The man had made himself all but invisible in the far corner, sitting with his back to the other patrons and his shoulder to the wall. Anyone who surveyed the establishment from its entrance or bar would assume that the booth was unoccupied.
Despite the barrier of furniture between them, Mycroft Holmes could see the man clearly in his mind's eye, forearms braced against the polished table, hands curled around his glass, head bowed.
Not exactly in the spirit of the venue, to be fair. This wasn't some dank, dark pub, but rather an upscale bar newly renovated in an attempt to bring a bewildering clash of colours and styles together into a cheerful chorus of "fusion."
Then again, the painfully overwrought brightness of the setting meant it was an unlikely place for this man to be, and that in itself made it a shrewd choice of destination.
The aging bartender exuded a quiet competence at odds with the self-conscious trendiness of his surroundings. Mycroft could tell he was the sort who was equally adept at offering a sympathetic ear or minding his own business, depending on the mood of the customer. He proved doubly amenable once he discovered that Mycroft was a man of especially refined (that is, expensive) taste.
Mycroft read the bartender's life story and personal character in the cut of his shirt, the faded scar above his left eyebrow, the brush of his blunt fingertips against the aged bottle. The elder Holmes adjusted his approach accordingly.
"Haven't seen you round here before, mate," the bartender offered noncommittally as he poured Mycroft's brandy.
"No." Mycroft held the man's gaze and nodded in the direction of the booth in the back. "And you haven't seen him at all."
Mycroft maintained a smile – somewhat more pleasant than daunting, he knew the shades of meaning well – as he watched for understanding and then agreement to dawn in the bartender's expression.
"Right you are, sir," the bartender said after a beat. He accepted the offered cash without glancing at the bill's denomination and then turned away without another word.
Satisfied, Mycroft nodded, took up the snifter, and made his way to the lone figure in the corner.
For a moment Mycroft stood beside the booth.
The man didn't respond.
Then his hands released his glass and clenched to fists on the tabletop, and he straightened as if readying to push himself to his feet, to fight or flee as needed. At last he turned his head, and his eyes grew wide, and his breath left him in a great huff.
"Good evening to you, too" – Mycroft caught himself before he could say "Detective Inspector."
"Bloody hell," Lestrade repeated, sagging back, deflating. "Mycroft."
"Yeah." Relief was written in every line of his body, but the way Lestrade sighed the word made it sound like defeat. He waved Mycroft to the opposite seat. "Go on, then."
As Mycroft settled himself, his brandy, and his omnipresent umbrella, Lestrade added, "Not the wisest thing, though, being seen with me. You should realise that."
Mycroft brushed imaginary lint from his sleeve. "If all goes well, neither of us will be noticed." He observed Lestrade from the corner of his eye. "I've followed the reports in the press. They've been…"
"Brutal? Yeah." Lestrade shook with mirthless laughter as he revolved his glass in a series of ninety-degree turns between his fingers. "On the bright side, at least the bastards aren't dogging John Watson's every step these days."
"I expect the attention explains your new 'look.'"
Lestrade smoothed a hand over the silver-streaked hair along his jaw and gave a diffident shrug. "If it puts even one journalist or photographer off my trail, I reckon it's worth it."
The beard suited him, but Mycroft didn't say so.
"About the suspension, the hearing" – this was harder than Mycroft expected, as he had little practice with such an admission – "there was nothing I could do."
Lestrade glanced up at that, and genuine surprise creased his brow. "Never asked you, did I?"
"You did not," Mycroft confirmed.
"We both know if the inquiry's legit, they'll find in my favour. Sherlock was the real thing, and every deduction he made was backed up with old-fashioned police work by me and my team. I did my due diligence. Couldn't have secured convictions otherwise. Any honest investigation will confirm it."
The words came in a rush. Rehearsed. Repeated, obviously, if only to himself.
For several heartbeats, blue eyes held brown. "And you think it will be an honest investigation," Mycroft said.
Lestrade looked away first. Very deliberately, he raised his pint and took several long swallows. Once he'd replaced the glass on its coaster, he murmured, "'Course not."
Mycroft nodded and readied the mental script he'd prepared.
But Lestrade surprised him.
"How are you, Mycroft? Really?"
And how was he meant to answer that? He still lived in his familiar home; he still held his accustomed position. He still possessed a full staff dedicated to his support and safety, bound to him by esteem and loyalty. Lestrade could claim none of these things.
"Yeah, thought so," Lestrade said, very softly. "I miss him, too. God, I'm so sorry."
Mycroft blinked, at a loss.
After another healthy pull on his pint, Lestrade said, "Why're you here? Somehow I doubt this is one of your regular haunts. Sure as hell isn't mine."
"I was going to ask you the same question." Mycroft shepherded the conversation back toward the path he'd originally charted. "A man in your line of work accumulates enemies, Greg. And the media coverage of your suspension has announced in no uncertain terms that you're now alone, without defence or backup—"
"—and that the higher-ups at the Yard wouldn't exactly call out the cavalry if one morning I turned up missing. In fact, they'd probably be relieved." Lestrade grimaced. "I can read between the lines, y'know."
Mycroft crossed his arms. "And yet you're here, in the open, on your own."
Lestrade returned his gaze with frankness. Sleeplessness and stress and no little grief had etched new lines on his face and framed his eyes in shadows. "Am I supposed to respond to that, or just sit here like a good lad while you deduce everything you want to know?"
Before Mycroft could reply, Lestrade said, "No, don't answer. I'm here because if I'd spent another minute in that empty flat I might've crawled into a bottle and never climbed out. At least if I have a pint or two in public, I know I'll stop."
With his chin Lestrade indicated the night that lurked beyond the bar's front windows. "Wouldn't do to meet the monsters in the dark when I'm off my face. Self-preservation and all that."
He took a measured breath and managed to appear both embarrassed and defiant as he traced the grain in the wooden armrest with a finger. Mycroft let the silence spill out between them until Lestrade spoke again.
"I'm staring down fifty with no marriage and no home to speak of. All I have left is twenty-six-plus years on the force, and the bureaucrats want me to walk away from that for their convenience."
He shook his head, a man of few words unused to confession.
"I can't do it, Mycroft."
Lestrade forced himself onward with a kind of grim determination, seemingly content for Mycroft to serve as silent witness to this rare unburdening.
"I won't. Not if they demote me to constable or worse. It's all I've got, and I'll not apologise for doing my job, and I'll not make it easy for them to throw me away like yesterday's rubbish because I believed – still believe – in a man who helped me stop murderers."
After a beat, Lestrade looked up. With a rueful sigh, he added, "And it would be a hell of a lot easier to salvage whatever dignity I have left if you weren't staring at me like I'm something oozy under a microscope."
As forthrightness met finesse headlong, any awkwardness between them was familiar enough to be almost comforting.
"I came here" – Mycroft cleared his throat, off-balance for reasons he couldn't quite name – "to tell you that you have an alternative. There's a place for you. On my staff."
Lestrade actually laughed, a throaty, incredulous sound. "Doing what, pray tell? Washing your windows? Shining your shoes?" He ran a palm over his mouth, pausing to scratch at his new beard before waving a hand to dismiss the notion. "You forget I've seen your people, Mycroft. They're half my age with twice my education."
"And only a small fraction of your experience," Mycroft countered. "And none of why I trusted you with my brother in the first place."
At Lestrade's raised eyebrow, Mycroft added, "Surely you recall the warehouse. What was it? Almost seven years ago."
"Bit of a blur, really. I remember thinking you were going to have me shot. I remember trying not to piss myself." Lestrade's features gentled into a fond expression at odds with his words. "And I remember telling you where you could shove your money and your spy games."
"Ah, I was thinking of that last part, yes."
Lestrade leaned forward and began to reach out, but he halted before he touched Mycroft's sleeve. He'd not consumed nearly enough alcohol in the long or short term, Mycroft thought, to make his eyes quite as bloodshot as they were.
"Throughout our years of" – Lestrade gestured vaguely between them – "cooperation, I've done what you asked because I chose to. I could honestly say, 'You're not the boss of me.'" He offered a brief, crooked grin. "Can't give that up now, can I?"
Mycroft scowled at the stubbornness of the man, even as an answering smile tugged at his lips.
The moment passed.
"Anyway, could be a moot point." Lestrade drew back and refitted his fingers to his glass. "I may be prosecuted, when all's said and done."
And if prosecuted, then possibly convicted.
Neither man noted that incarceration for a career policeman would be a death sentence – or worse. That was understood.
"It won't come to that," Mycroft said. "The Met fervently desire less publicity on this matter, not more."
Mycroft finished his brandy without tasting it at all.
The bar's mood music presented as much of a relentless assault on the senses as its décor.
At last Lestrade said gruffly, "Ta for the offer, but I'm not your mess to clean up. Made my own bed, didn't I? Now to lie in it."
Mycroft drew a breath to protest, but Lestrade cut him off with a quiet, "Please, don't."
After a swallow that nearly drained his glass, Lestrade rose – no trace of unsteadiness there – and ducked his head. "This was good of you, Mycroft. Very good. I won't forget it. Whatever happens."
He left without looking back, drawing his coat around his body like makeshift armour, hunching into the scant anonymity it promised.
Raising a hand in a final salute.
Six days later, Mycroft's surveillance team reported that Greg Lestrade was nowhere to be found.
END OF CHAPTER 1