Anthea narrows her eyes. It would be imperceptible to anyone other than Mycroft.
"Are you sure you aren't hungry, sir?" she asks. Mycroft fixes her with his sternest look.
"Yes," he says.
Sherlock storms off, coat swirling behind him in a manner that reminds Mycroft of smoke and villains. John looks at him, worried. Mycroft isn't sure why. Sherlock's insults were no worse than usual, even if they were spiked by withdrawal. They're not quite water off a duck's back, of course. More like oil on water.
"Are you OK?" questions John.
"Yes," says Mycroft.
The Inspector spots him over the scattering of forensic investigators and Mycroft flushes like a schoolgirl caught staring at the boy across the room with a broken pocket mirror. His walk is determined, confident. He knows what he's doing. Mycroft envies him. Lestrade stops in front of Mycroft, folding his arms. Mycroft swallows.
"Are you allowed to be here?" asks the Inspector. Even his suspicion is intriguing. Mycroft wonders if he knows it.
"Yes," answers Mycroft.
The Korean dignitary sweeps out of the room, promising to take this to the next level. Mycroft closes the door behind him and slumps at his desk, ironing out a small crease in his sleeve with his fingers. He can't remember the last time he slept. He thinks it may have been three days ago. A day after he last ate, anyway. There's a knock at the door and Anthea walks in, pristine in black. She looks at him above her Blackberry.
"Are you wanting to go home yet, sir?" she asks.
Mycroft thinks about his bed. He thinks about the situation between France and Germany and the paperwork relating to Luxembourg and the meeting with the Belgians.
"No," he replies.
Sherlock isn't in a coma, but he's not far from it. Where he's usually pale, he's snow white, apart from his eyes, which are red rimmed above black bruise-like shadows. John hands Mycroft a cup of tea, all water and skimmed milk, and starts pacing frantically. Mycroft wonders if he feels guilty.
John bites his lip.
"I wish we could do something," he says, sitting next to Mycroft. Mycroft hums in agreement. He's too tired to say anything else. John looks at him properly. "You haven't been sitting here since he was admitted, have you?" he asks.
Mycroft doesn't want to cause any unnecessary worry. It's only been four days.
"No," he says.
Anthea sighs as she hands him the Japanese file.
"You will go home after this, won't you?" she asks. The omission of 'sir' is more telling than Mycroft would like to admit.
The Inspector runs a hand through his salt and pepper hair as he walks out of Sherlock's hospital room. Mycroft is thankful he was able to pull enough strings to ensure his brother was allowed a private room. Withdrawal spares no-one its humiliation. Not even a Holmes.
Lestrade looks squarely at Mycroft. Mycroft feels his pulse quicken. He tells himself it's his diet of black coffee and not the Inspector's look.
"Have we met?" asks Lestrade, furrowing his brow. "You look familiar."
Mycroft's heart sinks. Perhaps it's for the best.
His mother sighs. Mycroft can't see her but he can almost hear her inspecting her fingernails with boredom. He shifts the phone to his other hand and signs his name on a document that looks like another document that closely resembles another one.
"Tell Sherlock I called, won't you?" his mother says. Mycroft thinks of the time she discovered a needle in Sherlock's room and how that room had become the guest bedroom within a week.
"Yes," he lies.
John eases himself onto the sofa next to Mycroft, handing him a mug of coffee. It's milkier than Mycroft likes it but he accepts it congenially.
"Thanks for all this," says John. "Never thought I'd say it, but Sherlock really needs you."
"I know," Mycroft replies. Neither says anything for a while.
"Hey, have you met Greg?" John asks suddenly. Mycroft feels slightly faint. John smiles but it looks like it's an effort. "Not asking to be weird or anything, don't worry. He just mentioned that he'd seen a tall bloke with a brolly outside Sherlock's room, wondered if I knew who it was. I assumed it was you. You've met him, then?"
Mycroft doesn't want to admit to having been forgotten. He takes a sip of the scalding coffee.
The French Minister narrows his eyes. Mycroft blinks sharply. He must have drifted off. The Minister motions to the file he's pushed across the table towards Mycroft.
"Are you listening?" he asks.
Mycroft regards him coolly. He hopes the lighting eliminates the tired smudges under his eyes.
"Yes," he says.
Sherlock is discharged after twenty-three days. It feels like it's been a year. Mycroft sits next to him in the black car on the drive back to Baker Street. His brother, once lean and lithe in a healthy manner, is now wisp-thin. Mycroft wonders if he'll break again.
The car turns onto Baker Street. Sherlock shifts awkwardly in his coat, now at least two sizes too large.
"Thank you," he mutters.
"Not at all," Mycroft says. The car pulls to a stop and Sherlock undoes his seatbelt. Mycroft does the same. Sherlock looks at him and there's a flame of his old contempt that Mycroft thought had been smothered by the ashes of his relapse. It's at once both reassuring and devastating.
"You'd rather escort me inside, I presume?" Sherlock says, a bite to his tone that Mycroft hadn't expected or hoped for. His stomach twists into a knot and it's not just hunger.
Mycroft has cleared his schedule as much as he possibly can, so he's surprised by the knock on his door. He clears his throat, scratchy and sore from the snatch of unfulfilling sleep he'd managed this morning.
"Come in," he says. The door is pushed open and Inspector Lestrade walks in. Mycroft is suddenly very conscious that his tie is askew, his suit jacket undone, his shirt untucked and crumpled. He swallows and attempts to adjust his tie. Lestrade looks almost apologetic.
"Sorry if I disturbed you," he begins. Mycroft shakes his head.
"Not at all," he says. Lestrade smiles, his mouth upturning slightly, and Mycroft feels his pulse quicken. "I was just wondering if you were very busy today?"
Mycroft thinks of the four free hours he's planned, stretching ahead like a yawn in his diary. He thinks about spending time with Lestrade, moments that might mean nothing or something or everything if he allows it. He thinks about Sherlock, rattling around the empty flat while John works to make ends meet, recoup the money spent on addiction. He thinks about what he needs to do. It doesn't reconcile with what he wants. He swallows. It tastes bitter.
"Yes," he replies, trying to ignore the look of disappointment on Lestrade's face.
Sherlock has calmed down, but it's taken physical restraint, something Mycroft hasn't had to resort to since the first relapse. He's no longer pinning his brother to the floor, his arms loose around his shoulders but tight enough that it's not something Sherlock would usually allow. He can feel his brother's breath on his collarbone. It's not as warm as it should be.
"Do you have to go?" Sherlock asks.
Mycroft doesn't know what to think. It's not a cry for help, because Sherlock doesn't want help, doesn't need it, but what else could it be? It's so out of character that Mycroft wants to grab him by the shoulders, shake him, ask whatever's inside his brother to crawl out and give him back the boy who laughed at scuffed knees and cried at incorrect sums.
"No," he whispers. His stomach growls. Let it snarl.
The sky is overcast and threatening rain. Mycroft stands up from his desk and draws the curtains. He has had quite enough of being threatened. Spain is bullying Portugal. China is on the brink of civil war. Georgia and Russia are quarrelling. John – ever-patient John – is growing weary of Sherlock.
"Sir," she says, firmly. "I know it's not my place to say it, but you need to go home. These things can wait one more day. You can't. You need to rest, to eat."
Mycroft doesn't need anything. Other things need Mycroft.
"I have," he says smoothly. Anthea narrows her eyes. She sets her Blackberry down on the table. She looks naked without it. Mycroft briefly wonders if she has anyone who sees her as a friend and not an assistant, someone who calls her by her real name.
"Really?" she asks. Mycroft sets his features into the stony mask he's become renowned for.
'Hi, Mycroft. It's Greg. Well, Inspector Lestrade. Got your number off John, hope that's OK. Just texting to ask if you were free at some point in the near future. There's something I wanted to talk to you about. Something sort of Sherlock related, but also sort of not. Oh. Haha, I'd better check this is actually your number, really. OK. Is this the phone of Mycroft Holmes? – GL'
'Sorry, no. Wrong number.'
John bursts into Mycroft's office, red-faced and out of breath. Alarm bells ring. Mycroft drops the folder he's holding and reaches for his coat.
"It's happened again," John manages to say. "Can you come?"
Mycroft can't. He grabs his umbrella and shrugs on his coat.
The bed next to Sherlock in the ward is empty today. It wasn't yesterday. Sherlock's landlady – Mrs Hudson, Mycroft remembers – is holding Sherlock's hand.
"I don't understand why he does it," she says, shaking her head. "Do you?"
Mycroft thinks about a dinner table with an empty seat at the far end, Christmas mornings spent in silence and tea parties with rag dolls in the attic.
The receptionist at Scotland Yard – Helen, her name badge reads – is small and sympathetic.
"Are you sure you don't want me to leave a message?" she asks again.
"Yes," says Mycroft.
Sherlock frowns. That in itself is not unusual. The fact that this frown is not directed at anyone but himself, however, is. It's the furrow of uncertainty on his brow that makes for an unfamiliar sight.
"It was an accident," he's saying. Mycroft thinks he's saying it as much to himself as anyone. Sherlock looks up at Mycroft. "You know it was an accident, don't you?"
Mycroft inspects the blanket at the foot of Sherlock's bed. It's old and frayed. Perhaps he should schedule a meeting with the NHS board of directors.
The Inspector folds his arms.
"I've been trying to get hold of you for ages, you know," he says. Mycroft feels more than slightly cornered. Lestrade's stance is not one that suggests he'll back down easily. He sinks a little further into the plastic hospital chair.
"I've been incredibly busy," Mycroft lies. Lestrade scoffs.
"Yeah, right. Too busy to talk to the one guy who seems to be bothering to talk to you."
Mycroft raises an eyebrow. He doesn't like the intimation.
"I am fine," he says. Lestrade raises his eyebrows. He's not buying it.
"You haven't been eating or sleeping at all, have you? And don't say you have, because I used to work 25 hour shifts 8 days a week and I know that look."
Mycroft doesn't respond. Lestrade sighs and takes the seat next to him.
"Look, I'm not having a go," he says. "But Sherlock isn't alone. John's here, I come by when I can. You can go home, Mycroft. You know that, right?"
Mycroft likes the way his name sounds on Lestrade's tongue, but that's not important.
"Yes," he says.
John looks apologetic.
"It's not that he doesn't want to see you," he says, closing the door to 221B – and a sulking Sherlock - behind him. "He's just tired."
Mycroft shrugs noncommittally. He would have been foolish to hope for anything more.
"I see," he replies, tightly. "Tell him I'll call again tomorrow."
John nods. "I will. And don't take it personally, OK?"
"No, I won't," Mycroft responds.
Lestrade looks at him over his wine glass.
"I'm glad you agreed to come," he says. "Means I can make sure you're actually eating."
Mycroft doesn't respond. He pushes a piece of chicken around his plate. Lestrade puts down his fork.
"He wouldn't see me either, if that's what you're worrying about," he adds. Mycroft shrugs. "Is that the reason you're being so..." He gesticulates vaguely, leaving the sentence unfinished. He doesn't need to say it. Mycroft knows he doesn't make for particularly scintillating company in the aftermath of a conflict with his brother. The issues at work aren't helping, either. Nor is the fact that he hasn't slept in a week and he wants nothing more than to eat the meal Lestrade has cooked but he doesn't eat in public and he wants to tell Lestrade this and everything else.
"Yes," he says.
He wakes up at his desk, the impression of his suit sleeve in his skin across his face. Bleary-eyed, he looks up at Anthea. She raises an eyebrow.
"Perhaps now you'll listen to me," she says. "Please go home, sir," she adds, more gently.
"I will," says Mycroft.
Sherlock is pouting like an insolent child, but John isn't giving up.
"Great, now say it like you mean it," he tells him. Sherlock sighs dramatically and fixes Mycroft with a doe-eyed, saccharine look of faux-adoration.
"I'm sorry, Mycroft. You are the best brother an addict could ever ask for." He turns to John. "Will that do, mother?"
John rubs a hand through his hair and looks at Mycroft.
"He does mean it, you know," he says.
"I know," says Mycroft.
Lestrade laughs suddenly.
"You've honestly been thinking of me as Lestrade this whole time?" he asks, smiling. "We've known each other for months now. Granted, we've only met up a few times, but really? Lestrade? Christ. I should call you Holmes."
Mycroft feels something inside him loosen, the tension in his muscles unknotting. He doesn't know anyone else who has this effect on him. It's a welcome change from associating with people who make his blood pressure soar.
"But really," Gregory continues. "I'd sort of assumed we were friends. You're cool with that, right?"
It will suffice, thinks Mycroft.
Watching Sherlock at the crime scene is like watching someone coming home after decades away, Mycroft thinks. He navigates the few scraps of evidence with ease, delivers insults to trainees with enough barb to sting but not to wound, breaks the rules of crime procedure and ultimately names Derek Stockway – the victim's uncle and a man with an apparently cast-iron alibi – as the culprit. Gregory brushes past Mycroft on his way to chide Sherlock about his etiquette and praise him for returning to form, and Mycroft imagines that the touch lingers longer than it does. John sighs.
"He's a bastard, your brother, but I'm bloody glad for it today," he says. Mycroft nods in agreement. Gregory is standing next to Sherlock, his hands on his hips as he watches Sherlock who is on hands and knees next to the body, excitedly pointing out that her wedding ring is the best piece of evidence they have. Greg is listening intently, eyes focused on the other man completely, and Mycroft actually envies his brother.
John looks at him strangely.
"Are you all right?" he asks. Mycroft clears his throat.
"Yes, of course," he says.
Anthea smiles at him as he walks into the office at 11am, sheepish. He must have slept through his alarm. Six times.
"Good to see you back, sir," she says.
"Yes," says Mycroft. "It is."
John throws down the book he's been pretending to read for the past half hour – really, he hasn't turned the page once – and glares at Mycroft.
"I know I'm not some bloody detective genius like you or your brother," he cries. "But for the love of God, even I can see that you and Greg have been pussy-footing around each other like goodness-knows-what for the past six months. If one of you doesn't make a move, I am going to kill myself."
Mycroft raises an eyebrow. John turns bright red.
"OK, I could have phrased that better," he continues. "But my point still stands. Do something about it, bloody Hell. Please say you will."
Mycroft won't, because rejection isn't pleasant no matter how many times you've had to get used to it.
"Yes, I will," he says.
The crime scene isn't particularly bloody or gruesome, but the body bag is small and frail and a young couple stand next to it, weeping openly. Mycroft's heart knots. Greg sighs and drains the last dregs of muddy coffee from the polystyrene cup.
"Better go and explain things," he says, grimly. "Don't mind, do you?"
Mycroft wants to say that he admires the other man's dedication and courage, because Mycroft starts wars and ends conflict and negotiates with terrorists and makes peace but nothing he does is as hard as this, as what Greg has to do now. He doesn't say it. The words won't come, buried as they are beneath cowardice.
"I'm not going to do it again, you know." Sherlock's declaration is so sudden that Mycroft nearly falls off his chair, the silence broken by such a stark announcement.
"I see," Mycroft states. Sherlock rolls his eyes.
"No, you don't," he says. He looks at Mycroft, cat-like eyes at once both searching and fixed. It would be disconcerting were Mycroft anyone else. "I'm not going to do it again. Do you see now?"
It's as close to 'thank you' as he's going to get. He'll take it.
Greg looks shy, and Mycroft has never seen him like this before. He doesn't know what to make of it.
"Can I help you?" he asks.
Greg's eyes dart nervously to a point behind Mycroft's shoulder and then back to Mycroft. He looks uncertain. Mycroft is about to repeat the question when Greg's expression changes to become almost completely determined.
"Yes," he answers, and he grabs Mycroft by the lapels of his suit jacket and kisses him.
Greg's flat is small – 'poky', Mycroft thinks – and his bed creaks, but after a week, Mycroft barely notices it any more. A more romantic man would put it down to new love's bliss, or something equally trite. Mycroft attributes it to the fact that Greg's presence seems to fill every room he's in. Dimensions aren't important.
"I think I knew," says Greg. "When I saw you at the hospital, that time after I'd been trying to contact you for ages, and you looked completely lost. I wanted to help find you again." He yawns, stretches. "And you know, you don't tend to think that about people you aren't a bit in love with."
"No," he says.
It's been almost a year and Sherlock almost looks like himself again, if Mycroft pointedly ignores the fact that his cheekbones are slightly more angular than they should be and his shirts still gape at the sleeves. Mrs Hudson beams and, raising her voice to be heard over Sherlock's violin, says what Mycroft's been thinking.
"It's about time for a new year," she says. "This one's been a long time coming."
Greg catches Mycroft's eye across the room and raises his champagne glass slightly, smiling. Mycroft feels himself flush.
"Yes," Mycroft agrees. "Yes, it has."