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A Question of Ethics

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Saturday 21st March

 

"How are things going?"

Greg smiled, sliding his hands together. The eternal question, he thought, looking up from the glossy parquet floor. 

"Still going," he said. Ananya's eyes sparkled with amusement. "Actually, you know what? That's too harsh. I'm good, thanks. It's been a good couple of weeks."

"Mm? How's the flat hunt?"

"Viewed a couple more places, but I wasn't taken with them. One was right above a bar, the other one came with a room mate. I don't think I can bear the thought. Happier where I am for the minute."

Ananya smiled, pleased. "Still going well?" she said, jotting something loosely on the pad held in her lap.

"Yeah. Yeah, really well. I'm making sure I pull my weight—y'know, laundry, cook dinner. Keep the kids entertained."

"That's very considerate of you."

"I think Lisa's loving it, really. Three-parent household. She and Ed even snuck in a cinema date last week."

"Lord. Definitely a bonus."

Greg grinned, pulling at the sleeve of his jumper. "Unexpected blessings," he said. His drifting gaze found the box of toys tucked beneath her desk, ragdolls and fire trucks and teddy bears. "The kids are happy," he said. "Uncle Greg just upstairs. Lots of fuss for them all. I've played a lot of Xbox. Attended a lot of Barbie tea parties."

"Is it nice for you, the time with them?" Ananya asked.

"God, yeah. Been brilliant."

"You sound like you're a bit of a natural."

"Ha. Yeah, I... I like kids. I know it's different for parents," Greg added, apologetic. He didn't know if she had kids of her own. She'd never said; he'd never asked. "I'm good at the messing around part. Entertaining them. I don't know how much use I'd be at moulding them into decent members of society."

"The main advantage of being an uncle," Ananya remarked, writing. "Wearing them out, handing them back."

Greg grinned. 

"Sounds about right," he said. A thought occurred, a small softness he suddenly wanted to share. "The youngest's... well, she's a bit shy," he said. "School've said she's not making many friends. Clings to the one she's got. She gets overwhelmed by things sometimes. Doesn't really dare compete with her brothers and her sister."

He glanced up, his eyes bright.

"Kindred spirit," he added, and Ananya smiled. "I've been reading to her every night. Just quiet in the lounge together, cocoa and pyjamas. She fetches me her book now. Think it's doing her some good."

Ananya laid her fingertips against her chest, moved.

"I know," Greg grinned, embarrassed, and brushed a piece of fluff off his arm. "It's, erm... it's nice. Thinking I'm... well, it's just nice."

"It sounds like your home life's going rather wonderfully. How's work?"

On instinct, Greg drew a breath—then realised there wasn't much need for one. 

"Fairly steady," he replied, surprised by it. "There's plenty going on, but... well, I don't mind it so much. Good to be busy. Busy but handling it, y'know? I'm not drowning in the swamp."

"That's good," she said, writing. "Do your work mates know about the separation now?"

"Yeah, old news. Most of them knew by January." A pocket of quiet opened in the room, inviting Greg to fill it. "I worried people might... I don't know, pity me. Be tentative around me. That or think I was an idiot, calling it quits so soon after the wedding."

Ananya glanced up from her notes, interested. "Have you found that to be the case?"

"Nah," Greg said, smiling. "Few people checked if I needed anything. People who've been through it, y'know? Told me if I ever wanted to meet for a pint, swap some war stories... mostly just business as usual, though. It's made me realise I've got a good team."

"I imagine it's making the process easier," Ananya said. "The quiet support of colleagues and family."

Greg thought about it. 

"Divorce was never gonna be easy," he admitted. "You're right, though. I'm glad there's people around me. They're good at keeping me on track. It's just a case of moving on along the road."

"How's the application going?"

"She's still being difficult about money. Unsurprisingly."

"Mm. It's often a point of tension."

"Solicitor says this'll be the worst part, then the actual application should go pretty smoothly. You can do it all online now. Bit weird, but... well, it saves a trip to the post office."

Ananya smiled, enjoying his humour. "Do you still believe Helen will contest the adultery grounds?"

Greg wrinkled his nose. He still thought it was a possibility, maybe even a strong possibility. She would likely do it out of spite, just to delay things. It wouldn't change all that much in the end.

"I've got copies of her messages to him," he said with a shrug. "Emailed them all to myself before I'd even finished reading."

Ananya's eyes twinkled. "You're not a police officer for nothing, Greg."

He smirked a little. "Rule one. Preserve the evidence."

"It will prove a very wise instinct, if anything's contested."

"So I thought. If she really wants to waste a few more weeks, she can go ahead and contest. It means a judge gets to read her fawning over blurry dick pics. Suppose it depends what her dignity's worth."

Ananya's mouth twitched, visibly fighting the need to smile. 

"Let's hope it doesn't get that far," she remarked, jotting. "For the judge's sake, if no one else."

Greg smiled. "Fingers crossed," he said.

She finished whatever she was writing, giving a little hum. 

"Has she made any attempts to contact you this week?" she asked, looking up.

"No more texts or calls since I changed my mobile number. Lisa's, too. I still feel a bit guilty about that, but Lisa keeps promising me it's fine. She doesn't mind."

"I'm sure she's very happy to take that minor inconvenience," Ananya said. "She'll understand it's not something you've caused, Greg. Your ex-wife's decisions are her own."

It was incredible to hear someone call her that. The paperwork hadn't even been submitted yet, but just being allowed to imagine it felt like sunlight streaming down upon Greg's face. 

He couldn't fucking wait.

"Yeah," he said, flushing. "Yeah, Lisa's sweet. Keeps saying she wanted a new phone anyway. It's got a much better camera."

"Any more visits to the house?"

"Erm—a couple. Are you ready for this? Bit weird, but Lisa and I recruited the kids to help watch. They think it's another daft Uncle Greg game. We've told them if they see a dark grey Volvo parked near the house, take a photo of it and post it on the family WhatsApp. If the registration plate's showing, that's a bonus photo and they win a pack of Panini stickers."

Ananya's eyebrows lifted as she wrote, impressed. "Rule one," she murmured. "Preserve the evidence."

Greg grinned a little, shifting in his chair. 

"I don't think they realise they're helping compile Uncle Greg's divorce petition," he said. There came a pause. "Last time they got a picture, they said the person saw them doing it and drove off. It looks like Helen's cottoning on."

"Forgive a psychiatrist," Ananya said, looking up at him with reassurance. "Has she attempted to approach any of them?"

"The kids? God, no."

"Is she following the children specifically?"

"No, no. She did follow the car once, but Lisa reckons she thought it was me. Sped out of there the second Lisa stepped from the driver's seat."

"Good," Ananya murmured, lowering her eyes. She began to make a longer note. "I'm sorry she's following you at all, of course... but from what I know about you, Greg, it'll be a relief she isn't focused on your family."

Greg's chest strained. "Yeah," he mumbled. "Yeah, big relief." 

Watching Ananya write, he drew a quiet breath. 

"Part of me... I don't know, feels bad that they're suffering this with me. Then I start thinking how much worse it'd be if I was on my own in a flat somewhere. Waking up in the middle of the night to see her parked outside."

"I'm certain Lisa would be distressed by that, too," Ananya murmured.

It was true, and Greg knew it. He breathed the worry out, holding onto the comfort. 

"It's less creepy now the kids think it's a bit of fun," he admitted. "I'm just hoping Helen gives it a rest soon. Costing me a fortune in Panini stickers."

"Has she tried to approach you at all?"

"No. That's kinda the weirdest bit. She was texting me ten times a day before I changed my number, then at night leaving voicemails that went on for weeks. But she's never once got out of the car. She just sits there, waiting. Watching. It's like she knows it's more unsettling that way."

He hesitated, rubbing his thumb against the centre of his palm.

"She's not turned up here again, has she?" he asked.

Ananya's expression stayed perfectly clean, her gaze down and busy writing. "Not since we changed the codes."

"J-Jesus. Sorry."

"Why?"

"'Cause... well, it's... sort of my fault."

"Is it?" Ananya asked, looking up.

Greg tried to hold onto it, but found himself struggling not to smile. She was very good at saying nothing and yet everything at once. He liked that about her.

"I'm sorry she turned up," he said. "I'm... sorry I can't not be sorry. It's embarrassing for me, what she did. I don't like that you were all inconvenienced and embarrassed too. I know it wasn't due to my choices," he added, seeing a familiar expression start to form on Ananya's face. It crumpled with amusement. "And I know that what Helen does isn't mine to apologise for. But I'm still sorry."

Ananya smiled, gently shaking her head. 

"There's no need to be," she said, "though I acknowledge your gracious attempt."

"You've not lost business or anything, have you?"

"No," she murmured. "No, not at all. Anger towards therapists is common, especially in the weeks after a professional relationship has ended. We have procedures and processes in place for times when that anger inclines to violence. Helen was removed very swiftly from the building and we informed her new therapist of the situation."

"Has she... been to see the new therapist?"

"I'm afraid I don't know. The referral was accepted, but whether she's making use of the appointment is beyond my knowledge."

"Right." Greg paused, shaping a question inside his mouth. He'd wanted to ask for weeks. "Who, erm... did she seem to be after a particular target when she came here, or..."

Ananya inhaled, glancing up from her notes as she contemplated how much to impart.

"We believe she was primarily looking for you," she said. "Obviously, she didn't find you."

Greg's pulse quickened. Events began to connect themselves inside his brain, shifting, clicking into place, turned by his familiar mechanisms of logic he'd honed with years of experience.

"Because my appointment changed to Saturday," he said, looking at Ananya. "So... so she turned up on a... Jesus, who was here? It wasn't just—"

Ananya gently intervened. "It wasn't," she said. "Another member of staff was present in the building."

Greg's chest gripped around his heart, beating hard. He'd thought Helen had come charging through on a busy morning, shouting her mouth off, looking to punish the place for referring her. He hadn't realised it was even worse. 

"But—Christ, what happened?"

"Our receptionist put procedures into place," Ananya said, calmly, "including a silent alarm signal which meant doors were quickly locked. The police were summoned. Helen chose to leave peacefully."

"Bloody hell," Greg whispered. He wrapped one hand around his wrist, shivering. "Wow, it's... it's lucky your receptionist was..."

Ananya's mouth pulled at the edge, admitting something. 

"More good management than good luck," she said. "It was suggested several weeks ago that two members of staff should be present at any given time. Simply as a precaution."

He knew. He knew she'd turn up.

And he knew she'd turn up on an evening, while we were... while she thought we'd be...

"But," Ananya's voice murmured, beckoning Greg gently from his thoughts, "we've had no contact since. We've seen no further attempts to get into the building. The police will have warned Helen against repeating the behaviour, and none of our staff have reported any problems."

Greg looked into her eyes, trying to see through them to the fullness of the truth. It wasn't easy. He'd never told her, but if Ananya Sahasrabuddhe ever wanted to commit cold-blooded murder, there was a fairly strong chance she'd sail through questioning without a blink.

"Helen's... not following any staff?" he said.

Ananya visibly appreciated the broadness of the question. "No," she said. "Nobody has noticed being followed."

How carefully is he keeping watch? "No, erm... no harassment?" Greg checked. "Nothing like that?"

"No, Greg. Don't worry. Everyone at the clinic is safe."

Greg's fingers curled quietly into his palms. Right, he thought. He took a few moments to coax himself to trust, knowing there wasn't much else he could do. Part of him wanted to stand outside the place day and night to guard it, armed with whatever he could find. But he couldn't do that and guard Lisa's house as well.

He'd spoken to a colleague at work when it all first started, borrowed his expertise on the unfamiliar world of stalking. Paul had done a full risk assessment for Greg, sat him down at a desk with a large coffee and a printed form full of questions, and finally concluded that for now the risk of violence was low. There wasn't a previous history of physical abuse. She'd not destroyed any property, vandalised anything or threatened anyone. She hit quite a few risk factors to be a persistent stalker, which wasn't the best of news, but at least she wasn't likely to be dangerous. "Doesn't mean it's not serious," Paul had said, patting Greg on the back. "Doesn't mean you should brush it aside. We'll start a proper log and I'll get you all the support numbers, alright? Don't keep this to yourself. It's often exactly what they want."

Dimly, Greg wondered if Helen was expecting him to do that—isolate himself from the people he cared about, trying to protect them. Move out of Lisa's house, stop coming to the clinic. She'd not bothered turning up outside work, but maybe she just knew she couldn't chase him off from Scotland Yard.

Suppose she'd be out of her mind to try stalking someone there, he thought, vaguely amused. She's a lot of things but she's not stupid.

"—very normal to be left feeling anxious," Ananya was saying, and Greg switched the radio dial in his mind back to the world around him. "Most studies suggest that a strong support network will lessen that anxiety, as well as decrease the duration of the stalking. It creates a feeling that we're safe within the herd."

Greg smiled a little, gripping his own knee. "S'good to hear," he said. "How long does this stuff tend to last?"

Ananya clicked her tongue. 

"It's hard to estimate," she said. "Cases can last anywhere from a few weeks to several years. It's largely predicated on the stalker's emotional investment in the relationship—as that fades, so does the fixation—but the behaviour of the victim can have a significant impact, too."

Greg winced a little at victim. He wasn't sure he wanted it to get that bad. 

"Am I doing okay so far?" he asked.

"You're doing everything perfectly," Ananya murmured, her gaze reassuring. "Report it, seek support, cut all unnecessary contact, keep a log and trust your instincts. Flying colours."

Greg couldn't fight a smile. Three months of sessions, and she knew him like the back of her hand. She knew how to settle him. He'd spent his adult life processing the very worst decisions of humanity into paperwork; his mind felt at home with procedures and plans and things to work through. Life was happening to him one moment at a time these days. He collected up a fortnight's worth, brought them here, and then Ananya helped him sort through them. She never let him sink into the swamp.

"Helen'll get bored sooner or later," he said. "She got bored of me quick enough when we were married. S'just a question of time."

Ananya huffed. "You're doing remarkably, Greg. I'm delighted to see you feeling so positive."

Greg tried not to glow. It felt a bit like getting a gold star at school. 

"Thanks," he said. "My, erm... my sister's been saying I look better lately. My sergeant, too. The pair of them keep trying to tell me I'm a new man."

"They're not wrong," Ananya remarked, her eyes bright. She lifted her pad of paper briefly from her lap, recrossing her legs at the knee. "Is there anything else that's been on your mind?" she asked, writing. Greg's heart gave a small and nervous bump, nudging just gently against his ribs. "Anything in your thoughts I can help with?"

"Nah. Not much. Not really help with." Apologetic, trying not to be awkward about it, he smiled. "Just... y'know, the usual thing."

She didn't need to ask what he was referring to. Her expression stayed clean and very gentle, unjudging as she made some brief note.

"Have there been any developments in that regard?" she asked.

Greg had read last week's text so many times now that he knew it by heart. He'd imagined it spoken aloud in a hundred different ways. 'I wanted you to know you're not forgotten, and that I appreciate your patience very much. I hear you're well. I'm very glad and I hope it continues. Take care. M.' 

He'd thought of little else since it arrived.

"Just touching base," he murmured. "Quick hello every few weeks. Doing my best not to text more often than that."

Ananya nodded, saying nothing, creating a space for him to talk. Greg's stomach squeezed in the quiet. He found himself suddenly very aware of his hands. 

"Have you heard anything?" he asked.

She lifted her eyes from her notes, half-smiling, and fixed him with a look he knew well by now. Reluctantly he smiled in return.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I know you can't. And m'sorry I keep making you remind me. I just... it's kinda hard. I can't stop myself wondering what you know."

Ananya's gaze gentled with sympathy. "I appreciate that it's frustrating," she said. "It might be best to try and forget there's a connection."

M'not gonna forget a thing, Greg thought. Ever. As long as I live.  

"Is he okay at least?" he said. "Is he... doing alright in general, I mean?"

Ananya considered the question for a moment or two, apparently judging what was wisest to keep and to reveal.

"He's alright, Greg," she said at last. Greg hung on her every word. "It probably won't be a surprise, but he makes similar inquiries about you. I'm now reminding both of you on a fortnightly basis that I'm forbidden from discussing my clients with other clients."

God. "He, erm... he asks about me?" Greg said.

"And receives no answers," Ananya replied, gently lifting an eyebrow, "other than that you're well."

Greg realised he was gripping the arm of his chair. He loosened his fingers with a breath, trying to make this sound casual. "What does he ask?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you," Ananya murmured, watching him closely.

"Right. No, that's... that's fair." Greg hesitated, looking down at the laces in his shoes. It felt like his heart was trying to squeeze its way out between his ribs. "Sorry. I know you're probably sick of... f-feels like all I bloody talk about some sessions."

"We can talk about whatever you wish," Ananya said, her silver pen now resting between her graceful fingers, her notes and the pad of paper ignored. "This is your time, Greg. It's for you to focus on anything you'd like to."

Him. Just him.

Just let me talk about him.

"Can I... ask something?" Greg said, looking up at Ananya in apology. She held his gaze and listened, a picture of calm. "I know you'll know why I'm asking. I know you'll probably just want to slap this right out of me, but I... I don't know anyone else I can ask."

"Go on," she said, gently.

Greg's lungs filled themselves. "The... 'no former patients' thing. What's the thinking behind it?"

Ananya took a moment to put together an answer for him, mulling it thoughts through her mind.

"There can be concerns about exploitation," she said, to begin. "Due to the nature of the work we do, a therapist will always holds a degree of power over you. That doesn't necessarily end when therapy does. It means that you would enter into any intimacy from a position of great weakness and vulnerability."

Greg's heart filled with a flash of painful memory—slumped on the floor with their arms around each other, clinging, struggling, hot tears against his cheek.

"There's also the issue of emotional dependence," Ananya added. "In a therapeutic relationship, it runs one way. A patient depends upon a doctor, not in reverse. But an equal and emotionally healthy relationship requires a balance of give and take."

Greg nodded numbly, trying to listen instead of thinking.

"A therapist's main task is to create space for you to explore your emotions," Ananya went on. "In order to do that, we naturally put our own feelings and perceptions to one side. Any patient who imagines that a relationship will feel the same way that therapy did will be disappointed. It's unsettling to have to make room for emotions you've previously been shielded from."

I'd give anything to... to listen, to help. To see those.

"Therapists also run the risk," Ananya concluded, raising an eyebrow, "of gaining a twenty-four hour client, rather than a partner. And while at first it might feel emotionally satisfying to be needed, exhaustion and resentment can set in very quickly. This is before we've even approached the issue of transference."

Memory kindled in the back of Greg's mind. 

"That's where it's... transferred from someone else?" he said. "The emotions, I mean? Someone in your past."

Ananya nodded simply, quietly.

"So if I had a... an old girlfriend I'd lost," Greg said, "or..."

"It's most commonly a parent," Ananya said. "The therapist becomes a sort of neo-parent. A painful or difficult attachment to the actual parent finds a safer, more emotionally comforting lease of life, anchored onto the therapist. Healing blossoms out of that. Sometimes the very opposite occurs, and the therapist reawakens anger and contempt once directed at a parent. But focused onto the therapist as a surrogate, it can be dismantled and worked through."

Greg's head whirled. "Then how does counter-transference work?" he asked.

Ananya visibly masked a smile. "That term was mentioned, was it?" she said.

"Briefly," Greg mumbled. Heat rose in his cheeks. "What is it?"

"Counter-transference," she said, with a breath, "occurs when an analyst projects their own unresolved conflicts onto a client."

"So... so the patient reminds them of someone in their life," Greg said. "And that's where, erm... where the attraction comes from. Right?"

"It's a little more complex than that," Ananya replied, with care. "It's not necessarily a case of sexual attraction. It can provoke protective feelings, or anxious feelings, or even strongly negative feelings. Inexplicable disgust towards a client is as much a case of counter-transference as sexual attraction."

Greg flushed a little darker, trying to pretend he couldn't feel its heat. 

"But it comes from somewhere else," he mumbled. "It's... basically just an old ghost."

"Mm." Ananya turned her pen between her fingers, visibly judging whether he should hear something. "Some therapists think that a degree of transference and counter-transference is necessary to the process of therapy."

Greg blinked, startled. "Really?"

"Mm. Let's say I take on a patient who has unresolved feelings of abandonment towards her mother. During the course of our sessions, she transfers those feelings onto me, where they can be safely examined. Prompted by her needs, I develop a degree of counter-transference. I assume a temporary parental role for her, a protective role, supplying the reassurance she needs for her feelings to be resolved."

"Right. So... if there's a match, it actually works out okay. It's actually positive."

Ananya raised an eyebrow. "Mm. And the transference dissolves away, no longer needed."

Greg prepared his next question with enormous care. 

"How can you tell if it's a case of transference," he asked, looking into Ananya's eyes, "or just ordinary love?"

She drew a long, soundless breath. 

"Some would argue that all love is transference," she said. "Ordinary or otherwise. Everything we ever do is an attempt to restore—or to find—absolute closeness with our parents."

Christ. "But when it's out in the real world," Greg said, his heart beating hard, "we don't get weird about it. We just let people fall in love and get on with it, even if deep down it's because they didn't get everything they needed from their mum or their dad."

Ananya gave a small hum, brushing her thumb along her pen.

"Yes," she said, clearly well aware of what she'd just authorised. "Until something goes wrong, of course, and someone ends up in the hands of a therapist."

Greg wet his lips, not quite daring to breathe. "It's like jigsaw bits," he said.

Ananya frowned a little, uncomprehending.

"We're puzzle pieces," he said, watching her as he spoke. "We're all shaped by what hurt when we were kids. Normally we just bash around in the box together, trying other pieces until something seems to click. Or clicks enough that it holds well enough. We try to find someone who's got something what we need."

Ananya listened in silence, faintly impressed and still stroking her pen.

"But therapists are special," Greg went on, his pulse fast. "People come to you in all kinds of shapes, and you become what they need. You make yourself into their match for a while. Maybe it's... it's more like you smooth our broken edges and make it easier for us to fit with other people in the future... but that's essentially what happens, right? That's what therapy is."

Ananya looked as if she regretted not taking notes. "I'd say that's a very good analogy, yes."

Greg braced himself, reaching the most important part.

"But you also have a real shape of your own," he said, and watched realisation flicker through her gaze. "You're still humans, still wounded. You put it to one side so you can help other people. But at the end of the day, you're still a puzzle piece. You're rattling around in the box as well, searching for something you need."

Ananya said nothing, letting him draw to his conclusion.

"So here's my question," Greg said, and realised he hadn't taken a breath in over a minute. He took one now, deep. "If two people come across each other, match up like it's perfect, and they're happy together... why does it matter where they met?"

"Because a therapist will, sooner or later, return to their own true shape," Ananya said. She held Greg's gaze with absolute seriousness. "If a match is based on a performed role—one assumed by a therapist to meet a client's emotional needs, even if unconsciously—then that match is unsustainable. The role becomes harder and harder to keep up. Eventually, the pieces force themselves apart."

Greg's heart contracted, too close now to honesty to keep the words in his mouth.

"What's Mycroft's real shape?" he asked.

Ananya's expression did not move. She took a moment to attend to her thoughts, then lowered her gaze to her notepad.

"Have your feelings changed at all since December?" she asked.

Greg didn't need to think. He only had to pause for the strength to say it. 

"No," he murmured. His throat seemed to harden. He gripped his right knee, rubbing the denim with his thumb until he could speak again. "Not one bit."

The silence waited, wide open all around him.

"It feels like twenty minutes since I saw him," he said, turning his gaze back down to the floor. He couldn't do this while looking at her face. "I... I, erm... sometimes I just sit and think about him. Just sit there wherever I am, total silence. Close my eyes, and..."

Memories washed over him, all of them at once. They took his breath.

"Hope he's okay," he mumbled. "Whatever he's doing. Having a good day, not worrying about anything."

Ananya made no sound, letting him talk. She wasn't writing on her notepad. This wouldn't be going in his file.

With a shiver, Greg reached up to rub the side of his neck.

"Wish I could see him," he said. Something inside his chest seemed to crack. "J-Just for a second. Christ. Just to know that he's... I see things in the street, and my heart gets excited to tell him about them. Stupid things. Little things. Then I remember that I can't, and it kills me."

"How is it you hope he'd react?" Ananya asked, gently. "What do you imagine him doing when you tell him?"

Greg struggled to answer, gazing at her curtains as he tried out different things in his mind.

"I don't even know," he said at last. "Just however he'd want to react." Realisation dawned. He flushed with distress, looking back into Ananya's eyes. "I'm not wanting approval or forgiveness or... or praise, I just... I like the idea of talking to him. I don't know why. It's just what I feel."

"Greg, these feelings... did they occur at a particular point in your therapy?"

"No. I liked talking to him since the moment I met him. Took me a while to fully realise I... that there was more to it. A lot more. But it was all there at the start. I just sat down in his office and felt okay."

Ananya tried a quiet smile. "Reaching a therapist can feel like finally reaching a safehouse," she said. "There's always a degree of relief."

Greg's chest tightened. 

"It wasn't relief," he said. "It... well, there was relief. But it was more than that. I just... I just thought he was fucking amazing. All of him. Just his face and his voice and the way he sat, the way he dressed. All the photos he had on his wall. All of him. And... n-no offence, but it wasn't relief in my first session with you. It was dread. I worried you were gonna lecture me."

"You were nervous," Ananya conceded.

"I never was with him," Greg said. He curled his fingers into his palms, looking down at them. "If we'd met him at work, or in the supermarket or in a bar, then I'd still feel like this. I know it. I wish that's how it had been, then there wouldn't be all this... are we allowed to talk, are we allowed to text... i-it's exhausting."

Ananya leant forwards in her chair.

"Greg," she murmured, and Greg braced himself for something he didn't want to hear. "It's going to be impossible for you to divorce that person from the circumstances in which you met him. They coloured your perception of him, even if you're not aware of it."

"Why don't you say his name?" Greg asked, searching her face. "Why do you... you always have to..."

Ananya offered him a look of regret.

"To help me divorce a personal friend from a situation," she said. "It means that you and I can then discuss that situation objectively."

Greg breathed in. "Can I be honest?"

"I'd encourage you to be nothing else," she said. 

"You're working really hard to divorce those two things. You've managed a decree nisi, maybe. Not a decree absolute. Is there a chance you're as biased as I am? Trying to protect your friend's career? I get it, if you are. I don't blame you."

Ananya took a long time to respond, looking back at him with care.

"Most therapists will tell you that we're ghosts, Greg," she murmured. "We guide you through the underworld to the surface, then we vanish. We can't come with you into the daylight."

Greg's heart ripped itself in two before he could even breathe.

"Everyone's a ghost," he said. Heat threatened to rise in his eyes; he inhaled, begging it to numb. "Life's a dream. Just have to hope that it's happy. If it's happy, hope we don't wake up too soon."

Ananya took this to heart, lowering her gaze from his.

"I won't be able to counsel you towards what you want," she said, "nor can I give you permission. If I'm trying to protect Mycroft's career, it's because I understand the dangers involved. A relationship between a therapist and a patient—even a former patient—will always meet with very serious challenges."

Greg supposed it was a mark of his mind; a challenge, by its nature, admitted possibility.

"It does happen, though," he said.

A little brightness returned to Ananya's eyes. She seemed to like his spirit, if nothing else. Her tone retained gentle caution. 

"It's not completely unheard of," she said. "Any therapist who entertained the idea would have to endure a great deal of scrutiny, especially without a lengthy cooling-off period."

"H-How long is 'lengthy', would you say?" Greg asked.

Ananya paused. "Some would start the bidding at three years."

Right.

That's...

Only thirty-three months to go, then.

"I'm sorry," Ananya added, regarding Greg more gently than she had all session. "I really am. But I'd be failing in my duties to you if I didn't make the situation clear. It's simply a matter of ethics, Greg."

"I know," Greg murmured, and he forgave her completely. He hadn't expected anything else. "It's just... every time you make it clear, it makes some other things clearer too."

"What things?" she asked.

Greg's heart squeezed. "That I'd risk it anyway."

Ananya took this onboard, her gaze quiet, her expression soft with understanding. He couldn't tell what she actually felt behind her wall of duty. In a way, it didn't matter in the least. He didn't come here every two weeks for reassurance that Ananya liked him and approved of him. He turned up so she could try and talk some sense into him. If anyone on this planet stood a chance, it was her.

And yet it still wasn't working, three months down the line.

"You truly did care for him, didn't you?" she murmured, her pen still lying capped upon her notepad.

Greg held her gaze. 

"I do," he said. "I always will. My brain gets why I'm not allowed. The rest of me just can't understand it."

 

*

 

The session ended as usual: five minutes to revisit what they'd covered, ten slow breaths with affirmations in between, then a quick check of the date for next session. They parted with a handshake at the door, perfect friends. If Ananya had heard anything she'd rather not have, Greg didn't see any sign of it in her face. She thanked him for coming, her brown eyes as fond as ever, and wished him the very best for the rest of the weekend.

She then closed the door behind him, leaving Greg by himself in the corridor. 

In the quiet, a little numb, he fished his phone from inside his jacket and switched it back on. He always felt a bit disconnected after these sessions. It was odd to find himself back in the world, and he never quite knew if the hour had been good or not. He supposed it wasn't the point that he should always leave Ananya's office feeling good. Slow progress over the rolling weeks and months was more important.

Coffee would help to settle him. He had nothing else to do with the day after all. He'd promised Reece and Danny an Xbox rematch after tea, but otherwise his afternoon was wide open. 

As his homescreen loaded, he discovered two texts from his sister: one asking if he'd mind popping into Sainsbury's on his way home, picking up a bottle of fabric softener; another an hour later, saying she'd found some in the back of the cupboard.

Greg smiled a little, tapping in his reply. You sure? Don't mind getting some more. Anything else? xx

At the squeak of a nearby door, he glanced instinctively towards the sound. He didn't want to be in someone's way, loitering in the corridor on his phone like a teenager.

As he realised who was appearing, stepping into the corridor with kettle in hand, Greg's heart seemed to drop from the sky.

Oh—

Oh, Christ—

Mycroft's glance skimmed him there. His face opened in the patient and friendly politeness one gave a stranger in one's path—then he recognised Greg, and he froze. Their gazes locked.

Greg closed his mouth, his hand seized tight around his phone.

"Holy shit," he breathed before he could think. He swallowed quickly, trying to pull his face into some shape that felt halfway to normal. "H-Hi."

Mycroft seemed to lose consciousness for a second. His gaze flickered behind his glasses, fogging, struggling for speech.

He tightened his grip on his kettle and inhaled.

 

Chapter Text

"H-Hello..."

It seemed so small, so inadequate. Mycroft had never felt so unconfident in a greeting in all his life. He searched Greg's deep brown eyes, his heart shocked out of its ability to beat, trying desperately to find more to say.

"How are you?" he asked, even though in truth he didn't need to. Greg looked wonderful. He seemed healthy and happy and well-rested, freshly-shaven, colour in his face. He wore a tan leather jacket Mycroft hadn't seen before, with an ironed white shirt underneath it. Mycroft's memory had done him no justice. He was magnificent.

"Good," Greg said, a little breathless. Even his voice seemed well. "Yeah, I'm... I'm good. Thanks. Wow, you look great."

Mycroft's heart clenched. 

Greg sucked in a breath, visibly regretting the comment at once. "You're, erm... you're keeping well, then?" he asked.

The last three months had vanished into oblivion. Mycroft couldn't remember a single detail about any of them. He might as well have spent the time locked in his office, lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling without a sound. It hadn't mattered. None of it.

"I'm well," he said. "Thank you." He wasn't well. He wasn't anything of the sort. "Rather glad to see the end of winter, but..."

Greg laughed, nervous. "Yeah," he said. "Y-yeah, it's... it's been awful this year."

The silence ached around them.

Mycroft suddenly became aware he was still holding a kettle, standing here in his own doorway like a lightning-struck fool.

"Oh," Greg said, noticing. "Sorry. Are you, erm... with somebody?" He glanced towards Mycroft's half-open door.

"Oh—no," Mycroft said, flushing. "Not at the... I shall be," he added. "In about five minutes."

Disappointment ebbed through Greg's gaze. It was swiftly swept aside, buried beneath a small and friendly smile.

"Cool," he said quietly. "Well, erm... I won't keep you. It was nice to... m'glad you're... yeah."

Oh, god.

Oh god, I...

"I hope Ananya's taking good care of you," Mycroft heard his own mouth say.

Greg's eyes hadn't left his face for so much as a moment. He seemed to pale slightly, unable to hold something back. "You took good care of me, too," he said.

Mycroft's heart surged up into his throat. "Greg—"

"She's great," Greg said, shifting with discomfort at the sound of his name. "S-she's really great. She, erm... she's got her work cut out for her. But she's working on it. We've covered a lot of stuff."

The silence closed in.

"I'm getting a divorce," Greg said. He tried a smile. "Just carving up the house. Then... all over."

Mycroft's chest swelled with insurmountable relief. 

"I'm so glad," he said. "I... r-really, Greg. I'm so pleased."

"Y-yeah. Yeah, me too. Over the moon, to be honest."

"Are you—still living—"

"Christ, no," Greg breathed.

Mycroft smiled before he could stop himself, overwhelmed by the flash of happiness in those soft, honest eyes. He'd missed them more than he'd thought possible.

Greg's nervous smile grew a little bolder. 

"No, I... I moved out the same day," he said. "Crammed what I could in a bag and went to Lisa's. She's taken me into her spare room. Been there three months now."

"How is Lisa?" Mycroft asked, aching with fondness for a woman he'd never met. Of course she took you in. In a heartbeat, I'm sure. Without a blink. "How are the children?"

"They're great, thanks," Greg said. "Right as rain. The kids are happy to have another grown-up in the house. I, erm... I get shown a lot of drawings." He grinned.

Mycroft's entire soul seemed to glow.

"Being with them suits you," he said. "You look wonderful, Greg. You look very happy."

Greg seemed to draw a breath. "I am," he said. "I'm lucky. M'glad with how it's going." He paused, visibly gripping his own hands inside his pockets. "You look like you're doing well, too," he said. "Are you busy lately, or—?"

"Not unreasonably. We, ah... we always have something of a surge after Christmas, but the tide has now ebbed."

"New clients, you mean?"

"Yes. The holidays tend to bring points of tension to the fore. Coupled with finances stretching, and extended time off work, it... well, there's motive and opportunity."

Greg grinned. "Good, though," he said. "Being busy."

"Yes," Mycroft said, smiling through the hammering of his heart. "Yes, it's... passed the time."

Silence opened up between them once more—pulling, squeezing. Mycroft couldn't look away from Greg's eyes. He'd rehearsed this moment a thousand times, lying awake in his bed at night, but never once had he imagined it would be like this. He'd envisioned himself offering polite words of comfort to a broken and desolate man, possibly even an angry one. By the facts of the matter, he'd smashed Greg's life into fragments and then left him to sort through the shards. Greg had every possible right to be grieving and raging in the wreckage. Though Ananya had promised he was well, Mycroft hadn't been able to believe her.

Now the evidence was before his eyes, and it crippled him.

As Greg inhaled, preparing goodbye, Mycroft's chest expanded too.

"Well," Greg said, visibly gathering his courage. "I'll head off. Let you get on with it."

Don't. Please.

Stay.

"Are you busy for the rest of—?" Mycroft asked.

"Nah. Just... dinner, entertain the kids." Greg shrugged, still smiling. "Nothing exciting. You?"

"Oh, I... similar," Mycroft said. "E-Excepting the children, of course. Entertaining myself. A far more tedious task."

"Yeah. Yeah, always the way." Greg took a first uneasy step back. "Nice seeing you."

Mycroft's stomach twisted. "Yes. Yes, you too."

Turning, Greg gave him one last smile. "Take care," he said, and moved away along the corridor. 

Aching, Mycroft watched him go. He watched the last of his tan leather jacket disappear around the corner, then listened to his footsteps until the squeak of the door to the staircase swallowed them up.

As Mycroft emptied his kettle into the staff sink in silence, he tried to ignore his shaking hands.

Glad, he told himself, reaching for the tap. He barely had the strength in his wrists to turn it. Glad that he is... happy, and... 

And there should be closure for me in...

Water gushed into the sink, thundering against its metal base.

Something within Mycroft broke.

He dragged his wet hands down his waistcoat as he raced through the waiting area, ignoring Anthea's startled, "Dr Holmes?" from the desk. A family by the door dodged out of his way. Mycroft wheeled around the top of the stairs, took both flights at speed, and came in sight of the front door just in time to see it close.

He wrenched it open, panting, and shouted down the street.

"Greg?"

The figure up ahead didn't hear him. 

Mycroft filled his lungs. His bloody dignity could hang.

"GREG!"

Greg heard him. The waiting room, Ananya and most of London probably heard him. Whether they turned towards his voice or not, Mycroft didn't care. 

The one person in the world who mattered had turned.

Greg watched with concern as Mycroft hurried after him along the pavement. He finally caught up with Greg beside a dark blue car that Mycroft now recognised, the keys to which were already in Greg's hand. A few more seconds, and he'd have driven away.

Struggling for breath, Mycroft began to try and speak.

"Hey," Greg murmured over him, reaching, and put a hand on Mycroft's arm. The contact shattered his heart into pieces. "S'alright," Greg said. "T-take a minute. Don't hurt yourself."

"I'm sorry," Mycroft managed, shaking. "I'm sorry I..."

Greg's gaze grew soft. 

"It's alright," he said again. He rubbed Mycroft's arm to slow his breathing. "Whatever it's for. It's fine. Honestly."

Oh, god.

"It isn't," Mycroft said. Greg began to reassure him, promising him. "No, Greg. Please. It... it categorically isn't. You deserve a full and frank apology for... for so many things that I hardly know where to begin. A-and I want to give you that apology."

Greg said nothing, listening, his expression set in something Mycroft couldn't quite decode.

"I've spent a great deal of time with Ananya," Mycroft said, swallowing. He drew a deep breath and went on. "I've reached various conclusions in my thinking. And I would like to share those with you, i-if you'd be willing. I think it would be beneficial to both of us."

Greg seemed uneasy, searching his eyes as if he suspected something.

"Alright," he said. He hesitated, removing his touch from Mycroft's arm, and slid both hands into his pockets. "D'you... want me to come back later?"

"No. No, not in the office. I..." Couldn't bear it. There, with you. Where we were. "Somewhere more private," Mycroft said, flushing. Greg raised a single eyebrow. "If you'd be comfortable coming to my home, then... or a public place, if you'd—"

"Your place is fine," Greg said. Mycroft's heart tightened with a thump. "Were you meaning tonight?"

"I-if it's convenient."

"Sure. S-sure, that's... yeah, not a problem. What time?"

God help me. "When would suit you?"

The corner of Greg's mouth pulled, indifferent. "What time's your last appointment?" he asked. "I'm at a loose end for the rest of the day."

"I'll be home by seven, if that's..."

"Fine. Seven. Okay, I'll be there."

"Do you remember my—"

"Yep. Yeah, I still..." Greg seemed to take a moment, wetting his lips. "D'you want me to bring anything?" he asked. "I dunno how long you're expecting this to last."

Mycroft didn't know, either. He didn't have the slightest notion of how the conversation would end, only how it would begin. It depended very much on Greg.

"It might take a little longer than... I-I'd be glad to make you dinner," he said. 

Greg's expression opened. "Right," he said, surprised. "Okay, well... sure, if you're... shall I fetch wine or anything?"

"No. No, there's no need. I've got plenty of..."

"Certain?"

"Yes, I'm certain."

"Right..." Greg paused, studying Mycroft's face with what looked like cautious hope. "Are you... s-sure you're ready for this?"

This morning, Mycroft would have declared himself wholly unready for even the briefest conversation. The thought of an extended discussion, alone together in his home, would have turned his stomach inside out and put him in mind of moving immediately back to Scotland.

He now realised he was never going to be ready.

This moment was always going to arrive out of the blue and cut him down where he stood. Being suitably prepared was never an option, even if he'd delayed for twenty years.

He looked into Greg's eyes, taking a second to ensure his response conveyed only what was true.

"Three months has allowed me reflection," he said. "Enough of it to reach a place of understanding. You seem to have... y-you seem as if you might be in a similar place. I'd say that means we're ready."

Greg's mouth pulled at one corner. 

"I'm feeling a bit more stable," he said. "I don't know about understanding. Not about..." He hesitated, backing away from a word which seemed suddenly too big to clear. "Y'know. This."

Mycroft's heart contracted, hard. 

Pushing his hands deeper into his pockets, Greg glanced away down the street.

"Kinda need your input for that," he went on. "But if you're okay to talk, that'd be good for me. I'd like to talk." After a moment's pause, he tried a cautious smile. "I'll, erm... I'll see you at seven, then."

Mycroft's pulse skittered.

"Yes," he said, unleashing a breath he'd held for three months. "Seven, then." He watched Greg unlock the door of his car. "H-Have a good afternoon."

"Yeah. Yeah, I will. You too." Greg opened the door, taking one last glance. "See you later," he said, and got in.

Hovering on the pavement, Mycroft wondered if he should linger and wave. 

For heaven's sake, he breathed at himself. He's not your date for the evening. He's not your friend. At best, he's a patient you failed. At worst, he's your victim. Get inside.

His smile tight, he briefly lifted a hand towards the wing mirror. He wasn't even sure if it was seen. He backed away from the car, turned as he heard the engine start, then made his way towards the clinic with a sensation like his blood was suddenly aerated. He couldn't seem to walk properly; he'd forgotten how it felt to climb stairs. 

To his relief, he reached the reception area to find that Anthea was busy with a patient and couldn't detain him with any searching enquiries.

As he attempted a discreet return to his office, the door across the corridor opened. Ananya appeared within its frame.

"I think this is yours," she said, holding out Mycroft's kettle. "I found it abandoned on the floor of the kitchen."

Lord. "Ah... yes," Mycroft said. He flushed as he took it. "Thank you. Clumsy of me."

Ananya watched him as he dried the side of his kettle on his waistcoat, her forehead furrowed with gentle concern.

"Did you speak to him?" she asked.

It was unproductive to conceal things from her. Mycroft swallowed, deciding not to attempt it.

"Yes," he said. "We... exchanged pleasantries, and he left. I then realised I have a great deal more to say to him. Given that I no longer have his contact details, it was an opportunity I couldn't afford to waste. I'm afraid you'll now have to excuse me, Ananya. I have a client due at any moment."

As he attempted to step back inside his office, her voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Mycroft," she murmured. Mycroft briefly shut his eyes. "What did you say to him?"

Bracing himself, Mycroft took a breath. 

"Nothing yet," he said over his shoulder. "Other than to arrange to meet. He very graciously agreed."

"And what will you say to him then?" Ananya asked.

Mycroft turned to face Ananya, resting his hand upon the edge of his door. "Nothing that will come as news to you," he replied. "Nothing that will damage his clearly exemplary recovery. That will be my highest priority."

They surveyed each other across the corridor for long moments of silence—checking, reading, questioning.

Mycroft's mouth twitched.

"Ananya," he said, "if you think I'm going to back down from a staring contest, please recall that I'm also a therapist. A shoddy one, perhaps, but I've not been drummed out just yet."

Ananya raised a single eyebrow. 

"You are not in any way shoddy," she said, with great gentleness. "Simply in need of additional support at this time."

"Mm," Mycroft remarked. "And closure."

Ananya visibly archived a number of remarks, no doubt to be addressed during their next session. 

"When are you seeing him?" she asked, sweeping her hair behind one ear.

"This evening," Mycroft replied. It was hard to make it sound as if he cared very little about the appointment—as if it were a sort of polite necessity, a box to be checked. He believed he'd managed it. "We're meeting at seven."

Ananya didn't respond for a moment. "May I make a single request?" she said.

Mycroft paused, bracing himself for the worst.

"Listen to him," Ananya said. She reached for the handle of her door. "Properly. Have a good evening."

Before Mycroft could process his surprise, she vanished discreetly from his sight.

 

*

 

I am not trying to impress anyone, Mycroft reminded himself over and over, searching his kitchen cupboards for smoked paprika. Merely feed someone. This was not a date of any kind. It was not a dinner invitation; it was barely even a social event. It was an opportunity to apologise, seek forgiveness and hopefully draw a line beneath the past, and for that reason he should not put excessive thought into the meal. Whether he should pair a vegetarian feijoada with a Merlot or a Malbec was entirely irrelevant.

Should I even be serving him wine? he thought, swiftly separating onion wedges into petals. Or is that simply asking for... then, what else could I possibly give him? A carton of apple juice? The man is an adult.

He spent a further ten minutes agonising over his wine collection once the pão de queijo were safely in the oven. Catena Alta seemed such an outrageously seductive choice he could barely even look at the label, though the sweetness would certainly set off the sharpness in the feijoada. The Château de Pennautier might be a viable alternative, but was it too safe? It felt so blokey as to be painfully obvious. He didn't want to under-compensate. In the end he tossed the decision into the fire and opted for a wildcard instead, a Riccitelli from 2016, regretting it almost the instant he removed the cork.

Would a restaurant have been a better—? 

No, Mycroft answered himself. No, of course not. Almost impossible to curate the tone. They might have been taken for a couple, seated somewhere intimate with candlelight and piano music. They might have been dumped next to a rowdy family with misbehaving children.

And regardless of whom they shared the space with, it would have been difficult to hold a truly honest conversation. Certain things simply couldn't be voiced in a semi-public setting; emotions were always capped and constrained. If Greg wished to shout, to be angry, he deserved a private space in which to do it. Pressing him to meet in a restaurant would have been a cowardly decision, an unforgivable attempt to pen his reactions within a range which suited Mycroft.

There had been quite enough of that already.

Oh, Christ. What if he hates sweet potato?

It was too late to cook something different. Swearing beneath his breath, Mycroft left the bloody thing to simmer and quickly attended to the lounge, rotating cushions to sit the right way, refolding his evening blankets to lie more neatly along the back of the couch, removing several unsuitable books from the shelves and then lowering the lights to foster a sense of calm and comfort. He briefly considered incense, then realised he risked turning the place into a courtesan's smoke-wreathed boudoir. There wasn't time to fuss over music. A recommended playlist called Classical Chillout would have to do. He brightened the lights a little, fearing he'd tipped the balance from welcoming into sultry, then hurried into his bedroom to try on every piece of clothing he'd ever owned.

Unhappily decided on a knitted green sweater vest with an open shirt collar, Mycroft poured a glass of wine to try and settle himself.

Ludicrous to be nervous, he thought, gazing numbly at his reflection in the door of his chrome refrigerator. Drinking, he adjusted the front of his hair with his spare hand. Confident of my conclusions. Heaven knows I've taken up enough of Ananya's time in reaching them.

Now to simply... relate them, calmly and simply, and hope it aids his healing.

The feijoada was developing nicely. A little heavy on the garlic, but it would need it to compete with this bloody Riccitelli. Mycroft threw together a quick salada de palmitos to accompany it, distributing the cherry tomatoes with care so as not to drown out the avocado. Will he mind sharing one large salad? he thought dimly. He hoped not. It might be pleasant, eating together from one bowl. It might foster a sense of commonality at least.

It would be nice to reach the end of this evening as friends.

Guilt flashed at once through the back of Mycroft's mind. He had no business entertaining such thoughts. If not friends, he thought, then perhaps simply friendly.

That would do.

That would be enough.

At three minutes past seven, the buzzer sounded by the door.

"Oh, lord..." Mycroft switched off the heat beneath the pan, downed the last mouthful of his wine with a wince and hurried from the kitchen. He'd brought this entirely on himself; he had no right to panic. Clearing his throat, he pressed a button on the wall-mounted entry panel by the door and leaned towards the speaker. "Hello?"

"Hi, it's me." Greg's voice was unmistakeable. It brought air rushing silently into Mycroft's lungs. "Sorry I'm a bit late. Taxi got caught in traffic."

"Ah—h-hello. I'm on the third floor." Mycroft jammed down the release for the door; there came a clunk somewhere below. "Do come up."

He stationed himself out on the landing to wait for Greg, listening to the quiet chink of keys as footsteps climbed the stairs. At least I'm prepared for his appearance this time, he thought, quietly adjusting the hem of his sweater vest. It will be easier. He saw the top of Greg's head and his shoulders first, rounding the landing one storey below, and though his heart clenched tight, it kept on beating. 

As Greg ascended the stairs, he glanced upwards and found Mycroft hovering outside the door. He smiled. It seemed effortless, unafraid. His dark eyes were beautifully bright.

The corners of Mycroft's mouth tugged upwards before he could stop them.

"Hi," Greg said, reaching the landing. Mycroft realised he was carrying something under his arm. "I know you said not to bring anything, but... Lisa's keeps on making more of itself. It's got a really good spot in the kitchen window and now we're over-run."

He held it out. It was a little spider plant, one shy green tuft in the centre of a pot of dark earth.

"I told her I was seeing you," Greg said with a slanted grin, half-embarrassed. "And she wouldn't let me leave until I agreed to fetch you one. Don't worry. They're dead easy to look after."

Overwhelmed, Mycroft took the tiny plant in both his hands.

"Thank you," he said, gazing down at it. He wished he knew why it left his chest feeling so tight. He longed with every fibre of his being to ask— She's pleased that you were coming?— but he didn't know how to make it seem untransparent. "How kind," he said instead, looking up with a smile. Greg's eyes crinkled at the edges. "Please tell Lisa I'm very touched."

"I will," Greg said. "You'll be giving them away soon too. The things are a bloody menace, procreating with themselves. You'll be cursing me."

Smiling, Mycroft gathered the plant against his chest with one arm, using the other to hold the door for Greg. 

"Please come in," he said. Perhaps this won't be as awkward as I fear. "Can I take your jacket?"

 

Chapter Text

Holy fuck, this place is nice.

Greg tried to keep the thought off his face as he looked around, sliding his jacket back from his shoulders. He'd always suspected Mycroft would keep a tidy home, but this was spotless. Gorgeous, too. The lounge could have featured across four pages in a homes and gardens magazine. Mycroft had a big modern fireplace and fur rugs spread across the gleaming wooden floor, the long grey couches plush with many cushions and throws. Not only did the place look amazing, it smelled amazing too. The aroma of fresh bread and roasting garlic came wafting through the doorway to the kitchen, curling itself with some underlying sweetness left over from candles or perfume. Everywhere was attractively dark and cosy. Only people with both money and taste could make darkness feel indulgent.

Greg suddenly felt bad for fetching a spider plant in a cheap plastic pot.

Thank god I didn't try to bring wine.

"You've not gone to trouble, have you?" he asked, as he handed over his jacket.

"Oh—no," Mycroft said. "Not especially. I've been meaning to try this recipe for a while. How do you feel about Brazilian cuisine?"

"Wow. Never had much of it, but up for anything."

"Ah. Excellent, well... that's a relief." Mycroft disappeared briefly into a coat cupboard, its door barely visible within the wall. "Can I get you a drink?" he asked from inside, hanging up Greg's jacket. "Red? White?"

"Red'd be lovely. Thanks."

"Wonderful." Mycroft closed the cupboard door, flashed Greg a polite and nervous smile, then gestured towards the kitchen. "I thought we'd eat first, if you've no objections?"

Greg smiled in return, hoping it might settle Mycroft a little.

"Sure," he said. "Sounds good." He followed Mycroft into a blindingly clean and modern kitchen: brushed chrome appliances, white marble counters and deep grey walls spot-lit from above. A pan was simmering on the stove. "That smell's making my mouth water like mad. Don't know if I'd be able to concentrate on anything else."

Mycroft visibly flushed. 

"I can't promise the taste will keep up the standard," he said, setting his spider plant in the window, "but..." 

He retrieved a wine glass from a cupboard overhead, then placed it on the island counter beside one which already contained a few dregs. Christ, Greg thought, watching him uncork the bottle with a shake in his wrist and then fill both glasses generously. You're nervous as hell. What're you planning on telling me?

"How was the rest of your day?" Greg asked to break the silence, sliding up into a seat at the counter.

Mycroft eased a glass of wine across to him with care. 

"Fairly sedate," he replied, and smiled a little. He wasn't quite looking at Greg. "I take it you've been home, then?"

"Just briefly. Lisa needed a few things from the shop and I had time to kill." Greg watched for a minute, wondering, as Mycroft busied his hands and his eyes with whatever he could find—fussing over the fluffy bread puffs in their basket, stirring the pot, checking inside a drawer for something it turned out he didn't need. "Can I... help with dinner at all?"

"No, no. Almost ready. Help yourself to salad, if you wish."

Greg portioned some out across both plates. Mycroft appeared with a glass jar of lime vinaigrette, then laid a metal trivet in the centre of the counter.

"You don't mind eating in here?" he checked, glancing at Greg over his glasses.

Greg smiled again, bewildered. 

"This room's nicer than most restaurants," he said. "No, I don't mind." He hesitated, hoping this wouldn't be taken the wrong way. "I'm happy to be here, Myc. Maybe there's something I don't know, but..."

Something seemed to loosen behind Mycroft's expression. He looked into Greg's eyes at last, apologetic.

"Forgive me," he said. "I've... i-it's been a long three months."

Christ. Yeah.

"Still," Greg murmured with a shrug. "Parted on good terms." He paused, watching Mycroft's gaze. "Didn't we?"

Mycroft dropped his eyes to the counter top.

"I'm sorry," he said, exhaled, and it seemed almost uncomfortably genuine. Greg's heart eased as a little of the Mycroft he remembered came back into being. "It's rare for me to talk with patients outside the clinic. I'm struggling to know how to do it."

Greg found himself relieved and distressed at once by the honesty. "I'm... not a patient, Myc."

Mycroft's throat muscles shifted. "A former patient," he said, "and therefore always a patient."

Yikes. Greg didn't know if he'd heard Ananya's voice behind those words or if he'd just imagined it.

"I wasn't an ordinary patient," he said, reaching out. He placed his hand on top of Mycroft's where it rested at the edge of the counter. "It wasn't a case of... I mean, we've now been apart for three times as long as we actually..." He squeezed Mycroft's hand. "Y'know?"

Some of the tension seemed to ebb from Mycroft's shoulders.

"So it's fine," Greg went on. "Honestly. You look like you're worried I'm gonna start yelling at you."

"You'd have every right," Mycroft said without a breath.

Greg nearly laughed. "What the hell for?" he asked, staring at Mycroft. He brushed his fingers beneath the cuff of Mycroft's shirt. "Look, you've... clearly spent three months talking to some version of me in your head. I don't know what he's been saying to you. But whatever it is, it's not what I'm saying."

Mycroft hesitated, glancing into Greg's eyes. He didn't speak, simply listened, pale behind his glasses.

Greg brushed his thumb across the bumps of Mycroft's knuckles.

"So let's eat some food together," he murmured. "Let's drink some wine. Then you can tell me what's got you so worked up, and we'll talk about it."

A shudder seemed to pass through Mycroft's shoulders.

"I've missed you," he said, barely audible over the stove. "I've missed your way of... I-I entirely forgot that you're so..."

He stopped, looking down at Greg's hand resting atop his own. Nervousness tightened his expression.

"I should serve up," he said, stepping away from the counter at once. His hand slipped out of contact with Greg's. His touch left a quiet tingle behind it, an odd mixture of warmth and coolness which quickened Greg's pulse.

As Mycroft turned his back to attend to dinner, Greg picked up his wine. He took a deep and silent drink, lowering his gaze, and told himself this would all be alright.

 

*

 

Though Mycroft didn't exactly open up over dinner, he grew a little less anxious. Greg got him talking about the food, the recipe he'd used and where he found it, and the safe topic of conversation seemed to help. Mycroft was clearly a fastidious cook. He'd taught himself at university, he said, which was also where his vegetarianism had its origins. Though he knew a great deal about wine, he didn't seem snobby about it. Greg was sure he'd seen bottles of what they were drinking in Sainsbury's.

For dessert, Mycroft produced salted caramel mousse from the fridge in tiny glass bowls, then dressed each one with a leaf of mint. Greg had to force himself not to lick the bloody bowl clean. He scraped out every last little smudge that he could, all while listening to Mycroft explain why New Zealand wines came with screw tops instead of corks.

At last, with their dishes transferred to a sinkful of hot water, Mycroft's hand strayed towards the kettle.

"Would you care for—?" he said.

Just like old times, Greg thought. "Tea'd be great," he said. "Can I do anything?"

"No, I... I should be fine. Familiar with the process." Mycroft tried a smile, visibly nervous again. "You're welcome to get comfortable in the lounge, if you'd like."

Greg took the hint. "Sure," he said. He wondered if giving Mycroft a couple of minutes to himself would help. "Where's your bathroom?"

"Oh—the other door in the lounge, then through my bedroom."

"Alright. If I'm not back in an hour, come rescue me from your shoe cupboard."

Mycroft's eyes flashed with reluctant humour. "I shall," he said, filling the kettle. "Good luck to you."

Greg smiled, slipped out of the kitchen, and padded across the lounge in his socks. It'll be fine, he told himself. Long three months. Just taking a while to warm up to each other again. He opened the door to Mycroft's bedroom with his expression carefully controlled, trying not to think how many times he'd pictured this room.

Holy shit.

He clearly hadn't pictured it enough—not that anything in the world could have prepared him. The back wall was tastefully bare grey brick, the others panelled in a wood so dark and gleaming that they almost functioned as mirrors. The few subtle pieces of furniture had clearly been chosen not to compete in any way with the bed. The thing was gigantic, a vast island of thick off-white covers and charcoal-coloured pillows, sprawled within a pool of thick fur rug. The bed hadn't been made this morning. The pillows were everywhere, pulled down to wherever Mycroft wanted them, the duvet tossed back without a thought. A deep triangle of plush grey mattress had been uncovered. It was the single sexiest sight that Greg had ever put his eyes upon.

As he stared at it, his heart pounding, he realised it was meant to look so carelessly undone. Everything else in this room was pristine, no hint of dust, no clothes left lying around. This whole space had been designed around a bed that looked like two panting, satisfied lovers had just rolled out of it and dragged each other off to the shower.

Christ, Greg thought, dry-throated . Fucking in that must feel like...

Swallowing a little, he tore his eyes away and hurried to the bathroom.

As he washed his hands, he doggedly ignored his reflection and the flushes of fresh colour in his cheeks. He concentrated instead on the glass bottle of nice-smelling reed sticks Mycroft had beside his mirror. They seemed to be soaking in a little puddle of fragrant oil, which was fun. Greg squinted at the label on the bottle. Urban Apothecary London, he read. Oriental Noir.

Wow.

Poshest place I've ever pissed in my life.

Returning to the lounge, he found Mycroft sitting at one end of the couch, attempting to convey an impression of comfort and calm. Two gently steaming cups occupied the coffee table. It might have been Greg's imagination, but it seemed slightly darker in here. The music was just a little quieter.

He came over, smiling, and took the opposite end of the sofa.

"Thanks for dinner," he said. "It was amazing, seriously. Never imagined I could actually survive as a veggie before."

Mycroft flushed, visibly pleased.

"You're very welcome," he said. "I... appreciate you meeting me here."

"It's fine. I don't mind." Greg shifted gently on the sofa, easing to sit more sideways. Time to set the broken bone, he thought. "Want to get something off your chest?" he murmured. Mycroft breathed in. "It's clearly crippling you," Greg said. "Go on."

"I hardly know where to begin," Mycroft said. He glanced with distress towards the fire. "I'm only sorry I've left this so long."

Yeah. Me too.

"Alright," Greg said, gently. "Well... how about I get us started?"

Mycroft's shoulders seemed to stiffen. He glanced at Greg, bracing for the shouting to begin.

"Of course," he said. "Please go ahead."

Greg didn't shout. He'd done his shouting three months ago, and plenty of it. He'd directed it towards the right person, too.

He looked into Mycroft's eyes, smiling gently.

"How'd you know she had somebody else?" he asked. "How did you know to check her phone?"

Mycroft shuddered at once, releasing something in a rush.

"I'm so sorry," he breathed. "Greg, I... I can't tell you how—"

"What's with all this apologising to me? You've not done anything wrong."

"I very much beg to differ."

"Then beg," Greg said, unmoved. "Or better yet, forget about it. When did you find out about Helen?"

Mycroft paled a little, glancing down into his lap.

"She told me," he murmured, with the deepest of regret. "Her brief twenty minutes as my patient. I'd barely finished explaining confidentiality to her before she... dear god, Greg, I'm sorry. I wanted to tell you each and every time I laid eyes on your face. I didn't keep it from you out of loyalty to her. I kept it for fear you would very rightly confront her, she would join a few dots, make an accusation and cost me my job. Or cost Ananya hers. Violating confidentiality is more than enough to justify a lawsuit, especially if that violation led to an expensive divorce. I'm sorry I didn't—"

Greg reached out. He placed his hand on Mycroft's shoulder, squeezing.

"Oi," he murmured. Mycroft remained as stiff as a nervous cat, looking down into his lap in shame. "Oi," Greg said again, more gently, and waited until Mycroft had looked up into his eyes. "There we go. Please don't be frightened to look at me, will you? I want you to understand."

Mycroft waited, watching him, paler than old milk.

"She had you over a barrel," Greg said quietly. "I get that. You were doing your job as best you could."

Mycroft looked as if he again begged to differ, the edges of his mouth tightening with unspoken doubt.

"She would have ruined you," Greg told him. "She wouldn't have even—Myc? Look at me—she wouldn't have hesitated. She's ruining me right now. My solicitor says she's pulling every trick in the book. It's a miracle she's not claiming I chained her up in the attic and made her eat dog food. So I believe you better than anyone. If she got even one hint that you'd told me, she'd have brought a lawyer and burned the whole clinic to the ground. That's just what she's like."

Mycroft's shoulder stayed tense beneath Greg's hand.

"Still," he whispered. "It... it meant I was acting deceitfully towards you."

"Only because she put you in a bloody awful position," Greg said. "You didn't have any choice."

"I had a duty of care, Greg. I should have found some way to—"

"You did."

"Well—yes, but—"

"Listen," Greg said, as gently as he could, and Mycroft sank into uncomfortable silence. "I'm... I'm not gonna help you beat yourself up about this. I know what she's like. I know what she makes people feel and I know what she gets off on. Please don't pick up her crimes for her."

It seemed to help—or started to help, at least. Mycroft's shoulder lifted silently as he breathed.

"I'll admit she had a talent for manipulation," he said, looking into Greg's eyes.

Greg snorted. "That's mild," he said.

Helpless amusement lifted one corner of Mycroft's mouth. 

"I'm so glad that you're... genuinely, Greg, it's a privilege to witness. And I'm sorry for what you endured. I'm sorry I wasn't there to guide you through it. I abandoned you at the point where you needed someone the most."

'Someone', Greg thought, his stomach pulling. Not 'me'.

"It's alright," he said. "I get why you had to."

"Greg, I... I appreciate your efforts to spare my feelings. But you have every right to be angry, and every right to express that anger if you—"

"J-Jesus. Okay, look... I'm getting the feeling that you've been stewing away in a big pot of guilt for three months. I'm not angry about anything. I'm regretting we left it this long to talk," Greg admitted, "but only because you've clearly used the time to accuse yourself of everything under the sun. When you said you needed space, I didn't realise you were planning to cram the space full of guilt. I'm not angry, Myc. I'm really sorry if you wanted me to be."

Mycroft dropped his gaze. He stayed silent for a minute, distressed, trying to untangle something.

"Why do you want me to be angry?" Greg asked, quietly bewildered. "You're bloody desperate for it."

Mycroft's cheeks flushed. It took him a moment to answer.

"A sense I should be punished," he said. "A sense that my own efforts towards that end haven't been nearly enough."

Christ, Greg thought, inhaling. "Tell me about your dad," he said.

Mycroft's forehead crumpled, pained and amused at once. 

"I wish I could tell you I don't deserve to be psychoanalysed," he said. "Sadly I can't."

"I'll tell Ananya to put it on her list," Greg said. He frowned a little, shifting. "When she's done stuffing you to the gunwales with guilt."

Mycroft's expression folded. "Greg."

"What?"

"Ananya has not induced me towards guilt."

"It's come from somewhere."

"It's come from me."

"And over what?" Greg asked. "What've you got to feel guilty for, exactly?"

Mycroft gave him a look of mute despair.

"What?" Greg said, utterly nonplussed. "What am I missing here?"

"Greg—"

"You can Greg me all you want, but whatever you've done, it's a lot less obvious than you think it is."

"Greg, I—" Mycroft drew a sharp breath, gripping into the cushion seat. "I exploited you when you were vulnerable."

Greg's face worked.

"Please do not find that amusing," Mycroft begged him, tipping ever further into despair. "I've been in a host of miseries."

"I mean, I'll try," Greg said. "But..."

"Why on earth is that amusing?"

"Because it's horse crap."

"It isn't horse crap."

"It is," Greg said, fighting the desperate need to smile. "It's absolute bollocks."

"Greg," Mycroft said, as he flushed to his hairline. "For over a month of sessions, sessions in which I was meant to provide you with a safe and therapeutic space in which to focus on yourself, I took advantage of your—"

"D'you want to hear about actual exploitation?" Greg interrupted. Mycroft stopped at once, his fingers curling nervously into his palms. "Let's talk about the fact I got tricked into being the world's biggest cuckold by someone who knew about my childhood, knew what I went through, and knew I'd step right up and be a stupid bloody hero. Let's talk about the fact I got driven into thousands of pounds of debt by someone who then crippled me with guilt for only providing her with a nice lifestyle, not a luxury one. Let's talk about how the second she realised I was getting up on my own two feet, she staged some big scene in a restaurant to make me feel like a monster."

Mycroft made no sound, gazing along the couch in round-eyed distress.

"I know what being exploited feels like," Greg said, staring back at him. "I know it doesn't feel like this. So don't sit there and kid yourself I'm just too dumb and too nice to understand."

Mycroft's expression ached. 

"That isn't what I think," he breathed. "I don't think that for a moment."

"Good."

"I simply... I-I don't think you appreciate the severity of the issues surrounding—"

"Can you appreciate that I don't care about issues?" Greg said. "I care about my own response. And it's this: you didn't take anything from me. You didn't put me at a disadvantage for your own gain."

Mycroft's gaze darkened with guilt. 

"I used you," he whispered, starting to shake. "I used you to ease my touch starvation and my loneliness."

"Your touch starvation?" Greg said, startled. "I had touch starvation. That's... wait, when you... you meant you had touch starvation?"

Mycroft's expression worked. 

"Regardless of whether I did," he said, "yours was the focus of our sessions. My unresolved conflicts should have been left outside the room, where they belonged, not brought inside for you to heal. You were the patient, for heaven's sake. And I forced you into providing me with emotional support."

"Whoa, whoa—stop. Stop right there. You didn't force me into anything."

"I pressed you. I influenced you. I established a role for you to play and then I induced you to step into it, for my own emotional gain."

"Stop just listing other words for 'forced', will you? That doesn't change what I'm telling you. You didn't force me or press me or induce me into anything."

Mycroft said nothing, his face pale and wracked with doubt.

"You gave me something," Greg said, staring at him. "You gave me something amazing. You made me feel like I deserved to be free, and then you set me free. If I'm on a road to somewhere better right now, it's because of you."

"Greg," Mycroft whispered. He swallowed, shivering. "Greg, I..."

"I'm sorry if you want to tell yourself you're a villain," Greg said, his chest tightening. "Honestly? I-I can't fucking bear it, hearing you talk like that. I've spent three months carrying memories of what you did for me around like a comfort blanket. I still smile whenever I see myself in a mirror. I still make lists saying 'honestly I think I', over and over. I can't drink a cup of tea without putting both hands around it and missing you. And you've got a right to feel what you want, even if I think you're deluded."

His throat grew thick. He swallowed it back.

"But I'm not going to let you paint me as a victim," he said. "I'm done being a victim. Everything I had with you, I wanted."

Mycroft's eyes filled with a reddened shine, distress breaking into tears. 

"I never saw you as my victim," he whispered. "I didn't intend to hurt you or mistreat you. But my intentions were irrelevant."

Greg raised an eyebrow. "Then what was?"

"E-Excuse me?"

"If your intentions were irrelevant," Greg said, shrugging, "even though they were good—and my opinion's apparently irrelevant too, even though it's nothing but good towards you—what is relevant?"

Mycroft was silent for a moment, overwhelmed, struggling to keep his eyes on Greg's face.

"The ethics of my profession," he said at last. "They're carved into stone for a reason."

Greg inhaled.

"Okay," he said, leaning over to the coffee table. He picked up Mycroft's tea, then guided it into his hands. "Right," he said, gathering Mycroft's fingers around it. "So... so we caused something in each other, something that a therapist-patient relationship maybe shouldn't have. But we sorted it, Myc. You spotted it, you shifted me to Ananya, and we made some immediate space. You didn't act unethically at any point."

Mycroft's jaw twitched. 

"I doubt the professional body which dictates my code of ethics would agree," he said.

"Are you going to tell them?" Greg asked, raising his eyebrows. "'Cause I'm not going to tell them."

Mycroft released a deep breath, shaking. "Th-thank you."

Greg's heart clenched.

"Christ," he whispered. "Did you—did you honestly worry I'd—"

"My work is all I have, Greg," Mycroft bit out, white in the face. "I'm not going to apologise to you for being afraid of losing everything."

Greg let the words sink in, giving them a moment to feel as serious as they sounded.

"I'm not asking you to apologise," he said, watching Mycroft take a trembling sip of tea. "I'm just telling you not to be afraid. Not because of me."

Mycroft's eyes closed. He swallowed in the silence, every shifting muscle audible.

"I don't mean to suggest you're malicious," he said. "I don't mean to suggest anything about you whatsoever. I'm just trying to get across that while you may have experienced therapy as a private arrangement in a room between two people, and while I may have taken temporary leave of my senses and encouraged that, there was a governing body pressed against the window for every moment of our time together. A governing body who would now look extremely harshly on my actions."

Greg gently tapped the bottom of Mycroft's teacup.

"Have a drink of this," he said. "I know you're stressed. I get why. I just want you to drink for a minute for me, while I try and explain why you can let some of it go."

Mycroft eyed him over the rim, guarded—but took a drink in silence all the same.

Right. Greg composed himself for a moment, not wanting to get this wrong.

"You're saying they'd look harshly on your actions," he said. "I think you mean they'd look harshly on your thoughts. Even I don't know what those were. So how a professional body would get hold of them is beyond me."

Mycroft's gaze flickered, lowering to the surface of his tea.

"If we're talking actions," Greg went on, gently raising an eyebrow, "I can't think of a single incident where anybody crossed the line. And," he added, as Mycroft began to speak, "there is one person on this planet who'd be in a position to declare himself a victim and start throwing accusations. And he's looking at you, right now, and telling you to let go of that thought. I've got nothing but gratitude for you. I've got nothing but good will."

Mycroft's eyes glossed over in silence.

"I was only with you a month," Greg murmured. He held Mycroft's gaze, reading him. "We didn't even go that deep. Ananya's got way more dirt on me than you. You referred me to her as soon as you realised something might be happening, and that was it. Nothing unethical happened."

Shivering, Mycroft drank a large mouthful of tea.

"It still appears highly questionable from the outside," he said. "It... y-you initiated divorce proceedings within a month of meeting me. I clearly had some influence on your marriage."

Greg raised an eyebrow. 

"Myc, she was fucking the guy for two months before I even knew you existed," he said. "I started divorce proceedings because I stumbled across pictures of his dick on her phone. With all due respect, you had nothing to do with it."

Heart thumping hard, he watched Mycroft breathe out. The surface of Mycroft's tea skittered and swirled.

"And then you referred me to Ananya," Greg murmured, "because she's a family therapist. I didn't need guidance on my sex life anymore. I needed someone who can guide me through divorce. And a few months have passed, and that's where we're all at. Alright?"

Mycroft's gaze ached behind his glasses.

"You make everything easy," he half-whispered. "You always have. I've spent three months questioning my entire profession, and searching my soul, and castigating myself, and now... now you're here for a single hour, and I..."

Greg tried a gentle smile.

"We should've talked," he murmured. "I shouldn't have given you space to start thinking. M'sorry."

Mycroft lifted a weary hand to his face, pressing two fingers between his eyes. 

"I'm a therapist," he muttered. "Supposedly. You should be able to trust that if I ask you for space, it's the right course of action. You shouldn't be the one now comforting me."

"Why?" Greg asked. "You're not my therapist, Myc. I'm not your patient. I'm just a friend. Why shouldn't I be comforting you?"

Inhaling, Mycroft aimed a look of fond and tired reproach between his fingers.

"You are far too persuasive," he mumbled. He regarded Greg for a few moments of silence, his gaze soft. "I'm sorry I left you," he said. "It... th-these past few months must have been..."

Greg's heart gave a quiet tug.

"I had Lisa," he said. "I had Ananya." He hesitated, trying not to dwell. "I won't lie to you. It's been bloody awful at times, but... I'm kinda glad you didn't see those parts. You'd have felt guilty for no reason and you had stuff of your own to deal with. We wouldn't have been much use to each other." 

He smiled a little, nudging Mycroft's cup.

"I want you to see this part," he said. "The part where I'm on the mend."

Mycroft smiled, exhausted but amused, and took an obedient sip.

"I'm glad for the chance to see it," he said. He paused, quietly passing his thumb over the curve of his mug. "You look marvellous, Greg. Genuinely. I'm so relieved that you're happy."

I want you to be happy, too. Greg's chest seemed to sting with the force of it. He took a moment to let it ease, reaching to the table for his tea.

"Not out of the woods just yet," he said, with a sip. "Found the path, though. On the way."

"Is everything... proceeding well?"

"Well enough, all things considered. Helen's taking every chance she can to make things difficult for me. It's only because she knows these are her last chances." Greg smiled slightly, wondering if he should bring it up. He didn't want to leave this place of peace they'd found. "Has Ananya mentioned the, erm... the stalking?"

Mycroft winced. "No," he sighed. "No, she hadn't. Dare I ask?"

"It's not really... y'know, stalking- stalking. They're never gonna make a movie about it. She's just been following me around in her car a bit, sitting outside the house."

"I'm so sorry. No threats, I hope?"

"No. No signs of vandalism or property damage, no third party harassment, so she's at low risk for physical violence. What?" Greg added with a smile, enjoying the look on Mycroft's face. "What's that little twinkle about?"

"Forgive me. I forget you're a police officer sometimes. I was about to dispense professional advice."

"Have you got a pamphlet?" Greg asked, biting his lip. 

The glitter in Mycroft's eyes ignited. "Not on my person," he said, and finished his tea. He placed his empty cup aside. "I imagine you could write a better pamphlet than anything I have to offer. Please put my mind to rest and promise me it's all being logged."

"Promise," Greg said, ignoring the gentle thump of his heart. You'd worry if it wasn't. You want me to be alright. "Emailing every photo straight to my mate Paul at work. He's handling it all for me."

Mycroft nodded dimly, reassured.

"I'd express incredulity that anyone could be so stupid as to stalk a Scotland Yard officer," he said, "but I doubt there's a woman in the world more stupid than your ex-wife."

God. Greg flushed, sipping his tea to cover it.

"I hope she's not disturbing your family," Mycroft said.

"Not too much," Greg replied. "She wants to unsettle us, so carrying on as normal seems the best thing to do."

He hesitated, pulling at his lip. 

"I'm sorry she... I heard she kicked up a fuss at the clinic. I only found out this morning from Ananya that it was when you were on your own. I'm really sorry."

Mycroft huffed, lowering his gaze. "Ah," he said. "That. I'm afraid my part was actually very dull, given that I wasn't on my own. I hope you weren't expecting an exciting story."

"God, no. I'm glad. What, erm... what exactly happened?"

"Halfway through a session," Mycroft said, with a breath, "the alarm in my office was triggered by reception. I locked my door, as we're trained to do, and spent a few minutes reassuring my client. There was a little shouting, but nothing I could make out. After a few more minutes, I received the all-clear signal from Anthea and emerged to a perfectly peaceful waiting area. I understand that Helen agreed to go without a fuss."

At least she didn't get her hands on you, Greg thought. His heart gripped. Not that she'd have known... well, at least she didn't reach you.

"Was your client alright?" he asked, glancing into Mycroft's eyes.

Mycroft nodded. "Perfectly."

"Good." Greg hesitated. "I'd ask you to apologise to them for me, but apparently I've got to stop saying sorry for other people's decisions."

The corner of Mycroft's mouth curved.

"You do," he said. "Stalking is the province of the pathetic and the defeated. It is the desperate final attempt of a narcissist to prove their importance in the face of dawning irrelevance."

Greg wished he had a pen and paper to hand. He wanted to keep the words forever. He'd ask the judge to write them out on Helen's copy of the divorce certificate.

"D'you think it's narcissism, then?" he asked.

Mycroft scoffed very quietly. "Merely one ingredient in a very toxic mixture," he remarked. "I shouldn't be surprised if there's a variety of..." 

He glanced up at Greg with a sudden flicker of self-awareness, his expression tightening. 

"I'm being indiscreet," he said. "Forgive me."

Grinning, Greg leaned back into the couch. 

"Don't stop there," he said, cradling his mug against his chest. "You can't stop there. Where was this brutal honesty when I needed it?"

"Behind firmly closed professional gates," Mycroft said, raising an eyebrow at him. "Gates I should know better than to open, even now. I'm not in the habit of diagnosing other people's spouses based on second hand information. That way lawsuits lie."

"Fair enough," Greg said. "How about ex-spouses?"

Mycroft swallowed back a smile, saying nothing.

Greg lifted a foot and reached along the sofa, nudging Mycroft with his socked toes. "How about ex-spouses after another glass of wine?" he said.

Mycroft's smile broke free of its restraints.

"Let me bring the bottle," he said, uncurling from the sofa, "and we shall find out. Are you cold at all?"

"Not really. I'm fine, I think." Noting the presence of a fire and two blankets, even in March, Greg made a quick deduction. "Are you cold?" he asked, craning his head to watch Mycroft head towards the kitchen.

"A little."

"Turn the fire up, if you want. Don't shiver on my account."

Mycroft cast him a small smile over one shoulder. 

"I'm unused to guests," he said. "I haven't any idea what optimum temperature for other people is. Would you care for another mousse? I misread the recipe and produced eight bowls' worth instead of two."

 

Chapter Text

It felt strangely comforting to be drunk—not excessively drunk, merely cosily; contentedly self-aware of his own drunkenness, warm beneath a blanket and at peace on the sofa, listening with pleasure as Greg talked about his family. Empty bowls of caramel mousse and an empty bottle of wine had now joined their empty teacups on the coffee table.

Nice to share, Mycroft mused to himself. He watched Greg's dark eyes sparkle as he made some soft little joke. Nice to see you. Sit with you. Be with you.

What time it was, he didn't know.

Then, it hardly mattered.

As Mycroft stretched beneath his blanket, Greg helpfully retucked the tartan fleece under his ankles for him. They'd come to occupy the centre of the sofa together, the better to talk in the quiet.

"How's Sherlock been?" Greg asked. "Have you seen him much?"

Mycroft huffed. "I'm afraid not," he said, propping his arm on the back of the couch. "After the inevitable arguments at Christmas, my family tend to avoid each other until April at the earliest. I assume he's in no trouble. I've had no requests for money, at least."

"Yeah. Haven't heard from him either. Keeping his head down, I think. Just getting on with things." 

"Have you seen your other siblings lately?"

"Not since it all came out," Greg said. He sighed, stretching out his foot. "Lisa sent a discreet text round, I think. If any of them've got something to say, they've not said it to me."

Mycroft smiled a little, saddened but unsurprised. 

"It's often hard to know what sympathy to offer in that situation," he said. "We tend to give infidelity more space than an ordinary divorce."

Greg huffed. "Still," he said. "Quick message might've been nice."

"You're right," Mycroft murmured. "It would have been."

"And I've got Lisa, at least. She's just... god, she's looked after me. The kids, too. They don't know it, but..." Greg shook his head, exhaling. "Every time I've felt myself start dropping—wondering if it's me, if I'm just not enough to keep someone happy—I've gone looking for the kids. Seen what they're up to. Helped them with their homework. Take them to the park and buy them sweets on the way back."

He rubbed the side of his neck with a smile, his gaze full of fond memories.

"Doesn't matter if I'm second best to some tosser from the gym," he murmured. "M'a number one uncle. Seeing them run towards me when I pick them up after school, racing just to come and hug me, it's... helped. A lot, actually."

He glanced with some shyness into Mycroft's eyes.

"Is that daft?" he asked.

Mycroft swallowed quietly around the lump in his throat. "Not at all," he said. "I think it's deeply touching. And I'm very sorry you've had cause to doubt."

"Doubt?" Greg said softly.

Mycroft's chest strained. "That you're enough," he said.

He watched Greg's gaze drop from his own, the bashful smile not fading. 

"Jury's still out on that one," Greg murmured. He rumpled a hand backwards through his hair. "Ananya's got me doing affirmations. Keeping records of compliments I get."

I've thought about you everyday. Every hour. I've thought about precious little else.

"And I put the work in," Greg said with a breath, drawing Mycroft gently from his thoughts. "I gave her chances to talk to me, tell me. I did what I could. One person doesn't make a pattern."

Mycroft's pulse flickered, recognising Ananya's voice behind the words. She really had looked after him.

"What Helen did is a reflection of her, Greg," he said. "Not you. If a person is bitten by a rabid dog, we don't conclude that their skin was simply too easy to puncture."

Greg smiled, humour shining in his face.

"Can I ask something?" he said, as he rested his cheek against the couch.

Mycroft's stomach bubbled at the sight—those warm, soft and hopeful eyes, resting nowhere but his face. "Of course you may."

"Does therapy pay well?" Greg grinned a little, embarrassed. "This place is gorgeous."

Amused, and more than a little relieved, Mycroft gave a gracious huff.

"Thank you," he said. "I'm... compensated at a level that reflects a lot of training and study, but I also inherited a small sum after my father passed away. I'm sorry to say that Sherlock squandered his share. Mine went into—" Mycroft gestured. "I like pleasant surroundings."

"Did you do your office too?" 

"Mm. With help, of course."

"Maybe I should get you to do Lisa's spare room. Make it all posh and cosy for me." 

Mycroft smirked, delighted by the phrasing. 

"All posh and cosy?" he remarked. "That's how you'd describe my particular aesthetic, is it?"

A grin broke across Greg's face; his black eyes danced in the low light. Tell me off, the look said. He was a labrador puppy, tugging at a shoe lace. He wanted to play.

"What's the proper term for it?" he asked, gazing up at Mycroft with unconcealed mischief. "Therapist chic?"

"It's a softer take on urban modern," Mycroft said, as he attempted to resist the widening of his smirk. "The textiles lean it transitional, especially in the bedroom."

"'Cause you get cold?"

"Mhm."

"So... transitional textiles are more cosy?"

"They are."

"Alright," Greg said, bright-eyed. "That sounds good. You can do that in my room. My budget's fifty quid."

You utter beast. Mycroft couldn't recall the last time he'd been regarded with such open, bright-eyed wickedness. It was rather warming his blood. 

"I suspect you're teasing me," he remarked, propping his chin in his hand.

Greg pulled at his lower lip. "Little bit," he confessed. He studied Mycroft's face, enjoying whatever he saw there. "Your wine's too nice."

"Mm." Far too nice. "Can I interest you in more?"

Greg huffed. "Best not," he murmured, and removed a stray hair from Mycroft's blanket. It glinted briefly chestnut in the light of the lamp. "Think it's over-relaxing me. Anymore and you'll never get rid of me."

Mycroft's stomach gave a quiet squeeze. Not necessarily a problem, he thought, glancing towards the pretty triangle of skin revealed by the neck of Greg's shirt. Lord, but you're lovely.

They watched each other for a moment, sharing the quiet.

"Can I ask something else?" Greg said.

Mycroft nodded gently, drinking in every detail of his face.

Greg's gaze flickered. "Did you mean it when you said I'm special?" he asked. "Back when..."

Back when, Mycroft thought. He remembered every word. The ones he'd said, the ones he hadn't. He remembered the strength it had taken to keep those two things separate. He remembered the sheer blistering misery of the next day, wanting nothing more than to call Greg and beg him to drive over here, fall into each other's arms, to hell with the world and both their futures.

There were diplomatic answers he could now give to the question—clean, professional answers. He looked down into Greg's eyes, weak with their beauty, and realised that for once in his life he wanted to be recklessly honest.

It took a few moments to find the words.

"It cripples me," he said, "that you don't understand how extraordinary you are."

Greg made no sound. He gazed back into Mycroft's eyes, lost, suddenly looking like a man half his age.

Mycroft curled his fingers into his palm, keeping them from reaching out.

"I'd not experienced romantic feelings towards a client until you," he said. His pulse quickened, hearing his own voice admit it. "I think it's why it took me quite so long to see my protectiveness for what it was. I... didn't really believe I was capable."

Greg smiled a little, saying nothing in response.

His heart thumping, Mycroft filled the quiet.

"Clients are... there's always care and concern for their wellbeing, of course, but... I'd no sooner have developed feelings for one than a vet would fall in love with an injured animal. It simply wasn't a possibility."

Greg's pupils had grown wide and deep enough to bathe in. 

"M'sorry," he murmured, and it seemed as if he meant it. "Must've freaked you out."

Mycroft's small flicker of amusement made him smile.

"Ananya's entirely right," he said. "You do have to stop apologising for other people's decisions."

Greg grinned a little.

"Not sure it was much of a decision, really." He stirred, recushioning his cheek against the couch, and gazed up at Mycroft with those big dark eyes. "Not for either of us. It just... happened. Nobody decided anything."

God help me. 

"I thought at first I could put it aside," Mycroft said. "I told myself that if I truly cared for you, I'd focus my efforts into being your therapist. Seeing you grow happier and stronger in your own life would be enough for me. But then, I..." 

The memory took his breath even now.

"Then there came a night when you... you seemed to..."

"By the mirror," Greg mumbled, and Mycroft's stomach drew tight. "When we hugged," Greg added softly.

Unable to speak, Mycroft nodded.

Greg drew a soundless breath.

"Y-yeah," he said. "Yeah, that was... for me, too. Looking back, I'd always been a bit... b-but that was the night I finally looked it in the face. Fuck, it hurt."

Mycroft's heart wrenched against his ribs. "I'm sorry..."

Greg huffed out a laugh; his eyes glossed over with a shine. 

"Don't be," he whispered. "Honestly, it... I-I needed it. It was like switching the life support off on my marriage. That night, I realised that when I look at you, there's fireworks and stars and I feel like everything in my whole life's been working up to something. Like I've never made a single mistake. I feel good about myself and the world. Then I got home, and..."

He shuddered, shutting his eyes.

"And all I felt was this weird panic," he said. "Just... who the hell is this person screaming at me? What am I even getting from this? How did this happen? I didn't want it anymore. I wanted something real."

As Greg looked up into Mycroft's eyes, Mycroft's chest seemed to echo with thunder and flashes of colour.

Greg hesitated, watching him feel it too.

"You know I would've kissed you?" he said, his voice as soft as smoke. "Three months ago."

Mycroft's whole body ached with it. 

"Yes," he whispered, barely able to make sound. "Y-yes, I... I know you would."

Greg's eyes dipped down to his lips. "Don't think I'd have regretted it," he said, taking in their shape.

I might have, Mycroft thought—then supposed that the question was now moot. Theoretical regret was impossible to judge. He wet his lips with a breath, reminding himself that the ink on the past was long dry. Nothing would change the facts of it now.

"I think you can be proud," he murmured. "You chose not to commit infidelity, even against someone who'd mistreated you."

"Mhm..." Greg paused, searching Mycroft's gaze. "I'm free now," he said. "Because of you. Happier than I've been in years. That's all you."

What I'd do to keep you happy, Mycroft thought. What I'd give. He let his eyes stray down to Greg's mouth, soft and barely parted. It was perfect enough to paint. Sculptures had been made of lesser lips.

The silence wrapped around the couch.

"Y-you said you were in love with me," Mycroft whispered. His pulse drummed, quick with sudden urgency. "That I couldn't understand how close you'd like to be."

Greg made no sound, gazing back at him from only inches away.

Mycroft's throat contracted around the words. "I wish we'd met in other circumstances. I wish to god, Greg. I can't count the prayers I've made."

"Forget," Greg breathed, shaking. "Forget that first month."

"I'm afraid that I rarely forget anything."

"Pretend then. Put it out of your head."

Mycroft swallowed, his heart still beating heavy and fast. "I'd like to," he said. "I'd like that more than I can express. But I don't want to make a decision that we'll regret."

"Yeah?" After a moment's hesitation, Greg reached out a hand. He laid it with perfect gentleness on Mycroft's waist, a quiet weight which felt warm even through the fleece. It was the most tentative touch Mycroft could ever remember receiving. "I'd rather regret the things I did," Greg said, "than the things I didn't."

Mycroft looked down between their chests, a gap of no more than an inch or two now. Regret would surely feel the same, regardless of how many happy memories were soured in the process.

"You know we could keep it quiet?" Greg said softly. His hand eased around Mycroft's back, gathering him nearer in hope of closing the space. "However long you need. However long it takes. If nobody knows, nobody'll care."

Mycroft's eyes closed, overwhelmed by indecision.

"I worry I'm a symbol to you, Greg," he whispered. "I worry I've become more in your mind than I actually am. Maybe you just like the way I make you feel."

As Greg's nose brushed the side of his own, Mycroft held his breath.

"Think us mortals call that being in love," Greg murmured.

God help me. Mycroft didn't speak. He didn't move, simply laid quite still and listened to Greg's heart, beating as deeply and clearly as his own. Greg's fingers stroked up the side of his neck. They caressed along the line of his jaw and eased into his hair, warm and reassuringly strong, cradling the back of his neck as gently and tenderly as if he were newborn.

"These things happen," Greg whispered against his mouth. Every word was a first kiss; Mycroft's soul seemed to rupture in a cascade of light. "You know they do, darlin'. It's just the luck of the draw that it's happening to you."

Barely able to think, Mycroft chose his last words.

"Then perhaps I should let it happen," he breathed.

Greg's fingers curled gently in his hair.

It was a kiss that Mycroft would never quite walk away from. Though his life would continue in its entirety, seemingly little different to before, some part of him would forevermore stay here: wrapped warm within a blanket and gathered safe against Greg's chest, overwhelmed by the absolute gentleness of his lips. The brush of Greg's mouth felt no more forceful than a feather. It lifted every hair on Mycroft's body onto end. He kissed Mycroft as softly as he'd say marriage vows, with just as much promise and reverence.

In the long months to come, even in the darkest of moments, this kiss would never go out.

Mycroft's throat drew tight. Heat rose at once behind his eyes. So be it, he thought, his chest breaking open in the flood of fear and love. Together then. For better or worse. Before the kiss could end, distraught at the idea it ever might, he pushed his hands free from his blanket and wrapped them around Greg. His fingers found hair; he gripped it, shaking. Greg's arms tightened around him in instant response. They cradled Mycroft, shielding him, hushing between their lips as Mycroft's distress shuttered his breath.

"It's alright," Greg whispered. Mycroft's heart believed him in an instant. Somehow, he thought, struggling to cope with the enormity of the conviction. Against all odds. "S'okay, Myc. It's alright. I'm here." 

Gently, Greg pulled the fleece blanket back into place.

"There you go," he murmured, stroking a hand over Mycroft's back to tuck it in. "Don't worry about a thing. Not anymore."

Oh, god, please. Please let it be alright. "No one must know—" 

"No one will," Greg breathed, kissing him again. Mycroft's heart leapt with every gentle stroke of lips. "Nobody'll know. Nobody but me and you."

"I-I can't lose my licence—"

"You won't. I promise."

"Oh, god—"

"Shhh... shhh, it's okay. Nobody's going to know. Nobody'll know a thing."

Mycroft buried his hands in Greg's hair, shaking as he crushed his lips to Greg's. Help me. Please. Don't let me start to doubt. Not now. Greg's arms closed tight around his body, fierce with love. In a bundle of tangled blanket, he pulled Mycroft up to lie on top of him. Mycroft cupped his perfect bloody jaw in both hands and tilted his head back against the couch to kiss him more deeply, trembling, burning up as Greg's mouth opened without hesitation for him. Warm hands gently delved beneath Mycroft's blanket. They wrapped around his shivering body, holding him.

They kissed until the need for oxygen surmounted the need to kiss. Their lips parted as cautiously as if afraid they would tear at the seam. After a moment's hesitation, Mycroft nervously opened his eyes.

Greg gazed up at him, perfectly gentle, unafraid.

Searching his face, Mycroft committed every detail of the expression to memory. Mine, his heart seemed to breathe, and the thought broke another wave of emotion free from its dam. He swallowed back the sudden need to cry, shaking, and stroked his thumbs across Greg's cheeks. He kissed his forehead, his nose, his beautiful mouth.

"You mustn't let me hurt you," he whispered against Greg's lips, his throat thick. "Y-you mustn't hurt me. Please."

"I won't." Greg's fingers raked through the back of Mycroft's hair, curling, holding. "I won't," he breathed. "I won't, Myc. We'll just look after each other. We'll take care of each other."

Take care of me. Please.

"F-friendship first," Mycroft managed, shaking. "I need to know if this is truly what it seems. I can't be physically intimate with you yet. Not until I know."

"Jesus—Myc, don't even think about that—" 

"I want you. I want you desperately. More than I have any right to. I just couldn't bear the thought that I'm... t-taking advantage of—"

"Hey... hey, shhh... we're not going anywhere near a bed anytime soon. Put that out of your head, okay?" Greg gathered Mycroft close to rest against his shoulder, wrapping both arms around him in his blanket. "We're not rushing anything," he whispered, and he pressed his cheek to the top of Mycroft's forehead. "Myc, if... if you want me to head off for the night, give you some space..."

Mycroft's heart lurched. 

"Don't leave," he gasped, curling into Greg's arms. "For god's sake, don't leave. Not now. Stay and—"

He didn't even know what he wanted. This, he thought in a daze, nuzzling into Greg's throat, gathering a hand in the fabric of his shirt. Just this.

Greg seemed to understand.

"Alright," he murmured, and he brushed back a little of Mycroft's hair. "Stay and talk, mm?"

Mycroft shuddered.

"I missed you," he breathed. His entire chest seemed to cave with the force of the feeling. "Oh, god. I missed you."

Greg's fingers carded slowly through his hair. 

"I missed you too," Greg said. His arms tightened. "Holy shit, I worried so much... Ananya's spent three months trying to figure out who I see in you, what I'm projecting. I've spent three months trying to tell her it's just you."

Mycroft shut his eyes, determined that he wouldn't cry.

"You're wonderful," he said. His throat clenched shut with distress. "I-I want to know you. Be close to you. I'm so tired of trying to analyse it, take it apart, understand it. I just want to bloody feel it."

Greg's fingers gently scrunched.

"Feel it," he whispered, pressing a kiss to Mycroft's forehead, and Mycroft experienced what he could only describe as an orgasm of the heart: a breathless, endless rupturing, a flood of utter and absolute wellness through every single cell in his body. He wanted to cry. "We're not doing anything wrong," Greg murmured in his ear, stroking him as he fought back his tears. "We're both happy and we're adults. Everything's alright. Go ahead and feel."

Mine, Mycroft thought, lifting his head to press their cheeks together in silence. It didn't matter that he was shaking. Greg held him close, shaking too, and it was a comfort to fall into pieces. For the first time in three months, he felt as if he were doing everything right. 

I need you, he tried to tell Greg as they nuzzled. He brushed his fingers slowly over the shortest hairs on the back of Greg's neck. I surrender.

 

*

 

Greg's voice stroked through Mycroft's consciousness, as gently as fingertips stirring through water.

"Back with me, darlin'?" he murmured. He gave Mycroft a gentle squeeze, and Mycroft shivered, shifting with embarrassment in Greg's arms. He hadn't been aware of drifting to sleep. Greg gently brushed a lock of hair off his forehead, speaking as if to some small and shy little animal. "D'you want me to make you a hot drink? Tea, maybe?"

Mycroft's heart broke, overwhelmed at the kindness. He couldn't recall when someone had last made him a cup of tea.

"Y-you're a guest," he whispered, rubbing the corners of his eyes. "I should..."

"I know how to use a kettle," Greg said. "I don't mind." He drew back just a little, cupping Mycroft's face and checking on him with a gentle glance. "Hey... there you are... think you just needed to shut down for a while, mm?"

Mycroft nodded slowly, shivering again. We kissed, he thought. His pulse fluttered beneath Greg's fingertips.

"What time is it?" he managed.

Greg gave him a quiet smile. "Not that late," he said. "You okay by yourself a minute, if I go and make tea?"

It took Mycroft only a moment to identify the source of his distress. I should be the one giving care to you, it insisted. I should be tending to your needs. With a silent breath, he coaxed himself to let go of that instinctive patterning. If anything new was to form between them, it had to form both ways. He'd have to learn to accept as well as offer care.

"Of course," he said, still quietly overwhelmed by the gentleness in Greg's gaze. "It's... kind of you. Thank you. Would you add a spoonful of sugar to mine?"

Greg nodded.

"One sugar," he murmured. He helped Mycroft ease out of his lap, settling him against the cushions instead. "There you go. You sit tight here—you warm enough, yeah?—and I'll be back in a minute."

As he moved away from the couch, Mycroft reached instinctively towards his hand. He regretted the motion as soon as he'd made it, feeling foolish and childish for such a blatant request for touch—but Greg didn't hesitate. He caught Mycroft's hand before it could sink, leant down and lifted it to his mouth.

"I'm coming back," he promised, kissing Mycroft's fingers. Mycroft's heart thumped hard. "And we'll chat."

Mycroft nodded a little, numb, and gathered his blanket around himself.

"Sit tight," Greg murmured. He kissed Mycroft on the forehead, then slipped into the kitchen.

God almighty. Mycroft almost didn't know where to look. He settled for the fireplace, with silent and frequent glances towards the kitchen doorway. The hush and rumble of the kettle and the quiet clattering of mugs was a reassurance. Part of him almost feared that Greg would simply vanish at any moment, gone into nothing, and he'd realise that all of it had been some farfetched dream.

When Greg reappeared, carrying two mugs of tea, he had a packet of Jaffa Cakes nipped by one corner in his mouth. The sight made Mycroft's heart gently swell. He watched as Greg placed down first Mycroft's mug, swivelling the handle towards him, lowered the second mug, then finally took the packet from his mouth.

"Here," he said, as he tugged open the cellophane. "Things're never that bad when you've got a Jaffa Cake..."

He worked one free.

"And you need some sugar in your system," he added, holding it out between his fingers.

Reluctantly amused, trying not to smile, Mycroft leaned forwards and took it with his mouth. Greg watched him chew, his eyes bright. He settled on the couch beside Mycroft, close within his reach, and eased a second Jaffa Cake out of the packet.

"See," he said. "Better already." As Mycroft swallowed, Greg offered out the next one. "How're you feeling?"

Where to begin? Mycroft used the time it took to eat the thing to find a half-decent answer.

"A little shocked," he confessed. He couldn't resist leaning into Greg's side. He glowed a little as Greg's arm eased around his shoulders, inviting him close. "I-I, erm... I hope nothing I said was too much."

"Nowhere near," Greg murmured. "Don't worry." He put the packet of Jaffa Cakes in Mycroft's lap. "You don't open up that often, do you?"

Mycroft winced.

"Rather a professional necessity," he said. He retrieved himself another Jaffa Cake, then on second thoughts, offered it up to Greg. "It's surprisingly easy to forget how to do it."

Greg took the Jaffa Cake between his teeth, turned it with his tongue—with startling dexterity—and bit it in half as he fed it into his mouth. Chewing, he murmured,

"Have you seen much of other people since Christmas?"

Mycroft drew a breath. "I've had quite an influx of new clients," he said. "I've only just emptied all my weekend slots."

Greg huffed. "I think you know that's not what I meant," he said.

Sadly, Mycroft did.

"I've... no," he relented, letting go. He settled his cheek against Greg's shoulder. "No, it's been... there's Ananya, of course, but lately in the context of guilt-stricken therapy. Otherwise my social life's turned into something of a desert. And I'll admit that didn't begin in December."

"That can't be good for you," Greg said gently. "Only ever talking about other people. Never yourself."

Mycroft didn't know whether to laugh or not. 

"These last few months I've rather embraced it," he said. "It stopped me from listening to myself. Now I realise that strategy wasn't sustainable."

"What were you worried you'd hear?" Greg asked.

Mycroft sighed. 

"That I'm... crippled with longing," he mumbled. "For someone I should not want. Struggling to function with the force of it. That my cravings for sex hide a much deeper and growing need for closeness."

Crinkling through the Jaffa Cake packet, Greg rolled another free.

"You've not said anything too much," he said. Mycroft laid still, his heart aching as the Jaffa Cake was offered up to his mouth. He took a small bite and chewed, listening. "I think we're on the same page, to be honest. Things're... well, there's a lot going on. The situation's complicated. For both of us." 

Greg paused, brushing his nose gently against Mycroft's temple.

"I suppose it's a case of something really simple," he said, "right in the middle of all kinds of mess."

Mycroft breathed the sentiment in, understanding completely.

"S'the simplest thing in the world," Greg went on, "what I feel when I talk to you. Couldn't be more straightforward. It's just everything else that's..."

Stirring, Mycroft lifted his head. 

He pressed his lips very gently to Greg's cheek, and for a few moments, everything fell quiet. Even the air around them felt warmer.

With a shiver, Greg exhaled. 

"Yeah," he mumbled. "Y-yeah, that's exactly what I mean."

Mycroft shut his eyes, letting his lips stay resting against Greg's cheekbone. "Close," he said, simply. No other words would do.

Greg's face tilted cautiously towards him. Their noses brushed, and in the quiet shelter between their mouths, they shared a few soft and silent breaths. Mycroft's pulse seemed to sing. You want to kiss, he thought, wild and overcome with it. You want this as badly as I do. You want to fall. You understand.

Greg's breath fractured slightly as he spoke.

"I-I know it's a mess," he whispered. "I still want it. I still think we've got a chance."

I want it, too. Mycroft cradled his jaw in both hands, stroking a thumb across his stubble. Even the slimmest chance feels worth the...

"M'not gonna tell a soul," Greg said. "I don't want to take the risk. Not one. You mean too much to me for that. If it's just between us, we can keep it safe."

Heaven help me.

"I appreciate your understanding," Mycroft whispered, wishing his voice hadn't shaken. He swallowed back the lump in his throat. "I can't promise you any kind of a timeframe. I'm sorry."

"It doesn't matter, darlin'. I don't want a timeframe."

"Therapists have had their licences torn up and burned before their eyes for indiscretions committed years ago. The wording in the code of ethics is so bloody vague and unspecific that it might as well just outright forbid any—"

"Hey... hey, don't worry. I don't care about timeframes," Greg said, leaning close, and pressed his lips to Mycroft's. A soft swoop rushed through Mycroft's chest. "It takes as long as it takes," Greg murmured, with another tender kiss. "I care that you're safe and no one's giving you grief for things they don't understand. I've got a divorce still to wade through. It's alright, Myc. There's no rush."

Dear Christ, Mycroft thought. The divorce. He'd almost forgotten it was still in progress—still to be started at all, in fact. By British law, he was now aiding a married man to commit adultery. If it came to light, it could delay or derail the proceedings for months.

At least I will be with you, while... at least I can give you my support and comfort you. See you through it safely.

Kissing Greg's lips, Mycroft let his eyes close.

"One day at a time," he suggested softly.

Greg shivered, responding to every stroke of the kiss. 

"One day at a time," he said. He nuzzled at the side of Mycroft's nose. "Myc... the people who've lost their licences. I know you're worried, and I don't mean to act like it's nothing. But there's got to be an accusation—right? In all those cases, there's a patient somewhere who wasn't happy. Someone decided to blow the whistle."

He looked into Mycroft's eyes, his pupils deep and dark.

"That's not going to happen here," he promised. Mycroft's pulse skittered, beating hard against the front of his chest. "You're gonna be safe, beautiful. I swear to you. God as my witness."

'Beautiful'. 

Mycroft couldn't breathe.

"I'll need some time to..." His throat tightened oddly. "B-bond," he said, flushing. "Before we can be intimate." Half my life giving sex therapy, he thought in quiet despair, and suddenly I can't look a man in  the eye and say sex. "What we have has probably surmounted simple friendship, but... I-I'd like there to be a foundation of..."

"Then let's go back," Greg murmured, "and put one in." He laid another kiss on Mycroft's lips. "Let's bond. We'll spend some time together, get to know each other. See if this works for us."

Shaking a little, Mycroft stroked his thumb across Greg's lower lip. He made every concern seem so wonderfully, comfortably small. As if by magic, mountains were suddenly transformed into molehills, and the shadows which stalked through them were vaporised by a rising summer sun. It was a remarkable talent.

Mycroft looked into his eyes, realising there was only one place a bonding period would lead. There was only one place any of this would lead.

"God help me," he whispered, swallowing. "Greg, you..." The words came out, stinging pain and a wash of relief at once—thorns pulled free from a wound. "Y-you are perfect."

Greg looked as if he'd waited half his life to hear it.

"Just missed you," he said softly. "Missed you like I can't put into words. And I want you to understand what this is to me."

He drew a deep breath.

"I feel like this could be something," he said, searching Mycroft's eyes. "For both of us. I think we match, darlin'. And it's not your fault you're a therapist."

Helpless, Mycroft smiled.

"My one critical mistake," he murmured. "Perhaps I should have gone into politics after all."

Greg smiled in return, his eyes bright. "The power would've gone to your head," he said. "You'd be a frost-bitten arsehole by now."

Amusement glittered through Mycroft's soul. "You think so, do you?"

"Definitely," Greg said. "Wouldn't have cast me a second glance."

Mycroft smirked, lowering his gaze between them. 

"I don't believe that's true," he said, and he rested his hands on Greg's chest. He brushed his thumb along Greg's shirt collar. "I think you'd have turned my head in any life. I can't imagine not wanting to be close to you."

Greg's chest rose gently into his touch. "Yeah. Yeah, me neither."

Dear god, let this be real. "Will Lisa be wondering where you are?" Mycroft asked.

"Mhm. Maybe," Greg admitted. "I told her I didn't know what time I'd be back, but..."

Mycroft took a breath. "You're very welcome to the couch," he said, glancing cautiously into Greg's eyes, "if you'd like to stay until morning. Don't feel like you have to go."

Greg's gaze seemed to soften. Whether it was relief or hope, Mycroft couldn't quite tell. Some mixture of the two seemed to be likely. 

"You sure?" Greg checked.

"Of course," Mycroft said. "It's comfortable, and... well, it means we can talk a little longer."

Greg nodded gently, watching his face.

"I'll send Lisa a text in a minute," he said. "Tell her we've drunk a bit too much. Just so she doesn't worry."

A small knot of tension eased itself in Mycroft's chest. He glanced down between them, breathing it out, then silently placed a careful kiss to the tip of Greg's nose.

"Did Lisa wonder why we were meeting?" he asked.

"I don't think she suspected anything. I told her I ran into you at the clinic, and we were gonna meet up and have a drink for old times' sake. She seemed happy."

"Happy?"

"She was a bit worried when I stopped seeing you," Greg admitted. "Like it'd undo all your good work. Change me back."

The thought squeezed Mycroft's stomach.

"I'm glad I didn't damage your recovery," he said. He hesitated, glancing down between them. "Does Lisa know why you stopped your appointments with me?"

"Scheduling clash," Greg said. "Just an admin thing."

"Mm. Good."

"I might have to be careful with what I tell her. Lisa's got mother's intuition. And my eyes probably light up whenever I talk about you."

Mycroft drew a breath, settling himself down against Greg's shoulder.

"Secrets are burdens," he said, as Greg adjusted his blanket around him. "You mustn't put Lisa in an awkward position."

"Mhm. Wouldn't be fair on her."

"Will she believe we're just pursuing a friendship?"

"Honestly, I think she'll be thrilled." Greg began to stroke Mycroft's hair, sweeping it gently back from his temples. "Lis and Helen never really gelled. There was always friction. They'd be perfectly friendly to each other on the surface, but... right from the start, it wasn't right."

Mother's intuition, Mycroft thought, resting a hand on Greg's chest. He hoped he got the opportunity to meet Lisa one day.

He hoped she liked him.

A small pocket of quiet gently formed, holding them safe within it. Normally, Mycroft would assign ownership of this space to somebody else. Silence belonged to clients. It was theirs to keep or break as they saw fit. Habit, he realised. An old way of life. It seemed wise to start changing that now.

He leant close, brushing his lips against Greg's pulse point, and enjoyed the gentle shudder that it caused.

"I'm glad we talked," he said.

Greg's arms tightened gently around him. 

"Yeah," Greg murmured, fingers curling through Mycroft's hair. "Yeah, me too. Really glad."

As Greg placed a little kiss against his head, Mycroft felt himself glow. He'd always loved tiny physical signs of affection. They'd been terribly scarce throughout his childhood, then he'd fallen into a habit of dating men who seemed reassuringly non-clientlike: arseholes who'd sooner lose a limb than share their vulnerabilities with him. It was years since he'd last had the chance to be cuddly. 

The urge to pet Greg—groom him, feed him small things—was overwhelming.

"I feel at peace," Mycroft mumbled, basking in the sensation. "I feel... deeply and wonderfully quiet. At last."

Greg smiled against his temple. "I like that," he said. "Hearing your feelings."

"Mm?"

"Mm. S'nice."

"Mhm." Mycroft stirred a little, looping both arms around Greg's waist. "I'll keep you updated on any new ones I spot," he murmured. "Been rather over-run with the things as of late."

Greg's smile became a grin against his forehead. "Reckon they're in season?"

"One can only assume."

"God, I missed you. I missed the way you say things. I missed seeing you, hearing you, just... I-I missed living in the world where there's you."

Please. Please don't let me wake up. 

"Greg?" Mycroft murmured, breathing the scent of his collar.

"Mm?"

It's you. Since we met. Since I first knew the world had you in it. "I... fear our tea might have gone cold."

"S'alright, darlin'. It does sometimes. I'll make us some more."

Mycroft hesitated. 

"In a minute?" he said, tightening his arms.

His lover tucked his blanket around his neck. 

"Mm," Greg rumbled. "In a minute."

 

Chapter Text

Sunday 22nd March

 

Quiet clinking called Greg from his sleep. With a slow blink, he found himself in the blurry lounge he'd worried would turn out to be a dream, lying on the couch with a borrowed pillow beneath his head. Daylight was just beginning to glow through the curtains.

The sight filled his chest with air.

He stirred, shifting over onto his back beneath the blanket, and listened with foggy contentment to the small sounds of hot drinks being made in the kitchen. For a night spent on a couch, he'd slept incredibly well. This thing was nearly as comfortable as his actual bed. That the pillow smelled of Mycroft had definitely helped.

After a few minutes Mycroft appeared in the kitchen doorway, still dressed in his grey pyjamas and dressing gown, wearing no glasses but carrying two matching white mugs. He spotted Greg awake and waiting for him, and faltered a little.

Greg smiled.

"Morning," he murmured, wholly at peace. He wanted to brush those dishevelled red waves with his fingers. He wanted to kiss the slightly scruffy short beard, nuzzle into it before Mycroft had the chance to make it all neat. This was the first time they'd ever said good morning; he wanted it to be the first of many.

Mycroft visibly let out a breath of relief, his shoulders easing an inch or two. 

"Good morning," he said softly. "Did I wake you?"

"S'alright," Greg replied, still smiling. "I'm glad to be awake."

Flushing, Mycroft carried the drinks over to the couch. 

"I was making one for myself," he said, "and I thought you might like... I guessed coffee. I hope that's alright."

Greg's grateful groan came out rather more gravelled than he'd planned, husky with the dryness in his throat.

"You star." He shifted to sit up, keeping the blanket high around his bare chest with one arm. "How'd you sleep?"

Mycroft laid Greg's mug on the coffee table with care.

"Very well, thank you," he said. He kept hold of his own mug, hovering uncertainly at Greg's side as if he were waiting to be dismissed. "Were you alright enough on the—?"

"God, yeah. Perfect. Better than at home." Greg smiled, taking in that slightly nervous expression, and decided to gamble. He held out a hand. "Hey..."

Pink-cheeked, Mycroft reached out in response. His fingers gently brushed the tips of Greg's. They stroked a little, tentative, testing what was allowed.

"You okay?" Greg asked, tangling them. He coaxed Mycroft closer with a very gentle pull.

Though he flushed more deeply, Mycroft came closer.

"I-I think so," he said. As he reached the couch, his gaze flickered towards Greg's bare shoulders, shy, more human and more gorgeous than Greg had ever seen him. "Are you?"

"Of course," Greg said, smiling. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"Last night's discussion was..." Mycroft took a moment to select a word, holding his cup of tea tight against his chest. "Involved," he said at last, searching Greg's face. "We covered a lot of ground."

Are you worried about me, darlin'? Greg wondered. Waiting for my second thoughts to show up? 

He supposed there was one good way to settle those worries. 

He reached up, eased Mycroft's cup of tea gently from his grasp, and transferred it to the coffee table beside his own. Coffee could wait a minute or two. There was something more important to handle first.

As their hands slid together, fingers wrapping, Mycroft didn't appear to be breathing.

Greg held his gaze.

"C'mere," he murmured, and pulled.

Relief washed Mycroft's expression. He climbed into Greg's lap, shivering, and settled himself astride the tops of Greg's thighs, fleece blanket trapped safe in between them. Their hands still joined, Greg laid back against the borrowed pillow. Another reassuring pull brought Mycroft with him. 

They kissed as Mycroft pinned Greg gently into place, their hands knotted together either side of his head. Greg offered up his mouth to the shy tongue which came to explore it, soft and open, all too happy to be claimed. Something about Mycroft's weight laid on top of him was deeply, viscerally satisfying. He felt like he was twenty-five again, a little drunk with love, safe and happy to the bone.

I love you, he tried to promise with each kiss, slower, deeper, softer. I'm alright. I'm happy and I'm yours. I'm not going anywhere. 

When they finally surfaced for air, Greg wasn't surprised to find Mycroft trembling.

"Were you worrying?" Greg murmured, and stroked their noses side by side.

Inhaling, Mycroft gave a quiet nod. "We drank rather a lot," he said. "I'd started to wonder if..."

Their hands squeezed. Who initiated and who responded, Greg couldn't quite tell.

"None of it was wine talking," he said. "Promise."

Mycroft shivered a little, his breath catching. "Forgive me," he said. "I'm... I-I almost can't believe it. I'm waiting for it all to fall away somehow. You're too good to be true."

Greg grinned, nuzzling gently into Mycroft's beard. "Behave," he said.

"I mean every word."

"Yeah? Knackered forty-something divorcee, living in his sister's spare room?"

Mycroft paused, laying a quiet kiss upon Greg's mouth.

"The cruel things Helen said to you were wrong," he murmured. Greg's heart juddered to a stop. "All the cruel things. You are handsome, affectionate and clever. You are kind and full of life. You are the most ridiculously attractive man I've ever laid my eyes upon, and five minutes in your presence was enough to learn that you are easy to be with, easy to laugh with, and easy to trust. Everything that's happened since has only proven it, time and time again. You are wonderful."

Greg's throat gripped. He listened in silence, overwhelmed, gazing up into Mycroft's soft grey eyes.

"And I'm nervous to give in to this feeling," Mycroft whispered. "In case it's taken away from me."

Greg's heart began to beat again, quick and soft. Time, he thought. Time and trust would solve this for both of them, gently pushing through those barriers over and over. He wouldn't believe overnight that he was anything but a lucky idiot; Mycroft needed comfort, too.

He looked into Mycroft's eyes. 

We've got time, Greg thought. Plenty of it.

"What can I do to help you?" he asked. Mycroft's face softened. "I want to reassure you, show you that I care. That everything I said last night was real. How can I comfort you right now?"

Mycroft swallowed a little, lost. "Did Ananya teach you that?" he asked.

Greg gently squeezed his hands. 

"No," he murmured. "Work counsellor, years ago. And I mean it. Tell me what I can do."

Mycroft hesitated, holding something in his mouth.

"D'you want to talk about stuff?" Greg offered gently. "Or cuddle for a while, maybe? Seemed to help last night."

He'd spent enough years interviewing witnesses, listening to people's facial expressions first and their words second, to know a yes when he saw one. 

"Touch helps," he deduced. It even got him a tiny nod. "C'mere then, beautiful. Let's get cosy. I don't have to rush off."

Mycroft nestled down towards his shoulder, trembling a little. The blanket caught and pulled. With some shifting and squirming, they managed to free the edge so Mycroft could burrow underneath it, settling with his head upon Greg's bare chest. His arm wrapped itself around Greg's waist, tentative.

Greg tucked the blanket around him, smiling, and kissed the top of his head.

"There," he rumbled. "Perfect. We'll have a proper morning cuddle, help you settle." Their legs entwined, Mycroft's silky pyjama bottoms smooth against Greg's skin. "I hope you weren't lying awake all night."

There came a quiet pause.

"May I check something?" Mycroft asked Greg's collarbones.

Greg stroked back a little of his hair. "Mm, darlin'," he said. "'Course."

"What precisely are you wearing?"

"Got my boxer shorts on."

"Thank heavens," Mycroft remarked.

Greg let out a laugh. 

"I couldn't sleep in my jeans," he protested, grinning. "And you'd gone off to bed. D'you want me to get some proper clothes on?"

Mycroft nestled closer, turning his head into the petting of his hair. "Mnh. Not necessary."

"Suppose you're swaddled in enough layers for the both of us."

"Beast. It's cold in the kitchen first thing."

"I bet you wear a vest to bed, don't you?"

"I do not, thank you. It stays warm enough with a winter duvet."

Greg curled his fingers through Mycroft's hair, pressing a kiss to his temple. Mycroft's bed and its various warmths could be a thought for another time—not right now. It was enough just to feel Mycroft hugging him back.

"Would you care for breakfast?" Mycroft asked. He stroked his nose against Greg's stubble. "If you're certain you don't need to rush off."

Like there's a chance I'd bolt out of here, Greg thought, and never look back. He wondered how often that had happened to Mycroft. His heart twinged, realising it must have been often enough to leave a scar.

"Love some," he said. "Only if I can give you a hand, though. D'you eat eggs?"

"Mm, I do."

"It's your lucky day, then. You don't know this about me yet, but I make the best French toast in London. I hope you're ready to have your mind blown."

"Oh, indeed? The second best French toast in London, you say?"

"The trick's to—wait—what?"

"Given that the reigning monarch of French toast currently lies atop you," Mycroft said, a smile kindling on his mouth. "And he has no intention of relinquishing his crown to some peppy upstart."

Greg grinned at once, ear to ear. We're gonna be fine, darlin'—aren't we? We're gonna be just perfect.

"Okay," he sighed. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Both involve you admitting my French toast is like eating a fried slice of God. And I'm afraid I won't be leaving this flat until you do."

Mycroft's eyes glittered.

"I accept your terms," he said.

 

*

 

As Greg cracked the second egg into the bowl, quiet arms encircled his middle from behind. Mycroft's chin settled carefully on his shoulder.

"Is this alright?" Mycroft asked him in a mumble.

Greg couldn't smile any harder if he tried. "It's perfect," he said. "Don't you dare move."

Mycroft watched him reach for a whisk. "If you're certain."

"Besides," Greg teased, "we both know this is a cover to steal my secrets. Are you hunting for tips for when it's your turn?"

Mycroft smiled against the side of his neck.

"I'd dearly love some," he said. "But it appears you're making eggy bread at the moment. As we agreed on a French toast contest, I shall wait patiently just here."

Greg grinned, pulling his lower lip between his teeth. "Are you trying to psyche me out?"

"Mm," Mycroft hummed, hugging him. "That's entirely what I'm doing."

"Well, watch and learn. This is how the magic happens." Greg reached over to drop the heat a little on the gas cooker, easing the frying pan's hiss. "Catch that? Lower and slower. Can't take these things too fast or you'll cremate the outside and leave the middle raw."

"How insightful."

"Classic beginner's mistake."

"You are aware you're not actually making pain perdu, of course?" Mycroft mused, watching Greg whisk. "This is a practice stage of some kind, I take it."

"What're you on about? Eggs, milk, bread. French toast."

"And you've accidentally skipped the vanilla extract and the cream, have you? Perhaps the hangover's finally kicking in."

"I did wonder what you got those out for. D'you make a sweet version?"

Mycroft gave a faint sigh. 

"And to think I briefly worried my reign was under threat," he said.

Grinning, Greg nudged his cheek against Mycroft's. 

"You're all mouth," he said. "You'll change your tune when you taste it. Where's your bread?"

"Given that you've missed half the ingredients," Mycroft remarked, loosening his arms, and laid a final sly kiss on the side of Greg's neck, "I'm surprised you're even using any. Let me fetch some. Sliced white alright, is it?"

"Perfect, thanks."

 

*

 

"Verdict?" Greg said, grinning as he watched Mycroft chew. They were leaning against the central island counter together, Mycroft still in his pyjamas, his expression giving nothing away. Fresh tea steamed in two mugs between them. "And don't try to lie to me, Holmes," Greg added. "I'm a policeman and it's an offence. So just admit it's glorious."

Mycroft licked away his brief smile, flattening it back beneath a mask of food critic's neutrality. He swallowed his mouthful of toast.

"Perfectly permissible eggy bread," he concluded, and took another small bite. "Sadly, not French toast by any civilised understanding of the term, and therefore excluded from the contest. My reign continues unchallenged."

"What's the difference?" Greg asked, laughing.

"French toast is of course a sweet dish, often served with fresh berries or yoghurt. Your savoury attempt might or might not be glorious, but it is not French toast."

"Oh, yeah? So says you, huh? This sounds like goalpost shifting to me. Put your money where your mouth is—in some beaten egg and get frying it—or I'm taking your crown with me as I go."

Mycroft swallowed his smirk, reaching for another piece of toast.

"Well, I suppose a demonstration from the master might help you hone your craft," he said. "Given that it's past nine, perhaps I should dress myself first."

Christ, Greg thought, how's it past nine already? He hadn't even finished buttoning his shirt yet. He'd have to text Lisa soon and let her know he was alright. Suppose if she thinks I was up drinking all night... there's no major rush.

"Fair enough," he said, smiling. "Go fetch your chef's hat, then no more stalling. You've got some big claims to back up."

Amused, Mycroft took another bite of toast.

"Once I've finished my eggy bread," he remarked. "I understand it's the best in London."

 

*

 

As Mycroft divided a loaf of brioche into inch-thick slices, Greg idled up behind him. He snaked both arms around Mycroft's middle, nuzzled into his neck, and said,

"Brioche?"

Mycroft smiled. "Bien sûr," he replied, settling back into Greg's arms. His smile became a grin as Greg squeezed him. "Day-old brioche, no less. My usual Sunday treat. You're here on just the right morning."

"Egg yolks? No whites?"

"Creates a silkier texture. More custard-like."

"Christ," Greg said, suspecting he'd already lost this. He'd have to up his game. "Everyday's a school day. I wouldn't have guessed you're a dessert-for-breakfast man."

Mycroft cast him a soft-eyed glance over one shoulder. 

"Am I glorious yet?" he asked.

You've no idea, Greg thought.

"Wait 'til I've tasted it," he teased, his heart thumping hard. "Might still be dreadful."

Mycroft's smile spread into a smirk. 

"Beast," he remarked. He reached for a large glass bowl. "Would you whisk for me? I need to check if I have maple syrup."

"Sure," Greg said. "Chuck it here."

As Mycroft sought through a cupboard, Greg leant back against the island counter and kept the mixture gently moving. It was hard not to simply gaze at Mycroft, to watch every tiny motion he made—the small frown on his face as he moved items aside, the simple sight of him in a weekend jumper and socked feet. 

Never thought I'd get to see you like this. Quiet and easy on a Sunday. Like we're just... and it's not a big deal.

"I hope I'm not disrupting your plans for the day," Mycroft said, busy inside the cupboard. "If you had things scheduled..."

"Not a thing." Greg smiled, wondering if he'd really heard in that casual tone what he thought he had. "Honestly, it's nice just to spend time with you. If you've got stuff to do, then say."

"I'll admit I have a few sets of client notes to update. They can wait until the evening, though."

"You sure?"

"Mm. Certain. They're hardly urgent." Mycroft straightened up from the cupboard, holding a bottle of syrup. "If you're happy, Greg, I'm happy."

Greg smiled. 

"Looks like we're happy, then." He handed over the whisk and the bowl, as carefully as he'd hand over a baby. As he did, a small and hopeful whim arose. "D'you fancy watching a film or something?" he asked. "Settle on the sofa? Might be nice."

Pleasant surprise softened Mycroft's face. 

"I'd like that," he said. "Did you have any particular...?"

"No, anything's fine. Don't mind what we watch."

"Well... I'm sure we can find something in my collection."

"Sure. Whatever you're into." Smiling, Greg reached for the frying pan sitting by the sink. "Toast first, yeah? Shall I give this a wash?"

 

*

 

Greg had never had toast presented to him quite so beautifully before. Mycroft placed the plate down with great care, then scattered a few flaked almonds over the three golden-brown slices of perfectly-crisped bread. Finally, there came a generous pouring of maple syrup, swirled across the toast in stripes until it just began to form a pool underneath.

"I'm willing to admit defeat," Greg said with a grin. "This looks bloody amazing. I can't believe you've taken eggs and bread and done that."

"You haven't tasted it yet," Mycroft said, amused, pouring syrup over his own plate. "It might still be dreadful."

With his mouth now watering, Greg picked up a fork. 

"I saw how much sugar and cream you used," he said. "This is clearly going to be fantastic." He crunched off a small corner of one slice, startled to find the inside looked almost pillowy soft. "How've you turned bread into custard? Sorcery."

He dabbed the piece of toast into the syrup, then lifted it to his mouth. 

The initial soft crunch gave way to a vanilla cloud. God almighty, Greg thought, closing his eyes just to chew. He was going to have to take up jogging again, if this was how Mycroft made a casual breakfast on a Sunday. Otherwise he'd soon be unable to get himself up the stairs. As he swallowed, he licked a small smudge of maple syrup off his lower lip and reached eagerly for another forkful, wishing they'd made twice as much. He then noticed the tentative silence from beside him.

He looked into Mycroft's eyes, and found them watching him with hope.

"This is incredible," he said. "I'm not kidding. This is the best thing I've ever had for breakfast in my life. I can't believe I made you eat my rubbish eggy bread."

Mycroft flushed to the ears, desperately fighting a smile. 

"Your eggy bread was delicious," he said. "I'll teach you this recipe, if you like. Then you can master both."

Won't taste as good if we don't make it together, Greg thought. He smiled, chewing, and made himself swallow before he spoke.

"Maybe I'll just turn up here every Sunday," he said. "I'll fetch brioche, a box of eggs and a film."

Mycroft made a soft, amused noise.

"Turn up on Saturday," he advised, idling the tines of his fork through maple syrup. "Bring pyjamas, too."

 

*

 

[LW 12:59] everything ok? hope you had a good night :) will you be back in time for tea? no worries if not! just so I know! xoxox

[GL 13:16] Hey Lis, sorry! Just found your text! Been staring at the box all day with a hangover. Heading back about 3, that ok? Gonna get a taxi xxx
[GL 13:17] PS My phone's on 14% battery so if I vanish, don't worry xxx

 

*

 

Before Greg knew it, it was nearly four. The day had drifted by in a haze, most of it spent half-asleep and stretched out on the couch, gazing contentedly at one film after another with Mycroft half-asleep on top of him. They'd taken it in turns to get up and make tea. He'd now stroked every single strand of Mycroft's hair.

Putting on his shoes and jacket to go home felt like leaving therapy always had.

As Mycroft unlocked the door, his eyes low, Greg's pulse began beating out of rhythm.

"I'm sorry to... really, I should have finished writing them up on Friday," Mycroft said. He hesitated as he opened the door, then looked up into Greg's face. "Please don't think I want you to go. I've had a very pleasant day."

Greg drew a breath, hoping his smile looked even half-convincing. He'd never felt less like smiling in his life.

"S'alright," he murmured. "I've got stuff to get ready for tomorrow, too. Shirts to iron. And... well, Lisa'll be wondering what's going on."

Mycroft huffed. He glanced down towards Greg's chest, reached out, and brushed something gently from his jacket.

"I suppose a quick drink doesn't usually take twenty-one hours," he said.

Greg wished he could laugh. "Two quick drinks," he tried. "Few rounds of pool."

Mycroft's eyes lifted back to his face. He simply looked, his gaze empty and numb—and though he said nothing, Greg heard every word.

Christ. 

"I don't want to leave you," Greg breathed. The open door behind Mycroft and the landing beyond looked like a portal into hell. "I... J-Jesus, I just... today's been..."

Mycroft's expression broke.

His keys hit the floor as they dragged each other close. Their mouths came together with a roughness that took Greg's breath. Before he knew what he was doing, he'd backed Mycroft up against the doorframe and pinned him into place, panting, searching Mycroft's mouth as Mycroft gripped his hair.

"Don't you dare start thinking," Greg pleaded between kisses, shaking. Mycroft's fingers scrunched tight. "Don't let stuff into your head, not now. Please. Please don't do that to me."

Mycroft swallowed, staring back into his eyes. "I won't," he breathed. "I won't, I promise you. It's far too late for thinking."

"We'll keep things between us, okay? It'll all be fine." Gazing at Mycroft's lips, Greg's heart strained. "You've not exploited me," he said. "You've not taken advantage of me. I want to be with you every minute that I can, and it's crippling me to leave you, and whenever you need to hear it, I'm literally one call away. Please don't let some version of me in your head do my talking for me." 

His throat muscles gripped.

"I deserve better than that," he said.

Mycroft's gaze seemed to ache. He leant forwards, brushing his mouth over Greg's.

"You do," he whispered. 

Greg closed his eyes. He curled weakly into Mycroft's hug; Mycroft's arms gathered around him.

After almost a full minute of silence, Mycroft murmured in his ear.

"I don't have any plans for next weekend," he said. "If you'd like to make some. They'd have to be private plans, but..."

God.

"Friday?" Greg said. He cradled the back of Mycroft's head, cushioning his scalp with his fingers. "If I come round after work, maybe? Get a takeaway together. Just... s-spend some more time."

Mycroft breathed in. "That sounds perfect," he said. "Yes. Let's do that."

They looked into each other's eyes, lost, and Greg realised the moment had come. If he didn't leave now, there'd be consequences. He'd be turning up at work tomorrow in jeans and a crumpled three-day-old shirt.

He leant close, caught Mycroft's lips, and kissed him slowly. It was a plea and a promise at once. He could feel Mycroft pleading with him in return, rubbing his back beneath his jacket, shivering as they started to run out of air again. They parted only when they had to, inhaling deeply.

Greg pressed his forehead to Mycroft's.

"Bye, beautiful," he said.

Pale, Mycroft wet his lips. 

"I'll decline to say goodbye," he whispered. "I don't want to say that word to you. Not now. Not ever, frankly. But I hope you have a wonderful week."

This is huge, Greg thought, holding onto one last quiet moment together. Mycroft's eyes watched his own. Isn't it? This'll make me or break me. 

And it's completely out of my control.

His throat squeezed.

"You too," he managed. He pulled his gaze away, slipped from Mycroft's arms, and headed for the stairs.

 

Chapter Text

Everyone knows I'm in love. 

Greg didn't understand how he'd forgotten this feeling. Somewhere in the passage of time, the sensation had simply dropped from his memory, leaving no record of its existence. Its return felt like remembering a colour he'd not seen for twenty years. Though the walk to a nearby taxi rank was only a few streets, five or six people seemed to cast knowing glances in his direction. Greg's skin felt tissue thin. He half-expected to look down and find he was glowing like a beacon—too bright, too present, as visible and lonely as a lighthouse. He was suddenly half a person and everyone could see it.

It hurt just to walk down the street. He kept checking back and forth for Helen's car out of habit, taking a second careful glance at any loitering figures. The familiar buildings looked as strange and unsettling as if he'd been gone a hundred years. 

He wasn't meant to be alone.

"Where to, fella?" the taxi driver asked, with a bright-eyed glance in the rear-view mirror.

Greg buckled his seatbelt over last night's shirt. It was creased and crumpled to hell after cuddling on the couch all afternoon. As he steadied himself with a breath, he realised that his clothes and his skin smelled of Mycroft. It hurt with such force it took the words from his mouth. I don't want to be here. I don't want to be alone. I don't want to go anywhere without him.

He gave Lisa's address as casually as he could, trying his hardest to sound like he was fine, then reached inside his jacket for his phone. The last thing he needed right now was casual conversation. They peeled away from the kerb in silence and the buildings began to pass.

Without its usual overnight charge, Greg's battery had dropped to seven percent. It hadn't been enough to risk an Uber.

But it might last for a text or two.

Heading back, he told Lisa. Sorry I'm later than I said I'd be xxx

His heart thumping, he opened another message window.

 

[GL 16:19] Are you ok? xx

 

He laid his phone nervously in his lap to wait for a response, watching the streets go by. Too soon, he thought. Should've waited a few hours. Too keen. Christ, I'm so crap at this part.

His phone buzzed, sliding his heart up into his throat. 

Lisa, he told himself, turning it over as if he didn't care. It'll be Lisa.

 

[MH 16:21] This flat has never seemed so quiet. M xx

 

"Oh, god," Greg mumbled under his breath, glad of the taxi driver's radio. He slumped a little in his seat as he replied, patches of hot and cold flushing wildly over the back of his neck.

 

[GL 16:22] Christ I missed the sight of your voice xx

[MH 16:22] I missed yours too. I'm sorry. M xx

[GL 16:22] Forget about it. History xxx
[GL 16:22] Better things to think about xxx

[MH 16:23] Far better things. M xxx

[GL 16:23] I miss you xxx

[MH 16:24] I'm lying on my couch, rewatching our last DVD. I meant to start work on my notes. But I feel like I can't quite function. M xxx

[GL 16:24] Oh shit, I miss you. I'm already in a taxi xxx
[GL 16:24] Why the fuck am I in a taxi? xxx

 

When Greg's phone buzzed again a minute later, he checked it in desperation. His brief confusion righted upon checking the sender's name.

 

[LW 16:25] thanks for letting me know! tea's nothing fancy just cottage pie :) xoxox

[GL 16:25] Great :) Won't be long xxx

 

A new message popped up over the top of Lisa's typing.

 

[MH 16:27] Some responsible nonsense about being prepared for the working week.
[MH 16:27] I enjoyed your company today more than I can put into words. M xxx

 

Greg took a minute to locate his thoughts outside the window, just to settle the pounding of his heart. He almost wanted to ask the driver to turn around and take him back—just one more DVD, one more mug of tea, one more hour to cuddle quietly on the couch and feel like he was whole again. The lump in his throat was making him nauseous.

God almighty, he thought, trying to breathe away the heat in his eyes, and forced himself to count passing cars. What've we started?

 

[GL 16:29] Battery on 4%... if I vanish... xxx
[GL 16:29] Is it ok if I text you later? xxx

[MH 16:29] I'll be distressed if you don't. M xxx

[GL 16:30] Can I text you through the week? xxx

[MH 16:30] My answer stands.
[MH 16:30] I'm not certain how I'll otherwise survive until Friday. M xxx

[GL 16:31] Literally on the verge of telling the guy just to drive me straight back to yours xxx

[MH 16:32] If you do, your family will ask questions. M xxx

[GL 16:32] I know. It's killing me, that's all xxx
[GL 16:32] Haven't felt like this for half my life xxx

[MH 16:34] I worry desperately that we're playing with fire. I'll always worry.
[MH 16:34] It's in my nature and I hope that my over-cautious instincts will help to keep us safe.
[MH 16:34] But I can't think about anything but you.
[MH 16:35] Today was bloody sublime. You've ruined me and all I want is to lie quietly on your chest and feel at peace.
[MH 16:35] Don't you dare come to your senses. M xxx

[GL 16:36] Came to them last night. Both of us did xxxxx
[GL 16:36] Battery at 2% xxxxx

[MH 16:37] We'll speak later then. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.
[MH 16:37] I'll think of you. M xxx

[GL 16:37] You too xxxxx

 

Turning off the phone felt like switching his heart onto silent. Greg exhaled in the thick and painful quiet which came after, turning his eyes at last to the roads passing by. It felt so wrong to be back in the world. He'd spent last night and today on some other plane of existence, and now he was suddenly back in London, looking at bus stops and streetlights and shops again. They weren't quite real. 

Tomorrow morning he'd be back at work, trying to act like he hadn't spent the best hours of his weekend in another bloke's arms.

The bloke I hired to save my marriage, he thought. Stroking his hair, murmuring to him. Trying not to tell him that I love him.

Christ.

 

*

 

The sight of the dark grey Volvo, loitering unsubtly two or three houses down, unloaded a syringeful of reality straight into Greg's neck. He recognised the car from all the way down Lisa's street, unsurprised to feel his heart drop into his stomach like a stone.

Then, it was weirdly fitting that she'd show up today. 

Here to witness this, Greg thought, reaching inside his jacket for his wallet. His fingers shook. She was no longer the last person who'd held him. He wasn't living on table scraps of closeness anymore, starving for something real, begging her for any tiny crumb of hope. In a few short years, she'd fucked him up to the point where a day where she didn't actually scream at him felt like he'd done something right.

Now it was over. History.

And not only was Greg beyond her reach, he wore the echo of someone else's arms wrapped around him like a blanket. He felt as if he'd been anointed. There was nothing she could do about it. 

Watch if you want, he told the car's reflection in the wing mirror. It doesn't bother me. Not anymore.

The taxi dropped him directly outside the house. Greg paid the driver, thanked him, and reached for the door handle just in time to see Lisa appearing on her front step. She scowled down the street towards the lingering Volvo, slipping her phone from the back pocket of her jeans.

As the taxi drove away, Greg strolled towards the house.

"How long's she been there?" he asked.

His sister sighed.

"I'm not sure you'll want to know," she said, taking a picture. "You probably owe Danny his own weight in Panini stickers. He's been giving me hourly updates. Did you get my text?"

Somewhere in the stream, Greg had been aware of another notification popping up and vanishing, forgotten in an instant. Guilt tugged at his stomach.

"Sorry," he said, as he reached her. "My battery conked out halfway home. It's not been charged all night."

"Tried to warn you she was here, that's all." 

Side by side on Lisa's doorstep in the afternoon sun, they surveyed the motionless car together. 

Lisa locked her phone with a sigh. "Suppose it doesn't make much difference," she said, putting it away. "If she's here, she's here. Nothing much we can do."

"Mhm." Greg pushed his hands into his pockets. "Just wait for her to get a life."

"Does she honestly not realise we've seen her?"

"She knows we have. That's the point. It's never actually about just observing someone. It's about making them feel observed, like there's no safe place to be."

Lisa reached out, rubbing her hand across his back. 

"This is a safe place," she murmured. "Totally safe." She squeezed Greg gently around the waist, looking up at him. "And if all she can think to do with her weekend is sit alone in a car, then I feel sorry for her. How was your night, anyway? Did you have a good time?"

Greg's heart strained a little, begging louder than ever to go back. 

"Great," he said. "Yeah, really great."

"Did you two go out on the town?" Lisa asked.

Greg huffed, too lonely to laugh. "No," he said. "Just putting the world to rights in his living room, really. Lots to catch up on." 

He slipped his hands deeper into his pockets, trying to figure out what was safe to say. 

"He, erm... talked me through some stuff. Not officially. Didn't write him a cheque as I left or anything. Just as a friend."

Lisa smiled, apparently glad to hear it. "Did it help?" she said. 

"Yeah. Y-yeah, he really knows his stuff." Christ, how hard am I blushing? Greg coughed, clearing his throat. "I forgot how well we get on," he said. "Shame his schedule changed."

"Suppose you can meet as friends, though. Still know each other. Might even be better that way."

"Mhm."

"Has he got a partner at the minute?"

"Oh—Myc? I don't know. I guess not. He's not mentioned anybody, so... he lives on his own, anyway."

"Yeah?" Lisa prepared something in her mouth, watching Greg. "Is he gay?"

Before Greg could form a response, there came a clunk from a distant car door. He glanced towards the sound, unthinking.

A familiar figure emerged from the dark grey Volvo, tossing her newly-dyed brown hair over one shoulder.

Greg's stomach shrank to half its size. Lisa stiffened up beside him, then brushed past, putting herself in the way. 

Greg reached at once for her arm.

"Lisa," he muttered. Fuck, why today? Today of all days. He tried to gently pull her back. "Oi."

Lisa didn't move, watching Helen gather up her keys and her purse.

"She wants to cause a fuss," Greg said quickly, his voice low and firm. "She wants to know she can upset us all. And if we give her that, it gets worse. Right? I want you to get in the house, please. I'm just gonna tell her to leave."

Lisa looked back over her shoulder at him, her jaw set tight. "What if she—"

Greg's pulse stuttered.

"What if she what?" he said.

Whatever Lisa had been about to say, she didn't dare. She breathed it out, let it go, and stepped up into the doorway.

"Keep the door unlocked," Greg said, his heart thumping hard. "If she gets too much, I'll just come in. Alright?"

Lisa bit the words out. "She's gotten too much just by showing up here."

"I know, Lis. But she—"

"Like she's got any bloody right."

"Lis, I hear you," Greg said. "But getting mad's not gonna stop her, is it? So in you go."

Saying nothing more, Lisa stepped out of sight.

The two doors closed at once—Lisa's house, Helen's car. Helen came striding along the road, not looking at him yet, a picture of casual disinterest as she smoothed back her hair.

Greg watched her approach in silence, drawing the memories of the past twenty four hours up around him like armour. He forced himself to see not her emotionless face and her shiny new hair but Mycroft, a hundred different perfect sights of him: elbow-deep in the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast pots as Greg dried them, smirking at some daft little joke; searching through his shelf of DVDs, trying to find something Greg would like; this afternoon, lying together on the couch, lapsing into gentle kissing between films. "You're excellent company," Mycroft had whispered, touching Greg's cheek, and it felt like so much more than being handsome or sexy. He'd felt at peace.

His chest expanded with the memory, unafraid.

Helen came within speaking distance, idled to a halt, and finally looked up into his eyes.

"You are aware you're still a married man?" she checked, raising an eyebrow. Her gaze lingered on the creases in his shirt. "Not some sex-crazed student. Who is she?"

Greg kept his tone perfectly level, ignoring the pounding of his heart. "What're you doing here?"

"On this public street, you mean?" she said.

Greg said nothing, waiting. 

Helen rolled her eyes. "Given that you've so childishly blocked me everywhere," she said, with a weary intake of breath, "it's the only way I can get hold of you. But I shouldn't be surprised, should I? You force me to resort to this, then you savage me for it. Classic you."

"We can discuss things through the solicitor," Greg said, calmly. "There's no reason for—"

"He charges by the hour," Helen snapped over him. "And unlike you, I'm not a high-flying police officer with money to burn."

Greg pressed his teeth into the side of his tongue. Three months ago, he'd been a pathetic excuse for a husband who didn't earn enough to support her. Suddenly he had money to burn.

"So where have you been all night?" Helen asked, before he could speak. He passed his tongue between his lips, keeping his face clean and empty. "And with who, can I ask?"

Two can play this game.

"How's Rob from the gym?" Greg said, his tone mild. "You two still going to Horizontal Zumba?"

Helen's expression flattened. She moved something around her mouth which didn't look particularly palatable. It took her several seconds to speak.

"It's over," she said. "We're... it's not happening anymore."

"Aww," Greg said, deadpan. "Never mind, eh? Plenty more fish in the sea. What're you doing here?"

Helen's jaw muscles worked. 

"How's Dr Holmes?" she asked, and Greg didn't move. He kept his features as motionless as he would when interrogating a suspect, his eyes locked on her eyes, telling himself there was nothing to be seen—even as his heart lurched out of rhythm. "Are you still paying him a fortune to act like he cares?"

Greg said nothing, searching wildly in his mind for a safe thing to say.

Helen went on.

"Or has he tried having a squeeze of your knee yet?" she crooned, her eyes glittering.

Greg's stomach clenched. She found it funny. She thought it was so ridiculous that it stood as an insult all on his own, no embellishment needed. Greg's decision even to associate with a known one of them could be used as a slur.

He took a moment to remember Mycroft's gentle weight in his lap, all soft and wrapped up in fleece fabric; Mycroft's hair between his fingers; Mycroft's fond glance as he was fed another small piece of Jaffa Cake.

With a breath, and an expression of vague disinterest, he said,

"Never got the chance. He transferred me just after Christmas—scheduling clash. M'with Ananya now."

The humour seemed to vaporise in Helen's eyes. It was gone in an instant, replaced by a staring and stone-like contempt. "The Pakistani bitch?" she said.

Greg bit down into his tongue, hard. "You know she was born in Watford, don't you?" he said. "Her family's not even from Pakistan. She's Marathi. It's a different bloody country."

"Oh, piss off," Helen said. "It's all the same."

Right.

"You know what?" Greg said. "Maybe you can piss off, Hel. We're done here." He reached for the door.

"So you're with her now, are you?" Helen asked as he opened it, raising her voice.

Christ. 

"What's it to you?" Greg snapped, looking back. "What's any of it to you? You didn't give two shits what I did when we were married. Now we're divorcing, suddenly y—... actually, you know what? No. We're not talking. Stop coming round here."

"What other choice do I have?"

"The solicitor. That's the other choice."

"When you insist on being so bloody childish," Helen said, reaching for her handbag, "then I've got no choice." 

She snapped open the clasp. 

"What exactly is this latest ridiculous demand about?" she asked, retrieving a crumpled letter from inside. "I don't even understand what savings account you're talking about, Greg. It's a shame you've forced me into an accusation. But I know you're doing this on purpose, just to—"

"Get back in your car," Greg said, speaking over her until she stopped, "and drive off, and we'll talk through the solicitor."

Helen flushed furiously.

"Is it really so impossible to have a single civil discussion with you?" she demanded. "Is that genuinely too much to expect?"

"We can have plenty of civil discussions," Greg said, "through the solicitor." He stared into her face, ignoring the pounding of his heart. "I'm telling you to go," he said, lacing his voice with all the professional threat he usually saved for work. "If you're not gone in five minutes, we'll be calling the police."

"Call your friends, you mean?" she jeered. "To come and arrest me for daring to speak to you? I'm your bloody wife!"

"And you're being asked to leave."

"You might want to bolt off into the sunset without a backwards glance, but I'm not going to—"

"I don't want you here. Lisa doesn't want you here."

"It's a crime to stand on the street now, is it?"

"Helen, I'm telling you to go."

"Where the fuck were you last night?" she demanded. "Who were you with?"

Greg rolled his eyes. He wrenched open the front door, turning his back on her to step inside.

It happened in seconds.

A sudden jerk around Greg's throat dragged him back, crushing the breath from his windpipe. Hauled off balance, he stumbled from the doorstep. Before he could even fall, before he understood that she'd wrenched him backwards by the collar, there came a lash across his face. The hot sting of pain and the shock whited out his senses.

When it subsided, he found himself half-kneeling on the pavement in a heap, panting.

Someone was standing over him.

"You leave my house!" Lisa screamed, full volume, both her hands on his shoulders. "D'you hear? Get the hell away from here! Now! If you ever lay a hand on him again, you vicious bitch—"

Helen began to scream back, demanding to know who Lisa thought she was; who either of them thought they were; what right they thought they had. Greg shut his eyes. His face stung like he'd been branded. He couldn't draw proper breath through his throat, gulping it instead, wheezing.

Lisa bent down. She wrapped her arms beneath his, tight.

"C'mon," she murmured in his ear, and she lifted him up. "Up you get." Greg went with her, barely able to think. She got him up over the step and into the house, and as the front door shut with a slam, Greg leant against the wall and panted. 

Lisa locked the door. 

Helen's muffled shrieks continued through it. One or two frustrated bangs fell against the wood.

"C'mon," Lisa said again, gently and firmly, putting an arm around Greg's back. He could feel her shaking. "Let's have you in the kitchen and we'll take a look at those scratches, mm? We'll get those all cleaned up."

A strange, hot surge of emotion welled in the back of Greg's throat. She was their mother; he'd never seen it so clearly in her before. As a child, there'd been very few times spent alone with a parent speaking gently. Without exception, those moments all had injury at their source. Only blood and tears had ever really prompted hugs.

Lisa sat him at the table where the kids usually ate their breakfast, magicked a first aid box from nowhere then leant down to have a look at him.

"They're not too bad," she said softly, studying his cheek, and she reached for a paper towel. She dampened it quickly under the tap. "Let's hope you've snapped one of those false nails, mm? Must've cost her a fortune."

Greg said nothing. He felt as silent and insubstantial as a shadow, not quite here. Everything was happening too quickly, one thing and another, and he was simply streaming along with it all. 

That's physical violence, said a voice in the back of his mind. That's a risk factor.  

Greg ignored it, his heart pounding. He simply stared.

Gently, Lisa cleaned his cheek with the damp paper towel. The hot sting had gathered itself into stripes, three or four of them from his ear towards his mouth. He tried not to see the blood coming off on the paper, nor notice how often she had to change it. 

Antiseptic came from the first aid kit. As Greg twitched with pain, Lisa put an arm around him.

"Easy," she said, rumpling his hair. Greg pressed his face against her shoulder. He shook in utter silence, eyes tight shut. He didn't want to cry. His sister held the cotton pad in place, trying to be gentle. "It'll help," she said. "They'll heal quicker if they're clean."

Work tomorrow. Shit. Colleagues—everyone'll see— 

"We'll get you a cup of tea," Lisa said into his hair. She started to rock him from side to side; Greg convulsed. "Shhh. Shhh, s'alright. Nice hot tea and some ibruprofen, mm? You'll ache tomorrow. The way she wrenched at you like that."

Lisa changed the antiseptic pad, dabbing quietly at the sting.

"Maybe have a bath before you go to bed," she said.

Greg nodded, numb.

A very long time seemed to pass.

"Greg?" Lisa murmured at last, and Greg didn't move. He just tightened his arms around her middle. "Greg, did she ever... when you were married, I mean?"

We're still married, Greg thought. He swallowed it back, wishing his throat didn't feel so tight.

"No," he mumbled. "Not like that."

"Alright," Lisa said gently. He couldn't be certain she believed him, but he didn't know how to make her. "Will you tell your mate at work, please? That she's been violent?"

"It wasn't... violence," Greg said, shaking. "Not like they mean. It's different. They mean she beats me up or starts breaking windows. She—she just—"

"Hit you," Lisa said softly. "Dragged you off your feet."

"L-Lisa—" 

"If Ed had wrenched me to the ground and slapped me, would you now be defending him? Telling me it wasn't violence?"

"Lisa—"

"I want you to tell Paul at work about this when you see him. Okay? I'll take photos and I want you to show him them. Promise me, Greg. It's important."

"I-I promise."

"Good. Now c'mere," Lisa said, kneeling down on the kitchen floor, and gathered him into her arms. "Stop trying not to cry and get it out. We don't bottle things up in this family."

 

Chapter Text

[MH 21:03] xxx

 

Greg's heart crumpled. He'd been forcing himself to wait until half nine; he didn't want to seem clingy or needy. Though it had been five hours since he left Mycroft's flat, it felt more like five miserable weeks.

He turned quietly onto his side in bed, resettled his head against the pillows, and typed back.

 

[GL 21:03] xxxxx

 

A reply arrived without delay. He could almost hear Mycroft's voice, quiet and caring, spoken from somewhere closer than his own skin. It brought a lump to his throat.

 

[MH 21:03] How are you? M xxx

 

Inhaling, Greg glanced towards the door of the spare room. He'd nudged it to, though a slim gap still allowed a stripe of light from the landing. It might let noise out, too. He got up from the bed, his back protesting with a stiff twinge of pain, and eased the door fully closed.

His call rang only once before it was answered.

"Hello," Mycroft murmured, sounding pleasantly surprised. "I forgot you might now be at liberty to call."

Greg's eyes closed on their own, trying to contain the rush of utter longing. Holy shit, he thought, reeling. I'm in love with you. This is it. This is actually it.

"Just wanted to hear your voice a while," he mumbled. "Is... that okay? M'not disturbing you, am I?"

Mycroft seemed to note the tiredness in his voice. 

"Not at all," he said. Greg caught the faint clink of a bottle against glass in the background, wine being poured. "I rather prefer calling, in truth. I'm told I sound too clipped by text. Is everything alright?"

Greg's throat tightened.

"Eventful afternoon," he said. "That's all. Seems a really long time since I left you."

"Oh?" Mycroft's voice felt like a kiss to the temple. "Tell me."

Christ, where to start? Greg took a shaky breath, glancing at the closed bedroom door. "You, erm... you sure you don't mind?" he said. "I don't want you to feel like..."

Mycroft huffed, soft in the back of his throat.

"I'm not offering you therapy, Greg," he murmured. "I'm offering you your lover's shoulder. Talk to me."

Jesus—my—

You're— 

"If we are using that term," Mycroft added, hesitating.

Greg gripped his phone. "I'm happy with that term."

It prompted a much more breathless laugh.

"Thank heavens," Mycroft said with an audible shiver, and Greg caught the quiet creak of springs—couch or bed, he couldn't tell. "I thought I'd just made things immensely awkward."

I love you. "No. N-no, not at all."

Mycroft's pause hugged Greg gently. 

"Good," he murmured, and he sipped whatever he was drinking. "Tell me about your afternoon."

Greg realised his eyes had closed again, imagining that quiet fire-lit lounge, Mycroft gathering a blanket across his lap, a glass of wine in his hand. I want to be there, he thought. I want to be with you.

It hurt to pull his memories somewhere else.

"I, erm... I got Helened," he said. "She was on stake-out for when I got back. Wanted to know where I'd been all night." She slapped me. Hit me. "S-she had a bit of a go at me. It got nasty."

"Lord..." Mycroft remarked, sighing. "Has the tiresome creature nothing better to do with her weekend?"

Greg's heart strained. He would never tire of hearing Mycroft's true feelings towards Helen. Glimpses of them during therapy had helped to set him free; unfiltered access felt like being bathed in clean water at last.

"Guess not," he said. He shifted his grip around his phone, swallowing. "Wish it hadn't happened today."

"Mm. Another reason I should have barred the door. Refused to let you leave."

God... god, I wish...

"H-how was your afternoon?" Greg asked, resisting the crack in his voice.

"Meaningless," Mycroft murmured. "What did Helen say to you?"

The discussion had already begun to blur in Greg's head. It was all smoke, he thought—all just cover. It was impossible to tell what she'd really come to say. He doubted whether Helen even knew herself.

"Claimed she needed to talk about an old savings account," he said. "Didn't want to hear that we can talk about it through the solicitor. She dropped in that it's over between her and Mr Dick Pics."

Mycroft clicked his tongue. "Is it indeed," he remarked. "And now she's back at your door. How odd."

"Mhn."

"I wonder if the man realises he's had a very lucky escape."

"Prob'ly not. She... kept asking where I was last night. I kept telling her to go. She asked at one point if I was still seeing you. Not... y'know, not as part of where I was last night. I think she was just prying her claws into my life." 

And my face. 

"I-I'm gonna talk to Paul," Greg said, inhaling. "My mate at work. Try and get hold of him this week. Update him."

"Mm, you must. It's important to log every incident."

"M'sorry to vent."

"You shouldn't be," Mycroft said softly. "I'm glad you've shared with me. I just wish I had something to share in return, other than that I've miserably transcribed notes all evening. And pined at the window like a spaniel."

Greg's heart kicked. "Are you... f-feeling okay about everything?" he said. "You're not—" 

He didn't dare to finish.

 Mycroft's murmur eased his grip on his phone.

"I'm perfectly fine," Mycroft said. "I'll admit it's reassuring to hear your voice. It helps me hold onto the truth of things." He paused. "I'm not having second thoughts, Greg. Simply missing you."

Thank fuck. Greg tried to say it, joke about it, but he couldn't. A strange and painful crack seemed to be opening in his throat. He could feel himself buckling around it, shaking. You want me, he thought. You miss me. You care when I'm...

"Are you alright?" Mycroft asked, as quietly as if he were lying here with Greg, curled close behind him.

Greg took a second to speak, swallowing back the worst of it.

"Relieved. S'all." He shut his eyes again; it made it easier to talk. "I'd walk back. You know that? I'd get my shoes on and start walking right now. Just to see you for a minute. M'sorry if that's too much to hear. I-I just kinda need you to know."

Mycroft's breath stalled.

"Tell me which route you plan to take," he said. "We'll meet halfway."

"S-shit. This is big, isn't it? Tell me this is big. Tell me it's not just... god, I..." Greg inhaled, hard, pressing his fingertips into the corner of his eye. "S-sorry. M'really sorry. I had the best day, then suddenly the worst day. Now there's your voice and everything feels okay again. And that's what's set me off."

"It's relief," Mycroft murmured. Greg sank into the words, aching, feeling them wash over wounds he hadn't realised he had. "It's very normal to put emotion to one side under stress, then express it once the danger has passed. You're safe now. Safe to..." His voice changed, tightening a little. "I-if I'm reticent, Greg, it's purely through fear of overwhelming you. There are many, many things I want to say."

Greg tried not to smile, wiping the dampness from his eyes. "Remind me what reticent means."

Mycroft laughed—soft, strained. "Not readily forthcoming with one's thoughts or emotions."

"Cherry-picking," Greg translated.

It earned him another laugh.

"God help us," Mycroft mumbled, miles away, so close Greg could almost feel his arms. The swell of both joy and distress was like a river breaking its banks. It washed what didn't matter away. "I never learn," Mycroft remarked, "do I?"

His gaze blurred with tears, Greg smiled.

"We'll get you there," he said. "S'probably good for us, anyway. One of us applying the brakes a bit. Going slow." 

He closed his eyes for a moment, holding his heart in his mouth. 

"I care about you," he managed. His voice broke, just a little. "Really care. Want to make you happy however's best. However lasts the longest."

"I want the same for you," Mycroft said. "Exactly the same. I never quite managed to... to separate that feeling of care, away from what I was meant to be giving you in our sessions. At one stage, I convinced myself I had. But in truth, it was only ever another form of care."

Mycroft paused; Greg held his breath.

"I miss you," Mycroft said. Greg let go. He let the world go dark behind his eyelids, overwhelmed. "I miss you desperately."

Holy shit, what is this? Why am I shaking? Why do I feel like I'm burning?

"I'm sorry Helen chose today to reaffirm her existence," Mycroft said. "It changes nothing, though. She'll fade. She'll drift away and be forgotten. For a woman who needs above all to be honoured, I can't imagine a more hellish fate."

Greg's throat contracted.

"She slapped me," he said. It felt like admitting to something; his heart clenched. "She, erm... when I'd had enough, and I turned to go inside, she... th-three bloody scratches down my face. They're deep. Gonna have to go to work with them. Walk around Scotland Yard with them."

Mycroft's breath of anger stalled Greg's pulse. 

"And I thought that she could sink no lower," he said. "The utter witch. She's truly past all hope. Are you alright?"

Christ. Fuck. Shit. "Y-yeah," Greg said, shaking. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just... I don't know what to tell people if they ask."

"If you want to allay gossip, you could suggest something like rough and tumble with your sister's children. That should be enough for most people. But more importantly, Greg... are you certain you're alright?"

No. No, I'm not. 

Fuck.

"Wasn't a big deal," Greg said, his eyes still shut. "I'll, erm... I-I'll tell Paul. Make sure it's in the file. Shock'll have gone by the morning."

Mycroft seemed to hear every word he'd not spoken.

"Greg," he murmured, and it bypassed every one of Greg's defences. He'd never heard his name said that way. It felt like being reached for, opened. Before he could brace, Mycroft unfolded the truth from his silence, as effortless and easy as a card trick, and it was right there in front of him. "She never physically injured you before, did she? You'd have mentioned. It distresses you that she's still finding new lines to cross."

Greg's heart heaved.

"Thought there weren't any left." Holy shit, where will it end? "M'just—I-I don't know—shouldn't bother me. I'm a big enough bloke. Only scratched me with her nails."

"Regardless," Mycroft said, "she decided to cause you physical harm. And it's understandable that it's unsettled you."

"I just want her to go away," Greg said. "To go. To leave. Not to get worse. J-Jesus, I don't want things to get worse. Not now. Not when they're just getting—"

Mycroft hushed Greg gently, easing him to take a deep breath.

"Her current actions are calculated to frighten you," Mycroft said. Greg listened, drawing the words as deep as he could get them. "I might not be able to change her actions, but I can soothe your fear. I can remind you of the strong network of support all around you. Lisa and her family. Ananya. Your colleagues at work."

"Y-you," Greg mumbled.

"Me," Mycroft said softly. "All of us, here for you at every single stage. You'll agree with me there's desperation in what Helen's doing?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'd say so."

"She's frightened to be seen as weak?"

"S-seems that way."

"Then look at the strength that she's unwittingly acknowledging. Your strength, Greg. Strength you used to break free from her control, to follow a better future, to create better circumstances for yourself. That strength frightens her enough that she's resorted to childish violence in an attempt to cope. If she's trying new tricks, it's because her old tricks have no hold over you. There's victory in that."

God.

"D-do I now owe you money?" Greg asked, swallowing.

"That was not therapy," Mycroft said. "Simply good sense." His voice curled with a smile. "Buy me dinner."

I'd buy you the fucking stars if they were for sale.

"Next weekend?" Greg said, shivering. "I'd love to. Seriously. Please let me."

Mycroft huffed. "It might have to be delivered to us," he said.

"Doesn't matter. We can still make it special." Greg's pulse quickened at the thought—eating together in Mycroft's lounge, cosy by the fire. Wine and candles. It was all he wanted in the world. "Hey... m'sorry to vent. I mean it. I don't want to fall into treating you like... y'know, old patterns."

Mycroft audibly took a sip of whatever he was drinking. When he spoke, he sounded amused.

"If it helps," he said, "I'm not entirely sure I ever managed to give you therapy. You never behaved yourself long enough for me to try. You're far too easy just to comfort."

Greg smiled, pulling at the corner of his lip. "Is comfort different to therapy?"

"Entirely," Mycroft said. "Does Ananya comfort you?"

Greg thought about it, trying to find a word for what he felt leaving that office every two weeks. It wasn't comfort, even if sometimes the things she said were comforting. The comfort seemed to come from within. Ananya didn't give it to Greg. She cleared out the weeds and it grew.

"She improves me," he said at last. It prompted a laugh down the phone. Greg's smile spread wider across his face, breaking into a grin at last. He reached up to rub the back of his neck. "She doesn't pat my hand and say 'oh how sad'. She just... listens to it all, then asks what I'm planning to do about it."

"Ahh," Mycroft said. "Actual therapy. Yes, I've had that myself once or twice. It's good, isn't it?"

How late would we just lie here? Greg wondered, smiling hazily at the ceiling. All night? Just talking like this.

"I got comfort rather than therapy, then?" he said.

"Mm," Mycroft hummed. "And before you report me to the ombudsman, I'll point out that it's entirely your fault."

"'Cause I couldn't behave myself?"

"Because I can't fix someone already in perfect working order. All I could do was set him free."

Greg's grin almost hurt. 

"So it's... okay to share?" he said. "You mean it? Even the bad bits."

"Even the bad bits," Mycroft said. "Without hesitation, please. I'll do my very best to have a terrible day tomorrow so that I can tell you about it."

"Alright. Seems fair."

"This is the part of the conversation where you reassure me that the deranged harpy has been given zero information as to where you actually were last night."

'The deranged harpy'. Christ.

"Not a word," Greg said. "I, erm... I'd better send you a picture of the car she's using. It's a dark grey Volvo. If you see it hanging around near your flat, let me know. She's struggled following me anywhere away from the house, but better safe than sorry."

"Are you certain of that?"

"Tailing someone in a vehicle's a lot more difficult than it sounds. 'Specially in London. I've done entire weeks of training and it's a royal pain in the arse."

Mycroft made an unconvinced noise.

"Seriously," Greg said, with half a smile. "We'll try it. Next time you're in my car, point at someone and we'll try to follow them for more than a few streets. It's a nightmare."

"An unusual date," Mycroft remarked, "but an illuminating one, I'm sure."

Greg surrendered to a proper smile. "Films make following someone look like a breeze," he said. "It's not. If they're vigilant and they recognise the vehicle, you'll never manage it. Leaving my car parked outside your flat all night would be asking for trouble. Otherwise it's just a case of precautions."

"What sort of precautions?" Mycroft asked. "For my peace of mind."

"I've been switching routes at random," Greg said. "Leaving work at different times. Taxis, tubes. I've figured out places where she can loiter close to home and I avoid them. I promise you I'm not just driving around whistling a jolly tune while she's three cars behind me."

Mycroft seemed to take comfort from it, huffing. 

"Forgive my paranoia," he said. "Unsurprisingly, this is all new to me."

"It's alright," Greg said. "S'professional knowledge. No reason you'd have it." He smiled a little, rubbing the side of his phone. "If you're ever on foot and you wonder if you're being followed, just stop in the middle of the pavement and turn around. Look for somebody diving behind a bin."

"I suspect Helen might be rather smarter than that," Mycroft remarked.

The corner of Greg's mouth pulled. He wasn't sure if smart was the right word. Helen had failed most of her exams at school. When she talked, she talked about people and their failings rather than issues and ideas. She believed everything she read in gossip magazines or on Facebook, but she sneered at doctors and lawyers and experts. She wasn't stupid, and Greg wouldn't make the mistake of acting like she was.

He wouldn't call her smart, though.

"She's good at manipulating people," he said. "And she thinks she's clever. She probably thinks she could outsmart God. But... I mean, if she'd just deleted her texts every night, I wouldn't have found out about the affair."

"Mm. I'll admit that was careless of her."

"The solicitor says she keeps trying to claim things that can be disproved with a single glance at a bank statement. She then just backtracks and flounders and says the statement must be wrong. She doesn't understand that you can't bullshit maths. She's... not smart enough to realise she's not smart enough."

Mycroft clucked his tongue. "The story of her life, I think."

"Tell me about it," Greg muttered. "But... I mean it. She's never put much store by intelligence."

"I think I'm inclined to agree with you. She certainly dismisses the emotions of other people. It means she's likely to underestimate their intelligence too, especially in comparison to her own."

"This is why she thinks she can now tail me across London like she's a spy," Greg said. "But all she's really done with any success is sit outside Lisa's house and wait. She's a problem once she's past the gates and inside your head. Until that point..." 

He shrugged, letting out a breath. 

"And we've got good reason to be watchful," he said. He hesitated, daring to say it. "We've got each other. It becomes second nature, checking for her car. Promise."

Mycroft seemed to reach a conclusion. He gave a small, acknowledging hum.

"I'll be vigilant," he said. "And I'll trust in your professional expertise. You've always trusted in mine."

The muscles in Greg's shoulders eased; he hadn't been aware of them tensing.

"Will you let me know what—Paul, was it?—says, when you update him tomorrow?" Mycroft asked.

Greg shifted onto his side with a smile, enjoying the gentle nudge.

"I might not be able to get hold of him tomorrow," he said. "I'll catch him this week, though. Lisa took photos of the... it'll all be logged."

"Good." Mycroft inhaled, dusting off his tone. "Excellent. I'm very sorry Helen believes she has the right to follow and now injure you. She certainly doesn't. And I reserve the right to fuss when I see you on Friday."

Argh.

"Won't stop you," Greg murmured. His gaze trailed the pattern of the curtains, the orange glow of the streetlight outside. "Shall we decide on dinner when I get there?"

"I'll have a decision-making wine uncorked."

"And the fire on?"

Mycroft drew a quiet sigh. "Will you stay over?" he asked. "If you don't have plans, that is. Don't let me lay siege to your entire weekend."

His heart drumming happily, Greg scrunched his toes inside his socks. "My plans are you," he said. "I'll fetch my PJs."

Mycroft's chuckle had a touch of purr to it, a soft sound risen from his throat. 

"Very well," he said. He paused. "Stay both nights," he murmured, and his tone made it a plea. "I'm... disinclined to release you after one."

Greg bit the corner of his lip.

"Alright," he said. "I'll need to figure out what to tell Lisa, though."

"If you're comfortable with necessary-for-now deception, then perhaps a work training event in another city. If you'd rather lean towards honesty, and you'd like some re-use value in the explanation... perhaps you could confide that you're seeing someone. I'll ask you to keep my identity to yourself for now."

"Early days."

"Quite. It means you won't need to concoct a new excuse each time we see each other."

Greg drew a breath. "Lis might join some dots."

"Would she do so discreetly?"

"Yeah. Yeah, she'd... I know she wouldn't make a fuss. So long as I'm happy, she'd be happy."

"Is there a chance she'd disapprove?"

God. "Honestly, Myc, I think the problem is she'd be desperate to meet you."

Mycroft huffed in Greg's ear, moved. 

"Of all the potential problems we might face," he said, "that seems a minor one. I trust your judgement in this. I'll urge discretion, but I don't want to insult your sister's intelligence with an endless parade of invented work events."

Greg's chest filled. An endless parade, he thought. Like this might be endless. He knew it was just a turn of phrase—a Mycroftism, decoration. It was a hell of a thought, though.

He gazed up at the featureless ceiling for a moment or two, just letting it all be true. The thought of endless didn't scare him. He liked it; he didn't want to chase it away. He'd spent years chasing away his fear and his anger, telling them he couldn't talk right now. Those days were gone.

He wasn't going to chase away joy.

"I miss you," he murmured. "Feels like forever and a day 'til Friday."

"Mm?" Mycroft's voice seemed to nuzzle at his cheek. "Perhaps calling me tomorrow night would help."

Greg smiled, glowing. "Think it would," he said. "Should I leave you to your reports now? I've still got to iron my shirt before morning. I'm a slacker."

Mycroft gave a heady sigh. "If you must," he remarked, teasing, and Greg heard him stretch. "I'd hate to be responsible for any crumpling in the forces of law and order. Though I'll protest in the strongest possible terms."

I love you. "Have a good day tomorrow," Greg murmured. "And a good week. Fingers crossed it'll fly."

"Mm. I certainly hope so." Mycroft paused. "Sleep well, Greg."

"Yeah. Yeah, you too." Greg's heart squeezed. "G'night."

He hung up with a stroke of his thumb across the screen, then laid for some time in the quiet, simply listening to the hurricane of all his thoughts and his hopes. He rested an arm across his face, the better to block out all the light.

Let this work out, he begged the darkness. I know it's crazy. I know the world would think we're insane. 

Just show me what to do to make it work.

 

*

 

Monday 23rd March

 

Greg found the note as he left for work the next morning. The paper was trapped beneath one of his windscreen wipers. Rain had crinkled the page, haloing the loopy black letters in purple and green, but the writing remained legible.

 

I'm going to find out who you fucked last night.

I'm going to make her sorry :)

 

Ice tipped down Greg's spine. He took a glance left and right along the road, checking once again for any waiting grey Volvos. She wasn't here.

Not here, he told himself, folding the words out of sight. He tucked the paper firmly into his pocket. She's not omnipotent. It's not magic. She just hung around last night in the rain and the dark, waiting for a chance to stuff it under there.

He checked the tires of his car for punctures. They were fine. 

It was weirdly reassuring—a line uncrossed.

Sitting behind the wheel, Greg took a moment to imagine what Mycroft would say. "Sorry for what, precisely?" said the vision of Mycroft in his mind, conjured at once into being. Greg could see him examining the note between two fingers, snorting with amusement at its contents. "I've not been given any opportunity she wasn't."

It made Greg smile, just a little—just enough to start the day.

He reached for the stereo. The opening notes of a Jess Glynne track filled his car, shrinking the shadows like a wash of daylight. Something about her music had always reminded Greg of being in love. This morning, the sensation was easily in reach.

He smiled wider, breathing it into his lungs, and started up the engine.

Search if you want, he told Helen in his mind, pulling the car away from the kerb. We haven't fucked, he's not a her, and you won't find him. I'm not interested in screwing this up.

I'm not gonna let you do it, either.

 

Chapter Text

Monday so far had been marked by unusual buoyancy. Mycroft had even opted to wear lavender, which he hardly ever did. Each small part of his morning ritual was a pleasure to perform, borne aloft on clouds of quiet happiness, and he reached the York Street Clinic at half past eight in an abundantly pleasant mood.

Ananya was waiting beside the door for him, still in her light spring coat with her handbag over her shoulder. She eyed Mycroft as he approached, reading his lavender shirt as clearly and accurately as if he'd embellished it with a name badge: Hello, I am Greg Lestrade's.

"Did something happen?" Ananya asked, as Mycroft reached her. She wasn't smiling.

Mycroft drew a breath, lifting his chin. 

"As this isn't a work matter," he said, "we should perhaps have this conversation away from the workplace."

"Is your first slot free?"

"By chance, yes it is."

"Good," Ananya said. "So is mine. Regent's?"

 

*

 

They took the path beside the boating lake. Commuters, joggers and students overtook them as they strolled; the honks of geese across the water echoed in the early morning air.

"As your friend," Ananya said, "I'm not surprised. He's the sweetest creature walking this planet and he'd clearly rip the stars from the sky for you."

Mycroft's stomach squeezed. "The feeling is returned," he said.

"Mm," Ananya remarked. "I know it is. I've never seen you so protective over a patient. In a lot of ways, this feels inevitable. And I'm happy for you. I mean that, even if..." 

She glanced across the lake, drawing a breath.

"Mycroft, we've been friends a lot longer than we've been colleagues. But working with you isn't a lesser relationship for me. There are plenty of people I'd be friends with. You're the only friend I've ever been happy to work with. When I say I need to speak for a few minutes as your colleague, I'm not dismissing our friendship. I'm honouring it."

Mycroft opted not to respond in words, bracing himself to hear something.

"However careful you're planning to be," Ananya said, "it's not enough."

Mild, Mycroft thought. He slipped his hands into the pockets of his coat. "I appreciate it's a contentious issue."

"I worry that you don't," Ananya murmured. "It feels like a good and beautiful thing to you, so strongly that you can't imagine how anyone could consider it otherwise. You feel as if the world just needs to witness the force of your feelings for him, and they'll understand at once. But they won't."

For the sake of their friendship, Mycroft took it to heart. 

"With that in mind," he said, inhaling, "we'll be taking very serious precautions."

"If you don't believe me," Ananya said, "then we'll stand here for a minute while you put the words 'therapist sex scandal' into Google. And you can see what the world would think."

"I believe you already. Ananya, this wasn't a frivolous decision."

"He's about to apply for divorce on the grounds of adultery, while he's committing adultery. With you. The man they paid to rescue their marriage."

Mycroft cast her a small sideways frown. "You and I both know that marriage was broken beyond all repair," he said, "long before it reached our hands."

"Will a hearing be satisfied with that?" Ananya asked. "Will the papers?"

Mycroft pressed his teeth into the side of his tongue. 

"He'd be a laughing stock," she went on, her gaze gentle. "And you'd be the villain of the piece. Helen wouldn't hesitate to sell her side of the story."

Mycroft didn't doubt it for a second. "Which is why we'll be taking precautions. And putting no small amount of effort into them."

Ananya paused, letting out her breath in a sigh.

"This is the strangest feeling," she said. "As your friend, I'm overjoyed. As your colleague, I despair. I'm worried for your future and your reputation. They matter to me, Mycroft. Because I know that they matter to you."

Mycroft took a moment to settle his pulse, trying to guide his focus from his emotions to his thoughts.

"I appreciate that you feel a professional responsibility," he said. "You want me to understand that these things can end poorly, and that when they do, it can be explosive. I want you to understand that I recognise that. I also want you to understand that this 'sex scandal' course of events seems terribly exciting and seductive. It's more vivid in the mind, and because you can imagine it very potently, it seems more likely than it actually is. I'd like to propose an alternative sequence of events for you."

Ananya said nothing, listening.

"I gave introductory therapy to Greg Lestrade for a few short weeks," Mycroft said, "at which point he transferred to another therapist. My professional relationship with him was ended, cleanly and amicably. Greg discovered his wife's infidelity through text messages on her phone. He started the process of separation. Three months after that point, he and I..."

He drew a breath, rather deeper than he'd planned.

"Began a friendship," he said. "An extremely private one. It becomes a close friendship over the course of his divorce, through which I support him. An appropriate amount of time then passes—and to reassure you, it will be an amount measured in years and not months—at which point, our friendship quietly changes in nature. So far as the world ever knows, I didn't lay a hand on Greg Lestrade until long, long after the ashes of his marriage had gone cold."

Ananya paused on the path. Mycroft stopped beside her, looking down.

She shook her head, slowly.

"One whisper that it's more than friendship," she said, gazing up.

Mycroft's jaw tightened. "I know."

"One tiny suggestion of intimacy."

"I'm well aware."

"Some might even say a friendship with a former patient is..."

"A private friendship."

"And an investigation would put the burden of proof on you," she said. "Not on an accuser. The game will be evidence of absence, not absence of evidence. That's a difficult game."

"Yes," Mycroft agreed, clipped. "One I intend to avoid. Without an accusation, there won't be an investigation."

Ananya visibly swallowed.

"If anyone ever asks me about this," she said, "I can't support you. I'll have to lie, Mycroft. Claim I knew nothing." Her gaze dropped from his eyes. "I'm not prepared to use my career to beat flames out of yours."

Mycroft's throat tightened. He would never have expected her to do so; he'd have dissuaded her from ever trying. It still hurt to hear it stated so bluntly.

He drew a breath to respond, annoyed, then caught the concerned glance from a nearby jogger. They looked like an arguing couple.

Mycroft relaxed his stance with purpose, glanced out towards the lake to settle himself, then looked into her eyes.

"There seems to be a misunderstanding at work here," he said. "Let me correct it."

Ananya said nothing, waiting.

"I'm aware of how my actions appear from the outside," Mycroft said, his voice quiet and hard. "I'm also aware of the consequences if they're discovered. A hearing wouldn't hesitate to blitz my licence into pulp and make me eat it by the spoonful. I'd be dragged over every set of coals in England. You're completely correct that the bloody media might even come charging in to help. This is all extremely clear to me because, in spite of the overwhelming evidence, old friend, I am not actually a moron."

Ananya began to breathe in.

Mycroft cut her down.

"And I will acknowledge to you until I'm blue in the face," he said, "that what I'm doing is unethical. It's wrong, and it's reckless, and misguided. I realise that. And yet here we are. Because at the heart of the matter, I do not have the requisite strength in my mind, body or soul to send him away from me."

Ananya's mouth closed, softening. She listened without a word.

Mycroft's shoulders shook.

"You saw how hard I worked to resist him," he said, fighting to keep his tone level. "You saw the distance and the time I put between us, and what it cost me to do that. You saw how viciously I punished myself for missing him. An hour in his company was enough to undo it all as if it never happened."

It had all seemed so easy and so reasonable in Greg's mouth. From Mycroft's mouth, it felt like dust into the wind. As he realised he wished Greg was here to help, to explain, he finally lost his composure. Distress ruptured through the cracks.

"This is not an ordinary connection," he said, staring into Ananya's face. "He causes something in me that none of the gaping bloody goldfish in this world have ever caused in me. Any of them. Ever. And I'm not capable of disregarding that fact any longer."

Her gaze flickered. "Mycroft—"

"I might be stupid," he said, "but I'm not nearly stupid enough to think I can simply wave a hand and put an end to this."

Ananya held up both her hands. She presented them to him, palms outward, a wall for him to run into.

Mycroft twitched.

"Don't you dare try to calm me down," he snapped. "I'm a bloody therapist too. I'll calm myself down when I want to."

Ananya held his gaze, her expression perfectly gentle.

Mycroft's heart strained.

"He is special," he bit out, annoyed. "He makes me happy. And I make him happy too, and what else is the point of therapy, Ananya? What is the point of anything in this miserable bloody world?"

Ever patient, Ananya waited.

Mycroft bit into his cheek. He finally exhaled.

"I meant it," he muttered. He gave her one last scowl, then looked away across the lake, watching the geese preen. "All of it. And I stand by my decision."

Ananya gave a nod.

"If I didn't question you," she said, in a voice as gentle as June, "I'd be failing you as a colleague and a friend. I'm sorry. I'm trying to tell you I care about your reputation."

Mycroft's stomach tugged, tucking up somewhere behind his ribs. 

"I know you do," he mumbled. He drew another breath, looking back at her. "I appreciate that you do. And I appreciate that you wasted three months, trying to help me see sense."

Ananya huffed. "Making you see sense and making you have sense are different things. I don't know if I truly managed either. But certainly not both."

She tried a hesitant smile. 

"I'll admit I wondered how long it would last once you'd spoken to him," she added. "Love and reason are oil and water."

There came a moment's quiet as they watched each other—settling, accepting, letting go.

A thickness formed in Mycroft's throat.

"I'm sorry if I've disappointed you," he murmured. "Sincerely."

"You haven't," Ananya said. She reached out both hands to him, her fingers fanned. Mycroft slid his fingers in between the gaps of hers, tearing his gaze from her face as their hands locked tight. "You'll disappoint me if you get bored and toss him aside," she said. "That, I'll struggle to forgive."

Mycroft wouldn't forgive himself. He exhaled with a shiver, gripping her hands.

"You know better than anyone," he mumbled. "I've had those sorts of associations in the past. I'm not proud. I remember them all too well. This doesn't feel like that."

"No?" Ananya paused, watching him. "What does it feel like?"

Mycroft closed his eyes. In truth, he couldn't relate it to anything he'd experienced in his life. It felt like the sort of childhood bond formed by magic—one look, a shy smile, and then the thing was decided. Inseparable. He couldn't put it into any words he dared to say. 

He'd witnessed the detonation of enough once-happy marriages not to believe in such a thing as ties of the soul.

But it was enough to make him want to believe.

"He... makes me feel indescribably safe," he said at last. He breathed out, releasing Ananya's hands. "He deserves to be happy. I'd like to be the one responsible for that."

"I'm sorry you met in these circumstances," Ananya murmured.

Not nearly as sorry as I am. 

"Thank you," Mycroft managed after a moment. He looked into her eyes, hoping by some miracle she'd understand. "I've previously held analysts who fall to this sort of thing in the greatest contempt. It seemed to me very easy to maintain boundaries. I couldn't imagine a client who would ever impel me to dismantle them. This is a shock to me."

Ananya smiled, rubbing her hand down his arm. 

"He has a very deep capacity to care," she said. "You want to be the heart of someone's world."

Mycroft listened, aching.

"Both of you believe your dearest wish is to find someone who needs you," she said. "It's actually to find someone you can need. You're both professionals, emotionally stable, with just enough old wounds to make you crave and appreciate peace..." 

She drew a breath, smiling.

"I wish you'd picked a reckless man to be reckless with," she said. "This would be so much easier then. Half of me screams for your career. Half of me screams that you're perfect for each other. Please be careful. I'd love to see this end well."

Mycroft placed his hand on top of hers, gripping. He didn't quite dare to speak.

"What happened when he came round?" Ananya said.

Mycroft flushed, directing his gaze back to the geese. "First and foremost, a very honest discussion. He understands the risks. He wants to proceed all the same."

Ananya gave him an apologetic glance, then said, "Promise me he's not getting off on how forbidden it all is."

"Ananya, he's very much not that sort of man. You know he isn't."

"I know. I know he's not, I'm just... clutching at straws," Ananya relented with a sigh, gazing at the birds on the lake. "He's a sweet man. He's thoughtful and he's honourable. He clearly cares about you. Could you not have picked a useless shithead? For me."

Mycroft smiled, helpless. "If he were a useless shithead," he said, "I wouldn't have picked him."

Ananya tutted, shaking her head. Her eyes, as they lifted to his, were bright. 

"How far did things go on Saturday?" she asked.

Mycroft huffed. "Not a single button," he said.

Ananya's eyebrows lifted, startled. "Really?" she said, earning herself a fond frown.

"I do possess some sense of restraint, thank you."

"Is he not ready, or...?"

Mycroft wrestled with his instincts for a moment, unsure how much Greg would want him to share. He supposed that as Greg's therapist, Ananya already occupied a position of trust.

"I don't believe that's the case," he said. "It's... complex. I want to create other closeness first."

Over the course of their long friendship, he'd seen almost every possible emotion cross Ananya's face. He'd never quite seen this one, though. She surveyed him with mingled fondness and surprise, a pleasure that she'd underestimated him.

Mycroft's heart squirmed. 

"Speaking of which," he said as they set off walking again, side by side the way they'd come. "I, ah... I won't be able to make my Friday evening appointment with you. He and I want to spend a long weekend together."

Ananya cast him a smile. "Will you even need a regular appointment now?"

"Well... no, I suppose not. But I'll encourage Greg to keep his with you."

Ananya slipped her hands into the pockets of her coat. "I'll leave you out of his notes," she said. "Tell him that nothing's changed. He doesn't need to feel awkward."

A small flush of relief eased the grip of Mycroft's heart.

"Thank you," he said. "It's appreciated. I want him to have professional support during the divorce. He's... told me about the stalking."

"Ah," Ananya remarked, inhaling. "Well, at least you know now."

"How much does it concern you? Candidly."

"He seems to be handling it well. He has plenty of support, and he's doing everything right. So long as he stays calm, and doesn't do anything to antagonise her, she should slowly lose interest and drift away."

What a relief it will be. 

"I hope he'll tell you this separately," Mycroft said, "but there was an incident yesterday afternoon. Helen arrived at Lisa's house to speak to Greg. Whatever she hoped to hear from him, she clearly didn't. She lost her temper and slapped him. I gather she's left scratches along his face."

Ananya hissed softly through her teeth. "Not a welcome development."

"No. Very much not."

They walked a short distance in silence together. As the worst of his worries rose to the surface, Mycroft told himself there was no better company in which to share them.

"What do you think she's hoping to gain?" he asked.

Ananya inclined her head towards him. "What do you think?"

Mycroft almost smiled. He shouldn't be surprised to get the ball right back. 

"I think narcissistic personality disorder should be renamed hellenistic personality disorder," he said. "I think she can't cope with the insult Greg's paying her."

"Divorce?"

"Mm. He's made a public declaration that she's nothing. Now she haunts his steps, trying to prove to him she's everything."

"That he's hers," Ananya murmured, dimly.

Mycroft's chest tightened. 

"It's crossed my mind she might be soothed if she sees him suffering," he said. "If he seems to be getting what he deserves. Punished for his arrogance. Taught his place by a universe which loves and supports her."

Ananya nodded, thinking. "I'm hoping a new lover catches her eye."

"Mm. Proof that she's still worthy of worship." Mycroft sighed, straightening his back. "Then with luck," he said, "she'll rewrite the records and move on. She needs to reach a space where she can claim that she left Greg of her own volition. He's no longer a challenge to her sovereignty, but a stupid man who'll be riddled by regret all his life. Then... well, if Greg were wise, he'd move away. Vanish from her universe and never be seen again."

Ananya clucked her tongue gently. "But if he seems happy without her..." she said.

Mycroft didn't need her to finish. "Mm."

"Especially if he seems to have someone new in his life," Ananya added with reluctance.

Mycroft couldn't bear to think about it. It filled him with strange waves of cold and heat at once, raising the hair at the back of his neck. 

"Especially if he makes an insulting choice for her replacement," he murmured. "That, she wouldn't be able to tolerate."

"Is there any chance you can convince him to move away now?" Ananya asked.

If only, Mycroft thought. He could almost see it. Some gorgeous little flat in Morningside, Poileas Alba embroidered in white on Greg's sleeve. 

"Not until the divorce is concluded," he said. He released the thought with a breath. "Financial ties are still in place. It's a slow-moving situation and the key will be patience."

"Patience and discretion."

"Mm. And generous amounts of both." 

There came a few steps of quiet, both of them wrapped in similar thoughts.

"I'm sorry you've become involved," Mycroft said, glancing sideways at her. "I appreciate this is a situation you'd rather stay a thousand miles away from."

Ananya smiled in return.

"I'm not involved," she said. "I don't know anything about a situation. What are you talking about?"

"I'm not sure I deserve you, old friend. I'm not sure I ever will." Mycroft paused, gently pushing open the gate for her. "Would you please give him appointments on different days and at different times? I'm worried that a regular schedule will create opportunities."

Ananya glanced back as she stepped through the gate. Her expression gentled, reading his face.

"Are you worried she'll confront him again?" she asked.

Mycroft let the gate ease shut after them, wondering if this quiet knot inside his chest was well-formed enough yet to call it worry. 

"Greg once told me..." He stopped, inhaling. "This violates his confidentiality. I truly have no morals left."

"If he's in danger, Mycroft... and if she's already acted violently towards him..."

"Purely on that possibility, I will tell you. I hope that you'll warn me of anything similar. Helen apparently once expressed the belief that he was attempting to poison her. Some nonsense about expired milk in tea. At the time, I rather overlooked it. She seemed to enjoy causing arguments and that was one of many. Now, with events as they are, I wonder if..."

He shook his head, hardly daring to think it.

"She was projecting?" Ananya said. "Violence in her own mind, reassigned to him?"

"I don't know," Mycroft said, pressing the button for the pedestrian crossing. "She perceived of their relationship as one which could very naturally contain violence. Now it does. It unsettles me."

Ananya was silent until the lights had changed and they'd reached the other side.

"In the name of keeping him safe," she said. Mycroft's heart tightened. "And on the understanding that you won't tell a soul, I'll confide in you that Helen said similar things to me during our sessions. She wasn't interested in examining the fear or dismantling it. She didn't want to discuss it at all. She just wanted it written down."

Ice spread across the inside of Mycroft's chest.

"As... some manner of paper trail?" he checked.

"I don't know," Ananya said. "I never reached any conclusions." She glanced up at him as they turned the corner onto Baker Street. "But it wasn't the only time she attempted to manipulate me. I often felt like my head was the one under examination, not hers."

God help us all.

"I think Greg might have been lucky," Ananya concluded weakly.

"Yes," Mycroft replied, and drew a breath. "Yes, I'm afraid I agree. Let's just hope he stays that way."

"For your sake, too."

"Mm. For both our sakes."

 

Chapter Text

Friday 27th March

 

"You're perky today," Sally remarked not long after three o'clock, as Greg signed the final form in her pile with a flourish. "Did your numbers come up or something?"

Greg flashed her a smile, capping his fountain pen.

"If I can't be perky on a Friday," he said, "when can I be? Besides, they're saying it'll be a nice weekend. Lots of sunshine. That's worth a smile."

"Really?" Sally said. "I thought they'd predicted heavy showers."

"What? Where's said that?"

"Don't know. BBC News? It was just on my phone."

Greg tsssked softly.

"That's the problem with you, Sal," he said, as he neatened the edges of the paper stack. "You're always eager to believe the worst." He handed her the pile of forms, bright-eyed. "Sometimes it's worth hoping for the best."

She snorted, amusement turning up the edge of her mouth. 

"Divorce suits you, sir," she said.

Doesn't it? Greg thought. He certainly wasn't going to argue. 

"If you've got anything else you need signed," he said, turning back to his emails, "chuck it my way in the next hour. I'm clocking off for the weekend at four. This is your final call for autographs."

"Ahh," Sally said, grinning. "So that's why you're perky. Sneaking off before the bell. Up to something good?"

Greg reached for the dregs of his last coffee.

"My niece has got football team try-outs this evening," he said, and finished the mug. "Want to be there to cheer her on."

"Bless. Reckon she'll do it?"

"She'll nail it. Been practicing in the garden with her for weeks now."

"Hope it goes alright. If we're losing you soon, I'll go double-check my list for anything urgent. Don't think there's much. Coffee top-up?"

"Nah, I'm fine. Thanks though, Sal."

Sally nodded, gave him a smile and backed out of Greg's office, closing the glass door behind her.

Greg refreshed his emails, checking for anything new. He'd had a push this week to get anything important out of the way before Friday. In the end, it had been almost too successful. He'd ended up with a wide-open morning and very little of urgency to fill it. He now found himself waiting on replies that he knew would be put off until Monday, with nothing else to occupy his mind but count down the final minutes until four. In truth, he wouldn't actually be leaving the building then. He'd be heading upstairs first to see Paul, who'd only been able to fit him in this afternoon. But after that, he'd be racing out the door.

It was an early end to a very good week.

Greg had a feeling it would be a very good weekend.

He'd finally plucked up the courage to speak to Lisa last night. They'd washed up together after dinner, Greg at the sink and Lisa drying up, the kids in the lounge playing a noisy board game with their dad.

"While we've got a minute," Greg had said, trying to sound like it was nothing, as he rinsed the soap suds off a plate. "Should probably fill you in on something."

"Sure," she'd said, giving him a smile. "What's on your mind?"

"It's... just weekend plans, really. I'm gonna be out tomorrow night. Staying over with a friend." Greg had hesitated, reaching for another dirty plate from the stack. "I'll, erm... I'll likely stay Saturday night, too. So back on Sunday. I just wanted to let you know."

Even with his eyes in the sink, he'd felt the hopeful weight of his sister's gaze.

"Anything fun?" Lisa asked.

"Haven't decided the details yet," Greg said. He gave her a cautious smile. "Just spending time."

Lisa reached for a handful of teaspoons to dry, her eyes sparkling. "A special friend?"

Oh, god. Well aware that he was flushing, Greg reached for the washing up liquid and busied himself resoaping the sponge.

"Sort of," he said. "It's, erm... it's early days. Still just friends, really. Not a big deal. Don't say anything to anyone."

"I won't," Lisa said. She smiled, opening up a drawer to put the teaspoons away. "It's your business, Greg. You'll tell people when you want to."

Christ.

"Right," Greg said. He exhaled, wondering why it suddenly felt much warmer in here. "That's... thanks, Lis. For understanding."

She'd nudged his elbow, gently.

"What's to understand?" she said. "You're allowed a friend."

Greg still didn't know why he'd found it so reassuring. 

He supposed it was the thought that this could be private, simple and easy. He'd spent the week looking twice along every street, checking for dark grey cars. He'd left the house every morning in fear of another note tucked beneath his windscreen wipers. There had been nothing, and the scratches down his face had mostly faded, but he wasn't letting go of the vigilance.

It was nice to think he could let go of it with Lisa, even just a little.

And Paul's thoughts this afternoon would be helpful. He was one of those rare and excellent colleagues who took things seriously, but not excessively so. If there was cause for concern, Paul would point right at it—then immediately explain how to minimise the problem. Nothing fussed him. Greg could arrive and say Helen had tried to run him down at the weekend, and Paul would nod and print off a statement form.

As he gazed at his empty inbox, Greg's eyes flickered down to the time in his control tray.

Not long, he thought. Not long 'til...

Walking through the door of that flat was going to feel like shedding a coat made of iron. He didn't even know what they would do all weekend. Shut the curtains, curl under Mycroft's blanket and just gaze at each other, talking softly until Monday. They'd talked every night on the phone this week. Even when there was nothing to discuss, they found something.

It would be nice just to have that in person.

To bond, Greg thought, his pulse soft and quick. He sat up in his chair with a sigh, reached for the contents of his in-tray and began to flick through them, sure there was something in here to keep him busy for an hour. Otherwise he'd just sit and pine.

 

*

 

At five minutes to four, with his coffee mug already washed up, Greg's desk phone began to ring. He winced, hoping to god this was something that could wait until after the weekend, and picked the receiver up at arm's length.

"Major Crimes," he said, tucking it against his shoulder. He closed down his emails with a click. "DI Lestrade."

The voice on the other end sent his heart bucking like a hare. 

"Good afternoon, inspector. I hoped I'd catch you. Your mobile's switched to silent, is it?"

Grinning, Greg leant back in his chair.

"Now there's a surprise," he remarked. "And yeah, it is. M'just about to go see Paul. Did reception transfer you?"

"Mm," Mycroft said, mildly. "I'll admit I thought it would be harder to weasel my way to your direct number. It turns out one simply asks the nice young lady who answers the phone. Forgive me. I wouldn't have, but it's important."

"Oh?" Greg said. "Go on, m'listening."

"I'm not sure of your travel plans for this evening," Mycroft said, "but in case it changes them, I thought I'd warn you. A dark grey Volvo seems to have been lingering near the clinic for the last two hours."

Shit. Greg drew a quick breath, glancing towards his computer clock. "Is it her?"

"It's a little distance down York Street," Mycroft said. "I can't make out the registration plate from my window, but it looks very much like the photograph you showed me."

Greg resisted the urge to swear. There'd been no sign of either Helen or her car since Sunday, nor any attempt at contact. The kids had been very disappointed, as it meant no Panini stickers for them.

Trust her to resurface now, he thought wearily. Right when I need her to disappear.

"Were you planning to park near here?" Mycroft asked, recalling Greg from the depths of his own head. He inhaled.

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I was. M'glad you called."

"Mm. Are you able to leave your car at work for the weekend? Take a taxi, perhaps?"

"Probably best," Greg said. His brain whirled, trying to figure out what she was doing—why she was at the clinic, why today. He didn't like it. "Are you gonna be at home by the time I get there?"

"I was planning to make my escape in a few minutes," Mycroft said. "I'll see if I can make it a discreet escape..." He audibly moved something around his mouth, thinking. "I'll ask Ananya to watch the car after I've left," he said. "If Helen then sets out to follow me, I'm afraid I'll have some extremely pressing questions to ask."

"Christ," Greg mumbled. "Me too. There's no way she could..."

"It's an entirely new phone you're using?"

"Yep. New mobile. New accounts, new passwords. New everything. And the passwords are random numbers and letters jumbled up."

"You weren't observed leaving my flat last weekend?"

"Definitely wasn't. She was miles away when I did. Parked outside Lisa's house, waiting to slap me."

"Ah... yes, of course. Forgive me."

"It's alright," Greg said, his heart beating hard. "Better that you ask these things. Check every box twice." He bit the corner of his lip, trying to think. "Is there a long route home you could take? Or go to a shop first?"

Mycroft hummed. "As luck would have it," he said, "I was contemplating whether to acquire us some brioche."

Greg's stomach gave a happy squirm. "Great," he said. "Try that and see if she follows you. If she does, don't go to your flat. Find a coffee house or something, get settled with a cup of tea, and text me. I won't be too long with Paul. I'll sort it."

Mycroft made a small noise. "By doing what, may I ask?"

"I can send an unmarked car to pick you up, for a start. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Greg tightened his grip on his phone receiver, lowering his eyes to the desk. "M'sorry," he murmured. "I mean it. But there's no reason she'd have figured anything out. Hopefully she just thinks it's my therapy appointment."

"Mm." Mycroft seemed unconvinced. There came the two soft snaps of a briefcase being opened, then a short sigh. "Well," he said, "I shall update you either way."

"Thanks. I'll try and be quick."

"If all goes well and I'm unpursued, I should be home within half an hour."

"Alright," Greg said. "Let's aim for that and we'll adapt if we need to."

Mycroft huffed, softly. 

"Rather reassuring," he noted. "Getting to witness you in professional mode. One of these days I'll recall that you're a police officer."

Greg smiled a little, glancing at his clock. It was two minutes to four. 

He shut down his laptop with a click. 

"Might not even be her car," he told himself as much as Mycroft. "I'm glad you told me, though. Better safe than sorry."

"I suspect that's going to become our motto, isn't it?"

Greg grinned. "Worse ones to have," he said. "I'd better head up and see Paul. The sooner we're done, the sooner I can get to you."

"Mm, let's not delay my police protection. Off you go and see Paul." Mycroft's voice warmed; he was smiling. "I'll see you shortly."

God.

"Yeah," Greg said, his heart bouncing. "See you soon. Really soon." Love you. "Can't wait."

"À tout à l’heure," Mycroft murmured, and hung up.

Greg dragged his jacket down from the coatstand, pulled it on and slung his bag over one shoulder, then paused in his door as he turned off his office light. He caught Sally's eyes across the room, saluting her over her monitor.

She grinned, swatting at him. "See you Monday," she mouthed.

Greg slipped out of the division, trying not to shimmy through the door, and headed for the lift.

 

*

 

"Sorry again I couldn't fit you in earlier, mate. Been rushed off my feet."

Paul closed the door of his office behind them, gestured Greg into the chair at his desk, then set about finding the right folder.

"I got the photo you sent," he said, searching along his enormous wall of colour-coded alphabetical box files. He was bald and thick-necked, the sort of man who looked like he could headbutt his way through a brick wall—though he kept all his post-it notes stacked in rainbow order. Greg had caught him dusting before. It had been a uniquely weird experience. "Added it to your notes," Paul went on. "They look like nasty scratches. How're they healing?"

Greg offered the side of his face for inspection.

"Not so bad," he said. "Not much to see anymore, except up here at the deep parts. Looks like I slipped shaving."

"Ah, yeah... I see 'em. You're right, though. They're fading nice." 

Paul slid a box file free from the wall. He strolled back to his deck as he talked, popping open the clip. 

"You don't need me to tell you violence is a risk factor for more violence," he said, "so I won't. And don't discount it, will you? Easy to fall into thinking it's not really violence if it's slapping or scratching. Slapping a bloke gets played for laughs on the telly. You've got to keep asking yourself if you'd dismiss it the other way round."

Greg took it to heart, glad of a chance to hear it. He'd wavered on occasion this week, watching the scratches fade and wondering if he was making a fuss over nothing. Helen wasn't anyone's idea of a physical threat. She wore skinny jeans and high heels, while Greg was a police officer who got retrained in self-defence every twelve months. It wasn't likely she'd ever beat him up.

Now he was here, he was glad. She could have blinded him if she'd aimed a little higher. That was worth flagging up.

"Have you got a statement for me?" Paul asked, with half a smile. 

Greg unzipped his bag. He'd carried it around all week.

"Great," Paul said, as he handed it over. He flipped through the stapled pages. "And..."

"Yep. Lisa's, too."

"Perfect. Any sign of Helen this week?"

Greg took a breath. Here we go. 

"Not until the last hour," he said. Paul glanced up from the statement, one eyebrow hitching. "There's a bit more to explain, but... well, there's a good chance she's currently parked outside where a friend of mine works. She's been there for a couple of hours, apparently."

"A friend's workplace?" Paul checked, frowning.

"Mm."

"Any ordinary reason she might be there?"

"Not that I know of."

"Okay. Is there a reason she'd be keeping watch on this particular friend?"

Greg braced himself. "She might think I'm there," he said. "It's the therapy clinic where I go for my sessions. Or..."

He took from inside his backpack the evidence bag he'd also carried around all week, Helen's rain-blurred note sealed inside it. He handed it over to Paul. 

"Or she might think something else is going on," he said. "This was pinned under my windshield wipers on Monday morning. It's Helen's handwriting. I can get you another sample to confirm it."

As he read the note through the bag, Paul's eyebrows lifted slowly. He turned the note over, glancing at the unmarked side, then looked up at Greg.

"Are you seeing someone new?" he asked. "This friend you've mentioned. Is she... more than a friend?"

Greg's heart clenched. He couldn't bring himself to correct the pronoun. 

"Helen's got the wrong idea," he said. "We're friends, we're close, but we're not... y'know, sleeping together. We're just..."

He looked down into his lap, wincing.

"It's complicated," he muttered. "I'd rather keep this out of the file if we can. M'sorry to ask, mate. But my divorce is a mess and I don't want it to get any messier."

Whatever Paul concluded, he kept it to himself. He opened Greg's folder without comment, turning through the pages inside.

"Your friend aware of the situation?" he checked. "Have you told her what's happening?"

Greg took a breath. "I've explained about Helen," he said. "I don't know how Helen would have found out about... I'm hoping she's only there right now because she thinks I might be."

Paul clucked his tongue. 

"You'll have to keep an eye on it," he warned. "Whether something's going on or not, if Helen's decided there is..."

Jesus. "I know, mate. I'm keeping both my eyes on it."

"Did you have any sign she knew about it until today?"

"No. Honestly, I don't know how she'd have found out."

"Well, the note definitely counts as a threat, even if it's not targeted. That's another risk factor. I'd strongly recommend you keep your friend in the loop. Ask her to report anything suspicious right away—property damage, anything like that. Any definite sign that Helen's identified her. I'll try and keep this off the record for now, but..."

Paul shrugged.

"For your friend's sake," he said, "if nothing else, it's better we build up the fullest picture we can."

Greg nodded, gripping his own knee beneath the desk. "Right. Sure."

"In the meantime," Paul said, and leant back in his chair, gating his hands on his desk, "there's something I'm going to float. You'll shoot it down this first time. You'll probably shoot it down the second time, too. But so long as you start thinking about it for me, that's enough."

Christ. "I almost don't dare ask," Greg said. He searched Paul's face, trying to smile. "Are you going to tell me to move or something?"

Paul held his gaze, calm and serious as a mountain. "No," he said. "I'm going to ask when you want her spoken to. I mean officially, by someone in uniform."

Holy shit. 

"That's not a good idea," Greg said at once, feeling the colour drain from his face. "Christ alive. Paul, she'll... she'll go absolutely fucking mental if I have her cautioned. She'll burn London to the ground."

Paul inhaled, taking this onboard. 

"Maybe," he admitted, with a shade of a shrug. "It's always a risk. Sometimes it works completely. Some women in particular just need to hear that what they're doing falls under the legal definition of stalking, and it could get them in actual trouble with the law, and that's it. They back right off. Done, over. Sometimes there's an initial blast of anger, then it all dies away. Or sometimes it brings about the worst stage. If it does, then it's already on her record that she was officially warned, and it means we can take the proper steps that're needed to shut it all down. It's the gate you've got to open to reach those steps."

The thought left Greg feeling sick.

"Paul," he said, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart. "Mate. Listen. Right now, the worst she's done is slap me when I ignored her. If I send policemen to her door to tell her off, Christ only knows what she'll do. I don't want to jab her with a stick if there's a chance she'll just... y'know, get bored. Settle on her own."

Paul said nothing, moving his tongue around his cheek.

Greg's stomach dropped.

"You don't think she'll settle," he said, paling. "Do you?"

Paul lowered his eyes. With a long breath, he tapped his middle finger against the note. 

"This concerns me," he said. "This sounds like she's got herself a goal. Something to work for. If she's convinced herself you're sleeping with somebody new, and there's a hunt underway, that's not the sort of thing she'll get bored of overnight."

A hunt.

Holy fuck.

"Having her cautioned won't help," Greg said, swallowing. "That'll just... it'll look like I'm scared, won't it? Like I'm trying to ward her off. It'll be like I'm admitting there's someone for her to find."

Paul held up both hands. 

"You'll shoot it down the first time," he said.

Greg inhaled, letting his lungs fill slowly and steadily. It wasn't exactly what he'd wanted to hear. He supposed he'd heard it now, though.

He wouldn't forget it anytime soon.

"Right now," he said, "she's... okay, she's manageable. She's a pain in the arse, but I'm kinda getting used to it. This just doesn't seem as serious as all that."

Paul mulled something over for a moment, apparently trying to judge the right approach.

"You're making a lot of changes to accommodate her," he pointed out at last, raising an eyebrow. "Your family, too. She's attacked you, Greg. Threatened you. How serious do you need this to get before it's serious?"

"Paul, she's... c-come on," Greg said, trying to laugh. "She's not gonna kill me."

"No," Paul admitted. "That's not going to happen. You can sleep easy at night. I just don't think you need to live your life like this."

Greg's throat gripped. "I think having her cautioned'll make things worse, not better."

Paul gave him a half-smile, holding something back for a second. 

"My ex was the same," he said at last. He looked up from the note into Greg's eyes. "For a long, long time. Each time I started seeing somebody new, it'd all flare up again. She'd do whatever it took to drive off the other woman, then she'd just go quiet again like nothing happened. She cost me a lot of good relationships. Having her cautioned broke the cycle. She needed somebody with an ID badge to sit her down, point out some patterns and say, we've spotted this, we're monitoring you, and it's got consequences you've not thought about."

Greg nodded dimly, listening, trying to imagine Helen in that situation: accepting, breathing out, moving on. He couldn't make the thought fit.

"It's like they're living with blinkers on," Paul went on, shrugging. "All she can see is you and some new girl. Loses her grip on what's normal. Seen plenty of movies and TV shows where the right thing to do is follow the guy around, show up where she knows he'll be, remind him what he lost. It takes somebody official to rip those blinkers off and remind her about reality. Show her photographs of her car outside his house at two AM. Try and get her thinking about her wider life and what she'll lose."

A strange, nervous twist tightened Greg's stomach.

"Helen's not got a wider life," he said. "I mean—that's—I know that sounds harsh of me to say. I don't mean she's got nothing to..." 

But don't I? he thought wildly. Helen's family were as supportive and loving as a sackful of adders. She'd never had a career or a hobby or a calling. Her awful bloody friends would probably be delighted to find out she was stalking him; they'd just encourage her to make Greg's life a misery. Even Mr Dick Pics was gone from the scene. Given that she'd built her own situation brick by brick, Greg wouldn't shed any tears for her.

There wasn't a lot for Helen to lose, though. "What will people think of me?" had never registered too high in her priorities.

Greg looked up again with a breath, reaching his conclusion. 

"I'm gonna think about it," he told Paul. "I mean that. M'not dismissing your advice, mate. I just don't want to pitch myself out of the frying pan and into the fire if it's not totally necessary."

Paul nodded, unoffended. 

"No worries," he said. "Let me know when she's figured out for sure that this friend's more than a friend. Then we'll talk some more."

God. "Can we downgrade that 'when'?" Greg said, wincing. "I'm... kinda hoping for if."

Paul shrugged. 

"If," he said. "Sure." He clipped Greg's new statement into the folder. "And you've always got my number if you need me."

 

*

 

Greg wanted to check his messages as soon as he left Paul's office. He forced himself to wait until he'd reached his car in the underground staff car park. Fishing his phone from inside his jacket, he wasn't surprised to find his breath a little short.

 

[MH 16:02] Just leaving. M xxx

[MH 16:13] Definitely Helen I'm afraid. I didn't want to risk drawing attention to myself by taking a photograph but the number plate is hers. I'm currently queuing at the bakery. M xxx

[MH 16:28] I've reached my flat. Ananya says the car is still on York Street and hasn't moved. M xxx

 

Greg released the entire contents of his lungs, hit the call button and held the phone to his ear.

Mycroft took a few moments to answer.

"Hello," he said mildly, picking up. "Successful meeting?"

"Yeah, good," Greg said. His heart was pounding in his ears. "All good. I'll tell you about it when I'm there. You okay?"

"Mm, I'm quite alright." There came the gentle clinking of a teaspoon around a mug. "I assume we're in the clear somewhat. She can't have missed me leaving."

"Did she have a good view of the door of the clinic?"

"A purposefully good one, I think. Clearly she's watching for someone either arriving or leaving. I can only imagine she's wrongly predicted your appointment."

Thank Christ. Thank fuck.

"Is she definitely still there?" Greg asked, his pulse still fast, and Mycroft hummed.

"Shall I ask Ananya to try and sneak a photograph of the number plate?" he said.

"Yeah. If she can, that'd be... i-it'd be handy. Keep adding to the picture."

"Does this mean I get Panini stickers?" Mycroft asked, softly playful. Greg's heart buckled. "I suppose I'll be honour-bound to share them with Ananya, won't I? Curse my general inclination towards morality. It does get in the way."

I love you. "I'll get two packs," Greg said. "One each."

"Ahh. Very astute of you. Keep us from squabbling. Before I forget," Mycroft added, "I've thought of an alternative parking location for you. There's an NCP car park a few minutes from my flat. It might be a little pricey overnight, but as a temporary solution..."

"No, that's perfect," Greg said. "That'll be great. Means people won't be wondering why my car's parked at work all weekend."

"Excellent," Mycroft murmured. "Well... if you'd care to join me, it seems the coast is clear. And I believe you're on a promise to buy me dinner."

Greg grinned, glancing around the car park to check he was still alone. 

"Have you decided what you want?" he asked.

"Mm," Mycroft said, his voice soft and low. "I want you to drive over here, please. As swiftly as you can."

"Yeah?" Greg unlocked his car, sliding into the driver's seat. His pulse was jumping and dancing. "Then what?"

"Then I want to switch off both our phones," Mycroft said, "and spend the weekend however suits us. If I don't see another face but yours until Monday, I'll be delighted."

Christ. Me, too. 

Greg pulled his car door shut.

"Put the kettle on," he said. "M'on my way."

 

Chapter Text

Mycroft resisted the urge to stand waiting on the staircase. He settled for waiting in his doorway instead, hovering there in nervous hope as he listened to the familiar footsteps climb their way through the building.

As they reached the final flight of stairs, Mycroft realised he couldn't bear it any longer. His nerves were vibrating, full of light.

"Greg?" he said.

The footsteps skipped, then quickened, keys and coins jangling. Greg rounded the top of the stairs like a soldier back from war. On sight of Mycroft, he dropped his bulging backpack and almost ran the short stretch of landing.

Never once in Mycroft's life had someone run to him. The force of the joy it caused almost hurt. As Greg reached him, they dragged each other close and kissed without a word, stumbling backwards through the door into the flat, hands in each other's hair. Mycroft's heart erupted. He couldn't possibly hold Greg close enough. Even this didn't feel like sufficient greeting. Somewhere in the struggle, the door slammed shut and he pushed Greg up against it, claiming him, kissing him, shaking as Greg's moan cut off against his mouth.

Damn it. I'm in love with you.

It had been a long and lonely week, spent scanning every street for the swamp witch lurking in her car. Mycroft had tried to distract himself with his patients, blur his own fears and his needs into the shifting kaleidoscope of theirs. It had worked well enough throughout the days—but the evenings had been quiet and miserable. All he'd really done was work, pour a glass of wine and wait for Greg to call.

Mine. 

Mycroft's blood seemed to burn as Greg's arms locked around his waist, grasping him, needing him too. 

Dear god, at last.

When they parted, breathless, he searched Greg's cheek at once. He didn't need to look hard. The marks were still there, still visible. The she-devil hadn't slapped him at all. She'd clawed at him, thoroughly intending to break the skin.

"How dare she," Mycroft breathed. He leant close to kiss each tiny healing scar. "The utter gorgon," he whispered between kisses. "How bloody dare she. I'm so sorry."

Greg swallowed, still clinging to him. "I-I missed you," he said, his voice breaking.

Mycroft's heart ached.

"I missed you too," he murmured. He kissed Greg's cheek as they embraced, holding each other tightly, swaying in place. "Forgive me," Mycroft said softly. "I meant to welcome you in and make you tea, not attack you."

"Y-yeah, I... kinda liked the attacking. Don't feel bad."

"Ananya sent me a photograph. The car is still parked near the clinic and hasn't moved an inch. Has Helen changed her hair?"

"She's dyed it," Greg said. "It's dark brown now."

Thank god, Mycroft thought. "Then it's definitely her at the wheel."

Greg sagged in his arms. "Christ," he let out in a breath. "Good. I... I started to think she—"

"I know," Mycroft soothed, stroking his fingers into Greg's hair. "But she's there. She's not here. Whatever we both thought, it's not the case."

"If she'd managed to find out—Christ, in a single bloody week—"

"She hasn't. It's alright."

"I don't know how she'd have found out, but—"

"Shhh, now. Let's take your coat, shall we? And we'd better retrieve your backpack from the stairs."

Greg huffed against Mycroft's neck. "S-sorry," he whispered. "Saw you and I just... needed to hold you. Check you were real."

Mycroft's heart gave a heady thump.

"Are you satisfied on that account?" he asked, and brushed his fingertips through Greg's hair.

Greg squeezed him slowly. 

"Think so," he said. "Might need to re-check now and then, but... you feel pretty real."

Mycroft smiled against his temple. 

"Good," he said. He drew back enough to look into Greg's eyes, enjoying the responsive swell of those hopeful pupils. He stroked his thumb across Greg's lower lip. "Make yourself at home," he said. "We'll order food when you're hungry. We'll sleep when you're tired. I'm sorry our weekend has commenced with a scare, but at least it's proven she has no interest in me. That seems like something worth holding onto."

Greg let out a breath, visibly releasing the thought.

"Yeah," he mumbled. "You're right. There's no reason she'd know anything. Maybe... maybe all this is getting to me more than I realise."

Mycroft's chest gripped. It couldn't help that Greg now carried the burden of Mycroft's safety along with his own, in addition to a demanding job and a divorce. 

Frankly, it was a miracle the man was still functioning as well as he was.

"Such a thing would be wholly understandable," Mycroft said. He leant up, laying a kiss between Greg's eyes. "Can I suggest we have a Helen-free weekend? I think you're desperately overdue some time where she doesn't exist, aren't you?"

Greg shuddered, his eyes closing over. 

"I'd fucking love that," he whispered. "Honestly, that'd be amazing. I'm... th-there's things Paul mentioned that I should tell you about, but... it'd be okay to forget about it after that, right? Just for a few hours. Switch my head off."

You sweet, perfect man.

"Of course it would," Mycroft said. He wrapped Greg in his arms, hugging him around the shoulders, and curled his fingers through the back of Greg's hair. He played with the soft silver strands as he spoke. "Whatever Helen believes that she's doing at the clinic, it's not our concern. She has no idea where you are. She has no idea where you'll wake up tomorrow morning. If it soothes you, we'll shut the curtains and lock the door."

Greg nuzzled into his neck, shivering. "Can we? D'you mean it?"

"We can. I'll unlock it very briefly to retrieve our food, but for no other reason."

"Alright. I... I really just wanna relax."

"Mm? You're in the perfect place for it." Mycroft brought his lips to the shell of Greg's ear. "Shall we upgrade to something stronger than tea, perhaps? I'm in a Friday mood."

Greg's hands flexed at the small of Mycroft's back. "You're bloody brilliant," he said. "I mean it. M'not kidding."

It was hard not to glow. 

"I try," Mycroft said. He hugged Greg, supposing he should let the poor man out of his embrace. Just a moment more, he thought, and stroked a kiss against Greg's ear. "It's lovely to hold you at last."

"You know I've dreamed about this all week?" Greg said. "Sat there at my desk at work, wishing I could have you here. Right here. Where I can feel you." As Mycroft tugged very gently on his earlobe, he gave a delightful shiver. "A-ah—"

"Mhm. Sensitive ears?"

"C-Christ—"

Mycroft chuckled, kissing the corner of Greg's jaw. Something to remember.

"Let me get your backpack," he said, slipping his arms free at last. "Make yourself comfortable. If you want to shower or change, you're more than welcome. This is your home until Sunday, Greg. Everything in it is yours."

 

*

 

"What did Paul say?" Mycroft asked, reaching to the coffee table for the bottle. 

Greg inhaled, audibly bracing himself.

"A few things," he said. He watched as Mycroft topped his glass of wine almost to the brim, looking more and more grateful with every additional millimetre. "Paul doesn't sugarcoat. Only says what he means. S'why he makes such a good copper, but... well, the medicine's easy to swallow when it's not you being given the spoon."

They'd settled on the couch together, shoes toed off and their legs stretched out, half-cuddled as they marinated in Sauvignon Blanc. Greg's shirt was already untucked; his shoulder made the most marvellous cushion for Mycroft's head.

"Did you give him the photographs?" Mycroft asked, watching Greg drink. 

Greg nodded. He finished drinking, then quietly swiped his lips with his tongue. "Yeah," he said. "Gave him the note, too. Gave him the statements. Handed it all over and it's gone into the file." 

Mycroft couldn't suppress a small flicker of relief. "Good," he said. "I'm glad you did."

He received a bright-eyed glance for it. "Did you worry I wouldn't?" Greg asked. "Lisa's reminded me three times, too."

"Lisa cares," Mycroft said. "As do I. We have a lot of faith in your colleagues at Scotland Yard, and we want the right people to have all the information at their disposal."

Greg smiled a little, huffing. 

"You talk like you've been checking in with her," he noted. "Having little meetings, watching over me."

Mycroft rather wished they could. He didn't doubt for a moment that he would like Lisa; she seemed only more eminently sensible as time went by.

"I'm glad you told Paul everything," he said. "I know you'd prefer to underplay the injuries Helen gave you—"

"Scratches, Myc. Four tiny scratches."

"—yes, quite. But it's reassuring to me to know that you're reporting the facts, just as they are, and letting Paul make a judgement." Mycroft leant close, pressing his lips very lightly to Greg's cheek. "What judgement has he made that's so unsettled you?"

Greg tried to smile. "S'like you read my mind sometimes."

Mycroft waited, taking a drink of wine.

With a breath, Greg unburdened himself. "Paul reckons it's getting more serious," he said.

"Mm? How serious?"

"More serious than I want it to be. The fact there's been... 'violence', and there's been a threat. It's... well, on paper, she's clocking up more risk factors. And it's just a bit concerning." 

"Has he suggested you have her spoken to?" Mycroft asked.

Greg's foggy gaze focused at once, zeroing in on Mycroft's eyes with alarm. 

"How d'you know?" he said.

"I thought it would only be a matter of time," Mycroft confessed. "Given that she's injured you. It seemed like the sort of thing that might prompt remedial action."

Greg gazed into his eyes, pained, looking faintly ill. 

"She'll blow like a fucking bomb," he said. "She'll absolutely lose it. M'not kidding. I told Paul and I'll tell you. If I have Helen dragged into a police station and told off by my mates, she'll go absolutely postal."

Mycroft gave a gentle half-shrug, smiling. "Then tell Paul you don't want her to spoken to," he said. 

Greg's expression tightened. 

"You're doing the thing," he mumbled. "The thing where you say 'oh that's alright then' and it's like hitting me with a pan because I realise it's not actually alright then. And I'm left stuck between the two."

Biting the corner of his lip, Mycroft tapped his glass against the side of Greg's.

"Drink this," he said, "and tell me what isn't alright."

With a sigh, Greg closed his eyes and drank—deeply. When he came up for air, he said, 

"Paul reckons she won't just get bored and quit. Not now she's realised I'm seeing someone else. He thinks she's got herself a goal and I think he's right. It's the thrill of the chase. It's what she wants."

Mycroft wasn't going to challenge this diagnosis. Helen Lestrade was not the type to tolerate losing something, even something she no longer wanted. Nothing could have revived her interest in Greg faster than his decision to reach for someone else.

"So Paul believes an intervention will be necessary," Mycroft checked. Greg nodded numbly, still drinking. "But you believe it will worsen things."

"Y-yeah. Big time. And... I don't know," Greg said, sighing, glancing around Mycroft's flat. "This feels alright to me. This feeling, right now. I know you and me are sneaking around, and I know she's got me wound up and twitchy, but... I-I dunno how to put it into words. It'll be worse if I get them to speak to her. I know it will."

Mycroft drew a breath, taking this onboard. 

"You're reluctant to make things worse," he said, "unless it seems like it will ultimately help."

Greg looked into his eyes, his expression aching. "That's exactly it," he said. "That's... god, I should write that down. That's what I want to tell Paul. Right now, I honestly don't see how it'll help. I don't want to start a timer to blow everything to shit unless it seems like there's just no choice."

Mycroft placed a small kiss against his jaw.

"For Paul," he said, "physical violence is a line. Once that line is crossed, it's his cue to put particular procedures into action. It's a system which helps him to manage very difficult circumstances. Perhaps it would be comforting to draw up some lines of your own, now, before they are crossed."

Greg searched his eyes for a moment, confused. "What d'you mean?"

"Well... what circumstances would make you feel that intervention is necessary?" Mycroft asked. "What would prompt you to put those procedures into action?"

Greg thought about it, his wine glass forgotten in his hand. "If she hurts you," he said at last, his voice quiet. "If she gets anywhere near you, I'd... th-that'd be the line. That's what I couldn't handle."

Mycroft notes the gentle squeeze of his heart, putting it to one side for now. 

"I suspect," he said, "that if Helen physically injured me, you would reproach yourself for not contacting Scotland Yard sooner. I'm not suggesting that you should, of course. Helen would remain wholly at fault. But I think I know you well enough by now to guess at your reaction."

Greg drew a shaky breath. 

"That's fair," he said, drinking. He briefly closed his eyes. "So... where do I put the line? What can't I ignore?" He hesitated, glancing into Mycroft's face. "If she threatens you," he said. "Threatens your career. I couldn't cope with that."

Mycroft smiled; it almost hurt, the affection it caused.

"And you, Greg?" he said gently. "What would she have to do to you?"

Greg took several seconds to answer.

"S-she's already done everything to me," he said at last. "It's... I honestly don't know what there's left that she can do. And if there is something, the fastest way to find out'll be to report her."

Mycroft took a drink, thinking. He didn't want to disregard the expertise of Scotland Yard; he didn't want to disregard Greg's instincts either. Helen was not the most predictable of women. Her mind operated in ways that most minds simply didn't. While a visit from the police would not cow her into obedience, it would at least open the way to harsher measures that would: restraining orders, criminal convictions, if necessary even a prison sentence.

But for now, it seemed they were safe enough to wait for a second warning flag. It would make the decision easier for Greg, if nothing else.

Leaning close, Mycroft kissed the corner of Greg's jaw.

"You're in no immediate danger," he said. He felt Greg exhale, needing the reassurance. "I think you should take steps never to occupy the same space as her. If she arrives anywhere to cause trouble, you should get out of her reach or leave the area as quickly as you can. There's clearly nothing to be gained by explaining things, or even by asking her to leave. Simply put a door between the two of you, lock it, and if she doesn't leave quickly by her own accord, contact someone."

Greg took the advice to heart, quietly gripping his glass.

"Yeah," he mumbled. "Yeah, that sounds..." He let out a slow rush of air. "Paul said to tell him when she... if she finds her way to you."

"Mm." Mycroft took a moment for a sip of wine, keeping his tone level. "Would that add me to the police file?"

"I-I don't know. M'worried it would have to."

"I'd... rather avoid that."

"I know."

"Fairly desperately, if we can."

"I know, love." Greg held Mycroft's gaze, his expression quiet. "If she does, we'll tell them we're just friends. Or tell them she's targeting you because you tipped me off about the affair. That's all."

The blood seemed to drain from Mycroft's veins. 

"Ah—if we could perhaps not lay down in a police document," he said, "that I committed a gross violation of confidentiality towards a former patient, that would be marvellous."

"Oh—shit, right—yeah, that'd be..."

"I never told you about the affair. You discovered it entirely by yourself."

"Right. Well, we'll... we'll find some other reason. Because you dropped her as a patient. Or she's worried that you will tell me something. We don't have to say it's 'cause we're..."

Greg faded out, glancing at Mycroft's lips.

"Nobody knows what this is," he said. "Just us."

It was a deeply reassuring thought. Mycroft inhaled slowly, letting it settle the small spike of his pulse. "I suppose the only people who can confirm there is intimacy are sitting here in this room."

Greg smiled a little. He tapped his glass to the bottom of Mycroft's, then watched him drain its contents. 

"Should we meet up random week nights from now on?" Greg said, as Mycroft dabbed the edges of his mouth with his fingertips. "Avoid weekends, I mean. Otherwise we're setting a pattern."

Mycroft nodded, rather wishing they'd tried that already. 

"I think it would be best," he said. "Yes. An excellent idea."

"Alright." Greg stirred, gently kissing the top of his head. "D'you want a top-up in that glass?"

"Mm. Are you joining me?"

"Yeah. Yeah, go on. It's Friday night, let's just... damn, let's just drink."

"No more Helen discussion for this evening?"

"Christ. Yes, please."

 

*

 

As he strolled downstairs in his socks to collect their food, Mycroft made a brief check of his text messages.

 

[AS 20:03] I just left for home. She's still there, still sitting in her car... x

 

The shrug emoji followed. 

Mycroft replied in kind, then added a short message of thanks. It would take a far greater mind than his to unravel the mystery of Helen Lestrade. 

As he paid the delivery driver, he took the opportunity to briefly scan the street in both directions, checking for any vehicle or person out of place. There was nothing there to be seen. In spite of all their worries, it was an ordinary Friday evening in London. The sun was setting over the rooftops, softening the sky with peach and pink, and the only thing which lay ahead was the weekend.

For all her failings, Mycroft thought as he relocked the door, he had to credit the woman with one remarkable achievement: the ability to inspire irrational paranoia with an absolute minimum of effort.

Had she put it to good use, she could be running the country by now. Instead she chose to drive all her energy into hounding just one man, a man who never once in Mycroft's hearing had wished her any harm. Greg's only wish seemed to be to crawl away from her. Mycroft's only wish was that she'd let him.

What exactly is the going rate for a hitman these days? he wondered, as he headed back upstairs. He supposed he shouldn't dwell too long on precisely what he would pay. It might lead him to unsavoury conclusions about his already questionable ethics.

Still. An empty savings account for inviolable peace?

Rather a bargain, really. 

 

Chapter Text

They plated up their curry together in the kitchen, then returned to the lounge to get comfortable. The television, though switched on, went largely ignored as they ate. Greg was simply too interesting. His stories were funny and fascinating, his questions deeply curious, and he listened to Mycroft's answers with the greatest of interest. Conversation was easy and lively, even with the distraction of food. They shared and swapped between them, smudges of sauce held out on scraps of naan bread. Another glass or two of wine didn't seem like too much.

When the plates were finally moved to the kitchen, Mycroft softened the lights. He put the fire on, lit a cone of incense, and at Greg's suggestion swapped the chatter of the television for music, a slow and gentle playlist he sometimes used while writing notes. The evening was still young, but definitely evening now. Mycroft had waited all week to spend this time like he wanted.

They cuddled on the couch beneath his blanket, talking softly and drinking as the hours slid by. Every minute seemed more perfect than the last, Mycroft's blood warmed and thickening with his wine. Greg had the most wonderful proclivity for petting. His gentle and affectionate touches were given without thought. He stroked Mycroft's hair, his neck, the curve of his back through his clothes, sharing every tiny thing that crossed his mind.

Drunken with happiness, Mycroft barely noticed midnight approaching.

"Where m'I sleeping tonight?" Greg asked at last, pressing a quiet kiss to the top of Mycroft's head.

Mycroft drew a hazy breath, too comfortable and peaceful even to think. 

"In here if you like," he murmured. "Or in with me. I shan't mind." The truth left him without meaning to; it slipped from his mouth as easily as candle smoke. "Wherever you feel safe, Greg."

Greg's fingers curled fondly through his hair.

"Is the bed not safe?" he asked—soft, teasing. "There spiders in it or something?"

Mycroft huffed. "There would be me in it," he remarked. His bones seemed to ache as he stretched, attempting to summon the strength to get up from Greg's chest. "A far more dangerous bed mate."

Greg smiled a little, bright-eyed. "There's a chance I'd get attacked again, you mean?"

"Mhn." Mycroft drew a deeper breath, telling himself he was an adult fully capable of restraint—and that Greg deserved a shelter, clear and simple. "No," he said. "Of course not. You'd be perfectly alright. I'm... teasing you, that's all. Wine sometimes has this effect on me."

Greg said nothing for a moment, watching Mycroft sleepily tidy his hair.

"Would you feel happier if I slept out here?" Greg asked. 

Mycroft almost didn't know what to say. The question of what he wanted seemed a dangerous one to unpack, especially after such a perfect evening. In any case, Greg had been tossed back and forth on an ocean of other people's wishes for far too long now. Mycroft didn't care to continue that pattern.

"I'd be content with either," he said, meaning it. "It's entirely your decision."

Greg bit the corner of his lip. "You... know it's alright, don't you? If you want your space, I mean. I'll understand, beautiful. I won't read anything into it."

Oh, god. Mycroft regretted his temperance at once, and the rich amount of alcohol now impairing his ability to be precise. They should have negotiated this much earlier, before his cheeks felt so warm.

"I don't want you to misunderstand me," he said, looking into Greg's eyes. He pressed a kiss between them, closing his own. "My wishes are beside the point, is what I mean."

"Not to me," Greg said. "S'why I ask about them."

Damn. "Yours have precedence."

"Alright... well, you mentioned sleeping out here first. Is that the one you'd rather I pick?"

God help me. I should not have drunk so much.

"I don't want you to take it as..." Mycroft breathed, struggling to translate the concept in his head into a word. "Lack of interest," he chose at last. "In... in you, or in... that is very much not the case. If anything, it's entirely the opposite. And I'd hate for you to believe something which isn't true."

Greg paused a moment, processing. He then gently kissed Mycroft's head again, the contact so soft it caused a flutter in Mycroft's pulse. 

"Then tell me what's true, love," he said.

Mycroft wrestled with the size and the scope of his thoughts, still trying to form them into something it felt safe to say. The closeness of Greg's body, the thought of warm arms wrapped around him all night, made it infinitely harder. He felt loose-minded, soft and feline. He wanted to purr; he wanted to make love.

Ignoring that instinct hurt to hell.

"I care for you," Mycroft said at last. He took a breath of air, staring into Greg's eyes. "Very, very much. I think it would frighten you if I told you the extent of it."

Greg's fingers stroked easy circles at the base of Mycroft's neck, slow and perfect, round and round. 

"You're talking like sleeping next to me would be an uncaring thing to do," he said.

"Mhn. Less the sleeping. More..."

Greg paused, still quietly stroking. "Are we talking about sex, love?"

Oh, god. "Potentially," Mycroft said, no longer breathing.

"Would that be an uncaring thing to do to me?"

"No. No, of course I... though, in some ways..." Mycroft shut his eyes, the better to think. "Y-you should be careful. Chipping away at my restraint."

"Why?"

"Because I wasn't a self-sacrificing man to begin with. There can't be much of it left."

Greg's chest filled, lifting Mycroft an inch or so. "Have I fucked up?" he asked, and the note of hesitance broke Mycroft's heart. He opened his eyes, lifting his head at once to gaze into Greg's.

"No," he said, shaking, and placed their foreheads together. "Not at all. If you... Greg, I... th-the thoughts I've had about you. I want you so fiercely it takes my breath. It makes my skin burn." Mycroft's throat contracted. "I'm so sorry."

"Why're you sorry?" Greg asked, bewildered. "Why's that frightening you?"

Mycroft drew a dizzy breath. "I should care for you," he whispered. "Cherish you. Give you time. You shouldn't have to deal with my..."

Greg seemed to understand. He raised his head and placed his lips to Mycroft's forehead, holding them there for a moment's quiet.

"M'not your patient," he said. Mycroft's heart pitched like a bottle trapped beneath a waterfall. "I'm... your lover, Myc. You're not used to being vulnerable, are you? Telling someone what you need."

Oh, Christ. Mycroft didn't speak, unsure if he even could.

Greg kept on stroking quiet circles against his scalp. "I want your needs," he said. "God, I... I can't put it into words how much I want them. I know I'm nervous about some stuff right now. I'm not nervous about you, though. Talk to me."

This is important, Mycroft thought, aching. He looked down between their chests, resting together, and took a moment to comfort himself with the sight—his own hand on Greg's shoulder, the white cotton shirt against his fingertips. I must... if we are to...

"My last few attempts at..." Mycroft shut his eyes, his heart pounding. The darkness settled him enough to speak. "Those relationships that made it past the first date didn't survive the introduction of... I-I appreciate that it's hard to put aside my profession. I'd hate for the circumstances to repeat."

"You mean people couldn't handle you're a sex therapist? It upset them?"

"I'm... not sure it upset them. It's unsettled more than a few. The experience seems to come pre-loaded with performance anxiety. Some men don't take it well."

"You must know how to unload that, though," Greg murmured. "Didn't they just relax and trust you?"

"I-It's a unique situation, I think," Mycroft said, feeling himself flushing even darker than the wine had already caused. He endeavoured to speak as if he weren't. "And I can understand the problem. Someone nervous about being in bed with a sex therapist will be... vigilant for anything that sounds like sex therapy. It's taken as a criticism of their skills. Any attempt from me to... to suggest ways to relax, or to offer some hint as to what I... well, I can't blame them for running a mile the next morning."

Greg's gaze seemed to ache. He paused a moment, flushing too, and glanced down between them.

"I think you can blame them," he said. He brought one of Mycroft's hands up to his mouth, kissing the backs of his fingers. "I think you've got every right. Someone lucky enough to get that chance to learn, but they just want to be told they're a perfect sex genius already? You're... better off without men like that, beautiful."

He looked up again, his gaze soft.

"Try someone who wants to learn," he said.

Mycroft took a moment to compose himself, fighting back the surge with all his might—longing, need. Thoughts. What it would be like to push close, cup Greg's face, kiss him and rock against him until he whimpered. I want to learn, offered so sincerely, seemed to call to something deep in Mycroft's soul. It rose up at once from its prison, roaring. I want to teach. He experienced the possible beauty of it all in a flash, Greg at peace and lying in bed, a little drunk, safe and sound, his head tipped back into a pillow, moaning softly as Mycroft filled him with comfort. I want to explore. There was no part of Greg's body that Mycroft didn't want to nuzzle. He wanted to lick, stroke, circle with his fingertips. He wanted to find and enjoy every tiny variation in texture and taste. He needed to see what happened when Greg's earlobes were warmed with a tongue and then cooled with soft blown air. He had a feeling it would be incandescently beautiful.

But it wasn't right.

"Th-there are further considerations," he managed, shaking. "This isn't... I-I'm not simply nervous. I'm not a martyr, Greg. I want to do right by you."

Greg's forehead creased gently. "What d'you mean, love?"

Love. 

Oh, god. 

"You've only just escaped someone taking advantage of you," Mycroft said. "I couldn't bear to..."

Soft, flashing humour filled Greg's eyes. 

"Behave," he said, his mouth curving. "You're not her."

"I-I'm well aware."

"Are you?"

Damn it, damn it. "Of course," Mycroft said. "It's a very different situation."

"Yeah?" Greg glanced at Mycroft's lips, his gaze soft. "You're pretty desperate to protect me from something."

Mycroft inhaled. He gave himself a moment to put the thing together in his head, wishing they'd done this while sober—by email, perhaps. Not like this, flush-cheeked and weak and with his soul pouring out through every crack. He felt like a spilled glass of wine, helpless but to watch himself run.

"If I'm going to smash my ethics into pieces," he said at last, as calmly as he could, "I want to do it honorably. You deserve a strong and loving bond, Greg. Full of respect and patience. I don't want to... to use you, to sate my own needs."

In response, Greg simply huffed. 

"Think you need to see a sex therapist, darlin'," he remarked. "Help you dig through all this misplaced guilt."

Mycroft winced. "Beast. I'm trying to treat you decently."

"You're trying to dodge your fears," Greg said. "I'm a handy excuse."

Mycroft dropped his head onto Greg's chest. This was entirely his own fault; he should never have put Greg into Ananya Sahasrabuddhe's keeping. The two of them would only ever have joined forces to destroy him, and he had no one to blame but himself.

Greg stroked the back of his head, rumpling a handful of his hair into disarray. He leant down and kissed the spot he'd uncovered.

"M'sorry it's not worked out before," he rumbled. Mycroft's heart staggered to its knees. "I mean it, darlin'. I'm sorry for both of us. But I'm not the jumped-up arseholes that you've dated, and you're not Helen, and I don't want this thing to be just about me. About my needs."

As Mycroft dared to lift his head, his throat tight, he found Greg's eyes waiting for him with hope.

"I want yours too," Greg said. He hesitated, biting his lip. "I... kinda need your needs, Myc. I need to know who you are."

For a few moments, Mycroft couldn't think. All he could do was look into Greg's face, lost within the rush of wonder and relief. He swallowed without a sound, stirred closer, and laid his forehead against Greg's. Their eyes closed.

As he stroked Greg's cheek, Greg's fingers trailed his jaw.

"I need you to be happy," Mycroft whispered. Greg's head tilted, his lips gently brushing Mycroft's mouth as he spoke. Each kiss jogged Mycroft's pulse out of rhythm. "It's... I-I won't put my needs above that, Greg. I can't. That's the very essence of what I feel."

"S'how I feel, too." They kissed—perfect softness, barely moving, hardly breathing. Greg cradled Mycroft's jaw in his hand. "How about we share?"

"S-share?"

"I'll tell you what I need, if you tell me."

Mycroft's heart contracted, sliding back down into his throat. "What do you need?" he asked, overcome.

Greg gave the words with a gentle kiss. "I need someone I can care about," he said. "Few hours every week where I'm the strong one and I'm making things alright. Need you to trust me with stuff."

Oh, god.

Mycroft spoke before he could stop himself, shaking too much to hold it back. 

"I need you to want me," he begged, his voice cracking. "Not simply need me. I need your touch. I need you to stay. I-I need to be more than a stage in a journey."

"What do you need tonight?" Greg asked, kissing him, and Mycroft's chest seemed to rupture. He raked his hands through Greg's hair.

"Sleep in my bed," he begged. "Please. Let me wake up beside you."

"I want that, too." Greg pushed up, kissing him more fiercely, stroking both his hands down Mycroft's back. "Do you want sex, darlin'?"

Heat erupted through Mycroft's blood.

"I..." He closed his hands in Greg's hair, trembling. "I want to kiss," he said. "To hold each other. Sex, I... I'm not..." 

It almost didn't matter, he realised with a lurch. He just wanted Greg to be here in the morning, still kissing him with this passion, still calling him darling.

"We've got all weekend," Greg said in a murmur, and the relief that it caused was overwhelming. Mycroft shut his eyes. "Shall we just cuddle up tonight? We've drunk a fair bit."

Yes... yes, just... 

"I want that," Mycroft whispered. He stroked his hands through Greg's hair, gazing at him, adoring every single feature of his face. "I want to rest together."

Greg smiled, gazing back at him. "Me too," he said. "Think we've fucking earned it."

 

*

 

Mycroft waited nervously in bed as Greg used the bathroom. He'd put on his pyjamas, extinguished the incense and checked they were locked in for the night, then rearranged the bed into something that felt suitable for two. He couldn't recall how long it had been since he last had a lover here. He'd gotten used to sleeping very centrally, pillows pulled around his body to wherever felt comforting. He just hoped Greg would be happy for the night.

The bathroom door opened with a quiet click. Greg emerged into the darkness, dressed in dark grey boxer shorts and a vintage rock t-shirt, the sight of which would never quite fade in Mycroft's mouth. Greg grinned, flicked off the bathroom light and shut the door.

As he slipped beneath the covers, settling into bed, Mycroft's heart began its silent implosion sequence.

"Christ, this thing is comfortable," Greg breathed, stretching out. "And enormous. Where the hell are you? C'mere... don't be huddling away over there..."

Mycroft eased a little closer, hardly daring to hope. Greg shuffled across to meet him, found him beneath the covers and wrapped an arm around his chest, gathering him in.

"There," he rumbled as Mycroft attempted not to expire, overwhelmed by the blissful heat now surrounding him. He nestled into Greg's embrace, unable to hold back a moment longer. "S'better, mm? Stay warm together?"

Joy glowed through Mycroft's soul. Their legs wrapped as naturally as if they'd done this all their lives, snug as two puzzle pieces. It would be like this, Mycroft thought again, his soul rampaging, his blood on fire. Every single night. The two of us, safe. Happy just to share a bed.

"S'the problem with white wine," Greg whispered, kissing Mycroft's forehead. "Always tastes like you can handle another glass or two."

Mycroft never wanted to sleep alone again.

You're so warm, he thought, shivering, and gathered his hands in the back of Greg's t-shirt. You're wonderful. God help me.

"You okay?" Greg asked. He nudged at Mycroft's temple. "Alright we're doing this?"

Mycroft nodded, filling his lungs with Greg's scent. Mine. "Are you happy?"

Greg smiled. "M'fine," he said, placing a kiss upon Mycroft's head. "M'glad we talked."

"Yes. I'm glad, too. I'm... sorry we fall so often into intense conversation."

"Why? They're important conversations. S'good that we're having them."

"I just hope you're not..." Mycroft hesitated, realising he'd started to rub Greg's back through his shirt. "I don't know. I hope it's not exhausting you."

"Fuss pot," Greg murmured. "You don't know what a relief it is to talk." 

He pulled back enough to see Mycroft, nuzzling with fondness at the tip of his nose. In the low light his eyes seemed huge, deep and dark and almost obscenely beautiful. 

"You think your feelings're a burden," he said. "Think you've got to spare people them. Don't you?"

Mycroft flushed a little, supposing he couldn't deny it. "My upbringing was... conducive to such an outcome," he said.

"Is that why you like being a therapist?"

"Mm?"

"It's always one way love," Greg said. "You can look after people, show them care. If they don't care back, it's fine because that's how it's meant to be. You can feel needed without the risk someone'll maul your soul."

Oh, Christ. Mycroft let out a long breath.

"Ananya has been a bad influence on you," he said. "You are getting alarmingly insightful. Particularly on the subject of my soul."

Greg smiled. It faded gently at the edges as he searched Mycroft's eyes.

"When was the last time you connected?" he asked. "Really felt something. With someone else, I mean."

Mycroft tried not to swallow. The answer came to him immediately, though he didn't have the strength to share it. The truth was that he'd not experienced this magnitude of attachment in many, many years. He'd stumbled from one short-term sex-based friendship to another. A number of those arrangements had developed into official relationships, but it had only ever happened with the least emotional men. They were the ones it seemed safe to grant long-term access; they posed the least danger of gutting him when it ended.

The last time he'd felt something like this, he'd been extremely young. As a very young adult, he'd formed unwise hormone-driven attachments to a number of young men, sometimes on no more grounding than they'd cared to look his way. His childhood had been a desert, university a verdant oasis. He'd had an excuse, in short.

This time he had no excuse.

He looked into Greg's eyes, struggling for some unfrightening way to express this. 

"Our connection is unique in my experience," he said at last. He flushed, hoping to god this wasn't too much to say. "I... want it to remain so."

Greg's eyes grew soft in the darkness.

"Me too," he said. He lifted a hand, sweeping his thumb across Mycroft's cheek. "M'sorry people couldn't handle that you're a therapist. I can't get my head around why. You're sweet and you're funny and you're gorgeous. It's interesting, all the therapy stuff, but... I'm more interested in you, darlin'. Wish I could think of a way to prove it."

Mycroft's breath cut.

"I'm not asking you to prove anything," he whispered, broken. "That's the last thing I'm asking, Greg."

Greg's gaze didn't waver. "I know, love," he said. "I'm still gonna."

Mycroft swallowed, shaking. Honesty came forth.

"I want you," he said, and Greg didn't speak, listening as if he wanted to keep this moment all his life. He stroked Mycroft's face. "I think that once I've had you close, I'll only want you more. It would destroy me if for some reason I couldn't."

Greg gave a quiet nod, understanding.

"It's a trust fall," he murmured. "Won't be as scary once we build a bit more trust. Make the risk seem less likely. We'll get there."

Mycroft shivered, lost for words. 

"Greg, you... your ability to settle me is... you're incredibly grounding."

Smiling, Greg placed a kiss on Mycroft's brow. "Is that something therapists need?"

"Yes," Mycroft said, unhesitating. He risked a cautious smile. "It's remarkable how often we forget it."

Greg chuckled. "I'm gonna conclude that we're good for each other."

"We are," Mycroft said. "Most definitely."

As Greg's thumb brushed the corner of his mouth, a small shiver tracked its way down Mycroft's spine. He kissed the pad, daring to hold Greg's gaze.

Greg smiled, watching with unconcealed affection. 

"For the record," he said, raising an eyebrow, "I'm crazy about you. Head over heels. It's been a really, really long time since someone touched me like they love me."

He drew a breath, confessing.

"I miss sex," he said. Mycroft's pulse jittered. "I hope it's alright for me to tell you. I won't push you. I'll never, never push you. Just... don't go telling yourself I need space and time."

His eyes dipped to Mycroft's mouth.

"I want you," he said. "All of you. And that's the truth."

Mycroft didn't doubt it. The look in those dark brown eyes was proof enough. He steadied himself, resting for a few moments in the quiet all around them and the rhythm of Greg's heart beating against his own. The least he could offer was honesty in return.

He leant close, kissed Greg's lips, and slipped a hand into his hair.

"I want the same," he said. "I want to be yours. More frighteningly, Greg, I want you to be mine."

Greg's mouth quirked. His smile grew as their noses nuzzled.

"Right here when you want me," he said. He stole another kiss. "I don't scare easy. I don't give up before I've tried a thousand times. And we're gonna be alright."

Mycroft's heart fluttered. "Please kiss me very slowly."

"Is this a kiss goodnight?" Greg asked, stroking a hand up his side, and he tipped Mycroft over onto his back.

"It is." Swallowing, Mycroft offered a little more of his soul. "And a deposit on a kiss good morning."

Greg's eyes sparkled.

"You don't need a deposit on those," he said, easing on top of Mycroft, and leant down to brush their lips. "You've got hundreds in the bank already, darlin'. Claimable whenever you want one."

As they kissed, Mycroft's thoughts and his pulse seemed to race. Greg's weight felt magnificent, his body warm and heavy, his lips slow and loving. He kissed Mycroft as if they could stay like this for hours, comforting each other to sleep. I want to make love, Mycroft's heart and his skin began to beg, and his mind gladly drowned him in glimpses of what that might be like—how tender Greg would be, how gentle. How wonderful he would sound panting softly in his afterglow.

Soon, Mycroft told himself, and suppressed a shiver of longing. For now, sleep.

When their lips finally parted, Greg's held a smile.

"G'night," he whispered, gazing down. He placed a last kiss to the tip of Mycroft's nose. "Sweet dreams, darlin'. Kick me if I snore."

"Goodnight," Mycroft murmured in reply. I love you. "Sleep well."

 

Chapter Text

Saturday 28th March

 

Fingertips stirred along Mycroft's jaw. They slipped behind his ear, cradling the back of his head as tenderly as if he were newborn.

Perfectly weak, he melted into their hold.

"Good morning," a voice whispered, coaxing him with love from his sleep. Lips pressed to his lips; they lifted him back into the world. "Missed you all night long."

Greg, he thought—his first conscious word of the day. It was the only word of importance. The rest were inconsequential, meaningless. They'd come when he needed them, if he ever needed them, and he'd probably forget them just as fast. Greg kissed him as if they'd never leave this bed. He'd only gotten warmer as they slept, his mouth softer, his hands gentler on Mycroft's body. Whatever Mycroft could ever want to say, he could say it perfectly well without words.

He slid his hands up Greg's chest, shivering, and cupped his handsome jaw.

Please.

Greg hummed in response, soft and low. He laid back, coaxing Mycroft to come with him. All too gladly Mycroft followed, easing shyly on top of Greg to continue taking kisses from his mouth, safe and sound in a world where nothing existed outside of this bed. Greg's hands stroked with care up Mycroft's sides. He began to massage Mycroft's back through his pyjama shirt, slow and purposeful rubs which raised quiet moans in Mycroft's throat. He swallowed them, flushing with heat; he felt Greg smile into the kiss.

Oh, god. I'm hopeless for you.

They kissed until the stirrings of Greg's body and his gentle stroking hands began to affect Mycroft in ways he couldn't easily suppress. Two layers of loose fabric were doing little to conceal anything; he could feel Greg experiencing the same, filling out against his thigh. As their lips parted, Mycroft shivered and raised up his pelvis, trying to gain them both a gram of modesty.

Greg gazed at him from the pillows, scruffy-haired and dark-eyed, perfectly at peace.

"You okay?" he murmured. He offered a reassuring smile, his voice husky with sleep. "Didn't snore too much, did I?"

Mycroft couldn't restrain himself.

"You are beautiful," he said. Greg's face opened with delight, a grin to put the stars to shame. "You're breathtaking. Please tell me you understand that. Tell me it's perfectly clear."

"Get out of here, Holmes."

"I shan't. For a start, it's my flat."

"Are you buttering me up? You want me to make you eggy bread, is that it?"

"No, beast. I'm attempting to adore you."

"Yeah?" Greg squirmed a little, still grinning. "It's working," he said. "Keep going."

Heart thumping, Mycroft leant down to place a kiss on the bridge of his nose. 

"How did you sleep?" he asked, prompting a happy sigh.

"Amazingly," Greg said with a stretch. "Better than I have in years, to be honest. This bed's like sleeping in a cloud." His eyes glittered from the pillow, fond and bright. "Did you sleep alright?"

"Mm. You're excellent company." Mycroft supposed there was no better time to say this. "Thank you for... listening, Greg. Last night. Settling me."

Greg winked.

"S'alright," he said. "Part of the service. I'll turn up once a week, get you drunk and scrape out all the nonsense I can find. I'm like those tablets you can get for your kettle."

"You're... referring to descaler tablets, are you?"

"Yep. Only instead of limescale, it's completely reasonless guilt."

Mycroft's expression worked. "The world's foremost therapist descaler," he remarked, fighting a smile. "And an excellent job you do, too. Highly appreciated."

"Knew I'd find my calling someday," Greg said, full of mischief. His gaze strayed to Mycroft's lips. "Don't go trying to share me with all your therapist friends, though. I only work on a very specific model."

"You do, mm? How fortunate for me."

"Isn't it?"

"And do I need to be drunk for you to work?" Mycroft asked, amused, leaning down to brush their noses together. "Or does that simply speed the process?"

Greg grinned, reaching up to take a tiny kiss from his mouth. 

"Helps me break down the really built-up parts," he said. "Then I can work my magic, dissolve the rest. One sleep later, guilt-free Mycroft. I also help to prevent build-up of future guilt."

"I'm... both impressed and concerned by the growing aptness of this analogy, Greg."

"Me too, actually. And it'll make a fantastic gag present on your birthday."

Mycroft smirked, helpless. "Missed, I'm afraid. Early January."

"Oh, what? You're kidding me."

"Alas not."

"Aww. Well, at least I've got plenty of time to stockpile." Greg smiled, his eyes wandering Mycroft's face. "Which one is that, early January? You're... Sagittarius?"

Mycroft huffed, shifting onto his side. 

"I, ah... understand I'm a Capricorn," he said, as he propped his head upon one elbow. "I'll admit I've no idea what that's supposed to entail. Perhaps it explains my horns and four-chambered stomach. When were you born?"

"June," Greg said with a grin, rolling over to face him. "Gemini. Makes me chatty, apparently. 'Specially first thing on a morning."

"Yes, I can see that." Mycroft smiled. "What day in June?"

"Thirteenth," Greg said.

Mycroft made a mental note. "And what else is part and parcel of the Gemini experience?" he asked. "Are you all rogues of the highest order, or is that a personal specialty?"

Greg's eyes danced, dark as pitch and full of fire. 

"I love your sense of humour," he said. "Love the way you speak." He watched Mycroft reach out a gentle hand, then smiled as Mycroft tidied his hair. "What do you fancy doing today?"

Aside from gazing at you? 

"I hadn't really thought about it," Mycroft admitted. He smoothed another errant grey tuft back into place. "We're rather restricted to the flat, but... well, we're both imaginative souls. I'm sure we can come up with something to occupy ourselves."

"I had a thought, actually."

"Oh?"

"I know we'd be mad to walk around together in London. But there's a world outside of London. We could drive out somewhere, maybe. Sneak off where no one knows us."

Is that wise? Mycroft smiled a little, brushing Greg's cheek with his fingertips. "Did you have somewhere particular in mind?"

"The Weald's only ninety minutes away," Greg said. "Been there with Lisa and the kids a few sometimes. Country pubs and nice walks through the woods. Weather's meant to be nice." He hesitated, his smile hopeful as he searched Mycroft's eyes. "What d'you reckon?"

Mycroft's heart stirred behind his ribs. He'd not strayed all that far from work or his flat since Christmas. A long walk might be wonderful, especially in Greg's company—even more so if it ended in a pleasant pub somewhere for a meal. So long as they weren't spotted leaving London, he supposed there was nothing intrinsically reckless about it. If anything, out of London was by far the best place for Greg to be.

Mycroft thought about it for a moment more, watching the hope kindle ever brighter in Greg's eyes. He then smiled, offering a small nod. "May I posit one condition?"

Greg grinned, happy at once. "Yeah?"

"On the miniscule chance that we're spotted by someone who knows us," Mycroft said, "perhaps we could keep displays of affection to a minimum. Restrict them to those moments where we're definitely in private."

"Sure," Greg said, his eyes bright with understanding. "Good idea. So far as anyone'll know, we're just friends out on a walk. Nothing for anybody to see."

A small knot of tension eased in Mycroft's chest. 

"Thank you," he murmured. "I hate to ask, but..."

"No, darlin'," Greg said, leaning in to kiss the tip of his nose. "S'good that you ask. This is how we'll manage this thing. Keeping our heads down and both keeping watch." 

Not for the first time, Mycroft found himself lost in a moment of wordless wonder. His reckless love affair seemed to be growing less reckless by the hour; his former patient led him gently and quietly on towards peace.

You really will wait, won't you? he thought, overwhelmed. You're willing to have patience. To do what it takes. 

He eased close, cupped the back of Greg's head and kissed him properly, slowly, half aware as he did that his fingers didn't shake anymore when they did this. It no longer felt like reaching for something he had no right to touch. Greg softened at once into his arms, coaxing ever closer, returning his kiss with a palpable smile. His arm wrapped slyly around Mycroft's waist.

He seemed happy just to be together.

And if they were going to feign friendship all day, it seemed only prudent to have their fill of kisses now.

Mycroft smiled, his decision made. He swept a hand through Greg's hair, rumpling it into disarray, and tipped him over onto his back.

 

*

 

They reunited just inside the entrance of the car park.

"Anything?" Greg asked, handing Mycroft a takeaway coffee cup. "Earl grey," he said, his eyes bright. "I didn't know if you'd want milk or not, so I snagged a couple of UHT pots. Got 'em in my pocket."

How thoughtful.

"Thank you," Mycroft said, with a grateful smile. "And no. Happily, I saw nothing. I assume the same for you?"

"No sign," Greg said. "I texted Lisa. She says they've not seen the car near the house either, so..." He shrugged, loosely. "Who knows?"

"Or dares to dream?" Mycroft said. "Perhaps the harpy has found a hobby."

Greg snorted, leading the way towards the stairs. "If we're lucky," he said, glancing back, "she's found a new victim. Some poor sod she can enjoy ripping the guts out of. So long as she leaves us both alone, I don't really care."

As they settled into the car, pulling on their seatbelts, Mycroft glanced around with quiet fondness. He hadn't realised until this moment that he'd missed Greg's car. There was something rather domestic about it, driving somewhere together.

"You alright?" Greg said, eyeing him with amusement from behind the wheel.

"Pleased to be heading out for the day, that's all." Mycroft fastened his belt with a click, then reached down to adjust the seat. "I have tragically fond memories of the few minutes I spent in this car. It's nice to be back in it."

Greg grinned, pulling at the corner of his lip. "That feels like a bloody lifetime ago."

"Lord, doesn't it?"

"Remember you... patting my knee. Making some little joke."

Mycroft remembered, too. "I would have driven around London for hours with you that night," he murmured. "Simply to talk. To share." 

He sighed, shaking his head. 

"I am a terrible therapist," he said. "I have the ethical integrity of a weasel."

Greg laughed aloud. He nudged Mycroft's knee, beaming. 

"It's fine," he said. "I should never've been in therapy. Shouldn't have been married, either. We didn't get to choose how things started. And it was a platonic pat on the knee."

"Of course it was," Mycroft said.

"Hundred per cent." Greg started up the engine, smiling. "Just saying, though. If you ever want to drag me in front of a mirror again and explain why I'm amazing, I won't stop you."

"Beast!" Mycroft said, outraged. "That is a legitimate therapeutic technique."

"Is it?"

"Yes, thank you. I have a number of degrees and the licence to prove it. And I'll add that it did you a world of good."

Greg cast him a bright-eyed glance, spinning the wheel towards the ramp. "Can't argue with that," he said. 

Mycroft bit down into his grin. Switch off the engine this instant so I can kiss you.

"The audacity," he said. "Sealing me in a moving vehicle in order to torment me." He eased the lid from his earl grey, blowing across its surface. "To think I made you toast this morning."

Greg met his sideways glance, the very picture of contrition. "How can I make it up to you?" he said. "Will a meal at a nice pub somewhere help?"

Mycroft recrossed his legs. 

"Perhaps," he said. He took an experimental sip of tea to check its temperature, holding the mischief in his mouth a moment longer. "Put me in front of a mirror," he said, "and explain why I'm amazing. Then you'll be forgiven."

Greg grinned, visibly squeezing the wheel.

"Deal," he said. "D'you like music? Here, let's introduce you to Jess Glynne..."

 

*

 

The journey seemed to fly. Before Mycroft knew it, the sprawling outskirts of London had become the far prettier countryside of the Weald. A sweetly sunny day was blooming nicely all around them, a little parcel of summer right here in the spring.

Greg seemed to know precisely where they were headed.

"You look like a man with a plan," Mycroft remarked, amused, as they turned off the main road onto a narrow country track between two hedges.

Greg smiled, flashing a sideways glance at him. 

"I am," he said. "There's a hotel just up here. Really gorgeous place, proper old manor house. It used to be a family home, I think."

He gave a cosy sigh, squeezing the wheel.

"There's a walk you can take through the woods nearby," he said. "Starts right in their car park. Shame we're a bit early for bluebells, but... well, it's beautiful anyway."

"A little off the beaten track?"

"Yeah, definitely. Bit more private. There's a longer route takes most of the day, or a short one if you just fancy a stroll... see how we go, eh?"

Is there a route which takes forever? Mycroft flushed, wondering when it was he'd become quite so romantically whimsical. He had a feeling it was a recent development.

"That sounds perfect," he said, and gave Greg a smile. He found himself glad that he'd opted for sturdier shoes. "Then a pub this afternoon, is it?"

"You read my mind."

 

*

 

Greg was entirely correct: it was a remarkably pretty hotel. The manorhouse itself looked as if it might be seventeenth century, built from soft grey stone and seated pride of place atop a pleasantly-sloped hill. The formal gardens all around it gave way to rolling woodland of oak and ash.

It was easy to feel far away, Mycroft thought, as he waited for Greg beside the car. He filled his lungs and looked out across the forest, enjoying the sense of greenness in the air. There were other cars around, other daytrippers here to enjoy the weekend, but their presence only furthered his feeling of safety. He and Greg were entirely unspecial here. They were simply two more people seeking a breath of the countryside. None of the couples or families they encountered would care one scrap for the specifics of Greg and Mycroft's relationship, nor who they were, what they did, how they'd met. Some of the absent-minded glances which came their way might even mistake them for brothers—and Mycroft, for one, would not rush to clarify the matter.

It was enough to give him an enormous sense of hope.

Even if the very worst should come to pass, and the devil herself should come knocking at Mycroft's door, it would be hard for her to prove impropriety. Only Greg could ever share with any accuracy the fullness of things. Nights spent at Mycroft's flat weren't evidence of sex. 

Gazing across the car park, his pulse slow and soft, Mycroft tried to imagine it now: a car door opening, her voice, her furious face. 

What could she actually prove?

Only that he and Greg saw each other socially. It wasn't enough to substantiate any kind of accusation, and certainly not enough to derail a divorce. Even if Mycroft had to answer professionally for it, a single friendship in an otherwise faultless career wouldn't bring the whole thing down in flames. 

Lost in thought, happy, it took him a moment to realise that Greg had reappeared on the hotel steps. He crossed the car park back towards Mycroft, smiling ear to ear, carrying his wallet and two bottles of water.

Mycroft's chest expanded gently. Mother Nature had truly excelled herself in Greg. He somehow looked even better out here amongst her greenery, grinning, ready for adventure with his silver hair flashing in the sunlight. Even the sight of him crossing a car park was enough to suffuse Mycroft's heart with joy.

"All paid," Greg said. He leant into the car, applying the sticker to the front window. "You were a million miles away then, weren't you? Did you go somewhere nice?"

Mycroft smiled, too content in this moment to conceal it. 

"I went precisely here," he said. "I enjoyed myself very much."

Bright-eyed, Greg stuffed his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. 

"Good to hear," he said. He closed the car door with a clunk, then handed Mycroft a bottle of water. "I've paid for all day, so we don't have to rush back. Only an extra quid. We can take our time, have a wander. D'you want to leave your jacket?"

Mycroft glanced up at the cloudless blue sky, supposing he'd only overheat in this weather. He'd rather not spend their walk together sweating and dabbing his forehead.

"That might be wise," he said. "Here... would you—" He handed the bottle back to Greg, smiling. Greg waited with a grin as he removed his jacket. "And what is amusing, may I ask?"

"The number of layers you wear," Greg said, bright-eyed. "Are you keeping the jumper?"

"Yes, I might. Just in case."

"You can always tie it round your waist, f'you get hot."

"Quite." Mycroft passed Greg his jacket, watching as Greg laid it with care on the passenger seat. "Thank you."

"No worries. We ready?"

"I think we might be. We don't need a map at all, do we?"

"Nah, I've walked this twenty times. Besides this is Sussex, not the Sahara. There's only so lost we can get. C'mon."

 

*

 

They talked as they walked, the midday sun shining down through the trees.

"Okay. My turn... erm... five places you'd like to live. Not just go on holiday, but fully move there, live and work. For at least two years."

Mycroft clicked his tongue, thinking. 

"Edinburgh," he began. That one almost went without saying. "Money no object?"

"Sure."

"Then Montpellier, perhaps. Or Italy."

"Whereabouts in Italy?"

"Mm. Perugia. I'll add in Toronto, though I've never been, and then the nearest place to Edinburgh which doesn't count as Edinburgh."

Greg smiled, lifting his eyes from the path. "You really like it up there, don't you?"

"I do," Mycroft confessed. "It's been a criminal amount of time since last I went."

"What d'you like about it?" Greg asked.

Mycroft mulled the question through his mind, wishing he could put it more eloquently into words. 

"It has a character I've never felt anywhere else," he said at last. "Especially not in a capital city. There's a prevailing feel of history which I've always enjoyed. I also like the distance that it puts between me and my mother."

Greg laughed aloud, enough to startle a blackbird from a nearby shrub. It fluttered off into the treetops, calling its petulant alarm. 

"Alright," Greg said, smiling, hands in his pockets. "Go on. Your turn to ask."

"Very well," Mycroft said. These questions weren't difficult to invent; he often had clients complete them as homework. It turned out they made marvellous conversation topics, too. "Four things you've always wanted to do," he posed, "but haven't gotten round to yet."

Greg blew air through his cheeks, thinking. He scuffed the path with his boots as they walked.

"Take a proper cooking course," he said for starters. "Indian food or something. Learn to make samosas like the ones last night."

"Mm, they were wonderful. I encourage this idea wholeheartedly."

Greg grinned, pulling at his lip. "Then... man, maybe take the kids camping somewhere. Give Lisa and Ed the weekend to themselves, bring the kids out here with a tent. Teach them how to do marshmallows over a fire. Make some memories."

Even the mental image made Mycroft smile. He didn't know these children. He couldn't picture their faces, let alone how they'd all feel about camping. He could see Greg though: kneeling, guiding tiny hands with care to hold a marshmallow skewer over a flame; his face bright with fondness; the fire in his eyes.

Perhaps you'd teach me, Mycroft thought, his pulse softening. He supposed he'd been a child once. These things needn't have an expiry date.

"And number three?" he said, still happy by the fire in his mind.

Greg grinned a little, answering with a flush. "Learn to do massage, maybe. Properly, not just... y'know, a bit of a rub. Learn about all the muscles, what you're actually meant to do."

Lord. "Really?" Mycroft said, intrigued.

"Yeah. Always thought it'd be fun." Greg looked down towards their feet, still smiling. "I don't know. It's one of those things I kinda had an interest in when I was young, then... well, boxed it up. No point knowing how, if there's nobody for you to do it for."

Mycroft wondered how long these things took to learn. He imagined there were evening classes somewhere. Can one acquire vouchers for such things? It seemed a rather self-serving birthday gift to arrange, though. I gift you the required training to massage me into a purely liquid state. 

"Perhaps just learning it would be the point," Mycroft offered, smiling.

"Yeah. Yeah, maybe." Greg nudged his elbow, fondly. "Maybe I'll start with shoulder rubs," he said. "Practice on you once a week. Can't go too wrong with shoulders, can I?"

Mycroft's heart seemed to glow. "I'll very gladly be your test subject," he said. "Picking up new skills for sheer enjoyment's sake is linked to very high levels of life satisfaction. That's three, then. Your fourth choice?"

Greg thought about it for some time.

"This is daft," he warned eventually.

Interest prickled through Mycroft's stomach. "Go on."

"Well, I... oh, damn, what am I doing?" Greg said, mortified. "You'll even spot straightaway where it comes from."

Amused, Mycroft cast him a smile. "Go on," he said again. "I'm now intrigued."

"Don't be," Greg advised him, grinning. "It's rubbish and I've hyped it up. Okay, here it comes anyway. Don't laugh. Because I'm still eight years old in my head, I've always had this stupid idea of throwing a birthday party one year. Properly, I mean. Hire a function room and decorate it. Get all my people in one place for once. All the family, all my mates from work, just... lots of food, lots of drink... I know it's childish."

Mycroft found himself oddly wounded on Greg's own behalf.

"It isn't childish at all," he said, slowing their pace to catch Greg's eyes. "Dear god, Greg. I was expecting you to say something like making erotic sculptures out of gelatine. Hosting a party is hardly a reckless endeavour."

Greg tsssked, nudging him again. "Behave," he said. 

"I'm being completely serious. I assure you."

"Yeah? When was the last time you went to a birthday party as an adult?"

"Ananya's fortieth," Mycroft said at once, "last September. It was an extremely enjoyable event."

Greg faltered, disarmed, then hitched his smile back up. "Fine," he said, "but... well, I've never done anything like that. I wouldn't even know where to start. It'd be a disaster."

"I'm quite certain there are party planning guides on the internet."

"C'mon, Myc. I can't just throw myself a party."

"Who on earth is stopping you?" Mycroft asked, close to laughter. "Did I hear mid-June this morning? That's over two months away. Ample time to send invitations out. And even if it's not a milestone birthday, there's no reason for a—"

Something guilty flickered at once across Greg's face.

Mycroft's heart jumped. "Is it a milestone birthday?" he said.

"I'm not telling you," Greg said at once, "because I know you'll talk me into it."

"How old will you be?"

"A number. Maybe it ends in a zero, maybe not. Either way, I'm not gonna make a fuss about it."

Mycroft tutted softly, wishing he could stop them right here in the middle of the track and kiss the man—impart some sense into him. 

"If I'm correctly surmising that you're about to turn fifty," he said, "then this is the best possible time you could ever hold a birthday party. It wouldn't be foolish or childish in the least. And, I'll add, I'm sure your family would be very grateful of an opportunity to get together."

"Argh. Don't."

"I'll give you argh, don't. I happen to think it's a wonderful idea."

"You'll be signing me up for massage classes next," Greg said.

Mycroft shook his head, smiling the full width of his face. He couldn't help it. 

"You'd enjoy every minute, if I did," he said. "And you'd enjoy holding a birthday party, too. Frankly I can't see any good reason not to hold one."

"What if... y'know," Greg said, with a reluctant flush, "what if Hel turns up? Makes a scene? It's a daft idea. It's the last thing I should be thinking about, especially right now."

"If she dares," Mycroft said, "then your nearest and dearest will very gladly form a very long chain from the door of the venue to the nearest body of water. She'll be ceremonially passed along it and then tossed in to great applause. It will make quite the highlight of the event."

Greg paused on the track, glancing behind and ahead of them, apparently checking no other walkers were in sight. He then brushed his hand very gently down Mycroft's arm.

"This is a mad idea," he said. "And... listen, here's a better idea. Here's something I I'd rather do for my fifiteth than waste a load of money on some ramshackle party you couldn't even come to."

His fingers stroked the back of Mycroft's hand, just once.

"We'll come out here for the day," he said. "Just me and you. Just like this. If I threw a party right now, I'd spend the whole night wishing you were there. I'd be lonely and miserable. I don't want that."

Mycroft's heart heaved, blindsided by the sincerity in Greg's gaze. He found himself briefly unable to speak. You'd choose me over everyone else you know. All of them combined. A quiet walk through the woods with me, not even able to touch, over a proper celebration.

"Maybe we'll do my sixtieth," Greg said, offering a smile. "When it's... and there's not so much... so you can be there." He shrugged. "It's just a thing I wanted as a kid. That's all."

Mycroft forced himself to take a settling breath, temporarily knocked out of his senses by the additional revelation of we will obviously still be involved in a decade. The reminder of Greg's desperately lonely childhood didn't help matters. He glanced through the trees and back along the path, wishing to god he could be certain they were alone.

"I can't bear how much I want to kiss you in this moment." He looked up into Greg's eyes, letting it show in his face. "In lieu of showing you something, I'll simply have to tell you. Greg, I don't intend to stand in opposition to the rest of your life. I'm not going to encourage any kind of either-or situation."

Greg listened in nervous silence, the smile gone from his eyes.

God help me. Mycroft's hands ached to reached up and cup his face, soothe those nerves.

"With a large enough guest list," he said, "I could be there. One face among many. And you could have something you've clearly wanted for many years."

Greg hesitated, visibly readying himself to say something awkward. "Do people normally invite their ex-therapist to their birthday parties?"

"Perhaps not," Mycroft admitted, flushing. "Then, given that only you and Lisa are aware I am your ex-therapist, it would hardly cause a riot. I might try to fade into the background a little, and tell people that I know you through Scotland Yard if asked, but... I could attend. If you wished," he added, keeping his expression clean. "I don't want to be a rival to everything else you want, Greg. I don't consent to taking up that role."

The anxiety seemed to lessen a little in Greg's eyes. His hands made an odd motion, opening up and then restlessly withdrawn, pushed away into his pockets. Mycroft's heart gave a pang as he recognised the aborted wish to hold hands.

"I want to spend my birthday with you," Greg said. "I'll... see how things go, for the rest. See if Helen settles a bit. And I'll maybe think about getting some people together." 

He looked into Mycroft's eyes, struggling with something. 

"But I want you there," he said. "Wherever there is."

It flashed wildly through Mycroft's mind how fitting those words might be, engraved around the inside of a slim metal band.

Dear Christ, what—what sort of thoughts am I— 

"I will be there," he said, his mouth speaking through pure instinct as his heart and brain began a screaming disagreement as to who made the decisions these days, drowning each other out, leaving him a breathless wreck. He couldn't quite feel his own body anymore. "Here. Wherever you... I-I would be honoured to spend your birthday with you, Greg. And I'm touched that you'd want my company."

Greg glanced back along the path. A family and their dog were slowly catching up, childrens' noisy laughter echoing through the trees.

Greg took a deep breath, looking back into Mycroft's eyes.

"I love spending time with you," he said. "I just... I..." 

He gave in, exhaling. 

"I love being with you," he mumbled. "You make me happy. And I want to spend that day happy."

They turned to continue walking together, hands safely secured in their pockets, a platonic distance apart.

"You will," Mycroft promised him. "I'm merely trying to maximise your happiness."

Greg smiled a little, huffing. "I know," he said. "It's sweet that you do."

The children overtook them, laughing and panting, followed a minute later by their parents, who offered them a smile and good morning.

As they watched the couple head into the distance, Greg said,

"D'you want to walk the longer route? Might be quieter." He gave Mycroft a hopeful sideways glance. "Takes a few more hours, but... we're in no rush to get back. And there's really nice views from the hillside."

Mycroft's heart stirred.

"Yes," he murmured. "That sounds nice. Let's do that."

 

Chapter Text

An hour along the longer route, the light began to dim amongst the trees. A few clouds appeared in the sky overhead, taking the edge off the blazing colours and the gathering heat. 

It wasn't a bad thing. Greg found himself glad of the cooler air as they began their ascent along the hillside, no longer at risk of squinting all afternoon. He hadn't thought to fetch sunglasses with them in March; it was a relief not to need any in the end.

Halfway up the hill, Mycroft paused for a minute to shed his jumper. 

"I haven't done this since I was a student," he remarked, tying it around his waist with a smile. His white shirt beneath had gained a few crumples around the arms; it was nice. "I don't look absolutely hideous, do I?"

Greg grinned. 

"You look great," he said, earning himself a bright-eyed glance. "Sure you don't want me to carry it? Offer's still there."

"I should be fine," Mycroft said fondly, and they set off along the path again side by side. "As much as I hate to deprive you of the chance to be gentlemanly. It suits you so well, after all."

Greg's heart thumped. "Shame it's not raining," he quipped. "I could carry you over a puddle."

 

*

 

The thick layer of white cloud spoiled the view a little, but Mycroft still seemed to like it. He laid his jumper out on a patch of grass and sat down, smiling as Greg settled beside him.

"Shame the sun didn't last," Greg said, as Mycroft unscrewed the cap of his water bottle. "It's weird. I thought they said it would be gorgeous all weekend."

"Mm, so did I." Mycroft drank for some time, emptying half the bottle, then dried off the top on the cuff of his sleeve. "Here," he murmured, and he held it out to Greg.

Greg's bottle was still nearly full, jammed into the pocket of his zip top.

He took the offer all the same. Closest we can get to kissing, he thought as he drank. Give you the rest of mine when you need it later.

"It's a lovely view," Mycroft murmured, "I must say. I can see why you like it here."

"S'always easy to feel peaceful," Greg said, "sitting on a hill."

"Isn't it?" Mycroft took the bottle back, capping it carefully. "We should bring a picnic next time."

"Yeah? Fetch some sandwiches and a blanket?"

"Mm. I'm sure that's something platonic male friends often do at the weekend."

Greg grinned, trying not to laugh. "It might be," he said. "It's not the weirdest thing in the world. If I saw two blokes eating a sandwich together on a walk, I wouldn't instantly assume they're fucking."

Mycroft cast him a look of fond amusement, drying the outside of the water bottle.

"Often surprisingly difficult for same sex couples to be seen as couples," he noted. "A client of mine tells me she and her wife are usually assumed to be sisters, even in restaurants on Valentine's Day. It's become a running joke between them."

Must be frustrating. Greg had never really known what that felt like—trying to get the world to take you seriously. Even when he'd last had a boyfriend, he'd been more focused on trying to keep things quiet. Society had changed a lot. He'd always liked seeing gay couples out and about, just quietly living their lives, but never wondered too long why he liked it.

Makes a lot more sense now.

He smiled, briefly resting the side of his foot against Mycroft's.

"Works in our favour," he suggested. "Y'know, if we're ever..."

"Mm." Mycroft returned his smile, his gaze careful. "Privacy is power," he said. "What isn't suspected can't be spoiled."

Greg's pulse flickered. "D'you ever get clients dealing with stuff like this?" he asked. "Keeping things a secret, I mean."

Mycroft nodded, idly drawing a few blades of grass between his fingertips. 

"Most commonly in the case of an affair," he said. "Sometimes other reasons. Cultural divides. Disapproving families. And some affairs are..." He drew a breath, murmuring. "Well, less easy to condemn than society would like. A loveless marriage with no end in sight is very difficult. We all want to feel special to someone."

We really do, Greg thought. He closed his eyes a moment, letting the sunlight warm his face.

"How d'you help people deal with that?" he asked. He couldn't bring himself to hide why he wanted to know; this would never come across as just curiosity. "What do you tell them?"

Mycroft's gaze was soft, well aware of his thoughts. "It depends on the circumstances," he said. "First, I try to understand. Then I try to help."

Greg smiled a little. "What would you tell us?"

"God only knows," Mycroft replied, amused. 

Greg let himself laugh. He laid back in the grass, folding his arms behind his head. Mycroft watched him with brightened eyes. 

"I'd worry for us, I'll admit," he said. "On paper you and I are... well, a disaster waiting to happen. Multiple disasters all tied into one. I'd hold onto the thought that I've seen happiness bloom in stranger circumstances."

"Yeah?" Greg tilted his head, hopeful. "What like?"

"A few come to mind, in fact. Ex-clients over the years. People who are... trapped in some way, fear their life has been stripped of all joy and that will never change. Then one day..."

Mycroft huffed, looking away across the hillside.

"Love seems to enjoy hopeless hearts," he remarked. "It turns up in them so often. Late, drunk and with a ludicrous plan, but there and ready to help all the same."

Greg took a few moments to speak, unsure why the thought choked him up.

"So what's the secret?" he asked at last.

"Mm?" Mycroft looked down at him, gentle and fond. "The secret?"

"Happiness," Greg said, his pulse quick and heavy. He couldn't tear his eyes away. "Happy marriages. What makes them work?"

Mycroft's mouth curved, quiet amusement in his gaze. "I'd tell you it depends," he said, "but I imagine you'd like a better answer."

Greg tried not to smile, nodding. 

Mycroft thought about it for a while. 

"In my experience," he said at last, "the happiest marriages seem to be those where each participant secretly believes they got the better deal."

Greg let the words sink in. For a few moments he began to apply them backwards into the past, passing his experiences through the thought like a filter, trying to see if it worked. 

He then realised he was tired of post-mortems of the past. 

He looked upwards instead, watching those fond grey eyes shining down at him, brighter and more beautiful than the cloudless sky had been. His pulse grew quick just to sit in silence for a moment, knowing that Mycroft could choose to be anywhere in the world right now, looking at anything—and he was here, sitting in the grass, looking at Greg. 

Wouldn't even be a question with us, he thought. His chest tightened to half its size. Who got luckiest. Just look at you. You're clever and you're gorgeous and I'm... I'm just...

"I want to kiss you," Mycroft whispered, gazing down into Greg's face.

Greg swallowed, hard.

"I know," he mumbled. He pressed the side of his boot to Mycroft's ankle. "It's killing me, not letting you. Not just pulling you down into the grass right now. But you know that if we do, somebody who knows us'll pop out from behind that tree. And this'll all get so much harder."

Mycroft drew a breath, visibly resigning himself.

"We mustn't risk what we have," he said. "Not for the sake of a reckless moment."

"No." Greg offered up a smile, tipping his head back into the grass. "Kiss me when we're home," he murmured. "When we're safe. Kiss me 'til I'm gasping."

Mycroft's eyes seemed to glow.

"I think I'll have to," he said softly. "Otherwise I'll never sleep."

 

*

 

Twenty minutes along the path, the first drops of rain began to fall.

"Bugger," Greg mumbled, squinting upwards through the trees. He held out a palm to check the weight of it—though small, the drops were coming fast. "I should've brought umbrellas with us. M'sorry."

"Hardly your fault," Mycroft remarked with a smile. "A brief shower never hurt anyone. And we must have circled back towards the car park by now."

"Yeah, we have. Just." Greg hesitated, pulling at his lip. "We'll find a pub with a fireplace," he promised. "Somewhere we can dry off."

Mycroft tsssked, gently swatting his arm.

"It shan't get that bad," he said. "The trees will stop most of it. Now, no more stalling—three professions you would like to pursue if you weren't already a police officer."

"Right. Well, looks like weatherman's out..."

 

*

 

"Are you mad at me yet?" Greg called ten minutes later, as the rain poured in sheets from above. The track beneath them was turning to mud with every step. Now and then, a cluster of leaves dumped their collected rainwater as if someone had emptied out a bucket.

"I am drenched," Mycroft replied, half-shouting over the noise, "and quite certain I'm going to slip, and expecting an ark to pick us up at any moment. But no, I am not mad."

"How are you not mad?" Greg demanded with a breathless grin, scraping his sopping hair off his forehead. "I'm fucking furious with me."

Mycroft's laughter rang through the rain.

"I'm telling myself it's not your fault," he said. "Now come here, for god's sake—you're more sure-footed than I am—"

Greg squelched his way through the mud, offering out his shoulder at once. Mycroft's arm wrapped beneath it, curling tightly around his bicep, and they began to make their steady way onwards. Not passed anyone else for an hour, Greg reassured himself. Even if someone sees, then... fuck it, I'm not having you break your ankle.

"I'm really sorry," he said again. "I'll buy you dinner. Anything you want, love. Two desserts."

Mycroft swatted his chest, smirking. "Stop taking responsibility for things beyond your control," he said. "You are a menace. Just get some warmth back into me tonight."

Greg's pulse quickened wildly. 

You mean sleeping, he thought. Like last night. You just mean warm the bed up.

They pushed onwards through the rain, holding onto each other.

 

*

 

The deluge never stopped for more than a few minutes. After an hour, they decided to abandon the path and walk through the trees instead, following the river of mud towards the car park. Greg was relieved when an instinctive shortcut worked out, cutting another mile off their journey.

"You're never gonna go on a walk with me again, are you?" he said, as the gate to the car park finally came in sight.

Mycroft huffed, leaning against his shoulder. 

"I might bring wellingtons," he teased, "but I'll still accompany you." He paused, quietly squeezing Greg's upper arm. "Stop a moment."

Greg brought them to a careful stop, checking Mycroft's face for signs of pain. 

"You alright?" he asked softly. They were close enough to nuzzle each other, a single silhouette amongst the trees. "Out of breath?"

Mycroft hesitated, glancing towards the distant gate.

"No, I... I simply..." He looked up into Greg's eyes. Reaching out, he laid his cold fingertips on Greg's cheek. "I'd walk another two hours like this," he breathed. "Another two days. I want you to know."

He leant close; he pressed his lips to Greg's.

Greg closed his eyes. Though it took more strength than he knew he possessed, and it left his heart rioting in distress, he very gently and carefully pulled back.

"H-hey," he said. Mycroft leant back against his shoulder, hiding his face. "God, I want to—Myc— please don't think I don't want to. All I want in the fucking world right now is to stand here and kiss you in the rain."

Mycroft's fingers tightened in his shirt. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Greg whispered. "It's alright. I want it, too. I just can't... I-I don't want us to fall into bad habits. Is that okay?"

Mycroft seemed to draw a breath. 

"Of course it is," he said, straightening. "You're absolutely right."

"M'sorry."

"Don't be." Mycroft tugged gently at his sleeve, pulling him towards the gate. "I love you more for stopping me. Now let's get indoors."

You— 

W-wait, you— 

The moment was over. Mycroft had turned, his eyes on the gate and the car park beyond it. Helpless, his heart pounding, Greg followed without a word.

Halfway across the deserted car park, squelching through standing pools of rainwater, Greg realised Mycroft was veering too far in the direction of the hotel.

"We parked over here," he tried. "By this tree. I remember it."

Mycroft huffed. 

"Did we," he remarked, pulling at Greg's sleeve, and continued on towards the front doors.

Wondering, Greg let himself be pulled.

Heavy mats had been laid just inside the entrance, protecting the carpet from the worst of the downpour. Mycroft shook his sleeves out, gasping, then scraped as much mud from his shoes as he could. Greg took his lead, still wondering, then followed him towards the reception desk, where a woman had been watching them sympathetically since first they walked in.

"Lovely day," she said, with a pained smile. "Bless you both. You're soaked. How can I help?"

With an admirable impression of dignity for someone dripping, Mycroft retrieved his wallet. "I was hoping you might have a room for us for the night," he said. "One with lots of nice dry towels, if you would."

Greg's heart quirked. He tried to look as if this wasn't news to him, watching Mycroft flip through his wallet.

"Your luck's turning," the woman said with a smile. "We've had a few cancellations because of the weather. Double? Breakfast in the morning for you both?"

"Yes to both, please," Mycroft said, sliding out a debit card.

As the assistant started searching under the desk for the card machine, Greg reached for his wallet as well.

"Put it away," Mycroft said, amused, casting him a sideways glance.

"Halves, then."

"Put it away."

"This place is posh," Greg protested, as the assistant did her best to hide her smile. "C'mon. Let me pay something. You can't just..."

Mycroft tweaked the offered bank card from his hand, turned it between his fingers, then slipped it with a wordless smile into Greg's top pocket.

Helpless, Greg could only gaze at him. 

"This counts as my birthday present," he said.

Mycroft hummed. "Last year's."

The assistant slid the card machine across the desk to Mycroft. "If you can check the amount first and press enter," she said, "then I'll show you both to the lift."

 

*

 

As the lift doors slid shut, finally leaving them alone together, Greg surrendered to his smile.

"This is really nice of you," he murmured. "I mean it."

Mycroft cast him an amused sideways glance, keeping his head facing forwards. 

"I didn't relish the thought of driving back to London in this state," he said. The lift walls rumbled as they began to ascend. "And given that you've always admired this hotel..."

"Are you certain I can't pay half?" Greg asked.

"Certain." Mycroft smiled. "I've decided to stay here overnight. The room is mine, and in my name. I'm simply inviting you to spend it with me."

God. Greg didn't reply, not sure he trusted himself to speak. His pulse was already quick at the thoughts the woman on the desk must have had about them. Couple, she'd assumed without a blink. Double bed. 

He didn't know why he liked it so much.

Their room was at the end of a corridor, a comfortable distance from the lift. Won't be bothered all night, Greg thought quietly. People coming and going. Mycroft led them to the door, key in hand, and leant against it to unlock it.

As he stepped inside, he drew a heady sigh.

"Perfect," he murmured, dropping the key onto the dressing table. 

Greg's heart tightened as he looked around. It was gorgeously cosy. The bed was piled with thick tartan blankets, pillows propped up against a solid wooden headboard. The toffee-coloured carpet felt plush beneath Greg's boots; he leant down to take them off at once. As he fiddled with his sodden laces, trying to get a grip on the knots, Mycroft closed the curtains and switched on all the lamps. He then disappeared off into the bathroom, presumably looking for towels.

By the time Greg tucked his boots under the radiator, the shower had started up. He smiled a little, curious, approaching the open bathroom door.

Mycroft was leaning with one hand on the sink, the other prying off his muddy shoe. 

"Here," Greg said, smiling, stepping forwards. "Let me help."

He knelt down on the grey marble tiles. As he eased Mycroft's heel free, Mycroft's hand appeared gently on his shoulder, steadying himself.

Greg pressed a quiet kiss to the inside of his wrist.

"Are you going to have a shower?" he asked, looking up.

"Mm." Mycroft's huff accompanied a smile. "Not often one takes a shower to dry off, but..."

Greg understood completely. He smiled too, reaching for Mycroft's other foot.

"Don't blame you," he said, as he loosened the laces. "It'll get you warm. You must be freezing."

"A little," Mycroft confessed. He watched Greg pull his shoe away, rolling his wet sock along with it. "Thank you."

"S'alright, love..." Greg pushed the shoe over towards the towel rail, settling it next to the other. "Might not be totally dry by the morning, but... well, dry enough to wear to drive home."

He got to his feet, switched on the tap and rinsed his hands. Mud and soap swirled away down the drain, pretty pink bubbles and melting grey smudges of earth.

"Might shower after you," he said, and suddenly became aware that Mycroft was standing nearby and watching him, not speaking, just quietly waiting. 

He looked around from the sink.

"Is that alright?" he said.

Mycroft didn't respond. He simply looked at Greg without expression, almost lost—as if something had only just become apparent to him, something he couldn't understand how he'd missed.

Greg hesitated, looking back.

"Myc?" he said.

Without a sound, Mycroft closed the few steps in between them. He laid his hands upon Greg's chest, so gently Greg could barely feel their weight, and held his gaze in perfect silence. Greg didn't speak. He didn't breathe, unable to see anything in the world but Mycroft's swollen pupils, the flush of pink brought out in his cheeks by the rain, the chestnut shine of his dishevelled hair.

Mycroft swallowed, audibly, glancing down at Greg's mouth. For a moment, he seemed to try to speak. What to say, Greg didn't know. It looked like it almost hurt.

Mycroft then leaned close, wrapped his arms around Greg's shoulders, and pulled him in to kiss.

Christ.

Greg had waited all day. His heart thumped as he gathered Mycroft closer, slipping a hand into his hair. I won't pull back, he tried to promise with his fingertips, stroking, curling and soothing. Not this time. Mycroft trembled in his arms, deepening the seal of their lips. As they kissed each other harder, breath growing a little rougher, it became difficult to stay standing in the middle of the room. Mycroft stepped first, shivering. 

Helpless, Greg went with him.

It took him a moment to realise what he'd been pressed up against—what felt so soft and yet firm against his back, what had padded ridges at shoulder height. A wave of cosy heat then rolled through his skin. Towel rail. Greg groaned a little, shuddering, and felt Mycroft's breath catch between their mouths. Mycroft pinned him harder, kissed him slower, and the way his hands roamed down Greg's chest felt different now. He wasn't feeling the wet fabric, Greg realised with a lurch. He was feeling the skin and muscle underneath.

Holy fuck. 

Greg tried to keep his thoughts above his belt as Mycroft's hands searched and stroked him, closing his eyes tightly, doing his best not to pant. No one had touched him like this in over year. Longer. He couldn't remember the last time someone actually felt his body, mapped its shape with their hands like they wanted him to know something. Greg concentrated on the kiss and on keeping until Mycroft's hands eased down from his lower back, rounded carefully over the back of his jeans and squeezed. 

The noise that left Greg was a whimper. It was out before he could stop it, muffled into the kiss but still fully bloody audible. 

He swallowed, shaking, heat flooding his face.

"S-sorry," he gasped out. "I'm—i-it's just been..."

As Mycroft hushed him, one low and whispered breath against his mouth, Greg felt his every muscle go still. He exhaled with it, still trembling, and glanced with nerves into Mycroft's deep grey eyes.

They held his gaze, perfectly soft.

Oh, god.

Greg didn't move.

"Yes?" Mycroft asked, so quietly Greg almost didn't hear it. He read the sound from Mycroft's lips instead.

Throat too tight to speak, his heart on the brink of rupture, Greg simply nodded.

Mycroft took a moment to process this. He leaned in close, laid his lips over Greg's, and kissed him so gently Greg almost started to worry he'd misunderstood—that he'd just given the right answer to entirely the wrong question.

Mycroft's hands then stroked up his chest, found his shirt buttons and started to undo them.

Oh, fuck. The rush of panic and longing hit Greg with the force of a train. His thoughts whited out, blitzed to nothing by the simple sensation of one button easing open after another, then gentle hands soothing underneath the open fabric. Oh, Christ. Holy fuck. Mycroft stroked him like Greg had been born just to experience this moment, to tremble here against a towel rail as slow palms brushed over his skin and lit his fucking soul on fire. I'm not going to survive. Mycroft kissed him, gently drinking Greg's fractured whimpers as he set about unbuckling Greg's belt. As he gently undid the zip, it was almost over.

You. You, too. Greg forced himself to concentrate. He'd had sex before; he knew how this went. Every memory he'd ever made seemed to have vanished from his head, though. They were gone. He'd have to make it up and hope. Trembling, he helped Mycroft work the sodden wet jumper over his head, kissing as soon as it was thrown aside, then there were shirt buttons to work through. Greg fumbled with every single one of them, shaking so badly Mycroft murmured some soft and gentle question in his ear, checking that he was alright.

They stripped their wet shirts off, kissing; held each other close, bare chest to bare chest, hearts whispering to each other through their skin. Getting out of their trousers was more ungainly. It was hard to do this quickly, simply and not stare, not make anyone feel like they were being appraised. There came a moment's nervous humour as Greg wriggled free of his briefs, flicked them off from his ankle, but Mycroft's reassuring smile was the best thing he'd ever seen in his life. He hurried back into Mycroft's arms to kiss him, push both hands into his hair; Mycroft wrapped both arms around his waist. Together they managed to stumble into the shower.

The hot water cascaded down in jets, melting Greg's every worry into nothing. Mycroft pressed him up against the tiled wall, slick wet skin and slow hands, kissing, sharing their rough breath and nervous moans. It felt good just to rub—to work a hand in between them, find Mycroft's heavy cock and coax it to align against his own—then just rock together, slow—breathing, kissing, I want you—fuck—oh god, I want you—

Mycroft's hand slid down over Greg's wet stomach, joining the blurred mess of pleasure. His fingers wrapped around Greg's cock, warm and tight and just perfect, stroking, pulling pleasure through him from root to tip, and Greg convulsed with the sharp shock of need.

"Fuck," he gasped into Mycroft's mouth, aching already and ready to beg. Mycroft's tongue eased free to let him breathe. Panting through his teeth, Greg tightened both his hands on Mycroft's shoulders. When he spoke, the words ripped their way out of him in whimpers. "Been ages—been f-fucking ages—I-I can't—oh shit, I can't wait—"

"I don't want you to wait," Mycroft breathed, his voice rough with something Greg had never heard in him, something animal and beautiful. "I want you to come."

"Oh, god—" Greg dropped his head back against the shower wall, writhing, straining with the need to thrust. He dug his hands into Mycroft's back. "Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck—ahh—"

Mycroft kissed him as he came. His tongue slid deep into Greg's mouth, filling him, drinking his frantic sobs and his whimpers. Greg bucked and held on, helpless to do anything in this moment but come, pouring out his soul into Mycroft's hands. Each white-hot wave rolled through him, one after the other, so good and so perfect it hurt. Relief rushed in their wake; it washed Greg's senses away.

When they returned, he was cradled bonelessly in Mycroft's arms, barely breathing as fragrant suds slid down his back.

"—you even know it, mm?" Mycroft hummed against his temple. His fingertips carded slowly against Greg's scalp, rubbing in slow and steady circles. Washing my hair, Greg realised. Oh god. Mycroft pressed a tiny kiss to his forehead. "I don't think you have the slightest idea."

Greg's head whirled, searching his head for recent memories. All it wanted to show him was how it felt to come apart in Mycroft's hands.

"About what?" he mumbled, holding onto Mycroft tighter.

Mycroft smiled against his temple. "How special you are," he said, reaching up to angle the faucet towards Greg's hair. He began to rinse out the shampoo. "What I'd do for you," Mycroft murmured, stroking through Greg's hair, washing away his every fear. "What you mean to me."

Holy shit.

"You haven't..." Greg stirred guiltily, nuzzling into Mycroft's neck. "Didn't take care of you. You need yours."

Mycroft hummed against his temple. "I paid for the night, not the hour. There'll be time enough for me."

He curled a finger beneath Greg's chin. 

"We'll get clean and dry," he murmured, gently lifting Greg's head, "then settle down in bed together, perhaps?" He kissed Greg slowly. "I'm sure they'll bring food up to us. Otherwise I think we've been on our feet long enough."

God. 

And we'll just...

"I don't want to sleep," Greg whispered, overwhelmed. He leaned into Mycroft's embrace. "I'm serious. I mean it. We'll sleep some other night."

Mycroft's fingers flexed against the small of his spine. 

"This one for healing?" he murmured.

"Y-yeah." Greg closed his eyes, nuzzling into Mycroft's neck. "What changed your mind?"

Mycroft's throat muscles seemed to shift.

"It's comforting to be far away," he said.

 

Chapter Text

Mycroft carried two mugs of hot tea towards the bed, his bath robe loose around his shoulders, his body bare and soft underneath it.

Greg watched from the pillows with a smile.

Mycroft placed Greg's tea with care upon its coaster, turned the handle to be within his reach, and said,

"I can't tell you how desperately I've longed to see you like this."

Greg bit into his lip, resisting the urge to squirm. The covers felt soft and clean against his bare skin, the duvet perfectly fluffy around his shoulders. He'd forgotten how indulgent a hotel bed could feel. He wanted to play.

"Like what?" he asked softly. 

Mycroft's gaze glittered. 

"Post-coital," he murmured, placing his own mug beside Greg's. "And mischievous. That spark in your eye could power the national grid."

"Yeah?" Greg eased the duvet down a little, offering Mycroft the open mattress. "Do you like me post-coital?"

"I like you very much," Mycroft murmured. He leant over the bed, bracing one hand against the pillows, and pressed his lips against the bridge of Greg's nose. 

Awash with perfect happiness, Greg let his eyes fall shut.

Mycroft hummed. 

"I never stood a chance of resisting you," he said. "Did I?" He cupped Greg's cheek, stroking the corner of his mouth with a thumb. "Not one chance," he whispered, leaning lower to kiss him.

Don't let me wake up, Greg thought, his heart skipping and whirling as they kissed. Please don't ever let me wake up.

Noting the sly tug at his collar, Mycroft smiled against Greg's mouth.

"Mm?" he said between kisses, his voice low and soft. It dripped like treacle from his lips. "I'm joining you, am I?"

Holy fuck. 

"You're killing me," Greg breathed. "You know that? Talking like this. Touching me. You're... Jesus, I..." 

His chest filled with the force of the feeling, burning at the look in Mycroft's eyes. Nobody had ever looked at him like that, not in all his life. It was a look worth dying for, so deep and so intense it took his breath.

"Myc," he whispered, overwhelmed. "Holy shit..."

Mycroft's gaze softened. 

"I feel as if I've spent months trying to be someone," he said. He reached up, loosening his robe from his shoulders. "Transform myself into something. It hasn't worked."

Greg's heart thumped as Mycroft slid his wrists from the robe, then let it slip forgotten to the floor. 

"I've tried extremely hard," Mycroft said, easing his weight onto the mattress. "But all I've ever managed to do is to perform a portrait. Some superhuman version of myself, determined to prove he's still a good and moral man."

He pushed the covers back from Greg's body, the motion slow and smooth, exposing Greg's skin to the air.

Swallowing back a shiver, Greg listened without a word.

"It feels more artificial by the minute," Mycroft said. "It takes more effort to sustain. You dismantle that front for me, over and over, knock him out of your way and call for something real to come forth. And every single facet of my being seems to answer you."

Mycroft's hand laid on Greg's stomach, stroking.

"I'm tired of doing the right thing," Mycroft breathed. Greg's stomach muscles twitched. "I'm tired of ordering myself to think twice. To wait. To have restraint. I'm sick to death of this tiresome impersonation."

He leaned low across Greg's body, shifting to settle out on top of him, skin rasping over skin.

"I want you," Mycroft whispered, as Greg's eyes rolled back into his head. "Completely and incurably. I want you to want me, too."

Every inch of Greg's skin seemed to ignite. Before he could breathe, Mycroft's lips brushed his mouth and slowly sealed. 

Aching, Greg surrendered.

Need you more, he thought. More than air. More than I want to live.

"I don't just want you by my side," Mycroft murmured, stroking words between kisses, "I want you in me. Underneath me and on top of me. In my hands, in my mouth, in my body. I don't care if it's unethical."

Greg swallowed, hard. "Neither do I."

"I won't give you up. Not now."

"You won't have to. I mean it, darlin'. Nothing's gonna take me from you."

Mycroft's eyes flashed, suddenly full of fire. "And that harpy," he snarled, "will lay a hand on you again over my dead body. She will not touch you or frighten you or hurt you, ever again. Not so bloody long as I live."

He took hold of both Greg's hands, lifting them up to the pillow. 

"You are mine," he whispered, fiercely. "You are perfect. And every time I make love to you, I hope she gets a migraine."

Oh, god. Greg bit into his lip, trying not to flush.

"Is she, erm... gonna get those often?" he checked.

Mycroft tangled their fingers. 

"She'll be taking sumatriptan like they're Tic Tacs," he breathed, leaning down to claim Greg's mouth.

As they kissed, Greg felt his stomach start to squirm. Christ, how am I getting hard again already? The nuzzle of Mycroft's cock against his thigh certainly helped, as did having his hands pinned up against the pillows. He liked the feeling he was being kept here, held in place for Mycroft to have. All yours, he thought. No one else's. Mycroft's tongue swept lazily along his lower lip, opening up his mouth, then eased its way inside. 

I love you. Greg arched up against Mycroft's weight with a shiver. Want you. He couldn't move much, pinned here in place as Mycroft's tongue very slowly and tenderly fucked his mouth. He could lift up his thigh just a little, though, press against the cock he could feel thickening more and more with every moment. Mycroft's breath seemed to hitch. He shifted on top of Greg, stirring. With a squeeze of Greg's hands, he began to rock against Greg's thigh in search of friction.

Greg's pulse scattered, speeding. God. He'd never been so wildly turned on by just kissing and rubbing before. It almost reminded him of being a teenager, but with none of the clumsiness and panic. Mycroft knew exactly what he was doing. This was sex as much as anything Greg had ever had. It felt more intimate than most of it had been, his heart just as exposed as his body. He squeezed Mycroft's hands in return, swallowing back a quiet moan, and opened his legs up in offering.

Mycroft eased in between them with a shudder, settling his weight back on Greg. He kept hold of Greg's hands as they kissed hard, barely breathing, both trembling a little in anticipation. The mattress felt warm beneath Greg's back, the pillow soft behind his head; their cocks rubbed almost sleepily in between them.

Huffing, frustrated, Greg gripped at Mycroft's hands. 

Please, he wanted to beg. You know what we need.

Mycroft almost seemed to hear him. He soothed his tongue from Greg's mouth, stroking his lips with one last sweep, then gazed into Greg's eyes with their faces touching. Greg's breath stalled; he pressed his teeth into his lip.

Slowly, lazily, Mycroft began to roll his hips.

Oh, fuck. Fuck— 

The surge escaped Greg as a gasp. He pulled a little against Mycroft's hold, tipping his head back into the pillow. He worked his lip between his teeth as Mycroft fucked him gently, their cocks nuzzling and gliding, one gorgeous stroke after another.

"Christ," Greg breathed, heat flooding his face. He wished they had lube. This would feel so fucking incredible with lube. "M-Myc—"

Mycroft shuddered. His breath roughened, his eyes darkening, gazing at Greg as if nothing else existed in the world. 

"Is this alright?" he whispered, in the unbridled and animal voice that Greg loved, then claimed a rough and restless kiss.

"Oh, god," Greg gasped into it. "It's perfect—don't stop—fuck—"

Mycroft didn't stop. He tightened his grip on Greg's hands and kept going, kept on rocking, kissing Greg as he squirmed.

I want you to come. Over and over, Greg drew his focus back to his own breath, settling himself to hold on. He was glad he'd already broken his own heat. This was Mycroft's time, Mycroft's turn, their first ever fuck in a bed, and he didn't want to miss a single one of Mycroft's soft and ragged moans. Come for me, he thought, trembling, and wrapped his legs around the backs of Mycroft's calves. Have me. Fuck me. Find what you need.

By the time Mycroft hit his peak, Greg was only a few breaths from his own. Watching Mycroft burn through the point of no return nearly killed him. Mycroft's grip locked suddenly tight around Greg's hands, his body convulsed and their kiss broke open, Mycroft's rough panting fracturing into helpless sound. He held Greg down and ground against him at an almost frantic pace, nearly whimpering.

"That's it," Greg gasped, rupturing with love. "That's it, love—come—"

Mycroft's expression contorted, tightening as if in pain. Wet heat suddenly spread where they were fucking. Each thrust grew slick. 

Oh, fuck—that's— 

Greg's back arched up, fucking helplessly into the sensation. Pleasure ripped through his stomach.

Jesus, yes, just—

He came writhing underneath Mycroft, pleas and prayers pouring from his mouth.

As they slumped together, exhausted, the whole room seemed to pulse.

"Fuck," Greg gasped, trembling. "Shit." 

Mycroft's grip slackened on his hands. Greg slipped them free and wrapped his entire body around Mycroft, holding him in every possible way he could—legs circled around him, one hand across his back, the other through his hair. 

"Shit," he whispered again, overwhelmed, and pulled Mycroft close for breathless, shaking kisses. "H-holy fucking hell..."

"I think our tea might have gone cold," Mycroft panted.

Greg's grin spread from ear to ear. "Fuck the tea," he said, suddenly desperate to laugh. "I could not give less of a shit about the tea."

"Lord, you get deliciously profane during sex..."

"Oh, god. You'll be writing a fucking paper about me, won't you?"

"I might just have to," Mycroft murmured, stroking his mouth softly over Greg's and prompting a rush of giggles. He smirked in response against Greg's lips. "Private research, perhaps. For my own benefit."

"Sounds better," Greg said, grinning. He gazed up into Mycroft's eyes. 

They shone down at him with unconcealed affection. "I'd normally never dare to even joke," Mycroft murmured. "Go to pains to... to put it aside..."

Still amused, Greg huffed and kissed his mouth.

"Don't put it aside," he breathed, stroking through Mycroft's still damp strands of hair. "Don't kick half your soul out of bed. I love what you do, darlin'. Teach me all of it. Everything. I want the healthiest fucking sex life in London."

Mycroft's smirk became an irresistible grin. 

"Some day," he said, "I shall succeed in impressing upon you that you're special, Greg."

Greg beamed, nuzzling at his nose. "M'looking forward to it."

 

*

 

They ate room service together in bed, cuddled beneath the covers and listening to the rain lash against the window.

"Sounds wild out there," Greg murmured, feeding Mycroft another raspberry. Their bath robes had been abandoned on the floor once more. "I can't believe the BBC lied to me."

"Imagine," Mycroft said. He cleaned a few smudges of dark chocolate from Greg's fingertips with his tongue, little sweeps. "Mhm. I've never been so glad to get soaked to the skin."

Grinning, Greg reached towards the bowl for their spoon.

"Suppose we wouldn't be here otherwise," he said. He scooped up a blob of chocolate mousse, holding it out. "You'd have missed out on dessert in bed."

Mycroft gave a quiet hum. He accepted the spoon, cleaned it thoroughly, then watched Greg take a mouthful for himself.

"I think it helped us break through our ice," Mycroft said. 

"Being here, you mean? Out of London?"

"Mm."

Greg could see his point. "I guess it's nice to... just you and me, y'know?" He smiled, scooping up some more chocolate mousse. "Somewhere new. None of the old bollocks."

Mycroft huffed, amused by the phrasing. He opened his mouth for mousse.

"Perhaps getting out of London will be the secret to keeping our sanity," he said, as he cleaned off his lower lip. "Once a month or so, steal away for a night. Even an hour's distance has lifted a weight from my soul."

"That'd be amazing," Greg said. "Seriously. If it helps, being like this—"

"I can't tell you how much it helps." 

"Then we'll do it, love. We'll sneak off as much as we can."

Mycroft sighed, gently slipping the spoon from Greg's hand. 

"It's a relief just to lie here next to you," he said. "Eat with you, touch you. Know that we're alone." He spooned some mousse from the bowl for Greg, feeding it to him. "Unwatched. Make our decisions in privacy and peace."

Greg carefully cleaned the underside of the spoon, holding Mycroft's gaze.

"You know what this has shown me?" he said.

Mycroft hesitated briefly, still gazing into his face. "Mm?"

"That when we're left to ourselves," Greg said, "and not constantly on alert for other people's crap, we're happy. We're... I-I kinda can't keep my hands off you. I don't think that's a bad thing."

"It's not," Mycroft murmured at once, his voice soft. "Desire isn't any sort of... it's perfectly healthy."

Greg's heart tugged. 

"Feels easier out here," he said. "Safer."

Mycroft drew a breath. "It does," he admitted. A faint smile lifted the corner of his mouth. "I wish we could implant a tracker in her skull," he said. 

Greg smiled too, shifting under the covers. 

"Monitor her wherever she goes," Mycroft went on, dimly. "A little red blip on a map. Just to be completely and utterly certain that she's somewhere else, wasting her time, and not..."

"Outside," Greg murmured. "Waiting."

Mycroft looked into his eyes. "Mm," he said. He inhaled, shaking his head a little. "Sometimes I worry that she's cleverer than we think, and therefore dangerous. Sometimes I believe that she truly is as stupid as she seems, and therefore even more dangerous. What continues through all the uncertainty is this sense of quiet fear. From the day I met you, I've been frightened that she'll hurt you. And it fills me with unbearable distress. Only more so, now."

Greg's heart contracted, hard.

"Myc," he whispered, moving the bowl of chocolate mousse to the bedside. "Myc... darlin', c'mere..."

As Mycroft settled quietly into his arms, Greg bundled the covers up around his neck. He stroked Mycroft's hair back with a hand, leaned down and kissed his forehead.

"M'sorry," he said. "M'sorry there's nothing I can..."

Mycroft shivered in his arms. "I rather wish she'd just pop out of existence."

Greg closed his eyes, understanding completely. "Yeah," he mumbled, giving Mycroft a gentle hug. "I wish that, too. It'd make a lot of things a lot better."

Quiet settled over the bed, held safely in between them like a baby or an animal.

"D'you think there's any way to make her understand?" Greg said at last.

Mycroft drew a slow breath, letting it out against his shoulder. "Understand what?"

"That she's hurting people," Greg said.

"Mm." Mycroft's fingers curled against his lower back, stroking very gently. "I think she already understands that. The issue is that she doesn't care."

Greg didn't want him to be right. Even the thought raised the hair on his neck.

"How d'you explain to someone that it's bad to want to hurt people?" he asked. "If they don't already know that, how do you... how the hell do you change their minds?"

Mycroft huffed. "In some cases," he said, "you simply can't."

You just get away from them, Greg thought dimly. He laid a kiss on Mycroft's forehead. Maybe I'll just move to bloody Scotland. Drag you with me. 

"D'you think Helen's one of those cases?" he asked.

"It would take a better therapist than me," Mycroft said. "I can think of three far more likely ends to this situation."

Greg's stomach gripped a little, wondering if he wanted to know. He supposed at least one of them would be worth holding onto.

"What are they?" he asked, trailing his fingers through Mycroft's hair.

Mycroft took a moment to gather them together. "One if we're lucky," he said. "One if we're patient. One if we're not."

Christ. "Let's start with lucky," Greg said.

"I thought you might," Mycroft said, half-amused. He sighed, wrapping his ankle around Greg's. "If we're lucky—or perhaps if the universe takes pity on us—someone will cross Helen's path who seems more fun than you to chase. A new lover perhaps. Better yet, a new enemy. Helen will toss you aside. While she's distracted, I'll do my very best to convince you to get out of London."

Oh, Jesus.

"And... if we're patient?" Greg said, his heart beating hard.

"A gruelling divorce," Mycroft said. "A series of escalating incidents, escalating police interventions, escalating retaliation from Helen. Possibly an injunction. Possibly a breach of the injunction. An arrest, prosecution by the CPS and then a sentence of up to five years in prison, dependent on what she's done by that point. I will already have convinced you to get out of London."

Fucking hell. "And if we're not lucky or patient?"

"Mm." Mycroft shifted, nuzzling into Greg's neck. "We won't be pursuing that option."

"Just... f-for my records," Greg said.

Mycroft filled his chest. 

"Helen discovers our affair," he said, on his outbreath. "She obtains some sort of proof and takes it to the clinic's practice manager. It's referred to my professional body. After a lengthy investigation and a hearing, I lose my licence, my career and all my patients. Helen sells her story to every tawdry magazine that will listen and the media feasts on my corpse. You become the laughing stock of Scotland Yard. Our lives as we knew them are gone."

Greg stayed quiet for several moments, letting the dust settle.

He stroked his thumb through the soft, short bristles of Mycroft's beard. 

"We change our names," he murmured, "move away, and live happily ever after."

A long, startled pause ensued. After what felt like several minutes Mycroft stirred, drew back enough to lift his head, and looked without expression into Greg's face.

They watched each other, gently.

Mycroft struggled for words. 

"That would not be a happy ending," he said at last.

Wouldn't it? Greg didn't dare to say. He drew a breath, collecting his thoughts, and said something else instead.

"I think my gauge is broken. Happiness, I mean. I feel like since I picked up my stuff and walked out of that house, my whole scale is just... I don't know. Broken."

"What do you mean?" Mycroft asked, searching his face.

Greg shook his head, trying to put it into words. "Feels like even rock bottom's gonna be a solid seventy, seventy-five percent happiness," he said. "Like nothing'll ever get so bad. And I... I guess I still remember what it's like being down there. Where thirty percent happiness felt like heaven and I was still grateful for twenty percent. Even ten percent happiness had me saying, well, it's been worse. Honest to god, some days were..."

Mycroft listened to him speak, making no sound, watching his every word.

"S-so, I don't know," Greg said, trying a shrug. It felt less casual than he'd hoped. "It's... even if she fucks everything up, I'm not with her anymore. And I'll be alright. Feels like walking away from a car wreck. You never totally forget."

Quietly, Mycroft lifted a hand to his cheek. He stroked there for a minute, putting something into words.

"I have a lot to lose," he said.

Greg's heart squeezed with guilt. "'Cause of me."

Mycroft inhaled, lowering his gaze. "You are worth it," he said, "and we are not going to lose."

Greg's breath seemed to stick in the back of his throat. "No?"

"No," Mycroft murmured. He leaned close, pressing their foreheads together. His fingers wove through the back of Greg's hair. "We are not going to lose," he breathed, suddenly fierce. "She can't see inside our bloody heads. There's no evidence of intimacy that anyone can ever find. And if I'm challenged, I will lie until my breath turns blue to protect us. I will safeguard our future, Greg. I will fight the vicious bitch tooth and claw."

Holy fuck.

"Do you mean it?" Greg asked, his heart pounding. "A-are you... you're really okay with it all?"

Mycroft's fingers curled more tightly in his hair.

"I didn't violate my ethics just for sex," he whispered, vanishing the breath from Greg's lungs. "I'm not risking my entire career so I can share a bed with you. This is happening because I... because my feelings for you are... Greg, this connection is more than simple chemistry."

Oh, god. 

Greg tried to keep the words in. He tried to drag them back down through his throat, back inside the cage of his ribs where they belonged, but they fought their way up into his mouth.

"Are you trying to tell me that you love me?" he said, staring into Mycroft's eyes.

Mycroft didn't move. His throat muscles worked, trying to put something into words. He then gave a soundless nod.

God— 

God, I...

Shaking, Greg cupped his face. 

"If you want me to say it back," he whispered, "you're gonna have to say it, darlin'. I need to hear the words."

Mycroft's expression broke. 

"Of course I love you," he breathed. Greg's chest seemed to rip itself in two. "I've loved you since... f-far longer than I should have. I can't help it, Greg. God knows I've tried."

Greg wrapped his arms around Mycroft's shoulders, shaking.

"Stop trying," he begged. "Please. I'm in love with you too. I'm so fucking in love with you, I... I can't breathe sometimes when I look at you. It just kills me. I know it's crazy. I know it's only been five minutes since we met. I just..."

"Greg..." Mycroft's fingers buried in his hair. "Greg—" 

God. Please. Say my name like that forever.

"We'll be okay," Greg whispered, overwhelmed. He nuzzled against Mycroft's ear, holding onto him tight. "You know that? We've got each other. We'll make this work, darlin'. I promise. It'll all be okay."

"Greg, these things are..." Mycroft shuddered in his arms. "S-sometimes it takes more than love."

Greg shut his eyes.

"I know," he said. He swallowed back his fear, wishing he could scrub those words from the air. He didn't want to live in that world; he wanted to live in the world where love conquered all. "But we've done it now. We've crossed the line. There's no way of going back. We're just gonna have to go forwards."

Mycroft drew a nervous breath, rubbing his cheek against Greg's. 

"On through the rain," he said.

Christ.

"We'll look after each other," Greg said. He kissed the bare curve of Mycroft's shoulder, sealing the promise. "We hope for the best. We plan for the worst. And we just pray she finds somebody better to hunt."

 

*

 

Seventy miles away, a muffled clatter raised Ananya's eyes from her keyboard. She paused, listening, and inclined her head towards the window. It was open half an inch to allow the evening air in, helping to keep her awake as she typed. 

The sound seemed to have come from the alley.

"Did you put the bins out?" she asked, strolling from the corridor into reception.

Chris, their new boy, hastily closed his Facebook screen. 

"I did," he said, spinning to face her in his chair. "About twenty minutes ago. I put them round in the alley where Diane said they go."

Damn.  

"We had foxes a few weeks ago," Ananya said. "They ripped open the bags of shredding and it got everywhere. Come and check with me, will you?"

Chris grinned, finding something funny. 

"Do you not like foxes?" he asked. "Worried you'll get rabies? We don't have that in this country."

Ananya didn't smile.

"I don't like ignoring safety procedures for out-of-hours working," she said. "This is central London. If it's not foxes, it's someone bedding down to sleep in our recycling."

Chris stopped grinning. He got off his chair, logged out of Facebook, and got his coat.

They stepped through the front door of the clinic to find tiny scraps of paper, already fluttering down the street.

"For god's sake," Ananya murmured, striding towards the alley. She glanced along it to find the crime laid out: bins tipped over, bags dragged out from inside. They'd been torn open, shredded paper protruding through the wounds and blowing everywhere already. Wretched creatures. "Kssss, kssss!"

Nothing moved. They'd already fled the scene—looked for food, found nothing worth eating and left.

"Are they down there?" Chris asked from Ananya's shoulder, peering down the alley. "They're usually pretty shy, aren't they? Can we just chase them off?"

"They're gone," Ananya said with a sigh. "Run up and fetch new bags, will you? Bring a few. We'll double-bag them just in case."

He sloped off, returning a minute or two later with the roll of black bin-liners.

"Have you ever heard foxes scream?" he asked, as Ananya struggled to wrestle the torn bag inside a fresh one, trying to spill as little as she could. He was loitering nearby on his phone. "It's an awful sound. Proper human, like someone's being murdered. Here, I'll find it on YouTube. You won't believe how creepy it is."

Ananya ignored him, stuffing the bag back down inside the bin. She retrieved the plastic lid from nearby, pressed it into place, and glanced around.

"Oh, there's a brick," Chris said. "Here—"

He stooped to pick something up, then handed it to her.

"Should hold it," he said, smiling.

Ananya frowned. "Did you put this on top of them before?" 

"Yeah," he said. "Why?"

Mm. 

"I didn't think they were that strong," she said, laying the brick on top of the lid. She gave it an experimental nudge with her shoe; it didn't move. 

"What, foxes?" Chris said, grinning again. "No, they're only small. They're like cat size. Do you have them in... where is it you're from? I've never asked."

Ananya bit the side of her tongue. 

"Croxley Green," she said. "Where are you from?"

"Oh! Haha. Yeah, I'm from London. Sorry. I wasn't being funny."

Of course you weren't. 

"Let's get inside," Ananya said. "Listen out for these, will you? We shred a lot of very confidential documents. It's not likely to get us in trouble, but we're meant to dispose of the shredded paper properly. If it's blowing around the street then—"

He waved a hand. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "I get you. Will do."

He'd left the front door ajar, swaying a little in the breeze. Ananya inhaled, preparing to explain they kept it locked for a reason, then realised she could only tell him off so many times in one night before he decided she was difficult. She pulled it firmly shut after him, hoping he might take the hint, but he drifted up the stairs on his phone without a glance.

"Will we be much longer, do you reckon?" he asked, sitting back down at his desk.

"Oh," Ananya said, disarmed. "I thought you were paid until eight? Otherwise I'd have..."

"Well... yeah," he said, with a shrug, "but Diane said if you guys are all finished up for the day then I don't have to hang around." 

Ananya withheld a sigh. 

"I see," she said. "Well, I won't be much longer."

"No worries," he said. "And, erm—listen, I really wasn't being funny. It's just you've got a bit of an accent sometimes and I was trying to make conversation. Don't think I meant anything by it."

I owe you conversation? Ananya kept it in her mouth. 

"It's fine, Chris," she said. "I'll go and finish up. Just give me ten minutes."

Distracted, she shut the door of her office and strode over to her laptop, pulling out her chair with a sigh. She would try and speak to Diane on Monday. They often struggled to fill the Saturday evening reception shift, but she had a feeling Chris would get worse and not better. They needed receptionists who seemed every bit as trustworthy as the therapists. 

Right now, they couldn't even trust him to keep the door shut.

"Is this a bad time?" asked a voice right behind her.

Ananya's fingers froze upon the keys.

 

Chapter Text

"Helen—!"

She was sitting on Ananya's couch, right where she used to sit, one knee tossed over the other and her fingers clasped around it. Her dark hair made her almost unrecognisable, sleek and poker-straight around her face. Her handbag sat on the floor beside her feet, slumped open and all its contents visible, phone and lipstick and keys. She'd done that in their sessions, too—like she might scoop it up at any moment and walk out. Ananya hadn't realised she found it so unsettling until now.

Helen smiled flatly, tilting her head to one side. 

"How are you?" she crooned, as if they'd met for coffee after work. "It's been a while."

"It has," Ananya said, closing the lid of her laptop. With her other hand, she jammed two fingers into the silent distress button beneath her desk. "I didn't expect to see you there. Did you come in while the door was open?"

"Just thought I'd pop in for a natter," Helen said, shrugging. Her eyes were hard and fixed. "Like old times. Before you shipped me off to some place else, I mean."

"I'm sorry, Helen," Ananya said. It was easier to keep her tone level than she'd always imagined in these situations. "I know that being transferred was very jarring for you."

Helen didn't respond, still smiling hard.

"What did you want to talk about?" Ananya asked, prying her fingers into the distress button again. It should be flashing to say it had been noticed—that action was being taken, help on the way. She held it down. Please. "Is there something on your mind?"

Helen drew a theatrical sigh, raking her gaze across the room.

"Always," she murmured. "Sometimes I don't even know where to begin. My life dances from one disaster to another. What do you think we should talk about?"

"We can talk about anything you like," Ananya offered, and realised with a jolt that she was trying to talk herself calm. She tried her best to breathe into it, loosening her shoulders a little. "Why don't you tell me about today? Let's start there."

Helen clucked her tongue.

"Today," she murmured, pretending to think. "Today, I... got up, got dressed... bit of breakfast... letter from the solicitor," she said, fixing her hair. "More bloody mind games, but that's nothing new..."

"Mind games?" Ananya said. Just keep talking. Tell me things. Talk to me until someone comes.

"Mm. From my husband," Helen specified, returning her gaze to Ananya's face. "Greg." She raised a single eyebrow. "You remember Greg."

"I remember," Ananya said, with a gentle nod. "It's not been that long since you were my patient."

"Is he still your patient?"

"I'm sorry, Helen. You know I can't tell you things like that."

"Oh, yes... that's right. You'd get in trouble," Helen said. She tilted her head, fingers fanning around her knee. "We wouldn't want that."

Ananya let go of the button, easing her arms up onto the desk. It was still a solid glaring red. Hammering it wouldn't make him pay attention any faster. She folded her hands, letting the motion settle her, and asked,

"Why do you think he plays mind games, Helen? What would the object be?"

Helen didn't speak for a moment or two, watching Ananya very closely.

"You're the therapist," she murmured, her voice as sleek as silk. "You tell me."

This will all be over soon. 

"That's true," Ananya said mildly, "but... well, I don't know him as well as you do. I'd rather hear what you think."

Helen paused again, moving something around her mouth. She'd stopped pretending to smile.

"I think he's a psychopath," she said. "I think he does it to try and remind me how bloody clever he is. And I don't think he's half as clever as he thinks."

"What do you think he wants at the end of it?" Ananya asked. Broad questions. Relocate the anger. Establish empathy. "What's his end game?"

Helen's tongue poked into her cheek.

"Being the winner," she said. "It's all he ever wants. Leaving me penniless. Making everyone believe that I cheated on him, that I'm insane. You know he had affairs while we were married? He didn't tell you that part, did he? He's good at rewriting the story."

"That must hurt," Ananya said, gently. "I'm sorry he thinks he can do that to you."

Helen said nothing, staring. 

"What was the letter about this morning?" Ananya asked.

Helen didn't seem to hear her. "Are you going to defend him?"

"No," Ananya replied, frowning gently. "Of course not. Why, is he worth defending? Does he deserve that?"

"No," Helen snapped. "No, he doesn't. He's just a—..." She stiffened suddenly, shrinking back inside herself. Her expression flattened and she stroked back her hair. "He seems to think the world of you. Goes on as if you like him."

Sensing an escape route, Ananya eased towards it.

"He pays me to like him," she said.

Helen smirked strangely, her mouth smiling even as she cast Ananya a frown. "You don't though, do you?"

Ananya shrugged. 

"He's a client," she said. "I have a lot of clients."

Helen said nothing, examining the beds of her fingernails.

"How's the divorce going?" Ananya asked, with a glance at the button beneath her desk. It was still glowing, unblinking. You absolute waste of space. 

"It isn't," Helen muttered. She rolled her eyes, drawing a breath. "Not yet. He's still fussing over money. I knew he'd be difficult. He's got things hidden away. I'm letting him have them out of decency, but then he turns round with all these made-up demands and..." 

She shrugged. 

"I shouldn't be surprised," she said.

How much of this do you truly believe? Ananya wondered. Do you understand it isn't real? 

Or do you just no longer care about real?

"You must be looking forward to freedom," Ananya said, watching Helen's face.

Nothing moved in Helen's features. Nothing changed. She kept working through her cuticles, one by one.

"He's dived into his freedom," she said. "Someone new."

Ananya's heart tightened. "Oh?"

"Mm. Not even being subtle about it."

"How did you find out?"

Helen shrugged. 

"I just heard," she said. She stroked her hair behind her ear again, gazing across the office at Ananya's bookshelf. "Like I said, he's not being subtle. Mr Clever Dick. Mr Always Right. I've half a mind to go and see her one night. Kick her fucking teeth in. Make her sorry."

Ananya's chest muscles eased. You think it's a woman. Thank god.

"Nobody would blame you," she said. "I'd probably do the same in your shoes."

Helen's jaw worked a silent circle. "Would you?"

"Yes," Ananya said, keeping her tone gentle. "All that anger you're feeling towards him, Helen... it's very normal. Any woman in this world would understand." 

Helen's eyes flicked back towards her, searching her face, trying to work something out.

Ananya kept hold of her gaze.

"Divorce is always difficult," she said. She tried one more quiet press of her panic button; nothing changed. "It's even worse when you're trying to keep things civil, easy, and your spouse seems determined to play games. Does it make Greg feel powerful, I wonder? Taking up your time and upsetting you?"

Helen said nothing, still staring at her in utter silence.

"I think he might be," Ananya murmured. "If I had to put my thoughts on the line here, Helen... I'd say you're right. Some men do just want to win. Maybe Greg's one of those men."

Helen's jaw twitched. 

"He's not going to," she said. "He won't have the last laugh. Not this time. Over my dead body."

Ananya let her cheek pull with uncertainty, pretending to think. It almost unnerved her how easy this performance was. I'm simply a puzzle piece, she thought. The one you need.

She thought of Greg: his smiles, his jokes, his endless willingness to be vulnerable.

"In my experience," she said, "men who play these games are... well, it's like you said yourself. They rewrite the story. Even if you call him out on all these childish tricks, and even if he falls on his face, he'll simply tell himself he succeeded. It's how their minds work, Helen. When they're locked into these battles, they don't follow normal lines of thought."

Helen listened, a little pale now, her expression strange.

"It's the testosterone in them," Ananya went on. What hell sort of nonsense am I saying? "For some of them, it's just biological. It's like trying to teach a donkey how to samba. If you want to hold your ground and come out of this on top, there's only one way you'll ever do it."

"And what's that?" Helen asked, uneasy.

Ananya played her hand.

"You walk out of his game," she said, "and you set up a game of your own."

Helen gazed at her, lost.

"You can call it the Arsehole Olympics," Ananya said, with a shrug. "Stand on the sidelines, fold your arms, and watch how many points he racks up trying to prove to you what a man he is. What a big important boy he is. Keep your chin up and let his tragic games spin round in circles. When he's bouncing around like a toddler, trying to get you to join in and be childish with him, roll your eyes and remind yourself you're a grown adult woman. Buy some new shoes. Wear them somewhere nice. Let the world know this divorce is the best damn decision that you ever made."

Helen's face opened.

Ananya pressed on, her heart pounding.

"Men like Greg want to feel like they're the only man in the world," she said. "They want your eyes on them, all the time. Day and night. Every move they make. You've learned that the hard way. You've put up with that for years."

Helen nodded, not saying a word.

"For men like that," Ananya said, "nothing kills them more than showing them they're nothing. If you want to win this, you need to keep your head sky high, your lipstick fresh, and your eyes on anyone but him. I know it hurts—"

"It doesn't," Helen whispered, pale.

"—but you've got to remember this is a long game," Ananya said. "Two years from now, you'll have a better life, someone at your side who knows he's lucky to be there, and Greg will still be a wanker living with his sister. Don't waste these good years of your life on him, Helen. I know that you're better than that."

The door flew open. Both women jumped, sitting bolt upright in their seats.

"Sorry," Chris chirped, swinging around the frame, "but you said ten minutes and I just wanted to check that's still a—... oh!" he said, spotting Helen. He let go of the door at once, flushing wildly. "Oh, god. I'm so sorry. I didn't know you had a client in here. I'm really sorry."

"It's alright, Chris," Ananya said, releasing her iron grip on the edge of the desk. "We're meant to be locking up about now, aren't we? Can you hang on just one minute so I can see Helen out?"

"Right, yeah. Sure. Shall I, erm... shut the—?"

"Leave it open," Ananya said. Helen was getting to her feet, her face hidden in her hair, awkwardly gathering her handbag from the floor. Ananya stood up too. "Go shut down your computer, Chris. We'll be one minute."

Chris hurried from the room, bright red.

Ananya slid one of her business cards from the holder with a quick snap. 

"Here," she said, approaching Helen, holding it out. Her heart was slamming itself against her ribs. "I do private appointments. All my details are there. Give me a call if you ever need anything, alright?"

"I will." Helen took the card, cramming it roughly into her handbag. She seemed pale, not meeting Ananya's gaze. As she swept back her hair, Ananya caught the distinct shine of tears in her eyes. "Thank you," Helen said. "I... thanks. For your time."

Aai shapath.

"It's alright," Ananya said, putting a hand on her back. "I hope it's cleared some things up."

"It has."

"Will you be okay getting home? Do you need a taxi or anything?"

"No," Helen said, flustered, and swept back her hair. "No, I drove here. Thanks." 

She strode from the office, her head held high, shoulders shaking.

As Ananya appeared at reception a minute later, Chris was already in his coat.

"I am so sorry," he began, beseeching her desperately with both hands. "I didn't have any clue you were with a client. Please don't tell Diane. Was that woman here all night? When did she even come in? I don't remember her arriv—"

"Has she gone?" Ananya bit out.

"Erm, yeah," he said, bewildered. "She just left like a minute ago. Why?"

Ananya pointed a furious hand towards the flashing red button beside the PC monitor.

"Oh!" he said. "Yeah, I spotted that too. Listen, I was going to ask. Is there any way to turn it off? It's unbelievably distracting."

 

*

 

[AS 20:12] Hello! Answer your phone this instant. I will call until you do. x

[MH 20:15] I'm currently somewhat busy, can it wait? M x

[AS 20:15] Answer
[AS 20:15] your
[AS 20:15] phone
[AS 20:15] this
[AS 20:15] instant

 

*

 

The vibrations from the bedside continued. Mycroft shut his eyes for a second, filling his chest with air as he gathered the strength to speak. 

"Greg," he said, shivering. "Greg..."

The soft, muffled rumble in response sent sensation rolling along the length of his cock. Mycroft dug his lip into his teeth, reached down and wrapped his hand around Greg's shoulder.

"Greg," he said firmly, squeezing. 

At last, Greg's eyes lifted towards him. They were darker and softer than Mycroft had ever seen them, fogged with hopeful enjoyment, his cheeks dark and flushed. 

"One minute," Mycroft managed, panting. "It's... I-I'm concerned there's some sort of..."

Gently, Greg disengaged his mouth. He swept the flat of his tongue up the underside of Mycroft's cock.

"Has Ananya rung again?" he asked, his voice thick.

God almighty. Of all the moments to...

"I think so," Mycroft said, attempting to settle his breath. He reached for the bedside and woke his phone. A slew of notifications appeared. "Ah. Several times."

"Ring her," Greg murmured. He rested his cheek on Mycroft's stomach, pressing a quiet kiss beside his navel. "S'probably important."

Mycroft laid his head back against the pillow, pressing call, and lifted to the phone to his ear. He covered his eyes with his other hand as it rang, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. He didn't know if it would help him sound less like he was currently nursing a nearly painful erection, but it might aid his concentration at least.

She answered in barely two rings, a burst of sound in his ear.

"Ayya!" she exclaimed. Mycroft filled his lungs. "What exactly are you doing that's so incredibly important? Are you at a funeral? At eight o'clock at night? Are you burying someone right now, Mycroft? Because I've been sitting in my kitchen in my coat trying to get hold of you for twenty minutes."

Mycroft closed his eyes, trying not to enjoy the gentle brush of Greg's fingertips down his side.

"I'm not in London," he said, his voice a solid wall of patience. "I'm not alone. What has happened?"

"Is Greg with you?"

"What has happened, Ananya?"

"That's yes. Good. Because he'll want to hear this, too." Ananya dragged in a breath. "I think there's been a miracle."

 

*

 

The story took some time to relay. 

When it finally came to its end, Greg was the first to react.

"Christ," he breathed, white pale. Mycroft couldn't disagree with him. "Ananya, are you... sure she—?"

Ananya's voice crackled over the line. 

"I'm not promising you anything," she said, "but she was looking at me like there was light coming out of my head. She never looked at me like that in our sessions. Not once. When she left, I thought she was going off to cry."

"Was her car still there?" Greg asked. "Or did she drive off?"

"I didn't look for it. But I don't think it was there. Honestly, I've been shaking this whole time."

"What on earth did you actually say?" Mycroft demanded, trying to conjure anything to mind that would mollify Helen Lestrade. It seemed like talking down Goliath. 

"I'm not even sure," Ananya said in a rush. "I can't remember exactly. I just... I was terrified, bullshitting about men who play games. I said she should beat Greg by not caring what he does. That she should get out there like divorce is the best decision she ever made."

Greg's hand gripped the top of Mycroft's thigh.

"That's perfect," he said, staring at Mycroft with wild, widened eyes. "That's just what she'd..."

Mycroft resisted the urge to seize and kiss him. He directed his voice towards the phone instead.

"Ananya," he said. "That is superb."

"It was crazy," Ananya said, audibly shaking. "I feel like I fought a bear. I think I actually told her to buy shoes? I can't believe it happened."

"And she genuinely seemed to take something from it?"

"I'm telling you, Mycroft. Another five minutes, we'd have been eating ice cream together, watching Dirty Dancing. She took my card. I told her to call me, talk to me. If she does then I can keep a watch on her, try and influence her..."

Thank Christ, Mycroft thought, tingles spreading over every inch of his skin. Thank god. Thank every star in the— 

Greg's hand brushed his side, jolting him from his thoughts. 

"We still need to be careful," Greg murmured. He looked into Mycroft's eyes, inhaling. "We don't know if she'll actually..."

Mycroft's heart tightened. 

"I'm well aware," he said. "But I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth." He addressed himself to the phone. "Ananya, would you prefer your own weight in red wine or in chocolates?"

"Che! Don't you buy me a thing," Ananya said, "not until we know for certain that she listened. Greg?"

"Yeah, Ananya? I'm still here."

"Watch him, please. If you see him buying wine and chocolates, tell him they better be for you."

Greg grinned in response, reaching up to rub the side of his neck. He glanced at Mycroft with a flush.

"I will," he said, his eyes bright, wholly unaware of his own beauty. Mycroft's heart thumped with quiet and restless love. "Will you tell us if she rings you?" Greg asked. "I know you're meant to keep this stuff confidential, but..."

Ananya gave a weary sigh.

"I think we can say we're past that now," she said. "And if you're in danger, then... well, we're doing what we can in a difficult situation. Just please promise me you're both being careful. Did you say you're out of London?"

Greg glanced at Mycroft, his eyes sparkling with hesitant humour.

Smiling, Mycroft took the reins. 

"Only for one night," he said. "Something of an impromptu weekend away."

Ananya tsssked. "The pair of you. Text me when you're home, Mycroft."

"I shall," Mycroft said. "Thank you again for your efforts on our behalf. This is an extremely welcome development."

"Don't mention it. Really, Mycroft. Please don't."

"We'll discuss this more on Monday."

"We will," Ananya said. "Goodbye, Greg," she added, fondly. "Have a nice weekend. Make sure he behaves himself."

"I will. 'Bye, Ananya."

"'Bye." Her voice clicked off; quiet fell over the room.

Mycroft turned to Greg, hardly daring to approach his own thoughts. Greg looked back at him with an expression Mycroft had never seen before on a human face, a perfect three-part mixture of smile, warning and disbelief. Though Greg's eyes were bright, he didn't speak for several seconds.

"How the hell do we take this?" he asked.

Mycroft hardly knew where to begin. 

"Extremely well-measured hope," he suggested, "and a generous amount of cynicism."

Greg took this onboard. 

"Alright," he said quietly. The corner of his mouth seemed to lift. "Suppose time'll tell."

"I suppose it will." Mycroft drew a breath, guiding his thoughts from speculation towards action. "If we continue just as we planned, following all the precautions... midweek nights, staying vigilant..."

Greg shrugged gently. 

"Plan for the worst," he said. "Hope for the best." 

Dear god. 

"That sort of... well, emotional rhetoric," Mycroft said, "is very soothing to bruised self-esteem. If Helen's never had someone offer it before, it might well feel like something of a revelation."

Greg's chest expanded with his breath. 

"Christ," he whispered. "Imagine if she really does just..." 

Mycroft's pulse skipped. 

"Ah—no," he said at once, "let's not indulge in that. Not until we have some evidence she's taken even a word of it to heart. It could have flown from her ears as soon as she left the clinic." 

He swept his hair back from his face with a hand. 

"One conversation does not constitute a miracle," he said.

Something seemed to soften in Greg's eyes. He dropped his gaze to Mycroft's mouth, half-smiling, then reached towards the bedside.

"Does sometimes," he said, picking up the half-drunk glass of wine there.

Mycroft's heart thumped, hard. He watched Greg empty the glasses's contents in one swig, wondering why the sight seemed to move something in him. 

'To the future', he realised with a rush.

God almighty.

"Sorry we got interrupted," Greg murmured, laying the glass aside once more. Mycroft's stomach tugged. "M'glad she called to tell us, but... still. Timing."

"Mm. Very much less than ideal." Mycroft hesitated, watching Greg lie back down on the bed. "A shame to call a halt to such an engrossing performance."

Greg grinned from ear to ear, settling his head into a pillow. 

"Passable, at least?" he said. "Given it's been years since I last rehearsed."

Lord. 

"Vastly more than passable," Mycroft said, shifting to lie down beside him. Greg stretched a little, pleased; his toes fanned against the crumpled covers, his eyes on Mycroft's face. "Like riding a bike, is it?" Mycroft remarked.

Greg laughed, biting down into his lip.

"Sort of," he confessed. The colour deepened in his cheeks. "Kinda lost myself into it," he said. "Just listening to you. Feeling you breathe. You're gorgeous when you just lie back."

Something very low in Mycroft's abdomen seemed to growl, uncoiling itself with great interest.

"I'm glad it wasn't a hardship for you," he murmured, looking down at Greg's mouth. "I'd hate for you to go to pains on my account."

"Are you kidding?" Greg said, as softly as I love you. "I'd suck your cock all night."

Oh, god.

"Would you indeed?" Mycroft said, attempting some semblance of composure as his brain blew every single one of its circuits. "That seems very generous. I hope I'd be allowed to repay you in kind."

Greg's gaze glittered.

"Sixty nine, you mean?" he murmured. He traced Mycroft's mouth with his eyes. "I'm not tired yet."

I...

Mycroft swallowed, weak. 

God, I...

"C'mere," Greg said, grinning. He eased across the bed. "You've paid for the night, love. We'd better get your money's worth."

 

*

 

Sunday 29th March

 

"Did you enjoy your stay?" the young lady asked brightly, taking the key.

Mycroft managed not to smile.

"Very much," he replied. "Thank you. My partner's just finishing his breakfast. I believe I have a room service bill to settle before we leave."

She checked her computer screen, clicking.

"Here you are," she said. "Yep. So, you've got two evening meals, a chocolate mousse, a half-bottle of Shiraz, a portion of fresh strawberries with whipped cr—"

"On my card," Mycroft cut in, cleanly. "Thank you."

As the payment went through on the machine, his eye caught on a nearby display of brochures. How fortuitous, he thought, eyeing the cover photograph of champagne being poured out.

"May I take one of these?" he asked. The young lady nodded. 

Ten minutes later, as they buckled themselves into the car, Greg seemed to draw a sigh. He wrapped his hands in place around the wheel, stealing one last longing glance through the window.

"Sorry to leave?" Mycroft asked.

"I won't try to lie," Greg said. "I'd stay another week if we could. Might feel a bit grotty putting the same pair of boxers back on for seven days, but it'd be worth it."

Mycroft huffed, brushing a stray tangle of thread from his knee.

"I doubt you'd be wearing them for much of the time," he remarked, "given the precedent we set last night."

Greg flashed him a mischievous grin. "Surprised we can both walk in a straight line, to be honest." He reached across for the stereo. "Pretty certain I fully blacked out the last time..."

"You did take a while to resurface. Then that seems fairly standard for you."

"Yeah? Maybe I shouldn't be driving."

"Given that I'd like clean clothes," Mycroft said, with a sideways smile, "and a very idle afternoon together on the sofa, I think we can take the risk."

Greg chuckled. 

"If I start veering towards too close to any hedges, wake me up," he said. He tapped through the selection of playlists. "D'you reckon we'll come back here some time?" he asked, so casually it sent a twinge through Mycroft's stomach. "Not somewhere as fancy as this, but... to the Weald, I mean?"

Mycroft hummed. "I rather liked this place, in fact." 

He reached into the glove compartment, retrieving his prize. 

"And," he added, showing the brochure to Greg, "they happen to have a function room available for birthdays and other celebrations. If only we knew someone looking to hire a function room."

Greg's grin widened. "You're not gonna forget that, are you?"

"No," Mycroft confirmed. "Nor am I going to let you."

"I suppose... well," Greg said, taking a breath, "if Ananya's managed to... I know we're not speculating, but it'd a risk worth bearing in mind. And if we didn't have to bear it in mind..."

We, Mycroft thought. His heart stretched with it, aching. Our plans. Our future.

But he mustn't run away with himself.

"Regardless of the outcome of last night," he said, taking a breath, "I think an occasion of some sort to mark your fiftieth would be good for you, Greg. All your friends and family would police it for you. And memories like that can't be made in retrospect."

"That's true," Greg murmured. "Guess I only get one fiftieth."

"You do. And you deserve to make the most of it." Mycroft tucked the brochure safely into the glove box, making sure it remained visible. "Something to consider," he concluded, "as we wait for the shape of things to come to light."

Greg smiled a little, hesitating. 

"Is it alright that I'm hopeful?" he asked. He looked into Mycroft's eyes. "I kinda can't help it."

Mycroft's heart gave a squeeze. Hope was among Greg's finest qualities; it always had been. Mycroft didn't quite want to feed it, risk turning it into a well-nourished and therefore far more bitter pain in the long term.

He couldn't bring himself to crush it, though.

"Of course it is," he said, and watched Greg smile. "I'd be concerned if you weren't. How things develop with regards to Helen remains to be seen. But... on the matter of things between the two of us, I think we can say we've had an incredibly successful weekend."

Greg's eyes glittered at him, soft and warm. 

"I love you," he murmured—easily, effortlessly. The honest and gentle sincerity of it took Mycroft's breath. "It's amazing here. Thanks for being here with me."

Mycroft's throat tightened.

"I love you too," he said. Oh, god. This... this really is... "We have weekend left, of course. Almost half of it in fact."

"Couch?" Greg said with a smile. "Tea? DVDs?" He shifted his grip on the wheel, biting down into his lip. "Bed?"

Dear Christ, yes. 

"Let's start with avoiding the hedgerows," Mycroft said, bright-eyed. "Then I'm sure we can take things from there."

 

Chapter Text

He was shaving, barefoot by the sink with a towel knotted loosely around his hips. He'd raked back his hair; the finger-combed grey spikes gleamed beneath the spotlights.

You suit my bathroom, Mycroft thought—and dismissed his first instinct to dismiss it. Greg was an extremely attractive man. It made sense he would look good in an attractive room. You seem at home here. Even Greg's lime green washbag, unzipped and resting on the side of the sink, didn't look out of place in this moment. Greg's presence made it fit. Right where it should be.

Greg glanced around from the mirror, spotting Mycroft in the door. He'd cleared away enough shaving foam for his smile to be seen.

"You don't mind?" he said. "I was getting bristly. Thought I'd have a quick tidy up."

Mycroft's heart bubbled. "Not at all." 

He came into the room a little, hoping he wasn't intruding. Greg carried on shaving, curving the razor with care around his jaw, which Mycroft took as welcome to stay.

"I've made tea," he said. "I'm sure I can put a salad together for lunch... or a sandwich, if you prefer. I'm still a little full after breakfast."

Greg's eyes crinkled at the edges, regarding Mycroft with warmth in the mirror. 

"We'll make something together," he said. "This won't take ten minutes." 

He rinsed his razor in the sink.

"How d'you get a beard past the stage where it's all patchy and grubby-looking?" he asked over the quiet splashes. "I've tried a few times. Always given up in despair, though."

Mycroft smiled helplessly, perching himself on the edge of the bath. He brushed the sash of his dressing gown flat against his lap.

"Move to Scotland," he suggested, "and study psychology."

"Ahh. You've had it for a while, then?"

"Mm. My mother almost wept when she first saw it. She said it made me look completely indistinguishable from a homeless man."

Greg grinned, huffing. 

"Nah," he said. "It suits you. Can't imagine you without it."

You charmer. Mycroft had spent the night kissing every inch of the man he could find, and still the gentle flirting made him blush. 

"Are police officers permitted to grow beards these days?" he asked, watching Greg shave beneath his chin.

"Depends from force to force," Greg said, flicking foam from the razor. "A few've banned it outright."

"How does Scotland Yard feel?"

"No stubble, so getting it started is the problem. But if you keep it trimmed and smart, you're usually alright. Uniformed officers might not want anything that can be grabbed or wrenched at."

Mycroft hummed. "Mm, I can see that being a hazard..." 

He watched Greg for a moment of quiet, wondering if the man had any idea how lovely his naked back was—broad shoulders, smooth skin, lean muscles. Even two months away from his fifties, Greg could pose nude for art students. He had the sort of cosy handsomeness that Mycroft had always imagined in a husband, built for comfort rather than speed; a warm and very natural appeal.

We made love last night, Mycroft thought. 

A soft flush crossed the back of his neck. 

"Are you feeling alright now we're home?" Greg asked, tidying in front of his ears.

He meant London; Mycroft was fully aware that he did. 

All the same, it was nice to hear him use that word within these walls.

"I believe so," Mycroft said. He took a moment to find Greg a fuller answer, scanning himself for more definitive feelings. "A little less expansive, perhaps. A little more reserved. Not towards you, but..." 

He lifted a hand, rubbing the juncture of his shoulder and his neck.

"Towards the world," he said. "A few hours behind a locked door will settle me."

Greg smiled at him in the mirror, understanding. "Lazy afternoon?" he said, laying aside his razor.

"Lord, please."

"Gonna warn you I'll probably nod off on the couch. S'been a long, long time since I was up into the small hours..."

Amused, Mycroft watched him rinse his face. 

"There's a fair chance I'll be asleep right beside you," he said. He reached for a fresh hand towel from the stack, offering it out between his fingers. "Here."

"Thanks," Greg said, blinking water with a grin. He took the towel, dried off his face, then reached for a can of deodorant from his washbag. "Feels nice to get clean," he said, uncapping it. He applied a short spray beneath each arm. "Hotel freebies never really do the job, do they?"

Why does witnessing this move me? How can something so simple feel so intimate? 

Mycroft's heart began to thump even before he caught the scent—vetivert, cedar and orange: Greg. He'd recognise it in any crowd, as easily as he'd recognise Greg's laugh. 

The rush of love it evoked left Mycroft almost dizzy.

"What fragrance is it you use?" he asked, prompting another bright-eyed smile. 

Greg tossed him the can. 

"Just from Boots," Greg said as Mycroft examined it. It was like any other high street brand, the sort sold in gift sets at Christmas. 

Mycroft removed the cap, unable to resist a gentle sniff. 

"D'you like it?" Greg asked, amused. "I'll leave it here if you want. Got a spare in my desk."

Mycroft hesitated, glancing up at his lover's grin reflected in the mirror. Mawkish, he tried to tell himself. Keeping the thing, purely to remind me of...

No. 

No, not mawkish.

"You can leave anything you like here," Mycroft said, perhaps a little softer than he'd intended. He tried a smile, returning the can. "I can find you a drawer."

Greg's gaze quietened. 

"Really?" he said. He took the can back without looking, half-aware. "I mean... if you're sure, it'd save me dragging a backpack back and forth."

Bring everything here, Mycroft thought. Put it everywhere. 

Just be here.

"Of course," he said, composed on the surface, crumbling underneath. "It's not a problem."

Greg's cheeks pinkened.

"Thanks," he murmured. His smile returned. "Suppose if I'm going to be here quite a bit..."

Mycroft nodded. 

"Purely practical," he said.

Greg retrieved a small bottle of aftershave lotion from his washbag. He tipped a little into his palm, capped the bottle then began to apply it, practiced sweeps of his fingers up towards his temples, watching his progress in the mirror. 

Mycroft's chest seemed to suddenly contain a bird—preening, fluttering, bright glimmers of music.

He eased himself up from the bathside.

As he slipped his hopeful arms around Greg's waist, Greg bit down into a smile. He slowed the motion of his hands, so as not to jostle Mycroft's chin from his shoulder. He smudged the last of the lotion across his chest, then wrapped both his arms over Mycroft's, holding the cuddle in place.

They met eyes in the mirror, a perfect picture of closeness. My lover, Mycroft thought. My one broken rule. My helpless truth.

"Which of us first?" he asked.

Greg's forehead crumpled, unfollowing.

Mycroft tightened his arms.

"I like his steadfast refusal to give up," he murmured. Realisation dawned in Greg's eyes, his expression falling open. "I like that in his darkest hours, he builds his own fire and settles close to it."

Greg's throat muscles worked. He took several seconds to speak, holding Mycroft's gaze in the mirror.

"Do you understand what you did for me?" he asked. His voice broke, his chest expanding in Mycroft's arms. "Back then. Like this. Please tell me you know what you did."

Mycroft's heart strained, desperate to be told. He didn't know how to ask to hear it.

Greg's arms tightened, wrapping Mycroft's closer. 

"And last night," he said, still looking into the mirror, pale. "You... look, I... I-I didn't think I'd have that again. What you gave to me last night. Anything even like that. Someone just touching me, telling me it's alright if I enjoy it, making me feel like if I want that then I'm not a dirty old man. Not a monster."

Mycroft's stomach rolled. I will hurt her, he thought without breathing. I will punish her. Eradicate her. The force of it shocked him, frightened him. Something terrifyingly close to the surface of his soul wanted Helen Lestrade to repent and then to die. 

He closed his eyes and attempted to let it go, holding more tightly onto Greg.

"You're not a monster for wanting to be loved," he whispered. "You're not a monster to enjoy when your lover takes care of you."

"It's... J-Jesus. Even now I want to say, 'It's not just a sex thing'. Like I can't bear to stand here even in private, just with you, and admit that it's partly a sex thing."

Mycroft stroked his open hand over Greg's heart.

"Love is fabric," he said softly. "Woven from many threads."

Greg listened in silence, sliding his fingers between Mycroft's.

"My love for you has pleasure and desire within its weave," Mycroft murmured. "An abundance of both. Am I wrong to include that? Does it spoil the fabric in some way?"

"No—no, I..."

"No. I'd argue it only makes it more beautiful." Mycroft lowered his mouth, kissing the slope of Greg's shoulder. "The next time I lay you down in bed, and care for you, will I be a monster for it?"

"No. I... I get what you're... m'just still amazed that it's real." Greg shuddered, dragging in a breath. "You've done so much for me," he said. "You turned my entire fucking world around. You don't know what a waste I thought I was."

"I won't let you fall back there," Mycroft murmured. Greg's eyes glossed at once, dark and shining as he gazed into the mirror. "You are perfect to me."

Greg swallowed, wrapping their fingers.

"I love you," he whispered, and it shone from every inch of his face. Nothing in the world was more true to him. "Thank you. Thank you for..."

"Fucking you?" Mycroft murmured, smiling.

A huff of laughter rushed from Greg, soft and strained. 

"Yeah," he whispered, his eyes flashing with a sparkle, hugging Mycroft's arms around his middle. "That's it. Thanks for fucking me. I appreciate it." 

"Any time," Mycroft remarked.

It earned him a wider grin.

"Does that even count as fucking?" Greg asked softly. "What we did last night. Let me guess. It depends."

Smirking, Mycroft pressed a kiss to his shoulder. "You're learning," he remarked, "and yes. Depends on your definition of fucking."

Greg's eyes glittered. 

"Still wild hearing you say 'fucking'," he murmured.

"You'll get used to it," Mycroft promised. He squeezed Greg gently, kissing the side of his neck. "I'm going to put some more substantial clothing on," he said, loosening his arms, "lest we end up filthy and in need of another shower."

"Not too substantial?" Greg said, hopefully. "I wanna cuddle up and get cosy. Don't go putting a waistcoat on."

"We're having an ultra-casual Sunday, are we? Will pyjamas do?"

"Perfect."

 

*

 

Greg stayed awake for several episodes of The Sopranos, cuddling closer and closer with each one. He fell asleep not long after their second cup of tea. 

Mycroft gazed down into his face, watching him breathe. He wondered if he should stop the DVD—keep the room quiet, let Greg sleep. He seemed perfectly at peace even without.

If Mycroft hadn't been in love with him before, this surely would have done it. 

Just holding Greg, listening to him live, was a miracle. Nothing in life would come closer to magic. Mycroft had forgotten the perfection of this feeling: gently, quietly in love. Safe in my arms. It crippled him, how small and simple and perfect it was. He didn't want to wake Greg, not for anything in the world, but it was impossible to keep from kissing his forehead. The curve of Greg's brow simply needed tiny kisses. It deserved them. 

Mycroft wanted to be the one who put them there, whispering in silence with each one, you are extraordinary.

It almost made him want to pray.

Keep us safe, he'd have begged. Please. Let us be happy. I realise how many people won't want us to be. It's because they haven't seen him like this.

Greg stirred in his sleep, releasing a faint sigh. 

Mycroft stayed still, watching him settle. 

Is this my culmination? he thought. They'd only been like this a week. His throat tightened, gazing down at Greg's face. Christ, but it feels right. Greg felt it, too. Mycroft had seen it in his face as they made love, the desperate reach of Greg's eyes for his own—the need for comfort as much as pleasure. This wasn't something ordinary.

I want you there, Greg had said. Wherever there is.

Mycroft's mouth pulled itself into a smile. He pressed a silent kiss to his lover's head, closing his eyes. 

I will be there, darling.

This much I know.

 

*

 

They made dinner together—rogan josh with fresh aubergine, bowls of mint ice cream for after. Greg wouldn't hear a word of Mycroft washing up alone.

The sun began to set.

Curled on the couch with the evening news, Mycroft could feel Greg not wanting to ask. He could feel Greg reading him in return, watching, waiting for signs. Mycroft didn't want to give them. He didn't want to bring about that distressing conversation, too happy in Greg's company to cope with the awful thought of Monday. He got up to light incense and make some tea, and Greg seemed to settle with a warm mug in his hands. A reprieve, Mycroft thought, his heart thumping. A stay of execution.

They watched an episode of The Antiques Roadshow as if it were fascinating, riveted to the screen from start to end.

As the credits began to roll, Mycroft felt Greg tense quietly beside him.

No. No, I'm not ready.

He shifted forwards on the couch, interrupting Greg's breath of resignation. Greg cut off, watching Mycroft get to his feet, then blinked as Mycroft came to stand in front of him. 

Mycroft reached for both his hands, requesting—a gentle beckoning of his fingertips. Greg gave his hands at once, nonplussed and still round-eyed.

Mycroft tugged on his grip, gently.

Greg got up without a word.

He only seemed to fully understand as Mycroft sat him on the edge of the bed.

"Get comfortable," Mycroft murmured, tipped him back and leaned down over him, meeting his nervous kiss with tenderness. "Relax for a few minutes and warm the bed up for us. I'm going to use the bathroom. I'll come and join you very soon."

Greg read his face quickly, his cheeks already pink. A suspicion seemed to form behind his eyes, though he didn't dare to voice it.

"Alright," he said, glancing at Mycroft's mouth. He hesitated. "I love you."

Mycroft's heart squeezed. 

"I love you, too," he murmured, leaned down and took one more gentle kiss from Greg's mouth. "Rest, darling. I won't be long." 

He took himself off into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

He emerged a few minutes later, wrapped in his dressing gown, to find Greg undressed and in bed. He'd switched out the lights, except for the bedside lamp. He was lying on his side, the covers gathered up around his chest, scrolling a little nervously through his phone. As Mycroft reappeared, he pulled his gaze from the screen at once. His dark eyes took in the dressing gown.

Quietly, Greg put the phone aside. His gaze softened as Mycroft came towards the bed.

"I should have brought this up yesterday," Mycroft murmured, untying his sash at the bedside. "I assumed Ananya would have recommended it, given the circumstances of..."

"M'clean," Greg said, flushing. Mycroft almost smiled. "I had the full check. I, erm... chlamydia, but they put me on antibiotics for it. Gone in a week."

Mycroft's heart tightened. "I'm sorry."

"Could've been worse," Greg said. "And kinda fun, getting them to send her the letter." 

He hesitated, watching Mycroft's dressing gown come off. 

"Are you—?"

"Nothing to declare," Mycroft said. It caused a huff and a smile. He pushed back the covers, climbing into bed. "Always been a disciple of regular tests. Goes with the profession."

Greg's eyes glittered, soft.

"Why am I nervous?" he asked. As Mycroft shifted closer, his pupils grew big in the half-darkness.

Mycroft eased on top of him, coaxing him onto his back.

"Because you're intelligent," he said, kissing Greg's lips as nervous hands gathered around his body. "You've spotted the significance of ritual cleansing, and you're worried you're now going to be called upon to give me a comprehensive seeing to."

Greg let out a startled laugh. 

"Am I?" he asked, smiling nervously between kisses.

"No," Mycroft said, amused. He settled himself astride Greg, stroking his fanned fingers up his chest. "You're going to be adored, root and branch. And you needn't move a muscle in return. If all you do for the next however long is lie back and enjoy, Greg, I'll be a supremely happy man."

Greg's hands had come to rest at Mycroft's waist, a little tentatively still.

"What're we gonna do?" he asked, searching Mycroft's gaze.

Mycroft smiled. 

"First I'm going to use my mouth," he murmured. He watched colour flood Greg's cheeks. "I'm going to lick you and play with you for as long as you can bear it. I'll try to bring you close, if I can. While you cool, I'm going to stroke your entire body very slowly with massage oil. Then when I can't bear it any longer, I'm going to settle on top of you like this, ease you inside me, and we'll have gentle sex."

Greg gazed up at him from the pillow, lost for words and rather round-eyed. 

"A-alright," he managed at last, flushing.

Mycroft smiled, more in love by the moment. "Would all that be fine?"

"Yeah. Y-yeah, I..." Greg swallowed, visibly rebooting his brain. "You honestly just want me to lie here?"

"I do," Mycroft said. Greg was half-hard against his stomach already, his pulse elevated. "Would you like a little music?"

Greg shivered. "Yeah," he whispered. "That'd be..."

Smiling, Mycroft reached to the bedside for Greg's phone. 

His first guess was a good one—soft and lazy R&B, a playlist called simply Bedroom. The opening notes seemed to roll across the bed, softer than shadow and as easy as a slow dance. Greg exhaled with it at once, peace washing through his features.

Perfect, Mycroft thought. He locked the phone, laid it aside, and leaned down to kiss Greg's chest.

"Lie back," he whispered, trailing his nose through Greg's chest hair. "You're the centre of my world."

Greg audibly swallowed.

"Holy shit," he breathed, tipping his head into the pillow. His chest rose and fell beneath Mycroft's wandering kisses, his heartbeat quick and deep. "I love you."

Mine. Mycroft nuzzled into his stomach, smiling as the muscles there twitched for him. He dotted idle kisses from Greg's ribs to his navel, taking his time to lay tenderness on every single square inch, then let the slender path of dark hair lead him downwards.

He loved this pretty shore just here—this velvet-soft and intimate skin, untouched as a stretch of private beach. He loved how it felt to caress with his mouth. Greg's wiry curls brushed and caught in Mycroft's beard, his animal scent now soaking through Mycroft's senses. As Mycroft bathed the strip of skin with his tongue, Greg shifted against the bed and gave a restless swallow. His fingers curled shyly at the back of Mycroft's neck.

Smiling, Mycroft turned his eyes up the bed. Greg was watching him, rapt, the colour already high in his cheeks.

"I-is that alright?" Greg asked, his fingers hesitant.

"Of course it is," Mycroft murmured. He closed his eyes as Greg stroked into his hair, petting the back of his head. "I'll ask no tugging."

"God—n-no, I'd never..." As Mycroft's lips brushed the side of his cock, Greg sucked in a breath and lost his train of thought. He sank his teeth into his lower lip. "Holy fuck..."

Mycroft kept eye contact, his gaze gentle as he swept a first lick over the hot and swollen flesh.

"Oh, god," Greg moaned, inhaling. His fingers curled, his eyes locked on Mycroft's face. He wanted to watch. Then, Mycroft thought, who doesn't love this sight? Greg let out a nervous huff. "You look really good," he whimpered.

I've barely started. Mycroft laved the long underside of Greg's cock with his tongue, not hurrying to reach the head. 

"You are beautiful," he murmured. He wrapped the base of Greg's cock within a sleeve of his fingers. Greg strained, rocking up into the feeling; Mycroft kissed the very crown. "Slow, mm? Take our time?"

Greg nodded, wild-eyed and wordless.

Mycroft licked a lazy swirl around the head. "Good," he murmured, settling down between Greg's thighs. 

One song rolled into the next. 

Perfect. Mycroft's thoughts blurred as he worked, drifting on rhythm and music, lost in the patterns he was painting. Just perfect for me. Doing beautifully for me. Greg's pleasure poured forth like March rain, every drop of it offered up for Mycroft. Some men seemed to see this act as an opening tribute before sex; they received it in silence with the barest acknowledgement. 

Greg's fingers never stilled in Mycroft's hair. They stroked, raked, rumpled and curled, begging him with every single second for more. His ragged panting kept Mycroft's pulse through the ceiling. Sometimes he hauled his head up from the pillow to watch, lip bitten and overcome. He never coped with the sight for more than a minute, dropping his head back down and swearing in gasps. He was beautiful.

Mycroft meant to edge him only once, then move on.

He worked Greg up to trembling and panting three times, too high on his own power to relinquish it so soon. 

By the time he crawled back up the bed, Greg seemed almost broken with pleasure. The sheets had twisted and crumpled beneath him, sweat shimmering on his collarbones and his forehead. Pink patches had bloomed across his abdomen.

Mycroft smiled, kissing them. 

"Sex flush," he murmured, rising slowly up to Greg's lips. "Only occurs in about a quarter of men. Did you know that?"

Greg made an indistinct noise in the back of his throat, swallowing. He shook as Mycroft kissed him, breathing hard through his nose.

"You're doing so well for me, darling," Mycroft whispered when they parted, cupping Greg's face in his hands. Greg's eyes stayed closed, overwhelmed, his mouth open just to breathe. "You're doing wonderfully. Are you still comfortable as you are?"

Greg nodded weakly, filling his chest.

Mycroft hummed. "Good," he said, and reached a hand towards his bedside drawer. "Shall we soothe you a little, mm? I think you've earned a rest."

The soft scrape of the lid was enough to catch Greg's notice. His eyes opened foggily, dazed; they focused on Mycroft's hands as he unscrewed the jar.

"What's—?" he mumbled.

Mycroft smiled, showing him the label. "Coconut oil," he said. 

Greg's right eyebrow quirked. "Like you cook with?" he checked, breathless.

Mycroft smirked, scooping out a generous amount with his fingers. 

"Not the same jar as in the kitchen," he said, reassuringly. "It makes a very pleasant massage oil... and an excellent lubricant, providing no vaginas or condoms are involved."

Greg drew a long breath, watching him replace the jar on the bedside. 

"Is my skin gonna be soft?" he asked.

"It will be. Exquisitely." Mycroft rolled the lump of solid oil between his palms, smiling as it started to melt. "You're not too desperate to come?"

Greg shivered. 

"Been desperate for about twenty minutes," he said. "Do your worst."

Mycroft chuckled, shifting his weight.

"Very well," he murmured. He leant forwards and ran his palms down Greg's chest, leaving two glossy stripes of oil in his wake. "This shan't be so much a massage," he said. "More a study of texture and touch. Nerve endings, not muscle."

"Fine by me," Greg mumbled. He laid his head back into the pillow, closing his eyes. "Mmhm... that's... wow, I think I like this stuff..."

"Good." Mycroft fanned his fingers, sweeping them slowly up Greg's sides. "You'll like it even more by the time I'm finished." 

"C-Christ."

"Can't help you now, sweet. Best just lie back and enjoy."

Greg's smile became a grin, his eyes shining under half-closed lids. 

"You're fucking amazing," he murmured. "You're just... damn, what've I done to deserve...?" 

Mycroft tsssked, glowing inside. 

"This is as much for my enjoyment as yours, I assure you." He eased his palms outwards across Greg's shoulders, coating his skin with the oil. "Getting to touch you as much as I want is a delight."

Pleasure flooded through Greg's features; his fingertips flexed into the mattress.

"Feels good," he breathed, his head dropping back. "God, that's..."

"Mm?" Mycroft rolled his lower lip between his teeth. "Can I teach you something, darling?"

Greg's eyes opened at once, eager and ready to learn. 

"Sure," he said softly. "Anything."

"Rest one of your hands on top of mine," Mycroft murmured. "Whichever feels most comfortable."

Greg did so, stirring, lifting his right hand from the mattress and laying it with care on top of Mycroft's.

Mycroft smiled, letting their fingers tangle. 

"The technique is called hand riding," he said. "Your hand doesn't control mine or guide it. Simply rests, riding as I touch you." 

He stroked very slowly down Greg's chest, enjoying his lover's growing smile.

"If you'd like a stronger touch," Mycroft said, "you can press down... yes, perfect. Just like that. It helps me learn what you enjoy without interrupting my own curiosity."

Greg gazed up at him from the pillows, his eyes soft and bright. "Curiosity?" he said.

"Your body, your skin. Texture and warmth..." 

Mycroft passed his touch with quiet enjoyment over Greg's stomach, pleased as there came a shy press to the back of his hand. He slowed down, studying, interspersing light caresses of his fingertips with flat sweeps of his palms. 

"Too easily sex becomes goal-based," he murmured. "Important to centre the senses. To enjoy the experience of making love to someone, rather than simply striving to cause orgasm..."

Greg drew a breath.

"Normally when I hear 'making love'," he said, "it doesn't mean much to me. Always thought it was just a way of being coy. It's what people say if they don't dare to say sex. Then you say it, and I... I-I don't know. I get shivers all up my back."

Smiling, Mycroft smoothed flat the hairs on Greg's chest. 

"Is it alright that I make love to you?" he asked.

"Christ," Greg breathed, shivering. "Yes."

Mycroft gave him a wink. "Far more satisfying than sex."

As he passed his fingertips upwards, there came a slight movement in Greg's hand—an aborted press, stopped by some second thought. 

"Mm?" Mycroft murmured, slowing all the same. "Here?" He took a guess and brushed his thumb across Greg's nipple, earning himself a twitch and a bitten lip. "Ahh... there we are..."

Greg stretched a little, dropping his head back against the pillow. 

"S-sorry," he whispered. "Just felt kinda nice."

Mycroft's heart tugged. "There's nothing at all to say sorry for," he said, slowly circling his thumb, smooth and easy with the oil. "A lot of men forget that these feel good."

Greg's hand gripped. His chest arched upwards, mouth opening a little. His eyes shut tight.

It made quite a picture.

"Heavens," Mycroft murmured, heat stirring in his abdomen. "That is nice, isn't it? And the other, too?"

He eased his other hand across, playing the pads of his fingertips gently over Greg's other nipple. 

Greg let out a ragged gasp.

"F-fuck," he whimpered. "Myc—" His hips attempted to buck upwards, pinned down by Mycroft's weight across his thighs. The flash of frustration only seemed to excite him more. "I-I like that—"

Over the course of long minutes, Mycroft set up a pattern: gentler touches across the rest of Greg's body, mapping and soothing him, then returning each time to his nipples. Greg's restless bucking and begging kept him hot. After several lazy cycles he leant low, unable to resist, and helped himself to the gorgeous stretch of his lover's neck where he'd thrown his head against the pillow. Greg writhed up against him, hands fisting in the sheets. As Mycroft finally began to tend to his ears, Greg's moans grew tight in his throat.

It would be easy just to rub this way, to let the oil and the straining of Greg's body blend them into outercourse. Mycroft liked outercourse. Too many people seemed to discount it entirely.

But Mycroft liked some other things in addition. The animal arching of Greg's hips, searching for friction and pleasure, kept bringing those things to mind. He could feel Greg's cock now pinned between their stomachs as he stirred, hard as rock—and it had been so long. 

Mycroft gentled his touch with purpose, giving slower and longer strokes. He simply swept his fingertips across Greg's skin. Showing mercy to these beautiful ears, he directed his attentions to Greg's lips instead, kissing them slowly and soothingly until he felt his lover's breath begin to settle.

Now. This ache wouldn't allow Mycroft to ignore it any longer. I want, it whimpered to him, more insistent with every catch in Greg's breath. Handsome. Warm. I want. 

Shivering, Mycroft sat up and reached towards the bedside. 

Greg watched, dark-eyed and panting, as he scooped more translucent paste from the jar. It melted almost at once, turned to liquid by the heat of Mycroft's palms. Mycroft let the glossy oil drip between his fingers and roll in idle trails down Greg's cock. Greg laid his head back, shuddering, and whispered what sounded like a prayer.

His heart suddenly thundering, Mycroft coated him with care. He thought for a moment to ask, to check, to ensure this escalation was alright—but there was an intensity to Greg's gaze which seemed full of understanding. His breath was measured, slow, his hands at rest either side of Mycroft's hips. Where you'll hold me, Mycroft thought. Between his palms, Greg's cock was rigid. He must be aching.

Mycroft's stomach tightened.

Now.

He smudged the excess coconut oil down his sides, braced a hand on Greg's left shoulder, and shifted his weight higher up Greg's body. This motion was never going to be graceful. Mycroft reached behind himself, wrapped Greg's cock with his fingers and guided him into position, his pulse pounding, his eyes closed on their own. Greg's shaking hands felt their way up his sides.

As Mycroft sank down, he kept his focus on his breath: out slowly through his mouth, in for longer through his nose. Toys, even larger ones, never quite prepared for the real thing. He twitched and paused at the first feeling of being heaved apart at the seams, bearing down with a harder breath, and gripped onto Greg's shoulder.

Greg's hands caressed his chest.

"M'here," Greg murmured, petting him. "I'm here, love. It's alright."

Strangely comforting. Of course he was here—it was difficult for him to be any closer in this moment—but Mycroft found himself soothed all the same, settled enough to open his eyes. He gazed down at Greg, ruffled and shimmering gently with sweat in the lamplight, his face full of patience and love.

Greg gazed back up at Mycroft, right here.

The moment's pause had made the difference. Mycroft inhaled, pressing on, and worked his lip between his teeth as he dropped down inch by inch. 

Almost. Almost... god, I...

Nearly settled, he let go of Greg's slick cock, leaning himself back with an involuntary huff of air. He braced both hands on Greg's thighs behind him. The shift in angle helped; he took the last few inches with a pitched and helpless moan, shuddering at how smoothly Greg slid into him. 

As he panted through the skitters of pain, Greg's hand appeared on his cock.

"Here, darlin'..." Greg's fingers were warm and oiled. He'd used the jar. "I love you."

Oh, god. Mycroft stretched, biting down. For a while he simply let himself enjoy Greg's gentle handling, a distracting fuzz of pleasure and petting as he settled. He reached down, laying his fingers over Greg's, and showed him: this touch, this slowly, this rhythmic swipe of thumb across the head.

Greg copied, learning, listening to him breathe.

The discomfort passed almost unnoticed, here one moment then much lessened the next. Relief jogged Mycroft's pulse. He sighed, shivering, and gave a few experimental shifts to test his readiness. 

Oh, Christ. 

Greg seemed huge inside him, too big to ever possibly cope. God almighty, Mycroft thought, whimpering, dropped his head back and indulged himself a few moments, enjoying the thick and solid slide. The muscles in his thighs were already trembling. Holy god.

As Greg shifted underneath him, restless, Mycroft reached down and caught his petting hand.

"No," he whispered, shivering. "Not until..." He moved it to his hip, wrapping Greg's oil-slick fingers into place; Greg's other hand brushed upwards to mirror. Mycroft bit down into his lip, enjoying their protective hold. "Mhm..."

"You okay?" Greg whispered, his voice thick.

In answer, Mycroft began to fuck him slowly, easing his hips up and down.

The noise Greg let out would never fade in Mycroft's memory. It was a soft, shocked and roughened gasp of relief; it dropped into his throat as a moan, then tightened. Greg's fingers flexed. He shifted his grip, the better to feel the lazy circle of Mycroft's pelvis, then shuddered as it deepened.

"Holy fuck," he whispered, overcome.

Mycroft's soul took light. He clenched around Greg's buried cock, just to feel its thickness filling him, and kept up his lazy rhythm as Greg moaned.

"H-holy fuck—you feel..." Greg swallowed, his expression twisting. "Fuck."

Mine. Mycroft watched, burning inside as Greg stretched against the bed. My lover. Mine. Enjoying. Greg seemed wrecked by pleasure already, unable to cope. He was beautiful, gently pulling at Mycroft's hips on each downstroke, hungry and panting and perfect. The room could be aflame around them; Greg likely wouldn't have realised. His face showed only Mycroft, only closeness. He needed to fuck.

Mycroft stirred, swallowing. I want to watch. He shifted his weight forwards, bracing his hands on Greg's shoulders. Greg's knees triangled up against his back. He rocked upwards into Mycroft, meeting each lazy rolling dip, and the slick and heady grinding of their bodies drew Mycroft's heart into his throat. Grasping Greg's shoulders, he forced himself to keep this slow and not to chase. This was not a quick fuck. He hadn't waited all this time for quick; he'd waited for deep. Now he had it, he didn't want to ever stop.

Greg's thoughts were wide open in his face, every single emotion laid bare: shock, relief, a sort of panting and restless worry. He was vulnerable and he knew it. He stared up into Mycroft's eyes, his gaze flickering a little on each slick push, and swallowed as he shivered.

"I-I love you," he said.

It was a plea. His heart ablaze, Mycroft took him deep and leaned down to kiss. He cupped Greg's face, fingers still slippery with oil, and held Greg inside him as their noses nuzzled.

"I love you," he whispered against Greg's mouth. He suddenly understood how it would feel to breathe flame—to fill his lungs and let fire pour forth from his lips, burning, changing. "I belong to you. You will always have my love."

Greg's expression broke. Safe, wide open, buried pain came rupturing to the surface. It filled his eyes in an instant, flooding from his mouth as sound. His arms dragged around Mycroft, grasping, fingers digging into his back.

Mycroft cradled him, stroked into his hair and pressed kisses all over his face. He whispered to Greg as he shook.

"Show me," he breathed. Greg tried to swallow back another sob. "It's alright," Mycroft whispered. "It's alright to show me pain. It's alright that you were hurt. You are safe and I am yours, and all your life will be different now. I will never go away. I will always be here to make love to you."

"C-Christ—" Greg pushed his cheek against Mycroft's, smearing tears between them. "M'sorry—"

"Don't be." Mycroft brushed back Greg's hair, kissing his damp cheek over and over. "You did nothing wrong. You never did anything wrong."

Greg's fingers curled at his lower back, trembling.

"You feel amazing," he whispered thickly. He swallowed with a shiver. "God, I... I'm inside you right now. You feel incredible. Holy fuck."

Warmth glowed through every cell in Mycroft's body.

"Come whenever you need," he murmured. He brushed his thumb over Greg's lips, then gently kissed them. "Take as long as you like. If you can't come, it's perfectly alright. Just enjoy the feelings and rest."

Greg's gaze flickered. "H-holy shit."

Mycroft couldn't help but smile. 

"I know, sweet." He stole a final kiss for now, then gently shifted to sit up. "Slow?"

Greg's throat muscles worked. 

"Slow," he whispered. He placed his hands with nervous care on Mycroft's thighs, gazing up from the pillow. "I love you."

Mycroft's heart tugged. "I adore you," he said. He arched his lower back, and with a shivering breath began to move again, curling his hands around Greg's shoulders. "Mmh—"

They seemed to spend half the night in one body, never moving faster than their breath. Each time Greg grew restless, he huffed and whimpered for slower, hands tightening at Mycroft's hips to break their rhythm. They rolled through lazy waves of deeper and then gentler, kissing and whispering in the darkness to cool, then beginning all over again. 

Greg's climax came in like the tide. Mycroft watched it easing closer over minutes, not moments; he listened to it building in Greg's breath. The soft flashes in Greg's eyes grew slowly darker and wilder, until his hands on Mycroft's body began to plead without words for deep. His chest heaved, hips shifting. He needed rhythm. He needed release. 

Panting, Mycroft braced both his hands in the middle of Greg's chest. He pinned Greg there, held him down and fucked him, plunging over and over with a single thought in mind. 

Sound tore from Greg's throat. He called out, helpless, his face contorting with longing. Heat flooded Mycroft's insides, and his breath vanished in enjoyment of this obscenely intimate sensation: the last few strokes of sex, slick and wet with his lover's release. Greg's hands gripped his hips and held him still, begging him for mercy. Mycroft gave it, overwhelmed, listening to Greg's heartbeat pound beneath his hands.

In his afterglow, Greg categorically refused to rest. He threw Mycroft onto his back, his gaze burning, and kissed down Mycroft's body before one word could be said.

Wrecked, weak with need, Mycroft drove both hands into his hair.

 

*

 

"I'm staying 'til morning, aren't I?" Greg asked, brushing his wet fingers over the curve of Mycroft's shoulder. 

Mycroft nestled more closely to his chest. 

"I don't think I could bear to sleep alone," he murmured. "Not tonight." The heat of the bath was soothing his overworked muscles, melting through the soreness in his lower back. "I'm sorry if that causes problems."

"S'alright," Greg said softly. He placed a small kiss on Mycroft's temple. "I stashed a clean shirt at work on Friday. We're covered."

It was years since Mycroft had smiled this much. He tilted his head up towards Greg, amused. 

"Just in case?" he said.

Greg's eyes glittered. "Mhm."

"Very wise, in the event."

"I'll have to head off early, but... well, we can wake up together. Have a cuddle and a coffee." Greg brushed the backs of his fingers over Mycroft's cheek, tender. "That's something, right?" 

Mycroft's heart seemed to skip a beat or two.

"It is," he said. He leant closer, laying his lips against Greg's. "Every moment we have together is... I'm unwilling to give them up, Greg. Not even one."

"Same, darlin'." Greg's fingers curled gently into Mycroft's hair. "They're our moments. They're precious."

Beyond rubies, Mycroft thought, overwhelmed with joy. 

"You know nobody's ever fucked me like that in my life?" Greg murmured against his lips. "That was... I mean, I'm ruined. Forever."

Mycroft's insides seemed to squirm. "Ridiculous man," he chided, soft.

"I'm a hundred percent serious," Greg said. "There's no way I can go to bed with anybody else ever again. I'll just be aching for you. You're a fucking king."

"I'm... creative," Mycroft said. "That's all. And appreciative of the chance to indulge myself." Shivering, he nuzzled the side of his nose against Greg's. "You felt perfect inside me. Indescribable."

Greg's chest swelled. 

"Myc," he breathed. He searched Mycroft's eyes from two inches away, lost for words. "Darlin', I... I've gotta sit at my desk tomorrow, trying to think about anything but you. I'm not gonna manage it. This is unreal."

It's real, Mycroft thought. Their lips brushed, sealed and gently stroked. It's real and it's ours. And I will never be the same.

Oh, god, please.

Please let her be gone.

 

Chapter Text

Friday 5th June

Two Months Later

 

"Darlin'?"

Nothing; he was still fast asleep. 

Greg grinned, pressing a little kiss against his cheek. They'd had a late night, six days since they'd seen each other. He couldn't blame Mycroft for needing the rest.

But time was against them, and Greg had somewhere to be.

"Myc," he murmured, stroking down his lover's side. Receiving only a huff in response, he nuzzled his way over to Mycroft's ear. "Myc," he whispered, caught the lobe between his teeth and gently tugged. Mycroft twitched in his arms. "You in there, beautiful?"

A groan came muffled against the pillow. 

"Not already," Mycroft mumbled. "Surely."

"M'sorry, darlin'. I told Paul I'd be with him at eight." Greg dotted a few small kisses on Mycroft's cheek. "Need to chuck myself in the shower pretty soon or I'll miss my slot."

Mycroft sighed, muttering something which the pillow largely ate. It ended with a stretch and a disgruntled, "... so heartlessly abandon me..."

"I know, love," Greg said. "I don't wanna leave you either. But we're still good for Monday, right? S'only three sleeps this time."

Mycroft gave a weary tut. He leant back into Greg's arms, gathering them snug around his middle. 

"If I must pine until then," he supposed. He shivered as Greg nuzzled into the side of his neck, kissing and gently nipping. "Why exactly are you racing to see Paul, may I ask? This is an ungodly hour."

"Just want to keep him in the loop," Greg said. "That's all."

Mycroft huffed. He arched a little, rubbing back against Greg's groin with hope. 

"Stay," he murmured. "Ten minutes."

Greg bit down into his lip. "I've gotta get in the shower," he said, trying to ignore the rush of heat through his abdomen. "Already cuddled you half an hour longer than I meant to."

"Five minutes," Mycroft pleaded, his voice soft. He stirred, reaching back to stroke a hand down Greg's bare flank, his fingertips fond and familiar. "Two minutes," he said. "Then come back this evening. Please."

Greg swallowed back a shiver, closing his eyes.

"If I come round tonight," he said, "you know I'll be here the whole weekend."

"Mhm." Catching Greg's hand beneath the covers, Mycroft slyly relocated it. His breath snagged as Greg's fingers brushed his thickening cock. "Oh, god," he moaned. "Greg, I need you. You can't possibly leave me like this."

... damn it. How am I ever meant to resist that?

"Five minutes," Greg said, wrapping his hand. Mycroft gasped as he squeezed, arching back against his chest. "I'll make a real fuss of you on Monday. Promise."

"Five minutes," Mycroft agreed, already panting. "I love you." He bucked forwards into Greg's hand. "Ohh—more, please—"

 

*

 

"Sorry I'm so late, Paul," Greg said, hauling off his coat. "I, ah... I got caught in all that traffic near St James's. Bloody nightmare this morning."

"No worries," Paul said, unfazed. He gave Greg a smile over his coffee mug. "I've not got long, but you look like a man with good news."

"Do I?"

"Yep. Got that twinkle in your eye. Have a seat."

Greg sat down, trying not to grin. It was a while since he'd seen Paul in person. They'd run emails back and forth, and somehow the weeks had rolled by like they had wheels. Suppose I don't measure things in weeks anymore, Greg thought distantly. Clutches of days. One night together 'til the next.

"So," Paul said, opening up the box file. "How's everything looking? Anything new to report?"

It felt good to say these words—better than good. 

"Not a thing, mate." Greg grinned from ear to ear, enjoying the pleasant surprise on Paul's face. "Nearly ten weeks now. No notes, no calls. No car."

Paul paused, lifting an eyebrow. "You've checked she's not just changed vehicle?"

"Yep. The Volvo's still registered in her name. Bit cheeky, but I asked my sergeant to drive past her house one night, take a check for me. It was parked there right outside. I've been watching religiously for any other cars hanging around, following me. Nothing."

"Nothing at all?"

"Honestly, Paul. I wouldn't tell you if I wasn't sure. I still scan every street I walk down, waiting to see her there. But all I've had has come through the solicitor. Financial stuff. Usual fussing and arguing, but... well, that's it. I haven't seen her once."

Paul's expressed quirked a little, desperate to smile. "She ill or something?"

"Don't think so," Greg said. 

"How about your girl?" Paul asked, reaching for his coffee. "Has she seen any sign?"

Greg's stomach flipped a little, happiness and deception. 

"Nope," he said. "Work, home. Nothing. We're still keeping our eyes wide open, making sure we're never out in public together, but... genuinely, it's like I just dropped right off her radar. Done. Gone."

Paul shook his head, quietly amazed. "She didn't have access to your emails or anything? Monitoring you there, maybe?"

"Changed the lot in the week we broke up," Greg said, with a shrug. "Whole new start. Did I tell you about my car?"

"Don't think so. Tell me."

"I got paranoid about three weeks after she went quiet, wondering if she'd really just... stopped, y'know? Started worrying she'd found some new way to track me without actually following me around. You can buy a GPS tracker dead cheap on the internet these days. Attach it to something, install the app on your phone and watch wherever it goes. So I took the car into the garage one weekend, asked the guys to do a full strip search. They combed every inch of it, anywhere you could hide something. Nothing."

Paul smiled, still amazed. "You think this counsellor friend of yours really talked her down, then?"

"Must've done," Greg said. "I can't see what else could've changed things. Whatever Ananya said, seems like it went deep and it stuck. I wouldn't believe it if I wasn't sitting here on ten weeks of solid proof."

"This Ananya fancy a job?" Paul huffed, lifting his coffee to his mouth. "That's a magic I could seriously use."

Greg grinned. "I'll ask her. Better warn you, though. If she earns the same as my girl, you'll have to cough up a hefty salary."

"More magic I could use," Paul said, his eyes crinkling with amusement. "Your girl's a counsellor, is she?"

"Yeah, she's... well, she's a therapist."

"They different?"

"I think so?" Greg said. "Don't ask me how. I know she's got more degrees than I've got pairs of socks."

Chuckling, Paul took a drink of coffee. 

"Yeah?" he said. "What's a smart girl doing with you and all your socks, huh? You're offering her more than conversation, I take it."

Greg grinned, resisting the urge to lean back in his chair and cross his hands behind his head. "Guess I must be doing something right," he said.

Paul laughed. He emptied his coffee with one swing, closed Greg's file, and flicked the clasp into place.

"Well," he said, "I'm not going to call it closed yet. I trust your eyes, Greg. I trust your instincts. But I've never seen anything like it. She seemed to be gearing up to cause you some serious trouble. Then just..."

He blew, wafting with his hand.

"All done," he said. "Crazy."

Greg hardly believed it himself. Myc wasn't letting him use words like miracle; he shut down any suggestion that things were over. He refused to let Greg collect their takeaways at the door, and Greg's car had never once been seen on Mycroft's street. 

But these ten weeks had been the best of Greg's life in many years.

It was hard not to hope they lasted forever.

"In all seriousness," he said, "I'm staying on my guard. Everything with a pinch of salt. The second she shows any sign of flaring up again, I'll be back here hammering on your door with photos and a witness statement."

Paul's eyes brightened. "Yep. That's what I like to hear."

"Thanks for all your advice and reassurance, mate. I don't know if I'd have handled it so well without you."

"Psssh. Get out of my office, Lestrade. This is a slush-free zone. Just doing my job." 

Grinning, Greg reached for the pocket of his coat. 

"Alright," he said. "I'm going. I'm taking my slush with me. Just before I do..."

He slid the envelope free, offering it across the desk.

"Sorry for the last minute notice," he said. "I've been trying to hand them out in person, keep the details quiet. S'my fiftieth next weekend. I'm having a bit of a do. Nice hotel, drinks and nibbles, kinda thing. There's plenty from Scotland Yard going, and it'd be great to see you there. No worries if you've got plans already."

Paul's expression crumpled, moved. He opened the envelope with a lopsided smile.

"Thanks, man... this is really nice of you. I appreciate it." Admiring the silver-edged invite, he said, "Out in the Weald, huh? That's a nice part of the world."

"Yeah, really nice. It's a gorgeous hotel. Old stone manor, all the gardens laid out. I'm hoping the weather's warm, then we can use the terrace. Should be a good night."

Smiling, Paul tucked the invite back into the envelope. "You know what?" he said. "Sure. I'd love to. Thanks for inviting me."

"Hey, no problem." Greg stood up, pulling his coat from the back of the chair with a grin. "Looking forward to having you there."

"Is your girl going?"

"Ah—maybe. Not sure. Still figuring out if... y'know, with my family there."

"I get you," Paul said, nodding. "It's complicated."

"Yeah. She, erm... she might be there," Greg said, trying not to flush. "Kinda low-key. Just a friend, you know."

Paul's eyes sparkled. "So I should keep an eye out for the super smart one saying 'just a friend'?" he said.

With the beard, Greg thought with a smile. Yep.

 

*

 

Mycroft offered his packet of crisps across his desk. 

"Would you care for a Tyrrells?" he asked, rustling them. "I'm not usually inclined to share. Think yourself lucky."

Ananya smiled, selecting one with great interest. 

"These look nice," she remarked. 

"They are," Mycroft said, and watched her crunch it. Her face opened with pleasant surprise. "Black truffle and sea salt," he told her, smiling. "I was gifted some recently. Now I can't stop eating the blasted things."

Ananya's eyes sparkled. "Greg?" she said, licking salt from her fingertips.

"Mm. He arrived with a sharing bag one evening. I'm not sure life will ever be the same."

"There are worse vices to have," Ananya noted. "Crisps are at the lowest end of the scale, really."

"Not for my waist line," Mycroft said. He rustled another crisp from the bag. "What is that you have? Do I see hummus?"

"Greek salad," Ananya said. "Tomatoes, red onion, feta and rocket. I'm not sure I'm feeling it. I wish somebody bought me posh crisps."

"What about your young man?" Mycroft asked. "Can't he be given some pointed hints?"

Ananya shook her head. 

"Out of hinting distance," she said, with grace. She skewered half a cherry tomato with her fork. "Mutual. It's been a month or two, actually. I was turning into his mother."

"Ahh. Never a good development."

"Mm. I got tired of constantly working through my thoughts, addressing problems and labouring for harmony, while his only real contribution was to show up."

"More trouble than he was worth?" Mycroft said, offering a look of sympathy.

Ananya huffed. 

"Far more," she said. "I think I have to stop young men from catching my eye. They're wonderful at the start while things are easy. But when it comes time for emotional labour..." 

She clucked her tongue.

"I'll have to pick a man next. Not a boy." She picked up a few rocket leaves with her fork, leaning back in her chair. "How are things with Greg, anyway? Are you two still sleeping soundly in your bed of roses?"

Mycroft tried not to smile, keeping his gaze down in his crisps.

"Very soundly, thank you," he said. What little we sleep. "He's very settling, very grounding... very good for me. It's lovely to be loved."

Ananya gave him a fond look. 

"How's the sex?" she asked.

Mycroft lifted his eyebrows, amused. "We're going there, are we?"

"I think we are," Ananya said. "You've been glowing like an angel for months now, so I can probably guess. You might as well say."

"Very well." Mycroft sat back in his chair, taking a moment to put it into words. "Ananya, I have never in all my life been so attentively and appreciatively handled, nor with such dazzling consistency. The man is a hound."

Ananya laughed aloud, throwing back her head. 

Grinning, Mycroft offered her his crisps.

"You're lucky I like you," she told him, taking one with a smirk. "You're still being careful, are you? Keeping things quiet?"

"Extremely," Mycroft said. "It's difficult, I'll admit. More so as time passes."

"Difficult?" Ananya checked.

"Mm. Difficult not to..." Mycroft drew a breath, struggling to form it into words. "The feeling is expansiveness," he said at last. "It's a sense of... these things are so often shared with the world. Friends, family. The joy is usually displayed in the community. But all that expansion must be kept within the walls of my flat."

"It must be harder now that Helen's backed down," Ananya said.

Mycroft gave her a look of gentle reproach. 

"I'm loath to let that stand," he said. "I've told Greg and I'll tell you. There's every chance that she is dormant rather than dead. But I appreciate the sentiment—and yes, it is harder now the coast appears clear. You haven't heard from her, have you?"

"No," Ananya said. "She added me on Facebook two days after we spoke, but nothing else. I've left the door open in case she tries to use it."

"Does she post much on Facebook?"

"Not often. Pictures out drinking with her sister. Shares the odd petition about getting Brexit done. Otherwise..."

"Mm." Mycroft wasn't wholly surprised. He widened the mouth of his crisp packet, retrieving the last few from the bottom. "Greg hasn't had any contact at all except through the solicitor."

"Does she still sit outside his house?"

"No. We haven't seen her at all. By all accounts, she couldn't care if he's alive or dead."

Ananya hummed. 

"I see dark grey cars all the time," she said. "My eye flies straight towards them. My heart skips a beat and I wonder if it's her. It's wild, what this sort of thing does to your mind. Even seeing someone else go through it makes you paranoid."

Mycroft expressed a sigh. "I've found I'm the same with dark-haired women. I feel my muscles tighten in instinct, ready to make an escape. I can't imagine what those glimpses do to Greg."

"Does he seem to be alright in general?" Ananya asked.

"Perfectly alright. Better than I am, in fact."

"He's not missing the therapy?"

Mycroft smiled. "No. He's remarkably robust. I think he rather lives in the minute, really. If everything around him seems settled and in order, he's entirely happy. He stays that way until further notice. You did wonderful work for him, of course, but..."

"He didn't need it anymore," Ananya said, her eyes bright. "Don't worry, Mycroft. I understood his decision. We were struggling to fill our sessions, straying into chat. I found myself talking to a friend's partner rather than a patient."

Mycroft smiled a little, unable to ignore the slight prickle of awkwardness. 

"That's not a position I'd want you to be in," he said.

Ananya shrugged. "I'd rather avoid dual relationships. I was close to recommending myself that we end our appointments." 

She stirred through her salad, fishing for feta cheese cubes amongst the rocket. 

"So long as Greg is happy," she said, "and there's nothing he feels the need to work through, then there's no reason for him to be in therapy."

Mycroft's heart seemed to swell a little, happy just to hear it. 

"There are things I know he'd like to change," he said. "But all of them are just a matter of time. Keep calm and carry on seems the key."

Ananya smiled. "Is there anything you'd change?" 

Mycroft thought about it, interested. He swept his tongue behind his teeth. "Within or beyond my control?"

"Either," she said. 

Mycroft thought for a moment longer. 

"Obviously," he said, "I'd like to be certain that our relationship will stay private until we're ready to tell the world. I'd then like to be certain it will be received well. But, given those are far into the future..."

He drew a breath, recrossing his legs.

"I suppose a little extra patience wouldn't go amiss," he said.

"Patience from Greg?"

"No, not at all. From myself."

"Why?" Ananya asked, curious. She tilted her head as she chewed. 

Mycroft answered with a breath, supposing this wouldn't come as a surprise to her. 

"I'll always want more time with him," he said. "The nights apart are... it's distressing to be without him sometimes. And so I keep asking him to stay, even when I know it's unwise. Patience would help."

"Why do you feel it's unwise?"

"Meeting at all is a risk. If I had any sense, I'd be pushing to meet less often, not more."

Ananya hummed, crunching through a mouthful of leaves. She swallowed, dabbed beneath her mouth with a thumb, and asked,

"Why don't you want to believe that she's stopped, Mycroft?"

Blindsided, Mycroft took several seconds to reply. "Does that declaration not seem at all premature to you?"

"The question is, why do you want it to be premature? What would Helen's continued pursuit of Greg serve to shield you from?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."

"You're clearly reluctant to entertain any idea that the stalking has ended," Ananya said, turning her fork between her fingers, "even in the face of ten weeks' evidence. There's something on the other side of Helen Lestrade which frightens you, something you're trying to put off. Whatever it is, Helen seems a lesser foe in comparison—a more familiar one perhaps, or at the very least external and therefore beyond your control. I wonder if you're frightened by something internal. Something you can change, but simply fear to."

Mycroft inhaled very slowly.

"On the other side of Helen Lestrade," he said, "is peace and serenity. I assure you I'm not frightened by either of those. My only fear at this moment is for the consequences of assuming a danger is now long gone, a danger which was severe and very devoted to its cause. The obsession ended suddenly, Ananya. You'll concede that is unusual."

"Unusual," Ananya said, "but not unheard of."

Mycroft said nothing, poking his tongue into his cheek. 

She watched him as she clipped the lid on her salad. 

"What would you do if she truly had stopped?" she asked. "Permanently, with no fear of relapse. What changes would you make?"

Mycroft's heart stuttered strangely. 

"I wouldn't make any changes," he said, looking into her face. "The rest of London is still watching us. I'll warrant that Helen was a considerable weight on my mind, but we'd be fools to race into reckless celebration now."

"What sort of celebration?" Ananya asked, lightly.

Mycroft bit his tongue. 

"Restaurants?" he said, with a suggesting shrug. "Introduction of families? Giving the man a key and making room for all his worldly goods?"

Something changed in Ananya's expression, warming. The slightest smile lifted the edge of her mouth.

Mycroft held back a sigh. 

"I'm not seriously contemplating any of these courses of action," he said.

Ananya hummed. 

"But if he did share your flat," she pointed out, "you'd see more of him."

He'd run a bloody mile. It's been two months. 

"He'd also provide ample opportunities for the prowling succubus to spot him," Mycroft said tartly. "Two months is not sufficient proof that Helen has mended her ways. This is a ludicrous conversation, Ananya. Open it again in six months and I'll take it more seriously."

Ananya smiled, shaking her head. 

"I don't believe there's such an extreme need for caution," she said, with an air of final words. "And I think you need to have faith rather than patience. But you'll get there."

"And what is that supposed to—" Mycroft shut the thought down with a breath. Not today. "I'll find out, I'm sure. Thank you for your counsel."

"You're welcome," she said, bright-eyed, and got up from her chair. "Are you annoyed with me?"

"No. In fact, I have something for you." Mycroft reached for his desk drawer. "Seeing as you're all in favour of relaxing the security restrictions," he said, sliding it open and retrieving the envelope inside, "I invite you to put your money where your mouth is."

Ananya took it as he held it out, bemused. She flipped it over and glanced at her own name on the envelope. 

"What is it?" she asked.

"An invitation," Mycroft said. "Gregory's fiftieth birthday is a week from tomorrow. He's holding a social gathering to mark the occasion and would be delighted if you can attend."

Ananya hesitated. "Really?"

"Mm," Mycroft said. "It's a lovely hotel. We've been twice now."

"Oh, that's... terribly sweet of him," Ananya said. "I'm just not certain if... well, a patient... not many people have their therapist in attendance at their birthday parties."

Mycroft raised a wry eyebrow. 

"How the tables hath turned," he remarked. "Former therapist."

She tutted at him. 

"It's different," she said. "Will you be there?"

"I will," Mycroft said, "in the guise of a family friend. One face among the crowd. I thought having you there might bolster my position, in the unlikely event that it ever comes to light. One former therapist at a social gathering seems circumspect. But two suggests that Greg simply maintains good relations with those who've helped him in the past."

Ananya sighed, looking down at the neat white envelope without comment. 

Mycroft gently advanced his interests. 

"I understand Greg has a broad selection of single work friends," he said, his tone mild. "All upstanding police officers of exemplary conduct and vast emotional maturity."

Ananya winced. 

"Fine," she said. "I'll come. But don't you dare tell anyone I was there," she added, scowling at his pleased expression. "I mean it, Mycroft. I'm not going down with your ship."

"Perfectly understandable."

"I'll come along to wish Greg well for his birthday, not to hold your halo up."

"I'm sure I can attend to it myself. I'll tell Greg you're coming—the address is on the invite, as are parking instructions—and one more thing," Mycroft said as she turned to leave, leaning under his desk.

"What now?" Ananya asked, wearily amused. "I have a client due soon."

"As do I," Mycroft said. "Here." 

He held the small pot out towards her.

"This is for you," he said. "It's a present. Forgive me for not wrapping it, but I was very short on time this morning."

Ananya took it, blinking down at the tiny tuft of green. "What is it?"

"It's a spider plant," Mycroft said. "I'm overrun with the bloody things. For god's sake, don't put it in a sunny window."

 

*

 

"How was your day?" Greg asked, fond.

Mycroft smiled, rubbing his fingers against the side of his neck. 

"Fairly ordinary," he said. "And you were there for the most interesting part, so there's very little to tell you."

Greg's voice filled with a grin. "All downhill from there, huh?"

"Mm. Very much so." Mycroft stretched his feet out beneath his blanket, sorely wishing there was a lap here to rest them in. The remains of an evening meal for one sat on the coffee table; the television in the background was on mute. "How was your day? I hope work went well."

"Aheh. Still here, would you believe?"

Mycroft glanced through the door towards the kitchen clock, startled. "It's past nine, Greg."

"I know," Greg sighed. "I'm on my sixth coffee."

"What on earth are you doing there so late?"

"We've had a major witness in a major case change their story out of the blue, just as it's about to go to court. Everything's gotta be re-evaluated, fast. 'Pain in the arse' is an understatement."

Mycroft's pulse quickened strangely. "That sounds frustrating."

"It is. I was glad to see the back of this one. Now..." Greg sighed, audibly taking a drink of something. "Part of the job," he said. "Mustn't grumble. I've told them I'll stack my hours high this week, but Saturday and Sunday are off limits. As far as the Yard's concerned, I'll drop out of existence on Friday night and won't reappear until Monday at the earliest."

Mycroft's heart twinged. For a moment, he didn't dare to ask. He feared the probable answer he might hear, not wanting to bring it into being. But not asking wouldn't alter the facts. 

"Am I unlikely to see much of you this week?" he said.

Greg hesitated. "Darlin', I'm sorry. Honestly I am. I could put my hands around this witness's neck."

Work first, Mycroft told himself. He gripped his phone, ignoring the sinking in his stomach. Understandable. Not something I can change.

"Do I take it that Monday is off the cards?" he asked, his tone as light and easy as he could manage.

"It's... I'm sorry, love."

"It's alright. Just so I can plan my week, that's all."

"I've got my team's noses really tight to the grindstone. If they see me go dancing off at six while they're stuck here 'til ten, they're gonna hate me. And I can't bear to be that sort of arsehole boss."

Mycroft persuaded himself to smile, hoping it carried into his voice. 

"Greg, there's no need to explain," he said. "These things happen. I'd... appreciate a phone call now and then, if you're—"

"Every night, love. I promise."

"That's... well, if every night is any hardship, then—"

"Myc," Greg murmured. Mycroft's heart and soul fell quiet at once, lost, listening. "Every night, beautiful. I'm gonna ring. I don't want to go a day without hearing your voice."

Mycroft looked down into his lap, numb. The words left his mouth on their own. 

"I'd like you to call," he said. He closed his eyes, telling himself it would be fine. He had plenty to occupy his evenings. There was an entire stack of novels gathering dust on his bedside table. This won't be a misery, he told himself. It won't. It won't. "May I have this witness's name and address, please?" he asked his phone. "I'd like to add my hands to the pile around their neck."

Greg huffed over the line.

"I'll strangle them twice," he promised. "Once for you, once for me." He hesitated, drawing a breath. "This means I might only see you again on my birthday."

Eight days.

Eight bloody days. 

And then to share you with...

"Does the sight of my face count as a gift?" Mycroft asked, hoping to sound wry. "If I hang a tag over one ear, and tie a—"

"Yes," Greg said. Mycroft stopped talking at once, disarmed by the sincerity. "Myc, you're... I-I'm gonna hate every minute of this week. I'm trying not to think about how much I'm gonna hate it, otherwise I won't make it through to Friday. My team need me leading from the front, acting like this is all fine and we've got this. But I want to go smash every plate in the break room. It's killing me, knowing I won't see you."

Mycroft's heart seemed to stutter, dropping out of rhythm. Oh, god. For one wild moment, he almost said. Come here when you're finished. Tonight. Any night. Just to sleep beside each other. But after a thirteen hour shift, it would surely be a burden. Greg would want the comfort of his own home and a brief glimpse of his family, not yet another night as a guest. 

Gripping his phone, Mycroft spoke with what scant little dignity he had.

"I will miss you," he said. His throat closed. He exhaled in silence, forcing it to ease. "Do you have plans for the day after your birthday? The Sunday?"

"You," Greg said.

Disarmed again, Mycroft flushed. "I'll understand if your family are—"

"You," Greg said. "You are my plans. You, no one else. Phones off. Lie in bed all day. Forget anybody exists but you."

Oh, Christ. 

"Please call me each night," Mycroft said, his heart pounding.

"I will, love. And you can text me whenever you want. I'll text you right back."

"If... if you're certain it won't be a..."

"A what?" Greg said gently. "A problem?"

Mycroft said nothing, fearing he'd shown his hand. He glanced down into his lap again, his insides squeezing themselves out of shape.

"Darlin'," Greg murmured in his ear. His voice was as soft as Mycroft's fleece blanket. It wrapped around Mycroft's senses, hugging them. "Do you need me there? Now?"

I... I can't possibly make you leave your...

Dear Christ, what am I doing? I'm a grown man. Not a dizzy adolescent.

"Forgive me," Mycroft managed, letting out a breath. "No, I... of course not. I'm fine, Greg. I'm absolutely fine."

"You don't sound fine."

It seemed there was nothing for it but honesty. 

"I'll miss you," Mycroft said, gazing at the tartan check of his fleece blanket. "But I'll look forward even more to your birthday. And perhaps a week's absence will make the heart grow fonder."

"It's not absence, darlin'," Greg murmured, pained. "M'not absent right now, am I?"

Mycroft closed his eyes. "No."

"M'right here," Greg said. "And I'll be here like this all week. I'm not going to be away from you. You'll just be carrying me around in your pocket, that's all."

Mycroft inhaled, letting it settle into place. It was true; he knew it was. What is causing this strange insecurity? he wondered. Why on earth am I so...? 

His conversation with Ananya drifted through the back of his mind. 

You need faith, she'd said, rather than patience.

But faith in what?

"I love you," Mycroft heard his own mouth murmur. He inhaled, opening his eyes to the empty fireplace. "I'm in need of a weekend away, I think."

"We're due one," Greg said. "And... well, there'll be other people at the party next weekend. Doesn't really count. Shall we book something just for us?"

Mycroft's heart slackened, beating. "That would be wonderful."

"Yeah?" A twinkle warmed Greg's voice. "D'you fancy showing me around Edinburgh? We could go up on the train."

Oh, god. Mycroft exhaled in a rush, momentarily overwhelmed by the thought: the old places he knew, Greg's hand in his own. They could go for dinner together, eat at a candlelit table four hundred miles from everyone they knew, then go home to a safe and warm hotel room.

"I'll free up a weekend in my diary," he said, squeezing a handful of his blanket.

He could hear Greg smiling. "Just a weekend? Not a week?"

"Oh, god—"

"I love you. I mean it, darlin'. This week's gonna fly, I promise. We'll spend it planning a proper week away. Before you know it, you'll be waking up on Sunday morning next to your fifty-year-old boyfriend."

Mycroft's heart leapt, a little frolicking thrash like a rabbit in a field. Boyfriend. 

"I have a feeling that fifty will suit you," he said.

"Yeah?" Greg said. Mycroft could almost see him grinning, biting at the corner of his lip. "Will you help keep me young, please?"

"Beast. Three years. Two and a half, in fact."

"Still makes a difference. What're we doing for your fiftieth?"

Mycroft's breath skipped. You will be divorced by then, he thought. Free. 

"I think it depends on the circumstances," he managed, an odd flush blooming across his face. He could think of any number of things he would love. Not one of them could be gift wrapped; not one of them could possibly be voiced at this juncture. "A holiday, perhaps," he said.

Greg laughed. "You just want to go to Edinburgh, darlin', don't you?"

"Mhmn."

"Well, you've got two and a half years to think of something else you want. No rush."

Oh, god. Don't torture me. "I shall think about it in Edinburgh. And on Sunday while lying next to my fifty-year-old boyfriend."

"You, ah... might have more pressing things to think about while lying next to the fifty-year-old boyfriend on Sunday. He'll be keeping you occupied."

"Will he indeed?"

"After eight days of missing the chance, yeah."

Mycroft laughed. He couldn't help it. "I've accustomed you to a certain regularity of indulgence, have I?" he purred, trying not to sound too pleased with himself. 

"Hngh." Greg took a long drink of his coffee. "Will you be alright?"

"Will I be alright?" Mycroft said. "Am I at risk of rupturing something, you mean?"

Greg was now laughing, too. 

"C'mon, Myc," he said. Mycroft found himself smiling, happy just to hear that sound. "Don't play innocent with me. You know what you're like."

"The audacity. I refute these accusations in their entirety."

"You do, huh? We'll see what happens when you get hold of me next Saturday."

Mhm. We shall. 

"I assume you're going to be there in advance of the party?" Mycroft asked.

"Probably head up in the morning. Get checked in, make sure everything's alright with the food and so on. Spend the day." Greg's tone grew hopeful. "Are you gonna be there early?"

"I can be," Mycroft said. I will be. "So long as it wouldn't seem suspicious or out of place."

Greg huffed. "Who'd care? Come up early. We'll steal a couple hours by ourselves."

Mycroft would always marvel at Greg's ability to settle him. Two words— who'd care? —and the instinctive and nameless worry fell apart in his hands. Things often seemed complex and unwieldy until Greg looked at them. It was like seeing someone explain a magic trick. So absurdly simple.

"I love you," Mycroft said, his heart lifting in his chest.

Somehow, he felt Greg smile. 

"I love you too," Greg soothed in his ear. "So much. More by the day. Good times are coming, darlin'."

Move in with me. Please. I know it's soon, but...

Mycroft took a breath.

"Should I let you get back to your work?" he asked, rubbing the edge of his blanket.

"Don't you dare," his lover murmured. "I've got ten minutes yet."

 

Chapter Text

Saturday 13th June

 

[MH 06:01] Happy birthday, darling. M xxxx

 

Grinning, Greg stretched out on his stomach in bed. He rubbed the sleep from the corners of his eyes and replied.

 

[GL 07:38] Hi, just awake :) Thanks! xxxx
[GL 07:38] Did you have a good night? xxxx
[GL 07:38] I can't fucking wait to see you xxxx

[MH 07:39] Very pleasant, thank you :) The weather seems excellent here. I've packed my things ready to transfer to your room. M xxxx

[GL 07:39] Already? :D Eager beaver! xxxx

[MH 07:40] Ananya and I have just finished a walk. We're sitting down to eat breakfast.
[MH 07:40] Some of us aren't still lazing around abed at twenty to eight. :P M xxxx

[GL 07:40] Yeah well, some of us are in our 50s now and need our rest ;) xxxx
[GL 07:40] Also I just worked an 80 hour week (!!) xxxx
[GL 07:41] And also I'm the birthday boy. So I'll sleep as late as I bloody want :P xxxx

[MH 07:41] I suppose you do have a big day ahead. :P M xxxx

[GL 07:42] Yep. Gonna need all my energy for the bouncy castle ;) xxxx

[MH 07:42] I adore you.
[MH 07:42] Please do hurry up and get here. M xxxx

[GL 07:43] I'll let you know when we're about to set off :) xxxx
[GL 07:43] I love you to bits. Can't wait to see you xxxxx
[GL 07:43] Gonna hit the shower xxxxxxx

[MH 07:44] I love you too. :)
[MH 07:44] Drive safely. M xxxxx

 

Glowing, happy to the soul, Greg pushed back the covers of his bed. It was going to be a good day, whether people turned up at the party or not. Even if the whole thing was a wash-out, and nobody bothered to come, he would sit out on the terrace in the evening sun with Mycroft, eat strawberries and drink champagne. 

Last year, he'd barely even noticed his birthday. He and Helen had decided not to do anything, still struggling with bills after the wedding. He'd hoped she might have bought him a card or offered to cook dinner, but got home to find her nursing a migraine.

He remembered chiding himself for his disappointment. 

Like I'm a fussy kid, he'd thought. Wanting everything to be about me.

Much had changed.

 

*

 

On this glorious summer Saturday, the car park was proving extremely popular. Walkers and families were now arriving in abundance, carrying picnics and blankets and camping chairs. Every new vehicle pulling through the gates lifted Mycroft's heart into his mouth. It sank again each time, pounding, as he realised it wasn't yet Greg. The traffic out of London must be heavy; they'd been due to arrive fifteen minutes ago.

Eight days. 

The passing hours had dragged themselves through Mycroft's soul like barbed wire. Eight bloody days. He'd even gotten desperate to ask Greg for a photograph of himself, like some fawning teenage girl wanting a poster of a pop singer for her wall. Greg had sent him a grinning selfie, fresh from the shower with his hair spiked on end. 

For the past two days, Mycroft had kept the thing open almost constantly amongst his apps, there to be retrieved and looked at with only a moment's notice. It was mortifying. 

And it was all about to come to an end.

The afternoon together. Then tonight after the party, and all of tomorrow.

Mycroft almost couldn't bear it. All morning, he'd half-expected to get a phone call saying there'd been a last minute change of plans—that Greg had been called into work, perhaps; that the roads around London were all closed. The text from Greg to say the family were setting off had dragged Mycroft immediately into a semi-feral mental state, unable to sit, unable to focus, desirous of nothing except to pace the front steps of the hotel. Ananya had given up on him and taken herself off for a massage. 

Mycroft couldn't blame her. He found his restlessness unbearable, too. If he'd been able to divide himself in two, leave his body frantically patrolling the car park while his mind read the paper, drank a cup of tea and relaxed, he certainly would have done.

But as it was, he could only pace and keep watch.

He had Greg's birthday present in his pocket. Though tiny, he felt its weight like a boulder. Every time he remembered it was there, it left him almost nauseous with excitement and nerves.

God help me, Mycroft thought, dragging a deep breath into his lungs. Perhaps I should step inside and have a drink. Otherwise I'll be too agitated to—

A car appeared between the distant gates, sunlight glinting off its bonnet. Mycroft glanced through the windshield at the driver, expecting yet another bitter disappointment.

Greg pulled into the car park, grinning, and gave him a wave.

Mycroft's heart nearly fell from his mouth. He waved wildly in return, so overjoyed he couldn't help from bursting into a broad smile. He gestured to the reserved parking spaces at the front of the hotel, currently empty but for Ananya's dinky red Suzuki. Greg shot him a thumbs-up, spinning the wheel in his hands, and came this way.

As he parked, Mycroft hovered at the bottom of the steps, gripping the railing in white-knuckled hands. 

The engine shut off; the front and back doors of the car clunked open simultaneously. From the driver's seat stepped Greg, gorgeous in his mirrored sunglasses and leather jacket. His head turned towards Mycroft before he'd even thrown shut his door, grinning ear to ear, and his silver hair flashed in the sun.

Oh, god.

Mycroft let go of the railing.

Oh, god— 

They hit each other two steps from the stairs, their arms locking tight. As Mycroft gripped Greg, shaking, something seemed to give way inside his chest. It flooded him not with relief but with fire, raging, roaring, and it burned up his senses in an instant. For a single perfect moment he was gone, one part of a whole. Nothing mattered. 

Recalling the car with an ungainly lurch, he swallowed and tried to let go of Greg.

Greg only gripped him tighter. 

"No," he breathed in Mycroft's ear, squeezing. "No, no. Not yet."

Mycroft's heart reeled. "The children—"

"We're friends. Not seen you in years."

"A-alright." Shaking, Mycroft closed his eyes. "Oh, god. I missed you."

 "We're not going eight days again," Greg said, his voice roughed. He scrunched his hand through the back of Mycroft's hair. "Never. Not as long as we live."

Oh, god—oh, god, I— 

"Uncle Greg?" came a voice from beside the car, bemused. "When you're done. D'we need to pay for parking or anything?"

Greg's arms tightened around Mycroft's shoulders, one last time, then gently and carefully unwound. 

"No, mate," he said, turning round. "We're good. We got spaces reserved for party guests."

Mycroft stole a cautious glance. The young man now resting his arms along the top of the car door could only possibly be Greg's nephew. They were startlingly similar in their looks, dark eyes and unruly hair; even the wry smirk had something of Greg in it.

For some reason, the sight of Greg's family at last sent Mycroft's pulse into the stratosphere.

"This is my nephew," Greg said, grinning, "Reece. Lisa's eldest. Reece, this is my mate Mycroft."

Reece held out a hand.

"You a detective, too?" he asked, as Mycroft did his best to shake the young man's hand with some semblance of composure.

"Ah—no, I'm afraid not. But tremendously flattered you might think so."

"S'the tie," Reece explained. "And you're welcome."

"Where's your sister?" Greg asked his nephew, frowning. "Is she still—" He leant down into the car and tutted. "Reece, you could've helped her with her seatbelt."

"What? She was handling it fine. It's only one button."

"Here, Midgie. I've got it." 

There came a click and a swish from the seatbelt being undone. As small arms gathered tight around Greg's neck, Mycroft's pulse gave a small and dizzy skitter. Greg lifted the little girl free from the car, bouncing her up on his hip; shy, she clung to her uncle.

"You gonna say hi, Midgie?" Greg said. As she buried her head against his shoulder, he hid a kiss within her messy brown curls. "This is Uncle Greg's friend Mycroft."

Oh, god.

"...'Midgie'?" Mycroft checked, glancing into Greg's eyes.

Greg grinned. "Imogen," he said.

"Ah. Thank heavens."

The little girl burrowed tighter into her uncle's hug. 

"Took her a while to manage Imogen," Greg explained, bright-eyed. "Called herself Midgie for ages. Biskip for Midgie. Juice for Midgie. Then for a while she was Immy Jim, and I was Untle Bread—wasn't I, treacle? I miss being Untle Bread, actually. It's a shame you figured out how to say G. You grew up far too quick."

Imogen stirred, turning her head to gaze nervously at Mycroft from amidst her fluffy curls. She had Greg's eyes, too. They seemed huge within her tiny face.

Mycroft smiled at her, his heart on the point of rupture.

"Hello, Imogen," he murmured. God help me. I should have sought out more children. Practiced in advance of this moment. "You must have had a long drive to get here, did you? Are you very tired?"

She nodded, trying to tidy her curls from her face with a small splayed hand.

Greg helped, sweeping them back off her forehead. 

"You'll be ready for a drink and a run around, mm?" he said. "I'm definitely ready for a drink and a run around." He glanced into Mycroft's eyes, amused, then kissed his niece's head again. "D'you reckon they've blown up the bouncy castle yet, Midge?"

She jerked her head up towards him, wide-eyed.

Greg's face opened with delight. 

"Oh, no!" he gasped, teasing her. "Did I forget to tell you there'd be a bouncy castle? How did I forget to mention that?"

Imogen smiled , shy and hopeful. 

"Really?" she asked, sending Mycroft's heart into another dizzy forward roll.

"Really, treacle," her uncle said. "Really really."

She squirmed, her smile growing. "Will you bounce in it, too?"

"Oh, yeah," Greg said. "'Course I will. It's my birthday, darlin'. I'm gonna be first on it."

Rolling his eyes, Reece tutted and pushed the car door shut with a clunk. 

"Nothing worse than drunk adults in bouncy castles," he said. As he glanced up from his phone, his gaze caught on something over by the gates. "Mum's here, Uncle G. We'd better move or she'll kill us all. You know she can't park for shit."

Greg's forehead furrowed at once. "Excuse me, Reece. I think I must've misheard you there. Your mum can't park for what?"

Reece sighed. "She can't park. Sorry."

"Thank you. Not in front of company."

"That was a bad word," Imogen told her uncle very seriously, as Greg locked his car with one hand.

"It was," Greg agreed, pocketing his keys. "That's why Reece isn't going on the bouncy castle." 

As Reece sloped towards the hotel, offering some sardonic response over his shoulder, Greg's free hand appeared gently on Mycroft's back.

"But yeah, better get on the steps," he advised Mycroft in undertones, eyes glittering. "She can't park for shit."

Amused, Mycroft allowed himself to be steered towards safety.

"You alright?" Greg asked in a murmur, still carrying Imogen at his hip. "This isn't too much, is it?"

Mycroft smiled, wishing he could put it into words. He'd never been so equally terrified and content in all his life. Though his heart was attempting to turn itself inside out, he wouldn't have crept away from this moment for anything in the world.

"I'm fine," he promised, with the most platonic glance that he could muster. "It's nice to put names to faces."

"You're a miracle. I'll get everybody checked in, let the staff know I'm here, then we'll go off on our own for a bit."

Mycroft's insides squirmed. He should protest; he should insist that Greg stay with his family.

"Alright," he said, keeping his smile in check. "Take your time, though."

From the safety of the steps, they watched the car wheedle its way very steadily into the space, backing out and reangling several times. Mycroft attempted to stay a distance from Greg which conveyed attachment without intimacy; it was remarkably difficult. He finally resorted to his phone to occupy his itching hands, sifting through emails he had no intention of answering. 

"Is Ananya around?" Greg asked, smiling.

"She fled my company for the sanctuary of the spa," Mycroft said, with a wry glance. "I think I was wearing her patience thin with waiting."

Grinning, Greg settled his niece to sit on the railings. 

"Sorry I couldn't get out here last night," he said, as her small legs kicked and swirled in the air. "Better safe than sorry, though. I just thought... if I don't run through it all just one last time, and it turns out something's wrong..."

"It would have preyed on your mind," Mycroft murmured, understanding entirely. The car's engine switched off; the doors swung open with relief. "Your brother-in-law's name—is it Edward or Edmund?"

Greg chuckled under his breath. 

"It's Ed," he said. "You don't have to be formal. Honestly, don't worry. We'll just keep it as a quick hello."

Mycroft watched, his heart drumming, as the four of them appeared: the two middle children, a girl and boy dressed identically in shorts and football t-shirts, deep in some fervent discussion over trading cards; their tall father, pleasingly mild-faced with frizzy blonde hair and a button-up cardigan; last but not last, a short and rounded lady in a tulip-printed sundress. She emerged from the car beaming and held her keys aloft in triumph.

"Only four tries!" she called to Greg.

"Both wing mirrors still on?" Greg checked, grinning. 

"Cheek," his sister said, shooing the two children and their trading cards away from the car door. "Did Midgie get travel sick? I didn't know if she'd need a benadryl or not, only going two hours."

"Nah," Greg said fondly, lifting Imogen down from the rail. "She was right as rain. Weren't you, squidgy? Might need a bit of lunch to perk her up."

"I didn't get travel sick either," Reese added, aside. "If anyone cares."

"Good," his mother said. "It's a miracle, staring so hard at that phone. Come and help your father with the cases."

Sighing, and with a show of pocketing his mobile, Reese slunk with great reluctance down the steps. His exit cleared his mother's view of the doors, and of the man waiting cautiously beside Greg. 

Surprise opened Lisa's face a little. She smiled at the stranger, uncomprehending and curious. Her eyes were Greg's eyes; they had all his honesty, his wide open heart.

Drawing a deep breath, Mycroft smiled in return.

Greg waited until she'd reached them.

"This is Lisa," he told Mycroft, as Lisa tidied the two middle children to one side, her gaze bright and friendly on Mycroft's face. "Lis, this... this is Mycroft."

As shock flooded Lisa's features, Mycroft's heart clenched tight.

"Oh!" she gasped, her eyes widening. She glanced at her brother. "The Mycroft?"

The last of Mycroft's breath seemed to vaporise. 

Beside him, Greg's face worked with amusement. "Lis, how many Mycrofts d'you think I know?" 

"Oh—no, I know," his sister said. "I just... I'm so pleased to..." 

Her expression crumpled with joy. 

"I'm just so glad," she gasped. Before another word could be said, she threw her arms around Mycroft's shoulders.

Mycroft's eyes closed at once, overwhelmed. She held him as tightly as Greg had—as if were family, precious to her. She'd had to stretch up onto her toes to reach him, trembling with the effort, but still she held him.

Aching, Mycroft lowered his height and put his arms around her.

"Lis," Greg said, somewhere outside their hug. His voice thickened with emotion. "Lis, you'll... l-let him breathe."

Lisa didn't move. She rubbed her hands in silence between Mycroft's shoulders, still trembling.

"I'm so glad," she said in his ear, so softly even Greg couldn't hear. These words were for Mycroft and no other in the world. "You brought him back. Gave him back to us. H-he was so unhappy. She was crippling him, killing him. Then he met you, and he just..." 

She shivered, tightening her hug.

"I'm so glad," she whispered again. "So glad. For you both. You're so welcome."

Mycroft quietly swallowed his heart, drawing breath to speak.

"He's my world," he whispered, his eyes still closed, and felt her start to cry—a single silent sob. "He's everything to me."

"H-he deserves to be happy."

"He does." A new hand appeared on Mycroft's back; gentle, stroking. Greg. "I'm overjoyed to meet you," Mycroft murmured in Lisa's ear. "I've heard so much."

She shivered again, laughing. "Hope it's all good."

"The very best," Mycroft promised her, amused. "Beyond compare."

As they eased gently apart, her eyes brimmed with tears. More welled up as she smiled at him, studying every inch of his face.

"I'm so glad," she whispered, one last time. "So bloody glad."

As one, they looked towards Greg. He'd watched them hug without a word, his eyes grown dark with a shine. At their combined glance, something in him seemed to break and the shine became silent, helpless tears.

Without a word they both gathered him into their arms.

As Mycroft cradled Greg against one shoulder, smiling, Lisa brushed her hands in slow circles on his back.

"Whaaaat is going on up there?" Reece asked, somewhere a hundred miles away. He was quickly corralled by some quiet reproach from his father. "Alright, alright. I'm just asking. Everybody suddenly crying..."

Greg huffed against Mycroft's shoulder, shaking. He reached up to push the tears from his eyes.

"S'alright, Reece," he called. "I'm just having a moment. Getting mushy in my old age."

"Mind your own beeswax, please," Lisa added. "And help your father with those cases. Get a shuffle on or we'll be standing here all day."

"You know slavery's illegal in this country?" Reece retorted. "Did they not cover that in O Levels?"

Lisa drew a breath, her eyes flashing with apology into Mycroft's. 

"We're so sorry about him," she said. "He's seventeen and he's god's gift to the world. We did warn him to behave this weekend."

"They're rarely anything else at that age," Mycroft reassured her, smiling. "It's quite alright. Do strangers bring out his performative side?"

Greg huffed, brushing the last few tears from his eyes. He and Lisa shared a weary look between them.

"Everything seems to bring out his performative side at the minute," Greg said. She agreed with a quiet sigh. "He's a performative soul. Something to say about everything."

"He'd better behave himself tonight," Lisa mumbled. "All your work friends..."

"Nah," Greg said, eyes brightening. "He'll be fine. He'll chill when all his cousins get here. Remind him he's not the only teenager walking the planet. Shall we, erm... shall we all get checked in? Get the cases upstairs?"

"Yes," Lisa said with a breath, beaming. "Of course, let's..." She looked around for the rest of her children. "Danny? Where's your—good, there you both are. Come on, the three of you. Let's head in."

 

*

 

The door of Greg's room hushed across the carpet, closed with a clunk and locked.

Greg turned to Mycroft at once.

"Please tell me that was alright," he said, pale. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. And I promise you on my knees that I've not told her a thing. She's just—"

Mycroft took hold of him by the collar. As Greg's back hit the wardrobe, it startled all the breath from him, his eyes flashing wide.

Mycroft replaced the words with his mouth.

Mine, he thought, aching. Every nerve stung with joy, his fingers tightening in Greg's collar. Mine, mine.

Greg shuddered beneath his kiss; relief rushed through his nose in a breath. He kissed Mycroft back, wrapping his arms around Mycroft's waist, and for the better part of five minutes no verbal discussion took place. They'd had eight days of talking, missing each other and wishing. There were far better ways to communicate.

I love you, Mycroft promised with each kiss and slow breath, each rumple of his fingers through Greg's hair. I'm perfectly alright. 

Greg's arms gently cradled him, hands gathered in his shirt. 

You promise? they seemed to asked.

I promise. Mycroft cupped his face, tilting his head to kiss him more deeply. Greg's shy shiver lit his heart. I promise you, my darling.

When their kiss came to an end, they didn't part. They stayed just as they were, their breath gathering in the space between their mouths, noses side by side as they shared a quiet smile.

"Happy birthday," Mycroft whispered.

Greg shivered as he grinned, letting out a breath. 

"I didn't tell her," he murmured. "I swear to you."

"I know you didn't, sweet. You don't need to swear a thing to me." Leaning closer, Mycroft gathered Greg into a gentler cuddle, petting the back of his head. "Your sister is extremely intuitive," he said softly. "She's... very attuned to you and your feelings. I'm not worried that she knows. She'd obviously guard your safety as fiercely as she'd guard her children's. I'm certain we're safe in her confidence."

Greg stayed quiet for a moment, simply holding Mycroft and resting against his cheek.

"What did you say to her?" he asked.

Mycroft's pulse bubbled. "A number of things."

"It... y-you made her cry."

"I did," Mycroft murmured. He kissed Greg's cheek, filling his chest with a breath. "She told me she's glad for us both, and that you deserve to be happy. I agreed with her entirely. And I told her I was very pleased to meet her at last."

Greg's hands raked over Mycroft's back, gripping him. 

"I love you," he breathed.

God help me.

"I love you, too." His heart pounding, Mycroft tightened his arms. He rocked Greg slowly as they breathed, stroking each other and shaking, trying to cope with the rush of it all. Together. Whole. Oh, god. "Please do not make me wait eight days again to hold you. I'm not sure how I managed."

"Never again," Greg whispered. "Christ, I promise you. If there's... work or... I-I don't know, but we'll figure something out. We won't do this again."

Mycroft closed his eyes, hoping to god it was true. Never. By all rights, that sort of promise should scare him. They'd known each other for months, not years, and only two months intimately. He didn't understand why all it brought him was relief.

Have faith, he thought. Not patience.

He drew a breath and let it be.

"I'm not sure how much you have to do before the party," Mycroft said. "If you're going to be busy, do say. But if you had an hour to spare... perhaps we could take a walk together?"

Greg smiled against his cheek. 

"'Course I've got an hour," he said, hugging Mycroft around the middle. "Got loads of time. People won't start arriving until seven."

 

*

 

Summer seemed to have transformed them into different woods, the sort of ancient forest where one might start to believe in folklore. The trees had erupted in a glorious abundance of emerald green, their thick cover creating walls and tunnels through the undergrowth, leading off into places unknown. Off the path, the cow parsley had reached almost knee height. Every leaf and flower and vine cast up its own scent, combining into a perfume which seemed heady, green and wild. Tiny insects skimmed and hovered in the air. 

Mycroft could somehow feel it all living, growing.

Two minutes down the path, Greg paused beside him and checked over their shoulder. No voices could be heard; they were for now alone.

"What?" Mycroft said, holding his breath.

Greg cast him a look of dark-eyed mischief.

"C'mon." He seized Mycroft's hand, pulling him off the path into the trees. "This way! Quick!"

They raced their way through the greenery like children, panting and grinning, their hands clasped tight. Their hold didn't break, even when they staggered. They batted swaying branches aside with their hands and kept running until they spotted daylight once more, glinting far ahead through the leaves.

Though it was only a quiet hillside, swathed in an ocean of wild grass, it might as well have been Narnia. They hurried a short distance from the forest's boundaries, waist deep together in the grass, then settled on the ground beneath the bows of a solitary oak tree, safe within its roots.

"Can we be seen?" Mycroft asked, breathless, gazing through the wild grass towards the trees. 

"No. No, m'sure of it." Greg's arm eased around Mycroft's waist. "Nobody in the world knows where we are."

The thought filled Mycroft's soul with joy. He couldn't remember the last time in his life he'd felt like this, so completely and perfectly free. Only the oak and the long grass knew their hiding place. They were two young foxes in a den, safe from every threat in the world.

Mycroft glanced into Greg's eyes, overcome, and found a look of desperate hope there waiting for him. 

Mycroft smiled, shivering.

Greg's expression grew soft.

"This is the best feeling in the world," he said, searching Mycroft's face. "Alone like this. With you. Sometimes it feels like this is the only real feeling. All the rest's just... noise."

Mycroft's heart began to bang against his ribs, wild and overwhelmed with understanding.

"I'm not myself without you," he said. As he spoke, Greg cupped his face with shaking hands, staring into his eyes. "I was, once. I felt complete in my own right. Now I don't understand how I ever could have. When you're gone, I... I feel..."

His voice faded into nothing, lost.

Inhaling, Greg wet his lips. 

"I know," he murmured. "I know, darlin'. I feel it, too. I feel like someone up there wants us to be happy."

Mycroft's heart clenched. He did not believe in a god; he did not believe in fate. He didn't believe that the outcome of his life was somehow destined, and he wasn't sure he'd want to live in a world where it was. 

But when he looked into Greg's eyes, he saw his future gazing back at him, begging.

The force of it jammed in his throat.

We are inherently compatible, he rationalised, his heart pounding. Deeply and powerfully compatible. On some... some biological, inexpressible level. So long as something of Mycroft Holmes existed in this world, it would long to draw close to Greg Lestrade. It would want them to be together. Whether it worked through God's will or their own will, Mycroft didn't care.

He touched Greg's jaw, shaking, and realised the moment had come.

"There's... s-something I want to give you," he said, inhaling. "A gift. It's not strictly for your birthday. I do have gifts for you, upstairs in my room, but... well, the occasion seems... i-it feels like a good opportunity to give you this one."

Greg said nothing, watching Mycroft's eyes from just inches away.

His fingers trembling, Mycroft reached into his back pocket. 

"This comes with no obligation," he said, retrieving the item he'd kept on his person for days now. "It's not a... a demand upon your time or your freedom. But it's yours, to have if you want."

As Greg glanced down between them, and saw the square jewellery box in Mycroft's hand, he appeared to stop breathing.

"Myc," he said. His mouth opened a little and he swallowed, searching Mycroft's face. "Myc, I..."

Mycroft eased the lid from the box, offering it out.

Greg looked down.

As he laid eyes on his contents, a strange smile broke over his face. He reached into the box, picked up the silver key, and turned it in his palm. Attempting to soften this gift with jocularity, Mycroft had attached a small red bow to its ring. He'd hoped it would make it seem less serious, less demanding; now he wondered if he'd over-trivialised this gesture of love.

His heart thumped as Greg examined the key, rubbing his thumb along its teeth.

"It's for the door to my flat," Mycroft explained tentatively.

Greg looked up into his face; his eyes shone, dark and bright at once.

"I, erm... I-I don't want to get this wrong," he said. "I don't want to make things awkward. Get giddy over something you're not saying. What does this mean?"

Mycroft's throat squeezed. 

"That you can be with me whenever you wish," he said. "That you don't need to ask."

Greg drew a breath. "Do you mean... all the time?"

"As much time as you'd want to," Mycroft whispered, staring into his eyes. "I... I don't want you to think I'm... th-this isn't necessarily a symbol, Greg. It's simply an offer."

Something flickered across Greg's face, something that almost became a smile. 

"Darlin'," he said, "is this Shrodinger's door key? You're both asking and not asking me to move in with you?"

Oh, god.

"I-it's perhaps more Pascal's door key," Mycroft said, shaking, "in that the deciding judgement is very much out of my hands."

Greg's expression crumpled with humour, a helpless smile breaking through. 

"This is the most you present I could ever imagine," he said. "You know that? I love it. Hard to put into words, how much I..." 

He searched Mycroft's eyes, his gaze perfectly soft.

"Would you be happy?" he asked. "With what I chose, I mean? Whatever I chose."

Barely breathing, Mycroft nodded. 

"There's no obligation," he said.

Greg's smile grew. "Can I think about it over the weekend?"

Mycroft swallowed past the dryness of his throat. "Yes," he said, exhaling. "Y-yes, of course. And the key is yours to... well, it's yours. To use as you wish. My home is... i-it's open to you, Greg."

Greg placed the key with care back inside its box.

"Thank you, beautiful," he said. "It means a lot."

His fingers still shaking, Mycroft eased the lid back on with care. He guided the tiny box into Greg's hands. Something now seemed to be lodged inside his chest, something he hadn't expressed with any accuracy—affection that he'd failed to put across—but he didn't dare to say anything more. He feared that he'd already said too much.

Distressed, wishing that he'd chosen a better moment, he said the words he knew were true and safe.

"I love you, Greg."

Slipping the box into his pocket, Greg gathered Mycroft closer. 

"I love you too," he murmured. "C'mere, darlin'. Hug me. I love you to bits and I've missed you like mad for eight days."

They flattened a little of the grass beneath the tree, laid down on their sides and cuddled as if they were in bed, Mycroft's head cushioned gently on Greg's outstretched arm, the other holding him close. As they kissed, the wild grass stirred around them in the breeze. Its whispering seemed as full of purpose and meaning as any language, simply one that Mycroft didn't speak. If he'd had to guess at its message, he would have said reassurance.

Greg's fingertips trailed with love along his jaw.

"Been looking forward to tonight for two months," he whispered, his kisses soft and sweet. "Now it's here, all I wanna do is stay with you."

Aching, Mycroft returned each tiny kiss.

"I wish I could be selfless enough to protest," he said.

He felt Greg smile against his lips.

"Probably a bit weird," Greg murmured, "if I don't show up at my own birthday party."

"Mm. It's a bold break from tradition. Questions might be asked."

"Yeah. And I don't know if 'I was kissing my boyfriend in a field' would cut it."

Mycroft gave a soft snort of amusement, helpless but to smile. "We could kiss in the field tomorrow," he suggested. "Bring a rug, perhaps. Make a day of it."

"Mm?" Greg hummed, cupping him blatantly by the arse. "That might work."

"Then you'll have the best of both worlds," Mycroft said, dotting kisses between words. "Your adoring friends and family this evening. Your adoring boyfriend tomorrow."

Greg's smile became a grin. 

"See, this is why I need you," he said. "Think of all the daft decisions I'd make otherwise. I'd be a disaster."

For a moment, Mycroft could almost feel Lisa's arms around his shoulders again. Her words echoed in his ears, soft with joy. 'You brought him back. Gave him back to us.' 

Lifting his head, he laid a kiss between Greg's eyes.

"You make wonderful decisions," he whispered. "I'm honoured to be one of them."

Greg made some quiet sound, moved.

"Don't be a stranger tonight, will you?" he said. "Come chat to me. We can keep a lid on it all. You don't need to avoid me or anything."

A small twinge pulled at Mycroft's heart. "I don't want anyone outside your family to grow suspicious of our friendship," he said. 

"Me neither," Greg mumbled. "Not yet. But so long as we're not pawing at each other, we'll be alright... won't we?" 

He hesitated, kissing Mycroft's nose.

"Just don't want to miss you all night," he said. "That's all. Not after missing you all week."

Mycroft's insides seemed to squirm. After a moment's uncertainty, he said, 

"I shan't avoid you on purpose. I... won't feel comfortable monopolising your time, not with so many other people there. I don't want to draw attention to myself. But I'll keep my skulking in corners to a minimum."

Huffing, Greg gave him a small smile. 

"Don't even know if that many'll be turning up," he said. "I had a lot of verbal yesses, but... well, you never know with these things. It's easy to say yes to something weeks in advance. Then the day itself rolls round, and you've got a thousand better things to do..."

Mycroft doubted somehow that would be the case. He couldn't speak for all of Greg's acquaintances, but he knew that he made friends with ease. If Greg was anywhere near as popular as he was likeable, there would be plenty of people vying for his attention tonight.

And at the end of it all, Mycroft thought in a rush, you'll be mine. I'll be the one you fall asleep beside. The one who kisses you good morning.

He feared that would always feel a little unreal.

Gently he kissed Greg's cheek.

"I gather these events rely more on the quality of guests," he said, "than the quantity. Five good friends are far more valuable than fifty mediocre ones."

"Yeah?" Greg said, smiling. He brushed a blade of grass from Mycroft's hair. "I hope you're right."

 

Chapter Text

Though the invitation said seven o'clock, guests began to arrive from six. 

By half past, the bar became so crowded that the hotel opened the terrace ahead of schedule.

"I didn't realise this was such a big event," Ananya said with delight at two minutes to seven, handing Mycroft their first white wine of the evening. "I had no idea so many people were coming."

"Nor did I," Mycroft admitted. He scanned the chatting crowd as he took a sip: women, men, older people, younger people, parents with excited little ones already straining towards the bouncy castle. "I'm not sure Greg did, either. He's possibly going to get a shock."

"Has he not come down yet?"

"Not yet." Though his voice was unlikely to carry above the chatter, Mycroft kept his volume for Ananya's ears only. "We decided to stagger our arrival. I believe he's currently helping to persuade four children into party clothes."

Ananya huffed and brushed her hair behind one ear, her gold bangles glittering in the evening sun. She'd attired herself immaculately; then, Ananya never required more than a black dress and a misting of Chanel to turn heads. Mycroft had already clocked a number of ardent glances from other guests.

"At least we won't need to worry about keeping a low profile," she said. "All these people."

Mycroft's stomach tugged. Greg would probably struggle even to spot him in this crowd, let alone find time to speak to him.

For the best, he told himself and drank.

"I met Greg's sister," he said after a moment. "Her husband and children, too."

"Which sister?"

"Lisa. The one he's closest to."

"Did you?" Ananya asked, pleasantly surprised.

"Mm. She's a delight, as are her family." Mycroft watched two men across the terrace greet each other with joy, laughing as they hugged—gripping each other, back-thumping and swaying. "Lisa is highly intuitive. She, ah... she's seen past the apparent veil of friendship."

Ananya cast a half-smile in his direction, her gaze thoughtful. 

"And how are we feeling about that?" she asked.

Mycroft inhaled, watching the men introduce their female partners. 

"I'm sure she'll be very discreet," he said. "Greg clearly means the world to her. She wouldn't want to see him embarrassed."

"Not quite what I asked," Ananya noted, nudging his elbow. "But full marks for the audacity to try slipping that past me."

Mycroft took a drink. "You'd think that after twenty years of practice I'd be getting better at it, not worse."

"We're feeling conflicted about something, are we?"

"As a rule, for humans," Mycroft said. "Otherwise you and I would be very poor and very bored."

Ananya hummed, sipping her wine. "Are you nervous to be visible? Or nervous to be invisible?"

Mycroft glanced down into his wine.

"Yes," he said, and drained it. 

Applause broke out across the terrace. As cheers went up, Mycroft and Ananya turned towards the noise. Greg had arrived on the scene. Lisa and her family were with him, little Imogen carried in his arms, her bright yellow dress puffed out with voluminous petticoats. At the sight of the crowd awaiting him, Greg's eyes blew wide. Three cheers went up. He started to laugh, visibly mouthing, "You're kidding me." 

People drifted forwards, offering hugs and congratulations—greeting Imogen, admiring her dress—and they disappeared from sight. 

Mycroft realised he was gripping his wine glass. He loosened his hold, inhaling in silence, and slid his phone from inside his suit jacket.

"You don't have any emails," Ananya murmured. "You didn't ten minutes ago, and you still don't now."

Mycroft bit the inside of his cheek. "How will we be certain unless I check?"

"Do you need another drink to settle you?"

"I'm perfectly settled already, thank you. But in celebration of my vague acquaintance's fiftieth birthday, I shall indeed have another drink. Are you ready for—"

Ananya raised an eyebrow over her mostly full glass.

"Then you're owed one," Mycroft said. "Excuse me a moment."

 

*

 

Holy shit. All these people. 

Greg kept thinking there must have been some mistake. The hotel had clearly double-booked his birthday on the same night as someone's wedding. But the more he looked around, the more he realised this was actually happening. He recognised almost every face. Those he didn't know were being eagerly brought over introduced to him, partners and family he'd never met. Retired workmates he hadn't seen for years were here. It looked like all three of his brothers had shown up, kids and partners in tow.

This was insane.

Greg scanned through the crowd between hugs and happy greetings, hoping for a glimpse of red hair and blue-grey suit—just one glance for reassurance. He could see Ananya tucked away by the open doors to the terrace, sipping wine by herself, no Mycroft in sight. It seemed odd. Greg would have thought they'd be together.

He offered Ananya a wave, his expression questioning. 

"Where's—?" he mouthed.

Ananya gave a fond roll of her eyes, shaking her head.

Right, Greg thought, his pulse flickering. Well, that's...

"Greg," a voice said from nearby, patting a hand on Greg's shoulder. "Happy birthday, man."

Greg only recognised Paul halfway through the hug. He tore his attention from Ananya on the terrace, hugging back, and pulled a grin into place.

"Thanks for coming, mate. Glad you made it. Really good to see you."

"No problem," Paul said, half-shrug and half-smile, his eyes bright. "Looks like it'll be a great party. You're from a big family, huh?"

"Christ, yeah," Greg said. "There's tons of us. I should've done name badges, shouldn't I? Just watch out for anybody called Lestrade. They're the troublemakers."

Paul huffed. 

"Sure I can work my way around," he said. He glanced up towards the terrace doors, where Ananya stood watching the crowd. "You've got some nice friends."

"The best," said Greg. "Hands down. You wouldn't excuse me just a second, would you? I'm trying to track somebody down."

"Not at all," Paul said. "Enjoy yourself. I'll catch you later."

When Greg had finally worked his way over to her, Ananya smiled and draped one slender arm around his neck.

"Happy birthday, Greg," she murmured, kissing his cheek. "Thank you so much for inviting me."

"M'glad you could come," Greg said. "You look great. Never seen you all glammed up before."

Ananya chuckled, glancing down at the accidental match between her dress and his shirt.

"Smart-casual black," she said, dropping a wink. "Hides a thousand sins."

"What sins are these?" Greg laughed. "Mine or yours?"

"All mine, Greg. I promise you."

"Good to hear. Hey, d'you know where—"

"Uncle G?" came a call. Greg inhaled and glanced around to find Reece at the foot of the terrace steps, lounging against an ornamental stone plinth full of flowers. "I've been sent to ask if you'll come formally open the bouncy castle. Apparently there's a queue."

Right.

I'll just... catch you later, then.

"Duty calls," Greg told Ananya, smiling. She toasted him. "'Scuse me."

 

*

 

Lisa's husband, Ed, was a surgeon. He wasn't much of a party animal, he confessed to Mycroft, sitting in a corner of the bar with his youngest tucked close against his side. Imogen had a stuffed yellow rabbit with her, quite probably acquired to match the dress. She quietly smoothed its fur as her father talked, lost in some tiny little world of her own.

They made reassuring company to sit with.

"Lisa's family are wonderful," Ed said, watching his daughter with a smile. "They're... tremendously welcoming. Lovely, friendly people. Don't get me wrong. I do have to pace myself, though. They can be a lot to take in all at once."

Mycroft smiled, understanding entirely. "Rather easy to end up swept away."

"Yes. Yes, it is sometimes." Ed looked up, his tawny gaze fond. "Greg's always stood out, though. He and Lisa are cut from the same cloth, I think."

Mycroft didn't know why he liked it so much: that quiet, gentle assurance.

"They seem remarkably close for siblings," he said, taking a sip of his wine. 

"Oh, they are. They've always been close. To be candid, I'm not sure I could have lived all that happily with the other three brothers. They're..." 

Sighing, Ed shook his head. 

"Well, they're big personalities," he said. "They're not as switched on to the needs of other people."

"Not as attuned to the quiet harmony of family life?" Mycroft suggested.

"Mhm." Ed smiled down at his daughter, watching her bounce her rabbit gently across her lap. "We like our harmony, sweetheart, don't we?"

Imogen nodded. She drew a deep breath, then she stretched up for the privacy of her father's ear and whispered something to him, hiding her face behind her rabbit.

Her question made her father smile. 

"He's Uncle Greg's best friend," he said. "He's called Mycroft. You met him outside the hotel, do you remember?"

Mycroft's heart gave a tiny hop. He kept his expression clean, trying his hardest not to follow the discussion.

Imogen asked her father something else, glancing warily at Mycroft over her shoulder.

"Well, maybe," her father told her, his voice gentle. "If your uncle wants to ask him, he might come over for lunch one Sunday. But that's Uncle Greg's business, isn't it? You don't get to decide."

Imogen nodded, sinking in her seat.

"Good girl," her father murmured, and he hugged her around the shoulders. "I can smell food, can you? I think we'll be having something to eat soon."

Smoothing her rabbit's ears to lie flat, Imogen drew a weary sigh.

"I hope so," she said. "It's noisy, Daddy. I don't like parties."

I quite agree, Mycroft thought with a breath.

 

*

 

By the time Uncle Greg was permitted to escape the bouncy castle, paper plates of food had appeared throughout the crowd.

"I thought I'd fetch you some," Lisa said with amusement, watching him drain a pint of cider as if it were fresh water. "That's the problem when you're hosting, isn't it? Too busy circulating, thanking everyone for coming. Ed and I didn't even get cake at our wedding. Cut the thing for photos then rushed straight off again."

Greg threw three mini sausage rolls into his mouth, casting his eye across the terrace as he chewed. He could see Ananya, sitting at a table under a sun umbrella and chatting happily to Paul, broad and bashful in his suit beside her. She seemed to be swiping strawberries off his plate; it looked like he didn't mind.

There was no sign of the face Greg wanted to see.

Where the hell are you? he thought, his heartbeat fast. He washed his mouthful down with more cider.

"Have you seen much of Myc?" he asked Lisa.

"A little," she said. "He was queuing for food with Ed and Imogen, last I saw."

Really? Greg supposed that was something. So long as he's not somewhere on his own.

"I might go check on them," he said. "See if Midgie's alright. Must be making her nervous, all these people." 

He swept a handful of crisps from Lisa's plate into his mouth. 

"Thanks, Lis," he said, chewing, and hurried off. "You're a star."

Halfway to the terrace, someone stepped into Greg's path.

"Greg!" the figure half-roared, throwing an arm around Greg's neck. He was three sheets to the wind already; he'd gained at least a stone since Greg last saw him. "C'mere! The big five-oh, eh? How's it feel? I'll be catching you up soon! Happy birthday!"

"Heh—thanks, Si. You alright? How's the family?"

Greg's younger brother scoffed and snorted at once, producing a sort of drunken raspberry.

"Same old," he said. "Kids costing me money. Wife costing me money. Hey, I was sorry to hear about you and old Helly. She was a peach. She'd've loved a big party like this."

Jesus. 

"Ah—yeah, you know she cheated on me?" Greg said, biting his tongue. "Then she stalked me for four months."

Simon waved a hand. 

"Those long hours you work, mate," he said. "Bound to happen." 

He belched loudly, then thumped himself in the middle of the chest.

"F'you don't keep 'em happy," he sighed, "they'll start messing around first chance they get, women. S'like dogs chewing up the sofa. Can't leave 'em on their own all day long."

Greg drew a deep breath.

"Sure," he said, flashing his brother a tight smile. "Thanks for the advice. I'll try harder next time. 'Scuse me."

As he hurried on towards the terrace, he pretended not to hear Simon's disgruntled call after him: "I wasn't being funny!"

The bar was busy with people, gathered around the tiny wooden tables to eat. Greg greeted them as he passed, smiling, trying not to look like he was making a bee-line for the far corner table, where a familiar figure sat talking with the forensics lot from Scotland Yard. He stopped to say a quick hello to a cousin who'd come down from Norwich, hugged an auntie who was nearly as drunk as Si, then at long last finally reached his prize.

He joined the table in the gap between Mycroft and Ed, resting his hand on Mycroft's back.

"How's everybody getting on?" he addressed the forensics team, grinning. Mycroft stiffened under his palm, then relaxed upon recognising his touch and his voice. "You lot been on the bouncy castle yet? I've only just got off it. Apparently I've got to let all the other boys and girls have a go."

As the forensics lot laughed, offering congratulations and happy birthday to him, Greg's mouth thanked them all on auto-pilot. All he could really feel was the suit material beneath his hand, the familiar shoulder underneath it—this silent connection in a roomful of people. 

I wish they knew, he thought. Wish they knew they're sitting with the guest of honour. Not just a stranger. Not just some friend.

"You've all got plenty to eat, yeah?" he said, glancing at their plates. He squeezed Mycroft's shoulder gently. "You're out of cheese puffs, Mycroft. Come get some more."

Mycroft pushed back his chair, rising in obedience. 

"See you all in a minute," Greg promised the rest of the table, waving. To a chorus of well wishes, they departed towards the queue for the buffet.

Greg waited to speak until they were standing in line. He took two glasses of white wine from a passing tray, thanked the server, and put one in Mycroft's hand.

"You alright?" he asked.

Mycroft took the glass rather gratefully, drinking from it at once. 

"Yes," he said. "Quite alright." He didn't seem to be meeting Greg's eyes, standing a little too far away. "Are you enjoying your party? It looks to be a roaring success."

"Wish I'd seen more of you," Greg admitted. "Everyone seems to be having a nice time, though. Getting along well." 

Smiling, he nudged Mycroft's elbow.

"Oi," he said. "Look at me."

Mycroft gave him a wary glance, then busied himself with another mouthful of wine.

"You're allowed to look as if you know me," Greg said, trying not to worry. "It's more suspicious if you stand there like you're afraid I'm gonna bite you."

Mycroft huffed with reluctance, then offered him a glance of apology.

"I'm aware I'm overcompensating," he murmured. "But I'd rather that, than risk embarrassing you by—"

The handshake came from nowhere.

"Greg..." Paul had joined them at the end of the queue. He took hold of Greg's hand and shook it firmly, three times. "I'm sorry. I can't help it. Damn, you bowled a perfect game right there."

Startled, Greg tried a nervous grin.

"Sorry?" he said, as Paul let go of his hand. "What've I missed?"

Paul glanced over his shoulder towards the terrace.

"Out there?" he said, raising an eyebrow. "'Just an old friend', works in therapy? You're punching above your weight, man. Congratulations. Seriously. That girl's out of this world."

He offered a hand out to Mycroft.

"Paul Chelsham," he said. "Nice to meet you."

As they shook, Greg's skidding brain finally caught up. 

Oh! Jesus—no—

"This is Paul," he said quickly to Mycroft, who had turned slightly pale. "From work—he's been helping me with the, erm... mate, d'you mean Ananya?"

Paul inhaled, shaking his head. 

"Damn, that's a lady," he breathed. "I can't even look at you right now."

"You've got the wrong end of the stick," Greg said. "That's... okay, I can see where you're getting it, but—"

"Do excuse me," Mycroft murmured to the two of them. He smiled tightly at Paul. "Dr Mycroft Holmes. A pleasure."

As he moved away across the room, not looking back, Greg's heart seemed to drop into his shoes.

"Did I interrupt something?" Paul checked, cautiously.

Christ.

"No," Greg said, drawing a breath. He tried not to watch Mycroft go. "No, mate. And I'm not with Ananya. That's not her. We're not... there's nothing going on between me and Ananya. She's genuinely just a friend."

"You're kidding," Paul said, and stared at him. "That's not your girl?"

"No. Not in any way, shape or form."

"Okay." Paul hesitated. "She's not wearing a ring."

"I guess not," Greg said.

"She got a boyfriend?"

"Erm. She's never mentioned one." Supposing someone's love life might as well thrive at this party, Greg shrugged. "Find out."

Paul reached up, loosening his shirt collar with a finger. 

"Best birthday I've ever had," he said. "And it's not even my birthday."

Greg laughed, hoping it sounded more convincing than it felt.

 

*

 

As Mycroft strode towards her across the terrace, Ananya glanced up from her phone. Her gaze relaxed as she recognised him.

"Where have you been?" she asked with a smile. "I've decided what I want from the buffet. He's coming back at any moment. Sit down and say hello. You can vet him for me."

"He thinks Greg is fucking you," Mycroft said flatly. He picked up Ananya's wine and her handbag. "He's just congratulated Greg with a handshake. Please come and drink with me somewhere."

Ananya's face fell. 

"Did you correct him?" she asked.

Mycroft bit down into his tongue. 

"Strangely, no," he said. "I did not leap in and clarify that in fact I am the illicit lover secretly in attendance at this party, not you. I thought it best not to establish that in front of everyone queueing for the buffet. Please come and drink. This is not a request."

"Where are we going?" Ananya sighed, standing up.

"Somewhere. I don't particularly care."

 

*

 

"Reece, mate—d'you remember my friend Mycroft from this morning?"

Reece looked up from his plate of chicken nuggets, swirling one vaguely in a blob of mixed ketchup and mayonnaise. He was sitting on the steps of the terrace, looking surprisingly sharp in his first ever suit.

"With the tie?" he said. "Yeah, I remember ten hours ago. My memory's not that bad."

"Have you seen him recently?" Greg asked. "He should've come this way about five minutes ago. Might've had a woman in a black dress with him. I'm trying to find where he's gone."

Reece chewed, shaking his head. "Sorry, Uncle G. Don't think so." 

Greg drew a breath, resisting the urge to sigh. Damn, I should've just told you yes. Told you I'll move in. Not tried to...

"How come Mum was hugging him this morning?" Reece asked, and Greg blinked out of his thoughts to find his nephew surveying him with enormous interest. "What's she so glad about?"

Christ, Greg thought. We're not doing this now. 

"If you see him," he said, "just tell him that I'm looking for him, alright?"

Reece huffed, picking up another chicken nugget. "How'd you two meet?"

Greg's pulse seemed to skip. 

"Through work," he said. "He was a professional witness on one of my cases in court. I had to give evidence too, and we got chatting in between sessions."

"Weird," Reece remarked, dark-eyed. "I heard him telling Auntie Sarah that you go to the same gym."

"Yep," Greg said stiffly. "We do. And when we met at the gym, we recognised each other from back in court."

Reece's gaze glittered.

"Yeah?" he said. "I just made that up."

Greg took another long and silent breath. 

"Reece," he said quietly, "some time this week, you and me and your mum'll sit down and have a really, really good talk about this. Right? Until then, you can just keep your nose out."

His nephew shrugged, chewing. 

"Fine," Reece said. "None of my business what you do."

"Good. If you see him—"

"Yeah, yeah. Tell him you're looking for him. I got it. Oh, by the way. Mum's looking for you. Something about when we should do cake."

 

*

 

The sun was beginning to set, melting in pink and gold above the hills. The forest behind them was full of birdsong, tiny voices singing out the last of a beautiful day.

Ananya passed Mycroft the bottle of rosé they'd brought with them for company, guiding it dimly into his hand.

Mycroft drank. He wished they'd not brought rosé; this felt like toasting a coffin with a glass of Pepsi Max. He drank until the vinegar burn in his throat didn't taste of anything, just a pink and fuzzy numbness, and he no longer minded that it was rosé.

He handed back the bottle.

"Do you remember doing this up at Arthur's Seat?" Ananya murmured. "When we were students."

Mycroft's heart wrenched quietly at his ribs. He remembered. He'd been so sure of himself then, preparing to stride forth and do battle with the human mind—to dissect his own heart, conquer his own humanity. His father had wanted him to own the world; Mycroft was going to own them by understanding them. So the plan had run, at least.

He missed those days.

Gazing numbly at the skyline, Mycroft drew a breath.

"I don't think I should have come to the party," he said.

Ananya frowned up at him, laying in the grass at his side. "Why?" she said.

It took Mycroft a while to respond, thinking of Greg in his open-collared black shirt, laughing, other people's arms around his shoulders.

"It's one thing to love him," Mycroft said at last. "His face, his voice. The things he says when we're alone."

He looked down into the grass.

"Another to love his family," he mumbled. "To... love seeing him be loved. Witness the fullness of his life and find it unfathomably wonderful."

"And yet feel distant from it?"

"Mmh."

"You know there's no reason for you to feel that way? Nobody else at the p—"

"I can ignore what other people expect me to feel," Mycroft said, annoyed. "This is not about other people. This is about the neurotic flashing light in my head which I can't ignore and can't switch off. It will flash for at least three bloody years before it even dims. I'm allowed to be distressed."

Ananya laid a hand very gently on his knee. 

"You want happy ever after, don't you?" she murmured. "Friends and family. Normal togetherness." 

Exhausted tears rose up in Mycroft's eyes. Too tired to push them away, he held out a hand for the bottle.

Ananya didn't give it to him.

"Are you worried you don't deserve that?" she said. "Is that why you don't like that she's gone?"

Mycroft swallowed, snapping a few stalks from the grass. "I no longer wish to discuss this."

"She was a fury," Ananya murmured. "Pursuing you for your crime. Such a thing seemed just and right. But now there's only happiness, perfectly within your reach, and it frightens you to reach out for it."

Mycroft's throat seized around the words. He told himself they were sounds, nothing more—clumps of letters formed together by his vocal cords—and forced them out.

"He'd be a laughing stock," he said. "With me. With his..." 

He breathed in hard, pushing his hands back over his face. 

"I do not care," he muttered. "This is navel-gazing. I'll torture myself about this three years from now, when there's even the smallest possibility we could do something about it. Until then it's a pointless discussion."

"Talking about what hurts is pointless, is it?" Ananya said. "I'll tell your clients that. I'm sure they'll beg to differ."

Mycroft bit the inside of his cheek. "What I want won't be achieved by talking."

"Not with me," Ananya hummed. "No."

She reached across, patted his leg, and sat up.

"I'm going back to the party," she said, as she brushed the dusty grass seeds off her dress. "If you're not back at the hotel before it's dark, I'll tell Greg that you're out here. He will leave his own birthday party to search the woods and rescue you. And you'll feel guilty for making him do that, so..."

She shrugged.

"Come back before dark," she said. She picked up her shoes, then the bottle of wine. "I'm taking this with me. You're welcome."

She sauntered slowly back towards the trees, her long hair trailing in the wind. It swayed like the wild grass all around her, easy, and for a moment Mycroft wished he could uninstall the software in his heart. He wanted to replace it with hers, and walk that calmly in the world: to live as part of it, not just analyse from the outside, watching the people through the glass like beautiful fish.

Mycroft waited, gathering courage, until she'd almost reached the trees.

"Ananya?" he shouted, gripping the grass in both hands.

Ananya didn't look round. "Listen to him, Mycroft. Properly."

She stepped out of sight into the forest.

 

*

 

As fifty fluttering candles came towards him, Greg tried to forget what was missing. He'd never had so many people in one room who all cared about him. Scotland Yard, true to form, were milking the moment for all its worth, leading the room in the most ringing and harmonic version of Happy Birthday anyone had ever heard. Most of his family were laughing too hard to sing; even the staff at the bar had doubled over. Imogen, right at the front in her puffy yellow dress, was beaming from ear to ear and clapping along, excited by the candles and the singing. 

Greg grinned right back at them, cheeks burning, and did his best not to search through their faces. Myc was at the back somewhere, he told himself—here, smiling and proud, just out of sight. He was trying to make this easier for Greg. They'd talk after the party, then lie in bed all day tomorrow, blow away eight days of distance. I'll move in, Greg would tell him, kissing him. Just promise me this is what you really want, okay? Not just what you think I want. Don't let me rush you off your feet.

He almost wished it had been a bloody engagement ring. 

As Lisa laid the enormous cake down, beaming in the darkened bar, Greg caught Midgie's round-eyed gaze through the candles.

"Hey," he whispered, beckoning. "C'mere."

She hesitated, shy, gripping her new bunny in both arms.

"I need your help," Greg stage-whispered, his heart pummeling itself apart. Know where I am with you. Can't fuck up being an uncle. Can't possibly love you too much. "I can't blow all these out by myself. You've gotta back me up here."

Midgie crept forwards, grinning, her face washed in candlelight.

As they breathed in together, Lisa squeezed Greg's shoulder.

"Make a wish," she murmured.

Greg's stomach twisted, tight.

Wish you were here.

As the last candle stuttered out, the room around him erupted into applause. Scotland Yard commenced the second of their orchestral pieces: For He's A Jolly Good Fellow, sung at a volume which rattled the bottles behind the bar.

Greg laughed with them all, letting it fill up his heart.

 

*

 

Mycroft hurried through the darkening gardens towards the terrace, trying his best to seem hastened but not drunk. In truth, he felt a great deal of both. He'd not eaten enough; he'd not breathed enough. He rather wished he could rewind the last few hours and make a far better attempt of them.

As he approached the steps of the terrace, the seventeen-year-old sitting there looking up from his sizeable slab of cake.

"Mycroft!" Reece burst out, swallowing. He wiped crumbs hurriedly off his suit. "Shit—sorry—he's looking for you. Uncle G."

He gestured towards the open doors.

"Probably still up in the bar?" he said. "They're handing out cake. You should go get some, it's mint. Well, it's chocolate and raspberry."

A little breathless, Mycroft gave a stiff nod.

"Thank you," he said, stepping past. 

Reece's voice called him back. "You're, erm... you're together, right?"

God help me.

Inhaling, Mycroft turned back around. 

"Together in what manner?" he inquired.

"I mean... y'know," Reece said, shrugging. "You and Uncle G. I know people think I'm stupid."

"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," Mycroft said, inwardly begging himself to be nice. Teenagers rarely offered a chance at a first impression, let alone a second. "I'm one of many friends your uncle has. And given your uncle's divorce, you could cause him a lot of trouble by jumping to conclusions about his private life. Please excuse me."

He strode away before Reece could complicate things any further, hurrying through the double doors into the bar. 

Most of the guests had gathered inside for cake, chatting and eating in small groups. Mycroft passed Ananya, who pointedly ignored him, continuing to talk to the small circle of women she'd joined. He passed Lisa cleaning up her two middle children with a wet wipe, both of whom had somehow smeared chocolate all over their hands. He then passed Ed, painfully trapped in conversation with a dishevelled and drunken man who had the Lestrade eyes but was currently struggling to focus them.

Greg was holding court near the cake table, surrounded by a large gathering of Scotland Yard officers. Mycroft faltered on first sight of them, then drew a quick breath and pressed on, approaching the cake table and the uniformed waitress ready to serve him. As she handed him a piece, flagpoled with a plastic fork, he smiled and thanked her quietly.

He then cautiously joined the outer edges of the circle, wishing his pulse would settle into some kind of rhythm.

Greg spotted him almost immediately. It hurt to see. Greg's face flashed with urgent and almost nervous recognition, gone in an instant as the loud and boisterous conversation of Scotland Yard continued around them. Previously leading the discussion, Greg settled back into listening and laughing along. Mycroft quietly ate his cake, shaking a little, smiling along with in-jokes he couldn't even begin to understand, meeting every one of Greg's quick and hopeful glances across the circle. A few people joined; more people left and the circle shrank. Greg spotted someone at the edges of the group without cake, left to personally acquire them a piece, then rejoined the circle with a second slice of his own—at Mycroft's side.

They didn't speak, simply stood together and followed the conversation. Mycroft took Greg's cues to laugh. When Mycroft's plate was empty, Greg held his own subtly inbetween them, offering with no need for words. 

Smiling, Mycroft cut a small triangle free with his fork.

He ate it, quietly proud at Greg's side.

 

*

 

"Where'd you go?" Greg asked, hidden in a corner of the terrace ten minutes later. The staff were lighting the torches and the fire-pit; trays of marshmallow and biscuit skewers were laid out ready. 

"Air," Mycroft murmured. "With Ananya. I'm so sorry. I didn't realise how much this would affect me."

"It's alright," Greg said at once, his gaze soft. He tapped his wine glass against the bottom of Mycroft's pint of water. "Let's have some more of this into you. You get reflective and self-pitying when you're drunk. S'not good for you."

Mycroft trembled slightly, drinking, keeping his eyes down. When he'd finished half the glass, he pressed the back of his hand to his mouth and dried away the dampness.

"I fear I'm in need of my descaler tablet," he confessed.

Greg's smile grew into a grin, bright in the shadows. "Yeah? Well, you're overdue."

He glanced towards the open doors of the bar, noise and light pouring out into the darkness. The other guests were busy having cake and talking. None of them cared.

"Just keep thinking about breakfast tomorrow," Greg murmured, looking into Mycroft's eyes. "You'll have me all to yourself again. Like it should be."

Mycroft took another long drink, swallowing hard.

"I love you," he whispered, barely audible. "I... I don't tell you enough."

"Darlin'—"

"I mean it, Greg. I don't. A-and I should share with you. More often with you. Even those things I..."

Greg smiled, tapping the bottom of his glass again.

"Water, please," he said. "Then come sit down by the fire and toast marshmallows with me. I'll teach you how."

Obediently Mycroft drank.

 

*

 

The car had been missing from the drive since last night. The curtains were still closed, front and back doors both locked, and the same lights had been left on all day. 

Wherever she was, she definitely wasn't at home.

Off celebrating, are you? 

Should've known.

They were clever, but not clever enough: Mr Clever Dick and his clever little bitch, off somewhere in her crappy blue Suzuki. They thought they'd got it all tidy and undercover, wrapped up nice and tight like a parcel. He knew London like the back of his hand, of course—showing off and taking routes in his car that made no sense, trying to prove what a fucking action hero he was—and his smarmy little bitch with her degrees on the wall had her own brand of cunning, too. They must have decided they were in the clear now. They'd be crowing to each other, congratulating themselves on how terribly sneaky they were being. A few months steering clear of Mr Clever Dick and his police training, keeping a quiet eye on the smug little whore instead, and they'd finally started to make mistakes. 

It had only been a matter of time, of course. They were clever in all the wrong ways.

Really, it made them a cute couple.

Have to send them a card on their wedding day, she thought, scrolling through apps on her phone. What a laugh that would be. She'd buy the biggest, nastiest card that she could find, glitter and bows and all, and sign it with just a smiley face. Congratulations. Best wishes to the happy couple.

She didn't really want to wait that long for her moment, though.

The app loaded slowly, taking its sweet time. For a while, it told her that the car was right here at this location, the little red dot flashing slowly on a map of this street. The device she'd bought was brilliant, not one of the cheap and crappy ones that anyone could get. This one could track things within a few metres, even if it took a minute to wake up each time.

So much for Mr Clever Dick, she thought, smiling to herself as the map began to refresh. Not clever enough to keep your dirty secrets secret, are you?

The car wasn't even in London. It was right out in the Weald, nearly two hours' drive away. She zoomed into the screen, frowning, read a few street names then opened Google Maps.

From the look of things, Mr Clever Dick and the clever little bitch were at a fancy hotel in the middle of nowhere.

Dirty weekend, is it? Birthday boy? 

Pulling at her lip, she glanced through the windshield into the darkening night sky. 

Should make it a memorable occasion, really. Hate for you to forget what a fun time you both had. 

I'll be showing up late, but... well, babe, that's my style.

Smiling, Helen copied the hotel's postcode into her sat nav.

 

Chapter Text

Things began to wind down at around midnight. Greg spent the last hour of the party saying goodbye to people, working his way through a queue of tight hugs and well wishes. A few people had vanished into the night—Ananya among them, vanished into thin air not long after the cake was cut—but most had stuck around to say farewell. At one AM, the staff began tentatively tidying up, aided by those close friends and family who'd stayed to the end.

As Mycroft transferred slices of unclaimed cake into small boxes, a hand brushed the side of his hip.

"Hey," Greg murmured in his ear, hushing his slight jump. "S'just me. The staff'll do that for us. Go warm the bed up."

Mycroft's stomach tightened. "Are you certain?"

"Yeah, 'course. Hardly anyone left now." Greg glanced across the bar, admiring the last few stragglers—who were mostly so drunk they were asleep. "Nobody'll mind if you sneak off."

He slid a hand into the back pocket of his jeans, retrieving the key to his room. 

"Off you go," he said, and pressed it discreetly into Mycroft's hand. "Make a run for it. Don't fall asleep yet."

Mycroft palmed the key, glancing into Greg's eyes. "Will you be long?"

"Few minutes," Greg said. "I'll try and be quick." He dropped Mycroft a wink. "Quick down here, anyway."

Oh, god. "I love you."

"I love you, too. Now tsssh." Greg nodded towards the door. "Go on."

Holding eye contact, Mycroft picked up a box of cake. He made his exit with the utmost grace, his head high and his walk almost leisurely, well aware that he was being watched.

 

*

 

"Did you have a lovely birthday?" Lisa asked ten minutes later, helping Greg to bag up a mountain of unopened cards.

Greg couldn't really put it into words.

"The best," he told her. "Seriously. Out of this world. Did you get lots of photos?"

"As many as I could," Lisa said. "I wish I'd started taking them earlier! A few people were a bit drunk by the time I reached them..."

Greg smirked. "You mean Si?"

Lisa sighed, casting him a look of fond regret.

"I think Si was drunk by the time he got here," she said. "I still can't believe what he said to you about Helen. Tactless dickhead."

"Ah, well... you know what he was always like with her. Probably thought he might be in with a chance."

"Mnh. She was good at giving men that impression."

"Good riddance?" Greg suggested, holding the bag closed for her to tie the top.

"Very good riddance," Lisa said. "I hope she finds herself some happiness in life, Greg. I really do. I just she finds it a thousand miles away from you."

"I'll drink to that."

"Whatever made her like she is, I pity her for it. But god knows she got given opportunities in life that most people don't get. She wasted them. And I'm glad you've found someone who deserves you."

Greg's heart tugged. "Lis..."

"I know, I know. We're not talking about it, and that's fine. I've said my piece now."

Lisa straightened up from the bag, blowing her hair out of her eyes.

"Right," she said. "Do you want these cards in your room until morning?"

"I, erm... I sent Myc up a while ago," Greg said. "He's probably asleep. Don't want to wake him up."

"They can go in ours, then. It's not a problem. Reece? Where's Reece? He'll carry them up."

"You sure?"

"Yes. And are you sure the staff can keep all the presents safe?"

"Yep. They've put them in a little room off the lobby. Told me just to ask at the front desk tomorrow, and someone'll help me carry them out to the car."

"Good," Lisa said, huffing. "Right. Well, let's take down the last of these banners, then I think we can call it a night. Reece?"

 

*

 

A quiet ding of the bell sounded from the front desk. 

The night receptionist, eating his mid-shift sandwich in the back office, licked the mayonnaise off his fingers and pushed back his chair, wondering what the people in the bar needed this time. They'd held some major birthday here this evening, big party with lots of guests. Night shifts were usually a breeze, but they'd kept him on his feet.

Stepping out of the office, he was surprised to find an unfamiliar face awaiting him—a dark-haired woman, pretty and well-groomed, biting her lip in apology.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered, her eyes bright. "I hope I didn't wake you up. Do they let you sleep while you're on shift?"

He grinned, idling over to the desk. 

"Not really," he said. "So all distraction very welcome. What can I do for you?"

She had diamonds in her ears and painted nails, dark red to match her dress. Not one hair out of place—a proper lady.

"I'm sorry to bother you so late," she said. "My husband and I have been out all night at a wedding. We meant to ask for two keys when we checked in, but it was a bit hectic this morning... could you give me one now?"

"No worries," he said, and reached for the printed room list. "What's the name?"

"Lestrade," she said brightly. "You're very kind."

He scanned down the column of surnames, found her listed beside number eighteen, and reached for the board of keys—then paused. There was an arrow scribbled next to the room number. 

He tilted the clipboard, following the arrow as it curved beneath the list, and read the day receptionist's note underneath.

 

Please check ID
(security issues)

 

"Is there a problem?" the woman asked tentatively.

"I don't think so," the night receptionist said with a frown. "I don't suppose you've got ID, have you? There's a note here says to check."

"Oh—of course," she said, and opened up her handbag. She flushed, a little upset. "I think I have something."

"I'm sorry," he said, his heart falling. "It's just... well, I don't want to get in trouble."

She offered him a hesitant smile.

"It's alright," she said. "You're only doing your job. I'm glad you keep your guests safe."

She fished out her purse, clicked it open and fumbled through its contents, struggling to hold her handbag at the same time.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "All these... loyalty cards..."

"God, no. It's alright. I'm sorry for making you search. D'you want me to—"

Her bag slipped from her arms. Its contents scattered across the floor, lipsticks and tampons and keys. 

Oh, Jesus.

"Here," the receptionist said at once, his heart pounding. "Here, let me..."

By the time they'd gathered everything up, he felt like the world's biggest arsehole. Collecting all her tampons for her nearly crippled him. She finally found her driving licence, now blushing desperately, and offered it out to him.

He glanced long enough to see her picture, check the surname Lestrade, then handed it right back.

"Perfect," he said. "More than perfect. Here, let me get you the key. I'm so sorry."

He circled round the desk, snagged it from the board and handed it over at once, trying to smile.

"Everything been okay with your stay so far?" he said. He was clutching at straws and he knew it, but he'd seen the glance she cast towards his name badge.

"Oh—yes," she said. "Very nice, thank you. And thank you for the key. Good night."

Bollocks.

"Good night," he said, as she hurried off towards the lift, sweeping her hair behind her ear. This is why I'm single. "Enjoy the rest of your stay."

She stepped into the lift at once. The doors closed behind her with a clunk, ending this painful experience, and the night receptionist returned to his sandwich.

 

*

 

'Don't fall asleep yet.' 

Few words were more likely to keep Mycroft awake. He turned up the heating in the room, closed the curtains and dropped the lighting to a single bedside lamp, then spent a short while in the bathroom. He supposed it didn't matter if Greg came back before he was ready. Part of him almost wanted to have a cup of tea together, lie on top of the covers and chat to unwind after an eventful evening.

But it was also the night of his lover's birthday, and Mycroft wanted to make love.

He finished in the bathroom with no sign of Greg. It couldn't be much longer, though. He left his clothes draped over the corner chair, telling himself he could fold them in the morning, and settled naked in bed with his gaze on the door. 

Wine bubbled happily through his blood. 

Mine, he thought. Mine as soon as you're here. No one in this world could soothe his insecurities like Greg. By morning, every uncertainty would have been solved. Mycroft would have found the strength to say the words, move in with me, be with me, and he'd have breakfast with his boyfriend in the hotel restaurant, pouring Greg's coffee for him, proud to share a couple's table.

Tonight was a vision, Mycroft realised. He gently squeezed the pillow. Something to aim for. If it takes time, then... 

Well, we have plenty of time.

There came a click within the lock, then the rattle of the key. Mycroft smiled and stretched out, his heartbeat soft and hopeful beneath the sheets. 

I've missed you, he thought, and the door swung open, admitting Greg into the room.

It was not Greg.

 

*

 

"Christ," Greg muttered, picking at the knot with his thumbnail. "Who tied these banners on? Bear Grylls?"

"Should we just cut them?" Lisa said, keeping the bar stool steady underneath him. "I know it'd be nice not to damage them, but... well, you're not exactly going to re-use them, are you?"

"Mycroft's?" Greg joked. "Look after the pennies."

His sister tutted at him, smiling.

"I'm teasing," he relented with a grin. "Go on, pass me those scissors. Otherwise we'll be here all night. Ed'll be wondering where you are."

As Greg snipped through the second plastic tie, half the banner sagging down from the wall, Reece returned. He ambled back into the bar with a look of puzzlement on his face.

"Where have you been?" his mother asked him. "Did you take those cards up?"

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I took them up. Listen, I don't want to alarm anyone. But I'm pretty sure I've just seen Aunt Helen getting out of the lift."

Greg's head jerked around from the wall. "What?"

"Reece," Lisa said fiercely. "Do not say things like that. It's not funny in the slightest. And she isn't your aunt anymore." 

Reece's expression flashed open, appalled. 

"Okay," he said, hotly. "Right. First, thanks for the show of trust. Thanks for suggesting that I think Uncle Greg and all the rest of us getting stalked for six months is even remotely funny. Secondly, I'm not actually kidding. Thirdly—"

Greg's voice cracked from his throat. "Reese."

His nephew stopped talking at once, staring up at him.

"Reese," Greg said again, inhaling. "Mate, listen. It's... it's easy to make mistakes with this stuff. You wouldn't believe how many times I see her on the street every week. I can't go round Sainsburys anymore without seeing her ten times. But how certain are you th—"

"Like ninety-five percent?" Reece interrupted, scowling. "I know what my own aunt looks like. Sorry. Former aunt. Ex-aunt. Aunt emeritus. Whatever she is now."

"We warned the front desk," Lisa said angrily. "The hotel knows not to let her in, Reece. And that's even if she did turn up. It's been two months since any of us saw—"

A piercing scream rang out, somewhere in the floors above.

Greg leapt from the barstool, staggered and ran.

 

*

 

As Helen appeared before his eyes, Mycroft knew beyond all doubt that he was dreaming. He'd drifted off against the pillows, sleepier and more affected by the wine than he'd realised, and he was about to undergo a nightmare. His nightmares had taken this pattern since early adulthood, brought on by dogged research into dreaming. They always contained an awful moment of unfolding, a paralysing realisation of what was about to occur—then a strange and unsettlingly self-aware sort of torture would begin. In his nightmares, Mycroft stood over his own mind as it experienced terror, helpless to help himself, trapped and forced to watch.

For all of a second, it seemed certain that was about to occur. As she strode into the room, Helen's face was aglow with triumph and vengeance, a burning-eyed look of righteousness that Mycroft would never quite bleach from his memory. She'd come to punish; she'd come to hurt. She arrived like a warlord here to sack a city, to burn its buildings to the ground and salt the earth so nothing grew for a century. The door slammed shut behind her and the lock clicked into place.

Her eyes then found Mycroft in the bed.

Shock slapped the rage from her face. 

Mycroft watched it vaporise. It was gone, and in an instant, he realised he wasn't dreaming. He was seeing a sight that few mortal creatures had ever seen: Helen Lestrade's soul, no mask, no artifice. Her mouth dropped open.

She could see his soul, too.

For what felt like an eternity, they stared into each other's eyes. Mycroft watched her claw in desperation for even the smallest scrap of understanding; she watched him as if certain this was all a baffling joke. He couldn't move. Every muscle in his body locked, powerless but to wait and watch the world go up in flames.

She finally swallowed, searching his face.

"Where's—" Her voice no longer sounded like her voice. She was lost, helpless, a little girl. "The Pakistani bitch. I tracked her car. Where's—why are you—"

Mycroft inhaled. Ananya.

Oh, the—loitering near the clinic—

You weren't there for me. You weren't there for him. You were there for—

Oh, Christ—and she tried to convince you to— 

"What the fuck is going on?" Helen bit out, suddenly shaking. Understanding began to dawn in her eyes, too awful for her to process, too horrific to express as anger. "Where the fuck is his whore!?"

Mycroft drew a breath, utterly unaware of what he was about to say.

Before he could form a single word, Helen began to scream.

 

*

 

Greg erupted from the top of the stairs, Reece sprinting at his heels. They skidded into the corridor to find a door bursting open up ahead. Paul emerged from it, hurriedly pulling a shirt around his shoulders.

"Are you hearing this?" he asked, as the door behind him squeaked a little further open. Ananya peered around it, her hair a mess. She shied out of sight as she saw Greg, gathering her bathrobe around herself. "Is that coming from your room?" Paul demanded.

Greg barely heard them. He threw himself against the door, pounding at it with his fists.

"HELEN!" he roared. The screaming continued from inside. "HELEN!"

Paul strode along the corridor. Ananya hurried in his wake, barefoot and clutching her bathrobe.

"Run to the front desk!" Paul barked at Reece. "Tell them to call the police!"

Reece vanished towards the stairs at full pelt, panting.

"Who's she screaming at?" Paul demanded. "Who's in there?"

Greg filled his lungs, hammering at the flat expanse of wood. 

"HELEN!" he raged. "OPEN THIS FUCKING DOOR!"

"It's Mycroft," Ananya gasped. "Oh, god—he's—"

Paul shunted his shoulder into Greg, barging him aside.

"Move," he ordered as Greg staggered, panting. His hands burned as if every bone in them had shattered. "All of you out the way."

Paul took a few steps back, braced himself, then lunged for the door.

The first flying kick did nothing. The second splintered some of the wood around the hinge.

"Get my cuffs!" he shouted at Ananya, who turned tail at once and sprinted along the corridor. "In my jacket!"

The fourth kick smashed the lock. The door buckled inwards, swinging wildly on its hinge. Before Paul could recover his balance, Greg shoved past him and stormed into the room. 

She was tearing at the closed bathroom door, shrieking and screaming as if she'd been possessed. Greg's instincts erupted. Get her out. Get her away. He grabbed her and locked his arms around her torso, hauling her backwards. Before he could pull her off her feet, she struggled round within his hold and tore into him. She shrieked and sobbed, clawing for his eyes.

"—utter fucking BASTARD!" she screamed, too fast for him to grab. Her claws became punches, raining down on every part of his body she could reach. "You dirty fucking —and I'll have fucking HIV, you utter shit!"

Greg closed his hands around her wrists, trying to drive her back from his face.

"HELEN!" he roared, gripping them. "For fuck's sake, just—"

She jerked, slamming her knee at full force into his groin.

Pain ripped through Greg's body. It was beyond all comparison the worst pain he'd experienced in his life, a pain so intense and so sickening it seemed to turn him inside out. His every sense whited into nothing. Nausea roiled upwards through his stomach into his lungs, and he sank to the ground as nothing but a sack of pain and bones. If she was still hitting him, he neither knew nor cared. The screaming continued, thousands of miles away. Instinct dragged both hands between his legs to shield and hold, try to cope with the pain.

The first voice he became aware of, close to his ear, was young and frightened.

"Uncle Greg—" 

A hand wrapped around the top of his arm.

"H-hey. Uncle G, it's me. It's Reece. You alright?"

Greg kept his mouth shut tight, certain he was about to vomit. Nothing in the entire fucking world should feel like this.

As Reece hugged around him, shaking, his heart fell into pieces.

"It's alright," Reece tried, and he swallowed. "It's okay, alright? Your mate's gone after Helen. She punched him too. And I'll... I-I'll just sit here with you, yeah? You're gonna be alright."

 

*

 

Paul and Helen were gone. 

Ananya dropped the pointless cuffs, shaking, and proceeded past the splintered door into the room.

Greg had dropped near the bathroom. There was blood on his face, but not a lot of it. The agonised curl of his body looked like Helen had kneed him in the groin. His teenage nephew was hugged around him, mumbling to him, trying to comfort him as he shuddered. 

It took all of Ananya's strength to stride past and ignore them. 

The rest of the room was a mess—the sheets ripped back from the bed, a few things on the floor where they'd been thrown. A mirror had fallen from the wall and smashed.

Oh, god, where are you?

"My?" she called. She tightened her arms around the spare robe she'd brought, unsure why she wanted to cry. "Mycroft?"

There came a click from the bathroom door. It opened barely an inch, ready to be slammed shut again.

"A-Ananya—" 

Ananya hurried over. She pressed her body against the door, overcame the frightened push of resistance and forced her way inside, where she found him naked and close to collapse, cowering with one hand still locked around the handle.

She bundled him into the spare robe, shaking as badly as he was. She'd never seen him naked. She'd hardly ever seen him cry.

"It's alright," she breathed, hugging him for a single half-second. He clung to her. "We need to go. Okay? Let me go. We need to leave."

"I-is—"

"She's gone."

"Greg—"

"They're bringing the police," Ananya breathed, hugging him. "Do you understand? You can't be here. You can't be here if the police come up here." 

She pulled on his hands and got him moving, stumbling from the bathroom together.

The sight of Greg curled and panting on the floor seemed to buckle Mycroft's knees.

"Greg—"

"We need to go," Ananya said again, dragging him onwards. "He's okay. He's fine."

"No, I—"

"He'd want you to go. He won't want your name in that report." Holding Mycroft back, Ananya nudged her bare ankle against Greg's nephew's arm. "Who are you?"

The boy stared up at her, as pale as milk and close to panic. 

"R-Reece Willett," he squeaked.

"Reece Willett," she said, staring into his eyes. "You love your uncle, do you? You want all this to turn out okay for him?"

Reece nodded, trembling.

"Then you didn't see me or my friend here," she said fiercely. "Right? If police ask you who was here, were we here?"

Reece hesitated, staring at her like a fish.

"What do you say to the police!?" Ananya barked, and he jumped.

"I didn't see you!" he burst out. "I just—I-I just came in here and—and I saw Helen had attacked my uncle and... a-and I didn't know why. That's all I saw. I just sat here 'til someone came."

"Good." Ananya dragged Mycroft on towards the door. "You're a good nephew."

She bundled Mycroft quickly along the corridor, pushed him into her room and locked the door behind them. In the bathroom, she sat him down on the closed lid of the loo, unsurprised to find scratches across his chest and down his arms.

"We'll think of a story," she told him, as she forced a glass of whiskey from the mini-bar into his hand. "Okay? We will keep you out of this. You will not lose your license because of this. Not as long as I am here."

He drank it, pale and staring, as she quickly washed his scratches for him.

"So you're going to stay in here," she said, "and calm down, while I go and sort this out."

Mycroft's throat muscles clenched. "Greg."

"I'll do that first," Ananya said. "If you want to help Greg now, you'll stay in here and you won't step foot outside. Just drink. Put the TV on if you need sound. Okay?"

In the door, he called her back. 

"Ananya?"

Ananya looked around, gathering her bathrobe tight around her middle. 

"What?" she said. "I can't stay."

Mycroft drew a shuddering breath. 

"You," he murmured. "S-she thought... you. Greg's lover. You didn't talk her down. You just confirmed a suspicion." 

He hesitated, reading Ananya's face. 

"She's been tracking your car."

Ananya's pulse seemed to lurch out of rhythm. "I... I'm sorry I thought she'd... I didn't realise she was that calculating."

Mycroft looked away; his throat muscles worked. 

"And now we know," he said.

 

*

 

As Greg finally staggered from his room, resting half his weight across Reece's shoulders, there came the short slam of a door along the corridor. Greg turned to find Ananya sweeping towards them, still in her bathrobe with her head held high and her expression fierce.

Greg's stomach knotted. "Where's—"

"Safe," she said shortly. "Where is Paul?"

"I haven't any fucking idea," Greg said, shaking. "I don't have any fucking idea about anything. I'm about to throw my lungs up."

"He went after her," Reece ventured, nervously. "Y-you mean the big guy, right? He dragged Helen off you. Then she kicked the shit out of him as well and ran off."

Greg looked into Ananya's eyes, seeing his own thoughts reflected there. Ananya inhaled, lifting her chin, and the decision was made.

"Right," Greg said. "Okay. Reece, help me get to the lift. Do not tell your mum I said fucking."

"I'm not telling anything to anybody," Reece said, shaking. "Ever."

 

*

 

They found Paul slumped on a chair in the lobby, performing his own first aid on a split lip and black eye. Lisa was handing him things from the box, close to tears, while an extremely nervous hotel receptionist hovered and looked on.

"She got away," Lisa said as they appeared, Greg still leaning on Reece's shoulders. "She... s-she just raced out through the doors. I couldn't even begin to stop her. The police are on their way."

Greg drew a deep breath, hoping to god he pulled this off.

"Lisa," he said. "Take Reece and head up to bed. Ed and the kids probably heard all that. There's nothing else you can do," he added, seeing Lisa open her mouth.

She closed it. 

"Right," she said. She let out a breath and nodded. "Reece, let's... let's get your uncle into a chair, then we'll..."

As the hotel receptionist hurried over, wheeling an office chair in front of him, Greg quietly scanned his name badge.

"Can you give us a minute's privacy, mate?" he said, as the receptionist placed the chair near to Paul's. The receptionist nodded numbly. "Maybe spend it working on an explanation as to how my room key got handed to my batshit ex-wife."

The receptionist paled, swallowing.

"I... I did check her ID," he mumbled. "It said Lestrade, so—" 

Greg lost it.

"You checked her bloody surname!" he shouted, as Lisa quickly swept Reece towards the lift, wrapping her arm over his ears. "Does a surname now count as valid ID in this country? If my surname was Smith, would you let every arsehole called Smith come waltzing in at one in the morning and assault three people?"

"Two people," Ananya murmured, laying a hand on Greg's back.

Greg felt his anger drain from him, earthed.

"Two people," he said. "The point stands. Now piss off for five minutes. Go ring your manager and tell them you're fired."

The receptionist vanished into the back office at speed, his head down and shoulders high. Silence fell across the lobby.

Ananya helped Greg lower himself carefully into the chair. Even sitting down hurt. His groin still ached and pulsed, all his stomach tightened into knots. Shouting at someone hadn't made him feel any better.

"How's your girl?" Paul asked, his gaze trained somewhere in the patterned red carpet.

Greg braced.

"Mate," he murmured. "This... this isn't easy for me."

Paul shook his head, sticking his tongue into his cheek. 

"Guess you didn't think I could be trusted with that," he said. "Like I'd go spreading your private business around Scotland Yard. 'Cause I'm that kinda guy."

"It's more complicated than that," Greg said, his heart straining. "It's not about trust. It's just... there's things I don't want on record. Things I can't have on record."

Paul huffed. "It's the twenty-first century, man. Force has changed."

Greg's chest filled. 

"Okay," he said, wishing away the blaze across his face. "You want to be trusted with my private business? Right. Here it comes. He was our bloody marriage counsellor."

Paul lifted his eyes from the floor. He surveyed Greg, his expression quiet.

"We went to him to try and fix things," Greg said. "Long story short, it couldn't be fixed. She was fucking someone else, everything was crap, and I just... I-I just took one look at him and something broke in my brain. He's my best friend. And if that comes to light, he'll lose his licence. Done."

Paul said nothing, listening. He cast a single glance over Greg's shoulder, where Ananya stood watching in silence.

"We're not bad people," Greg said dssperately, willing him to understand. "My life was a fucking mess, and Myc was my way out. We've been so careful. Just trying to be together. I don't even know how she found out we were here."

Ananya's hand laid gently on his shoulder.

"I spoke to him," she said, her voice quiet. "Only for a minute or two. He's very shocked. Helen... seems to have expected to find me in your room, not Mycroft. He thinks she tracked my car here."

Christ. 

"Then that's why she stopped following us," Greg mumbled. He turned to look up at her, aching. "Ten weeks ago. She... she didn't actually stop. She just started following you."

Ananya lowered her gaze, gripping his shoulder.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I gave you false security."

"Hey," Greg said. "Hey, it's... you know what she's like. Nobody's to blame but..." 

His throat sealed shut for a second, realising the enormity of it for the first time. She knows. She found out. It's over. 

"Holy shit," he whispered. "F-fuck. Okay. Paul, what've I got to do to stop you telling anyone he was in my room? 'Cause if that gets... I-I mean, she's gonna fucking ruin Myc anyway, so I don't know why I'm even... shit. Shit. Shit, shit—"

Ananya's hands dug hard into Greg's shoulders.

"Because this is about to become a case of one word against another," she said, holding him upright in his chair. He wanted to sag forwards and weep. "Helen's going to make accusations, and there will be chances to refute those allegations. But not if there's a police incident report that she can hand straight to a hearing."

Paul regarded her in silence for a moment, hovering on the edge of something uncomfortable.

"So, what are you suggesting we tell the local force?" he said. "She stormed into Greg's room, started screaming at no one—"

"I'm suggesting there's nothing to tell them," Ananya murmured, still gripping Greg's shoulders. "I'm suggesting this isn't a police issue. Greg thanks them for coming, tells them it's a private matter and he doesn't want to press any charges, we pay the hotel for the door, and everyone goes home."

Paul huffed at her, amazed.

"You're kidding me," he said. "She obtained unlawful access to a hotel room. She assaulted three people, two of whom are police officers. This needs to go on record."

"Or," Ananya said quietly, "the four of us accept, off the record, that this is what Helen Lestrade is capable of. You take legal sanctions against her using the vast body of evidence you've already collected, to which I'll add a written statement from her former psychiatrist expressing concerns about threats that she made during our sessions. And nobody puts down in any written form that Dr Mycroft Holmes was discovered in Greg Lestrade's bed."

Paul didn't move so much as a muscle, looking at her in silent wonder.

Greg wet his lips with a breath.

"Mate," he said, "you were right. I should've had her spoken to. I should've had her brought in. It was my fault for not trusting you. Please don't make Mycroft pay for that."

Paul held his gaze, his eyes hard.

"You could send her to prison," he said, "right now. You could take the CCTV from the hotel, a statement from me, a statement from the guy at the desk, and she'll be behind bars before they even fix the lock on that door."

"Yep," Greg said, breathing in. "Great. Then she gets out in a few months, makes a complaint against Mycroft, he loses his license, and Ananya never speaks to you again."

"Not one word," Ananya murmured.

Paul looked up at her, pained. 

"That's harsh," he said, his voice soft. "I thought you were sweet on me."

Ananya kept her hands on Greg's shoulders.

"These two are mine," she said. "They're reckless and they're good and I love them. And I won't forgive you if you hurt them."

Paul processed this for a moment of silence, a shadow of a smile curling at the corner of his mouth.

"She's going to put a complaint in anyway," he said, glancing at Greg. "You know that? You're talking like if you don't press charges, she'll be nice back and just forget about it. Tell me you're smarter than that."

Greg swallowed. 

"Only just," he said. "Put it this way. Right now, there are two enormous fucking fires burning through my life. I'm asking you to put one of them out. Then I'll start worrying about the other one."

Paul relented into a smile.

"I can't force you to press charges," he said with a shrug. "I think you should. I think it'd end a lot of your problems. But I get that you'd be buying yourself a whole set of other problems."

He glanced up at Ananya, his gaze wry.

"You tried rabbits or something?" he asked. "They've got to be easier than these two."

"I don't want easy," Ananya said, brushing her hands along Greg's shoulders. "I want my hopeless friend and his puppy-eyed policeman to win. Otherwise it turns out that I, too, am hopeless."

Paul's smile grew. 

"They don't make all that many like you," he said.

They really don't. Greg's heart gave an ungainly flutter, suddenly beating again. 

"So... so we'll talk to them," he said, reaching for Paul's gaze. "We'll tell them this was a misunderstanding, and that we'll settle privately with the hotel. Right?"

Paul nodded quietly.

"Might cost you," he said, sucking his teeth. "That door."

"It won't," Greg said. "I've got them over a barrel for letting her in here at all. There's grounds to sue if I wanted there to be."

"What're you gonna do about your other fire?" Paul asked.

Christ. 

"I don't know," Greg mumbled. "I don't have any clue. I'm hoping someone smarter and less drunk than me can help with that one." 

He shifted in his seat, glancing away towards the lift.

"Do we know how soon they're gonna get here?" he asked. "I need to go and see Mycroft. He'll be a fucking wreck up there. She'd better not have hurt him."

Ananya slipped out from behind Greg, brushing past his shoulder. 

"I'll go and check on him," she said, strolling towards the lift in her bathrobe. "We'll be in my room when you're finished. You might want to arrange a new one for yourself, Greg."

Paul quietly tilted his gaze to watch her go.

When she'd disappeared from sight, he shook his head and turned his eyes back to Greg.

"Damn," he breathed. 

Greg couldn't smile—not yet. He settled for patting Paul on the arm, hoping it conveyed what he wanted it to.

"How are your balls?" Paul asked with sympathy. "I nearly threw up just seeing that."

Greg winced even at the memory. 

"Think they count as ovaries now," he muttered. "Holy shit."

"She doesn't fuck around, does she? Got her elbow in my gut then slammed the door to the stairs in my face. Thought she was going to take my eyes out at one point." 

Paul paused for a second, looking down at the carpet. 

"Did she hit you when you were together?" he asked.

Greg didn't respond for a moment, realising something at last.

"Sometimes I wish she had," he mumbled. "It's... everybody knows what it means when they hit you. You tell someone she hits me, and they know at once what's going on. They get you help. They've seen it on the telly. You tell people she fucks with my thoughts until I wonder if I'm going insane, and they mumble that marriage can be tricky."

Paul huffed. 

"That's true," he said. He paused again, preparing something else in his mouth. "You... gay, then? Go for both?"

Greg closed his eyes, tired.

"I don't really do words," he said. "I'm just..."

He shook his head.

"Myc's perfect," he said on his outbreath. "He saved my life. I don't want to have fucked his up."

Blue flashing lights strobed across the glass front doors.

"Here we go," Paul said, pushing himself up from his chair with a sigh. "Who's doing the talking?"

 

*

 

"It's me," Ananya murmured, opening the door to the room. "Greg's alright. He's downstairs with Paul, talking to the police. They're going to smooth all this over. Are you okay?"

He was sitting in the far corner chair, still in his bathrobe and looking pale. She was surprised to see no signs of extra alcohol anywhere, just the empty whiskey tumbler she'd left him with.

"I wondered if you'd bring my things from Greg's room," he said. His voice shook a little, his composure as translucent and fragile as sugar glass. "I'm going to call a taxi to take me back to London."

Ananya paused, wondering if he even knew what time it was.

"It's the middle of the night," she said. "A taxi will cost a fortune."

Mycroft paled a little further. "Nonetheless." 

"Is there a reason you need to go now?" Ananya asked. She sat down very gently at the end of the bed, watching him with care. "The hotel will give Greg a new room. They're not going to make him sleep in the one with the broken lock. You'll be safe."

Mycroft didn't move. He drew a deep and completely silent breath, staring into her face with a look she'd never seen in him before.

"Ananya," he said, as her pulse picked up, "I want to go home. Please will you bring my things?"

This isn't good. 

"There are actions we can take," Ananya said, her gaze gentle. "It's... don't think this is unfixable. I promise you the world hasn't ended. Not yet. And we'll deal with this by staying calm."

The muscles in his throat shifted and squeezed.

"Please bring my things," he said. He tightened his grip upon the bathrobe. "I really, truly wish to go home."

"Okay," Ananya said, letting out a breath. "Alright, I'll go get them. But I don't think you should call a taxi until you've talked to Greg. He's very worried about you. And he honestly won't be long with the police."

Mycroft said nothing. Something moved behind his expression, something she didn't quite like, but it was gone just as soon as she'd glimpsed it. He swallowed, watching her in silence and waiting.

Bracing herself, Ananya got to her feet.

"You know I'll drive you home tomorrow?" she said, turning towards the door. "I'll hang around, if you and Greg want t—"

"You," Mycroft interrupted her, suddenly shaking, "were tracked here. In your car."

Ananya turned back towards him, startled.

"The only place you should be driving it is to a garage," he said fiercely, "to have it taken apart, piece by piece, until they find the GPS tracker. She was here looking for you, Ananya. She found me."

Heart tightening, Ananya opened her mouth.

"No," Mycroft said sharply, cutting her off. "Stop. Please. I do not want your advice. I was not asking for your advice. I am inexpressibly tired of being given advice."

"I know you're shocked," she tried gently. "I know you're scared." 

"My life," he half-shouted, turning white, "is about to be—"

He stiffened up, shutting down. 

Ananya watched his face close and lock.

"Please bring my things," he said, suddenly deathly quiet. "I will handle the rest."

Ananya held her nerve for one more question.

"What do you want me to tell Greg?" she asked.

For an endless moment of silence, Mycroft simply stared at her.

"I don't care," he then whispered. "There is nothing you can possibly convey. If you ask me any more questions, I shan't answer them."

 

*

 

He left through a fire exit at the bottom of the stairs. Ananya watched from the open door as he slung his case into a waiting taxi, got into the backseat, and went off into the night.

This is not good, she thought again, watching the tail lights disappear between the gates. She drew a breath, folding her arms. None of this is good.

She closed the fire exit after her and made her quiet way back upstairs.

There wasn't long to wait. She'd barely made herself a cup of coffee when there came a knocking at her door, quiet thumps.

"'Nanya?" Paul's voice came soft and low through the door. "It's us." 

Holding her breath, Ananya got up from the bed and let them both in.

As Greg entered the room, he looked around with immediate hope. The nervous longing in his face nearly killed her, those few semi-seconds he spent believing that his troubles were now on pause for the night.

Watching it die in his eyes was hell.

"Where is he?" Greg asked, turning to look at Ananya. His shoulders visibly stiffened. "What's happened?"

Ananya bit the side of her cheek.

"How about you sit down?" she said, gesturing to the end of the bed. "I'll make you coffee and we'll talk."

Greg didn't move.

"Let's skip straight to talking," he said. "Talk to me about Mycroft, why he's not here, and where the hell he's gone."

 

Chapter Text

My home.

Mycroft found himself amongst it all like a ghost, not quite here. As he walked from room to room in utter silence, the darkness seemed to watch him and the shadows held their breath. If he reached out to touch things, he half-expected his fingertips to pass through them.

This was the shelter that he'd made.

This was the place where they'd felt safe.

Savings. Half his brain was trying to claw its way out of the ravine. Some other... retrain, or... I... 

They put the names of struck off practitioners on the website. Dr Mycroft Holmes. Practise impaired by reasons of serious misconduct. Removed from membership. Full details of the hearing panels were made available, to safeguard members of the public from unsafe therapists. Sexual misconduct. An affair with a former client's husband, also a former client.

Forevermore, one internet search away.

He hadn't taken off his coat. He'd left his case beside the couch, locked the door behind him as one final act of dignity, then allowed himself to drift into nothingness. He found himself staring at the quiet domestic comforts he loved as if they didn't really belong to him, unsure how he could ever have cared about furnishings or decor or home. He'd once agonised over blankets to match this couch. It suddenly seemed so trivial. So ignorant. He didn't know if he'd ever reach another moment where there was space in his mind to care about anything at all, every facet of human life now crowded out by one thought: I am a laughing stock.

He wondered where those people went—those people who were hanged before the crowd, then cut down and sent off on their way. They surely lived their every moment in this awful, crushing silence, too distressed to speak or sit or even reach for a light switch. What does it matter if I'm standing in the dark? I'm disgraced. He couldn't imagine ever quietly making a meal again, watching something on television again. He'd lived his days in a world of perfect and orderly contentment: good money, meaningful work, a home where everything felt comforting and easy.

Now he would live as a condemned and fully adjudicated pervert, struck from the register for sinking his claws into a married client.

How can I have been so stupid? Thoughts skittered through Mycroft's head like rats. Why did this seem like such a great impossibility?

Because love and reason are oil and water.

In the kitchen, on the windowsill, his spider plant's soil had gone dry. 

Why does it matter? he thought, staring down at the thing in silence. I will lose my income. I have few transferable skills. My mother, my brother, will hear that I've been stripped of my license for fucking a client. Why does it possibly matter if the bloody thing starves and dies?

How will anything ever matter?

He found himself standing at the foot of his bed, gazing without moving at the pillows. If he tried, he could almost imagine the scene there: two lovers, nestled together in the quiet. It had all seemed so simple. Who could care? The world was cold and if two people found comfort in each other, what harm could it cause?

The flashes of anger died out in seconds, sparks skimming over concrete. He wanted to hate Ananya for not realising. He wanted to hate whoever had brainlessly handed over the key. He wanted to hate Greg for not being there in the bed with him, for making him face that ordeal alone.

But what good will it do?

He had the strangest urge to write to his professional body himself, now—find paper, sit down, and finish it. I did this. I violated him. I failed them. I accept it. His fate had been wrenched back and forth like a toy, fought over by many pairs of hands. Some had wanted to hurt him; some had wanted to help him. In the end, every single pair had dropped him. It would be a comfort somehow, in these scant few seconds as he fell: to choose to hit the ground and smash. He felt like a felon. He wanted a chaplain.

I am Mycroft Holmes and I am sorry.

He sat down on the bed, shaking, and put his head into his hands. Grief ran between his fingers, down his wrists. He let it fall. 

I caused no harm. I did no wrong.

None of them would answer for ruining him. Only his fate had ever been on the line.

I thought you would keep me. Protect me. I thought that somehow you would...

A sound in the silence caught Mycroft's ear, a sound he'd never heard in this flat before—rattling metal, clicking.

As he realised it was a key in his door, Mycroft lifted his head from his hands. He stared through the doorway into the lounge, watching the door wrench open and commence another nightmare, a figure staggering through it.

This time, one time too late, it was Greg. He was panting, his hair raked onto end. He looked half-wild in the darkness, wide-eyed and shaking as he looked around.

Mycroft got to his feet in alarm.

Greg's eyes snapped towards his movement, finding him there in the bedroom.

"Right," Greg barked. He slammed the door. 

Mycroft jerked at the sound, taking an instinctive step backwards. 

"I've just driven—two fucking hours," Greg panted, "with this amount of alcohol in my blood—and I've been up since six in the morning—and I've been attacked, and I've been worried— and you're just going to tear off in a taxi? Without telling me? At two o'clock in the morning?"

Sound ruptured from Mycroft's mouth. It ripped itself from him, all the screaming that he'd heard, all the things he was about to lose.

"I'm going to be struck off!" he howled. "I'll go where I bloody want!"

Greg stared at him as if he'd lost his mind, his eyes wide.

"Did you expect me just to lie down and sleep?" he demanded. "How the fuck would I ever do that? Do you understand that I care about you? Why did you leave?"

"Because I wanted to be in my home!" Mycroft raged. "Because I wanted to stand here for five fucking minutes in my own fucking life,  and not have someone ruin them!"

Greg swallowed hard. He searched Mycroft's face. 

"That's what I've done then, is it?" he said. "I've ruined your life?"

Yes. Mycroft wrenched the word up into his throat. It filled his mouth, stretching him apart at the seams, so ready to erupt it left him shaking. Yes. He wanted to scream it with every cell in his body. He wanted every occupant of this street to hear him say it, yes, you have ruined my life.

His lips wouldn't open.

He stared at Greg, his face burning as it flooded with all the rage and love he couldn't bear to express. It poured from Mycroft's eyes as his muscles gave way.

I don't want to stand. 

Sobbing, Mycroft sank. He pushed his hands across the ground. This is mine. This was all mine. 

I did nothing wrong.

Footsteps came across the carpet. Greg knelt at his side; he laid his shaking hands on Mycroft's back.

"Myc—"

Mycroft convulsed, raging. "Do not touch me."

Greg's arms wrapped around him and beneath him. He pressed himself to Mycroft's back like a shell. Mycroft couldn't bear to fight. He let Greg surround him, too exhausted to do anything but grieve.

Greg held onto him, listening to him sob.

"Breathe," Greg said gently.

Mycroft almost punched him.

"Do you understand," he snarled, "what sexual misconduct will look like on my—"

"Breathe," Greg said, no longer gently. It was an order. "Slowly. In through the nose. Out through the mouth."

Mycroft's lungs, to his surprise, obeyed. They filled and emptied several times under Greg's direction, even as rage blistered through his soul.

Greg's fingers wove gently through his hair—scrunching, holding.

"She tried to destroy me, too," he said. He let Mycroft draw another deep breath. "You stopped her. Saved me. Now I'll save you."

What can you possibly fucking do? 

Mycroft's mouth had sealed itself shut again. He settled for ignoring the gentle stroking over his scalp, telling himself he couldn't feel it.

"Tonight was insane," Greg murmured. "Are you upset I went back downstairs, instead of coming to you?"

Mycroft said nothing, shaking.

"I got the police to back down," Greg said. "Your name's not going in any records. I wasn't there because I was stopping Paul from accidentally fucking up your future."

"For Christ's sake," Mycroft spat. "What bloody difference will—"

Greg drowned him out. 

"I'm a police officer," he said loudly. "I'm thinking like a defence lawyer." 

The firmness in his voice shrank Mycroft's flash of rage. He withered into quiet again, listening.

"And I'm telling you this game's about to change," Greg said, letting out a breath. "Winning it won't be about the truth. It'll be a matter of evidence. I know this game."

Mycroft didn't speak, taking it in without a word.

"She's going to tell someone," Greg said. Mycroft's stomach roiled. "Tell them you were there in my bed. So we get four people to stand up and say that you weren't. She'll tell someone we're fucking, and I'll tell them it's a lie. She'll say you're an unfit therapist and you'll explain that she's obsessed and delusional. That she's insane. That she's seeing fairies and ghosts. And Ananya will back you up."

Greg's hand closed tight in Mycroft's hair.

"We've not come this far just to stop," he said, shaking. "I'm not going to let you get crushed."

Mycroft's chest seemed to buckle. He turned his cheek against Greg's shoulder, trembling now from head to foot.

Greg's arms dragged him up into a hug.

"This isn't how it ends," Greg said, gripping him, fingers raking through his hair. "This isn't the finishing line. Alright? Not for you. Not for us. I know you feel like there's nothing you can do and there's no point. And I'm telling you she's good at that."

Mycroft buried his face against Greg's neck, powerless not to cry. I want to win, he thought. I want to be happy. I want to end this as us, not simply me.

"There's things we can do," Greg said, rocking Mycroft gently from side to side. "There's people who are gonna help us. But we're still in the blast zone right now, and all you need to do for me is breathe."

Oh, god. Mycroft's hands turned suddenly in claws. "I-I love you—"

Greg's breath broke against his neck. 

"Thank fuck," he whispered. "I love you, too."

He wrapped his arms ever tighter around Mycroft, squeezing him hard enough to crush all worry from his mind.

"It's okay that you ran," he said in Mycroft's ear. "I don't mind that you freaked out and left. It's alright if that's what you need to do sometimes. I'll love you all the same. I'll follow you and I'll find you. I'll carry you safe in my pocket 'til you're ready to come out."

"I love you," Mycroft begged, his voice breaking. "I love you. Please."

Greg's arms slowly eased all around him, cradling him. "Everything's going to be alright. Everything's going to be fine."

Mycroft's heart clenched. "G-Greg..."

Greg's fingers shook, gathering gently around Mycroft's face.

"You know I didn't love me 'til you loved me?" he said. His expression cracked, distress breaking through. "I'd forgotten how it felt. Then suddenly you cared about me, listened to me, told me I wasn't in the wrong and I... I-I trusted you enough to take care of this guy you seemed to like."

Trembling, Mycroft pushed forwards and rubbed his cheek against Greg's. Greg dragged both arms back around him, holding each other close in the quiet. 

"I don't know if that's normal," Greg whispered. "I don't know if it's bad that I feel like I'm just a basket, waiting for my people to come rest in me. Like I don't have purpose when I'm empty. All I want is to hold you all. That's the point of me."

As Greg's hands bunched in his coat, Mycroft's heart broke open.

"And last night," Greg said, shaking, "she gave me every fucking reason in the world to hunt her down. I'm done. This is war. She's lost her benefit of the doubt."

"Greg—"

"I'll get an injunction. I'll text Paul the second the sun's up. I'll get her in court when she violates the injunction, then I'll get her behind bars. And I'll stand in front of whoever I have to, darlin', and swear to them up and down that you've never laid a hand on me."

"Oh, god—" 

"I will lie to protect you 'til there's no more breath in my lungs. There's no evidence of anything. They can all get fucked."

"I-I love you—" 

"I love you, darlin'. I love you, and I'm done hoping things will work out on their own. I'm going to make them work out." 

"If we're... if we're spending time together—"

"Yeah? Until someone presents me with a photo of you physically on top of me, they can get bent. We'll pack this place out. Security. All of it. Paul can arrange us extra help. We'll alarm every door and every window. If we make a decent job of the injunction, I'll push for number plate tracking on her car. Then if she comes within a hundred metres of the building, she'll go the fuck to prison. I'm not tolerating this crap anymore."

"Greg—"

"I thought she'd stop," Greg said, his gaze aching as he stared into Mycroft's face. "I thought she deserved a chance to get over it and prove she's not all bad. And that's my fault. Mistakes made. Big mistakes. Done."

He took a breath, looking into Mycroft's streaming eyes.

"No more mistakes," he murmured. "Not now she's crossed the line. I'm going to protect you with everything the law can give me."

Mycroft's throat muscles worked. 

"I don't want to stop seeing you," he said. He knew few things with any certainty in this moment; he would say the things that he did. He let Greg pull him close again, shuddering as Greg gently kissed the tears upon his cheeks. "I need you," Mycroft bit out, shaking. "I need to see you. I can't do this if I can't see you. I won't stand a chance in hell."

"It's alright, love. I won't leave you. Not ever."

"I-I don't know how we'll... oh, god, but I can't—"

"Shh... shh, darlin'. It's alright." Greg pressed his lips to Mycroft's, catching his stuttered fears. "We need each other for strength," Greg breathed. "That's alright. We'll find a way. Thank you for telling me what you need."

Oh, god.

"I need you to stay," Mycroft gasped against his mouth. "For good. I need this to be more. I need you to make it worth it."

Greg's hands wrapped around his back.

"I am yours," Greg half-breathed, half-growled, lurching Mycroft's heart into his throat. "I took one look at you and I was yours."

"Greg—" 

"I didn't burn my life to the ground for a fling."

"G-Greg—"

"You gave me that key so I could get in here and find you," Greg bit out, shaking. "Always get here. Always follow you. It's not the key to your flat at all and I'm keeping it."

Mycroft sagged forwards and curled against his shoulder, burning alive inside.

His lover's fingers carded through his hair.

"We'll talk more," Greg whispered, stroking him. "When we're a bit more awake, yeah? Bit less shocked."

Mycroft nodded weakly. He laid his head upon Greg's shoulder, closing his eyes as he breathed Greg's scent into his blood. We will be alright somehow, he thought. If not alright, then at least together.

"Let's lock the door," Greg mumbled, kissing the top of his hair. "I'll text Paul and Ananya, let them know you're safe and I'm with you, then we'll settle down and sleep. And that's all we're gonna do for the next few hours."

"I... I'm not sure if I'll..."

"S'okay, love. Then just lie down next to me and rest."

A strange pull tugged the words from Mycroft's mouth. "I'm sorry I left. I didn't know what else to do."

Greg's fingers rumpled through the back of his hair.

"Next time you leave," he murmured, "take me with you."

Oh, god. "W-what if you don't wish to go where I'm going?"

"I'll always want to go where you're going," Greg said. "You'll be there. That's good enough for me."

Broken, Mycroft surrendered the last few fragments of his heart.

"Please take me to bed." He held on tight to Greg's shoulders. "I can't bear it any longer."

They gathered each other up from the ground, then went together to lock the door, not wanting to part even for this. Greg rammed a chair beneath the handle. They turned no lights on as they moved through the flat together, hand in hand, and without speaking ended up in the bathroom.

In the shower, kissing the scratches along Mycroft's arms and his chest, Greg finally began to cry.

Mycroft held him, shaking, and let him wash them.

 

Chapter Text

Sunday 14th June

 

[AS 15:12] How is he...? x

 

Greg stroked Mycroft's hair as he replied with one hand, listening to the slow and easy breaths against his collarbones. Beads of sunshine glimmered in the gap between the curtains; everything was peaceful and still. Somewhere beyond these walls, London and the wider world continued as if everything were normal, but not in here.

In this bubble of safety, nothing stirred.

 

[GL 15:13] Still asleep. Think he needs it xx
[GL 15:13] He does this sometimes. Just wipes out, goes into offline mode xx

[AS 15:14] Yes I know. He's always needed time to process. Not the best at handling his feelings x

 

Greg's heart tugged. The therapist who can't handle his feelings. He wondered quietly if that was part of why Mycroft did it. He'd become a specialist in managing other people's emotions, hoping it excused him from having to look too hard at his own. Other people always first. Everyone's needs discussed but yours.

Greg placed a silent kiss upon Mycroft's forehead, texting Ananya back.

 

[GL 15:14] What do I do to help him through this? xx
[GL 15:14] Seriously. Tell me what to say xx
[GL 15:14] I really really need to get this right xx

 

It took a little while for her to reply. Greg spent the time watching Mycroft sleep, letting thoughts swirl and drift in his mind, unattached to the world and unimportant.

 

[AS 15:17] It doesn't matter what you say. Just don't leave x

 

That easy, Greg thought with a lift of his pulse. 

Alright. I can do that. 

He laid his phone aside, gathering Mycroft close beneath the sheets, and let his gaze trail the folds of the curtains as he thought. This time yesterday, they'd probably been lying just like this, settled in the shadow of an oak tree somewhere. He'd been enjoying this same quiet feeling of wholeness, untainted by any knowledge of what was to come.

What would I have done, he wondered. if I'd known?

He didn't have to think long to decide. 

He'd have put Mycroft in the car and driven away, taken Ananya with them too, driven until the road ran out beneath them. He'd have rung Paul from a phone box in John o' Groats and told him to start the paperwork for every injunction and restraining order available under British law. She'd lied her way into a locked room in a random hotel in the middle of the night. The boundary between unsettling and terrifying had been so much closer and thinner than Greg thought, and he wished to god that he'd trusted it was coming. It made his stomach grip, thinking that she'd always been capable of the things she'd done last night. She'd always had that cunning and that violence in her. She'd just chosen not to use it until now.

She could be capable of worse.

He was starting to wonder if he'd ever really known her. More and more, he felt like a child who'd been drawn in by a sort of glove puppet, coaxed closer and closer with a smile until it was too late. It was enough to spill shivers down his spine. 

Greg looked down into Mycroft's sleeping face, his heart pounding at the thought. 

You were in there alone with her. Locked in with her. Christ, she could've...

He shut his eyes. He pressed his lips to Mycroft's forehead, holding them there.

She didn't, he told himself. She didn't and she won't. He tucked the sheets around Mycroft's shoulders, wanting to keep him warm as he slept. 

Another hour passed, a haze of silently-offered love and half-dreams. 

At the point of contemplating a text to Paul, Greg felt Mycroft stir inside his arms. He looked down, watching with hope, and got to witness the moment that his lover re-entered the world. Mycroft's face tightened a little, shivering. He drew a weary breath and gave a blink, trying to understand where he was.

As his sleepy eyes focused, they focused on Greg's face.

Stroking Mycroft's cheek, Greg offered them a smile. "Hello, you."

Mycroft winced a little. He leant into Greg's hand, closing his eyes again, and made a noise of quiet discomfort.

"Headache?" Greg asked.

Mycroft didn't move. "Mmh."

Greg scooted down the bed, gathering Mycroft's forehead to rest against his own. His first instinct was to speak—promise solutions and comforts, paracetamol and water. As Mycroft relaxed with a breath into the silence, Greg thought again. He stirred a little, leaning just close enough to offer a kiss.

After a moment's pause Mycroft took it, quietly pressing his lips to Greg's. Something in the air seemed to change. Something softened, releasing a long-held breath. Greg laid still and quiet, letting Mycroft take as many gentle kisses as he wanted from his mouth, neither pushing nor withdrawing—simply giving.

Tentatively, Mycroft put an arm around Greg's waist.

That's alright, love. You can do that. Greg leant into Mycroft's hold, barely moving. M'here.

Mycroft gently paused.

"I'm afraid," he said, so quietly Greg almost didn't hear it.

Greg nodded, listening.

Mycroft took another minute to speak. 

"I want to be together," he said. "Truly together. For a very long time. I should have told you. When it seemed like we were on course to..."

He swallowed something, shivering. 

"I want her to die," he said.

Greg couldn't condemn him for it. He'd spent the entire night trying not to imagine that moment for Mycroft: looking up from bed, expecting to see the person who loved him, but finding the person who could ruin him. Greg wasn't going to tell him how to feel about that.

Mycroft searched his eyes, watching him listen.

"I want her to cease to exist," he said again, meaning it, "so that you and I can live one life."

Greg let this sit for a moment. He gave a single, quiet nod.

"I can't make her die," he murmured. "I can still get you that, though."

Mycroft's gaze shuttered with distress.

"Please say you understand," he whispered. "Tell me you realise the extent of... of what I want between us. Greg, I..."

"I understand." Greg cupped Mycroft's cheek in one hand. "Can you see us sharing a surname one day?"

Mycroft didn't move, staring.

Greg prepared a breath. 

"Darlin', I don't want to just assume stuff," he murmured. "I want us to drive this thing together in a direction we both want. I don't mean soon. Just some day."

Mycroft's gaze ached, breaking under the weight of some thought. "You can't imagine what you mean to me."

You're gonna make me say it, aren't you?

"Myc," Greg whispered, stroking a thumb across his cheek. "Are you all in here? 'Cause I'm all in."

Shivering, Mycroft nodded. 

He looked into Greg's eyes for a long moment, gathering the courage to speak.

"I love you with a force I've never felt," he said. "I want as much of you as I can have."

Faltering, he glanced down between their chests.

"Typical of me," he said. "Far too honest, far too late."

Greg nudged their noses together, waiting to speak until Mycroft had looked up at him again.

"Never too honest," he murmured. "Never too late."

Mycroft's gaze held onto him, wordless.

"Can I tell you something?" Greg asked.

Mycroft nodded, mute.

"Once I met you," Greg said, "going home to her felt like cheating on you. Something just blew open in my head. It's like I came into existence."

He hesitated, stroking Mycroft's cheek.

"Came back into existence," he murmured. "Like I'd put myself in storage years ago. Waiting for something. Then we met, and suddenly everything all started making sense. Every stupid thing I'd ever done began to look like the right thing after all. Led me somewhere. Got me where I'm really meant to be."

He watched Mycroft's eyes gloss over, so in love with their shine that it hurt.

"You're my best friend," he whispered. "We're bigger than this."

Mycroft's expression broke. He wrapped his arms around Greg, hands gathering in the back of his pyjamas, and pressed his cheek to Greg's.

"I need to cry for a while," he said. "With you. I need to hold you. Is that alright?"

Christ.

"Yes," Greg murmured. "'Course it's alright..." He ran his fingertips gently between Mycroft's shoulders, a steady up and down. "What's going through your head, love?"

Mycroft took some time to reply, holding Greg without speaking as he rubbed the fabric of Greg's shirt. A quiet tear rolled down the side of Greg's neck.

"Rage," he said softly.

Greg hesitated. He remembered rage; he'd seen more than his fair share of it. It had never looked like this though.

"Who're you raging at?" he asked.

Mycroft's second silence was even longer.

"God," he said in the end. "Who does not exist. I wish he did, so I could rage at him."

"Yeah? What would you say?"

Mycroft huffed, weak. "That his derisive sense of humour appalls me. That it is in keeping with his universe to guide the one man I'll want most in all my life along the only path which forbids me to have him."

Greg listened, brushing his fingers up and down Mycroft's back.

"I want to rage at you," Mycroft said, "for coming to me along the path. But it wasn't your fault."

He drew a shaking breath.

"I'd like to rage at myself for my choices," he said, "but I made them in good faith. I'd like to rage at my profession for their excellent and worthy safeguards, which I now want to have waived aside to fit my purposes. Every bone in my body wants to scream. I want to stand outside in the street and howl. 'Damn it, it's different'. Why did it have to be this way?"

Greg placed a quiet kiss against his shoulder. "What stage is this?"

"Mm?"

"Is it denial, or bargaining, or—?"

Mycroft gave another huff.

"Largely anger," he mumbled. "Though I've never been especially good at that one."

He sighed, brushing his tears against Greg's cheek.

"A historic and outdated framework," he said. "And widely misunderstood. Though in fact, you're surprisingly apt in this case."

"Yeah?"

Mycroft pulled in a slow breath. 

"The five stages of grief," he murmured, reaching up to rub his eyes, "are properly known as the Kübler-Ross model. The public usually apply them to processing the loss of a loved one. Kübler-Ross actually formulated the theory in response to her work with terminally ill patients. What we call the five stages of grief are in fact the five stages of grief for ourselves."

Greg bit the side of his tongue, preparing this with care.

"Darlin'," he said gently. "You're not dying."

Mycroft conceded, exhaling into his palms. 

"No," he said. "But it is still loss."

Greg supposed he couldn't argue with that. "Did you say they don't follow that model anymore?"

"It... has some merits. Certainly enough to stick in the popular imagination." 

Mycroft brushed back his hair with both hands, wearily trying to tidy himself.

"Human emotions tend to defy ideas of linear stages," he said. "Imagine the five muddy puddles of grief, perhaps. We stumble between denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance, sometimes avoiding them, sometimes falling into the same one twenty times."

Tired, he settled back into Greg's arms.

"I am currently sprawled facedown across all five," he sighed, tucking himself beneath Greg's chin. "Splashing vaguely as I attempt to get up."

Greg stroked a hand over his hair, relieved that Mycroft couldn't see his smile. He didn't want to find it funny.

"Take your time," he said, his voice soft. He put a kiss on top of Mycroft's head as their legs entwined. "Nobody needs you to get up, beautiful. You're fine just where you are."

Huffing, Mycroft lapsed into quiet.

A short time passed, thoughts stirring and settling as they held each other. Mycroft's hand brushed gently beneath the hem of Greg's t-shirt, stole upwards and rested against his bare back. 

Nice to cuddle, Greg thought, closing his eyes. It felt healing. Mycroft's breaths came slow and easy, the bed as safe and warm around them as it had ever been. In the next few days, things were going to change.

But this never would.

"Greg?" Mycroft mumbled at last, somewhere safe beneath Greg's chin.

"Mm?" Greg gave him another tiny kiss. "M'awake, gorgeous."

Mycroft's fingers stirred gently against his back. A moment passed, something held.

"I love you," Mycroft said quietly.

Greg had a feeling he'd just been supplied with the second of two thoughts. He smiled, tilting his head to dot kisses on Mycroft's temple.

"What just got cherry-picked?" he asked.

Mycroft turned his head against Greg's collarbones, mumbling. "Oh, god."

"Something worrying you? Better out than in."

"No, nothing." That sounded true, at least for the moment. Mycroft settled again, hugging Greg around the chest. "I'm just glad you're here."

Greg's smile grew, more in love with him by the second. 

"Something you want, then?" he said. "Something your gallant boyfriend can fetch to bed for you? Is it tea?"

"Nnh."

"'kay, so... we've established you want something, but it's not tea. Something else in the flat. Can't take too long to narrow this down. How much stuff can there be in here?"

Mycroft pushed his forehead against Greg's shoulder, audibly trying not to smile. "Greg."

"Is it coffee?" Greg said. "Toast? D'you want... socks, maybe?"

"Greg..."

"Not socks, then. A lightbulb? Toothpaste?"

"Greg..."

"Washing powder?"

"Yes," Mycroft said, now trembling with repressed amusement, and curled his fingers against Greg's bare back. "Please bring me a large scoop of washing powder. I can't cope another moment without some."

"Right," Greg said. "Bio or non-bio?"

Mycroft tucked himself back beneath Greg's chin, making no comment. 

Grinning, Greg nuzzled into his hair. 

"Or are you gonna spit it out?" he murmured. He ran a hand down Mycroft's back. "Can't be that mortifying."

"Mhm." Mycroft stirred, toes brushing against Greg's ankle. "Just my aberrant mind."

"'Scuse you," Greg said. "Some of us are in love with that mind."

He felt Mycroft smile against his neck. Mycroft's chest then expanded in his arms, gathering courage.

"Strange urge to make love," he confessed at last. "I'm... fragile. A warped need for comfort." 

He let out his breath.

"In truth, a hot drink might be reassuring," he mumbled.

Even the words, make love, washed Greg with a deep and familiar quiet. Something in his stomach seemed to stir, lifting its sleepy head, responding softly to the call it had heard.

He brushed his fingers over the back of Mycroft's neck, gentling his voice.

"It's not warped," he said. "It's... darlin', if you want to feel like everything's still okay..." 

He paused, pressing another small kiss against Mycroft's hair.

"Want to stop thinking for a while?" he murmured. 

Mycroft nodded, stirring. His arm gathered tighter around Greg's back. 

"Then we can make love," Greg said softly. "Why not, beautiful? Nothing else we need to do. And if it'll comfort you..." 

He wrapped his fingers around the back of Mycroft's neck. 

"How about you kiss me?" he whispered. "See where it takes us."

Shivering slightly, Mycroft raised his head.

They'd had slow and easy sex before, but never quite like this. There was something almost liberating about it. She found us. Fuck it, let's make love. For the longest time, kissing and petting each other felt just perfect, face to face on their sides and half-tangled in the sheets. Mycroft's quiet, breathy shivers were all Greg wanted in the world. He played with Greg's cock almost shyly, too busy kissing him to build any pattern or rhythm, and the feeling pulled Greg's stomach into warm and happy knots. Nothing mattered. By the time Mycroft reached towards the bedside for lube, Greg didn't mind at all what they did with it.

Mycroft wanted to be on his front. He padded into the pillows, huffed and gently stretched as Greg eased inside him, taking things slowly, inch by pressing inch. Mycroft's teeth sank down into his lower lip.

"Mm hmm?" Greg checked. He felt a shudder pass beneath his hands, spilling down the length of Mycroft's naked back.

"Mmhm." Mycroft shunted back a little, inhaling. "Please."

Greg raised an eyebrow. "Already?"

"Not in fact my first time," Mycroft said, casting him an amused glance over one shoulder.

Greg tried to wipe the smile off his face.

"I know," he said, "but... s'been a while since we..."

"If you must abandon me for days on end," Mycroft said, arching his lower back, "I will take care of matters myself. With aid if necessary."

"Ah. I've not been missed, have I?"

"You have. Very much. Hence why I've had to resort to lesser substitutes."

"Which one?" Greg asked.

Mycroft flushed, turning his cheek against the pillow. "The rocker. So I could ride it."

Greg lowered his weight gently, resting his forearms either side of Mycroft's torso. "That one's not as big as me, is it?"

"It's not as chatty as you either," Mycroft remarked, earning himself a laugh. His eyes glittered with a smile. "I'm teasing. Please keep talking. I've missed you inside me."

Grinning, Greg nuzzled at the back of Mycroft's neck.

"Nice and slow?" he murmured.

Mycroft inhaled with another hopeful arch. 

"Is it strange we're doing this?" he asked. His breath hitched as Greg tested their angle. His expression slackened, his mouth dropping open. "Oh." 

Greg's heart sped. He ran a hand down Mycroft's side, taking hold at the curve of his hip. 

"It's not strange, darlin'," he said. "Not if it's what you need." 

Mycroft swallowed thickly.

"Fuck me," he breathed. "Fuck me like we'll be alright."

Closing his eyes, concentrating Greg let the world shrink for just a few seconds to this feeling: pushing rhythmically into heat, slick and tight and soft, open for him, offered, his lover's body trembling with enjoyment underneath him. It didn't matter how many times Mycroft wanted him like this. It would always feel like a miracle. His bones ached with it, every inch of his skin alive and every thread of his focus wrapped around Mycroft—Mycroft's warmth, Mycroft's sounds, the scent of Mycroft's sweat. 

As Mycroft stretched a little, groaning under his breath, Greg leant down to kiss and bite the back of his neck.

Mycroft gasped at the first gentle graze of his teeth.

"Fuck," he let out, his body tightening. He flattened his hands to the mattress either side of his head. "H-hold me down. Have me. Please."

His heart pounding, Greg shifted his weight. He reached for Mycroft's hands, pinning him into place, and let their fingers intertwine. As he drove himself deeper, slow and hard, Mycroft choked out his name and arched for more.

Greg kept on, nuzzling into the back of his neck.

Today of all days, Helen deserved a fucking migraine.

 

*

 

They only strayed from the bedroom once the evening had rolled in. They made a simple meal together, pasta and sauce, and ate it side by side at the kitchen counter, talking quietly about things that didn't matter. Sex had put a little colour back into Mycroft's face. He looked tired still, but far more like himself.

Afterwards, as Mycroft spent a few minutes typing on his phone, Greg moved the dirty plates to the sink to wash them up. Mycroft's spider plant was looking dry in its pot on the windowsill, tiny spiderlings drooping in the midsummer heat.

Greg gave it a drink of water from a wine glass, glad of the small things in life.

"Have you heard from Ananya?" he asked, watching the liquid soak into the soil.

Mycroft let out a breath.

"Yes," he murmured. "She's... checking on me. She had the hotel print a full invoice for my bill. She's said that she'll pass it along."

Greg glanced around from the windowsill, interested. "Why?"

Mycroft looked up from his phone. 

"Some small proof," he said. "I paid for a room at the hotel on the night in question. Unnecessary if I'd planned to share yours."

Greg thought about it, piecing things together.

"You paid for Ananya's room?" he said at last. "Did you guys just share the first night?"

Mycroft nodded quietly. "Topped and tailed."

"Then... you left it to her for Saturday night?"

"Yes. But the booking was entirely in my name." Mycroft paused, glancing back down at this phone. "It seems a very small and insubstantial piece of evidence, but..."

Greg's chest filled. 

You're doing it, he thought. You're going to try.

"They always seem small," he said, "until you add them up. Little things like that are what usually gets someone convicted. Tiny, throwaway things. A bus ticket, a few text messages... it's never smoking guns and bloody handprints."

Mycroft moved something around his mouth, visibly trying to take this to heart.

"You alright?" Greg asked gently.

"We're ultimately attempting to prove the untrue," Mycroft said. "It seems quite a mountain to climb."

Greg offered him a smile. 

"One step at a time," he suggested, reaching for the kettle. "Keep our heads. Take all the help we get offered."

When full, he placed the kettle back into its cradle, switched it on, and padded quietly across the kitchen. He wrapped his arms around Mycroft's shoulders from behind, hugging him. 

Mycroft relaxed back into his hold. Eyes closing, he laid a hand on top of Greg's to hold him there.

"So you'll fight her with me?" Greg murmured in his ear. "You'll make her work for it?"

Mycroft huffed. 

"Appeasement is hardly an option," he remarked. "Nor, it seems, is freezing and hoping that her vision's based on movement."

Greg couldn't fight his smile. "How're you feeling?"

"Horrendous." Mycroft tilted his head, resting his cheek against Greg's. "Humiliated," he added with a sigh. "Mortified and empty. Half my soul wants to hurl itself from the roof. The other half wonders if I have any ice cream in. This... should not be happening to us, Greg."

Hugging him, Greg kissed his cheek. 

"I'm sorry she's done this," he said. "I mean it. I'm sorry for whatever else she does."

"Mm." Stirring, Mycroft slipped his fingers beneath Greg's. He lifted Greg's hand to kiss his knuckles. "Please be here while she does it to me."

The kettle began to boil, clicking off.

Greg ignored it, stroking the pad of his thumb beneath Mycroft's chin.

"I will," he said. "No matter what it is. Whatever comes for you, it'll come through me first. And no matter what happens, through all this stupid mess, there'll still be me. We'll still have days like this. Quiet days where all we need is a bed and each other, and the world can wait outside."

Their fingers curled together as there came a moment's pause.

"What if we lose, Greg?" Mycroft asked. "What if this doesn't end well?"

Greg closed his eyes. "You can sleep beneath my bridge, darlin'. Share my cardboard box."

Mycroft drew a breath. "Then I suppose it's impossible to fail."

Greg hummed, tightening his hug. 

"Suppose it is," he said. "Can't fail the bit that really matters."

 

*

 

[PC 21:04] Hi Greg, just checking up on you. Hope you're alright. Quick update, nothing bad.

[PC 21:04] Called in a favour from a mate in street teams. We've tracked Helen down. Good news, she's back at her place in London and lying low. Probably expecting an arrest for assault at any second.

[PC 21:05] We're keeping her under surveillance for a couple days for you. Its off the record. Can't keep anything unofficial going for longer than that but... its a bit of breathing room hey?

[PC 21:06] Got a slot in my diary for you tuesday morning. Come see me. We'll make some plans to keep you & loved ones safe.

[PC 21:06] Hope you're still in one piece. Know this weekends been a shitter.

[PC 21:08] But just hold on, you'll make it through. Got good people around you and these things never last forever. 

[PC 21:09] Ring whenever yeah? Anything you need, day or night.

[PC 21:09] Ananya says she can restart your sessions if you need them. Off the record, no cost.

[PC 21:10] And remember it'll be okay in the end. If its not okay its not the end. 

[PC 21:10] See you tuesday morning. We'll get the real fight going.

[PC 21:10] Take care of yourself & your guy.

[PC 21:11] Paul x

 

The End