Two weeks before his fiftieth birthday, Mycroft Holmes informs all those agencies which consult with him on a regular basis that between the hours of five PM on Friday and nine AM on Monday, he no longer exists. He is to be considered as far out of reach as if abducted by aliens. He will answer no phone calls and reply to no e-mails. He will attend no meetings. Unless the country is ablaze, the people are rioting in the streets and civilisation itself is on the brink of collapse, it can wait until Monday morning, at which point he will reappear in existence as scheduled.
No explanation is given for this change.
The agencies affected are told that if they can't adapt to the new constraints on Mr Holmes's time, they're more than welcome to seek out an alternative consultant—someone who can do for them all the minor tasks that he does.
The agencies adapt. Mr Holmes's personnel records are updated. The highest level of security is placed upon an unassuming one-bedroom flat in Kensington, and the new measures come into effect.
Scribbled clandestinely on the back of a coffee shop loyalty card, kept safe and sound in Anthea's purse, is a landline phone number.
"In dire need," Mr Holmes says on that very first Friday evening, handing it over at two minutes to five. "By dire," he adds, fixing Anthea with his stare, "I mean dire. If the consequences don't include immediate, wide-scale disaster, don't even entertain the thought."
Anthea simply nods, tucks the dog-eared card amongst her others, and wishes him a pleasant weekend.
He returns on Monday morning on the dot of nine o'clock, looking delightfully well-rested in a new suit which matches his eyes. He greets Anthea with a smile, enquires politely after her weekend, and hangs up his coat with something dangerously approaching a flourish.
He hums a small tune as he makes his own tea.
Anthea recognises it, intrigued, as the chorus of a popular love song that's recently been in the charts.
She later finds a receipt in his coat pocket for groceries from Waitrose, including a bottle of red wine and a sharing dessert of chocolate profiteroles. At lunchtime, he produces a chicken salad sandwich she is absolutely certain he did not make. There appears to be a note hidden inside the bag. He reads it several times as he eats, pink-cheeked and with his eyes aglitter.
Happy and peaceful months begin to pass.
It's almost a year later that the unthinkable occurs. The crisis rears its head from nowhere one Friday, barely an hour after Mr Holmes leaves the office. It escalates at a speed that Anthea can barely follow, let alone control. By eight o'clock, it's clear that an intervention now by Mr Holmes will save them months—if not years—of irreversible consequences. Their window of opportunity is starting to close. Anthea doesn't dare wait until morning, let alone until Monday.
With trepidation, she slides the faded loyalty card from her purse and finds a quiet corner of an unused Whitehall office.
The phone rings five times before it is picked up. A male voice, far too casual and friendly to be Mr Holmes, answers. "Yep?"
Anthea breathes in, steadying herself. "Hello," she says. "Please forgive the late call. I'm afraid I need to speak with Mr Holmes."
"Anthea, right?" says the voice, amused. That playful edge of a London accent seems suddenly familiar. In her state of quiet panic, Anthea can't quite bring to mind a matching face, but she's certain that she's heard this man speak before. "Do you mind if I check it's important?"
"Of course not. And yes, it is extremely urgent."
"Right. No worries." The voice on the phone changes, moved some distance from the receiver. "Myc?" comes the call. Anthea's heart detonates on the spot. "You'd better come, treacle."
In the short stretch of silence which follows, Anthea neither moves nor breathes. She was already struggling to function. This isn't the time to be contemplating the fact that Mr Holmes definitely, absolutely spends his weekends in the company of an easy-voiced male Londoner who calls him treacle.
There comes a soft scuffing sound over the line, then Mr Holmes's distinct intake of breath.
"Dire need?" he checks.
"Yes, sir," Anthea replies. "I can bring the papers and your laptop to you."
"Do so," Mr Holmes says, simply. "It's flat number seven. Hold the buzzer down. It takes a moment to work."
He hangs up.
With her stomach and her heart now in her mouth, Anthea calls for a car.
Flat number seven is up three flights of stairs. Anthea hurries up them in her heels, out of breath and rather shaky, attempting to prepare herself mentally for whatever she is about to learn of Mr Holmes's personal life. She's almost relieved to be making this discovery at a time of crisis. It leaves little time for speculation or intrigue. The only option ahead of her is to accept the facts one by one as they are revealed and move on, however startling they might be. It's a surprise to learn that Mr Holmes has some kind of private interest in other men—but only in that it's a surprise to learn he has any private interest in anyone. Anthea would have been equally as shocked to hear a woman get away with calling him Myc. She's already starting to wonder if she misheard.
It feels bizarre to knock on such an ordinary door in search of Mr Holmes. This whole building is astonishingly normal; nothing about this place says that a man of almost limitless power resides here.
After a few tense moments, a key rattles around inside the lock. Anthea inhales, reminding her face to reflect no hint of surprise, no matter what her eyes might see. A second lock is undone, then a deadbolt is drawn—and then the door creaks open.
A familiar face appears within the gap.
Anthea's hands tighten into balls at her sides. It's the only way she can stop herself from gasping out loud. It takes all of her strength and composure to greet the poor man normally, as if this moment means nothing whatsoever to her.
"Inspector Lestrade," she says, hardly recognising her own voice. Thoughts and questions explode inside her head. "Good evening."
Lestrade smiles in bemusement at her, his dark eyes playful and bright. He's dressed for a cosy Friday evening at home: loose jeans, a dark grey v-neck jumper with a white t-shirt underneath it, striped red socks upon the laminate floor. The man is aging like a good tempranillo, only rendered yet more handsome by each new streak of silver through his hair. The warm air which escapes from the flat behind him smells of roasting herbs and tomato, and Anthea is starving in an instant.
"I'm so sorry to intrude," she says through instinct, still struggling to process this revelation. She didn't realise Mr Holmes was even in contact with Lestrade. Several years ago, Lestrade point-blank refused an offer of money in exchange for information on Mr Holmes's wayward brother. To Anthea's knowledge, they've spoken only rarely since. Clearly her knowledge was severely incomplete. "Is, erm—is Mr Holmes...?"
"Come on in," Lestrade says, smiling, and he holds the door open for her to pass. "Living room's first on the right."
Flustered, Anthea manages a small smile and a little nod. Her heels click nervously on the floor as she makes her way along a short hallway, lined with photograph frames she doesn't dare to glance at. Living together, she thinks wildly, trying to understand it as her heart thumps in her ears. Are they—? She supposes it's none of her business. This is Mr Holmes's private residence; Inspector Lestrade lives here, too. These are the facts and the rest is hardly relevant. Making her way over to the first right hand doorway, Anthea takes a tentative glance inside.
It could be any couple's living room anywhere in the world—framed photos all around the walls; mismatched cushions in the armchairs and a throw rug to warm up the laminate flooring; a large square coffee table, where sits an open bottle of red wine and a half-full glass. The small lamps are switched on, the main light switched off. A film is underway on the television, an old vintage classic in black and white, presumably switched to mute in the last few seconds.
Sitting on the sofa, looking thoroughly unimpressed, is a man who bears only the vaguest physical resemblance to Anthea's employer. He doesn't dress like Mr Holmes. He doesn't wear his hair like Mr Holmes. He doesn't even sit like Mr Holmes. He's in dark-coloured jeans and an untucked white shirt with the sleeves rolled back to the elbow, his socked feet gathered beneath him on the couch. His hair is still damp after a recent shower, left to dry in unwaxed, finger-combed waves. He holds a glass of red wine very loosely in one hand.
Sprawled across his lap, fast asleep, is an enormous ginger cat.
"I'm looking forward to hearing your definition of 'dire'," he says in clipped tones, and Anthea's pulse stutters to a halt. That is Mycroft Holmes's voice—and those are Mycroft Holmes's eyes. There's no mistaking that narrowed, wintry grey stare. It's him. It's Mr Holmes. It's simply a version of him that, five seconds ago, she would never have believed could exist. "I'll also remind you that your contract contains an eye-watering number of confidentiality clauses," Mr Holmes adds, regarding her closely. "Clauses which carry a penalty of instant dismissal for violation."
Anthea swallows, rescuing her voice from the pit of her stomach.
"Of course, sir," she says. She forces her eyes to stay on his and not stray to the cat on his lap—nor to his left hand, which is absently tending the fur on the feline's belly. "I'm very familiar with the terms of my contract."
"I'm pleased to hear," Mr Holmes says, frowning. "I'm sure I don't need to impress upon you that this is a—"
"Myc?" Lestrade calls from another room, where boiling pans and the clatter of cutlery can also be heard. "Are you eating now, or shall I box yours up and nuke it when you're done?"
A muscle twitches in Mr Holmes's cheek. Still staring at Anthea, he raises his voice and responds to Lestrade.
"I'll eat now," he says. "You've worked on it." He adds to Anthea at normal volume: "Instant dismissal."
Anthea nods, ignoring the mini-riot now taking place inside her brain.
"Yes, sir," she says. "I understand." She unzips the laptop bag she's brought with her, kneels beside the coffee table and awkwardly opens up Mr Holmes's laptop, arranging it to sit beside the bottle of wine. It seems better to get on with things than risk letting her eyes start to wander. She's so desperate to look around, to gaze at all their photographs and see what DVDs are on the shelf. If she doesn't distract herself with work, she'll lose her mind. "We had a first report not long after five, suggesting that a situation is developing in the south of..."
Mr Holmes listens as she explains the situation, stirring his fingertips through the sleeping cat's fur. He makes no comment until he has all the facts before him, at which point he braces himself with a sigh.
"Very well," he says. "You're correct that this is better dealt with now. We'll quench the fire in our own house first, then we'll turn to the fallout with Zakharov. Open a new email—I'll dictate this to you for speed—"
Halfway through, Lestrade joins them in the lounge. He says nothing as he strolls in, apparently quite at ease with Mr Holmes guiding the course of global relations from their sofa. He pads across the floor to the couch, places a steaming bowl of pasta and meatballs into Mr Holmes's hands, then leans down and kisses him—just once—upon the forehead. Mr Holmes's dictation barely skips. He blinks at the little kiss, retrieves his train of thought and flows onwards, his sentence unbroken.
Inwardly dying a silent and beautiful death, Anthea keeps her eyes to herself and continues typing.
As Lestrade settles down on the couch, the large pile of orange fur in Mr Holmes's lap gives a stir. It uncurls with an impressive stretch, squirming and flexing out the soft pink pads of its toes. After a sleepy yawn, the cat lifts its nose into the air and sniffs, looking around for the source of the tantalising smell. It plants a hopeful paw against the underside of Mr Holmes's pasta bowl and chirps.
Quickly smothering a smile, Lestrade reaches out to tickle the cat beneath the chin, catching its attention.
"Not now," he chides softly. "He's working."
The cat lets out a long meow, as if questioning why exactly that should matter. Anthea screws her toes into the ends of her shoes to stop herself from smiling, typing valiantly.
"I know you're more important," Lestrade murmurs in undertones, coaxing the hungry feline over to his half of the couch with a small piece of meatball. Stocky ginger paws march their way from Mr Holmes's lap to Lestrade's, leaving behind a large amount of shed orange hairs. "Come over here and pester me, mm?" Lestrade says. "Papa'll give you fuss in a minute."
Mycroft's focus finally cracks. He stops mid-sentence, his forehead crumpling, and casts Lestrade a look of fond despair along the couch. "Thank you for revealing that to my assistant."
"What? 'Papa'? What else is the cat gonna call you? And Anthea doesn't care—do you, Anthea?"
"Not at all, inspector."
"See? Now get on with saving the world," Lestrade says, grinning. "Me and Tigger'll negotiate how many meatballs you owe him, and you can settle the balance later."
Anthea nearly expires. Christ, she thinks. It's called Tigger. She needs to know at once who named the cat. She hopes to God that Mr Holmes did. Tigger the cat has now made itself very comfy on Lestrade's knee, sprawled out and gazing at Anthea with interested, honey-gold eyes, wondering who is this unfamiliar person come to visit them.
"Are you sure Anthea can't have some food?" Lestrade asks, before Mr Holmes can even draw breath to continue dictation. "I bet she's been too busy sorting all this out to get any food. She'll be starving."
The corners of Mr Holmes's mouth tighten, visibly fighting a smile. He seems to be trying to tell Lestrade something with his eyes alone, something glittering and rather soft.
"I'm sure she'll cope, darling," he says. Anthea forces herself not to react. It's a sportive darling, perhaps even a semi-ironic darling, but it's not a joke. She's instantly willing to bet that there are tender, non-ironic darlings once company has left.
Lestrade tuts. "Here," he says, leans over the coffee table and passes Anthea his food. "Hold this for me a minute. I'll fetch you a bowl of your own. Don't let Tigger at my wine, Myc."
Tigger chirps. As Lestrade leaves the lounge, Tigger half-rolls and half-slithers down from the couch and hurries to follow, his orange tail perked high and his pawsteps light on the laminate floor.
In the quiet left behind, Mr Holmes glances into Anthea's eyes. Anthea looks back at him as blankly as she can, as if nothing whatsoever is happening in her head.
Mr Holmes draws a breath, preparing himself.
"You are permitted three questions," he says, "and three questions only. Ask now, and ask quickly, before I change my mind."
Anthea doesn't waste even a second. "Who named the cat?"
Mr Holmes's mouth twitches again, fighting humour. "The rescue centre from which he joined us," he says. "Neither of us had any inclination to alter it."
"Which of you first suggested... socialising?"
Mr Holmes draws a breath, his eyebrows lifting faintly. "Gregory did," he says, as if it still seems a little unreal to him. "At first I suspected a prank or a joke of some kind, but he was persistent. Before you waste your third question, I'll freely volunteer that we had dinner together on a number of Friday evenings, then he asked me to join him for a weekend out of London. The rest unfolded from there."
"Can I—this is perhaps too much," Anthea says in a rush, her cheeks colouring, "but can I just confirm you... the two of you are a couple? A couple-couple? You're... together, in all of the usual and traditional ways?"
Mr Holmes moves something about his mouth, something which puts a spark of amusement into his eyes.
"It is a one-bedroom flat," he says simply. "Congratulations for wasting your third question."
Anthea tries her hardest to ignore the glow of warmth this causes. She doesn't know why it makes her so incandescently happy—why she loves that it seems obvious to him they share a bed, or that Lestrade cooks Mr Holmes enough food to have a portion going spare, or that their rescue cat picks Mr Holmes for fuss and titbits first. She doesn't know if she'll be able to push all this from her mind.
"I'm glad," she says, without meaning to. "I'm glad you're..." Flushing, she composes herself and picks her words. "I'll ensure your private life stays private, sir. I promise. I understand now why you've been protective."
Mr Holmes huffs. His eyes stray towards the door, following his family. "I dislike the thought of anything reaching him. He hardly requires my protection, of course. A very decorated officer. More than capable of looking after himself."
Mr Holmes pauses, thinking something.
"I didn't expect to receive this chance," he says at last. "It's... quite a wonder to me, to be frank. I certainly never looked for it. The course of my life seemed rather set in stone. Then... well, then I found myself compelled to rethink."
Anthea listens without speaking, her heart beating hard.
Mr Holmes carries on as if he can't quite keep this in.
"I decided at an early stage that if I was going to embark on this," he says, "I should commit to it fully, give it every chance of success. I'm... extremely grateful to him. For his patience. For his faith. I haven't much that I can offer in return. But I can safeguard our time together, and make sure it belongs to him first and foremost. And he seems to feel like that's enough."
Anthea's heart gently breaks. She lifts a hand to her chest, resting it there a moment.
As Mr Holmes glances down at the bowl of pasta in his lap, a shadow of a smile plays around his mouth.
"Read that email back to me, will you?" he asks, picking up his fork. He tangles a few strands of spaghetti around the tines. "We'll give them twenty minutes to respond, then I'll start making calls. I imagine they'll back down as soon as Beijing get involved."
By eleven o'clock, the situation is in its embers. A few smoking holes will wait until Monday, and a few political favours are now owed, but the British public will never know one detail of the disaster they were spared. Tomorrow's newspapers will run as expected with some pot-boiling story about a Hollywood actor's divorce. A quiet weekend in London has begun, and the city is settling down to sleep.
Mr Holmes and Greg both see Anthea to the door, Tigger trotting happily after them.
"Make a note of the time you've spent, won't you?" Mr Holmes says, unlocking and opening the door. After several hours together, the sight of his bare forearms no longer seems obscene. The photographs in the hallway show him and Greg on holiday together in various European cities, beaming in sunglasses, sandals and shorts. Mr Holmes is so pale in the sun that he almost glows, but he looks ten years younger when he's laughing. "Take it in lieu at some point," he says. "We'll finish at noon on Friday, perhaps."
Anthea smiles as she steps out onto the landing.
"I'll make a note," she says. She kneels down to tickle Tigger under his chin; he hops his front feet, bumping his head against her hand. "Good night, Tigger. Thank you for letting me intrude on your papas."
Tigger swirls himself between his fathers' legs, smoothing a few more scattered strands of orange fur over Mycroft's dark navy jeans. As his tail hooks around Mycroft's shin, he casts his gaze upwards and blinks.
Mycroft visibly fights a smile, looking down at him. "Say goodnight, Tigger."
Tigger chirps, butting his head against Greg's leg.
Greg gives a chuckle. "Sure you don't need a lift, Anthea?" he asks, sliding his arm around Mr Holmes's waist. Mycroft settles in against his shoulder. "I don't mind taking you. Wouldn't be a problem."
It's hard not to glow. They look so happy together, two perfectly ordinary men and their cat. Anthea almost doesn't want to leave. This might be the last glimpse she ever gets of Mycroft Holmes's soul, and it seems sad to say goodbye to it so soon.
"I'll be alright," she says. "The car should be here for me by now. Thank you, though. It's very kind."
"No worries," Greg says. His eyes are bright, his expression soft and proud. "Hey—we should all go out for dinner one Friday. I could fetch Sally," he adds, glancing at Mycroft. "I reckon she and Anthea would get on, don't you? Might be fun, the four of us. Few drinks and a meal somewhere nice."
Anthea's heart squeezes. She takes a small breath, trying to think of something to say which will allow Mr Holmes to close down this suggestion—something gracious and charmingly regretful, something clean. She doesn't want him to feel obliged to open his sanctuary to her.
Before she can speak, Mr Holmes gives a hum. "I think they'd get on very well," he says, looking up at his partner. "We'll have to arrange something."
Greg's smile broadens. "Cross our fingers for a quiet week?"
"Yes. Let's." Mr Holmes turns his eyes to Anthea, and there's something very calm about his expression—something simple and unguarded, his tone unweighted by anything in particular. "Do you have plans for next weekend?"
In a flash, Anthea realises the significance of the look. There's no hint or warning to be found in his face, no guiding in any direction. The question is genuine and open. If she doesn't want to socialise outside of work, she can turn this offer down on the excuse of unspecified 'plans'—and she's quite certain that, if she did, no further pressure would ever be applied. Mr Holmes is allowing her a chance to establish the borders of her own private life, to discreetly and politely exclude him from it if she wishes, with no hard feelings accrued.
At the same time, he's proposing a date. This is more than a theoretical idea, more than humouring his partner in broad and unspecified terms for the sake of politeness. He's holding Anthea's gaze, perfectly steady as he waits for her to decide. Whatever she decides, it seems he'll be content.
Anthea squeezes her phone inside her coat pocket.
"I think I'm free," she says, smiling a little shyly. "I'll check my diary. Will you remind me on Monday, please?"
Mr Holmes's eyes glitter. He understands: if he means it, he's to repeat the offer on Monday, and at that time she will formally accept. This is the agreement. All parties are on board.
"I shall," he says, looking quietly pleased. "Until Monday, then."
"Yes—good night, sir. Good night, inspector. Thank you very much for dinner."
Lestrade drops Anthea a wink. "Greg's fine," he says. "And you're welcome. Thanks for keeping him sane during the week." He kisses Mr Holmes on the side of the head. "I think the two of us are doing a half decent job of looking after him these days. Wouldn't you say, darlin'?"
Delighted, Anthea blushes—but not nearly as much as Mr Holmes. He turns pink almost at once, reddening to the ears as he fondly submits to his partner's affectionate hug.
"Ludicrous man," he mumbles. "Far better than 'half decent'."
It's so strange to see him in a suit again. As Anthea sets down his usual nine o'clock coffee, she can't help but miss the sight of his unwaxed hair. What she's looking at now is a work uniform—a well-tailored and expensive uniform, but a uniform nevertheless. If she hadn't witnessed it all with her own two eyes, she wouldn't have believed that there's more to his world. Along with everyone else, she'd still be picturing him having his dinner in silence at the Diogenes each night, a political machine whose mental accuity can't possibly leave room for any interest in human companionship.
She was so convinced, and so wrong.
As the coffee cup clinks gently against its saucer, Mr Holmes inclines his head towards her.
"Do you have a pleasant weekend?" he asks, glancing up from his emails.
Anthea smiles, adjusting the angle of the cup towards him. "I did. Quiet, but sometimes that's ideal. Did you?"
"Mm, very pleasant." Mr Holmes clicks through to the next email, reading it absent-mindedly as he speaks. "Gregory's sergeant is free for dinner on Saturday evening, if you are. I've booked a table at a rather nice Italian in Soho. Do let me know."
Something in Anthea's chest squirms happily, thrilled to be reassured so soon.
"And... you'd be happy?" she checks. "For us to socialise outside of work, I mean?"
It earns her an amused glance, the corners of his mouth curving upwards. He's in there, Anthea realises—the man she met three days ago. He's not quite in plain sight, but she can see him still.
"I feared you'd lose respect for me," he says, watching her. "I thought you'd be disappointed to discover I have a human heart. As it is, you seem rather enchanted."
Anthea can't really deny that. She's thought about little else all weekend, still thrilled by the thought of Mr Holmes asleep in the arms of his partner, their fat orange cat curled up at the end of the bed.
"I have the greatest of respect for you, Mr Holmes," she says. "I always will. I realise the world can be terribly cruel at times. Our profession in particular places little value on having a human heart. But I'm delighted that you're happy, and now I understand how hard you work to protect your family, I only admire you more."
Mr Holmes's eyes glitter quietly. He reaches for his coffee cup, lifting it to his lips.
"Shall I tell Gregory you'll be joining us on Saturday?" he asks.
Excited already, Anthea smiles. "I'd love to," she says. "Thank you very much for inviting me. Let me know a time and an address, and I shall be there."
"Excellent. That's settled, then." Mr Holmes takes a careful sip of coffee, testing its heat and finding it satisfactory. As Anthea turns to leave, he adds, "I, ah... I'm unsure how to ask you this discreetly, but I've been told I'm to try my very best. Gregory's sergeant separated from her wife about two years ago, and Gregory now seems to be endeavouring to source her a replacement. Shall I warn him you're not to be considered a viable candidate?"
It's such a charming way to be asked that Anthea can't help but laugh, curiously flattered to have been floated as a possible match. She hasn't kissed another girl since boarding school; her focus since then has been on establishing a career instead of meeting people and dating. Men are fun enough for a few weeks, but domesticating and properly house-training one seems to take so much effort and time. It's never once been worth it.
Perhaps another woman would be simpler—and a nice police detective has certainly done Mr Holmes a world of good.
Blushing, Anthea responds as discreetly as she can. "Please tell Greg that I'll decline to sign any marriage contracts just now, but... well, I'm sure I could be talked into a drink."
Mr Holmes sips his coffee with a nod, amused. "I will relay that message."
"Is his sergeant nice?"
"She's very nice. A little guarded, perhaps, but aren't we all? Tigger certainly took to her, and he's usually an excellent judge."
Smiling, Anthea gathers up the finished pile of folders in Mr Holmes's out-tray. "Well, sir, if she has Tigger's approval, then I very much look forward to meeting her. Shall I call you when your ten o'clock visitor arrives?"
"Mm. Please." As Anthea reaches the doorway, Mr Holmes says from behind her, "Anthea?"
Anthea turns. "Yes, sir?"
A small smile warms the stony grey of his eyes. "I'd like to think that we've concluded 'sir'. Perhaps simply Mycroft will do."
Carefully hugging the folders, Anthea gives a nod. "Mycroft," she says. It's the first time she's ever used his name. "Of course. Let me know when you'd like another coffee."
"I will," he says. "Thank you."
Anthea lets herself out of the office.
As she strolls along the corridor back towards her desk, she finds that her footsteps are light on the parquet floor. There's a feeling in her chest like a love song is playing, a sensation of softness and expansion, and it makes her want to hum and smile. She isn't herself in love—but she's in love with the presence of love. She's joyful for the coming of joy.
She starts her work for the day with a smile, wondering what the future will bring.