the interior spaces of her, the rooms and corridors of her heart, are like an unfolding puzzle box, a memory labyrinth. He wandered it sometimes, sitting at her bedside in the early days after, the steadying noise of her hospital monitors a reassuring drone. He felt his way through all he knew of her — through all he wanted to know of her. To him, Georgiana is the hypothetical of a frictionless mathematical plane: impossible in reality. To reduce the totality of his need to something as pedestrian as love is ill-fitting, too small; Mycroft knows many words in many languages, and he does not know how to say this — even in the private offices of his own mind, he can't give it shape.

The charter from the airstrip in Lisbon to City Airport is eternal. The drive to Lyall Street is even worse, a telescoping infinity. When they arrive at the curb, to the house, Mycroft feels hypoxic on the pavement in front a place for which he has no possessive pronoun. For so many years, it was his house, and then for so many more important ones, it was theirs. Its windows are gauzy orange from some light filtering from the back rooms, and Mycroft feels for it the way he has always felt for Georgiana: longing, a tender ache for a place he was never meant to go.

Only now he finds himself on the step, then at the entryway, his hand on the doorknob. His keys still work, his biometrics still read on the door. He blinks and he's in the candle-dim foyer, wending toward the kitchen — low lit and deserted — through the sitting room and study, where the collection of ferns and jades that had set up residence on the window sill still flourish. He checks the parlor and the sun room, casts a glance into the garden, for it's both too cold a night and the table and chairs not ideally situated to benefit from sniper cover — an old argument he's used to losing. The formal dining room is 5 degrees cooler than anywhere else on the floor, the panic room pristine and escape path untouched. The design of birds and flowers on the gray-green silk of the walls is exactly as he last saw it, during one of his restless, midnight rambles.

But there are changes, too, to the house and the space. The floor's been flattened to seamlessness between the tile of the kitchen and the dark wood of the sitting room. There's a hand rail in the downstairs powder room, a stair lift. Mycroft hates it all for how it reminds him of her doctors grimly starting her a new, more aggressive round of intravenous antibiotics, of Anthea providing him a brief regarding post-sepsis syndrome including the long tail of recovery, what cognitive symptoms might manifest. There's a cluster of prescriptions on the kitchen counter, along with a daily calendar annotated in Gillian's beautiful script. Mycroft thinks about the ruin of her face in the hospital, her eyes nearly swollen shut from weeping, and how she'd pressed desperate, meaningless kisses to Georgiana's nerveless fingers. There'd still been blood under her fingernails, her own, and it had been all Mycroft could see.

In their years together, the Lyall Street house had always been a pocket out of time, some place Mycroft could make cups of tea and read Dr. Seuss books aloud from the armchair by the bath. No reality could intrude, and now —

"Hello?" comes a voice from upstairs.

Mycroft imagines her curled into herself, the muss of her hair, how she must hurt leaned over the railing. He thinks about her knees gone weak in the corridor, about what might happen if she falls down the stairs.

"It's me," he calls out, pivoting toward the steps. "Go back to bed."

Ridiculous. Of course it's him; of course she won't fall. Mycroft deals in greater or lesser probabilities all day, and here in the house, in her proximity, all his math falls apart.

Georgiana ignores him the way she always does: cheerfully, oblivious to the fact that people have died for less.

"It been fucking three and a half hours," she accuses, and her voice sounds louder and louder as Mycroft climbs the stairs, knuckles white on the rail.

At the top, sat fuming on a ridiculously fussy little chair that ornaments an equally aesthetic Regency writing desk, Georgiana is frowning at him. Her hair is in a messy plait over her left shoulder, silvery strands haloing her face. She's wrapped up in her hideous, Sainsbury's house fashion brand waffled robe, and the line of her cheekbones is too sharp, her chest flatter. Mycroft observes each of these things with the calm sadism of a man twisting the knife in his own stomach.

"I was in Lisbon," he tells her. He shouldn't tell her at all.

For half a second, the scowl on her face flickers: a grin she can't contain.

"Try again," she instructs him, schooling herself back to disapproval.

Mycroft wants desperately to tuck her back into a hospital-certified bed with appropriate support elevation, for someone to check her blood pressure and liver function. He wants to know why she's sitting up in the relative chill of the first floor corridor, if she's been waiting here for three and a half hours while Mycroft was progressing from Lisbon.

Out loud, he says, "I'm so sorry," which is dull and vastly insufficient and infuriating.

"Thirty more minutes and I was burning all your Ovid and signing up for Tinder," she says to him, but she says it extending a hand, automatic, and Mycroft goes toward her like a magnet drawn to his polar opposite.

The skin of her hands is papery, dry, and on the back of her palm, where he used to run his thumb along the metacarpophalangeal joints , he can feel the faintly raised and still-tender tissue, the bone deep bruising from the IVs. (In one of Anthea's reports, she'd described how they'd been forced to move higher up her wrist and forearms later, to her thighs and neck, searching for veins and too urgent to think about what marks they would leave — at least she would be alive to rue them.) Mycroft has had the pleasure of memorizing the rounded shape of each of her distal phalanges, knows the grip and bite of her nails in surprise or fear or the gasping break of a climax: right now, she's clutching for balance. 

"Careful," he murmurs, not because she will listen, but because he can't help himself.

This time, the nails are a cat's claw: warning.

Mycroft has been careful to keep his eyes deferentially lowered, drinks in the details of her painted toenails — whimsy, an afternoon of sustained happiness and energy with her mother — and the shaky press of her arm, weak. He doesn't know what he would see if she would let him stare and stare into her lovely face, and Mycroft doesn't know that he entirely has the courage to know. Helping her onto thin ankles, looping an arm around her waist and guiding her toward the bedroom, that's enough, it's more than he'd hoped for. She could send him away right now, back into the night, and Mycroft would find it just.

"Will you stay?" she asks him, and lets herself be settled on the edge of their bed — her bed — the bed. Possessive pronouns are escaping him tonight.

Mycroft stares at her lap, where the fingers of her left hand are still clutched in his own: her skin is the sensation of impossible warmth. He'd forgotten how it felt to hold her hand, and is stunned it was possible to forget at all; the immediacy of her is electricity coursing down his nerves, the serrated edge of a knife on his spine. He feels like a child again, mute from all the things he wants to say trapped in the opening of his throat, aching from the effort of not bursting apart.

But that was his youth, with so much more skin and heart exposed. So much older now, lifetimes older now, Mycroft sometimes thinks he's lost the keys to the locks, that the rusted over hinges and doors mean only catastrophe would open him — that to access his heart, it would be with a knife to the ribs.

He has seen every possible ending, every probability and variation. He could provide Georgiana advisory on her most logical course of action, and he doesn't know how to plead his own case. He doesn't know how to beg her to keep him, to take him back, how to lie through his gritted teeth that it would be anything other than the beginning of another series of predictable disasters, moving the doomsday clock forward another 10 seconds.

But some reservoir in his limbic system must still remember from before he carved out all the soft spots and severed the nerves, and Mycroft feels the scaffolding of his spine curve and his knees give out — hit the carpet.

Somewhere above him, Georgiana says, "Oh — God, Mycroft," her hands flying to his shoulders, to cup a palm along the back of his neck.

It's suddenly too much, all of it, everything, and at this moment, by this bed, in this house with this woman, it's all Mycroft can do to press his face into the tops of her knees, clutch at her ankle and fist a hand in the bed linens — his own reach for steadiness. Mycroft can hear his breathing, his gasps, the roar of blood in his ears and the frantic noise of his heart. His face is hot. His fingers are cold. He can't live like this much longer, not knowing if she hurts, if she's frightened, how angry she is, if she can still bring herself to love him. It's all more than he can endure.

He hears himself, the words scrape out of him, torn apart by the bones and teeth they break through.

"Can I stay?" he croaks. "Can I come back?"

And he can tell from the trembling of her body, the quake in her legs and the shiver of her arms, the hitch of breathing, that she's crying now. It makes everything worse, it makes Mycroft wish he could dissolve into infinities, that he'd never visited her at Battersea, that she hadn't fallen asleep in the dark quiet of his car that night, traveling through the dreamy green of night in Surrey, that he'd skipped the Met gala, that she'd never kissed him at all. Mycroft is keenly aware that it is too late for regrets now, but if he were a good man, he would never ask her this.

"You shouldn't have left me," she tells him, her voice small with her hurt, as raw as any of her other injuries, and it's all Mycroft can do to let her close her arms around his shoulders, to keep saying into the slope of her inner thigh, to any skin he can reach, to the sweat and linen and still-healing sick smell of her:

"I'm sorry — I'm so sorry. I'm sorry."

That Georgiana is beautiful is without question: she's symmetrical, with a soft, oval face and luminous skin. Her eyes — doe-soft and brown — and the rose pink of her mouth are worthy of admiration. The way she moves her hands, how she walks and talks, looks over a shoulder, sits at rest and shouts in anger, it's all unique and uniquely lovely. That night at the police gala, when she'd emerged into the champagne light flushed with her own discomfort, Mycroft had felt something go sideways and sharp-teethed in his stomach. When she'd settled a hand in his elbow, to be swept around the ballroom — laughing, cheeks pink — she'd been the brightest object in the room, in the night sky: Venus, blinding. But she is beautiful when she's asleep in their sitting room, curled under a blanket in leggings and one of his shirts, too; she's beautiful when she stands by the electric kettle, shouting instructions down the line to someone at New Scotland Yard. Georgiana is beautiful now, her face gaunt and skin thin, her collarbones too pronounced. There are deep bruises under her eyes, the color of violet petals. Her muscles have wasted from her weeks in bed, and she's lost her freckles, her flushes and the gold of her skin vanished like fugitive color. All of this, too, is beautiful and rare, set to the uneven rise and fall of her breathing. Mycroft spends the night perched on the rug near her side of the bed, a finger on her wrist to feel the sluggish drag of her pulse, and every time he feels the rush of blood through her veins, the patter of her heart struggling, he thinks, thank you, thank you, is blown away by the marvelous wreck of her — still alive, and that's all that matters.

In the period between the shooting at New Scotland Yard and 6:17 a.m. GMT, watching the slow press of morning begin to glaze the sky overhead, Mycroft had taught himself everything there is to know about the horrors and miracles carried in the skin and bones of a human body. He's memorized the lattice of anatomy, knows each of Georgiana's bones and what they do, where they live underneath the organ of her skin — still green and dull purple with bruises. He knows the configuration of liver and lungs, the layer of muscle under the dermis, has prayed over the transubstantiation of the vascular system. He had thought it might work like the other things, that to have comprehensive and encyclopedic knowledge would prove his fears groundless and provide some measure of control — he'd been wrong.

The body, like the state, is so fragile, an accidental collection of wonders that it persists. She could have perished as an infant, had an accident as a child. She could have taken her last breaths with her best friend, followed Rachel into their next adventure. She could have died walking her beat, taken a knife to the chest in a weak spot on her stab-proof vest. She has been in three automobile accidents, and she was working on 7/7. She's run recklessly after Sherlock the entire time Mycroft has known her. She's been shot in the abdomen, died on the operating table, developed post-surgical sepsis.

That she'd lived through all of it, been delivered of meaningful harm into the care of him, leaves Mycroft weak with worry.

"There's no need for you to go, truly," he says — implores — begs.

Gillian had arrived at the house half an hour earlier to find him still crumpled on the rug by Georgiana's side, and her expression is searingly unimpressed.  "Mycroft," she scolds.

There's nothing to say but, "Yes?"

"If George feels up to screaming at you and making a scene and generally carrying on for hours or days or weeks, God knows you'll deserve every second of it, and you'll take it and be grateful," she instructs him, serenely unconcerned and matter-of-fact. "You're a great bloody grown man, Mycroft. Act like it."

But what if she pulls a stitch, Mycroft wants to argue. What if she needs help in the bath, and doesn't want me to touch her, to see her scars? What if she has another adverse reaction to one of her hundreds of medications, and what if this time, instead of Anthea sending a message saying, intense allergic reaction: vomiting followed by fever spike; request for Rachel (deceased), he's there and has to react in the moment.

"Of course," he agrees, desperate. "But there's plenty of room, if you wanted to be close."

"I've been very close this whole time," she tells him, with the gutting weariness of a woman who has lost a husband and thought she might lose her daughter, too, who sent the nurses away and cleaned the blood from Georgiana's hands herself, steady through the incapacitating fear of that first night. "You're right where you should be now."

And then Gillian is shrugging on her mac, shouldering her handbag, and Mycroft hears — tumbling from his mouth, all frantic revelation — himself say:

"She shouldn't forgive me — I don't deserve it."

Gillian is a beautiful woman, too, underneath a little too much makeup and the aggressively curled hair. She and Georgiana share the same eyes, soft-focus and consuming, the dark flutter of lashes smudged around. Mycroft has seen her transported with joy during her own wedding, sly and curious at family gatherings, angry with her new husband, sad — carefully concealed — when she'd come to the Lyall Street house, and whispered to Mycroft in confidence, then, "This is the life her father always wanted her to have — and he's not even here to see it."

It is another confidence, now, a secret that bridges them when Gillian presses her palm against Mycroft's face, radiant with warmth.

"Thank God we none of us get what we deserve," she tells him, and searching, she asks, "You'll do it right now, won't you? You'll bear up no matter how bad?"

The truth that Gillian must know is that to bear witness to Georgiana's hurt is worse — than anything, than any possible suffering. That the numb safety of distance is no longer an option for him, that he must stay, clear-eyed, and see. There's no other possible course of action, and Mycroft feels unequal to it already.

"Yes," he promises; he presses a hand over Gillian's, meets her wondering eyes, and he says it again so she'll know he means it, "Yes."

After Gillian leaves — in a taxi; Mycroft has a team follow her — he ventures back up the stairs to where Georgiana is trying and failing to negotiate herself out of her pajamas and into a fresh shirt from her perch on the edge of the bed. She looks tense, is holding her body with the tight wariness of pain, and when she realizes she has an audience, her face closes over.

It would be easiest, the least awkward and embarrassing and simplest if Mycroft excused himself and called for a nurse, whichever one Georgiana finds the least objectionable to her relentlessly working class point of view on hiring help.

He stays in the doorway to their — her — the bedroom, watches her watch him in the watery gray light, and clears his throat.

"May I help?" he asks; he sounds disastrous.

She arches a brow at him. She's gone so pale. She's still so lovely.

"You?" she asks. "Help me dress?"

"I've helped you undress — I assume the process is similar," he tells her.

Georgiana is silent for a long, long beat, looking away. When she hazards a glance upward again, it's with quiet worry in her expression.

"I — it's ugly," she tells him, always so blunt about herself. "I'm going to flinch away from you but I'm not actually going to want you to stop or apologize or talk about it."

Mycroft has at the tip of his tongue a hundred explanations. He swallows them all to say instead, "I can be silent," around the piece of broken glass that's tessellated in his throat, cutting him apart from inside out.

She stares into her lap again, then nods — more to herself than anyone else — and says, "All right," and asks, "Was that my mother leaving? Just now?"

"Yes," Mycroft says, and he doesn't say anything else as he goes to her, helps steady her shoulders one by one as he eases the pajama shirt away and off, and the collar is sour with the smell of sweat. He wonders if it's from nightmares or from pain. He can't help but to see down the length of her torso: the black stitching is gone, but she's criss-crossed by red, raised scarring, still bruised, new pink skin stretched around where they'd pulled her open to find the bullet, to sew her stomach wound closed, to remove her spleen and repair the nick in her intestine. Here, now, in daylight without the woozy drunk delirium of relief to be near her again, to hear her breathe, Mycroft can see how it is objectively ugly, why she would objectively flinch away from him, and why he must keep going.

She draws her arms free of the sleeves, slow, hunched in on herself — her hair is longer now, stringy over the tops of her breasts — and she breaths in modulated little gasps, with contained panic. "Bring the navy shirt," she says, and after a beat, she says, "Yours — the one from Huntsman."

Mycroft doesn't know how he manages, how he finds the shirt in the wardrobe or how he helps her into it, how he manages just to freeze — silent — when she says, "Stop, stop," because she's pulling on a surgical scar. And then he has to bring her loose jogging bottoms — "The waistband hurts if it's tight," she says to him — and draw them up her legs, help her wobbling to her feet to pull them over her hips. It's all horrible.

"I'm not angry with you anymore," she tells him here, hands braced on his shoulders and staring down between them, to where Mycroft is tying the tracksuit laces. "But I'm so hurt — I don't know how to stop being hurt."

It would hurt less for her to stab him with a piece of broken mirror, carve out an eye. It would go faster. He could make an involuntary noise of pain.

"How long will you stay?" she asks him, still looking away, to anywhere but at him. "Sit there and let me treat you like shit and be angry off and on and depressed all the time? How long are you willing to put up with that?"

In another lifetime, another version of them, from before, he would have said something charming and deflective, because his Georgiana was not given to believing in hyperbolic statements of devotion, found bald statements loyalty too raw, overly earnest.

But we are worn to the bone, both you and I, Mycroft thinks.

"As long as you'll have me," he tells her, fists his hands in the nubby fabric of her trousers, forces himself to meet her gaze when she startles, looks up. He smiles at her, crooked and humiliated. "Last night I thought, 'if she asks me to crawl, I will.'"

She stares and stares and stares at him, until her eyes go luminous with tears and her lip trembles, until she says to him, "I want to forgive you. I miss you."

"There's no rush," he says, his heart exploding in his chest. "I'm here to stay — I promised your mother."

Mycroft sleeps in the nearest guest room, suddenly vacated of the night duty nurse, who now sleeps in the next nearest guest room. During the day, when he's home, he works from his study and Georgiana divides her time between the sitting room with her iPad and books. She sleeps fitfully and often between doses of anti-inflammatories, her lifetime regimen of antibiotics, the infinite collection of other pills — including painkillers Georgiana complains nobody would even bother selling on the street because they're so ineffective.

"They're maintenance," Mycroft coaxes.

"Make them bring back the morphine pump," she tells him, yawning through her words. "Are you nearly finished? Are you in London today? Should I make tea for two?"

At the other end of the room, three men are arm and leg-shackled to a metal table, bolted to the floor. They're 15 stories underground, in a tunnel that was decommissioned before it made its way onto any maps. It's a useful location, both for its privacy and its intimidation factor. Anthea, of course, can be terrifying in any location, from the local Caffe Nero to the dark undergrowth of a Nicaraguan jungle, but she indulges him. Additionally, since he'd moved back into Lyall Street, she's stopped leaving clues she's poisoning him, for which Mycroft is both grateful and touched; Anthea might not be particularly effusive in her shows of support, but they are heartfelt.

"Just clearing some last bits off my desk," Mycroft tells her truthfully. "What are our dinner options?"

He mutes the phone as she starts rummaging through the refrigerator: there's leftover Thai, a steak and kidney pie she'd made Sherlock bring them from Wellbeloved in Deptford since he'd been poking at a case down at New Cross, they could whip up a carbonara (she saw a new recipe), or there was always calling for pizza.

In the room, Anthea produces a scalpel — gleaming in the overhead light. One of the men starts to babble. Most domestic terrorists are the same, under whatever banner they fly: cowards with no real fortitude, a crippling fear of women. This should all be over soon.

"I'll tell you everything," one of the men says. "We never even finished the planning — the car hire wouldn't let us rent the van."

Anthea smiles at him. "That would be most expedient, but just to be clear: I'll probably stab you anyway."

Mycroft would defect to the Russians for crisp-edged pepperoni, curled up to cup all its cooking fat on a surface of bubbling cheese. "We could do a salad," he says, more for form than with any real intention.

"Fuck off salad," Georgiana retorts. "Right, I'm ordering two pizzas. Do you want a pretend healthy one or shall I just go full Bruce Bogtrotter on both?"

He suspects if Georgiana ever agrees to salad instead of pizza, he'd assume she was trying to telegraph a kidnapping and initiate the appropriate counteroffensive measures.

"No mushrooms, please," he says.

"Of course," she agrees, and warns, "And if you're not back by 7:30 I'm going round to Sir Kenneth's to weep all over him about your bisexual tendencies, so be on time or be prepared to be unwillingly cast into Maurice."

"I prefer Scudder to Clive," he ripostes.

"Mycroft, that's always been very clear to me," she laughs, and rings off.

When Mycroft looks back over to the table, one of the trio has fainted dead away, the middle one is weeping silently, and the one at the left end is frozen, petrified, Anthea crosshatching razor thin slices along the shivering tendons of his neck.

"Well," he says, "it seems you've this well in hand — are you happy to finish up here?"

She ignores him. She always does.

Anthea is frequently mistaken for his assistant, and in many senses, the title is correct: she provides on-hand support during his various duties, and takes ownership of certain less complex parts of his workload. A more accurate description might be apprentice, for the business of acquiring the skill set associated with their particular role in the government can be a rather arduous and lengthy proposition. Institutional knowledge will be key when Mycroft bequeaths his role to her, but so too will her certainty, her relative lack of attachment to him; in the end, she'll need to be able to pull the trigger — with mercy or malice is irrelevant. The work must be done.

All in all, Anthea is coming along very nicely.

Mycroft arrives home at 7:26 p.m., benefiting from his judicious abuse of access to the London transit network to adjust the pattern of traffic lights. He hangs his coat, loosens his tie, turns up his sleeves. He follows the sound of QI on the television to Georgiana in the buttery warm light of their kitchen, huddled in an oversized, oatmeal colored jumper she'd stolen from John. Her hair's down, but freshly washed, still damp and curling at the tips, and she has a flush of color in her cheek: a good day, in spite of everything.

"You made it," she cries, all soft pleasure. Her smile is real. "Hello."

"Hello," he says.

Mycroft wishes he could kiss her, that the everyday ease of their past lives could return. He remembers with perfect clarity the moment their politely maintained distances had finished dissolving the first time, but that was with a clean slate and before a number of surgeries, when Georgiana's forbearance was a different, less brittle thing. Now, he sits — close — but he doesn't touch, near enough to feel the warmth of her through the cable knit of the jumper.

"Pizza's on its way," she reports, and under the table, she tucks her sock feet between his thigh and the chair — toes icy through the wool knit somehow, always. "I ordered a white one for Anthea, too, if she's coming later."

Mycroft doesn't bother explaining she could have come now, if she'd expedite her particular information gathering process. He removes Georgiana's feet to his lap instead, cupping his hands around her toes, one foot then the other, and listens to her make cat chirps of pleasure.

"She'll come," he says, hoarse. He forces himself to look at the television. Dissembling, he asks, "What episode is this?"

"Happiness," she tells him, smiling.

Mycroft hears himself say, "Of course," and adds this moment to his memory palace, into the new wing he's building, to house the ever-expanding collection of this — of them — of her.

In the sea-change of public opinion regarding Sherlock and Georgiana's role in enabling him, her administrative leave was transfigured into medical leave, a move at least semi-craven and entirely unsuccessful in stemming the tide of vitriol directed toward the Metropolitan Police Service.

This isn't helped by the local rags, which have identified the protagonists of their story and have been merrily savaging New Scotland Yard for months. The London tabloids have an inexhaustible collection of photographs of Georgiana at her own crime scene: bleeding to death and being hauled into the back of an ambulance, John Watson's hands holding her together as he runs alongside the gurney and hollers at the paramedics.

Mycroft prefers the other photos, the hundreds and thousand of pictures from years before, that chronicle Georgiana from her very first appearance in the background at an armed robbery case — bright eyed, in her uniform and vest — to her most infamous: standing at the opened car door, the wind flaring her coat open, her face a gorgeous study in sorrow. Mycroft remembers seeing it, this particular exposure, late in the evening in the private room at the Diogenes Club, remembers staring at it on the blue-light surface of his mobile while the fire burned to embers behind his left shoulder.

Mycroft is not a particularly protective person. In the general, if he has a specific inclination toward increasing security, it's usually warranted. In the specific and with regards to Georgiana, she'd been in law enforcement for nearly two decades before Mycroft had ever seen the line of her back in grainy CCTV image, standing outside his brother's flat. Among the many pleasures of her is her effortless, ego-free pragmatism, the easy way she risk assesses a moment, and Mycroft may wish she was in some safer line of business, but then she would not be Georgiana Lestrade, and Mycroft would never wish for such a thing.

"And yet, you're making that face," she says to him.

Mycroft hides behind the FT. "There's no 'face.'"

"There's been a face since I took that phone call," she retorts, but lets him keep his salmon pink fortress.

It's late November, December nipping at their heels, and Georgiana's received phone calls from the Met at a steady rate of one a day for the past week. He's left the maintenance surveilling of the Yard to Anthea, but he can imagine what they want and what they are offering: a long-overdue promotion, increased pay and benefits, the opportunity to return to the work she loves, to hold her head high.

Her silence fulminates another 15 seconds — 30.

"You couldn't possibly have thought I'd just — what — stay home forever?" she asks.

Mycroft starts folding up the paper just in time to see her reaching for it, the expression on her face still closer to a pout than a scowl, so he's moved just quick enough. "To be completely frank, I didn't think that far," he confesses.

She arches a brow, which Mycroft supposes he deserves. "You? Not think that far?"

Mycroft has a dozen deflecting answers he could provide, ranging from charmingly self-deprecating to openly disingenuous attempts to change the subject. But in the last weeks, he's found himself more often than not remembering that first night back, on his knees and shaking, how awful and impossibly freeing it had been to be entirely, radically honest.

"I've mostly been worried you'd change your mind, throw me out," he says.

Georgiana's mercy is so seemingly endless and sudden, and he sees it now in the slack surprise of her mouth and the way her eyes round. Mycroft suspects she's known it, on some level, but maybe she hadn't believed.

"I wouldn't," she tells him, after a long minute of silence. "I'm not going to."

"Oh, well," Mycroft says, because though he's suspected it, too, known it on some level, maybe he hadn't believed, either. The words feel like the weight of her thigh in bed: anchoring. He's always believed her, whatever she's told him; Georgiana is a woman who knows her own mind. "Thank you."

She goes quiet, subsides somewhere indoors of herself. Mycroft waits, listening, because Georgiana's silences are rarely empty, always telegraphing and telling, and he looks at the careful way she squares her shoulders, hears the shift of fabric as she crosses her ankles under the table. She's bracing herself to for some uncomfortable truth.

"It's what ended it, between Tom and I," she says finally, nervy.

Mycroft has no idea what face he's pulled, but Georgiana lets out a bubble of laughter.

"Okay, fine, sleeping with one of his students was ultimately the most compelling reason for our divorce," she says, but at least the seriousness of her expression has waned, some glimmer of wry humor back in her eyes. "But the job — that's where it all began."

Mycroft sees the moment through two lenses, from the learned history of Georgiana's accrued fears and from his own poorly concealed surprise. He thinks of every dinner he's abandoned, all of his travel, the phone calls he's taken at vastly inappropriate times. He thinks, too, of all the dinners she's abandoned, her endless days at court, the phone calls that have interrupted their quiet evenings and lazy mornings. Mycroft can so easily imagine the slow burn of resentment, if he was the one always waiting.

But Mycroft finds their shared moments illuminated, marvelous, a serendipitous accident. If he's waited, it's been with a satisfying ache. But he supposes those might be poorly constructed foundations for a shared life, and he wonders if she's thought so, privately, this entire time.

"I have never wanted you to be anyone but who are you are," Mycroft says finally.

He can't think of any other way to say it, that even if he were to live only in the margins of her life, it would be enough. Mycroft is not an unselfish person, nor willing to debase himself; it's only the truth. He needs her, but he does not need so much of her, only what she — what they — are able to happily give away to one another.

She smiles at that. "The hypocrisy would have been pretty intense."

"And you?" he counters. "The work — will it be where it begins for us?"

"Your hours are the least problematic part of you," she says, with the offhanded surety of someone who's already talked about this with her mother, her friends, several coworkers, likely Mycroft's mother, probably John Watson, possibly Mycroft's brother.

Mycroft almost never has the excuse of an unexpected moment; his actions and reactions are nearly always meticulously designed. So even here, even now, this moment of unwelcome vulnerability has been a thing sat in waiting, balanced on the cusp of revelation for too long — Mycroft has held this question under the tongue for as long as he's known her:

"So what is it, then?" he asks. His voice sounds strange. "What ends us?"

Men like Mycroft, like Sherlock, view the world in an infinite series of hypotheticals, pulling out threads from the Fates' loom with a clinical eye. He has known the never-ending variations and possibilities, the reached and aborted conclusions. In his life he's met two dozen people he could have loved, encountered them and found them beautiful, arresting, intriguing. He's closed his eyes and deduced, known the weight of their limbs and the tenor of their arguments, savored all the days of their shared lives and mourned each and every end — through death, desertion, though deliberate betrayal. So when he'd met Georgiana in person, smelled the faint chemical sweetness of her shampoo and the clean cotton of her shirt, he had looked into their future, too, and thought, oh.

Only nothing's happened in any of the ways he anticipated, everything slightly off axis, a little bit different, earlier or later, on a separate date; she bites less, he sighs more, they aren't inclined to quarrel. It's exactly as he had anticipated only different in every possible way — the experience of reading about an orange and tasting it, sunshine bursting across the tongue, for the first time.

So of course Mycroft has considered this question, too, but he's learned now that the lived experience of Georgiana is almost always too complicated to describe and sometimes too unexpected to know at all. It leaves him frustrated, awkward, wrong-footed. It leaves him asking — carving through the skin and muscle to the bone.

"If you ever leave me again," she says, immediate and without hesitation, and it guts him all over; it's probably why she says it. "If you ever help Sherlock fake his death again. If you — " her voice cracks " — if you ever send Anthea to do your dirty work."

It's a sentiment Anthea had expressed as well. Mycroft hears himself say, "I still won't be able to tell you everything — I won't ever be in a position to be completely forthcoming,"

Georgiana looks away from him, through the windows of the breakfast room to where the sun is groggy outside, filmy with low gray clouds. It's cold and the world feels quiet beyond the four walls of the Lyall Street house — beyond the warm yellow of the kitchen.

"You told your mother," she says slowly, considering, before she turns to catch his gaze. "You couldn't hurt her like that."

Their mother had burst into tears anyway. She'd curled up in a small chair in the music room and wept into her hands, saying, "Oh, Georgiana, oh no." It had gouged through him, through the burn Georgiana had left in him earlier that day, in the hospital corridor, crying and begging him; give him the knife, a gun, the slow-acting poison. No, he couldn't bear to let their mother think Sherlock had actually died, but he'd hurt her anyway — left her knowing he could do this to someone he loved. The truth had been no kinder.

"She loves him," is his only defense.

"I love him, too," Georgiana snarls, color high in her cheeks. She looks like she could tase him again, as if she could slap him unconscious. "How — you complete bastard — I love him, too."

Mycroft knows this, of course, knew it then. Of course she loves Sherlock — she's loved Sherlock longer than she's known Mycroft. It had been among the first things he had known of her, that Detective Sergeant Georgiana Lestrade would break regulations and contravene direct orders for his brother, that she regarded Mycroft's wayward sibling with a sort of unearned tenderness, kept in reserve for him a wellspring of patience that never seemed to run entirely dry. He'd thought it intriguing, diverting, and he considered all the potential points of leverage there when he realized that most improbably, Sherlock held a kind of schoolboy torch for her, the way a problem student fancies the teacher who yells at him the most.

And the ugly reality is this: he had run those numbers, too, when he'd made his decision. He'd anticipated she would be too crushed by Sherlock's loss to ask the immediately inconvenient questions and then would be too overjoyed with his return to hold it against them. Georgiana has the steady, enduring strength of a red oak and a heart like the sea — bottomless. He'd abused it all.

"I know," he says, finally, faintly. "I knew."

"And?" she demands.

Mycroft knows what she wants, and knows that to promise such a thing — to ensure disclosure — would be almost definitely treasonous, but he looks into the open wound of Georgiana's eyes and thinks, what are borders and treaties to a man like him? This is that knife edge, the hubris that has brought down his counterparts and brought low his predecessors, left them in shallow graves in anonymous cities or caged up in nationless jails. But Mycroft feels the simultaneous urgency of his love and his pride, the ache of his human heart longing and the mechanical click of his brain disassembling a challenge. If anyone can navigate this impossibility, surely it's him — and if it would be worth the hazard for anyone, surely it's Georgiana.

"You have my word," he tells her. It feels solemn and thrilling at once — making a crossroads deal for his heart's desire.

That night, she crawls into the guest bed with him, poking at him until he makes room for her, exactly the way she likes.

"Have you decided then, about work?" he asks, whispered into her hair.

She hums. "I want to go back. I miss it."

Security adjustments will need to be considered, Mycroft thinks groggily, without any detail. He'll leave it to Anthea, who is superior to him in these sorts of logistics and several degrees of magnitude more militant about Georgiana than Mycroft is.

"Am I welcome back in our bedroom tomorrow?" he mumbles, more from curiosity than anything else. She's soft in his arms, if still too thin, and the smell of her skin makes it hard to hold onto his thoughts.

"No, you can sleep in this bed for a while longer," she tells him, sleep-sweet and entirely without malice.

Mycroft blinks at the whorl of hair at the top of her head.

"This mattress is destroying my spine," he explains to her.

She kisses his shoulder through his t-shirt, mumbling, "Oh, I know," and falls asleep.

In early December he is informed they will have guests for Christmas.

"We will?" he asks, but it comes out breathless, distracted. Georgiana has closed her hand around his tie and she's running her thumbnail along the seam of the knot. She's layers away from touching skin, and he's already perishing in his three-piece suit.

"John has a new girlfriend and she has no family at all," she says, dragging him closer — he goes, helpless, a dull little star compared to the gravity of her. "We're hosting Christmas: my mum and Ben, your mother, Sherlock, John, Anthea — "

"Anthea's spending Christmas in Lagos," Mycroft is compelled to explain.

" — not Anthea, then," she concludes, smiling. This close, her eyes are hypnotic.

Out of the rags of his dignity, Mycroft feels obligated to say, "This is incredibly obvious manipulation, you know."

She's wearing that blue Huntsman shirt of his again, over clingy black leggings and barefoot. Her hair is swept up in a disheveled bun and her cheeks are flush, fuller. She's been sleeping better, through the night, and she's lost the weary fragility she carried for months. She smells like the bite of cold air from their garden, and she's caught him off guard at the desk in his study.

"But it's working," she laughs, drawing him in.

The last time she'd been here, perched on the his desk and playful, they'd knocked everything off of it and destroyed a top secret document. It's made long evenings of paperwork more pleasurable for the association. Now, Mycroft is dizzy with his fortune: that somehow she would still be here, teasing, pressed closely enough to him that he can feel the soft swell of her breasts through his waistcoat — that she would have him at all.

"Of course it's working," he complains. He sounds wretched. The bed in guest room has continued its assault on his person nightly, all while knowing Georgiana is one wall away, recently taken to sleeping in t-shirts and black pants and nothing else.

Her answer is a soft kiss to his jaw, a whisper, "Come upstairs."

Mycroft's history of lovers has been varied. He'd spent his schoolboy years experimenting in the usual way with the usual sorts, and in during university he'd expanded his remit considerably. Mycroft is neither prudish nor particularly hedonistic — but he savors. He enjoys an interesting mind, a beautiful face, the curve of a back, the sting of teeth. He finds the puzzling complexity emotional entanglements intriguing — in theory — and the clean transaction of a professional useful. He has a preference for warm brown eyes, silvering hair, that it is so dire that — in the interregnum between his bringing Georgiana a blue cashmere jumper and coaxing her close enough to touch — he ended up having a torrid but poorly conceived affair with a barrister fitting those characteristics. He enjoys sex, appreciates its various benefits, but Mycroft has never gotten so lost in the heat and hunger to lose himself.

Georgiana is not a maze, and Mycroft would never be lost in her: he knows her by memory, by touch, by taste and smell. He remembers the gray light of their first morning together, in her house in Islington, the way her curves fit his hands, their mouths fitted together. He'd studied her in a hastily constructed grid pattern, refined it over their subsequent years together. Mycroft knows every imperfect inch of her — loves it all, every particular of her that comprises the whole.

In their bed, in the deep soft sheets, Mycroft feels as if it's Islington all over, that there are new pages to the atlas of her — the universe spilling over off the known latitudes. He murmurs, "Are you sure?" into the skin of her throat, and it's an alien thing, to second guess if Georgiana Lestrade knows her own mind, but so much has changed, the landscape of her, the landscape of the both of them, a continental shift, with new oceans and islands emerging.

She pulls off his tie. "Yes and no," she says, embarrassed and unrepentant, with a staggering bravery that always takes him out at the knees. "It's like a lot of other things that have scared me — sometimes I just have to do it."

"Not this," Mycroft says on reflex, clutches at the back of her shirt. "Georgiana, you must know that even if we — "

" — were never intimate again, you would stay? You would love me all the same?" she interrupts, and now she's smiling, mysterious and gorgeous, her hair starry silk across her cheek. She pushes and pushes at him, until he sits on the edge of their bed, until she can straddle him, a knee on either side of his hips, warm through his trousers.

He should close his eyes; Mycroft's at least 60% less effective at constructing arguments when he tries to do it staring into the shadow curve of her breasts, her shirt half-unbuttoned and sliding off her shoulders. "Yes," he says — with enormous effort.

"You can want something and be scared at the same time, Mycroft," she tells him, and her voice is rough with all their rough edges.

She cups his face in her hands, runs her thumbs over his cheeks and has such an expression on her face: mercy, shot through with something Mycroft can't describe, that feels like the weightless lift of a body free of gravity. This has always been the most electrifying thing about her, the most dangerous, these unexpected moments where Georgiana sees through him, when she knows all of him and keeps looking. He feels as if he's been deep underwater for a very long time, that he's breaking the surface now.

It is without intention that he says, "I am — frightened," that it escapes in explosive decompression, the emotional bends. He's frightened she'll change her mind; he's frightened he'll do something else to hurt her; he's frightened that one day he will find himself sat again at her hospital bedside having come to love her even more deeply, that it'll hurt even more.

"So am I," she whispers, a secret for another.

He palms her hips, the curve of her waist, slides his hands underneath her shirt and up along her back. He asks, "And you still want this?"

"Yes," she tells him, says it closing the distance between them, breathes it like a kiss of life from her mouth to his, "Yes."

Georgiana insists that they cook Christmas dinner on their own, which Mycroft finds baffling when there are no fewer than four private chef services that he has on retainer, but she won't budge and he's still very frightened she will leave him. So it's come to this: stood pushing a grocery cart in Waitrose on a Thursday night, watching the man at the specialty cheese counter flirt outrageously with Georgiana. She's trying to assemble a cheese plate, which she assures him is just the sort of "bourgeoisie faff" that is to be expected of a Christmas dinner. Mycroft had found this a charming diversion until they'd arrived at this godforsaken shop and the objectively beautiful Nigerian man shilling Brie had decided to seduce Georgiana with endless samples of Manchego.

"His name is Tayo," she reports, when she finally sunders her love affair with the cheese man to return to Mycroft, arms overflowing with paper-wrapped packages. She's so rosy from teasing that Mycroft finds it difficult to stay cross; she still tires easily, her immune system will probably always be in shambles, but she's less thin now, has more color — her eyes shine again. "He's reading law — he's going to be a barrister."

Mycroft takes the cheese away from her and replaces the brick of quince paste in her hand with his own, just in case she's forgotten why she's here, and — more importantly — why he's here in this fresh hell of seasonal music and holiday bunting.

"You hate barristers," he reminds her. And you love me, he wants to say, sulky.

"Tayo will be a good barrister," she says, with the fond certainty of the converted.

Mycroft allows this because she swings their linked hands once, twice, before she presses herself close along his side, lets go of his fingers so she can curl her arm into his. Mycroft recognizes that as a matter of course, he allows a number of unallowable things in the context of Georgiana, and more recently, in the fizzy revelation of a second chance, he's found any remaining boundaries eroded altogether. They'd spent the previous Thursday night wearing Korean face masks and watching the cricket together, and though Mycroft could — feasibly — puzzle out if her continued inability to understand the rules of the game are genuine or for her amusement only, he finds he doesn't care either way. In the years now that Mycroft has spent in her orbit, he's taken pleasure in the pedestrian labor of being in love with her — of being loved in return — in choosing preposterous Christmas gifts, in making breakfasts and bringing them to her in the conservatory with a kiss. He has enjoyed watching her suitcase while she goes to the toilet for the seventh time while waiting for a flight. He loves every boring, ordinary, difficult, and frustrating thing about her — about them. He can imagine a life without the house being covered in her lost bobby pins, but he doesn't want to.

And this is one of those overwhelming moments Georgiana had asked about, over cups of tea in that restaurant in Islington, in the butter-yellow light and so beautiful Mycroft could barely cope. It is the binary cascade of too much information, a crashing wave of sensory and analytical input, connections racing across his brain like arcing electricity.

"Do you think we should buy new hand towels?" Georgiana asks. "Your mother's hand towels are very posh, and I bought ours from the middle aisle at Aldi that one time."

Mycroft says, "Will you marry me?"

She freezes and stares at him, eyes round, lips parted, a vision of shock.

"I — beg your pardon?" she manages.

"Will you marry me," he repeats, because now he's said it, the roar and rush of noise has gone blissfully silent, leaving a wake of serene clarity. This is it, the question at the root of the burst of wanting he feels, watching her wash the breakfast dishes by hand.

She stares and stares at him, and Mycroft thinks about that night at Epperley, when in the grind of his unhappiness she'd kissed him — citrus sweet — and said she would marry him, if he ever asked. He remembers thinking, she doesn't know the worst of me yet.

"Are you seriously asking me to marry you in the bloody Waitrose four days before Christmas?" she says finally, and there's a note of hysteria in her voice.

He's clearly made a tactical error.

"Which part of that should I edit to increase the chances for an affirmative response?" he asks, in a way he thinks is completely undeserving of how she bursts into laughter.

She folds over on herself — one wrapped carefully around her middle, one hand braced on her knee — and they're getting curious, middle-class looks from the other shoppers, couples whispering to one another, girls in jeans and puffy coats looking up from their mobile phones, the cheese man, arching a brow from behind the counter.

This seems excessively cruel and extraordinarily out of her character, so it's with more confusion than hurt that Mycroft hears himself say, "If it's no, then just — "

"It's yes, you fucking idiot," she chokes out, and when she looks at up her eyes are wet and her cheeks are even rosier, her hair a wild sweep across her lovely face. "Of course it's 'yes,' it's always been 'yes!'"

"Oh," Mycroft says, a little numb and loweringly speechless. That had been a possibility he had considered, one of the infinite directions they could have traveled, and he's admired it among the strings of theory as pleasing — it's only now in practice that the reality hits him like the pressure wave of an explosion: leaving him watching her stupidly with an armful of cheese. "Oh."

"Yes, oh, you stupid man," she says, still laughing, and she says, "Here, come here."

He goes, drawn forth, and kisses her. It feels like none of the other oaths he's ever made. This one is humbling; this one scares him. And he must say something, or make a sound, because — bless her, thank God for her — because she loops her arms around him, fingers laced together against his spine, and she says again, more quietly, into the shared breath between them:

"Yes, yes I will."

The John Lewis partnership give them a wine voucher and a bouquet of peonies when they check out, because apparently the cheese man had run off and told his manager, a deeply romantic woman named Rosalind who heralds them at the check out lane with effusive congratulations.

"Thank you — this is so lovely," Georgiana says to her, admiring the flowers with every evidence of earnest pleasure. She's a mystery to him, still, Mycroft observes fondly.

"I'm so happy for you both, Detective Inspector," Rosalind weeps at them. "After the year you've had — will Sherlock be the best man?"

Mycroft says, "My God," because even the suggestion gives way to the beginnings of a cluster headache. It's also an uncomfortable reminder that he'd made a tactical decision years ago for Georgiana to retain her public figure status for the benefits of media attention as a stopgap measure against less sophisticated blackmail and assassination attempts. Problematically, this means the public know her. 

"We should probably elope, actually," Georgiana says philosophically.

"It would be safest," Mycroft agrees.

As they're finally escaping the halogen cheerfulness of the store, he's stopped by the cheese man for a handshake.

"Congratulations," he says, all smiles. "You're a very lucky man."

In the doorway, Georgiana is holding her peonies in the cradle of one arm and a grocery bag in the other, and she looks like she's trying very hard not to laugh. In the twilight, under the ambient glow of nearby store marquees and Christmas lights, she seems to him otherworldly, someone pulled out of a dream — only Mycroft had never dreamed of anyone like her, could not have imagined her. Georgiana is the miraculous accident of fire, the discovery of oranges, something beyond the capacity of even Mycroft's vast intellect: a synchronicity of all good things, and she's still just there in the deepening cold of a December night, waiting for him with a smile.

"Yes, I am," Mycroft agrees. "More than I deserve."


Georgiana's spent the last four weeks more or less living at the office, and even before that was never particularly interested in this type of news, so he supposes it's at least plausible that — when she stares out the car window toward the looming architecture of Windsor — she had no idea which wedding she'd agreed to attend.

"Mycroft," she whispers in a hush, "no."

The driver stops for the first security checkpoint, and they sail through.

"In my defense, I did say you didn't have to come," he reminds her. Outside the darkened car windows, the roadside is heaving with satellite vans and television crews, troops of photographers weighed down with dozens of cameras and telephoto lenses making their pilgrimages toward St. George's Chapel.

"You told me I shouldn't feel entrapped by a family obligation," she hisses at him, and when she's angry her face is a vision.

There are soft curls wound into the quicksilver of her hair, and her hat is a clean, straw-colored sinamay dish, a froth of pink crinoline and pale green exploding over her right ear, affixed neatly into place with roughly 200 bobby pins and an atmosphere of hair spray. The green taffeta Luisa Beccaria dress is very becoming on her: a v to a faun-colored belt, floral sprigs across the fabric and into the folds of the full skirt. She's wearing nude pumps and no stockings, because when she'd asked if he thought she ought to, Mycroft had said "no." Life is short, this wedding will be long, and a man has to have allow himself some indulgences. She's dripping with diamonds: a bracelet inherited down the maternal line and an art deco pendant it's rumored his great grandmother won in a hand of poker.

"If my mother were not adamant, there is absolutely no way I'd waste a Saturday so foolishly," Mycroft defends himself.

"Foolishly, he says," she fumes, color high in her cheek. "Just a stuffy wedding for an acquaintance of the family, he says. If you don't mind too much, Anthea can have a personal shopper pick something up for — oh my God."

She stares down at her dress and then back up at him.

"Is this — this is designer, isn't it?" she demands. "Is this couture?"

Mycroft's response is to acquire her hand and to press a lingering, close-mouthed kiss to the curl of her fingers. Against the warmth of her skin, the ring he'd given her is a cold shock: a coronet of Victorian old mine diamonds set into antique yellow gold, massive and ostentatious and completely unsuitable for her field work and profession.

"You're sparing me the indignity of being here alone," he murmurs, into the tender skin of her hand, into the places where there are still faint scars: a record in flesh and bone of their life together. "And for that, I am immeasurably grateful."

She narrows her eyes at him, but she doesn't take her hand away.

"Are you in line for throne?" she asks.

"No," Mycroft assures her.

She frowns. "Are there any particular rules I'm supposed to be following for this farce?"

"I'll prompt you — subtly," he promises.

Georgiana is silent for a beat before saying, "If I go to this, you're coming to the New Scotland Yard Christmas party."

He's not quite fast enough to hide his wince.

"Do you accept these terms?" Georgiana demands.

Mycroft thinks about the tedious embarrassment of being subject to the unsubtle interrogation of all of her colleagues, her ferociously protective pack of juniors. He thinks about a night of enduring Georgiana's particularly effective brand of teasing, how she'll get him punch drunk on incendiary, secret touches and bad red wine and make him do embarrassing things to kiss her skin, later. He thinks of the way the morning light is soft against her face right now, her eyes gleaming, and how it will feel to hand her out of the car into a warm English summer, how she'll find his mother and they'll laugh and amuse themselves with extensive defamations of his character. He thinks about how she'll probably disappear on him, halfway through the reception, and be found three hours later in an off-limits-to-guests area, smoking cigarettes barefoot and abetted by some American celebrity or another. He thinks how after all of this, he gets to half-carry her home — sun drunk and fizzy with champagne — and to fall asleep at her side this night and every other, for the rest of their lives, till death do they part.

Mycroft thinks that it is a marvelous thing to learn, late in life, that you like weddings.

"I do," he says, too solemn for the moment, as the car draws to a stop and a groom comes to door. He holds out a hand. "Are you ready?"

And Georgiana looks at him, searching, before she shakes her head and lets herself smile — dazzling.

"Yes," she says, lacing their fingers close, "I am."