He shrank even more about himself, curling up in his corner on the ragged blanket, unable to stop shaking. It was not as if it was very cold there. Not compared to the cold he had spent wandering the streets, alone, disoriented, hungry, and frightened, scavenging for food and trying to keep a low profile. People scared him, throwing stones at him or trying to kick him away. He had been nearly run over several times, and he wandered the streets for months, injured and terrified, not knowing what he had done wrong.
He had been caught a couple of weeks before and, although he was still very thin, he was being fed now and his wounds, although still painful, had been treated. The people who came in to check on him tried to look calm and spoke softly to him, trying to get him out of his apathy. Still, the distrust persisted and the sadness, fear, and anxiety didn't go away. The barking, howling, voices, and mixed odors from the outside didn't help either. Ignoring the woman who was talking to him, inviting him to finish his meal, he shuddered and closed his eyes, trying to make himself invisible in his corner, too tired even to grunt.
Leslie Evans watched the scene through the glass door with an expression of resigned sadness. She flashed a slight smile that was meant to be encouraging as the woman left the room, joining her. It was an essential part of the work, trying to cheer each other up. In the two years she had been there, she had seen a hundred volunteers leave, unable to bear the suffering and frustration.
- The little ones had already been fed. And Ross and Lua are ready to go to their new homes tomorrow. I hope it works this time. This will be the third home for Ross...
Susan Freeman nodded, giving him a little smile while looking at the shaky figure behind the glass. With her fragile, delicate appearance and an iron will, Leslie was one of his best volunteers. The girl followed her gaze.
- Are you sure there's nothing we can do?
Susan denied, regretfully.
- No. They're coming for him on Monday.
Leslie bit her lower lip, trying to quell the anger. There's no point in ranting about the stupid bloody laws. They were lucky they'd let them have him those days, saturated as they were in London, and allowed them to look after him.
Some would find it absurd that they would spend so many resources and time caring for an already doomed creature. But Susan would not look away, and if he had only a few days to live, she would try to make those days as good as possible, without pain, and feeling protected.
- He barely ate today. It's like she senses it, like she's already given up.
Susan sighed. Things didn't get any easier over the years. She couldn't give up, though. There were always others to help, others who needed saving. And speaking of which...
- Is everything ready to receive our guests?
The young woman smiled, looking up at her with bright eyes.
- Oh, yes. The girl from the association brought her in this morning. We left her in your office. He's a beautiful blonde and cheerful, she looks so healthy... Although it's a pity, we have many here...
- We don't all have the same needs. And sometimes we have to take care of people too.
- The mystery woman on the phone came too, in that big black car. She brought a supply van with them for all of us. She says not to hesitate to contact them if we need anything else. They're important, aren't they? People with money. I hope your plan works. And that they really don't forget us when they get what they want...
Susan smiled at his enthusiasm tinged with distrust. Yes, she understood, so many adoptions that were reversed at the last moment, so many returns, so many promises of financial aid that never materialized... However, she trusted the man. She looked at the clock, feeling more worried than she would ever admit. She had agreed to participate as a personal favor to his friend, not because of the promise of financial aid for the center, but if the guy was as smart as she had been told he was, she doubted it would work. And he knew only too well how counterproductive it was to deceive a wounded creature who had decided to trust you, even if it was for his own good.
- Okay, let's go. They'll be here soon.
With one last sad look around the room, they set about finishing their preparations.
Greg Lestrade smiled at the sensation of the sun on his face, trying to keep his nervousness away. Ever since they had left the city he had been fighting the urge to step on the gas, knowing that neither the man sitting rigidly beside him nor the government car which had been following at a safe distance would thank him. It was already a miracle that Mycroft had agreed to this visit, much more so that he had accepted that he and Greg were in the DI car, while the armoured car with its security team followed them. Greg hoped that luck would follow. "It will work, it has to work," he repeated to himself as they drove through the fence and down the dusty road to the parking lot right in front of the entrance. He lingered a bit, taking the key out of the ignition and leaving his sunglasses in the glove box, slowly sighing, aware that the feelings that invaded him every time he visited the place would accompany him for days: sadness, frustration at not being able to help them all, and an infinite anger towards the human species, whose evil knew no bounds.
He looked at the building in front of him, trying to hide his emotions, very aware of his companion's ability to read them, not wanting to give him any reason to feel guilty.
God knew that blaming himself for things that were completely out of his control was one of Mycroft Holmes's specialties. With a reassuring smile he turned to him .
- You're going to love Susan. They do great work here.
Mycroft quickly assessed the place, from the distant trees to the poorly maintained building in front of them. Only the singing of birds and the barking muffleds by the distance could be heard. Everything seemed quiet. "Too quiet," whispered a little voice his inside , warning him of the countless dangers of being in an open, isolated place without protection. He noticed the dry mouth suddenly and licked his lips, opening and closing his hands several times, trying to push away the tingling he felt, forcing himself to breathe slowly. He didn't notice Greg's look at him.
- Mycroft, are you all right?
Blinking, he looked back at the man next to him, his voice calm and gentle helping him regain control. As usual. Mycroft refused to think about how much he depended on the man. It was a frightening thought. He tried to give her a faint smile.
- Yes, well.
Greg gave him back a radiant smile.
"Everything's fine when you're by my side," he thought. "Until someone hurts him for being by your side, you idiot." The little voice on his head answered, and at the thought the hand that held the mantle of his umbrella twitched, tightening its grip. Greg could see the panic in her eyes.
- Hey, come on, Mycroft. Anthea checked the place out. Right now she's just a few minutes away from here, in your armored car, with your driver who will have left the engine running in case you need him and your bodyguard who will be casting threatening glances at the trees letting them know what will happen if they drop a leaf on you. And Susan's a friend of mine. Do you think I would have insisted on coming here if there was any danger?
Embarrassed by the light tone Greg had used, the officer looked away.
- I know. I'm sorry, I...
Greg gently rested his hand on his clenched fist, feeling it relax at the touch.
- It's okay. There's nothing to be ashamed of. You don't know this place, so it's understandable to be vigilant.
A series of loud barks erupted, sending a flock of birds flying and startling the two men. Greg burst out laughing, as Mycroft cast a dubious glance at him.
- Gregory, I don't think this is a good idea
- We've been over this. You said you'd try. I think it would be good. We'd both be more relaxed. And you’re not obligated to anything. We’re just gonna take a look, and if none you convinced or you think you can't handle it we won't talk about it again. Please.
Mycroft nodded, with a sigh, not yet convinced but knowing that he could not, and would not, deny the man anything. Slowly, he stepped out of the car.
Greg walked beside him, leading him into the ramshackle driveway. Anthea had assured him that everything was ready and that nothing could go wrong. Greg prayed that she was right. His arms brushed against each other, and to his surprise the analyst's hand closed over his with a gentle squeeze, causing his heart to race as he joined her hand to Mycroft's. They did not let go until they reached the door.
It had been over five months since Sherrinford.
The first two weeks after the debacle had been filled with frantic activity for Mycroft. There were prisoners to relocate, families to convince that their loved ones had died in a simple prison riot, newspapers to silence and security protocols to reassess. That was easy, manageable. That was work. The hard part came later.
When the dead were buried and the demons that no one wanted around, but whose banishment would be frowned upon, were locked up again, it was time for accountability.
Mycroft's every action, past and present, was assessed, analysed and judged.
The same people who previously only demanded that he solve problems, a great many of which they themselves had created, no matter how, then set about questioning each and every one of his decisions, the same ones that had saved hundreds of lives and more than one political career.
They investigated his connections, those with whom he interacted and even his bank accounts. No matter how Lady Smallwood and Sir Edwin moved to try to intercede, nor the testimonies of agents and subordinates, her enemies had not let the opportunity pass.
His life, work and private, was exposed with total impunity, more with the intention of reminding him that, however powerful, he was only a pawn more than out of genuine necessity. Violet Holmes learned of her son's homosexuality through a call from the cabinet asking if she could provide information about Mycroft's different sexual partners over the years. Apparently, despite the analyst's discretion, "they had a list, Mycroft!. Your science teacher?! What were you thinking?" He was given a two-month "enforced vacation" period while the investigations were concluded.
His own family, always ready to close their eyes to the problems,
rushed to confront him from Eurus psychosis to Sherlock’s drug problems. It didn't matter that his parents had let Uncle Rudy solve the Eurus 'problem', ignoring him until Mycroft took his place, or that they had never done anything about Sherlock's self-destructive behaviour, which they were unable to see. Suddenly, everyone knew how he should have acted to take better care of his brothers, so that Eurus wouldn't have to spend his whole life locked up and so that Sherlock wouldn't become a drug addict.
Greg had kept his promise and stayed by Mycroft's side, pretending to believe him when he said he was perfectly fine, waiting for the fall he knew was coming. He would have done it without Sherlock asking him.
It had been a long time since what started out as a working relationship had become more than just a good friendship. Greg respected Mycroft, admired his intelligence and enjoyed his sarcastic, acidic sense of humor. And he took pride in being one of the few people Mycroft trusted,the only one against whom he allowed himself to lower his defenses. It made him feel safe and valued. Although he had never done anything about it, Greg had no problem admitting that he had fallen in love with Mycroft Holmes. And if the strange tension that sometimes arose when they were together, having a drink at the end of the day at the Diogenes Club, the appreciative looks and the concern for his well-being were something to be guided by, Mycroft shared, at least in part, those feelings. However, the time had never come to let them go. Now, with Mycroft at his lowest point, neither was.
For while Mycroft remained haughty and unreachable in the face of the world, defending his actions as the only possible alternatives, the experience of Sherrinford and the subsequent dissection of his life and work had undermined his self-confidence and decisions, making a dent in the Iceman. Nightmares haunted him and panic and anxiety attacks appeared when he least expected them, leaving him weak and frightened.
Finally, a month after he was allowed to return to work, and after the third important meeting that Anthea had to postpone on his behalf, she and Greg had managed to convince him to take an indefinite leave of absence, to the amazement of his colleagues and superiors.
Although the fear of losing control and causing a debacle had disappeared as he walked away from the decision making process, the lack of access to information continued to generate great anxiety. Over the next few weeks his life had become a vicious circle: he couldn't bear to go out into the street, where every stranger could be a potential assassin sent to finish him off, by Eurus or one of his many adversaries, but he was terrified of being alone in his big mansion, where every crack of the wood or noise of the pipes became a possible intruder who had come to kill him, leaving him paralyzed and breathing heavily. After all, his security had already been circumvented once, hadn't it?
After a short time, the only people he tolerated nearby were Anthea and Greg, who watched helplessly as Mycroft's emotional decline became more and more evident.
Greg knew that he would do anything for the eldest of the Holmes. But he also knew that nothing he could do would be enough to avoid the downward spiral in which the man was immersed. When they were together he could feel them Mycroft relaxing by his simple presence. They spent long hours sitting together, sharing a drink in silence, each lost in his own thoughts, or talking about anything, smiling at each other and watching movies surrounded by take-out containers. Greg even had a key to his house.
But Mycroft lived in isolation, and anxiety attacks were becoming more frequent. And he was also increasingly turning to alcohol to overcome them. On more than one occasion Greg had left the Yard late and rushed back to the younger man's house, worried that he would not answer his calls, only to find him collapsed on the couch or in front of his computer, with an empty bottle of whisky rolling on the table and the glass lying next to him.
He would never forget the night he arrived to find him asleep in front of the fireplace. He had quickly into the room, unwittingly startling it, and suddenly found himself faced with reddened eyes that looked at him out of focus, a panicked expression, and a revolver pointed at his face. Greg froze in place, staring at Mycroft's shaking hand, who took a few endless seconds to understand who he was aiming at. The more young threw the gun away when he realized what he was doing, never ceasing to repeat that he was sorry and burst into tears. It took him hours to calm Mycroft down, holding him in his arms while he whispered softly and traced relaxing circles on his back, struggling not to start crying himself. When the politician finally calmed down a bit he took him to his room and tucked him into his bed, unable to refuse when he clung to him and begged he not to leave him alone. As he gently stroked the sleeping man's head on his chest, he could not even find the humour to think that this was not the way he had dreamed of ending up in Mycroft's bed one day.
He was unable to sleep through the night, thinking of what might happen if things continued as they had been. The thought of a vulnerable and lonely Mycroft, drunk and with a gun in the house, frightened him more than he wanted to admit.
The next day they had their first argument. Mycroft apologized again, obviously embarrassed by his loss of control, and Greg dropped the idea that he should see a therapist.
Mycroft shut down, returning to his old frozen self, telling him he was perfectly fine and that if he wanted to put an end to his association he didn’t have to look for absurd excuses, after all, he knew he wasn’t there because he cared about him, but as the nanny sent by Sherlock, to then lock herself in his office for hours, drinking herself unconscious.
Greg sat there, running his hands over his face, unable to decide what to do.
On the one hand, although Mycroft's words had hurt, he hoped that the younger man already knew how he felt about him, he knew not to let himself be hurt by them, it was the depression talking, not Mycroft. On the other hand, he had never felt so helpless and frustrated, and it took all his self-control not to break down the office door and yell at Mycroft until he came to his senses. He went home, not before calling Anthea and taking the politician's gun.
They didn't come back to the subject later. When he returned to Mycroft's house the next day, the elder Holmes looked at him in surprise for a few seconds, as if he had not expected to see him again, and after the initial surprise he buried the whole thing, behaving as if nothing had happened, and Greg, relieved that he had not lost him and fearing another confrontation, let it go, hoping that things would work themselves out.
That, of course, didn't happen, and Greg was getting more and more tired and irritable, even though he thought he was doing quite well. One evening at the end of the work day, while rubbing his sleep-blushing eyes, Sally came in, closing the door behind her.
- Permission to speak, sir?
Greg snorted, half annoyed, half funny.
- No. But when did that stop you?
Sally's smile confirmed that it was the answer she'd hoped to hear.
- With all due respect, boss, you look like shit.
Greg gave her a killer look. It didn't work.
- I know your private life is none of my business. But whatever's going on is hurting the job. Besides, we're worried about you. I just wanted to know if there was anything I could do.
- It's nothing, Sally. - The woman looked at him with an eyebrow, incredulous. - Really. It's just... A good friend is going through a difficult situation, and I don't know how to help him. He refuses to go to a professional, he just doesn't trust anyone and it's frustrating and exhausting to do nothing but watch him go down. That's it.
Sally nodded, no doubt understanding more than he was saying. After all, she was a good cop, she had been with him in Musgrave and she had seen Sherlock and Anthea in his office, no cases involved, too often in the last few months not to connect the dots.
- Well, if the guy doesn't want help, there's little else you can do. But I'm sure watching you suffer isn't going to make him feel any better either. It's great that you want to help your... friend. But you should take care of yourself, too. Maybe he has some family who could take care of him once in a while, a cousin or a brother, maybe. Even if that hypothetical brother is a jerk, I'm sure he could help. Or you could get him a dog, too.
Greg looked at her, choosing to ignore the tone he had chosen for the word "friend" and the allusion to a possible idiot brother. The truth was, Sherlock was worried about Mycroft. He had a phone full of messages that testified to this. But Mycroft didn't feel strong enough to deal with his family, the way he tensed up the few times they talked about them was proof enough, and Sherlock feared that if he talked to his older brother he would end up using his hurtful, petulant ways to get some reaction out of him, which both Greg and Anthea had agreed could not only backfire but make the situation worse. A fragile Mycroft was something completely unknown that no one knew very well how to handle.
- A dog?
- Aha. We gave my sister Tess a little cocker spaniel after her divorce. It really helped her get over her depression.
Greg dismissed the idea as absurd. He couldn't imagine Mycroft walking in the park in his three-piece suit throwing a frisbee at a little puppy. Still, the idea kept going around in the back of his mind. Surprisingly, Anthea didn't think it was such a crazy idea.
- You know, there are associations that train these kinds of support animals,- said the brunette typing furiously into her mobile phone.- Those animals are quiet, docile and very intelligents . Specially trained to help humans with any kind of problem. They're emotional support dogs. The waiting lists are endless,- she mused looking at the screen,- but I'm sure it's something that can be fixed...
Greg looked at her, stunned.
- Wait a minute. This is Mycroft we're talking about. Mycroft, who won't accept that he has a problem, refuses to get psychological help, won't even take sleeping pills or anti-anxiety medication. Do you really expect Mycroft "I don't need anyone even if I have one foot in the abyss" Holmes to accept help from a dog?
Anthea gave him a sly smile.
- Oh, but he doesn't have to know what kind of dog he is or what his function is, does he? I'm sure you can convince him.
- You expect me to fool Mycroft? Really? Me, fool Mycroft Holmes? The cleverest man in Britain?
- Greg, listen to me. I know it's not ideal. But desperate situations require desperate measures. I don't know what else to do. I've told him about the job, tried to motivate him to use his brain again to solve international dilemmas. He's just not interested anymore. And with all due respect, what much more can you do? It seems like you haven't slept in weeks, and the stress will eventually take its toll on you, too. - He cut off the DI's protests with a gesture - Yes, I know you'd do anything for him. Believe it or not, you're human too and you have limits too. How much more can you take? Furthermore, how long will it take for Mr. Holmes to realize that the situation is beginning to affect you and to decide that your relationship with him is harming you? How long will it take him to expel you from his life, thinking that he is doing you a favor?
Greg ran his hands over his head, sighing wearily.
- Mycroft needs a therapist.
- Yeah. But Mr. Holmes is a very private person. He's carried the secrets of this and several other nations with him for decades. Even before that, he's carried all the secrets of the different members of his family for as long as he can remember. In recent months, his life has been dissected, analyzed and judged without mercy. It's been like attending your own autopsy. It may be too much to ask now to share even more of all that with a stranger, as much as you need to. I'm not saying it's the solution, I'm just saying it might be a step towards finding a solution.
Still undecided, Greg nodded, his mind starting to work on how to convince Mycroft as he said goodbye to Anthea, who promised to find a way to get around the waiting lists and find the ideal assistance dog for them.
Of course, it was essential that Mycroft did not know about the animal's characteristics. His pride would suffer at the mere idea of being awarded a "kangaroo dog". And if there was one thing Mycroft had for a give away, it was pride. So Greg thought of Susan Freeman. They had met years before, in a case involving a gang of dangerous criminals who were involved in, among other things, organizing dog fights. She was in charge of picking up the poor, traumatized animals at their dog shelter, re-educating them and saving them from certain death. The case touched animal-loving Greg and he started to help his shelter as much as he could, making donations and spreading the word about the shelter's work on social networks, trying to help abandoned animals find a home. It wouldn't be difficult: they just had to take the assistance dog to the shelter, make it look like one of the dogs looking for a home and take it home. After she agreed to help them, all that remained was to convince Mycroft.
The politician would not have looked at him more horrified if Greg had proposed to adopt a child together, and he could not help but smile.
- Come on, I've always wanted a dog, but I don't have the time or the space. You have enough space and I spend most of my free time here. I would have my dog, a sweet little dog would have a good home and you would have company when I'm not around, someone to look after the house and you. I would be more relaxed and it would make you feel better.
- Frankly, Gregory, I don't know how having my clothes full of hair and holes in my garden is going to help me at all. - He snorted, clearly finding the idea absurd.
- I'm not thinking of a playful puppy. He'd be an adult. And he doesn't have to come into the rooms. Come on, just think about it. Please?
Mycroft looked at him, not wanting to disappoint the man who was so much more than his best friend. He bit his lips, staring at the bluish circles under his eyes, cursing himself for causing his dark circles. "I love you," he thought, hoping that the DI would never know what he was feeling, imagining the rejection her feelings would generate, fearing to alienate the one person who had never made her feel like a freak, not wanting to see the mockery or compassion in her eyes. Still, he muttered:
- What if I don't like having him here?
- We can have him in foster care. Just for a few days, to see if he'll fit in. And if we can't always return him,- he cursed himself for saying so, for thinking that a living being could be returned like a shirt, but he needed to leave all options open to him. Mycroft looked down at the floor and spoke in such a low tone that Greg had to pay close attention to hear him.
- And if he doesn't like me?
Greg approached slowly, putting one hand on his shoulder, smiling warmly. Mycroft swallowed, trying to untie the knot in his throat.
- Why would he not like you? I'm sure the animal would love you
- Well, because it's what I do best. Nobody likes me. Children don't like me, old ladies don't like me, people I work with don't like me, my own family, why should a dog like me?
Greg's heart shrank, knowing that although the tone had been mocking, as if none of it mattered, those self-deprecating thoughts of Mycroft were real. It was ridiculous, he knew. There were a lot of people worried about the civil servant. But there was no point in telling him about the messages and calls from Sherlock, about Lady Smallwood and Sir Edwin visiting his boss's office to inform him that DI Gregory Lestrade was doing top secret work of vital importance to national security and the Crown, so he would be allowed to leave his post without any problems and without explanation if "the government", i.e. Mycroft, needed him. There would be no point in telling him about Anthea's concerns or the MI5 officers who had offered to provide his surveillance services if they thought he might need them. Mycroft would find a way to dismiss all that as simply acting out of interest. Mycroft was valued, but you can't convince someone they're loved when they don't want to hear it. However, Greg was in no way dependent on the chestnut tree.
- Well, I like you.
Mycroft looked at him, looking for the lie in his eyes. Yeah, I knew Greg cared about him. The same way he cared about Sherlock. I knew the man trusted him, up to a point, but...
Greg didn't take his eyes off his own, getting closer.
- Really? God, Mycroft. I thought you knew. I thought you knew what you meant to me. You're the smartest man I know, you care about others without expecting them to care about you. You're funny and kind and incredibly sexy. How could I not like you?
Mycroft looked away, not knowing what to think.
- Gregory, I...
- Shh, it's okay. Look at me. You don't have to say anything. I don't expect anything. Especially not now. You letting me stand by you, supporting you, is more than enough for me. You don't know how important it is for me to have your trust.
- I trust you, Gregory. More than anyone. I...
Greg put his hands on his shoulders, reassuring.
- And I in you. Your friendship is more than enough for me. And if you ever want anything else, we'll talk about it. But not tonight. Not until you've recovered and you're clear about what you want in your life, without pressure of any kind, OK?
Mycroft bit his lips. He was clear about what he wanted. That he wanted him, the strong, generous, witty, messy, temperamental Gregory Lestrade, who had wanted him almost from the moment he met him. But he knew it wasn't time. I was aware of how much I depended on the detective. And if they entered into a relationship it had to be like two people choosing to be together because they wanted to, not because of need or dependence. He nodded, placing his hands timidly on the DI's hips. Greg smiled, hugging him.
- Now let's go get some dinner. And this Saturday we'll go to the shelter, where we'll find a sweet little doggie that will end up worshipping you and against which I'll have to compete for your attention. Who knows, maybe I'll be the one who ends up poking holes in your garden so you'll listen to me.
Greg's smile grew as he felt Mycroft's laughter on his neck, his warm breath making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
- You're a silly man, Lestrade.
- I'm your foolish man.
- Yes, you are. - Mycroft whispered, holding him tighter. They stayed there, hugging, much longer. Greg occupied the guest room that night and when he left the house for work the next morning he couldn't help but smile at Mycroft's container full of discarded alcohol bottles.
- Greg! So glad you could make it!
Greg hugged the woman, smiling at the warm welcome, making the introductions. The entrance area to the shelter was small. Only a table, a phone and an old computer made up the reception area. Right behind was Susan's office, where she knew that Anthea would have left the therapy dog on loan from the association. On the left was a corridor leading to the place where the abandoned animals lived and hoped to be adopted one day. On the right was a glassed-in room that Gregory knew they used for dogs that needed special attention, those that arrived sick or could not mix with others because of their aggressivity. Susan and Greg caught up quickly. It was imperative to make Mycroft believe that they had not spoken to each other for a long time and that the idea of the dog had been purely coincidental.
- You know, I was surprised by your call. But I think just yesterday an ideal candidate arrived for you. He's two years old, he's perfectly healthy and well cared for and he's very intelligent and polite.
- Oh, is he? That's great. Don't you think, Mycroft?
He turned to his partner, who wasn't paying attention to them. Instead, he'd walked up to the glass door, and he was staring back at it. Susan and Greg shared a confused look before joining him.
- What's wrong with him," he asked, pointing his head at the animal. Leslie joined them.
- He... Well, he's not adoptable. - Mycroft looked at her blankly, raising an eyebrow at the poor explanation. Greg had to give the girl a mental applause for not backing down from the icy expression.- One of our volunteers found him. He was malnourished. He had been beaten up. We tried to get him together with the others after the treatment, but he kept barking and made them nervous. He has anxiety problems.
As if he knew they were talking about him, the animal raised his head. Mycroft looked at it, before entering the room, not noticing the looks exchanged behind him.
The dog sat up, sniffing, grunting slightly. An ugly scar crossed the right side of his face, from his temple to his jaw. The lower back had hairless areas, Mycroft had no trouble guessing that someone had tried to burn him and there were different parts of his body that had stitches. The ribs were visible under the fine dark brown fur. One of his ears was clearly split and he was blind in his left eye. Greg gasped.
- Jesus, what have they done to him?
- Say better what they haven't done to him,- answered Susan sadly. - We don't know how long he had been wandering around when they found him.
Mycroft went a little further and Leslie tried to stop him.
- Careful, now. He gets nervous with crowds. He tolerates a person, if they don't approach through his blind eye, but when there are many people he becomes aggressive. So far only Susan has managed to pet him.
Mycroft ignored her, looking at the animal and leaving his umbrella on the metal table without making a sound. Greg looked at Susan, sharing his sadness.
- On Monday, they'll come looking for him. They're going to put him down.
- Sacrifice him?
- He's an American Stanford.
Greg nodded, thinking about that stupid law of dangerous dog's . As if that poor animal's appearance wasn't proof enough to see that it wasn't the animal that was dangerous, but the humans around it. However, this is not what they were here for.
- Mycroft, what do you say we go and see the dog Susan has chosen for us?
There were two unknown smells in the room. I was used to the smell of the brown woman. She smelled of food and her energy was calm. The younger one was nice, a bit garish for her taste. The men smelled different. The older one was sweating a little. Nervous. He was nervous. The one who had entered the room first... stared him in the eye. He smelled a little like him. Anxiety. The dog felt her.
Anxiety and fear. Loneliness. He was quiet, though. No. He was trying to keep him calm, overcoming her own anguish to give him security. No one had ever done that for him. Never. The man came even closer, kneeling in front of him. Hands crossed over his legs. The others held their breath.
- Mycroft... - Unconsciously, Greg's hand moved to the place where he normally carried the gun, in case the dog decided to attack, but obviously wasn't there.
- He's just scared, Gregory. - He mused. - Isn't he? The world is a dangerous place.
The animal looked behind the man, before joining his front legs and dropping in front of him, with his square head resting on them, barely touching his knees and hands. It was hardly shaking at all. There was something about the man. Something that told him that he had to calm down so that he would be all right. Why, for some reason, he felt that if the stranger was all right, he would be too. Not quite. But the human was trying, and he would try, too. And maybe...
Susan took a slow breath.
- She had never behaved like this before.
Greg nodded, with a small smile. He thought about his plan, so meticulously laid out. Anthea had gotten the best dog she could get. Greg had felt a little guilty about using his contacts to get around the waiting list. But for once, after all Mycroft had done for his country, it felt good to achieve something for him. They had turned to the best organization, who had offered them their best dog, both for protection and physical and emotional assistance. A perfect specimen, educated and well cared for. He saw Mycroft run a finger gently over the animal's muzzle, and it sighed and closed its eyes at the touch, whimpering a little, but relaxing at last.
- Greg,- whispered Susan,- you can't have him. They only let us have him for a few days because they were up to their ears in sacrifices. The law says...
- I know what the law says. I'm sure we can work it out.
- But still. Your friend needs help. That animal can't give it to him. He'd need years of therapy himself to get over everything that's happened.
Greg sighed, reaching out to Mycroft and kneeling beside him. The dog raised his head, looking first at the newcomer and then at the man who was petting him. The man in front of him was sad, he could smell it. But he relaxed when he felt the presence next to him. If the man who was caressing him trusted him, he could do it too, he decided, lowering his head again to enjoy the touch. Greg was not surprised to see the tears on the politician's face.
- It's not fair, Gregory. He was... alone, and scared and there... there was no one there. It's just... it's just not fair.
- No, it's not. - He replied, not knowing whether he was talking about the dog or Mycroft. Possibly both. He placed a hand on his back, not saying anything, just letting know he was there. He assumed that at some point they would have to get out of there, let Anthea know that she should return the other perfect dog to the association, where they would soon have a home for him, taking care of someone who needed him, and then he would have to ask her to fill out a lot of paperwork so that he could keep that ugly, hurt, frightened thing that he was going to need all the help they could get to overcome his traumas. But not yet. The dog moved on, putting his head on Mycroft's knee, licking the tears that had fallen on his hand as the analyst continued to stroke him between the ears. Greg felt the two of them settle down, and suddenly it made sense. Of course the healing of Mycroft, the guardian of family and country, the eternal protector, could only come from the hands of a wounded creature, as fragile and frightened as he was, who needed care and protection.
- Well, what are you going to call him?,- asked Leslie, happy, from the entrance after a while. Greg watched Mycroft wipe away his tears before turning to him with a smile that the DI never thought he would see again, the smile that, he was sure, no one had ever seen before him. The choice of name did not surprise him.
Three weeks later
Greg finished his workday at the Yard at noon, and left looking for his mobile phone to call Mycroft for the umpteenth time. He hadn't been able to contact the man all morning and although Anthea had told him not to worry he couldn't help it. He stopped short when he reached the street, unable to contain a huge smile when he saw the man waiting for him, with Phoenix calmly sitting at his feet. Mycroft smiled back at her.
- Hey, hi! What are you doing here? Did you come alone?
Mycroft nodded at the black car parked a couple of streets away.
- We've walked a bit, though.
Greg came a little closer to let the passers-by pass. Although Mycroft was not yet entirely comfortable going out into the street and the anxiety had not disappeared, that he could be there alone in the midst of the bustle was a great achievement. Well, not alone. He looked down to scratch the dog's ears.
- So that's why you weren't answering my calls? I knew I'd end up having to compete for your attention with him.
- Oh, come on, you know I love you both. As long as you don't leave hairs on my clothes, of course.
Greg laughed, still petting the animal, hoping his stupid heart would stop jumping at the politician's strange declaration of affection.
It had been an intense weeks. After leaving the shelter with Phoenix, Mycroft had been worried that he wouldn't be able to give the animal what it needed, and had even considered his decision. He had bought books, downloaded articles and searched hundreds of websites frantically, unable to decide which of the hundreds of dog "experts" was right. Phoenix had felt his anxiety and had hidden in a corner of the huge house, shivering. Finally, Greg had managed to convince he that the animal would respond to its own energy and had told her to forget everything she had read and use what had always served her well: her own instinct. While the DI was preparing tea for Mycroft and himself and a bowl of food for the dog, the politician had sat down beside Phoenix, putting one hand on the shaky back, and they had spent nearly an hour there, calming each other down. Everything had become easier after that. Mycroft had not yet regained his confidence, the nightmares continued, and Phoenix was still afraid of anyone but Mycroft and Greg, snarling at anyone who got too close to the analist, they comforted and cared for each other, and Greg was more relaxed as well. The smiles and friendly touches between the two had become more frequent.
Phoenix's wounds were almost healed, and he had gained weight, though his scars and blind eye still drew the attention of those who saw him, earning the look of cold contempt that had shaken countless politicians in the past.
Phoenix, for his part, had proven to be an unbeatable guardian. He did not stray from his human and did not let anyone get too close. He guessed when Mycroft was entering one of his depressive episodes and would climb into his lap, placing his head on his shoulder and letting himself be held until he calmed down. Knowing that the dog depended on him had a revitalizing effect on him, and more than once Greg arrived late at night of the Yard to find them curled up in the analyst's bed, where of course the animal was completely forbidden to enter, how Mycroft would pretend to remind him the next morning before at Greg's smug smile.
- So what brings you here?
Mycroft hesitated for a moment before answering.
- We've just come from therapy and thought you might like to join us for lunch.
- Of course I would. But I thought your appointment with the specialist was yesterday.
- No. He started his therapy yesterday. I thought if I went with him to see his therapist, it was only fair that he come to see mine.
Greg stopped paying attention to the dog, looking at Mycroft.
- Did you...? You didn't tell me you were going to therapy.
- Well, I didn't want to tell you anything. In case I finally decided it was a bad idea and backed out, but... I'm sorry I didn't tell you...
Greg smiled, happy, and Mycroft seemed relieved.
- You don't have to apologize. It's a big step. I'm proud of you. How did it go?
- Well, it was... strange. But good. There's still a long way to go. I... it's not easy for me. You know how I am, but if there's any way... -Mycroft sighed, as if he couldn't find the words. Phoenix rested his enormous head on his legs, licking his hands, groaning slightly as he did every time he noticed he was nervous. Mycroft stroked him, giving him a reassuring smile. - It is all right, boy, do not worry.
- He knows you saved him. Of course he worries about you.
- You saved him. You saved us both. The last few months have been... Difficult. I couldn't have done it without you. You were the only thing that made me want to go on. Being important to you gave me a reason. I... I want to get better. For you. And for him. For me. Everything's easier if I know you're there.
Greg looked at him, not knowing what to say, as the man looked down. Then he realized he didn't have to say anything, he just hugged him.
- I'll always be here. - Greg smiled as Mycroft hugged him back. After a while, Phoenix rose to his feet, demanding the attention of his two humans, trying to make them understand how proud he was of them both. The road would be long, but now he was there, and he would take good care of them.