"Pregnant, Mycroft. Pregnant." Anthea Hughes, his long-suffering assistant and second-in-command, said in a tone of utter bemusement. She took her time flipping her perfectly coiffed hair behind her shoulder (which she knew very well annoyed her employer greatly) before she finally deigned to carry on speaking. "Just shy of twelve weeks along."
He should have guessed, he thought savagely. Yesterday for lunch she had a scotch egg slathered with sriracha hot sauce - hardly a conventional choice, and not the type of thing Mycroft Holmes would usually miss.
"How?" He burst, irritated beyond belief.
Anthea's eyebrow quirked. "You do know about the birds and the bees, don't you, sir?"
"Of course I do." He snapped. "I'm not Sherlock, Hughes."
"That much is abundantly clear, sir." Anthea said cooly, crossing her legs over and leaning back in the plush fanback armchair to survey him. Mycroft hated when she did that; it was as though she imagined herself his equal. A wholly preposterous thought.
Mycroft's hand rested on the arm of his own chair, which was significantly more grand than the one Anthea occupied. It was highly polished, intricately carved Victorian rosewood with fastidiously maintained dark grey plush upholstery, and dated back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Mycroft was not inclined towards frivolous expenditure, but he rather thought that £30,000 was a small price to pay to remind each and every visitor to his office exactly how much he outranked them by without having to say a single word.
Chair superiority aside, however, Mycroft was having a difficult day. He was at a loss as to how Anthea Hughes - who was undoubtedly his star employee despite any minor irritation she caused - had let this happen.
"I simply don't understand how you could do this to me. We're in the middle of a national election, not to mention the Rome situation…"
"My ovaries wait for no election." Anthea cut him off with a ring of finality. It was a testament to the good credit that Anthea had built up over her years of service that Mycroft allowed this small act of defiance to pass without rebuke. "You knew this was a possibility. Andrew and I…"
"Yes, yes. I know how you two have been carrying on." He said dismissively, nose wrinkling in mild disgust. "Getting married and all sorts of human nonsense."
"Quite." Anthea's lip quirked. "We were sorry not to see you at the wedding, incidentally. I would've hoped that eight years of dedicated service would've merited a drop-in, at least."
Mycroft did not feel the need to explain that even one hundred years of dedicated service would have yielded the same disappointing result. He didn't do weddings.
He had instructed Anthea to send herself a gift on his behalf, and had provided a generous budget for its purchase.
He was at a genuine loss as to why that hadn't satisfied her.
Mycroft knew he was facing defeat. Though his powers of persuasion were considerable, he could hardly talk his most invaluable employee out of being pregnant when she had so knowingly and willfully conspired to bring the state about.
"You have a leave plan?" He asked tiredly, at length.
"My replacement." Anthea slid a worryingly thin dossier across the desk. "I've set aside two months to train her up for you, then she'll be on her own."
"I suppose she comes highly recommended?" He picked up the file and began to peruse the meagre information it contained.
"Not really." Anthea sniffed. "She's inexperienced, poor, and a bit annoying, to be honest."
"I can see why you were so compelled to offer her a triple-figure, once-in-a-lifetime government contract." His voice was dripping with irony. "I'm sure her brief tenure as a…" he paused to read "research assistant… has appropriately equipped her for the unrelenting pressure of managing the fallout of international geopolitical crises, or routinely setting up meetings with the highest authorities in the country…"
"I'm sure she's perfectly capable of sending a calendar invite and answering a phone, sir. It hasn't taken much more than that to deal with the last three geopolitical crises, if you recall."
"...not to mention helping me keep an eye on Baker Street while simultaneously assisting me as I run the whole bloody British Government single-handedly." Mycroft concluded dryly, frowning at the resume in his hand as though it had done him mortal offence.
"I keep having to remind you." Anthea smirked. "It's not single-handedly if you have help."
Mycroft scoffed at her cheek, but offered no rebuke. Anthea Hughes had dedicated the better part of a decade to the role. There was no denying it. She had become nigh indispensable to him.
How, then, was he now supposed to dispense with her now?
His eyes ghosted over the name printed at the top of the resume, widening in incredulity as his mouth formed the offending words. "Persephone Jones?"
Anthea shrugged. "It's a name."
"It's ridiculous. She's ridiculous."
"You don't know that." Anthea rationalised. "You only know that her parents are ridiculous. And that's hardly her fault."
Mycroft conceded this point, thinking briefly of his own highly absurd parents. They had been inflicted upon him for an entire month last summer, and Sherlock had been no help occupying them.
He shuddered as he remembered the long matinee plays and the infuriating, ambling walks through every gallery in Westminster.
It had been almost too much to bear, acting as though he didn't already know every artwork intimately. He could do the Tate in thirty minutes if left to his own devices, but mother had taken a whole four hours, crooning over every brushstroke she saw.
It had driven him to chain smoking. Again.
"I owe her sister a favour." Anthea said vaguely, skimming over this statement quickly enough to spark Mycroft's interest. "Give her a month. That's all I ask."
"If she's rubbish, you can always let the recruiters find someone."
"Recruiters." His nose wrinkled in abhorrence. "The modern slave trade, you mean."
Anthea shrugged. "She's my recommendation. She's rough around the edges, you know city girls." Anthea frowned in momentary distaste.
Mycroft rolled his eyes, of course he'd end up with some grimy, South London slattern as an assistant.
"But she's only got to last a year. Then I'll be back." His soon-to-be former assistant concluded brightly, swinging out of her chair abruptly to leave.
It irked him that she was terminating their meeting instead of waiting to be dismissed, but his mind was too overladen with visions of some bumbling, faceless hippie girl to bother chastising her.
Just a year. And then everything will be as it was before.
It was a comforting thought.
Persephone didn't know why, but it always started with a total psychological breakdown.
When Guthrie had told her about his torrid, months-long affair with the lactation consultant at St Bartholomew's, she didn't even have it within her to be angry.
She had folded in upon herself.
She had wept into a pint of Waitrose raspberry trifle ice cream, bingeing old episodes of Eastenders which she'd been pathetic enough to purchase on DVD (she'd never known someone to pay for Eastenders, but such were the fathomless depths of her heartbreak).
She had sat cross-legged, eyes red-rimmed and puffy, on the floor in front of her lumpy, misshapen couch.
"I don't see why you sit on the cold floor when you have a perfectly functional sofa right there." Her sister, Medea, had said while scoffing down a packet of crisps from her perch on the kitchen counter.
Her voice carried easily, there was no pretending she hadn't 's flat was the size of a postage stamp and almost everything it contained was damaged, second-hand or covered in dust.
The dust could easily be addressed, but Persephone had barely moved beyond the triangle of her fridge, bed and television in weeks.
It had happened before, this melancholy of hers. Years had passed without an episode, but Persephone remembered very well that last time had been… bad.
That's why Medea had flown over, she supposed.
"Sofa," Persephone repeated scornfully in between mouthfuls of ice cream. "You've spent too much time around Americans, sister. Call it a lounge. Call it a couch. Speak proper."
"Pfft." Medea scoffed. "Speak proper. You're such a little gutter rat, and you don't even know it."
Persephone sent her sister an irate glare. "When are you due to leave me, anyway?"
"I have a flight to DC on Tuesday." Medea replied airily. "It's just enough time for me to get you settled in your new job." She grinned and hopped down from the counter, as Persephone groaned.
"Dea, I told you no." Persephone said emphatically, letting herself collapse onto her side in a slightly dramatic fashion. She pulled the blanket she was cocooned in over her head, which muffled her voice when she next spoke. "No favours. No jobs."
"You've been out of work for three months now." Medea carried on without reference to her protests, plucking the blanket away and scrambling out of reach before Persephone could snatch it back. "I know it sucks that your study got shut down, that the public interest isn't there right now. Funding wars can be a bitch, Seph. I know. But you can't wallow around forever letting the bills pile up."
"I've got savings." Persephone said vaguely, frowning at her sister.
"And I'm sure you're burning through them faster than a toupee in a hurricane."
Persephone ignored her sister's absurd turn-of-phrase. She'd been like this since university, when she'd first discovered stand-up nights and theatre clubs.
"It's not like I'm renting. I own this garbage flat, you know."
"This garbage flat will be on the market before the year is out if you don't get your act together."
"Seph-" Medea crouched down and held Persephone by the shoulder, looking into her eyes with a worried expression. "I'm just concerned, love. It isn't like you to go to pieces over a man, or to mope about without a project."
"I'm hardly known for my work ethic, Dea."
"Oh you're lazy as all sin when it comes to academia, I've no notion of how you would have gotten into research if you weren't just naturally clever." Medea said with a hint of exasperation. "But even when you're shirking your responsibilities you're usually doing something on the side - watercolour painting or cooking lessons or krav maga…"
"Krav maga was a mistake." Persephone nodded solemnly as she remembered her few painful sessions attempting to master the art of self-defence. "But okay, sure. I admit I've slowed down a bit."
Medea raised her eyebrows. "Slowed down? That's the understatement of the century. You've stopped completely. You're stuck in the mud and you're sinking further down every day - I can see it, Seph."
Though it certainly felt that way to Persephone, she wasn't about to admit it to her sister.
She turned her face away as her cheeks stung with shame. She hadn't meant for it to get this bad… And she certainly hadn't meant for her only halfway-sane relative to fly halfway across the globe because of it.
"Please, please just give the job a chance." Medea said pleadingly, hands still firmly clutching Persephone's shoulders, forcing her to confront her sister's earnest expression. "You know my old schoolmate Anthea? It's her maternity leave contract, some weirdo government role which she could tell me exactly nothing about, but the pay is crazy good. Doesn't that sound nice and mysterious?"
Persephone suspected that Anthea had never liked her very much, and it made her reticent to accept a favour from the intimidatingly well put-together woman.
But even she wasn't immune to the prospect of crazy money and the chance to learn sensitive national secrets.
"Yes." She heard herself say. "Okay, fine. I'll give it a go."
Medea squealed and flung her arms around her properly, knocking the breath out of her as they rolled on the floor in a tangle of limbs and laughter.
"Gerroff! Off, you berk!"
"I'm so proud of you, Sephie!" Medea singsonged, tickling Persephone's ribs and making her struggle harder. "You won't regret this! Promise!"
Bloody siblings. Persephone thought, though she couldn't help the smile that spread across her face as she thought of how much Medea had done for her.