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Six hours, forty-six minutes

BBC Sherlock

Rating 15 (non-explicit femslash, nudity)

Written for a Sherlock rare pair prompt by Blooms84 for Ella/Anthea:

Anthea's not allowed to/doesn't choose to talk much in her day-to-day life as assistant to the British government. Nice to go home to someone who wants to listen. Nice to get out of those uncomfortable suits and heels too.

Betaed by the wonderful fengirl whose fic Sleeping Beauty first got me thinking about this pairing.



Last client of the week finished with, and Ella could finally switch on her mobile. She scrolled through the messages, looking for the one from "Alice Taylor".

Sorry, I'll be working late. Will come round about 2300 if that's OK. A

She texted back: Come when you can. I'm making lamb stew. Like me to leave some? Love, Ella

She could almost imagine Anthea's skilful hands tapping out her rapid reply:

I'd love some food. I love you. I'll see you later. A.

***

Ella had bought a bottle of wine, but she didn't open it; she didn't want to be tipsy or sleepy by the time Anthea arrived. After supper, she tidied up the flat and sorted out the week's paperwork. Normally she'd do it on Saturday morning, but she wanted as much of tomorrow free as possible. She should fit in a trip to the supermarket as well, stock up for later in the week, in case Anthea was free then. She hadn't realised before falling for Anthea that international women of mystery survived all too often on ready meals and Red Bull.

She had a shower when she got back from the supermarket, put on her favourite black dress and then sat and listened to Ella. The original Ella, singing about love in a voice that knew the idea was all a cosmic joke, but wasn't ashamed to admit what she felt. I get a kick out of you. I've got you under my skin. I concentrate on you.

She didn't know why the music reminded her of Anthea. Something about the lazy ease of it, the hint of cocktails and cigarettes and glamour, matched Anthea's casual, almost absent-minded charm. The seductive languor that a beautiful, brilliant woman chose to cloak herself in. But not all the time. Ella knew now how to kiss the breath out of Anthea, how to wake her up, unwrap her. She felt her body warm at the thought, and glanced at her watch. Nearly 11 p.m. Maybe it was time to open the wine.

***

"The car's coming for me at 6 a.m.," Anthea announced in the doorway. "Is that OK? I can go back to my flat if you'd rather." Not the sleepy Sloane tonight, Ella thought. The jewel-like machinery underneath.

"That's fine," she replied hurriedly. "If you've only got seven hours off, you don't want to waste time trekking across London."

"Six hours, forty-six minutes," Anthea said, glancing down at her BlackBerry. "Sorry about that."

No point in asking why Anthea had to go to work at 6 a.m. on a Saturday. There was clearly some kind of crisis on, and Anthea wouldn't be allowed to tell her more. She never was.

"I'll heat up the lamb in the microwave," she said instead, giving Anthea a kiss on the cheek as she went past.

"Great," Anthea said, looking up and smiling at her. "I'm starving."

"Would you like some wine as well?"

"No, I'll need a clear head for tomorrow."

***     

Ella knew Anthea liked her food, when she actually got a proper meal – did Mycroft believe his assistants could survive solely on coffee, chocolate and the occasional salad, as he apparently did? – but this evening Ella's carefully cooked lamb shanks were  just fuel. Anthea barely looked away from her BlackBerry, messaging with the hand that wasn't holding her fork. Ella sat in silence and watched Anthea eat, and tried to restrain the itch in her hands to pull the phone away from her. Firmly squashed the maternal voice inside her muttering about lack of table manners and bolting your food. And then Anthea looked up and smiled.

"Message for you from Mycroft," she said, and handed Ella the phone.

Ms Thompson, I would be grateful if you could confiscate A's phone for the night. I sent her away to relax. Best wishes, M.

He was a clever, devious, considerate bastard, and Ella loathed him sometimes. But all she said was: "How do I switch this thing off?" She sneaked a look at the time as she did so. 11.46. Just over six hours left with Anthea.

"What would you like to do?" she asked.

"Is it OK to have a bath?" Anthea replied, smiling across at her.

"I'll put the hot water back on," Ella, said, getting up. Anthea liked her baths, and it might help her unwind, get her in a more receptive mood.

***

 By the time Ella had got her pyjamas on, Anthea was already reclining in a bath rapidly filling with strawberry-scented bubbles, her eyes closed. Ella stood there for a moment, admiring the pale, slender beauty of her neck, and then sat down on the chair beside the bath.

"Hello, gorgeous," she said, but Anthea didn't reply. Probably floating away already on a tide of heat and wetness. Freud would doubtless have had a field-day contemplating Anthea's love for excessive quantities of hot water. Ella, more pragmatically, deduced rebellion against childhood austerity.

The bath, unfortunately, wasn't big enough for two tall women, as several previous experiments had proved. Still, there were few things more alluring to Ella than Anthea emerging from the bath, her brown curls messed up, her damp skin flushed a little pink, drops of water running down her long legs. They might still have time for a little fun tonight. This morning, she corrected herself. It was past midnight already.

Anthea had to go at six. And tonight, she wasn't washing herself in the ridiculously provocative way she did sometimes, slowly massaging her breasts until Ella could barely keep her tongue off them. Instead, she was just lying still, with the look of someone who wanted the world to go away.

Not tonight, Josephine, Ella told herself firmly. She couldn't help sitting and watching though, for a little while. She was good at sitting and watching people. Though maybe she ought to say something before Anthea nodded off completely. She searched for a question she could ask, one that wouldn't need to be rebuffed or ignored.

"How long are you likely to be busy on this project?" she asked cautiously.

"We need to be finished by midnight on Sunday, when the Tokyo market opens after the weekend," Anthea replied, without opening her eyes. "I'll probably sleep at the office tomorrow, less disruptive."

"Right," Ella replied, thinking of the concert tickets for Sunday afternoon sitting in her handbag.

"Sorry about the concert," Anthea said, her eyes still closed. "I'll arrange a refund for the tickets."

"No, I'll see if Grace or Cathy want to go with me. You've told me so much about Amina Annabi, I'd like to hear her at last." Ella hoped she sounded OK; not hurt or angry. She had to be realistic: it wasn't unusual to have a partner who had to work extra hours at short notice. But she did sometimes wonder why Anthea put herself through all this.

She couldn't say that, of course. To pass judgement on Anthea's job would be unhelpful; to ask more questions would be prying. Anthea's secrets weren't her own to share, even if she wanted to. She sat and looked at Anthea's weary beauty and tried not to resent the situation.

Anthea's pale blue eyes opened and she looked straight at Ella, as if she could read her mind.

"Have I ever explained to you what Mycroft's job is?"

"Menacing people?" Ella said, trying to make it sound like a joke. It didn't help that Anthea was working for a man who'd kidnapped her, even if that had been how she and Anthea had first met.

"No," Anthea said, smiling. "That's more his hobby. Officially, he's a policy co-ordinator. What that means is that he's the network between the government's information silos."

"I see," said Ella, trying to sound as if she knew what Anthea was talking about. But from Anthea's sweet, lazy grin, she knew she wasn't succeeding.

"All the government departments understand their own particular area," Anthea said, "but too often they don't know what's going on elsewhere. If the Prime Minister needs to know about the Navy or India or Canadian tar sands or the Euro, there are experts he can ask. But if he wants to know how each factor would affect the other, only Mycroft can focus on them all, and give you an immediate answer. He understands how the world works; it's as simple and as amazing at that."

"So why isn't the world working?" Ella blurted out. Oh shit, that had really not been tactful, had it?

Anthea was still smiling at her, but her voice sounded tired now: "Because people don't listen to him. In the next forty-eight hours we will create twenty-three new contingency plans relating to the EU. Plans that wouldn't have been needed if Mr Cameron and his advisors had actually paid attention to Mycroft's briefing on the previous negotiations."

"Is it always like this?" if Anthea felt like opening up, Ella wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

" 'Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is ruled?' Count Axel Oxenstierna wrote that, before the negotiation of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648," Anthea said, in a voice that subtly presumed that Ella knew all about the Peace of Westphalia. It never did to underestimate just how brilliant Anthea was herself.

"Wisdom's hard to find sometimes," Ella said. It was the sort of neutral remark that she made to her clients. Probably not the right thing to say to Anthea, she realised abruptly.

"But folly isn't," Anthea replied promptly. "The pursuit of policy contrary to one's own interest. What do you do with patients like that? Who when you tell them to do the sensible thing, keep on behaving stupidly?"

"I don't tell people what to do," Ella said.

"Even though you know better than them?" Anthea said, sitting up, the bubbles running off her body. "Even when you know what the right course of action is?"

"People have to make their own mistakes," Ella said. "You don't learn if you just do what you're told."

"They don't learn, none of them do," Anthea said, shaking her head. "I wonder sometimes if it's worth it."

"If what is?"

"What Mycroft does, what I do. What do you think?"

"I can't tell you if what you're doing is worthwhile," Ella said automatically.

"Because you're committed to being neutral about everything? The non-directive life?" Anthea's smile was mocking now.

Her anger had to go somewhere, of course, Ella thought, even as she wished it wasn't her being attacked.

"You're so much cleverer than me," she said, smiling calmly at Anthea. "Whatever I tell you, you can contradict me. Come up with some reason why I'm wrong. And I can't tell you what you want to do. Only you know that."

"But why should I keep on doing this job?" Anthea demanded.

"Because you want to," Ella said. Anthea was still looking at her, and she knew she had to say something more.  "You could go out tomorrow and find a better-paid job, a safer one, an easier one, but you don't do it. And it's not fear or inertia holding you back."

"What is it then?" Anthea asked softly.

"You tell me. Imagine it's 5.30 tomorrow morning and the alarm's just gone off. You have a choice: to roll over and go back to sleep, or get up and get ready for the car's that coming to collect you. What do you decide and why?"

"I get up," Anthea said, pulling the plug and standing up. "Mycroft needs me. The country needs me. Could you pass a towel, please?"  She waited as Ella draped it round her beautiful, creamy shoulders. Venus emerging from the sea, Ella thought. No, wasn't it Athena, Minerva, who was the goddess of wisdom, of government? She smiled at Anthea, her own brilliant, sexy immortal. Anthea gave a half smile back and then suddenly asked:

"But what about you?"

"What do you mean?" said Ella.

"When I get out of bed at 5.30 in the morning and disappear for the rest of the weekend. What do you choose then?" Her voice was almost back to its normal, lazy calm, but not quite.

"Go back to bed after you've gone, doze for a while. And when I wake, read a book, phone up some of my friends and find out who wants to go to the concert with me. Enjoy myself."

"Even though you can't have what you wanted?"

She wasn't letting Anthea guilt-trip herself. Not right now.

"You're tired," Ella said. "What I want tonight is for you to get some sleep. Because just me being ratty at 5.30 a.m. will be bad enough."

"And then?"

"You always say Mycroft gives you lots of free time. In between your other contingency plans, work out one for getting some days off next week. It's quiet in the clinic at the moment, so I can probably get time off as well."

"Are you sure?" Ella could hear the relief in Anthea's voice, that this was one problem she didn't have to fix tonight.

"I'm a patient woman," Ella said, kissing Anthea very gently on her cheek. "But not too long, please, because I'll be counting the hours till you're back."