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A great fire

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In the end it goes like most things do, with a sprinkle of luck, a lot of chance, and maybe some faith. Though no one could have ever predicted how it would end. Detective Inspector Lestrade gets called in to help with a case of potential human trafficking, and although it ends up falling through, makes a profile with his own face (You’ve got to use a recent one Lestrade, not one with your nieces, that’s weird. That one, yeah. Wow you look old here boss.) and first name, although he uses Smith for a last name. Like probably 80% of the people on this website. Connects the fake email account to his phone’s inbox in case something happens, and promptly forgets about it when another murder lands on his desk and the whole case is rounded up and done by the time he solves it.

He forgets about it. For a whole year. Then suddenly he gets an email notification while walking home after work from something called SeekingArrangement. Message from MessageMeMike . He only clicks on it to delete the account but finds the most beautiful profile of a really too-young ginger kid, and an absolute wall of text.
“Dear Greg,” it begins. Then it details what about Greg’s profile drew his attention. It contains flattering comments about Greg’s eyes that make Greg grin and attempts at sexy talk that make him want to cry. The second paragraph details what MessageMeMike would like from the arrangement, which he would prefer to limit to ‘meetings in public spaces at first, unless we hit it off of course ;-)’. The fact that he gave the winky face a little nose tells Greg more than he ever wanted to know about just how many friends MessageMeMike has. The message ends with a neat summary of the main points of the body of the text, and a ‘hope to hear from you shortly, sexy’. This poor child. Currently studying it says in his profile. Oxford or Cambridge, by the distance the website tells them they are from each other. Christ almighty.
He thinks it over during the rest of his walk, while in the Tesco’s looking at ready meals, and then while eating the meal at his stupid slanted kitchen table. He can’t afford tuition, of course. But he might be able to help somewhat at least? It takes a long hard google before he figures out what it might be expected from a sugar daddy to spend on lunch, and he ends up deciding against it.
“Hey Mike,” he messages back. “Read your message with interest. Unfortunately, I won’t have much time the coming month or so at least, but I’d be happy to send you a little something. How’s 100 quid for the promise to meet me in a few weeks sound? Greg.”
“Dear Greg,” he gets back, rather faster than he expected. “Thank you ever so much for replying to my message in such a positive manner. Would it be possible for me to receive this money in cash and in person?” Of course. Greg hadn’t even thought about that yet. “I hope you understand why this would be a prerequisite for me. Kind regards, Mike.” Prerequisite, bless this kid. 
He tries to come up with some way to get the money to Mike without having to take the day to go up and down, or pay for him to travel back and forth to London. Mike’d probably rather spend that money elsewhere anyway. He tries to convince an old colleague that he needs to get an informant some cash, but she’s still on holidays. 
“Alright,” he writes in the end, because he is apparently a pushover when it comes to his own firm decisions. “How’s this. You pick a place you like near enough to where you live that you can walk there. We’ll have lunch there this Saturday, I’ll be the underdressed man with the grey hair.”
Mike thanks him profusely and sends him the name of a restaurant that looks both perfectly comfortable and extremely French. Greg sends him his phone number in return. “In case something happens.”

Then Greg spends the rest of the week going through all the preparatory files he’d been given by the human trafficking people when he was still supposed to go undercover. After work he goes through print outs and websites and pamphlets, all alone in his neglected flat. Sugar babies know they’re in danger, he reads. They’ll want to know something is in it for you. They’re on high-alert for predatory people, they know their risk of being the victim of a violent crime. Don’t let them think for a second that you’re not getting what you need from the arrangement, you’ll never see them again. As with any undercover position, Greg sits down with a cold beer and a notebook. Ignores the boxes stacked in the corner of his living room as well as tonight’s match in favour of another deep dive into a side of humanity he wishes he didn’t have to think about. What does he really want from this? What does his character really want from this? He reads some anonymous articles from sugar babies, sugar daddies, sugar mommies even. Decides the familiar-sounding not-so-recently divorced and looking for someone to spoil a bit, to talk to at night when he’s lonely, without having time to invest in a ‘real’ relationship narrative fits. He really doesn’t have much going for him, with the whole worked-himself-grey-and-alone situation he’s in. It’s close enough to hurt a bit, which is how he knows it’s going to work. 

He doesn’t tell anyone that he’s going to Oxford, no one could fake someone upper-class that fell on hard times and would really like to graduate still well enough to fool Greg. He gets to the restaurant half an hour early, orders a coffee, and pretends he doesn’t notice the kid by the window peeking over his newspaper every ten seconds. He’s got the cash in his pocket. The coffee is excellent and the French he hears from the kitchen makes him feel right at home. 
At three minutes before noon the kid in the front slips out while Greg is talking to a waitress, and at exactly twelve he walks in. Tall, skinny, trying to move his hips in what some magazine or terrible advice column might have called a swagger. Less achingly young than his picture, thank god. He stands up to shake his hand. 
“You’re not underdressed,” Mike says when they’re sitting down, staring at the menu.
“You picked just the right place to make a copper with a French gran feel right at home,” Greg tells him. “Did you know?”
Mike blushes a little, very prettily, “I’ve sent you three messages in French and you’ve responded in English each time. Fluent but not exactly bilingual.”
“And the police?”
“Didn’t know that,” he admits, eyes dancing from wall to ceiling back to the menu. Cheeks flaming now. “It’s... the way you talk.”
“Working-class is it,” Greg laughs, genuinely enjoying the embarrassment of the smartest person he’s ever met. “What else?”
Mike’s eyes snap to his. “That’s not how people normally react.”
“I’ll bet,” Greg softens all the way. Bless this kid. “People don’t always like to have their truths out there do they?”
“No.” He seems to remember himself and why he’s here. He blinks in a way he probably practiced in front of a mirror and Greg can only barely suppress his pitying smile. 
“I’ll have the fish,” he decides. “You really picked the cheapest nice place in Oxford didn’t you?”
“More left for me,” Mike says slyly, and this time it’s genuine. It’s excellent, Greg’s instantly sure he’s going to have a very good time. 
Mike has the fish also, and though Greg has to convince him, agrees to some chocolate cake for afters. Greg’d feel bad for pressuring him with the reminder that Mike’s supposed to be here for his pleasure if the mere mention of cake hadn’t made all of Mike’s face light up. The cake erases some of the worry from his shoulders, and they decide to have a coffee outside in the sun before Greg has to go back to London.
They walk to where Greg’s parked together, after, and Greg stops them both right outside of the underground parking when he realizes they should talk about this.
“Mike,” he starts, and Mike turns around with a half-smile, clearly still thinking about whatever they’d been talking about just a minute ago. “I’ve the cash here.”
“Oh,” he stares at Greg, something making his face twist before he blinks it away. “Yes, thank you.”
“I’d like to talk about continuing this,” Greg says, trying to remember his little script, still tucked away in his glove compartment. “But I can’t be driving up here too much. If you could give me some way to transfer money to you...”
“Yes,” Mike interrupts him. “Yes, I’ve found a way. There’s a website, it’s supposed to be for buying art. But I’ve heard they’re good at maintaining anonymity and,” he falters. “If – ”
“Absolutely,” Greg tries to show how clever he finds Mike. “Yes that works. Send me a link? You might need to help me if I can’t make it work.”
Mike grins his most charming smile yet, “it would be a pleasure.” Nothing fake about that.

It’s only on the way home that Greg starts to think about what he’s just done. Surely this can’t be considered a part of the case. There isn’t any universe in which he could write off these expenses as necessary for himself or his work. And yet. He never even considered this being a one-time thing, only ever wanted to respond to a call for help. He ponders how he’d tell his sister about this, even as he’s pulling onto the highway, and thinks she’d laugh herself silly. Probably have a thing or two to say about the hideous pigeon chick he rescued from the cat back when he was six. 

(That night when he’s falling asleep he thinks she might point out the irony of him adding a financial component to the first date he goes on after a divorce that was all about the money, and how it finally made him think about what he could gain from a relationship. He’s forgotten about this by morning.)  

Mike sets up the page and helps Greg submit a request for some ‘art’. He sets high prices, from what Greg can tell compared to the other artists’ profiles he clicks through, but the example art he adds to the different price options is gorgeous. Anatomy studies mostly, with bright bursts of watercolour across them. And of course, he’s not really made this page to sell art. Greg and he get into a system where Greg orders a commission, and then Mike and him settle on a time for a talk on the phone, long or short depending on the tier Greg chose. He wonders sometimes how many other people are making use of these commissions, how many people talk to Mike like this? He gets a sort of answer, if not the one he was looking for, when he asks Mike about his day during one of their calls and Mike makes an audible little noise of excitement.
“Actually,” he says, “you know how this website is supposed to be for art?”
“Yeah,” Greg answers, already feeling incredibly indulgent. He’s using his time on the phone to put away some books and sort through his DVD collection.
“Someone asked for a real commission! I had to reread it five times, but they are actually asking for art.” 
He sounds so excited, Greg thinks fondly. “How’ll you get it to them?”
“Well I’ll make it and post it,” Mike says, like it should be obvious, “I’ll have to restock some material but the money’s absolutely worth it.”
“Sweetheart,” Greg tells him, rapidly approaching maximum indulgent. “You never told me you made that art yourself.”
“Oh!” Mike stammers, and Greg can hear him blush, “oh – well. Yes, I figured it wouldn’t be fair to... steal. Someone else’s.”
“Words after my heart,” Greg purrs, and they both laugh. 

At Christmas Greg makes his way to his mum’s, greets his excited nieces and nephews, and kisses his sisters hello. “Where’s mum?” He asks them, even as Lisa is pouring him a glass of wine.
“Upstairs still,” Anne rolls her eyes. Still wrapping presents then. The three of them get dinner on the table while the husbands of Greg’s sisters play with the kids. When it’s really time to eat, Greg’s mum calls for them to come help and they pile the presents in front of the tree. Like every year this distracts the children so thoroughly that they barely eat and run off as soon as Greg’s mum gives the go, which leaves the two of them sitting at the table and everyone else crowding around the tree.
Greg wishes deeply and with his whole heart, not for the first time, that it was him on the floor with his own family.
“There’ll be somethin’ for you,” his mom says, wrongly interpreting his look. She pets his back affectionately and then seems to catch on. “Someone, too.” Of course there also is something for him, more knitwear, a coat, and a gorgeous carpet that will look so good in his living room. When his mum sees his excitement she grins shyly, tells him it’s just a second-hand one she found. Greg knows she’s pleased he likes it though. His sisters tease him about needing to go on a date, even offer some suggestions, and he laughs it all away. He has a secret thought when his youngest nephew curls up in his lap at the end of the evening that it’s not about just anyone, it’s about something bone-deep and honest, something that’ll be bright and easy when nothing else is. Someone who wants him as he is.
He tells Mike about none of that, when they talk a few days after Christmas. He sticks to the funny bits. “Wait,” Mike says, a laugh in his voice, “is that the Etsy one? Or the one that lives in Brussels?”
“No,” Greg laughs with him, “this is the Etsy one, Lisa. Imagine having a goat in Brussels!”

They meet up another time, but not until months after the first time. It’s January, Mike needs money for this semester’s books, so Greg’s wrapped up in the coat his mum bought him for Christmas (I know it gets cold out in London, sweet. Mum I’ve not been on the street since I was a constable). It had – of course – already come in handy at three different crime scenes since then. Mike and Greg decide at the same time that the walk they’d planned is a terrible idea in this weather, and they head for the British Museum instead. Greg only realizes in the cloakroom that he’s wearing something else his mum got him.
“Don’t laugh,” he says, looking at Mike who looks pink and edible, his hair every way from the hat he’d been wearing to brace the cold. Mike’s eyes shine but he nods sagely. Laughs anyway when Greg reveals his warmest sweater. That his mum knitted for him possibly a decade or more ago. “Bit of respect please,” he laughs back, “this thing might be older than you.”
Mike snorts charmingly and they have a very lovely day touring the exhibitions and whispering about the other visitors. Once, when Greg throws his head back laughing at something Mike said, the look on Mike’s face as Greg starts to recover a bit looks strangely pained. Greg decides to shake it off after checking whether he doesn’t have anything between his teeth, even if he hadn’t imagined it, it’s not like it’s any of his business. Before dropping Mike off at the station Greg leans in automatically, then jerks right back. “Sorry,” he says. Mike rolls his eyes and kisses Greg squarely and bravely, right in the middle of the street.
“Until next time,” he says, as he waves and disappears into the crowd. 

They keep up their talking on the phone and before Greg knows it, it’s been more than half a year. Mike has been sounding tired, and when Greg asks him for a picture (his information booklet recommended asking for pictures often) he looks pale and thinner than Greg has ever seen him, despite his almost-arrogant smile. He tries not to nag him about taking care of himself, knowing full well that some things are easier said than done and finds himself signing up for a rugby team for middle-aged men somewhere between telling Mike that a simple walk through the park is better than nothing and biting his tongue about fruit and veg. At least he feels like less of a hypocrite now that he’s around not-work people and doing sports again.
“Would you be up for meeting up again sometimes soon?” He asks on the phone, finding it easier than before to make it sound like Mike would be doing him a favour. It’s not like it isn’t true, anyway. He enjoys the time they spend together, and much as the apartment looks better every day Greg doesn’t spend chasing a murderer or vegged out in front of the telly, it’s nice to get out occasionally. 
“Of course,” Mike purrs, the strangely off-putting sauciness evident once again in his voice. Greg has a sneaking suspicion that it means he needs money, when he tries to upsell his sex appeal like this. He plans their meeting for sooner rather than later, and offers to come Mike’s way so he won’t have to travel too far. 

“Hello,” he says, grinning into the kiss Mike places on his cheek. This grin is all happiness, and he’s glad to see it. “You doing ok?”
Mike nods, “have you ordered?” He asks, looking at the menu on the table. It hadn’t even occurred to Greg to order for him, so they busy themselves with choosing lunch. After lunch they go for a walk, and just when Greg is starting to really crave a drink, Mike steers him in the direction of a pub.
“Read my mind again,” he mutters, entirely content, but Mike stiffens next to him. “What?”
“People don’t tend to enjoy that,” Mike tells him, but his smile is off, “having their mind read.” His eyes are on Greg still when Greg steps into the pub and holds the door open for him and both of them take a second to realize that the laddish cheering that greets them inside is for them. Which means they don’t get out before they’re surrounded.
Mike is accosted and harassed, reminded from all sides it’s been too long, asked who Greg is, and none of them even properly look at him or Greg, they just slap Mike’s shoulders and make a lot of noise. When Mike looks like he might start crying or screaming or both, his mouth tight and thin, Greg shouts ‘a round on me!’ and all the lads cheer and clutter around the bar. They slip out at the same time. 
“They’ll be upset,” Mike says, when they’re walking back to Greg’s car, and Greg shrugs. 
“They’ll get over it.” Then he thinks of something. “Unless you’ll be in trouble?” He’d be willing to go back to the bar and actually pay for drinks for all these arseholes if it would help Mike.
“No,” Mike says, a hand on Greg’s arm, his eyes fond. “No don’t worry.”
“I want to ask,” says Greg, when they’ve been walking in silence for a while. About your friends and your life and what brought you to begging me of all people for money. Mike turns to him again and stares at his face intently.
“But you won’t.” He concludes. At the look on Greg’s face he continues. “You can! Apologies, I did not mean to imply you shouldn’t. I’m just – surprised I suppose. That you would honour my privacy over your curiosity.”
“Your friends fucking suck,” Greg hisses through his teeth, and to his surprise Mike laughs.
“You should meet my family.”

Of course at night the things Mike’s friends had thrown around echo in Greg’s ears. His last name – Holmes. They’d asked about an Edsie, which Greg quietly and fervently hoped to be short for Edward or some other type of name that might not disadvantage a person. Edsie , honestly. They hadn’t seen him in ages they said. More than their words, he remembered the way Mike had paled. He’s not hurt that a student wouldn’t want to be seen with him by their friends. Especially considering he hasn’t been putting in any effort to dress up since the first time they met. He wouldn’t want anyone to know about the nature of their association either. Something in him whispers that maybe Mike had been embarrassed about Greg seeing his friends as much as he had been about his friends seeing Greg. He dismisses it as foolish.

“Why do you sign your texts?” Greg asks, more curiosity than anything else. The way it stumps Mike into silence tells him he’s missed something. “What?”
“Well,” Mike says, “I use a hidden number. If I text someone, they don’t know who I am.”
Greg thinks on it. “But...” he says, and then it clicks into place. Mike hadn’t expected him to save his messages, he’d expected him to delete them. “Why would I delete them?”
“So others can’t see them,” Mike says, clearly trying to hold back the obviously . Greg almost laughs. What others? Who would see his phone? His silence prompts Mike to explain more, unnecessary as it is. “Family, or workmates, or some... girlfriend. As I understand it is not unusual for those that are close to you to – ”
“Mike,” Greg interrupts him. Those that are close to you , Jesus Christ. “I’ve not been close with anyone since my divorce.” It’s easier to admit considering the obvious lack of closeness in Mike’s life. It’s like he didn’t even realize that he just referred to having friends or family or romantic relationships as ‘as I understand’. Greg fidgets with the towel he was using to dry out the cupboards he just cleaned.
“Because you’re in the closet,” Mike says like it’s obvious. As if he’s just finishing a sentence with its obvious conclusion. With all the gallantry of a tank. 
“No,” says Greg, so unmoored in this conversation he can’t help but be honest. “No, I’ve been out since the bloody 80s.” Never mind that he was barely a teenager in the 80s.
“But you were married to a woman,” Mike says, and by gods he is young.
“Yes Mike, I was married to a woman,” Greg answers. And then he changes the subject.

The first time Mike spends the night he reminds Greg of his list of prices twice. The second time has Greg worried, even if the first time didn’t. They had decided that it made more sense for Mike to stay the night because he needs to be in London for an interview tomorrow and it’s not like he can afford to spend the night anywhere and the train would have him waking up at five in the morning.
“I feel like we’re not on the same page here,” Greg says, and Mike chews his lip. He looks miserable, his overnight bag in one hand, his garment bag in the other. Greg stares at it. He’s only just come back from rugby training and is wearing joggers and a t-shirt, hair still wet from his shower. Mike, as always, looks impeccably put together. 
“So my suit won’t wrinkle,” Mike explains, as if that isn’t the least baffling thing. He’s known of course that something must have happened, and he even has some ideas of what it might have been, but that bag is from a very expensive tailor. He wouldn’t have heard of it if he hadn’t been involved with a case that involved their (previous?) owner and some truly absurd amounts of money. He shakes it loose. So what if Mike used to be really rich, he clearly isn’t now.
“Go hang it,” Greg nods in the direction of the bedroom, where he has a wardrobe that such things could be hung in. He hopes Mike might take a minute to calm down too, and sets about making tea for them both in the meantime. 
When Mike makes his way back into the kitchen he looks more worried than before. Greg pushes a mug across the table and watches his eyelids flutter closed. He’d gone out of his way to get Darjeeling and is glad for it, for the way the lines in Mike’s face soften as he smells his favourite tea. “You remembered,” he whispers, at the tea instead of at Greg.
“Yeah,” Greg says, a little more brusquely than he normally would have. “And since you’re the one with the big brain here, I hope you can remember some stuff too.”
Mike startles, hands still wrapped around the mug. His eyes are wide.
“You’re spending the night here, we’ll have dinner, I have stuff to make breakfast in the morning in the fridge. I paid for your train tickets here, and the time we’re spending together gets crossed off to offset the hotel costs you’d have needed to make otherwise.” He isn’t actually planning on making use of any of the other things that are apparently on the menu. Not that he wouldn’t love to ‘fellate’ or ‘be the recipient of fellatio’ but nothing about Mike had given him the impression that he’d be into that and well – turns out Greg likes enthusiasm in a partner. Not that he wouldn’t enjoy take out and telly with Mike just as much and...
“Greg?” Mike asks him, and he realizes he’s been silent for a long time.
“How do you feel about Thai?” He says. They find out that evening that Mike does not like Thai food very much, but he does like the spring rolls they ordered and the ice cream Greg had stocked, and especially the popcorn that Greg suggests later lights up his whole face. He’s in posh silk pyjamas that look a bit thin about the knees and elbows, a borrowed pullover and thick socks (from mum’s knitting stock). He looks warm and happy, and entirely engrosses in the 4th consecutive episode of David Attenborough’s narration of life on earth. 

At night, in bed, Greg decides to bring it up again. They’re in pyjamas, and lying next to each other and the alarm is set. Mike is shaking, and also insisting he doesn’t need to put the pullover back on.
“Mike,” Greg says, deciding to be honest. “I have no idea how to have this sort of conversation at all.”
“But?” Mike’s voice sounds tight.
“But.” Greg says. “We are not going to have sex tonight. We’re not doing anything from your list. If it’s about you needing more money please use those words, and we can talk about it.” Mike shifts a little. Time for a deep breath, Lestrade. If he is very honest with himself he was hoping for something tonight. Not sex necessarily, and definitely not anything from a list. Something genuine, probably. He feels his eyes fill and blinks to get rid of it. Decides to be brave in the darkness. “I’d kill for a cuddle,” he admits then, to himself as much as to Mike, his throat uncomfortably tight. Mike moves in lightning fast, tucks his head under Greg’s chin. It makes Greg even more aware of how long it’s been since he’s been held or kissed or really any of the things he loves so much. His eyes burn, his stomach clenches, but Mike breathes steadily. Soon they are asleep. 

The next morning is surprisingly easy. They step around each other and make breakfast as if Mike has been here plenty, he seems to know just where to find everything. Greg laughs at Mike’s curly hair after the shower and stops very quickly when he sees the look on his face.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and Mike’s face falls even further. “Have some tea, sweetheart. I love your curls, but I won’t laugh anymore.”
Mike nods, clearly nervous about his interview now that it’s near. He’s been preparing most of his life for it, as far as Greg can tell, but it matters to him. Those things are always scary.
He sees Mike out and gets to work a bit earlier than normal, thinks about it all day.

“Greg,” Mike whispers. There’s a lot of noise in the background.
“What is it?” Greg answers, lowering his voice to match Mike’s.
“Greg,” he says again. He sounds entirely overwhelmed. “I- I got the job.”
“The – ” Greg pauses. “The job? You were interviewing for an internship weren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Mike croaks, and Greg feels his whole face split into a grin.
“Where are you?” He demands, “do you have plans? Can we celebrate?”
The doorbell rings as he is still talking, and he opens the door to find Mike shining with happiness, tears welling in his eyes. “Took the underground here before I realized I didn’t know if you’d be home,” he says, his voice still low, and so Greg pulls him into a hug. 
“You – brilliant – son – of – a – bitch!” He says, kissing Mike’s hair as he says it. He can’t remember when he last felt this proud. “Come on,” he pulls Mike through, “tell me everything!”

It turns out Greg still had a bottle of shit Prosecco tucked away somewhere, and soon they’re sharing it on the carpet between the sofa and the television, their socked feet touching, when the story of the interview (the bits Mike is allowed to talk about at least) rolls out.
“So how did this happen?” Greg asks finally. “What did you do to convince them?”
“I...” Mike bites his lip, eyes shifty as if he’s deciding how much he wants to say. “My uncle. Apparently wrote me a letter of recommendation. It was so positive – and my profile and grades as well.” He shrugs, between modesty and gratitude. 
An uncle. Family. Greg can’t help but frown. “Mike,” he says, not wanting to pry but wanting to know, his voice more serious than it has been all night. “If you have such an uncle, why are you here?” Not that you’re not welcome, he wants to add. Not that I don’t want to help you.
Mike looks away, young and sad. “He,” Mike swallows. “He died. Year and a half ago? There’s supposed to be a fund for me, but it’s probably going to be locked until I’m twenty-five at least. I... didn’t really ask at the time.”
Ah. Greg decides to drop the subject. “I’m sorry to hear,” Greg pats Mike’s foot and loves the way his toes curl against his hand. “I’m sure he’d be very proud.” Shining eyes look back up at him. The little shrug is all uncertainty. Greg pulls him closer again. 

‘That will not be possible, unfortunately. M’ Greg sighs at his phone. He’s been trying to find a time to talk to Mike, but there was a case and it seems Mike has been overwhelmed with something. Greg hopes it’s not embarrassment at the things he told Greg when he spent the night, but it’s been weeks now and they’ve barely been in touch. It’s hard not to wonder. ‘Alright,’ Greg texts back. He doesn’t want to ask for his money back, he just wants to hear Mike’s voice. The stomach ache lasts all day, and then at night, once he has time to think about it again, it keeps him up.
Good thing it did too – his phone rings at 3 in the morning as he’s holding it, scrolling aimlessly through the news. He picks up before checking who it is. “Lestrade,” he says.
“It’s me,” comes back, barely a whisper. “I’m so sorry to’ve called you so late I know you have work in the morning and...”
“Don’t be,” Greg promises. “Are you safe?”
“Yes,” Mike says, still so quietly. “I am... I am now.” Greg tries to breathe slow and steady, hopes his superpower of listening people into confessing everything will hold up over the phone. “Had a – a client. And.” A deep shuddering breath. “I – it was mortifying and I. It’s so late there isn’t busses so I had to call a cab and.” Greg holds quiet still, resist the urge to whisper quiet reassurance back through the dark. “All my money. ” Mike whispers, like he is working up to a proper panic. His breathing is a little heavy and stilted. “I can’t – I won’t be able to eat .”
“Mike,” Greg says, and the little whimper breaks his heart. The rush of a car on the road disappears and when he checks his screen the connection is still there. Must’ve muted the call. “Sweetheart,” he says, “you will be. I’ll make it so. I promise.”
The background noise comes back. “Thank you,” breathes Mike, shamed and hollow. Distant. 
“What can I do for you right now?” Greg asks, resettling on the bed. He’ll transfer money as soon as he hangs up, but he doesn’t want to leave Mike alone with his hurt. “Do you want to talk about it? Would it help if I just blabbed about my day a bit?”
Mike makes another little noise. “Yes,” he says, finally, “how are you?” So Greg talks him all the way home. 

‘What would you like your commission to look like?’ Greg reads the next day, on the website Mike uses. It’s strange to chat through here, but Greg isn’t even sure what option on Mike’s pricelist this would correspond to. He’d just tried to work out what would get Mike through the rest of the month in terms of groceries. Accepted commission: A4 size inked drawing with colours is the title of the chat. The phone calls Greg usually gets are listed as A5 sketch . The memory of them sitting on his floor together flashes through his mind. He’ll take that over any item on the list. It’s not even that he wouldn’t want to pay for sex, it definitely isn’t that he wouldn’t want to have sex with Mike. The consideration leaves him feeling a bit too Pretty Woman for his taste, so he decides to do something else.
‘I have this wall,’ he writes, knowing it’ll work best if none of it is a lie, ‘it captures the light really nicely, and I’ve been thinking of painting it for ages, but I can’t settle on a colour. It’ll be bright though. I would love to have a drawing of something joyous, with many different colours.’
It’s silent for ages, even though the little green bubble shows Mike as online. Then: ‘Do you have a deadline that you would like for this to be finished by?’
‘Yes,’ types Greg. ‘June 30th. I don’t need to see any progress updates in the meantime.’

He wants to ask. Doesn’t feel like he should, like he gets to, knows he’s not entitled to the information. But he still wants to ask and it ends up being on his mind all the time. When he comes downstairs at work to help with a disturbance and finds a young cop arrested someone even younger for ‘probably prostitution’, he feels dizzy. He tells the infant that is his colleague that the world is more complex than it seems and ‘probably’ isn’t a crime. He tells the girl about a shelter he knows that does group sessions and soup evenings and she tells him that he can go fuck himself.  
That night he asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Mike says. And Greg tries to respect it, tries not to let it bother him, even tries to tell Mike it’s ok. He can’t, so he keeps silent. “Please don’t make me,” Mike asks, and that part is easy.
“I won’t,” Greg promises. He doesn’t know what else to say, has run out of words entirely, for the first time in Mike’s presence. For a while, they just breathe together. Greg feels himself sinking into the sofa a bit deeper. It’s very late, but neither of them has a healthy relationship with sleep anyway. Might as well talk if they’re going to be awake at two in the morning.
“It’s not often,” Mike says then. “I loved it all so much, going out, pulling, I figured I might as well get paid for it, and. Well it’s a bit different of course now. My... it happened soon after the start of the semester. No chance to apply to scholarships or loans, had to beg the college for help with tuition. And that’s without the needing to live and eat and convince everyone that I was not... that I’d be ready to start a career soon.”
Greg doesn’t say anything. His heart bleeds and he wishes Mike were closer or he were richer or that people didn’t do such awful things to each other.
“Once a month maybe?” Mike says, finally, as if he doesn’t know exactly how many times a month. Greg can’t tell if he’s lying about the number, or only lying about not knowing the exact number. “Lots of phone calls, several times a week, lonely people, horny people. The part that isn’t phone calls, the – well. Sometimes it’s fun.”
Other times he cries on the way home in the taxi, Greg’s mind supplies. No more, he wants to say. Never again. Come here, let me keep you safe. It’s not his life, though, is it?

On what is supposed to be their last meeting they stroll through the woods and fields. Close enough to where Mike lives that he can walk there, away from town so they don’t bump in to anyone.
“Mike,” says Greg, hands in his pockets, as they take in the spring air. “I have had a thought. When – when you come to London. Until you can get together the money for a deposit and whatnot. Stay with me.”
Mike laughs, entirely joyless. “That’s not even my name.”
No shit , Greg wants to say. He wants to say that Smith isn’t his last name either, but then remembers all the times he must’ve answered the phone with ‘Lestrade’. He wants to tell Mike what he does know about him, but he doesn’t want to spook him. He settles on: “what sort of a crap detective do you think I am?” Manages to sound fond and warm.
Mike leans in to him a little. “It’s not fair,” he sighs. “There’s so many people with so much money. You barely – barely paid off your own debts.”
“Yeah,” says Greg, not bothering to ask how Mike figured that bit out. “But all those rich people, how many of them love the way your hair looks fresh out of the shower?” He takes a deep breath to try and steady himself, decides it’s not the worst place or time to fall apart a little. “How many of them have you managed to convince that they’re worthy of affection and kindness despite being old and grey and unfit and lonely and divorced and really sort of a one-trick – ”
Mike silences him with a kiss, his arms around Greg’s neck and Greg can’t help but wrap his arms around Mike’s waist and kiss him back with all he has. Accepts the comfort and the affection and also the kindness.
“I’m Mycroft Holmes,” Mike whispers against his lips. “Edward broke my heart when he told my parents things about me they were never meant to know, and I was disowned for wanting to be like my uncle, and for wanting to protect my little brother, and for telling them all the secrets I knew about them, that they hadn’t meant for me to ever know.” Greg kisses him again and again, aware of all the ways in which this feels like an ending. “You are not obliged to solve my or anyone’s problems. You are free, and you are lovely.”
Greg is just about to say that he never cared all that much for being free, when he feels Mike’s warm strong body shudder under his hands and he decides that they need a sit-down and a strong cuppa, and then a long nap. He takes them both back to the car, drives himself and a sniffling Mike to the nearest inn, and gets them both settled in a dark corner on a worn-out sofa. And then they talk. 

When the semester is over, and Mike - Mycroft has his degree, Greg comes over with a rented truck to help him move. They picked a Tuesday morning, because it was the only time Greg could get off, but the fact that there is almost no one else around at the college is a definite bonus. When Greg hasn’t even taken his coat off, there’s a knock on the door. Mycroft rolls his eyes. Places a finger against his lips.
“OI HOLMES,” comes through the door. “I KNOW YOU’RE IN HERE!”
Whoever it is, their voice makes Mycroft pale in distress. Greg decides to take action immediately. He gentle pushes Mycroft over until he’s hiding behind the door, and then opens it just a bit. He knows that behind him everything looks in disarray, like someone is moving. Decides to lean in to that. “Excuse me?” He says, to a red-faced student in jeans that somehow manage to convey smarminess and a button-down. Light and polite. He’ll be mistaken for someone’s dad, of course, but that’s not the worst option here.
“Ah,” the young man says. “I apologize, of course. I was under the impression that...”
“Nice day, mate,” Greg says, and then he closes the door. 
Mycroft looks pale still, like he might be feeling ill, so Greg decides to distract. He looks over at Mycroft’s desk, which still has art and art supplies on it. “I finished it that same day,” Mycroft says, his voice tight. “Then I spent weeks agonizing about joy and what that might mean for you.”
Blinking heavily, Greg forgets about everything the deep black ink of the line art, the bright watercolour patches showing emotion rather than the actual colours of anything portrayed. The black ink outlines two figures in front of the bust of Ramesses the Great that Greg and Mike had argued over the day they went to the British Museum, until Mike had managed to convince Greg that it should be given back to Egypt with absolutely no delays. The shorter of the two figures is looking up at the statue, the taller one is looking at his companion with obvious affection. 
“Well,” Greg says, his voice rough. “You got it just right.”

“Ehm,” Mycroft says on only the third day after he’s moved in with Greg. “We need to talk.” Greg’s stomach drops through the floor, and he gapes at Mycroft. He’s sitting on the sofa, back ramrod straight, eyes resolutely on his hands. Greg hangs his coat, sets his work bag next to the bag Mycroft hasn’t ever left by the door before, and takes off his shoes. He really wanted to spend the evening cooking and maybe sharing some wine, and chatting about Mycroft’s day walking around London and mentally preparing for when work starts next week. Settles in for a long night of screaming instead on the armchair next to the tv so as not to overcrowd, remembering what marriage was like.
“Alright,” he says, thinking he does an admirable job of keeping his voice level and knowing he’s failed from the pitiful look Myc sends him. “What’s up?”
“This,” Mycroft’s face is pained, as he opens the drawer of the coffee table, and pulls out the whole stack of paper that Greg had used to prepare for their first meeting. Greg feels the blood rush out of his face, his stomach hurts at what Myc must be thinking of him.
“Would you let me tell you the whole story?” Greg asks, and of course Myc nods. Greg wants to lean in and feel a warm gentle hand on his hair and maybe also a kiss, but instead he takes a deep breath and talks about the case and how ‘Mike’ had contacted him and how he’d wanted, first to help, and then just him. When he looks up after what really wasn’t all that hard to explain in the end, Myc looks ashamed. “You have overnight clothes in the bag by the door don’t you?” Greg asks, miserably, and Mycroft nods, his cheeks flaming further. “I don’t blame you,” Greg promises. He doesn’t. It’s not an easy life, the one Myc’s had, of course he’d protect himself as best as he could. “M just glad you didn’t run before asking,” Greg adds, which is also true. 
Mycroft’s hands shake and Greg wants and so he goes over and kneels on the carpet. He wants to ask if Mycroft wants to talk at all, or if he’d prefer to cook and distract themselves with a movie, or if he just wants a shower and bed, and instead Myc cups his face in clammy hands and kisses him. “You’re so good,” he whimpers. “I don’t de–”
“You do,” Greg promises, not caring what Mycroft doesn’t think he deserves. Myc shoots him a wry little smile. But he lets Greg tuck him in on the sofa, and when dinner is ready and wine is poured, he huddles close. 
Myc tries to tell him things he clearly doesn’t want to say, about a boy who wanted to meet his family, all the other boys that didn’t, some of the men that wanted things Mycroft didn’t want to give. And the grade he got for the paper he wrote about the experience, just so that no one could ask questions about it later. Greg shushes him, and they watch a movie instead. No one screams at all.  

It is a late October Sunday when Greg is standing in the kitchen in only his pants and an apron. His feet are cold but he wants to pretend summer is not over yet. The kettle is rumbling, the radio is on, and the porridge is just reaching the gluey consistency Myc likes for some reason. The last raspberries of the season have been washed and are ready to be eaten with brown sludge by Myc and yoghurt for Greg. 
This, of course, is how he manages to miss the sound of the key in his lock. He’s only spurred into motion when the doors slams shut. Turns off the hobs lightning fast but still too slow because when he steps out of the kitchen, his mother and Myc are staring at each other, frozen. Myc was halfway through belting up his bathrobe, under which he is wearing pyjamas stolen from Greg, which are all a bit short and a bit wide on him. His mum is holding shopping bags and wearing one of her ugliest self-made hats. The one that for some reason combines hot pink with purple and lime green. Both of them turn to Greg and he realizes he’s practically naked. 
“Mum,” he croaks. “Hello.” 
The look on his mum’s face tells him he’s in trouble, and the cackle that rises up and out of her has him blushing more than he remembers ever doing in his entire life. Myc looks so relieved by her laughter that Greg wants to wrap him up and keep him safe, but that’s a well-known feeling by now that he is learning to manage.
“Well,” she says, “why don’t you introduce your young man to your mum and go put on some clothes?”
Greg is too embarrassed to protest, and when he gets back with socks and joggers and a t-shirt, his mum and Mycroft are laughing into mugs of tea. Myc has started on his porridge, his mum has helped herself to toast, and Greg’s yoghurt is out on the table too. “Sorry,” Greg mumbles into Myc’s hair, with a kiss, before he sits down. Myc shrugs a little his way, his smile fond and only a bit insecure.
“Now,” his mum says, “I hope this teaches you not to lie to your mam about working weekends! I thought my poor hard-working boy, I’ll pop by and make sure he has something to eat.”
Myc’s shining eyes tell Greg that he’d be getting laughed at, if they were alone. He makes a face, and Myc takes pity on him. “I hear you teach?” He asks Greg’s mum, and they end up having a nice conversation Greg can’t bother following. He’s far too busy praying he can convince Mycroft to never leave.