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A Question of Ethics

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Saturday 21st March

 

"How are things going?"

Greg smiled, sliding his hands together. The eternal question, he thought, looking up from the glossy parquet floor. 

"Still going," he said. Ananya's eyes sparkled with amusement. "Actually, you know what? That's too harsh. I'm good, thanks. It's been a good couple of weeks."

"Mm? How's the flat hunt?"

"Viewed a couple more places, but I wasn't taken with them. One was right above a bar, the other one came with a room mate. I don't think I can bear the thought. Happier where I am for the minute."

Ananya smiled, pleased. "Still going well?" she said, jotting something loosely on the pad held in her lap.

"Yeah. Yeah, really well. I'm making sure I pull my weight—y'know, laundry, cook dinner. Keep the kids entertained."

"That's very considerate of you."

"I think Lisa's loving it, really. Three-parent household. She and Ed even snuck in a cinema date last week."

"Lord. Definitely a bonus."

Greg grinned, pulling at the sleeve of his jumper. "Unexpected blessings," he said. His drifting gaze found the box of toys tucked beneath her desk, ragdolls and fire trucks and teddy bears. "The kids are happy," he said. "Uncle Greg just upstairs. Lots of fuss for them all. I've played a lot of Xbox. Attended a lot of Barbie tea parties."

"Is it nice for you, the time with them?" Ananya asked.

"God, yeah. Been brilliant."

"You sound like you're a bit of a natural."

"Ha. Yeah, I... I like kids. I know it's different for parents," Greg added, apologetic. He didn't know if she had kids of her own. She'd never said; he'd never asked. "I'm good at the messing around part. Entertaining them. I don't know how much use I'd be at moulding them into decent members of society."

"The main advantage of being an uncle," Ananya remarked, writing. "Wearing them out, handing them back."

Greg grinned. 

"Sounds about right," he said. A thought occurred, a small softness he suddenly wanted to share. "The youngest's... well, she's a bit shy," he said. "School've said she's not making many friends. Clings to the one she's got. She gets overwhelmed by things sometimes. Doesn't really dare compete with her brothers and her sister."

He glanced up, his eyes bright.

"Kindred spirit," he added, and Ananya smiled. "I've been reading to her every night. Just quiet in the lounge together, cocoa and pyjamas. She fetches me her book now. Think it's doing her some good."

Ananya laid her fingertips against her chest, moved.

"I know," Greg grinned, embarrassed, and brushed a piece of fluff off his arm. "It's, erm... it's nice. Thinking I'm... well, it's just nice."

"It sounds like your home life's going rather wonderfully. How's work?"

On instinct, Greg drew a breath—then realised there wasn't much need for one. 

"Fairly steady," he replied, surprised by it. "There's plenty going on, but... well, I don't mind it so much. Good to be busy. Busy but handling it, y'know? I'm not drowning in the swamp."

"That's good," she said, writing. "Do your work mates know about the separation now?"

"Yeah, old news. Most of them knew by January." A pocket of quiet opened in the room, inviting Greg to fill it. "I worried people might... I don't know, pity me. Be tentative around me. That or think I was an idiot, calling it quits so soon after the wedding."

Ananya glanced up from her notes, interested. "Have you found that to be the case?"

"Nah," Greg said, smiling. "Few people checked if I needed anything. People who've been through it, y'know? Told me if I ever wanted to meet for a pint, swap some war stories... mostly just business as usual, though. It's made me realise I've got a good team."

"I imagine it's making the process easier," Ananya said. "The quiet support of colleagues and family."

Greg thought about it. 

"Divorce was never gonna be easy," he admitted. "You're right, though. I'm glad there's people around me. They're good at keeping me on track. It's just a case of moving on along the road."

"How's the application going?"

"She's still being difficult about money. Unsurprisingly."

"Mm. It's often a point of tension."

"Solicitor says this'll be the worst part, then the actual application should go pretty smoothly. You can do it all online now. Bit weird, but... well, it saves a trip to the post office."

Ananya smiled, enjoying his humour. "Do you still believe Helen will contest the adultery grounds?"

Greg wrinkled his nose. He still thought it was a possibility, maybe even a strong possibility. She would likely do it out of spite, just to delay things. It wouldn't change all that much in the end.

"I've got copies of her messages to him," he said with a shrug. "Emailed them all to myself before I'd even finished reading."

Ananya's eyes twinkled. "You're not a police officer for nothing, Greg."

He smirked a little. "Rule one. Preserve the evidence."

"It will prove a very wise instinct, if anything's contested."

"So I thought. If she really wants to waste a few more weeks, she can go ahead and contest. It means a judge gets to read her fawning over blurry dick pics. Suppose it depends what her dignity's worth."

Ananya's mouth twitched, visibly fighting the need to smile. 

"Let's hope it doesn't get that far," she remarked, jotting. "For the judge's sake, if no one else."

Greg smiled. "Fingers crossed," he said.

She finished whatever she was writing, giving a little hum. 

"Has she made any attempts to contact you this week?" she asked, looking up.

"No more texts or calls since I changed my mobile number. Lisa's, too. I still feel a bit guilty about that, but Lisa keeps promising me it's fine. She doesn't mind."

"I'm sure she's very happy to take that minor inconvenience," Ananya said. "She'll understand it's not something you've caused, Greg. Your ex-wife's decisions are her own."

It was incredible to hear someone call her that. The paperwork hadn't even been submitted yet, but just being allowed to imagine it felt like sunlight streaming down upon Greg's face. 

He couldn't fucking wait.

"Yeah," he said, flushing. "Yeah, Lisa's sweet. Keeps saying she wanted a new phone anyway. It's got a much better camera."

"Any more visits to the house?"

"Erm—a couple. Are you ready for this? Bit weird, but Lisa and I recruited the kids to help watch. They think it's another daft Uncle Greg game. We've told them if they see a dark grey Volvo parked near the house, take a photo of it and post it on the family WhatsApp. If the registration plate's showing, that's a bonus photo and they win a pack of Panini stickers."

Ananya's eyebrows lifted as she wrote, impressed. "Rule one," she murmured. "Preserve the evidence."

Greg grinned a little, shifting in his chair. 

"I don't think they realise they're helping compile Uncle Greg's divorce petition," he said. There came a pause. "Last time they got a picture, they said the person saw them doing it and drove off. It looks like Helen's cottoning on."

"Forgive a psychiatrist," Ananya said, looking up at him with reassurance. "Has she attempted to approach any of them?"

"The kids? God, no."

"Is she following the children specifically?"

"No, no. She did follow the car once, but Lisa reckons she thought it was me. Sped out of there the second Lisa stepped from the driver's seat."

"Good," Ananya murmured, lowering her eyes. She began to make a longer note. "I'm sorry she's following you at all, of course... but from what I know about you, Greg, it'll be a relief she isn't focused on your family."

Greg's chest strained. "Yeah," he mumbled. "Yeah, big relief." 

Watching Ananya write, he drew a quiet breath. 

"Part of me... I don't know, feels bad that they're suffering this with me. Then I start thinking how much worse it'd be if I was on my own in a flat somewhere. Waking up in the middle of the night to see her parked outside."

"I'm certain Lisa would be distressed by that, too," Ananya murmured.

It was true, and Greg knew it. He breathed the worry out, holding onto the comfort. 

"It's less creepy now the kids think it's a bit of fun," he admitted. "I'm just hoping Helen gives it a rest soon. Costing me a fortune in Panini stickers."

"Has she tried to approach you at all?"

"No. That's kinda the weirdest bit. She was texting me ten times a day before I changed my number, then at night leaving voicemails that went on for weeks. But she's never once got out of the car. She just sits there, waiting. Watching. It's like she knows it's more unsettling that way."

He hesitated, rubbing his thumb against the centre of his palm.

"She's not turned up here again, has she?" he asked.

Ananya's expression stayed perfectly clean, her gaze down and busy writing. "Not since we changed the codes."

"J-Jesus. Sorry."

"Why?"

"'Cause... well, it's... sort of my fault."

"Is it?" Ananya asked, looking up.

Greg tried to hold onto it, but found himself struggling not to smile. She was very good at saying nothing and yet everything at once. He liked that about her.

"I'm sorry she turned up," he said. "I'm... sorry I can't not be sorry. It's embarrassing for me, what she did. I don't like that you were all inconvenienced and embarrassed too. I know it wasn't due to my choices," he added, seeing a familiar expression start to form on Ananya's face. It crumpled with amusement. "And I know that what Helen does isn't mine to apologise for. But I'm still sorry."

Ananya smiled, gently shaking her head. 

"There's no need to be," she said, "though I acknowledge your gracious attempt."

"You've not lost business or anything, have you?"

"No," she murmured. "No, not at all. Anger towards therapists is common, especially in the weeks after a professional relationship has ended. We have procedures and processes in place for times when that anger inclines to violence. Helen was removed very swiftly from the building and we informed her new therapist of the situation."

"Has she... been to see the new therapist?"

"I'm afraid I don't know. The referral was accepted, but whether she's making use of the appointment is beyond my knowledge."

"Right." Greg paused, shaping a question inside his mouth. He'd wanted to ask for weeks. "Who, erm... did she seem to be after a particular target when she came here, or..."

Ananya inhaled, glancing up from her notes as she contemplated how much to impart.

"We believe she was primarily looking for you," she said. "Obviously, she didn't find you."

Greg's pulse quickened. Events began to connect themselves inside his brain, shifting, clicking into place, turned by his familiar mechanisms of logic he'd honed with years of experience.

"Because my appointment changed to Saturday," he said, looking at Ananya. "So... so she turned up on a... Jesus, who was here? It wasn't just—"

Ananya gently intervened. "It wasn't," she said. "Another member of staff was present in the building."

Greg's chest gripped around his heart, beating hard. He'd thought Helen had come charging through on a busy morning, shouting her mouth off, looking to punish the place for referring her. He hadn't realised it was even worse. 

"But—Christ, what happened?"

"Our receptionist put procedures into place," Ananya said, calmly, "including a silent alarm signal which meant doors were quickly locked. The police were summoned. Helen chose to leave peacefully."

"Bloody hell," Greg whispered. He wrapped one hand around his wrist, shivering. "Wow, it's... it's lucky your receptionist was..."

Ananya's mouth pulled at the edge, admitting something. 

"More good management than good luck," she said. "It was suggested several weeks ago that two members of staff should be present at any given time. Simply as a precaution."

He knew. He knew she'd turn up.

And he knew she'd turn up on an evening, while we were... while she thought we'd be...

"But," Ananya's voice murmured, beckoning Greg gently from his thoughts, "we've had no contact since. We've seen no further attempts to get into the building. The police will have warned Helen against repeating the behaviour, and none of our staff have reported any problems."

Greg looked into her eyes, trying to see through them to the fullness of the truth. It wasn't easy. He'd never told her, but if Ananya Sahasrabuddhe ever wanted to commit cold-blooded murder, there was a fairly strong chance she'd sail through questioning without a blink.

"Helen's... not following any staff?" he said.

Ananya visibly appreciated the broadness of the question. "No," she said. "Nobody has noticed being followed."

How carefully is he keeping watch? "No, erm... no harassment?" Greg checked. "Nothing like that?"

"No, Greg. Don't worry. Everyone at the clinic is safe."

Greg's fingers curled quietly into his palms. Right, he thought. He took a few moments to coax himself to trust, knowing there wasn't much else he could do. Part of him wanted to stand outside the place day and night to guard it, armed with whatever he could find. But he couldn't do that and guard Lisa's house as well.

He'd spoken to a colleague at work when it all first started, borrowed his expertise on the unfamiliar world of stalking. Paul had done a full risk assessment for Greg, sat him down at a desk with a large coffee and a printed form full of questions, and finally concluded that for now the risk of violence was low. There wasn't a previous history of physical abuse. She'd not destroyed any property, vandalised anything or threatened anyone. She hit quite a few risk factors to be a persistent stalker, which wasn't the best of news, but at least she wasn't likely to be dangerous. "Doesn't mean it's not serious," Paul had said, patting Greg on the back. "Doesn't mean you should brush it aside. We'll start a proper log and I'll get you all the support numbers, alright? Don't keep this to yourself. It's often exactly what they want."

Dimly, Greg wondered if Helen was expecting him to do that—isolate himself from the people he cared about, trying to protect them. Move out of Lisa's house, stop coming to the clinic. She'd not bothered turning up outside work, but maybe she just knew she couldn't chase him off from Scotland Yard.

Suppose she'd be out of her mind to try stalking someone there, he thought, vaguely amused. She's a lot of things but she's not stupid.

"—very normal to be left feeling anxious," Ananya was saying, and Greg switched the radio dial in his mind back to the world around him. "Most studies suggest that a strong support network will lessen that anxiety, as well as decrease the duration of the stalking. It creates a feeling that we're safe within the herd."

Greg smiled a little, gripping his own knee. "S'good to hear," he said. "How long does this stuff tend to last?"

Ananya clicked her tongue. 

"It's hard to estimate," she said. "Cases can last anywhere from a few weeks to several years. It's largely predicated on the stalker's emotional investment in the relationship—as that fades, so does the fixation—but the behaviour of the victim can have a significant impact, too."

Greg winced a little at victim. He wasn't sure he wanted it to get that bad. 

"Am I doing okay so far?" he asked.

"You're doing everything perfectly," Ananya murmured, her gaze reassuring. "Report it, seek support, cut all unnecessary contact, keep a log and trust your instincts. Flying colours."

Greg couldn't fight a smile. Three months of sessions, and she knew him like the back of her hand. She knew how to settle him. He'd spent his adult life processing the very worst decisions of humanity into paperwork; his mind felt at home with procedures and plans and things to work through. Life was happening to him one moment at a time these days. He collected up a fortnight's worth, brought them here, and then Ananya helped him sort through them. She never let him sink into the swamp.

"Helen'll get bored sooner or later," he said. "She got bored of me quick enough when we were married. S'just a question of time."

Ananya huffed. "You're doing remarkably, Greg. I'm delighted to see you feeling so positive."

Greg tried not to glow. It felt a bit like getting a gold star at school. 

"Thanks," he said. "My, erm... my sister's been saying I look better lately. My sergeant, too. The pair of them keep trying to tell me I'm a new man."

"They're not wrong," Ananya remarked, her eyes bright. She lifted her pad of paper briefly from her lap, recrossing her legs at the knee. "Is there anything else that's been on your mind?" she asked, writing. Greg's heart gave a small and nervous bump, nudging just gently against his ribs. "Anything in your thoughts I can help with?"

"Nah. Not much. Not really help with." Apologetic, trying not to be awkward about it, he smiled. "Just... y'know, the usual thing."

She didn't need to ask what he was referring to. Her expression stayed clean and very gentle, unjudging as she made some brief note.

"Have there been any developments in that regard?" she asked.

Greg had read last week's text so many times now that he knew it by heart. He'd imagined it spoken aloud in a hundred different ways. 'I wanted you to know you're not forgotten, and that I appreciate your patience very much. I hear you're well. I'm very glad and I hope it continues. Take care. M.' 

He'd thought of little else since it arrived.

"Just touching base," he murmured. "Quick hello every few weeks. Doing my best not to text more often than that."

Ananya nodded, saying nothing, creating a space for him to talk. Greg's stomach squeezed in the quiet. He found himself suddenly very aware of his hands. 

"Have you heard anything?" he asked.

She lifted her eyes from her notes, half-smiling, and fixed him with a look he knew well by now. Reluctantly he smiled in return.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I know you can't. And m'sorry I keep making you remind me. I just... it's kinda hard. I can't stop myself wondering what you know."

Ananya's gaze gentled with sympathy. "I appreciate that it's frustrating," she said. "It might be best to try and forget there's a connection."

M'not gonna forget a thing, Greg thought. Ever. As long as I live.  

"Is he okay at least?" he said. "Is he... doing alright in general, I mean?"

Ananya considered the question for a moment or two, apparently judging what was wisest to keep and to reveal.

"He's alright, Greg," she said at last. Greg hung on her every word. "It probably won't be a surprise, but he makes similar inquiries about you. I'm now reminding both of you on a fortnightly basis that I'm forbidden from discussing my clients with other clients."

God. "He, erm... he asks about me?" Greg said.

"And receives no answers," Ananya replied, gently lifting an eyebrow, "other than that you're well."

Greg realised he was gripping the arm of his chair. He loosened his fingers with a breath, trying to make this sound casual. "What does he ask?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you," Ananya murmured, watching him closely.

"Right. No, that's... that's fair." Greg hesitated, looking down at the laces in his shoes. It felt like his heart was trying to squeeze its way out between his ribs. "Sorry. I know you're probably sick of... f-feels like all I bloody talk about some sessions."

"We can talk about whatever you wish," Ananya said, her silver pen now resting between her graceful fingers, her notes and the pad of paper ignored. "This is your time, Greg. It's for you to focus on anything you'd like to."

Him. Just him.

Just let me talk about him.

"Can I... ask something?" Greg said, looking up at Ananya in apology. She held his gaze and listened, a picture of calm. "I know you'll know why I'm asking. I know you'll probably just want to slap this right out of me, but I... I don't know anyone else I can ask."

"Go on," she said, gently.

Greg's lungs filled themselves. "The... 'no former patients' thing. What's the thinking behind it?"

Ananya took a moment to put together an answer for him, mulling it thoughts through her mind.

"There can be concerns about exploitation," she said, to begin. "Due to the nature of the work we do, a therapist will always holds a degree of power over you. That doesn't necessarily end when therapy does. It means that you would enter into any intimacy from a position of great weakness and vulnerability."

Greg's heart filled with a flash of painful memory—slumped on the floor with their arms around each other, clinging, struggling, hot tears against his cheek.

"There's also the issue of emotional dependence," Ananya added. "In a therapeutic relationship, it runs one way. A patient depends upon a doctor, not in reverse. But an equal and emotionally healthy relationship requires a balance of give and take."

Greg nodded numbly, trying to listen instead of thinking.

"A therapist's main task is to create space for you to explore your emotions," Ananya went on. "In order to do that, we naturally put our own feelings and perceptions to one side. Any patient who imagines that a relationship will feel the same way that therapy did will be disappointed. It's unsettling to have to make room for emotions you've previously been shielded from."

I'd give anything to... to listen, to help. To see those.

"Therapists also run the risk," Ananya concluded, raising an eyebrow, "of gaining a twenty-four hour client, rather than a partner. And while at first it might feel emotionally satisfying to be needed, exhaustion and resentment can set in very quickly. This is before we've even approached the issue of transference."

Memory kindled in the back of Greg's mind. 

"That's where it's... transferred from someone else?" he said. "The emotions, I mean? Someone in your past."

Ananya nodded simply, quietly.

"So if I had a... an old girlfriend I'd lost," Greg said, "or..."

"It's most commonly a parent," Ananya said. "The therapist becomes a sort of neo-parent. A painful or difficult attachment to the actual parent finds a safer, more emotionally comforting lease of life, anchored onto the therapist. Healing blossoms out of that. Sometimes the very opposite occurs, and the therapist reawakens anger and contempt once directed at a parent. But focused onto the therapist as a surrogate, it can be dismantled and worked through."

Greg's head whirled. "Then how does counter-transference work?" he asked.

Ananya visibly masked a smile. "That term was mentioned, was it?" she said.

"Briefly," Greg mumbled. Heat rose in his cheeks. "What is it?"

"Counter-transference," she said, with a breath, "occurs when an analyst projects their own unresolved conflicts onto a client."

"So... so the patient reminds them of someone in their life," Greg said. "And that's where, erm... where the attraction comes from. Right?"

"It's a little more complex than that," Ananya replied, with care. "It's not necessarily a case of sexual attraction. It can provoke protective feelings, or anxious feelings, or even strongly negative feelings. Inexplicable disgust towards a client is as much a case of counter-transference as sexual attraction."

Greg flushed a little darker, trying to pretend he couldn't feel its heat. 

"But it comes from somewhere else," he mumbled. "It's... basically just an old ghost."

"Mm." Ananya turned her pen between her fingers, visibly judging whether he should hear something. "Some therapists think that a degree of transference and counter-transference is necessary to the process of therapy."

Greg blinked, startled. "Really?"

"Mm. Let's say I take on a patient who has unresolved feelings of abandonment towards her mother. During the course of our sessions, she transfers those feelings onto me, where they can be safely examined. Prompted by her needs, I develop a degree of counter-transference. I assume a temporary parental role for her, a protective role, supplying the reassurance she needs for her feelings to be resolved."

"Right. So... if there's a match, it actually works out okay. It's actually positive."

Ananya raised an eyebrow. "Mm. And the transference dissolves away, no longer needed."

Greg prepared his next question with enormous care. 

"How can you tell if it's a case of transference," he asked, looking into Ananya's eyes, "or just ordinary love?"

She drew a long, soundless breath. 

"Some would argue that all love is transference," she said. "Ordinary or otherwise. Everything we ever do is an attempt to restore—or to find—absolute closeness with our parents."

Christ. "But when it's out in the real world," Greg said, his heart beating hard, "we don't get weird about it. We just let people fall in love and get on with it, even if deep down it's because they didn't get everything they needed from their mum or their dad."

Ananya gave a small hum, brushing her thumb along her pen.

"Yes," she said, clearly well aware of what she'd just authorised. "Until something goes wrong, of course, and someone ends up in the hands of a therapist."

Greg wet his lips, not quite daring to breathe. "It's like jigsaw bits," he said.

Ananya frowned a little, uncomprehending.

"We're puzzle pieces," he said, watching her as he spoke. "We're all shaped by what hurt when we were kids. Normally we just bash around in the box together, trying other pieces until something seems to click. Or clicks enough that it holds well enough. We try to find someone who's got something what we need."

Ananya listened in silence, faintly impressed and still stroking her pen.

"But therapists are special," Greg went on, his pulse fast. "People come to you in all kinds of shapes, and you become what they need. You make yourself into their match for a while. Maybe it's... it's more like you smooth our broken edges and make it easier for us to fit with other people in the future... but that's essentially what happens, right? That's what therapy is."

Ananya looked as if she regretted not taking notes. "I'd say that's a very good analogy, yes."

Greg braced himself, reaching the most important part.

"But you also have a real shape of your own," he said, and watched realisation flicker through her gaze. "You're still humans, still wounded. You put it to one side so you can help other people. But at the end of the day, you're still a puzzle piece. You're rattling around in the box as well, searching for something you need."

Ananya said nothing, letting him draw to his conclusion.

"So here's my question," Greg said, and realised he hadn't taken a breath in over a minute. He took one now, deep. "If two people come across each other, match up like it's perfect, and they're happy together... why does it matter where they met?"

"Because a therapist will, sooner or later, return to their own true shape," Ananya said. She held Greg's gaze with absolute seriousness. "If a match is based on a performed role—one assumed by a therapist to meet a client's emotional needs, even if unconsciously—then that match is unsustainable. The role becomes harder and harder to keep up. Eventually, the pieces force themselves apart."

Greg's heart contracted, too close now to honesty to keep the words in his mouth.

"What's Mycroft's real shape?" he asked.

Ananya's expression did not move. She took a moment to attend to her thoughts, then lowered her gaze to her notepad.

"Have your feelings changed at all since December?" she asked.

Greg didn't need to think. He only had to pause for the strength to say it. 

"No," he murmured. His throat seemed to harden. He gripped his right knee, rubbing the denim with his thumb until he could speak again. "Not one bit."

The silence waited, wide open all around him.

"It feels like twenty minutes since I saw him," he said, turning his gaze back down to the floor. He couldn't do this while looking at her face. "I... I, erm... sometimes I just sit and think about him. Just sit there wherever I am, total silence. Close my eyes, and..."

Memories washed over him, all of them at once. They took his breath.

"Hope he's okay," he mumbled. "Whatever he's doing. Having a good day, not worrying about anything."

Ananya made no sound, letting him talk. She wasn't writing on her notepad. This wouldn't be going in his file.

With a shiver, Greg reached up to rub the side of his neck.

"Wish I could see him," he said. Something inside his chest seemed to crack. "J-Just for a second. Christ. Just to know that he's... I see things in the street, and my heart gets excited to tell him about them. Stupid things. Little things. Then I remember that I can't, and it kills me."

"How is it you hope he'd react?" Ananya asked, gently. "What do you imagine him doing when you tell him?"

Greg struggled to answer, gazing at her curtains as he tried out different things in his mind.

"I don't even know," he said at last. "Just however he'd want to react." Realisation dawned. He flushed with distress, looking back into Ananya's eyes. "I'm not wanting approval or forgiveness or... or praise, I just... I like the idea of talking to him. I don't know why. It's just what I feel."

"Greg, these feelings... did they occur at a particular point in your therapy?"

"No. I liked talking to him since the moment I met him. Took me a while to fully realise I... that there was more to it. A lot more. But it was all there at the start. I just sat down in his office and felt okay."

Ananya tried a quiet smile. "Reaching a therapist can feel like finally reaching a safehouse," she said. "There's always a degree of relief."

Greg's chest tightened. 

"It wasn't relief," he said. "It... well, there was relief. But it was more than that. I just... I just thought he was fucking amazing. All of him. Just his face and his voice and the way he sat, the way he dressed. All the photos he had on his wall. All of him. And... n-no offence, but it wasn't relief in my first session with you. It was dread. I worried you were gonna lecture me."

"You were nervous," Ananya conceded.

"I never was with him," Greg said. He curled his fingers into his palms, looking down at them. "If we'd met him at work, or in the supermarket or in a bar, then I'd still feel like this. I know it. I wish that's how it had been, then there wouldn't be all this... are we allowed to talk, are we allowed to text... i-it's exhausting."

Ananya leant forwards in her chair.

"Greg," she murmured, and Greg braced himself for something he didn't want to hear. "It's going to be impossible for you to divorce that person from the circumstances in which you met him. They coloured your perception of him, even if you're not aware of it."

"Why don't you say his name?" Greg asked, searching her face. "Why do you... you always have to..."

Ananya offered him a look of regret.

"To help me divorce a personal friend from a situation," she said. "It means that you and I can then discuss that situation objectively."

Greg breathed in. "Can I be honest?"

"I'd encourage you to be nothing else," she said. 

"You're working really hard to divorce those two things. You've managed a decree nisi, maybe. Not a decree absolute. Is there a chance you're as biased as I am? Trying to protect your friend's career? I get it, if you are. I don't blame you."

Ananya took a long time to respond, looking back at him with care.

"Most therapists will tell you that we're ghosts, Greg," she murmured. "We guide you through the underworld to the surface, then we vanish. We can't come with you into the daylight."

Greg's heart ripped itself in two before he could even breathe.

"Everyone's a ghost," he said. Heat threatened to rise in his eyes; he inhaled, begging it to numb. "Life's a dream. Just have to hope that it's happy. If it's happy, hope we don't wake up too soon."

Ananya took this to heart, lowering her gaze from his.

"I won't be able to counsel you towards what you want," she said, "nor can I give you permission. If I'm trying to protect Mycroft's career, it's because I understand the dangers involved. A relationship between a therapist and a patient—even a former patient—will always meet with very serious challenges."

Greg supposed it was a mark of his mind; a challenge, by its nature, admitted possibility.

"It does happen, though," he said.

A little brightness returned to Ananya's eyes. She seemed to like his spirit, if nothing else. Her tone retained gentle caution. 

"It's not completely unheard of," she said. "Any therapist who entertained the idea would have to endure a great deal of scrutiny, especially without a lengthy cooling-off period."

"H-How long is 'lengthy', would you say?" Greg asked.

Ananya paused. "Some would start the bidding at three years."

Right.

That's...

Only thirty-three months to go, then.

"I'm sorry," Ananya added, regarding Greg more gently than she had all session. "I really am. But I'd be failing in my duties to you if I didn't make the situation clear. It's simply a matter of ethics, Greg."

"I know," Greg murmured, and he forgave her completely. He hadn't expected anything else. "It's just... every time you make it clear, it makes some other things clearer too."

"What things?" she asked.

Greg's heart squeezed. "That I'd risk it anyway."

Ananya took this onboard, her gaze quiet, her expression soft with understanding. He couldn't tell what she actually felt behind her wall of duty. In a way, it didn't matter in the least. He didn't come here every two weeks for reassurance that Ananya liked him and approved of him. He turned up so she could try and talk some sense into him. If anyone on this planet stood a chance, it was her.

And yet it still wasn't working, three months down the line.

"You truly did care for him, didn't you?" she murmured, her pen still lying capped upon her notepad.

Greg held her gaze. 

"I do," he said. "I always will. My brain gets why I'm not allowed. The rest of me just can't understand it."

 

*

 

The session ended as usual: five minutes to revisit what they'd covered, ten slow breaths with affirmations in between, then a quick check of the date for next session. They parted with a handshake at the door, perfect friends. If Ananya had heard anything she'd rather not have, Greg didn't see any sign of it in her face. She thanked him for coming, her brown eyes as fond as ever, and wished him the very best for the rest of the weekend.

She then closed the door behind him, leaving Greg by himself in the corridor. 

In the quiet, a little numb, he fished his phone from inside his jacket and switched it back on. He always felt a bit disconnected after these sessions. It was odd to find himself back in the world, and he never quite knew if the hour had been good or not. He supposed it wasn't the point that he should always leave Ananya's office feeling good. Slow progress over the rolling weeks and months was more important.

Coffee would help to settle him. He had nothing else to do with the day after all. He'd promised Reece and Danny an Xbox rematch after tea, but otherwise his afternoon was wide open. 

As his homescreen loaded, he discovered two texts from his sister: one asking if he'd mind popping into Sainsbury's on his way home, picking up a bottle of fabric softener; another an hour later, saying she'd found some in the back of the cupboard.

Greg smiled a little, tapping in his reply. You sure? Don't mind getting some more. Anything else? xx

At the squeak of a nearby door, he glanced instinctively towards the sound. He didn't want to be in someone's way, loitering in the corridor on his phone like a teenager.

As he realised who was appearing, stepping into the corridor with kettle in hand, Greg's heart seemed to drop from the sky.

Oh—

Oh, Christ—

Mycroft's glance skimmed him there. His face opened in the patient and friendly politeness one gave a stranger in one's path—then he recognised Greg, and he froze. Their gazes locked.

Greg closed his mouth, his hand seized tight around his phone.

"Holy shit," he breathed before he could think. He swallowed quickly, trying to pull his face into some shape that felt halfway to normal. "H-Hi."

Mycroft seemed to lose consciousness for a second. His gaze flickered behind his glasses, fogging, struggling for speech.

He tightened his grip on his kettle and inhaled.