As they walk into the cafe, she eyes him up in passing.
Glasses, square frames, wire rims; the dark blonde of his hair mildly ruffled—it’s early, she wonders if he even combed it after rolling out of bed; the stubble a few days old at least, peppered with grey, distinguished—she likes her men with a bit of scruff.
He’s got a tee on, under an unbuttoned oxford shirt; white, but with the discolouration of age and ill-use—well-loved, and she thinks the stain by the second button looks a bit like honey—though she can’t be sure, from a distance.
He’s got his lips pursed as his eyes flicker over the page of a book, the lenses of his glasses catching the light and hiding the colour of his eyes, but she thinks they’re brown, probably, given the darkness of his tousled mop.
“Sally.” She jerks at her name, meets Greg’s expectant gaze. “What size d’you want?”
“Medium,” she says without thinking, her mind oddly hazy. “No, wait. Make it a large.”
She could use the caffeine, really.
She goes to grab a seat, takes a table just a little ways from the blond man with the makings of a beard and the book balanced out on the heels of his palms; tries not to make herself conspicuous, fiddles with her phone and ruffles through the case notes, wondering idly whether they’d have been doing this—these ridiculous trips to fuck knows where to follow up on leads, to corroborate stories and confirm alibis; she wonders just how much more often they’d have got dragged out to Sussex like this before, had there been no one; if they’d been alone against the city’s miscreants back then.
Like they are now.
She swallows around the lump of solid, still-lancing guilt in her throat and lets her mind wander back to the man at the table, lets herself get lost inside the whims of vague attraction.
He’s rubbing idly at the crook of his thumb as he flips through the tattered paperback. Sally narrows her gaze a bit, sees a red welt on his tanned skin; makes out the first parts of the creased title, Flow My Te— before a figure obscures her vantage point in the passing: tall, slender but not skinny, shoulders unnaturally narrow. Hair just a tad too light, too red to call auburn. Fitted jeans at the hips, around the arse—looser from the thighs down. Boots, mud on the soles. Rough skin at the palms where he grips two mugs, balances a plate with a single pastry on his forearm—dextrous.
She’d picked up a thing or two about observation over the years, even if she’s only now really putting it to any use.
“Your goddamned bees,” the blond grouses loudly, flipping a page with more force than necessary and wagging his hand in the air demonstratively—a bee sting, then, that he’d been itching before—as the tall ginger-haired man reaches over his shoulder to set the plate in front of him before folding himself into the chair opposite his companion and sliding one cup across the table with a quirk of his lips. He slips his fingers to encircle his friend’s hand, cupping the fingers together and stroking the knuckles back and forth, lazy, content.
Oh, so. Companion, then.
“Our goddamned bees, you mean,” the ginger man counters, tone indulgent, and Sally can’t see his eyes all that well given the angle, but she can tell that they sparkle a little, can see creases at the corners that aren’t yet deep, but are on their way to it: well worn-in and frequent, familiar.
The blond scoffs, looks ready to reply when the ginger bloke leans over and grabs for his partner’s pain-au-chocolat, pinching a mouthful from the closest end and trailing crumbs down his chin, onto his polo shirt.
“You could have ordered your own,” the blond says with a grin.
“I did,” his partner tosses back, flippant, muffled through a bite of the croissant. “They took too long with the tea,” he swallows, his neck long, the Adam’s apple bobbing as his throat works. “Finished mine while I waited.”
“And to think it used to be such a bloody chore to get you to so much as nibble a biscuit,” the scruffy one chuckles, warm, before folding the corner of his page down and putting his book aside, giving up the pretence of reading as a lost cause now that he’s got something better to occupy his attentions.
The ginger bloke smirks, devilish, licking the chocolate out of the centre of the half-bitten croissant before leaning, impossible, over the table to peck at the blond man’s lower lip.
“I’ve never been one to turn down a good biscuit,” he teases, and Sally can see the shiver it sends down his partner’s back, through the shoulders and the spine. “You know that.”
He pulls away, grinning as he takes a sip from his companion’s cup, running his tongue over the rim playfully before the blond snatches it back, returning the smile just as brightly, just as strong.
The taller man simply grins all the wider. “Your tosser.”
Sally can’t deny the drop, the dive in her stomach as she watches the blond’s smile soften, sink into the very bones of him and set his whole body at ease. It feels wrong to look, to intrude when he reaches for his partner—lover, Sally, thinks, his lover’s hand again and strokes the bones so delicately, so instinctual. It’s too intimate, too personal, too perfect. She isn’t welcome.
She doesn’t turn away.
“Right,” the blond says it too softly to hear, but Sally can read his lips, watches as the two men breathe together, as they touch, just at the small point of the wrist, content as they stare and drink their tea with their free hands, with their grins fit snugly against the lips of their cups.
“Plans for today?” the tall one finally says, breaking eye contact in favour of nicking another flaky section from his partner’s breakfast.
“Finishing my draft, if I can,” he answers as he half-heartedly swats the ginger man’s hand away. “Shoulder’s killing me.”
A gentle frown tweaks the tall one’s lips down as he takes the hand he’s holding into both of his own, rubbing his thumbs across the backs and the palms all at once. “A bath then, later?”
“Mmm.” The blond nods, sinking into his chair a bit, into the touch, eyes drifting closed. “That’d be nice.” He cracks one eye open and considers his partner with a bit of longing, a bit of entreaty: a great deal of guile.
“And a massage, afterward?” the blond ventures, nudges his feet across the space beneath the table and barely skims his partner’s shins, but it’s enough.
“I could be convinced,” the taller of them ducks his head, sips his drink with consideration, dramatically weighing his decision, figuring what he wants in return. “You’ll make tea?”
The blond shrugs, brow a bit furrowed. “If you like. But you just bought some.”
“And it is more than sufficient,” the ginger concedes, savouring a bit of it on his tongue before swallowing the sip. “But it isn’t yours.”
The blond grins warmly down at the tabletop before glancing up, sceptical: expectant. “You replaced the milk?”
Those tapered shoulders shift just a tad as the taller man’s expression goes blank, and maybe he blushes a bit; it makes the rest of his light skin—only just sun-kissed—stand out as more pale, for an instant, and it sparks something in Sally’s gut for a moment before it’s gone. She shrugs it off while she admires the chuckles that erupt from the blond in response.
“Of course not,” the scruffy one says, his tone brimming with a kind of practiced exasperation. “I knew you wouldn’t.” He pauses dramatically as affection takes over his inflection, colours his words. “So I bought some yesterday.” He finishes his tea in a single gulp before shaking his head, rueful, marvelling. “Some things never change.”
The ginger man sips slowly until his cup is also dry. “Such things are few and far between.”
The blond quirks a brow and asks, his tone loaded with things Sally can’t pick apart. “Are they?”
The tall one nods, licks his lips, catches the endearing hint of moisture clinging the bit of fuzz atop his upper lip. “We’ve just managed to attract them in abundance, I think.”
“Lucky us,” the blond says, voice pitched low as he seeks his partner’s hand again, presses a quick kiss to the palm.
“Indeed,” the ginger bloke purrs, and that’s when Sally notices that Greg’s back with their coffee; notices he hasn’t sat down.
She notices that he’s staring at the same table she’s be watching, at the same men, with a look of rapt attention; in all their years as colleagues, maybe friends even, she’d never known Greg to chase anything but skirts, but then again, there’s something about these two. Enticing. Magnetic.
She can’t say she blames him.
But Sally is an officer of the law. She’s not oblivious. So when the moments start to pass en masse, and nothing shifts, the stasis holds and Lestrade doesn’t sit, she looks closer, deeper. She sees the set of his features, tense; the line of his jaw, slack; the shape of his eyes, wide, and their sheen, unnatural.
She doesn’t understand, so she looks back, wondering what’s changed, sifting through the images she’s collected over the minutes, just minutes of waiting for Greg to get the coffee, nothing life-changing, nothing world-ending, just intimacy, softness, simplicity, love, and her own longing, her own touch of jealousy to watch it unfold, shining: nothing to spur such shock, such a wetness in the Detective Inspector's eyes.
She looks again, stares more blatantly now than before, tries to tease out some sense.
And then, she starts to see it. The breath’s sucked straight from her chest, out of her lungs. Burning, bracing.
The hair, on the ginger man: no roots are showing, just the ends curling up, unruly. The height of him is too generic to be telling, and she remembers the body as lankier, but she imagines, envisions weight gained, meat on those prominent bones and she can suss out the cheekbones, still proud and distinct just not obvious at first glance, more rounded, softer: a kinder face.
But it’s the eyes that make it undeniable.
He’s wearing contacts, obviously—they’re an oddly-washed-out hazel, as it stands—but there’s a sharpness, an alertness: a penetrating omniscience that permeates everything and cannot be contained, can’t be filtered, can’t be veiled or deadened by a simple shift in the hue.
She will never, never, forget those eyes.
She goes back to the blond, the first to catch her eye, and she swallows hard. She shaves him clean in her mind’s eye: imagines his hair a bit more sun-bleached, clips the stray fringe away in her head, takes it back to military neatness and drops the glasses, wonders if they even have a prescription in them or if they’re entirely for show.
There’s a tear running down her cheek when both men catch her gaze, hold it—convey everything that can be known just now as she blinks and Greg breathes in, uneven, from across the table. There’s a nod given, a moment of acknowledgement and recognition before it passes, evaporates instantaneously as if it had never been, and the men return to their morning routine as if they’d never been interrupted, as if no one could touch them.
“Where’s my chocolatine, hmm?” John, John fucking Watson asks it, expression exaggerated, overly-sour; eyes dancing, lips tense with the effort it takes not to laugh as that bastard, that bastard licks his fingers as inconspicuously as he can, shakes the last of the buttery flakes from his shirt as if he’s merely stretching, rearranging himself in his chair.
“It’s a mystery, to be sure,” Sherlock bloody Holmes replies, nonchalant and playing at bored except that he looks happy, so fucking happy and Sally almost aches with it; the smile playing at his lips, the lazy way he reclines a bit, stretches his feet to poke at the soles of John’s trainers as his eyes flutter closed, as he breathes in deep and almost seems to relish just being.
John huffs, but damn if he doesn’t look happier than she’s ever seen him, too.
“Well, order another one, you git,” he kicks at Sherlock’s foot, taking the opportunity to lean back and relax in his own chair; “I’m starving.”
He’s not bothered by Sally or Greg, by being seen, by being here, by the world at large; there’s nothing but the two of them, for John and for Sherlock alike, and Sally thinks that yeah, maybe that’s what the universe was always trying to steer them toward, the only logical outcome.
She hears the boots squeak out a bit on the tiled floor, follows the footfalls toward the counter and recognises the gait, if only just.
She wipes her eyes as Greg sits down, sips her coffee; just sweet enough, and she grins into the mug as her heart pounds for all sorts of reasons she can’t quite name.
When the tall man passes her with another pastry for his lover, Sally Donovan doesn’t look up.